Forecast for Success

Jim Bacon believes that the outdoor hospitality industry can use modern meteorology to help minimise risk, maximise guest experience, plan resources and match visitor expectations to the weather of the season.

Flooded festival campsite
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All types of outdoor activities are affected by the weather and it’s no surprise that weather is often one of the most talked about things at any time of the year. How can we face that challenge and leave our businesses better informed and protected from hazardous weather conditions like floods, squalls and even snow!

There is clearly a day to day variation in our weather and that is where the traditional forecasts can help. Rather than insufficient information being available the main problem is that there is probably too much to choose from. As well as all our favourite radio and TV sources, the internet brings weather from literally dozens of slightly different forecast models and forecast organisations. However, it can still be difficult to plan ahead with such a wide selection of information.

One answer is to use a collection of models called an ensemble to produce an ‘ensemble mean.’ That is to say, an average of all the slightly different outcomes in the virtual model world of weather which should capture a good estimate of the likely conditions. I’ll return to ensemble forecasts later.

The only problem is that using an average of anything can hide the extremes. In the world of outdoor hospitality this can be quite dangerous. However, we can deal with this by making some statistical assessments of the spread of data around the edges of the data range and then discuss how these might impact on businesses specifically. For example, is there a risk of severe gusts which could damage a tent or marquee, heavy rain that could flood a riverside campsite or perhaps sharp frosts which may damage water standpipes in the winter?

Quite often the weather influences people’s choices of where to go for their holidays, outdoor events and open air functions way before they have to contend with what it does to them once there. Fortunately the British Isles is blessed with a variety of different climate zones so everyone can pick their preference. As a general rule, the average weather will provide a good flavour of when to select a break in one part of the country compared to another.

Many of our UK regions have some identifiable golden weather periods in the year. Knowing these can help in the planning of advertising campaigns, ensure visitors come when the weather is likely to be best and promote a good feel about their experience. Encouraging visitors when it’s typically poor weather, however, can only lead to negative sentiments.

Tying in to local weather data allows the facility or venue manager to build up a sensible month by month view of what has happened in the past. Even coarse data for a whole region can allow the obvious key months to be identified for your location.

It is worth building a weather timeline of typical weather patterns for your venue month by month and design activities accordingly, including maintenance periods. It is worth investing in a weather station on site (they are very affordable nowadays) in order to collect data over a period of time. After a while you’ll be able to add weather hazards which have caught you out in the past, so you’ll know when to pay particular attention to the forecasts.

There to Help
Returning to the forecast part of meteorology, I would like to tell you a little about the type of information now available to help the outdoor hospitality manager cope with the day to day swings of weather so often found in the British Isles.

LightningFirstly there are multiple models which represent the weather by the hour to allow the best use to be made of opportunities for outdoor tasks. Therefore a good start is to look at the many free sites on the web and then take an area average from multiple forecasts. The use of multiple forecasts is what we in meteorology call an ensemble forecast – a collection of forecasts. An ensemble is usually the same model of the atmosphere run multiple times with slightly different starting conditions. The idea being that it will explore all of the reasonably possible outcomes and is especially useful at longer timescales where you want answers about the weather a week to 10 days ahead.

The reason these longer range forecasts are so difficult is because, as you move forward through time, each step of the model’s calculations add a small amount of error (this is due to the fact that the starting conditions are not measured everywhere). This imperfect representation of the real weather at the beginning of the forecast means that there will be an error at the end of each time-step (these are quite short actually, just a few minutes) and this error is then built into the starting conditions for the next time-step. You can imagine that at the end of a 10 day forecast there will be quite a significant error involved. However, all is not lost, because by running the ensemble collection you can obtain a measure of the variability and use this to plan for outcomes which could adversely affect your business.

Rain at a wedding reception
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Showers
Where a forecast talks of showers, these are quite often middle of the day and afternoon events so you can find several hours of fine weather in the summer from sunrise, before the showers start, in which to complete essential outdoor maintenance tasks. Another point worth remembering is that showers are quite difficult for the models to predict and it’s best to assume it’s an area thing, whereby the shower description is best treated as a guide, rather than it will definitely fall over your venue. Equally, in showery weather, the model placement of a shower over you may in fact turn out to be a few miles away.

So, how is any of this helpful? Well, it’s all about minimising risk. There will be days when none of the models you might find on the web have any showers in them, in which case you can safely plan for outdoor events. However, if showers are likely, even if they appear at a distance, then it may be necessary to provide cover for the open air concert goers or hen party at your glampsite for example, rather than gamble on their luck on the night. It all makes for a better experience and reduces negative sentiment.

Winds
Apart from the issue of getting wet there is always the problem of strong winds. These are usually well forecast by the modern mathematical models, especially the familiar lows and highs on the weather map. Forecasts of strong winds caused by these large scale weather features are sufficiently accurate to enable forward planning by as much as a week or more to ensure that precautions are taken. A 10 day windspeed probability forecast will allow you to plan maintenance work, including the use of tall equipment such as cherry pickers.

Sudden, squally winds are a much tougher question for meteorology: those of you running outdoor events or activities have doubtless been alarmed by strong gusts in otherwise fairly benign conditions. A lot of these difficult weather events are caused by small scale features, usually shower clouds or the passage of an active weather front. This is something which can be monitored using radar displays or satellite images. It is important to be alert to the danger posed by a sudden increase in gustiness since many outdoor occasions are festooned with inflatables, be they bouncy castles or advertising blimps. This is where the monitoring of radar data can be vital in minimising risk. You may be interested to know that, over rough terrain, the gust speed can be twice the mean windspeed.

2016 Outlook
So, what’s out there to start your 2016 season off? Regarding longer term forecasts, then we have to look at things which change on very different timescales. For example, the unusually warm waters of the Pacific, the El Nino, are set to cool to below average by the summer. This reversal will doubtless change weather systems bordering the Pacific but it may also have a lesser role to play on this side of the Atlantic. There are even some longer term changes in ocean temperatures, over decades, which can influence the chances of record breaking global temperatures. The present thinking is that 2016 will become one of the warmest ever recorded making a run of three record or near record global temperatures. There is plenty to think about on many different timescales.


Jim BaconAbout the Author
Jim Bacon has been a meteorologist since 1968 and is still thoroughly fascinated by all things weather. He was one of the founding directors of Weatherquest, a private weather forecasting and consultancy company operating in market sectors ranging from water, energy and transport to agriculture and horticulture. It also provides the media with forecasts for newspapers, radio and TV. The service provides comprehensive detailed web portals including five and 10 day, and monthly forecast content accessible 24/7. The portals also show the latest rainfall radar images and lightning activity. A forecast hotline is available on 09065 777675 (call rate £1.50 per min, staffed 6am to 6pm). Use this to get the latest advice if you are trying to manage a special outdoor event. Contact Jim at jim.bacon@weatherquest.co.uk

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