Opinion: we need to understand the influence and impact of weather on our health and public services

As a nation of weather watchers, we are all interested to see the weather forecast to find out if we are in for yet another cold blast hitting us this weekend from the polar jet stream. Weather is fascinating, captivating and dangerous to the unprepared, which is why we forecast it.

Each country uses different ways to forecast the weather as they have all developed different models. However, there are some global standards which we all use from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The WMO standardises how measurements of climate observations should be taken and stored and also more importantly, shared on a global scale. This international cooperation has enabled a long term data archive to be collated which is helping us to develop our understanding of climate models and future climate change predictions.

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RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on the science behind the weather forecast

Weather observations are gathered daily in 10,000 manned and automatic surface weather stations, providing global weather information for a global network of forecast models. Met Eireann has a number of these weather stations and some observations have been taken since the 1850s. A number of meteorological data record sets have been collated and provide us with a rich and diverse source of information about our climate (all the information on the sites can be accessed on the Met Eireann website for all those weather nerds who need more)

The integrity of these sites is vital to getting the forecast right. The observations are used for our weather forecasting as input variables and as they change over time, so the output from the models will change. Input variables like temperature, atmospheric pressure, surface wind, precipitation, radiation are all use in the model. This is why Met Eireann run the model four times a day and keep a close eye on the evolving real time observations, just to check the model is doing what was predicted because, as we all know, weather is a natural and difficult thing to predict.

Weather impact is even more interesting and influences more than you can image on a daily basis. It influences purchases in supermarkets. Do we buy some wood for the fire and a can of warming soup or ice cream and BBQ buns, or do we get some candles just in case the lights go out?

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Conor Murphy from Maynooth Unversity on new research which indicates that Ireland will experience extreme weather events throughout the 21st century

More importantly, it has a huge impact on our public services. January and February are known to be the months when we get more snow and ice in Ireland so our principal response services like An Garda Síochána, the HSE and local authorities will prepare their teams to respond, ensuring vehicles are ready and staff are on call.

Each of the emergency response organisations have looked at the impact of severe weather on their operations and have planned their responses accordingly, developing comprehensive response plans to extreme temperatures, flooding, tidal or hurricane events. These response plans which are activated with 48 and 24 hours warnings based on forecasts from the Met Eireann HARMONIE-AROME higher resolution model which forecasts out to two to three days ahead.

Is this all we can use the data for?

Having such a good quality meteorological data set allows us to develop other forecasting skills. It was decided by Government in January 2016 that a National Flood Forecasting and Warning system should be progressed. The Office of Public Works (OPW) and Met Eireann are establishing a National Flood Forecasting and Warning Service, which will use meteorological, fluvial (river) and tidal data to forecast flooding.  

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From RTÉ One's Nine News, Met Éireann says extreme weather events in Ireland and around the world are further evidence of climate change

Flooding events are increasing and are being reported on to capture the impact and lessons learnt such as recent flooding in Inishowen (August 2017), Mountmellick (November 2017) and Galway City (January 2018). The organisations responding to these events are multiple and critical, ranging from protecting life and property to supporting those recovering from such a traumatic event by providing housing and shelter etc. The economic cost may be minimised if mitigating actions are implemented by those impacted. It impacts business and communities for many years and the risk and impact is possibly one way to communicate warnings to the public.

In the UK, climate data from short term forecasts has been used to manage the admissions into hospital accident and emergency departments as any way to facilitate and manage expected demand would be seen to be an advantage to manage scarce resource. In 2005, the UK Met Office saved 35 NHS trusts more than £100,000 per trust on admission costs by predicting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease admissions based on weather forecasts. Now, 182 organisations operating within the health sector receive warnings including NHS trusts, public health bodies, and ambulance services.

In Ireland, we have the long term data set, but we need to understand the impact of weather on our health services. We can do this by modelling the variables which influence it (season, time, age, temperature, ice etc) and using the skills forecasters have in collaboration with our health colleagues. As the winter weather kicks in,and our emergency departments are put under intense pressure with additional Covid-19 admissions, should we be asking for a health forecast to support additional forecasting and planning?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ