|Volume 58(2) — April 2009
Meteorology for travellers
by S.T. Christopher
Everyone travels at some time in his or her life. With the advent of low-cost air travel, more people travel farther and faster than ever before in human history. Travel is for both recreation and business. Either way, travellers will be interested in the weather at their destination, possibly interested in the weather along the way and often very curious about weather events they encounter on their travels that they have never encountered before. This article takes a very selective overview of what is likely to cause travellers delays, what information is available to assist them to plan for weather-related disruptions and to understand better how long delays might last.
The travels of four individuals are briefly outlined; Skadi is flying from Europe to Japan on recreation, Glacies from Asia to Washington, also on a holiday, and two business people, Oz and Smoky, are planning to fly from Africa to Australia and from Australia to the Middle East, respectively.
Skadi does her meteorological planning
Clearly, some travellers are not at all weather-conscious, choosing to enjoy the adventure of whatever comes their way, but many more are interested in what they will encounter at their destination so that they can plan what clothes to take and how to make the best of their time in a foreign city. Our traveller, Skadi, is interested in the weather and so she “googles” her destination’s meteorological information and is confronted with a raft of climate data and weather information.
Now, Skadi’s googling happened on Saturday, 28 February 2009 and Skadi planned to arrive in Tokyo on Tuesday, 2 March. The Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) provides the official climate data (see Table 1) and forecasts for Japan, but there are many other forecasts on the Web valid for Skadi’s time of arrival, a sample of which are listed in Table 2. The climate data tell Skadi what normally happens in March, but remembering the old adage; “climate is what you expect, weather is what you get”, she now looks for forecasts that are valid for when, and shortly after, she arrives in Tokyo.
Table 1 — Climatological information provided by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA)
Reviewing some of the available forecasts listed in Table 2, it is immediately obvious to Skadi that there is reasonable consistency in the expected weather, with fine weather expected on the day of arrival and rain likely thereafter. But is it going to be windy, with driving rain, or calm with long sunny dry intervals? To answer this type of question, Skadi needs more data.
Table 2 — Web-accessible forecasts for Tokyo’s weather
Skadi knows that these forecasts have been derived from the study of weather analyses and forecasts in map form and, being weather-wise, she seeks these maps on the Japan Meteorological Agency’s official Website. Skadi is particularly interested in the synoptic forecast chart that is valid for her arrival time some 48 hours ahead (Figure 1) and, being familiar with the ways winds circulate around the highs and lows, including knowing that the winds are stronger when the isobars are close together, she quickly appreciates from Figure 1 that she will need to take an umbrella and warm rain coat as it is likely to be windy, humid and cold, with northerly winds from Siberia flowing over Tokyo.
So, Skadi, a Norse goddess of winter, is able to find out a lot about the climate and weather quickly from the Internet. Because she is quite astute, she treats with great caution outliers amongst the forecasts in Table 2 and then considers the spread of the remaining forecasts as a good indicator of the likely accuracy of the underlying forecast systems. On those occasions when Skadi is about to travel and there is great divergence in the forecasts for her destination, she considers the overall forecast to be of low reliability.
Glacies and Washington weather
So, Skadi will enjoy a few wintery days in Tokyo before a touch of spring is in the air, but what does Glacies face when he flies to Washington? Every air traveller fears events that cause substantial delays, of hours to days, at an airport. In the higher latitudes, it is generally severe winter storms with heavy snowfall and freezing rain, particularly at airports that usually do not experience such conditions, where long delays can occur.
Glacies knows from his study of insurance payouts that severe winter storms are the third most costly weather event in the USA (Figure 2), and that, along with high payouts for property damage, are substantial causes of delays at major airports. As a traveller to the USA, Glacies uses the Internet to check for a Winter Storm Advisory or, even worse, Winter Storm Watch messages for the area around Washington DC and finds the message given in the box below.
Glacies decides that he needs to better understand the storm that Washington faces and so downloads some satellite imagery (Figure 3). His next step in self-help is to try and assess how long the east coast of the USA might be affected by the storm. It is clear that the Winter Storm Warning does not explicitly say when the event might end, so it is back to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service Website and try and see when the forecast for Washington improves. The box overleaf contains the forecasts our traveller finds, indicating that the weather is likely to improve by about Tuesday, 3 March.
So, Glacies, the god of ice, is pleased with the short-term outlook for Washington and hopes that there will be no delays that stop him from enjoying the bout of snow and freezing rain before things improve later in the week.
Oz and tropical cyclones
Oz is a businessman. He is in the business of arranging to move bulk commodities in ships around the world. He has been doing some business in Cape Town, when he hears that Port Hedland, on the western Australian coast, has closed its port because of a threatening tropical cyclone. Oz then uses the Internet to determine when he can get into Port Hedland to re-negotiate arrangements to move iron ore from the port.
To refresh his understanding of tropical cyclone tracks, he opens up Figure 4 on the Internet. The cluster of tracks off the Australian west coast, heading initially southwest then turning southeast to make landfall was what Oz expected to see.
Oz does not want to spend time sitting in airports waiting for the weather to clear. Rather, he needs information that will tell him when airports will be open and business can resume. He logs onto the Australian Bureau of Meteorology Website and quickly checks the satellite image for 17.30 UTC on 28 February 2009 (Figure 5(a)) and sees that the cloud mass associated with the tropical cyclone is now largely overland, suggesting to him that the weather situation should be about to improve. To confirm that the system is moving away, Oz checks the tropical cyclone track map on the Website (Figure 5(b)) and, finally, the latest warning issued by the Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre in Perth, Australia (box on below). Things are looking very good and so Oz books his flights from Cape Town to Port Hedland.
Smoky and air traffic delays
Smoky is a frequent air traveller. As a reporter, she moves around Central Asia, South-East Asia and Australia. She knows all about the weather and has experienced more diversions and delays from low visibility at airports caused by smoke haze, fog and duststorms than from the exciting weather many travellers worry about—such as thunderstorms, tropical cyclones, etc. Smoky’s next assignment will take her to Dhaka, Bangladesh, and then north to Central Asia.
Smoky recalls delays with duststorms in Baghdad and the El Niño of 2003, when there were long delays travelling into, and out of, Kuala Lumpur airport, because of extensive, uncontrolled forest fires in Malaysia. She vividly remembers a recent diversion from Tashkent to Ashkabad, because the visibility, caused by smog at Tashkent, was too low to enable her aircraft to land. She also recalls long delays in winter mornings when flying to Canberra because of fog. On each of these occasions, her preliminary check of her destination forecast indicated that the weather was fine.
Today she checks the Dhaka, Bangladesh, forecast which is for a maximum temperature of 31°C, clear weather, relative humidity of 38 per cent and haze. Ah, that word—“haze”, but how bad? Smoky knows about the pollution that can affect Asian cities such as Dhaka (Figure 6) and searches around on the Web for more information. Few, if any, Websites give “visibility” in their forecasts but some provide observations of current weather and, where those observations come from airports, which is fairly often, then visibility is included. On 28 February 2009, the visibility at Dhaka is given as 5 km. That is good enough for Smoky to know that there is unlikely to be a problem, particularly as the airport has a modern instrument landing system (which is not the case with all airports in Central Asia).
For the traveller, predicting and planning for “haze-outs”, as Smoky calls them, is very tricky. Smoky includes duststorms in her haze-out category. In many ways, they are worse, as the visibility is much lower in a duststorm than in a high air-pollution event and some last for days. Her recent Baghdad experiences have given her a great deal of cause for concern. She has experienced the creeping, yellow, duststorm gloom that commences around 15h00 and worsens as the day draws to a close (Figure 7), and the surprise onset of a severe duststorm when the wind suddenly picks up and the landscape is blotted out.
Smoky is aware that duststorms could seriously affect her flight schedules and even be dangerous if she travels to places close to deserts. She watched reports on TV that the air crash over Tunisia in 2002 killing 18 passengers, happened under foggy, rainy and sandstorm conditions. She also learned from media reports that in an accident in another part of the world, in Arizona, USA, in 2004, four people died and 42 others were injured in a series of chain-reaction interstate highway accidents during a blinding duststorm. This duststorm came in pretty quick,” said Erick Anspach from Arizona Department Public Safety, speaking on the TV news, “Some drivers reported having only a second or two until impact”.
From discussions with scientists, Smoky learned that several research groups already successfully predict major duststorms on a daily basis, doing forecasts in a similar way as for the weather. WMO had therefore decided to establish a research project entitled Sand and Dust Storm Warning Advisory and Assessment System, aiming to ensure that warnings on duststorms are delivered timely to transport authorities and other users.
The other cause of delays in Smoky’s travels is fog at Canberra, Australia, on a winter’s morning. Now, Smoky knows that fog is just cloud that is on the ground (Figure 8) and, surely, forecasting clouds is not that hard—after all there lots of them about to watch and learn from. Smoky has her own rules for fog at Canberra which are:
Now, if only the Bureau of Meteorology staff, who run a useful Website, could use her rules, everyone would know when Canberra was going to be fogged in and avoid getting caught up in the delays.
Lessons from Skadi, Glacies, Oz and Smoky
Publicly available weather and climate data on the Web are diverse and enormously helpful for anyone travelling. It takes some time to find what you need, but it is all there thanks to WMO, which arranges free access to meteorological observations, forecasts and warnings, and thanks to National Meteorological Services around the world for generating the necessary information and maintaining the Websites where that information is located.
Travellers have never been so well served, which is just as well, as travelling remains a weather-sensitive activity. While disasters are rare, thanks in part to excellent meteorological services globally, delays are frequent due to the tight scheduling of aircraft—particularly at major hubs. If a traveller is transiting a major hub, he or she would do well to be weather-wise like our four frequent travellers.
So: be weather-wise and avoid getting caught in delays.