Graham Oakley is a forecaster who has worked for many years in Antarctica with the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Antarctic Program, and also with the tourism operator Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. Forecasters within the Australian Antarctic Program (and some of the other National Antarctic Programs) usually work on the ground at the stations during summer where they have face-to-face interaction with their users, both for operations and with the expeditioners. That way they get direct feedback on their forecasts. This is very different from the ‘at a distance’ relationship that often exists between weather services and the general public. Graham has worked at various Australian Antarctic bases such as Casey, Davis, Mawson; he joined several research voyages and also worked out of Union Glacier. Antarctic researcher, weather observer, and psychology Ph.D. student Vicki Heinrich has talked to Graham about his experience as an Antarctic forecaster.
Vicki Heinrich: How did you become a weather forecaster/meteorologist?
Graham Oakley: I was working in Karratha, Western Australia, doing a study into a storm surge for Dampier Salt when the Bureau advertised. I was torn between staying in the resources sector and jumping over to meteorology. But when all the pros and cons were listed; the one thing that stood out was the chance to work in Antarctica. That’s one thing you can’t do in the resources sector.
V.H.: What do forecasters in Antarctica do? – Can you describe a typical day?
G.O.: Forecasters are primarily in Antarctica for the aviation program and for resupply, which occurs only in the summer months. We also forecast for expeditioners and scientists.
Typically, we’re up before anyone else – apart from maybe the chef – to prepare the days forecasts. The first few hours are spent preparing for the morning briefings. If it’s obviously a no-fly day, this could be quite relaxed. But mostly there are a lot of decisions to be made. We forecast for the things people plan to do, and then all the things they end up doing because they couldn’t do what they planned. All this is put together for an operations briefing before breakfast and we take part in that decision-making process.
Once all the operations are underway, we maintain a weather watch and make sure everything is going as planned. A particular focus is making sure everyone can get home at the end of the day.
V.H.: When did you first work in Antarctica? What are some of the places you have worked?
G.O.: My first trip down was the 2006/07 season, starting with an epic resupply as an attempt was made for the Australian research icebreaker RV Aurora Australis to visit Macquarie Island and all three Australian Antarctic bases at the start of the season for crew swap and resupply. The stations Casey and Davis were straight forward but the sea ice at Mawson kept us at maximum range fly off for a week trying to find a weather window. That was my first experience with Antarctic forecasting.
Since then, I’ve worked at both our forecasting offices at the Davis and Casey bases in Antarctica, and eventually actually got to see and work at Mawson station when I flew over there for resupply at the end of the 2013/14 season. Mawson is normally not staffed by forecasters. I’ve also worked two summers at Union Glacier for Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions which is a company with great experience in polar expeditions’ support.
V.H.: What is the most amazing sight/place you have been to in Antarctica?
G.O.: Tossing up here between the Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment (SIPEX II) in 2013, which was an amazing experience with so much science going on in a small area, and well… Mawson –Mawson is awesome. The most difficult base to get to, and the subject of so many our meteorological headaches, but definitely, the most beautiful of the Australian bases.
V.H.: What is the biggest difference between working as a forecaster in Antarctica vs. your job back in Australia?
G.O.: Apart from the obvious climate differences, mostly the difference is in where the weather fits in as a priority. In Australia, our clients say, “we’re doing this – can we get a forecast for it“. In Antarctica it’s “where and when will the weather be OK, then we will decide what we’re going to do”. In Antarctica, the weather comes first.
V.H.: How important are realistic and effective weather forecasts for your work in the Antarctic?
G.O.: Like anywhere, when the weather starts to affect your operations it suddenly becomes the most important thing. In Antarctica, this is almost every day and the ramifications of unexpected weather can be serious. Some activities are quite robust and can handle any weather, others have very specific and exact requirements and can only go ahead under certain conditions. An example would be an expedition to the Sørsdal Glacier on Princess Elizabeth Land. The guide wanted clear sky, the sun low in the sky and light winds so that snow-covered crevasses would be visible. We eventually got all three things to line up.
V.H.: How do you access up-to-date weather, water, ice, and climate information?
G.O.: In Antarctica, the observation network is extremely sparse as you would expect. There are known broadscale patterns that are well described. But with the exception of the permanent bases and some regularly visited locations, long term climate data is non-existent. So, when pilots and/or expeditioners start to visit an area for the first time, we try and build up some local knowledge and picture of that area by getting regular feedback from the people on the ground. It’s a team effort and we rely on that flow of information. For instance, a katabatic wind can be very localized. We can forecast the theoretical possibility of a katabatic in a particular area, but it’s not until we have people on the ground to verify, that we would know that the katabatic reached or didn’t reach that area. The effects of large systems can sometimes be seen on satellite imagery, but it’s the local effects that are built up through experience and sharing of information.
Having said that, the amount and quality of satellite data have improved a lot over the years. In Antarctica, we are limited to polar-orbiting satellites as the geostationary ones over the equator don’t cover Antarctica. It can still be a bit hit-and-miss at times but there’s usually enough to build up a good picture of what is happening and ground truth it to the models.
V.H.: What is important to be able to do your job well?
G.O.: A forecast is only as good as the information that went into it. We rely heavily on computer models; and fortunately, we are now well served with those. Data from various models is pushed down to local servers overnight and we are able to access as much information in Antarctica as in Australia. It is similar on the ship, although the domain is cut down to just the area of operation to reduce the data amount.
Being on site and getting to know the people and the operations that will be using the forecast is important. There’s a big difference between the requirements for a helicopter or a fixed-wing flight and of course completely different for boating operations. Having direct contact with the end users means you can focus on the aspects of the weather that matter to them.
V.H.: What kind of information is being provided now as compared to five years ago? Has the information available changed over time? And if yes, how?
G.O.: The quality and amount of model data have improved immensely. My first trip down on the ship I had just surface data from the US model; the same amount of data that yachties would have access to, plus a broadscale mean sea level pressure chart emailed once a day. I had a few satellite images a day that I used for aviation operations. Now, both the ship and bases have a full set of model data. The use of webcams has also increased at strategic sites as well as portable ceilometers. Union Glacier in particular makes good use of webcams.
In addition, new satellite receivers at Davis and Casey have increased the number of polar-orbiting satellites that can be accessed.
V.H.: What makes it hard to do your job in Antarctica?
G.O.: The weather basically. You can never be too sure of yourself. It’s a bit like playing golf. As soon as you start thinking you’re good, you spray one into the bush. You always need to be thinking about what else could happen and make sure everyone is aware of any uncertainty and prepares for it.
V.H.: What would make your job easier?
G.O.: More jollies … is what I would normally say. But seriously, actually visiting and being familiar with the locations you are forecasting for is very valuable. It’s not always possible though and I fully understand why a pilot would rather carry extra fuel than an extra body. Having said that, I have been lucky enough to get to some amazing places.
V.H.: Where/how could the models and observations (or any other things) be improved to make your work easier and provide more skillful forecasts?
G.O.: We can always use more data. In forecasting, you need to have a starting point, that is you need to know what is happening now; before you can move on to what is going to happen next. Formal observations or webcams are all invaluable in that respect, and we can never get enough.
V.H.: Were there any differences in working for a National Antarctic Program compared to a private organization?
G.O.: There’s not that much difference, just the purpose behind the operations and the activities. All responsible operators in Antarctica (and everyone I have worked for) manage risk. There are flights that have higher priority than others, getting people out is more important than getting people in, for instance, and of course, medivacs have the highest priority. But the unnecessary risk is not in anyone’s interest. For me, I forecast what I think is going to happen plus the risk of conditions being worse than that, and operations staff and pilots make a decision based on that. The format and processes are very similar.
V.H.: How is working on a ship different from working on the Antarctic continent? At a station or a camp?
G.O.: There was a big difference on my first trip down; the amount of information available on the ship was a fraction of what was available on the station. But now it’s about the same. The ship has a satellite receiver similar to the bases. The big difference is that I sail into and experience the weather I just forecast, so I get first-hand feedback.
Finding leads in the sea ice for the ship to pass through is a skill you pick up being on the ship for a while. Technically it’s not our area of expertise, but after hours of staring at satellite images, you develop an eye for distinguishing between sea ice and cloud. We can also generate false-color imagery to make that difference stand out.
V.H.: What do you enjoy about working in Antarctica? As a forecaster?
G.O.: As I get older, I’m finding the Australian summer more and more difficult to bear, so I consider myself somewhat of a seasonal refugee. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been able to escape to such a place. The landscape and the wildlife are what everyone associates with Antarctica and that is correct, but it’s also the people and the shared experience. I’ve made life-long friends down there.