Australian Weather Calendar
Page 2: The Bureau of Meteorology takes a wider environmental perspective
THE Bureau of Meteorology once focused solely on understanding the weather and climate, and issuing warnings and forecasts for the days and months ahead. A hundred years later that focus now includes space weather, the oceans, rivers, and laying the foundations for an expanded range of environmental information for Australia. No longer do we just observe the weather and forecast what it will do, but we take our expanding knowledge and link it together. So, for instance, we can predict not just the climate for the next three months but with our understanding of soil moisture, rivers and dams we can forecast the water flowing into those dams for the next three months as well.
It’s a continuous process of gathering information and building knowledge and understanding to support Australians’ safety, sustainability, well-being and prosperity. From the data – environmental information – comes the understanding that allows us to build services that can be applied in decision-making by governments, industry and the public.
Building on its long-established strengths in atmospheric monitoring and analysis and data quality control, the Bureau has been given additional responsibilities in recent years for water information, tsunami warnings and for tidal and ionospheric prediction and other services. The government has also charged it with developing the framework for a National Plan for Environmental Information aimed at producing high-quality environmental accounts in the same fashion as financial accounts. Over four years the Bureau will establish many collaborations that will be central to providing governments, industry and communities with timely and comprehensive environmental data to help decision-makers.
The initial challenge will be to establish priorities, coordinate activities, begin to build environmental datasets and related information infrastructure, and develop environmental accounting methods. The National Plan for Environmental Information initiative is a whole-of-Australian Government environmental information reform program. It will deliver greatly improved access to high-quality information to assist environmental decision-making in Australia. It will help us account for changes in the environment and understand the impacts of decisions on the environment, economy and society.
The initiative involves federal government agencies and supporting environmental information relationships with State and local government, and is jointly led by the Bureau of Meteorology and the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. New environmental information systems, products and services will be developed under the National Plan for Environmental Information. These will increase the Bureau’s capacity to meet the priority environmental information needs of the Australian Government including the Australian State of the Environment reports.
Measurements from sun to subsoil
The Bureau’s broader role has meant that its monitoring responsibilities now range from outer space – recording solar activity (pictured right) 150 million kilometres away – to beneath the earth’s surface, taking soil temperatures up to a metre underground.
Between these extremes, the Bureau monitors hundreds of natural and man-made elements on land, sea and across the atmosphere, to complement vast amounts of data from ever-more-productive meteorological and earth-observing satellites.
Australians familiar with the daily weather forecasts and warnings and associated satellite and radar images may not be aware of valuable specialised observations.
For instance, measurements of the soil temperature (pictured right) have long been used to identify the best period for seed germination, and to improve the efficiency of fertiliser use.
Bureau observers record soil temperatures at 10, 20, 50 and 100 centimetres below the surface at more than 80 sites.
Research integration enables new services
The scientific sequence in atmospheric and oceanographic science is often described as the cycle of observations, hypothesis, research, modelling, and returning to further observations. As the Bureau’s responsibilities and complementary research have broadened, scientists have greater opportunities to integrate multiple data streams to tease out solutions to complex forecasting tasks.
For instance, during winter, forecasters in Australia’s southern states monitor any unusual combination of strong and subtle oceanic and atmospheric factors which might result in damaging coastal flooding/inundation.
In particular, the ocean forecasting innovations from the BLUELink partnership (CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology and Royal Australian Navy) have helped researchers prepare a “total sea level” product that can identify rare but high-impact extreme sea levels that arise from the coincidence of multiple threats (illustrated right).
One such example caused major flooding at the World Heritage-listed colonial convict site of Port Arthur in Tasmania on 9 July 2011 (pictured right).
A century’s quest for quality control
Quality control will be as vital for the Bureau’s new advanced technology data streams as it was for the first, often-handwritten forms when the Bureau started building the priceless legacy of the national climate record in 1908.
Early checking was relatively simple. Faraway observers could be asked by telegraph or mail to fill gaps in their forms or asked to help interpret cryptic handwriting, while basic statistical methods were developed to prevent future errors. Head Office might send a reminder on correct observing techniques, or a stern note on keeping a more accurate and consistent eye on instruments and weather.
Massive technological change in observing systems from the 1960s, and access to powerful computers, provided both new quality-control challenges, and complex computer-based quality-control tools for both machines and humans.
For instance, data from the 6000 volunteer rainfall observers are automatically checked to flag those individual readings apparently inconsistent with neighbouring stations. These can then easily be cross-checked against the day’s weather map, satellite and radar data and nearby ground stations.
Other systems routinely monitor data from automated systems, such as the network of more than 600 automatic weather stations. The Bureau's nine solar and terrestrial radiation stations have matched sets of instruments (pictured right), allowing continuous intercomparisons which have significantly improved data quality over the past two decades.
Did you know that?While the Bureau’s general forecasts and warnings are widely known to the community, scores of other forecasts help specialised users. Some examples of lesser-known observations and services include:
- volcanic ash cloud forecasts for aviation (see May)
- ocean salinity monitoring by drifting underwater floats
- controlled-burn forecasts for bushfire agencies
- agricultural forecasts for frost, evapotranspiration, brown rot and more
- seasonal warnings of high sea temperatures which may cause coral bleaching
- streamflow forecasts for water managers
- air pollution advice, including spread of smoke from bushfires
- services for defence, within Australia and on operations abroad