August 3, 2018 | Published by | ,

by Ewan Short

As the end of my masters degree approaches, I have to decide on my next move. I studied meteorology, and the main choice is whether to pursue a career as an operational forecaster with the Bureau of Meteorology, or do a PhD. Most science students will face a similar choice – enter an industry that values their scientific training but doesn’t actually involve scientific research, or continue with research at PhD or postdoc level. Working out which is the better option is a really difficult question to answer.

Melbourne University offers a “Science and Technology Internship” subject to both undergraduate and masters students: it involves an 80+ hour internship with a relevant host organisation and a variety of reflective assessment tasks. I figured this subject would help me work out which path to take.

With that in mind, I completed an internship over four weeks during July at the Bureau of Meteorology’s Darwin office. One week was spent “shadowing” forecasters, and three weeks were spent (somewhat ironically) on a forecast verification project. I picked Darwin because my masters research has focused on the tropics, and I knew that the Bureau looks for forecasters willing to base themselves in Darwin. Funds for airfares were generously provided by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes (CLEX) – one of the many ways the centre has supported me over the past year.

While in Darwin I saw how forecasters apply atmospheric science to serve the public. Firstly, supporting the aviation industry forms a significant part of the Bureau’s duties. Forecasters must issue terminal aerodrome forecasts (TAFs) for a variety of weather conditions, including seemingly innocuous altocumulus castellanus clouds, which present “icing” hazards to aircraft. These clouds are like altocumulus clouds, but with greater vertical extent. I photographed some altocumulus on my way to the Bureau’s office one morning (see above).

Secondly, numerical weather models are now so powerful the forecaster’s role is becoming as much about interpretation and communication of simulation results as it is about scientific analysis of weather observations. This increased focus on communication brought out a variety of challenges I didn’t expect to find in the forecasting centre. For example, what’s the best way to communicate precise, scientific information through publications where entertainment forms the highest priority (see right)?

I’m still not sure which path I should take – PhD or forecasting – but completing the science and technology internship subject has definitely given me some new perspectives and new things to think about before making a decision. Even if I decide to stay in research, I now have a better idea of how research makes its way into services like weather forecasts, who actually uses those services, and how they might be improved.