Predicting the Weather
What do wind farms, wine and strawberries have in common?
The answer is that weather is critical for their businesses to succeed. UEA's world renowned meteorological and climate research is helping businesses in the energy and food sectors to plan and grow.
Weatherquest – an SME based on the UEA campus – was founded in 2001 with the primary aim of using new knowledge gained from research to provide essential weather information and forecasts to business and media outlets.
Businesses will often have an immediate need for weather services that help solve a short-term problem; Weatherquest also has the capability to develop this relationship and provide climate services over the longer term.
Innovations Director and co-founder Dr Steve Dorling is also a senior lecturer in the School of Environmental Sciences. He says that "Weatherquest uses the latest UEA research and turns it into services across three areas: forecasting, data and consultancy. The diverse range of clients who subscribe to Weatherquest's day-to-day weather services are a measure of its success."
"The weather services provided by Weatherquest are now merging into the new academic discipline of 'Climate Services'. UEA is famous for its work in climate science and so there are great opportunities to draw these activities together over the coming years." Dr Steve Dorling, Innovations Director
Offshore Wind Farms
Siemens, one of the leading global manufacturers of the largest wind turbines, subscribes to Weatherquest's forecasts to organise its schedule for operations and maintenance of wind farms, onshore and offshore. The timing of construction and servicing of wind farms has to take into account upcoming storms and other weather conditions which pose risks.
All along the chain, from wind farm conception through to servicing, there is a need for weather data.
Firstly, historical weather data is required in the assessment of long term energy output and economic viability of a potential wind farm site. Once a wind farm is constructed, forecasts are required for the hours and days ahead so that supply contracts can be agreed with the National Grid. Also during a wind farm’s operational phase, Weatherquest are advising engineers with their logistics planning so that servicing is scheduled in safe conditions, while also avoiding those periods when turbines are most productive in electricity generation.
Research by former Phd student, Chris Steele, was a benefit to the industry. Since the main growth of the wind energy industry in Europe is now offshore, Chris looked at wind energy in the coastal zone to improve the computer modelling of sea breeze systems, calculating how the output of a wind farm is affected by these features. Joint funding was secured from the Natural Environment Research Council and from Weatherquest to undertake this research.
James Fisher Marine Services (JFMS) now use the Weatherquest forecast information as part of a licensed service to add value to their Offshore Wind Management System (OWMS) software – offering the only integrated tool which enables users to manage vessels, personnel, equipment and the weather altogether.
To help the energy sector to expand the use of longer term weather and climate change advice, Steve Dorling and Prof Alberto Troccoli have established the World Energy & Meteorology Council (WEMC), based at UEA. WEMC is a boundary organization which is facilitating two-way exchange of information between the research and energy stakeholder communities. The European Climatic Energy Mixes (ECEM) project is a flagship activity in this area, funded by the EU, led by UEA and WEMC.
Agriculture and Horticulture
In agriculture, Dr Dorling and his team work across four different areas. In the wine industry, Weatherquest supported PhD student Alistair Nesbitt who has been modelling the suitability of areas of the UK for wine production, also funded by NERC.
The boom in the UK wine industry has seen a shift towards growing more marketable grape varieties that attract consumers in a bid to increase sales. The gradually improving climate for viticulture in the UK has allowed this to happen. However, popular grape varieties can still be quite vulnerable to the vagaries of the UK’s climate, both in terms of the quantity and quality of production.
Nesbitt's model has identified the specific weather conditions which pose the greatest threat to wine production in England and Wales. He has also developed a suitability model which has highlighted those growing areas which offer greatest opportunity in the future. As a result, Alistair has launched his own spin-out company as a pathway to impact, climatewine.com
Grapes are not the only UK crop that benefits from weather data. Soft fruit producers and suppliers are also relying on weather information to support their stock prediction, helping to manage their contracts with retailers and import requirements.
Soft fruits are mostly grown in polytunnels and glasshouses to manage environmental conditions, reducing the need for pest and disease control. By controlling the growing conditions in this way, the first English strawberry crops, for example, can be seen in the supermarkets as early as March.
Berry Gardens, the largest UK supplier of soft fruit to the retail market, enlisted the help of Weatherquest to understand the impact of varying climate on soft fruit. In 2013, the long winter had a damaging effect on soft fruit growth and set production back by weeks. This forced Berry Gardens to increase imports in order to meet demand. Weatherquest worked with Berry Gardens to look at how they could adapt their business to adapt to UK climatic conditions, enabling them to better meet the demands of retailers, whatever the weather. Weatherquest and Berry Gardens are now collaborating on a new project, recently funded by Innovate-UK, focused on optimizing the use of irrigation in the indoor growing environment.
Wheat production is currently suffering a ‘yield plateau’. In the 1970s and 1980s, yields were increasing as a result of mechanisation of agriculture and improved genetics – varieties grown were improving in terms of suitability to climate.
Since the 1990s yields have stopped improving despite further modernisation but there is no consensus about why this is. Dr Dorling is now collaborating with the Yield Enhancement Network (YEN), coordinated by ADAS, to more carefully monitor the weather conditions a crop has experienced, for instance the amount of sun, water, and warmth, and their implication for the optimal timing and choice of inputs.
This then enables solutions to be found, for instance to adapt the amount of nitrogen that's applied or waiting longer for planting if soil is too cold. The YEN are working towards a dashboard concept of sun, rain and temperature exposure to identify where the plant is likely to be in its development phase.
The main aim is to understand how we can maximize the conversion of resources into sustainable food production.
Some crops are grown for food, and some are grown for energy. Anaerobic digestors can be used to digest Maize over a period of time to create a biogas similar to methane. This gas can be used as a fuel.
Weatherquest are working with seed producer – KWS – to help quantify which Energy Maize varieties grow most reliably in UK conditions to power the digestors.
The seeds which KWS sell to the UK market are actually produced in countries such as Chile and Turkey where the growing conditions are currently optimal. But the seed producing areas are also experiencing climate change and in the future production may have to be moved to new areas which are better suited.
This illustrates how climate change and variability can be equally as relevant as short-term weather forecasting in tackling agricultural problems.
UEA weather and climate research and the services which Weatherquest offer are making a real difference and delivering economic impact across agriculture, water and energy sectors.
Steele, C., Dorling, S., von Glasow, R. & Bacon, J. 2015 "Modelling sea breeze climatologies and interactions on coasts in the southern North Sea: Implications for offshore wind energy" Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 141, p. 1821–1835
Nesbitt, A., Kemp, B., Steele, C., Lovett, A. and Dorling, S. 2016 "Impacts of recent climate change and weather variability on the viability of UK viticulture - combining weather and climate records with producers' perspectives" Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research, DOI: 10.1111/ajgw.12215