RMetS Impact of Science Conference 2017.

Email – j.f.talib@pgr.reading.ac.uk

“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.


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

Can we really use El Niño to predict flooding?

R. Emerton, H. Cloke, E. Stephens, E. Zsoter, S. Woolnough, F. Pappenberger (2017). Complex picture for likelihood of ENSO-driven flood hazard. Nature Communications. doi: 10.1038/NCOMMS14796

Email: r.e.emerton@pgr.reading.ac.uk

When an El Niño is declared, or even forecast, we think back to memorable past El Niños (such as 1997/98), and begin to ask whether we will see the same impacts. Will California receive a lot of rainfall? Will we see droughts in tropical Asia and Australia? Will Peru experience the same devastating floods as in 1997/98, and 1982/83?


El Niño and La Niña, which see changes in the ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, are well known to affect weather, and indeed river flow and flooding, around the globe. But how well can we estimate the potential impacts of El Niño and La Niña, and how likely flooding is to occur?

This question is what some of us in the Water@Reading research group at the University of Reading have been looking to answer in our recent publication in Nature Communications. As part of our multi- and inter-disciplinary research, we work closely with the Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCCC), who are working on an initiative called Forecast-based Financing (FbF, Coughlan de Perez et al.). FbF aims to distribute aid (for example providing water purification tablets to prevent spread of disease, or digging trenches to divert flood water) ahead of a flood, based on forecasts. This approach helps to reduce the impact of the flood in the first place, rather than working to undo the damage once the flood has already occurred.

Photo credit: Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre

In Peru, previous strong El Niños in 1982/83 and 1997/98 had resulted in devastating floods in several regions. As such, when forecasts in early 2015 began to indicate a very strong El Niño was developing, the RCCC and forecasters at the Peruvian national hydrological and meteorology agency (SENAMHI) began to look into the likelihood of flooding, and what FbF actions might need to be taken.

Typically, statistical products indicating the historical probability (likelihood [%] based on what happened during past El Niños) of extreme precipitation are used as a proxy for whether a region will experience flooding during an El Niño (or La Niña), such as these maps produced by the IRI (International Research Institute for Climate and Society). You may also have seen maps which circle regions of the globe that will be drier / warmer / wetter / cooler – we’ll come back to these shortly.

These rainfall maps show that Peru, alongside several other regions of the world, is likely to see more rainfall than usual during an El Niño. But does this necessarily mean there will be floods? And what products are out there indicating the effect of El Niño on rivers across the globe?

For organisations working at the global scale, such as the RCCC and other humanitarian aid agencies, global overviews of potential impacts are key in taking decisions on where to focus resources during an El Niño or La Niña. While these maps are useful for looking at the likely changes in precipitation, it has been shown that the link between precipitation and flood magnitude is nonlinear (Stephens et al.),  – more rain does not necessarily equal floods – so how does this transfer to the potential for flooding?

The motivation behind this work was to provide similar information, but taking into account the hydrology as well as the meteorology. We wanted to answer the question “what is the probability of flooding during El Niño?” not only for Peru, but for the global river network.

To do this, we have taken the new ECMWF ERA-20CM ensemble model reconstruction of the atmosphere, and run this through a hydrological model to produce the first 20th century global hydrological reconstruction of river flow. Using this new dataset, we have for the first time estimated the historical probability of increased or decreased flood hazard (defined as abnormally high or low river flow) during an El Niño (or La Niña), for the global river network.

Figure 1: The probability of increased (blue) or decreased (red) flood hazard during each month of an El Nino. Based on the ensemble mean of the ERA-20CM-R 20th century river flow reconstruction.

The question – “what is the probability of flooding during El Niño?”, however, remains difficult to answer. We now have maps of the probability of abnormally high or low river flow (see Figure 1), and we see clear differences between the hydrological analysis and precipitation. It is also evident that the probabilities themselves are often lower, and much more uncertain, than might be useful – how do you make a decision on whether to provide aid to an area worried about flooding, when the probability of that flooding is 50%?

Figure 2: Historical probability of increased / decreased flood hazard map for February, with overlay showing the typical impact map for winter during an El Nino. This highlights the complexity of the link between El Nino and flooding compared to the information usually available.

The likely impacts are much more complex than is often perceived and reported – going back to the afore-mentioned maps that circle regions of the globe and what their impact will be (warmer, drier, wetter?) – these maps portray these impacts as a certainty, not a probability, with the same impacts occurring across huge areas. For example, in Figure 2, we take one of the maps from our results, which indicates the probability of increased or decreased flood hazard in one month during an El Niño, and draw over this these oft-seen circles of potential impacts. In doing this, we remove all information on how likely (or unlikely) the impacts are, smaller scale changes within these circles (in some cases our flood hazard map even indicates a different impact), and a lot of the potential impacts outside of these circles – not to mention the likely impacts can change dramatically from one month to the next. For those organisations that take actions based on such information, it is important to be aware of the uncertainties surrounding the likely impacts of El Niño and La Niña.

“We conclude that while it may seem possible to use historical probabilities to evaluate regions across the globe that are more likely to be at risk of flooding during an El Niño / La Niña, and indeed circle large areas of the globe under one banner of wetter or drier, the reality is much more complex.”

PS. During the winter of 2015/16, our results estimated an ~80% likelihood of increased flood hazard in northern coastal Peru, with only ~10% uncertainty surrounding this. The RCCC took FbF actions to protect thousands of families from potentially devastating floods driven by one of the strongest El Niños on records. While flooding did occur, this was not as severe as expected based on the strength of the El Niño. More recently, during the past few months (January – March 2017), anomalously high sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the far eastern Pacific (known as a “coastal El Niño” in Peru but not widely acknowledged as an El Niño because central Pacific SSTs are not anomalously warm) have led to devastating flooding in several regions and significant loss of life. And Peru wasn’t the only place that didn’t see the impacts it expected in 2015/16; other regions of the world, such as the US, also saw more rainfall than normal in places that were expected to be drier, and California didn’t receive the deluge they were perhaps hoping for. It’s important to remember that no two El Niños are the same, and El Niño will not be the only influence on the weather around the globe. While El Niño and La Niña can provide some added predictability to the atmosphere, the impacts are far from certain.

Presidente Kuczynski recorre zonas afectadas por lluvias e inund
Flooded areas of Trujillo, Peru, March 2017. Photo credit: Presidencia Peru, via Floodlist

Full reference:

R. Emerton, H. Cloke, E. Stephens, E. Zsoter, S. Woolnough, F. Pappenberger (2017). Complex picture for likelihood of ENSO-driven flood hazard. Nature Communications. doi: 10.1038/NCOMMS14796

Press Release:

The Influence of the Weather on Bird Migration

Email: d.l.a.flack@pgr.reading.ac.uk

As well as being a meteorologist, I am a bird watcher. This means I often combine meteorology and bird watching to see the impact of the weather on birds. Now that we are well into March my focus in bird watching turns to one thing – the migration.

March generally marks the time when the first summer migrants start arriving into the UK. Already this year we have had reports of Sand Martin, Wheatear, Garganey, Little Ringed Plover, White Wagtail, Osprey, Swallow, House Martin, Ring Ouzel and Whitethroat (up to 9 March), some of which are depicted below.

White Wagtail

There are many people that consider the arrival dates of certain migratory species of birds and how this arrival date changes over many years. I do keep extensive records of the birds that I see (and thus arrival dates), but what interests me more are the odd days in the record, and the sightings of unusual birds and working out how they arrived at their destinations.

A good example of this can be found by looking at my first Swallow sighting of the year in Kent and East Sussex. Since I started bird watching in 2001 my first Swallow of the year has moved from around 10 April to between 26-March and 1 April. However in 2013 my first record was 15 April. Then in 2015 and 2016 I saw my first Swallow on 1 April and 27 March respectively (I was in Cheshire in 2014 in late March/early April).

So what happened; why were the Swallows late in Kent in 2013? Well, it all comes down to wind direction. The spring of 2013 was very chilly and along the east coast there were plenty of N/NE winds – this would have provided a head wind so the Swallows would preferentially not migrate up the east coast in those conditions but instead migrate up the west coast where there were southerlies.

So, the wind direction plays a key part in the migration of birds. If conditions are for a tailwind or very light winds the birds will migrate; otherwise they will stay put. However, headwinds can lead to some interesting phenomena associated with bird migration – ‘falls’.

A ‘fall’ occurs when there are a large number of migrants building up along the coastline at a departure point (so for the interest of UK bird watchers Northern France), as they cannot get to their destination. When the wind direction changes the birds will then migrate en masse and quite literally fall out of the sky.

It’s not all about the wind direction though; rain is also a key factor that bird watchers consider when looking at weather forecasts. Essentially, fronts and showers are great for bird watchers. On migration birds will often fly higher than they normally would. This means on a clear sunny day you could easily miss birds passing overhead as they are so high up. However, with the rain the birds will often fly lower, avoiding the in-cloud turbulence. For many of the summer migrants their food sources (insects) also fly lower in these conditions.

This means that a forecast of showers with a southerly wind is generally what I look for from mid-April onwards (particularly as an inland birder), as it means there is a good chance of migratory species turning up – also because then I can head out after work as the evenings are brighter. This is something that I did last year and ended up recording the first Sandwich Tern (photo below (not of the bird I saw)) of the year in Berkshire.

Sandwich Tern

So in summary, it’s not as simple as just keeping an eye on the wind direction – there are other factors that can influence the birds’ migration and where they will end up. For more information about the impact of weather on bird sightings (considering both rare and common birds) check out my blog.

The advection process: simulating wind on computers

Email: js102@zepler.net   Web: datumedge.co.uk   Twitter: @hertzsprrrung

This article was originally posted on the author’s personal blog.

If we know which way the wind is blowing then we can predict a lot about the weather. We can easily observe the wind moving clouds across the sky, but the wind also moves air pollution and greenhouse gases. This process is called transport or advection. Accurately simulating the advection process is important for forecasting the weather and predicting climate change.

I am interested in simulating the advection process on computers by dividing the world into boxes and calculating the same equation in every box. There are many existing advection methods but many rely on these boxes having the correct shape and size, otherwise these existing methods can produce inaccurate simulations.

During my PhD, I’ve been developing a new advection method that produces accurate simulations regardless of cell shape or size. In this post I’ll explain how advection works and how we can simulate advection on computers. But, before I do, let’s talk about how we observe the weather from the ground.

In meteorology, we generally have an incomplete picture of the weather. For example, a weather station measures the local air temperature, but there are only a few hundred such stations dotted around the UK. The temperature at another location can be approximated by looking at the temperatures reported by nearby stations. In fact, we can approximate the temperature at any location by reconstructing a continuous temperature field using the weather station measurements.

The advection equation

So far we have only talked about temperatures varying geographically, but temperatures also vary over time. One reason that temperatures change over time is because the wind is blowing. For example, a wind blowing from the north transports, or advects, cold air from the arctic southwards over the UK. How fast the temperature changes depends on the wind speed, and the size of the temperature contrast between the arctic air and the air further south. We can write this as an equation. Let’s call the wind speed v and assume that the wind speed and direction are always the same everywhere. We’ll label the temperature T, label time t, and label the south-to-north direction y, then we can write down the advection equation using partial derivative notation,

\frac{\partial T}{\partial t} = - \frac{\partial T}{\partial y} \times v

This equation tells us that the local temperature will vary over time (\frac{\partial T}{\partial t}), depending on the north-south temperature contrast (- \frac{\partial T}{\partial y}) multiplied by the wind speed v.

Solving the advection equation

One way to solve the advection equation on a computer is to divide the world into boxes, called cells. The complete arrangement of cells is called a mesh. At a point at the centre of each cell we store meteorological information such as temperature, water vapour content or pollutant concentration. At the cell faces where two cells touch we store the wind speed and direction. The arrangement looks like this:

A mesh of cells with temperatures stored at cell centres and winds stored at cell faces.  For illustration, the temperature and winds are only shown in one cell.  This arrangement of data is known as an Arakawa C-grid.  Figure adapted from WikiMedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The above example of a mesh over the UK uses cube-shaped cells stacked in columns above the Earth, and arranged along latitude and longitude lines. But more recently, weather forecasting models are using different types of mesh. These models tesselate the globe with squares, hexagons or triangles.

The surfaces of some different types of global mesh. The cells are prismatic since they are stacked in columns above the surface.

Weather models must also rearrange cells in order to represent mountains, valleys, cliffs and other terrain. Once again, different models rearrange cells differently. One method, called the terrain-following method, shifts cells up or down to accommodate the terrain. Another method, called the cut-cell method, cuts cells where they intersect the terrain. Here’s what these methods look like when we use them to represent an idealised, wave-shaped mountain:

Two different methods for representing terrain in weather forecast models. The terrain-following method is widely used but suffers from large distortions above steep slopes. The cut cell method alleviates this problem but cells may be very much smaller than most others in a cut cell mesh.

Once we’ve chosen a mesh and stored temperature at cell centres and the wind at cell faces, we can start calculating a solution to the advection equation which enables us to forecast how the temperature will vary over time. We can solve the advection equation for every cell separately by discretising the advection equation. Let’s consider a cell with a north face and a south face. We want to know how the temperature stored at the cell centre, T_\mathrm{cell}, will vary over time. We can calculate this by reconstructing a continuous temperature field and using this to approximate temperature values at the north and south faces of the cell, T_\mathrm{north} and T_\mathrm{south},

\frac{\partial T_\mathrm{cell}}{\partial t} = - \frac{T_\mathrm{north} - T_\mathrm{south}}{\Delta y} \times v

where \Delta y is the distance between the north and south cell faces. This is the same reconstruction process that we described earlier, only, instead of approximating temperatures using nearby weather station measurements, we are approximating temperatures using nearby cell centre values.

There are many existing numerical methods for solving the advection equation but many do not cope well when meshes are distorted, such as terrain-following meshes, or when cells have very different sizes, such as those cells in cut-cell meshes. Inaccurate solutions to the advection equation lead to inaccuracies in the weather forecast. In extreme cases, very poor solutions can cause the model software to crash, and this is known as a numerical instability.

An idealised simulation of a blob advected over steep mountains. A numerical instability develops because the cells are so distorted over the mountain.

We can see a numerical instability growing in this idealised example. A blob is being advected from left to right over a range of steep, wave-shaped mountains. This example is using a simple advection method which cannot cope with the distorted cells in this mesh.

We’ve developed a new method for solving the advection equation with almost any type of mesh using cubes or hexagons, terrain-following or cut-cell methods. The advection method works by reconstructing a continuous field from data stored at cell centre points. A separate reconstruction is made for every face of every cell in the mesh using about twelve nearby cell centre values. Given that weather forecast models have millions of cells, this sounds like an awful lot of calculations. But it turns out that we can make most of these calculations just once, store them, and reuse them for all our simulations.

Our new advection method avoids the numerical instability that occurred using the simple method.

Here’s the same idealised simulation using our new advection method. The results are numerically stable and accurate.

Further reading

A preprint of our journal article documenting the new advection method is available on ArXiv. I also have another blog post that talks about how to make the method even more accurate. Or follow me on Twitter for more animations of the numerical methods I’m developing.

Understanding the dynamics of cyclone clustering

Priestley, M. D. K., J. G. Pinto, H. F. Dacre, and L. C. Shaffrey (2016), Rossby wave breaking, the upper level jet, and serial clustering of extratropical cyclones in western Europe, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, doi:10.1002/2016GL071277.

Email: m.d.k.priestley@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Extratropical cyclones are the number one natural hazard that affects western Europe (Della-Marta, 2010). These cyclones can cause widespread socio-economic damage through extreme wind gusts that can damage property, and also through intense precipitation, which may result in prolonged flood events. For example the intensely stormy winter of 2013/2014 saw 456mm of rain fall in under 90 days across the UK; this broke records nationwide as 175% of the seasonal average fell (Kendon & McCarthy, 2015). One particular storm in this season was cyclone Tini (figure 1), this was a very deep cyclone (minimum pressure – 952 hPa) which brought peak gusts of over 100 mph to the UK. These gusts caused widespread structural damage that resulted in 20,000 homes losing power. These extremes can be considerably worse when multiple extratropical cyclones affect one specific geographical region in a very short space of time. This is known as cyclone clustering. Some of the most damaging clustering events can result in huge insured losses, for example the storms in the winter of 1999/2000 resulted in €16 billion of losses (Swiss Re, 2016); this being more than 10 times the annual average.

Figure 1. A Meteosat visible satellite image at 12 UTC on February 12th 2014 showing cyclone Tini over the UK. Image credit to NEODAAS/University of Dundee.

Up until recently cyclone clustering had been given little attention in terms of scientific research, despite it being a widely accepted phenomenon in the scientific community. With these events being such high risk events it is important to understand the atmospheric dynamics that are associated with these events; and this is exactly what we have been doing recently. In our new study we attempt to characterise cyclone clustering in several different locations and associate each different set of clusters with a different dynamical setup in the upper troposphere. The different locations we focus on are defined by three areas, one encompassing the UK and centred at 55°N. Our other two areas are 10° to the north and south of this (centred at 65°N and 45°N.) The previous study of Pinto et al. (2014) examined several winter seasons and found links between the upper-level jet, Rossby wave breaking (RWB) and the occurrence of clustering. RWB is the meridional overturning of air in the upper troposphere. It is identified using the potential temperature (θ) field on the dynamical tropopause, with a reversal of the normal equator-pole θ gradient representing RWB. This identification method is explained in full in Masato et al. (2013) and also illustrated in figure 2. We have greatly expanded on this analysis to look at all winter clustering events from 1979/1980 to 2014/2015 and their connection with these dynamical features.

Figure 2. Evolution of Rossby waves on the tropopause. RWB occurs when these waves overturn by a significant amount. H: High potential temperature; L: Low potential temperature (Priestley et al., 2017).

We find that when we get clustering it is accompanied with a much stronger jet at 250 hPa than in the climatology, with average speeds peaking at over 50 ms-1 (figures 3a-c). In all cases there is also a much greater presence of RWB in regions not seen from the climatology (Figure 3d). In figure 3a there is more RWB to the south of the jet, in figure 3b there is an increased presence on both the northern and southern flanks, and finally in figure 3c there is much more RWB to the north. The presence of this anomalous RWB transfers momentum into the jet, which acts to strengthen and extend it toward western Europe.

Figure 3. The dynamical setup for clustering occurring at (a) 65°N; (b) 55°N; and (c) 45°N. The climatology is shown in (d). Coloured shading is the average potential temperature on the tropopause, black contours are the average 250 hPa wind speeds and black crosses are where RWB is occurring.

The location of the RWB controls the jet tilt; more RWB to the south of the jet acts to angle it more northwards (figure 3a), there is a southward deflection when there is more RWB to the north of the jet (figure 3c). The presence of RWB on both sides extends it along a more central axis (figure 3b). Therefore the occurrence of RWB in a particular location and the resultant angle of the jet acts to direct cyclones to various parts of western Europe in quick succession.

In our recently published study we go into much more detail regarding the variability associated with these dynamics and also how the jet and RWB interact in time. This can be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2016GL071277.

This work is funded by NERC via the SCENARIO DTP and is also co-sponsored by Aon Benfield.


Della-Marta, P. M., Liniger, M. A., Appenzeller, C., Bresch, D. N., Köllner-Heck, P., & Muccione, V. (2010). Improved estimates of the European winter windstorm climate and the risk of reinsurance loss using climate model data. Journal of Applied Meteorolo

Kendon, M., & McCarthy, M. (2015). The UK’s wet and stormy winter of 2013/2014. Weather, 70(2), 40-47.

Masato, G., Hoskins, B. J., & Woollings, T. (2013). Wave-breaking characteristics of Northern Hemisphere winter blocking: A two-dimensional approach. Journal of Climate, 26(13), 4535-4549.

Pinto, J. G., Gómara, I., Masato, G., Dacre, H. F., Woollings, T., & Caballero, R. (2014). Large‐scale dynamics associated with clustering of extratropical cyclones affecting Western Europe. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 119(24).

Priestley, M. D. K., J. G. Pinto, H. F. Dacre, and L. C. Shaffrey (2017). The role of cyclone clustering during the stormy winter of 2013/2014. Manuscript in preparation.

Swiss Re. (2016). Winter storm clusters in Europe, Swiss Re publishing, Zurich, 16 pp., http://www.swissre.com/library/winter_storm_clusters_in_europe.html. Accessed 24/11/16.

From foehn to intense rainfall: the importance of Alps in influencing the regional weather

Email: a.volonte@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Figure 1: View from Monte Lema (Italy-Switzerland) looking West. The Lake Maggiore region and the southern Alpine foothills are visible in the foreground whereas Monte Rosa and the Pennine Alps behind them are partially hidden by a characteristic foehn wall.  (A. Volonté, 4 January 2017)

The interaction between atmospheric flow and topography is at the origin of various important weather phenomena, as we have already seen in Carly Wright’s blog post. When a mountain range is particularly high and extended it can even block or deflect weather systems, as it happens with the Alps. For example, in Figure 1 we can see the main Alpine range with its over-4000m-high peaks blocking a cold front coming from the north. The main ridge acts as a wall, enhancing condensation and precipitation processes on the upstream side (stau condition) and leaving clear skies on the downstream lee side, where dry and mild katabatic foehn winds flow. The contrast is striking between sunny weather on Lake Maggiore and snowy conditions over Monte Rosa, just a few miles apart. The same phenomenon is shown in Figure 2 with a satellite image that highlights how a cold front coming from northwest gets blocked by the Alpine barrier. A person enjoying the sunny day in the southern side of the Alps, if unaware of this mechanism, would be very surprised  to know that the current weather is so different on the other side of the range.

Figure 2: Satellite image (MODIS-NASA) over the Alps and Po Valley on 22 October 2014
Figure 3: same as Figure 1 but on 13 December 2016

A comparison with Figure 3 helps to notice that in Figure 2 the shape of the cloud band closely mirrors the mountain range. As an additional remark,  this comparison shows that foehn bring clear skies even in the Po Valley, having blown away the typical mist/fog occurring in the region in Autumn and Winter months in high pressure regimes. The  stau/foehn dynamics is actually very fascinating, and you can read more about it in Elvidge and Renfrew (2015 ) and in Miltenberger et al. (2016), among others. Unfortunately, the interaction of weather systems with the Alps can often trigger very damaging phenomena, like heavy and long-lasting precipitation on one side of the slope, and this is what the rest of this post will be focused on. In fact, the most recent event of this kind just happened at the end of November, with intense and long-lasting rain affecting the southern slope of the Alps  and causing floods particularly in the Piedmont region, in northwestern Italy ( Figure 4).

Figure 4: River Tanaro flooding in the town of Garessio, 24 November 2016 (Piedmont, Italy). Source: http://www.corrierenazionale.it
Figure 5: rainfall accumulated between 21 and 26 November 2016 in the Piedmont region. Source: Regional Agency for the protection of the Environment – Piedmont

Figure 5 shows that the accumulated rainfall in the event goes over 300 mm in a large band that follows the shape of the southern Alpine slope in the region (see map of Piedmont, from Google Maps), reaching even 600 mm in a few places. This situation is the result of moist southerly flow being blocked by the Alps and thus causing ascent and consequent precipitation to persist on the same areas for up to five days. It is quite common to see quasi-stationary troughs enter the Mediterranean region during Autumn months causing strong and long-lasting moist flows to move towards the Alps. Hence, it is crucial to understand  where the heaviest precipitation will occur. In other words, will it rain the most on top of the ridge or on the upstream plain? What processes are controlling the location of heavy precipitation with respect to the slope?

The study published by Davolio et al. (2016), available here and originated from my master degree’s thesis, tackles this issue focusing on northeastern Italy. In fact, the analysis includes three case studies in which heavy and long-lasting rain affected the eastern Alps and other three case studies in which intense rainfall was mainly located on the upstream plain. Although all the events showed common large-scale patterns and similar mesoscale settings, characterised by moist southerly low-level flow interacting with the Alps, the rainfall distribution turned out to be very dissimilar. The study highlights that the two precipitation regimes strongly differ in terms of interaction of the flow with the mountain barrier. When the flow is able to go over the Alps the heaviest rain occurs on top of the ridge. When the flow is instead blocked and deflected by the ridge (flow around), creating a so-called barrier wind, intense convection is triggered on the upstream plain (Figure 6) .

Figure 6: Schematic diagram of the key mechanisms governing the two different wind and precipitation patterns over NE Italy. (a) Blocked low-level flow, barrier wind, convergence and deep convection over the plain, upstream the orography. (b) Flow over conditions with orographic lifting and precipitation mainly over the Alps. From Davolio et al. (2016)
Figure 7: cross section going from the Adriatic Sea to the Alps in one of the events simulated. Equivalent potential temperature is shaded, thick black lines indicate clouds while arrows show tangent wind component. See Davolio et al. (2016)

The key mechanism that explains this different evolution is connected to the thermodynamic state of the impinging flow. In fact, when the southerly moist and warm air gets close to the Alpine barrier it is lifted above the colder air already present at the base of the orography. It can be said that the colder air behaves as a first effective mountain for the incoming flow. If this lifting process triggers convection, then the persistence of a blocked-flow condition is highly favoured (see Figure 7). On the contrary, if this initial lifting process does not trigger convection the intense moist flow will eventually be able to go over the ridge, where a more substantial ascent will take place, causing heavy rain on the ridge top. This study also looks at numerical parameters used in more idealised analyses (like in Miglietta and Rotunno (2009)), finding a good agreement with the theory.

To summarise, we can say that the Alpine range is able to significantly modify weather systems when interacting with them. Thus, an in-depth understanding of the processes taking place during the interaction, along with a coherent model is necessary to capture correctly the effects on the local weather, being either a rainfall enhancement, the occurrence of foehn winds or various other phenomena.


Davolio, S., Volonté A., Manzato A., Pucillo A., Cicogna A. and Ferrario M.E. (2016), Mechanisms producing different precipitation patterns over north-eastern Italy: insights from HyMeX-SOP1 and previous events. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 142 (Suppl 1): 188-205. doi:10.1002/qj.2731

Elvidge A. D., Renfrew, I. A. (2015). The causes of foehn warming in the lee of mountains. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 97: 455466, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00194.1.

Miglietta M. and Rotunno R., (2009) Numerical Simulations of Conditionally Unstable Flows over a Mountain Ridge. J. Atmos. Sci., 66, 1865–1885, doi: 10.1175/2009JAS2902.1. 

Miltenberger, A. K., Reynolds, S. and Sprenger, M. (2016), Revisiting the latent heating contribution to foehn warming: Lagrangian analysis of two foehn events over the Swiss Alps. Q.J.R. Meteorol. Soc., 142: 2194–2204. doi:10.1002/qj.2816

Stationary Orographic Rainbands

Email: c.j.wright@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Small-scale rainbands often form downwind of mountainous terrain. Although relatively small in scale (a few tens of km across by up to ~100 km in length), these often poorly forecast bands can cause localised flooding as they can be associated with intense precipitation over several hours due to the anchoring effect of orography (Barrett et al., 2013).   Figure 1 shows a flash flood caused by a rainband situated over Cockermouth in 2009.  In some regions of southern France orographic banded convection can contribute 40% of the total rainfall (Cosma et al., 2002).  Rainbands occur in various locations and under different synoptic regimes and environmental conditions making them difficult to examine their properties and determine their occurrence in a systematic way (Kirshbaum et al. 2007a,b, Fairman et al. 2016).  My PhD considers the ability of current operational forecast models to represent these bands and the environmental controls on their formation.

Figure 1: Flash flood event caused by a rainband situated over Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK in 2009


What is a rainband?

  • A cloud and precipitation structure associated with an area of rainfall which is significantly elongated
  • Stationary (situated over the same location) with continuous triggering
  • Can form in response to moist, unstable air following over complex terrain
  • Narrow in width ~2-10 km with varying length scales from 10 – 100’s km


Figure 2: Schematic showing the difference between cellular and banded convection

To examine the ability of current operational forecast models to represent these bands a case study was chosen which was first introduced by Barrett, et al. (2016).  The radar observations during the event showed a clear band along The Great Glen Fault, Scotland (Figure 3).  However, Barrett, et al. (2016) concluded that neither the operational forecast or the operational ensemble forecast captured the nature of the rainband.  For more information on ensemble models see one of our previous blog posts by David Flack Showers: How well can we predict them?.

Figure 3: Radar observations of precipitation accumulation over a six hour period (between 3-9 am) showing a rainband located over The Great Glen Fault, Scotland on 29 December 2012.

Localised convergence and increased convective available potential energy along the fault supported the formation of the rainband.  To determine the effect of model resolution on the model’s representation of the rainband, a forecast was performed with the horizontal gird spacing decreased to 500 m from 1.5 km.  In this forecast a rainband formed in the correct location which generated precipitation accumulations close to those observed, but with a time displacement.  The robustness of this forecast skill improvement is being assessed by performing an ensemble of these convection-permitting simulations.  Results suggest that accurate representation of these mesoscale rainbands requires resolutions higher than those used operationally by national weather centres.

Idealised numerical simulations have been used to investigate the environmental conditions leading to the formation of these rainbands.  The theoretical dependence of the partitioning of dry flow over and around mountains on the non-dimensional mountain height is well understood.  For this project I examine the effect of this dependence on rainband formation in a moist environment.  Preliminary analysis of the results show that the characteristics of rainbands are controlled by more than just the non-dimensional mountain height, even though this parameter is known to be sufficient to determine flow behaviour relative to mountains.

This work has been funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) under the project PREcipitation STructures over Orography (PRESTO), for more project information click here.


Barrett, A. I., S. L. Gray, D. J. Kirshbaum, N. M. Roberts, D. M. Schultz, and J. G. Fairman, 2015: Synoptic Versus Orographic Control on Stationary Convective Banding. Quart. J. Roy. Meteorol. Soc., 141, 1101–1113, doi:10.1002/qj.2409.

— 2016: The Utility of Convection-Permitting Ensembles for the Prediction of Stationary Convective Bands. Mon. Wea. Rev., 144, 10931114, doi:10.1175/MWR-D-15-0148.1.

Cosma, S., E. Richard, and F. Minsicloux, 2002: The Role of Small-Scale Orographic Features in the Spatial Distribution of Precipitation. Quart. J. Roy. Meteorol. Soc., 128, 75–92, doi:10.1256/00359000260498798.

Fairman, J. G., D. M. Schultz, D. J. Kirshbaum, S. L. Gray, and A. I. Barrett, 2016: Climatology of Banded Precipitation over the Contiguous United States. Mon. Wea. Rev., 144,4553–4568, doi: 10.1175/MWR-D-16-0015.1.

Kirshbaum, D. J., G. H. Bryan, R. Rotunno, and D. R. Durran, 2007a: The Triggering of Orographic Rainbands by Small-Scale Topography. J. Atmos. Sci., 64, 1530–1549, doi:10.1175/JAS3924.1.

Kirshbaum, D. J., R. Rotunno, and G. H. Bryan, 2007b: The Spacing of Orographic Rainbands Triggered by Small-Scale Topography. J. Atmos. Sci., 64, 4222–4245, doi:10.1175/2007JAS2335.1.