Figure 1 – Courtesy of the Met Office
As you all must well know by now, I love plotting weather charts, and regularly download and plot SYNOP observations from around the world. The Marine weather buoy network around the UK is a God send, because although over the years as the number of reports from ships continued to dwindle, they have always been there, around the UK, to give a heads up to depressions that may be developing unexpectedly rapidly of our western coasts. They provide an hourly observation that contains details of wind, pressure, temperature, dewpoint, sea surface temperature and wave heights and period of the swell. Weather buoys are not a new idea, and the Germans used them in the second world war in the Atlantic, in the Wikipedia article about them they estimate that there are 1250 drifting, as opposed to tethered, weather buoys deployed and active across the World’s oceans.
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
I believe that the existing marine buoy network may have sprung into life after the demise of the weather ship network, although I can’t be sure. Weather ships were never going to be a cheap idea, but by 1965 there were 21 scattered across the oceans of the world (fig 2 & 3). That slowly reduced, and by January 1982 the Met Office brought home to port the last two frigates that we had. The last weather ship to be withdrawn from service was station Mike, run by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute on January 1, 2010. As an aside at this point, there is a great website that pays tribute to the men who manned our Ocean Weather Ships during that time which I encourage you to peruse.
Figure 2 – Courtesy of Wikipedia
Figure 3 – Courtesy of Wikipedia
As far as I can see from scanning the SYNOP data that I have, the Met Office hadn’t replaced weather ships with buoys by the autumn of 1987. So in the autopsy of the storm in October 1987, the fact that Ocean Weather Ship Romeo (I’m sure that we always used to plot it as OWS Kilo) had been removed (it was actually a weather ship run by the French), combined with the lack of reports from any commercial ships was blamed for the failure to locate the centre and intensity of the embryonic low on the 15th that was to cause all the trouble on the 16th (fig 4).
Figure 4 – Courtesy of Google Books and the New Scientist
The Met Office on their website say in the aftermath of the storm that they had increased “the quality and quantity of weather observations from [buoys]” (fig 7), which when you think about it wasn’t that difficult do since there were no weather buoys before. Here (fig 5 & 6) are a couple of plotted charts from 12 & 18 UTC on the 15th of October 1987. The charts aren’t totally devoid of any ship reports, but of course the question is where they available on that date?
The Current state of play
In the last few years that network of weather buoys has become a little thin, and the buoys that I’ve marked with a red circle (fig 8) have been missing for a considerable length of time, and as you can see they are in a fairly strategic position of the southwest coast of Ireland. So the network is compromised, it’s not totally without observations from buoys, K1 and Brittany are still present, but they do become faulty at times, and sometimes they break away from their sea anchors and go adrift, so having six missing designated weather buoys M1, M3, M6, K2, Pap, and Celtic Sea is far from ideal. It can’t imagine that these buoys I’ve highlighted have never been active, otherwise why place a marker on the website for each of them? They certainly are not available at the moment either on the website or from OGIMET where I download my SYNOP observations. Perhaps they are private observations and not available to the public? That might be a possibility, but surely they would simply not display them. You can check for yourself the latest observations from any of the buoys on the Met Office website.
Figure 8 – Marine Buoy Network – Courtesy of the Met Office
Here’s the network from back in 2011 and looking in a bit better shape than it does today (fig 9).
Could we see the lack of observations from these appointed sentinels let another rapidly deepening low catch us out? Well, as John Hoghton admitted in that New Scientist article, ‘There is that danger we are caught in that gap‘. So possibly it could, especially if that approaching low was positioned just to the west of Valentia, Southwest Ireland, and was tracking eastward between o60° and 120°. I’ve sat through a couple of wash-up meetings after a project that I’ve been involved had finally finished, and talked about the section that usually concludes any project of – ‘lessons learnt‘. I should imagine that we did learn the lessons after the storm of October 1987, and the equally fierce one that occurred in January 1990. But maybe because that was 25 years or more ago, the people who remember that have now moved on or retired, and now we have to find a bit more to pay for that massive Cray super computer we’ve just bought. I’m just guessing of course, and maybe the Met Office are planning to overhaul their marine buoy network in 2017, I don’t know. But if they aren’t planning to do it sometime soon, then more fool them.