RMetS Student Conference 2015

Lately, I have been finding it especially cumbersome to work out what I would like to do when I grow up. I say this as if I’m still a child. Yet here is where my degree begins to branch off into specialisms, and I’ve still no idea which branch to climb! In light of this, I recently attended the Royal Meteorological Society’s annual student conference – with the aim of chucking an overload of information onto my feeble undergraduate brain, in the hope that something might stick. I was quite aware that the three days spent on Birmingham University’s picturesque campus would entail a lot of new jargon, data analysis, crazy poster titles with technical vocabulary – and lots of PhDs and big names in the field, of course! We had various IPCC report contributors (Ed Hawkins, Piers Forster and others), big names from the Met Office and RMetS – not to mention the chief executive, Liz Bentley herself – and a sea of people older than myself…

There was no way that I would ever have understood some of the topics covered, but (perhaps surprisingly!) I did manage to pick out a few standout speakers which made me feel like I could actually appreciate their research. The format was quite similar to the IOP’s student conference equivalent CAPS, with students presenting research and some icebreaker activities throughout the duration of our stay. A number of presentations stood out to me:

  • Sammie Buzzard’s mathematical modelling the propagation of heat through iced shelves to form melt lakes, studying how the meltwater affects the crevasses and contributes to ice shelf collapse. Looks like my seemingly abstract course in Partial Differential Equations might actually have some use in the grander scheme of things!! Sammie has a blog, Ice And Icing and she’s also under @TreacherousBuzz.
  • Simon Clark’s “Plunger hypothesis”, in which he sets out to improve surface and tropospheric forecast by examining stratospheric variabilities. Simon began with a deep, meaningful analogy of the stratosphere and troposphere to a brother and a sister respectively, with the brother’s bedroom directly above the sister’s.  You can see where this one is going: turbulent sister messes up the brother’s tidy room by leaving bobby pins everywhere, etc… I was lost once the technical stuff began. Mind, I understood the main gist of Simon’s research: that the stratospheric mass acts like a ‘plunger’ on troposphere in a vertical polar column, affecting pressure anomalies and ultimately our weather patterns. Find Simon under @Simonoxphys, or become part of his humongous YouTube fanbase!
  • Becky Hemingway’s Vehicle Overturning Model: a study of the impacts of high winds on UK roads. The probabilistic model is set out to improve the forecasting of risks that come with increased wind speeds, used by the Met Office and the National Severe Weather Warning Service. Impact verification is particularly difficult with this sort of study, as observation websites can only be as accurate as reporting particular overturned-vehicle incidents! I also thought the stats on “weather warning days” were of note: 2013 had 9.9% warning days, significantly lower than 2014 (25.2%) and 2015 (21.2%) – climate change is real, man. You  can feel it in the wind.
  • Alan Halford’s study on the impact of weather variabilities on British telecoms. Generally, because we take telecommunications for granted, we don’t tend to identify the correlation between weather variabilities (which may or may not be directly linked with a changing climate), and our fibreoptic broadband. But the link is obvious: sudden changes in weather can cause unpredicted faults in cables, satellite communications, etc, and Alan focuses on studying these links to help improve the telecommunications infrastructure by forecasting potential faults and breaks caused by the weather. Interesting insight into how BT is now befriending the meteorologists for seasonal forecasts… Apparently drizzle is a technician’s nightmare.
  • Nick Davidson’s presentation on stratospheric particle ejection, I.e a reassurance that “most people who study geoengineering really actually don’t want it to happen”. Phew. It appears to be just a way of buying ourselves some time, albeit in a very fragile, risky way. Mass particle ejections e.g from volcanoes can temporarily reduce surface temperatures (The 17 gigatons of sulphur dioxide from the 1991 El Pinatubo eruption caused an average surface cooling of 0.5 degrees in the Northern hemisphere), hence the sudden research into stratospheric aerosols as a means of playing for time… by chugging out more crap into the atmosphere. Fantastic.

It would take me forever to write about all of the talks of the conference, but amongst other interesting topics of research were: reducing precision to improve accuracy in weather forecasting; the mathematics of convection is clouds; and the importance of all the old data collected from ships’ logbooks – something I have never really thought to play a particularly important role in today’s forecasting techniques but hey – we are continuously learning from previous knowledge!

Despite the inevitably depressing outlook that always comes with the discussion of climate change and the future of our planet, I have been made to feel quite inspired not only about where I am headed personally, but also what our generation of scientists can achieve using the power of scientific reasoning against the consumerist and capitalist mindset that has plagued our population throughout the last few decades. It is only when scientific experts in the field are involved that political negotiations might be worthwhile. Without them, politicians and economists alike are unlikely to enforce any legally binding emissions targets on certain countries after COP21 Paris. If we keep making the same mistakes, we’ll never learn

All in all, I definitely enjoyed my time at the conference and will hopefully be attending next year! Also check out Hannah’s take on it here!

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