Off to Exeter in the week to visit the Met Office HQ. Fascinating, captain. I was shown around the 24/7 Weather Desk, where the forecasting is done, and given a brief on how it's all put together. Needless to say, there's quite a lot to it. My mind kept flashing back to O Level Environmental Science and the wonderful geekery of weather monitoring stations and Stevenson Screens as I watched the multiple monitors displaying graphical representations of forecast models and plotting radar scans of rainfall. I was told that terabytes of data are received at the HQ from satellites every hour, and observations are recorded at 700 (I think, but it could have been 70) different levels in the atmosphere.
But best of all was a quick look at the supercomputers in the basement. These monsters (of which there are only two of equivalent type in Europe, they said) are responsible for the site consuming as much electricity as half of the city of Exeter. We were told that we couldn't enter the room for the risk that we would contaminate the delicate innards of the beast. They were in the process of upgrading their second SX-6 to an SX-8, and so we were amused when a workman strolled out of the room with brick dust all over his jeans and a lump hammer in his hand. As the door opened, that familiar, slightly high-pitched rushing sound of a computer room (though this one was somewhat larger than those I have been used to) emerged and we were looking at potentially 65TFLOPS. Fantastic!
Back at the Weather Desk, we were told that a forecast takes 64 minutes to be completed, and by the time it reaches the Chief Forecaster's desk it may already be 2 hours old, so he has to use his knowledge and experience to run the model forward and try to iron out any inconsistencies he perceives in the data. Once set, there are conference calls with various parties (including the likes of Helen Willetts) to ensure that the message of the forecast remains consistent. All in all, a truly excellent day.
Exeter seems nice enough, but I'm increasingly depressed by the similarity within our towns and cities. Everywhere you go, the same old shops, the seemingly endless parades of Caffe Neros and Lushs and Ann Summerss. There's a lovely cathedral, and the city is in a great setting, but it actually feels quite soulless. Maybe I'm not giving it enough of a chance.