On the job

Funny weather we’re having

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Flying into Wellington can be a bit bumpy at times, if not downright frightening. PSA delegate Ciaran Doolin remembers coming home through 100km/h gusts, trying to reassure the panicked person next to him, despite his own fear.

In the end, the plane landed safely, as Ciaran knew it would: in his day job, he’s a meteorologist at MetService, currently specialising in aviation forecasting. It’s his job to provide forecasts for airports and pilots that enable them to make decisions about flight paths and fuel loads to ensure people get to where they’re going safe and sound.

A normal day for Ciaran starts very early in the morning or very late at night. MetService runs a shift rotation, and meteorologists are split into different sections – like aviation, public (the weather we see on their website and the news), and marine (for boaties and shipping).

Each section has its own quirks and differences, says Ciaran. “In aviation you have to think three dimensionally, whereas in marine or public it’s just about what’s happening on ground. We’re forecasting for people flying at all levels, from recreational aircraft at a few thousand right up to jets at 40,000 feet.”

Ciaran says that aviation has probably the highest stakes on a day-to-day basis, so there’s a real need to get it right. It’s a job that requires an ability to process information and make decisions quickly, but also to trust your own judgement.

“The atmosphere is chaotic, it’s difficult to be 100% accurate all of the time, mistakes can be made. If you follow the established procedures which have been developed over many years, then you’ve done all you can.”

At MetService, meteorologists also carry out scientific research and often take on the role of public educator, taking time out to answer questions that journalists use to inform the public.

“There’s a significant uptick in interest whenever there’s severe weather, or hot temperatures like we had in January,” says Ciaran. “If it’s affecting people in a way that isn’t typical, there’s a huge increase in calls from the media.”

This public education is important, because weather is something that most New Zealanders already think themselves experts in. Ciaran sometimes cops flack when he goes to parties from people who say that MetService has got something wrong, “but when people come into our office and see what we do, they leave with a whole new appreciation for how much effort goes in.”

“We use UK, European and US computer modelling, our own internally-produced high-resolution models, an observational network consisting of satellites, radar, weather stations and balloons, plus our knowledge of New Zealand’s climatology and the scientific principles behind it all,” explains Ciaran. “From all of that, we come up with a synthesis to deliver a forecast.”

That’s a lot of work in a career Ciaran never expected to have. After studying maths and physics at university, he initially planned to conduct research in cosmology and astrophysics. After looking into job prospects for a cosmologist, however, Ciaran decided he preferred stability of more regular employment, and found meteorology, which ignited a whole new passion.

By Asher Wilson-Goldman