Trouble in paradise: Climate change, extreme weather and wildlife conservation on a tropical island.

Joseph Taylor, NERC SCEARNIO DTP student. Zoological Society of London.


Projecting the impacts of climate change on biodiversity is important for informing

Mauritius Kestrel by Joe Taylor
Male Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) in the Bambous Mountains, eastern Mauritius. Photo by Joe Taylor.

mitigation and adaptation strategies. There are many studies that project climate change impacts on biodiversity; however, changes in the occurrence of extreme weather events are often omitted, usually because of insufficient understanding of their ecological impacts. Yet, changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events may pose a greater threat to ecosystems than changes in average weather regimes (Jentsch and Beierkuhnlein 2008). Island species are expected to be particularly vulnerable to climate change pressures, owing to their inherently limited distribution, population size and genetic diversity, and because of existing impacts from human activities, including habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native species (e.g. Fordham and Brook 2010).

Mauritius is an icon both of species extinction and the successful recovery of threatened species. However, the achievements made through dedicated conservation work and the investment of substantial resources may be jeopardised by future climate change. Conservation programmes in Mauritius have involved the collection of extensive data on individual animals, creating detailed longitudinal datasets. These provide the opportunity to conduct in-depth analyses into the factors that drive population trends.

My study focuses on the demographic impacts of weather conditions, including extreme events, on three globally threatened bird species that are endemic to Mauritius. I extended previous research into weather impacts on the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus), and applied similar methods to the echo parakeet (Psittacula eques) and Mauritius fody (Foudia rubra). The kestrel and parakeet were both nearly lost entirely in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, having suffered severe population bottlenecks, but all three species have benefitted from successful recovery programmes. I analysed breeding success using generalised linear mixed models and analysed survival probability using capture-mark-recapture models. Established weather indices were adapted for use in this study, including indices to quantify extreme rainfall, droughts and tropical cyclone activity. Trends in weather indices at key conservation sites were also analysed.

The results for the Mauritius kestrel add to a body of evidence showing that precipitation is an important limiting factor in its demography and population dynamics. The focal population in the Bambous Mountains of eastern Mauritius occupies an area in which rainfall is increasing. This trend could have implications for the population, as my analyses provide evidence that heavy rainfall during the brood phase of nests reduces breeding success, and that prolonged spells of rain in the cyclone season negatively impact the survival of juveniles. This probably occurs through reductions in hunting efficiency, time available for hunting and prey availability, so that kestrels are unable to capture enough prey to sustain themselves and feed their young (Nicoll et al. 2003, Senapathi et al. 2011). Exposure to heavy and prolonged rainfall could also be a direct cause of mortality through hypothermia, especially for chicks if nests are flooded (Senapathi et al. 2011). Future management of this species may need to incorporate strategies to mitigate the impacts of increasing rainfall.


Fordham, D. A. and Brook, B. W. (2010) Why tropical island endemics are acutely susceptible to global change. Biodiversity and Conservation 19(2): 329‒342.

Jentsch, A. and Beierkuhnlein, C. (2008) Research frontiers in climate change: Effects of extreme meteorological events on ecosystems. Comptes Rendus Geoscience 340: 621‒628.

Nicoll, M. A. C., Jones, C. G. and Norris, K. (2003) Declining survival rates in a reintroduced population of the Mauritius kestrel: evidence for non-linear density dependence and environmental stochasticity. Journal of Animal Ecology 72: 917‒926.

Senapathi, D., Nicoll, M. A. C., Teplitsky, C., Jones, C. G. and Norris, K. (2011) Climate change and the risks associated with delayed breeding in a tropical wild bird population. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278: 3184‒3190.

Climate model systematic biases in the Maritime Continent


The Maritime Continent commonly refers to the groups of islands of Indonesia, Borneo, New Guinea and the surrounding seas in the literature. My study area covers the Maritime Continent domain from 20°S to 20°N and 80°E to 160°E as shown in Figure 1. This includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon islands, northern Australia and parts of mainland Southeast Asia including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Figure 1: JJA precipitation (mm/day) and 850 hPa wind (m s−1) for (a) GPCP and ERA-interim, (b) MMM biases and (c)–(j) AMIP biases for 1979–2008 over the Maritime Continent region (20°S–20ºN, 80°E–160ºE). Third panel shows the Maritime Continent domain and land-sea mask

The ability of climate model to simulate the mean climate and climate variability over the Maritime Continent remains a modelling challenge (Jourdain et al. 2013). Our study examines the fidelity of Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 (CMIP5) models at simulating mean climate over the Maritime Continent. We find that there is a considerable spread in the performance of the Atmospheric Model Intercomparison Project (AMIP) models in reproducing the seasonal mean climate and annual cycle over the Maritime Continent region. The multi-model mean (MMM) (Figure 1b) JJA precipitation and 850hPa wind biases with respect to observations (Figure 1a) are small compared to individual model biases (Figure 1c-j) over the Maritime Continent. Figure 1 shows only a subset of Fig. 2 from Toh et al. (2017), for the full figure and paper please click here.

We also investigate the model characteristics that may be potential sources of bias. We find that AMIP model performance is largely unrelated to model horizontal resolution. Instead, a model’s local Maritime Continent biases are somewhat related to its biases in the local Hadley circulation and global monsoon.

Figure 2: Latitude-time plot of precipitation zonally averaged between 80°E and 160°E for (a) GPCP, (b) Cluster I and (c) Cluster II. White dashed line shows the position of the maximum precipitation each month. Precipitation biases with respect to GPCP for (d) Cluster I and (e) Cluster II.

To characterize model systematic biases in the AMIP runs and determine if these biases are related to common factors elsewhere in the tropics, we performed cluster analysis on Maritime Continent annual cycle precipitation. Our analysis resulted in two distinct clusters. Cluster I (Figure 2b,d) is able to reproduce the observed seasonal migration of Maritime Continent precipitation, but it overestimates the precipitation, especially during the JJA and SON seasons. Cluster II (Figure 2c,e) simulate weaker seasonal migration of Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) than observed, and the maximum rainfall position stays closer to the equator throughout the year. Tropics-wide properties of clusters also demonstrate a connection between errors at regional scale of the Maritime Continent and errors at large scale circulation and global monsoon.

On the other hand, comparison with coupled models showed that air-sea coupling yielded complex impacts on Maritime Continent precipitation biases. One of the outstanding problems in the coupled CMIP5 models is the sea surface temperature (SST) biases in tropical ocean basins. Our study highlighted central Pacific and western Indian Oceans as the key regions which exhibit the most surface temperature correlation with Maritime Continent mean state precipitation in the coupled CMIP5 models. Future work will investigate the impact of SST perturbations in these two regions on Maritime Continent precipitation using Atmospheric General Circulation Model (AGCM) sensitivity experiments.




Jourdain N.C., Gupta A.S., Taschetto A.S., Ummenhofer C.C., Moise A.F., Ashok K. (2013) The Indo-Australian monsoon and its relationship to ENSO and IOD in reanalysis data and the CMIP3/CMIP5 simulations. Climate Dynamics. 41(11–12):3073–3102

Toh, Y.Y., Turner, A.G., Johnson, S.J., & Holloway, C.E. (2017). Maritime Continent seasonal climate biases in AMIP experiments of the CMIP5 multimodel ensemble. Climate Dynamics. doi: 10.1007/s00382-017-3641-x

Why become a Royal Meteorological Society Student member?

This week the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) published their strategic plan for the period of 2018 to 2020, and here at Social Metwork HQ we thought it would be a splendid idea to reflect on the benefits of being a student member of the Royal Meteorological Society.

An important benefit in my opinion is that when becoming a member of RMetS you join a well-established community who hold enthusiasm about the weather and climate at its core. Members come from all corners of the world and at different stages of their career spanning the entire range: from the amateur weather enthusiasts to professionals.  nicole-kuhn-450747As a student, being an RMetS member can lead to conversations that could develop your career and bring unexpected opportunities. This has been greatly enhanced with the RMetS mentoring scheme.

RMetS host many different types of meetings, including annual conferences, meetings hosted by regional centres, and national meetings. Additional gatherings are held by special interest groups, ranging from Weather Arts & Music to Dynamical Problems. Meetings on a regional and national scale provide a platform for discussion and learning amongst those in the field. DEhXj9AXkAARyMM.jpg largeFor a student, the highlight in the RMetS calendar is the annual student conference. Every year, sixty to eighty students come together to present their work and develop professional relationships that continue for years to come. This year’s conference is hosted at the University of York on the 5th and 6th July 2018 (more information). After two student conferences under my belt (see previous blog post), I would highly recommend any early career research scientist attending this event. It serves as a platform to share their own work in a friendly atmosphere and be inspired by the wider student community.

nasa-63030Other benefits to becoming an RMetS student member include eligibility to the Legacies Fund, grants and fellowships, and receiving a monthly copy of Weather magazine. Most importantly though, through becoming a RMetS member you support a professional society who are committed to increasing awareness of the importance of weather and climate in policy and decision-making. Alongside this week’s publication of RMetS’ strategic plan, both the Met Office and NASA have published press releases stating that 2017 was the warmest year on record without El Niño. The atmosphere and oceans of our planet are changing at unprecedented rates: rising sea levels, reductions in Arctic sea-ice, and an increased frequency of extreme weather events to name but a few climate change impacts. Becoming an RMetS student member does not only benefit your career and knowledge, but also supports a society that is committed to promoting and raising awareness of weather and climate science.

Should we be ‘Leaf’-ing out vegetation when parameterising the aerodynamic properties of urban areas?


When modelling urban areas, vegetation is often ignored in attempt to simplify an already complex problem. However, vegetation is present in all urban environments and it is not going anywhere… For reasons ranging from sustainability to improvements in human well-being, green spaces are increasingly becoming part of urban planning agendas. Incorporating vegetation is therefore a key part of modelling urban climates. Vegetation provides numerous (dis)services in the urban environment, each of which requires individual attention (Salmond et al. 2016). However, one of my research interests is how vegetation influences the aerodynamic properties of urban areas.

Two aerodynamic parameters can be used to represent the aerodynamic properties of a surface: the zero-plane displacement (zd) and aerodynamic roughness length (z0). The zero-plane displacement is the vertical displacement of the wind-speed profile due to the presence of surface roughness elements. The aerodynamic roughness length is a length scale which describes the magnitude of surface roughness. Together they help define the shape and form of the wind-speed profile which is expected above a surface (Fig. 1).


Figure 1: Representation of the wind-speed profile above a group of roughness elements. The black dots represent an idealised logarithmic wind-speed profile which is determined using the zero-plane displacement (zd) and aerodynamic roughness length (z0) (lines) of the surface.

For an urban site, zd and z0 may be determined using three categories of methods: reference-based, morphometric and anemometric. Reference-based methods require a comparison of the site to previously published pictures or look up tables (e.g. Grimmond and Oke 1999); morphometric methods describe zd and z0 as a function of roughness-element geometry; and, anemometric methods use in-situ observations. The aerodynamic parameters of a site may vary considerably depending upon which of these methods are used, but efforts are being made to understand which parameters are most appropriate to use for accurate wind-speed estimations (Kent et al. 2017a).

Within the morphometric category (i.e. using roughness-element geometry) sophisticated methods have been developed for buildings or vegetation only. However, until recently no method existed to describe the effects of both buildings and vegetation in combination. A recent development overcomes this, whereby the heights of all roughness elements are considered alongside a porosity correction for vegetation (Kent et al. 2017b). Specifically, the porosity correction is applied to the space occupied and drag exerted by vegetation.

The development is assessed across several areas typical of a European city, ranging from a densely-built city centre to an urban park. The results demonstrate that where buildings are the dominant roughness elements (i.e. taller and occupying more space), vegetation does not obviously influence the calculated geometry of the surface, nor the aerodynamic parameters and the estimated wind speed. However, as vegetation begins to occupy a greater amount of space and becomes as tall as (or larger) than buildings, the influence of vegetation is obvious. Expectedly, the implications are greatest in an urban park, where overlooking vegetation means that wind speeds may be slowed by up to a factor of three.

Up to now, experiments such as those in the wind tunnel focus upon buildings or trees in isolation. Certainly, future experiments which consider both buildings and vegetation will be valuable to continue to understand the interaction within and between these roughness elements, in addition to assessing the parameterisation.


Grimmond CSB, Oke TR (1999) Aerodynamic properties of urban areas derived from analysis of surface form. J Appl Meteorol and Clim 38:1262-1292.

Kent CW, Grimmond CSB, Barlow J, Gatey D, Kotthaus S, Lindberg F, Halios CH (2017a) Evaluation of Urban Local-Scale Aerodynamic Parameters: Implications for the Vertical Profile of Wind Speed and for Source Areas. Boundary-Layer Meteorology 164: 183-213.

Kent CW, Grimmond CSB, Gatey D (2017b) Aerodynamic roughness parameters in cities: Inclusion of vegetation. Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics 169: 168-176.

Salmond JA, Tadaki M, Vardoulakis S, Arbuthnott K, Coutts A, Demuzere M, Dirks KN, Heaviside C, Lim S, Macintyre H (2016) Health and climate related ecosystem services provided by street trees in the urban environment. Environ Health 15:95.

Experiences of the NERC Atmospheric Pollution and Human Health Project.


One of the most exciting opportunities of my PhD experience to date has been a research trip to Beijing in June, as part of the NERC Atmospheric Pollution and Human Health (APHH) project. This is a worldwide research collaboration with a focus on the way air pollution in developing megacities affects human health, and the meeting in Beijing served as the 3rd project update.

Industrialisation of these cities in the last couple of decades has caused air pollution to rise rapidly and regularly exceed levels deemed safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  China sees over 1,000,000 deaths annually due to particulate matter (PM), with 76 deaths per 100,000 capita. In comparison, the UK has just over 16,000 total deaths and 26 per capita. But not only do these two countries have very different climates and emissions; they are also at very different stages of industrial development. So in order to better understand the many various sources of pollution in developing megacities – be they from local transport, coal burning or advected from further afield – there is an increased need for developing robust air quality (AQ) monitoring measures.

The APHH programme exists as a means to try and overcome these challenges. My part in the meeting was to expand the cohort of NCAS / NERC students researching AQ in both the UK and China, attending a series of presentations in a conference-style environment and visiting two sites with AQ monitoring instruments. One is situated in the Beijing city centre while the other in the rural village of Pinggu, just NW of Beijing. Over 100 local villagers take part in a health study by carrying a personal monitor with them over a period of two weeks. Their general health is monitored at the Pinggu site, alongside analysis of the data collected about their personal exposure to pollutants each day, i.e. heatmaps of different pollutant species are created according to GPS tracking. Having all the instruments being explained to us by local researchers was incredibly useful, because since I work with models, I haven’t had a great deal of first hand exposure to pollutant data collection. It was beneficial to get an appreciation of the kind of work this involves!


In between all our academic activities we also had the chance to take some cultural breaks – Beijing has a lot to offer! For example, our afternoon visit to the Pinggu rural site followed the morning climb up the Chinese Great Wall. Although the landscape was somewhat obscured by the pollution haze, this proved to be a positive thing as we didn’t have to suffer in the direct beam of the sun!

I would like to greatly thank NERC, NCAS and University of Leeds for the funding and organisation of this trip. It has been an incredible experience, and I am looking forward to observing the progess of these projects, hopefully using what I have learnt in some of my own work.

For more information, please visit the APHH student blog in which all the participants documented their experiences:

RMetS Impact of Science Conference 2017.

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“We aim to help people make better decisions than they would if we weren’t here”

Rob Varley CEO of Met Office

This week PhD students from the University of Reading attended the Royal Meteorological Society Impact of Science Conference for Students and Early Career Scientists. Approximately eighty scientists from across the UK and beyond gathered at the UK Met Office to learn new science, share their own work, and develop new communication skills.


Across the two days students presented their work in either a poster or oral format. Jonathan Beverley, Lewis Blunn and I presented posters on our work, whilst Kaja Milczewska, Adam Bateson, Bethan Harris, Armenia Franco-Diaz and Sally Woodhouse gave oral presentations. Honourable mentions for their presentations were given to Bethan Harris and Sally Woodhouse who presented work on the energetics of atmospheric water vapour diffusion and the representation of mass transport over the Arctic in climate models (respectively). Both were invited to write an article for RMetS Weather Magazine (watch this space). Congratulations also to Jonathan Beverley for winning the conference’s photo competition!

Jonathan Beverley’s Winning Photo.

Alongside student presentations, two keynote speaker sessions took place, with the latter of these sessions titled Science Communication: Lessons from the past, learning for future impact. Speakers in this session included Prof. Ellie Highwood (Professor of Climate Physics and Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at University of Reading), Chris Huhne (Co-chair of ET-index and former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Leo Hickman (editor for Carbon Brief) and Dr Amanda Maycock (NERC Independent Research Fellow and Associate Professor in Climate Dynamics, University of Leeds). Having a diverse range of speakers encouraged thought-provoking discussion and raised issues in science communication from many angles.

Prof. Ellie Highwood opened the session challenging us all to step beyond the typical methods of scientific communication. Try presenting your science without plots. Try presenting your work with no slides at all! You could step beyond the boundaries even more by creating interesting props (for example, the notorious climate change blanket). Next up Chris Huhne and Leo Hickman gave an overview of the political and media interactions with climate change science (respectively). The Brexit referendum, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and the rise of the phrase “fake news” are some of the issues in a society “where trust in the experts is falling”. Finally, Dr Amanda Maycock presented a broad overview of influential science communicators from the past few centuries. Is science relying too heavily on celebrities for successful communication? Should the research community put more effort into scientific outreach?

Communication and collaboration became the two overarching themes of the conference, and conferences such as this one are a valuable way to develop these skills. Thank you to the Royal Meteorology Society and UK Met Office for hosting the conference and good luck to all the young scientists that we met over the two days.


DEkAxGgXkAAmaWE.jpg large

Also thank you to NCAS for funding my conference registration and to all those who provided photos for this post.

Sting Jet: the poisonous (and windy) tail of some of the most intense UK storms


Figure 1: Windstorm Tini (12 Feb 2014) passes over the British Isles bringing extreme winds. A Sting Jet has been identified in the storm. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

It was the morning of 16th October when South East England got battered by the Great Storm of 1987. Extreme winds occurred, with gusts of 70 knots or more recorded continually for three or four consecutive hours and maximum gusts up to 100 knots. The damage was huge across the country with 15 million trees blown down and 18 fatalities.

Figure 2: Surface wind gusts in the Great Storm of 1987. Image courtesy of UK Met Office.

The forecast issued on the evening of 15th October failed to identify the incoming hazard but forecasters were not to blame as the strongest winds were actually due to a phenomenon that had yet to be discovered at the time: the Sting Jet. A new topic of weather-related research had started: what was the cause of the exceptionally strong winds in the Great Storm?

It was in Reading at the beginning of 21st century that scientists came up with the first formal description of those winds, using observations and model simulations. Following the intuitions of Norwegian forecasters they used the term Sting Jet, the ‘sting at the end of the tail’. Using some imagination we can see the resemblance of the bent-back cloud head with a scorpion’s tail: strong winds coming out from its tip and descending towards the surface can then be seen as the poisonous sting at the end of the tail.

Figure 3: Conceptual model of a sting-jet extratropical cyclone, from Clark et al, 2005. As the cloud head bends back and the cold front moves ahead we can see the Sting Jet exiting from the cloud tip and descending into the opening frontal fracture.  WJ: Warm conveyor belt. CJ: Cold conveyor belt. SJ: Sting jet.

In the last decade sting-jet research progressed steadily with observational, modelling and climatological studies confirming that the strong winds can occur relatively often, that they form in intense extratropical cyclones with a particular shape and are caused by an additional airstream that is neither related to the Cold nor to the Warm Conveyor Belt. The key questions are currently focused on the dynamics of Sting Jets: how do they form and accelerate?

Works recently published (and others about to come out, stay tuned!) claim that although the Sting Jet occurs in an area in which fairly strong winds would already be expected given the morphology of the storm, a further mechanism of acceleration is needed to take into account its full strength. In fact, it is the onset of mesoscale instabilities and the occurrence of evaporative cooling on the airstream that enhances its descent and acceleration, generating a focused intense jet (see references for more details). It is thus necessary a synergy between the general dynamics of the storm and the local processes in the cloud head in order to produce what we call the Sting Jet .

plot_3D_sj ccb_short
Figure 4: Sting Jet (green) and Cold Conveyor Belt (blue) in the simulations of Windstorm Tini. The animation shows how the onset of the strongest winds is related to the descent of the Sting Jet. For further details on this animation and on the analysis of Windstorm Tini see here.


Browning, K. A. (2004), The sting at the end of the tail: Damaging winds associated with extratropical cyclones. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 130: 375–399. doi:10.1256/qj.02.143

Clark, P. A., K. A. Browning, and C. Wang (2005), The sting at the end of the tail: Model diagnostics of fine-scale three-dimensional structure of the cloud head. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 131: 2263–2292. doi:10.1256/qj.04.36

Martínez-Alvarado, O., L.H. Baker, S.L. Gray, J. Methven, and R.S. Plant (2014), Distinguishing the Cold Conveyor Belt and Sting Jet Airstreams in an Intense Extratropical Cyclone. Mon. Wea. Rev., 142, 2571–2595, doi: 10.1175/MWR-D-13-00348.1.

Hart, N.G., S.L. Gray, and P.A. Clark, 0: Sting-jet windstorms over the North Atlantic: Climatology and contribution to extreme wind risk. J. Climate, 0, doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-16-0791.1.

Volonté, A., P.A. Clark, S.L. Gray. The role of Mesoscale Instabilities in the Sting-Jet dynamics in Windstorm Tini. Poster presented at European Geosciences Union – General Assembly 2017, Dynamical Meteorology (General session)