Volume 58(2) — April 2009

Meteorology for travellers

by S.T. Christopher

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Introduction

aircraft wingEveryone 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.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get ...

 

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)

Month

Mean temperature °C

Mean total rainfall (mm)

Mean number of rain days

 Daily
minimum

Daily
maximum

January

2.1

9.8

48.6

4.6

February

2.4

10.0

60.2

5.8

March

5.1

12.9

114.5

9.5

April

10.5

18.4

130.3

10.1

May

15.1

22.7

128.0

9.6

June

18.9

25.2

164.9

11.9

July

22.5

29.0

161.5

10.4

August

24.2

30.8

155.1

8.2

September

20.7

26.8

208.5

11.3

October

15.0

21.6

163.1

9.1

November

9.5

16.7

92.5

6.2

December

4.6

12.3

39.6

3.8

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

Sunday
1
 March

Monday
2
 March

Tuesday 3 March

Wednesday 4 March

Thursday 5 March

Friday
6
 March

JMA (Official public forecast for Tokyo)

Max 10  /  Min 5
Cloudy

10  /  3
Cloudy

8  /  1
Rain

13  /  4
Rain

13  /  6 
Cloudy

13  /  6 
Cloudy

BBC

Max 7
Light rain

Max 10
Fine

Max 7
Light rain

Max 6
Light rain

N/A

N/A

Weatherzone

10  /  4  
Cloudy

10  /  3 
Fine

7  /  1 
Drizzle

12  /  3 
Drizzle

N/A

N/A

Weather Underground

9  /  3  
Rain

9  /  3    
Fine

9  /  3    
Rain

N/A

N/A

N/A

MSN

5  /  3
Showers

8  /  -2
Fine

6  /  3  
Cloudy

5  /  4     
Rain

5  /  4    
Rain

N/A

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.

forecast map Figure 1 — 48-hour forecast map, valid at 00 UTC on 2 March 2009
Japan Meteorological Agency  

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.

pie diagram   Figure 2 — Inflation-adjusted US catastrophe insurance losses 1988-2007 (US$ billions)
     
Insurance Information Institute    

 

URGENT - WINTER WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BALTIMORE MD/WASHINGTON DC
1040 AM EST SAT FEB 28 2009

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA...
INCLUDING THE CITIES OF...WASHINGTON...
...BALTIMORE...ANNAPOLIS...
...ALEXANDRIA...FALLS CHURCH...
1040 AM EST SAT FEB 28 2009

...WINTER STORM WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM SUNDAY AFTERNOON THROUGH MONDAY MORNING...

A WINTER STORM WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM SUNDAY AFTERNOON THROUGH MONDAY MORNING.

LOW PRESSURE ALONG THE GULF COAST WILL MOVE EAST TONIGHT... EMERGING IN THE WESTERN ALTANTIC NEAR GEORGIA AND SOUTH CAROLINA BY SUNDAY MORNING. THE LOW WILL THEN STRENGTHEN AS IT MOVES NORTH ALONG THE COAST SUNDAY AFTERNOON AND NIGHT.

SOME COLD AIR WILL BE IN PLACE DUE TO PRECIPITATION TONIGHT. THE STORM WILL REINFORCE THAT COLD AIR. PLENTY OF MOISTURE WILL BE IN PLACE TOO. THEREFORE...THERE WILL BE THE POSSIBILITY OF 5 OR MORE INCHES OF SNOW.

A WINTER STORM WATCH MEANS THERE IS A POTENTIAL FOR SIGNIFICANT SNOW...SLEET...OR ICE ACCUMULATIONS THAT MAY IMPACT TRAVEL.
CONTINUE TO MONITOR THE LATEST FORECASTS.

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.

   
satellite image  
   
Figure 3 — Water vapour satellite image, with the blue/red/yellow-coloured area showing the winter storm approaching Washington DC  
   
NOAA  

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.

  weahter icons

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).

storm locations   Figure 4 — The tracks of all tropical cyclones that formed worldwide from 1985 to 2005. The points show the locations of the storms at six-hourly interval.
wikimedia
 
 
satellite image map
 
Figure 5 — (a) Satellite image valid 17.30 UTC on 28 February 2009; (b) Australian Bureau of Meteorology track and forecast for the tropical depression threatening Port Hedland
 
Australian Bureau of Meteorology
 
IDW24200
Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology
Western Australia

Media: The Standard Emergency Warning Signal should NOT be used with this warning.

PRIORITY
TROPICAL CYCLONE ADVICE NUMBER 14
Issued at 9:50 pm WDT on Saturday, 28 February 2009
BY THE BUREAU OF METEOROLOGY
TROPICAL CYCLONE WARNING CENTRE PERTH

The Cyclone Warning between Pardoo and Roebourne has been cancelled.

At 9:00 pm WDT a tropical low was estimated to be on the coast 17 kilometres northeast of Port Hedland and moving south at 19 kilometres per hour.

Widespread heavy rain is likely in the east Pilbara overnight and significant flooding may result. Please refer to Flood advices for more information.

The low is currently crossing the coast near Port Hedland. Strong winds are possible near the low but gales are no longer expected along the Pilbara coast.

As the low moves inland, it may produce flash flooding and locally damaging winds through the eastern Pilbara, northeast Gascoyne, northern Goldfields and adjacent Interior. A separate Severe Weather Warning has been issued for these areas [IDW28001].

Details of the tropical low at 9:00 pm WDT:
.Centre located near...... 20.2 degrees South 118.7 degrees East
.Location accuracy...... within 75 kilometres
.Recent movement...... towards the south at 19 kilometres per hour
.Wind gusts near centre...... 85 kilometres per hour
.Severity category...... below cyclone intensity
.Central pressure...... 996 hectoPascals

FESA-State Emergency Service advises that there are no community alerts.
No further advices will be issued for this system.
Cyclone advices and State Emergency Service Community Alerts are available by dialling
1300 659 210



satellite image
 
   
Figure 6 — Pollution cloud being blown southward, from Bangladesh over the Bay of Bengal  
NASA  

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”.

  duststorm
   
  Figure 7 — The creeping, yellow gloom of a Baghdad duststorm
 
Marko Georgiev for The New York Times

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:

  • There has been recent rain, generally in the last few days;
  • There is a large high-pressure system sitting over Canberra;
  • The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting temperature down to near-freezing;
  • It is sometime between April and September; and,
  • Her Canberra-based editor insists on an urgent, early morning meeting.

 

fog over san francisco
 
Figure 8 — Fog over San Francisco, California, USA
 
wikimedia

 

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.

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