Head of Research at Bureau of Meteorology


Models, Maths and the Revolution in Weather Forecasting

Talk Abstract

There has been a quiet revolution in weather forecasting over the past few decades driven by big computers, big data and lots of maths, but it has been a hundred years in the making and represents a triumph of 21st century science. Dr Peter May will tell the story of how computer weather and climate models have taken over and where they are leading us, but also on the 100 year long genesis of our modern weather models. This blends outrageous stories, big science, big data, satellites, supercomputing and much more to give us the systems that provide incredible detail on the weather, oceans and climate.  


Peter joined the Bureau in 1990 as a research scientist after working in NOAA and the University of Colorado and Kyoto University following his PhD at the University of Adelaide. His research activities included radar remote sensing and the applications to improved understanding of tropical cyclones and thunderstorms. He las led major international field programs including the 2006 Tropical Warm Pool International Cloud Experiment that included 4 research aircraft and involved around 30 research institutes. He has more than 120 peer reviewed publications. He has been the Head of Research since late 2009. During part of that time he served as the Deputy Director of the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research – A partnership between the Bureau and CSIRO. Our science covers environmental issues, climate science and the development of weather and climate models and applications. He has overseen the development of the operational systems that underpin Bureau services as well as major projects delivering climate information to the nation. Among his advisory roles, he is currently a member of the WMO Commission of Atmospheric Science Management Committee that oversees WMO weather and environmental research coordination. He has been an editor for the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, an Associate editor for Reviews of Geophysics and is a past Chair of the American Meteorological Society Committee for Radar Meteorology.

Q&A Interview

Can you tell me a little about yourself, your research and how got into the field?
In Honours physics at Adelaide I was torn between two research projects: a study of tides in the upper atmosphere and something on quantum mechanics. I chose the former and this led to a PhD developing and using a new kind of radar to study fronts. After postdocs in Japan and the US, I joined the Bureau in 1990 and continued to work on advanced radars and cloud physics before taking on my current role seven years ago. Along the way I have been involved in large international research projects including during the Sydney Olympics and in 2005/6 was co-lead of a set of experiments where we were flying former-spy planes in and around tropical thunderstorms to understand how they work and their impact on the environment.

Personally my research has focused on using advanced radars to better understand the physics of thunderstorms and tropical cyclones. As Head of Research for the Bureau, my responsibility has been much broader and not about me – its helping my team of around 120 staff deliver the science and systems to inform our forecasts, warnings and services from what is happening now to climate change to benefit the nation.

What are you currently working on?
My key responsibility is to work with my team on delivering this fantastic science into our services to enable better decision-making by government, industry and individuals.   At the same time I need to be on top of the developments in our science and new opportunities e.g. exploiting machine learning for decision-making linking the meteorology and water information with operational decisions in agriculture, transport and energy – the opportunities are boundless.

How important is mathematics to weather and climate research?
Maths is absolutely critical in everything we do. From calculations of fluid flow, statistics for our forecasts and what they mean down at the farm and catchment scale. Our scientists all have a strong math background to deal with the complex physics, numerics and processes to understand everything from radar measurements of rain and hail to the effects of waves

What are the biggest challenges or questions facing your field?
These are exciting times. The potential to extract benefits from our science has never been greater. We are building the capability to extend our outlooks further and further and linking these to societal impacts. We have a changing climate with greater extremes of heat and rainfall and all that this means. And this is in the context of greater concentrations of people in vulnerable locations as well as stresses on agriculture and water supply around the world. At the same time we have new tools for looking in ever-finer detail at what is likely to happen. On the time scales of a day or so, our models are resolving individual storm clouds which will save lives with better flood risk forecasts, better fire forecasts etc. There are fantastic new tools for observing what is going on now with rapidly updated satellites and new radars. A big risk is drowning our forecasters in data – we need the tools to turn the firehose of data into information to better inform decisions. This brings together maths, social science and advanced computing.

Public Lecture:  Dr Peter May