Watching the weather to protect life and property

On 23 March each year, the worldwide meteorological community joins the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in celebrating World Meteorological Day. This commemorates the day in 1950 that the WMO was created, and also serves to create awareness around meteorology and the important role it plays in our daily lives. Every year has a special theme, this year being “Watching the weather to protect life and property”.

Given the loss of human life and destruction of property we’re witnessing internationally with increasing regularity, resulting from natural disasters such as droughts, floods and tornados, it is obvious that early awareness of potential extreme weather conditions is critical for the protection of life and property. And it is here that meteorology plays such a key role – it is the science that deals with the study of past weather patterns and trends, in order to predict what the weather holds in the future.

Knowing what the weather holds - a quest as old as mankind.(© All Rights Reserved)
Knowing what the weather holds – a quest as old as mankind.
(© All Rights Reserved)

To find out more about the meteorology and its role in protecting life and property, have a look at the WMO’s cry informative World Meteorology Day brochure. As the document points out, “weather and climate knows no national borders”, and so this is another of those domains where international cooperation and sharing of knowledge and resources is absolutely critical to benefit all of humankind. To this end, it is also pertinent that 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the World Weather Watch – a landmark in international cooperation. The World Weather Watch “combines observing systems, telecommunication facilities, and data-processing and forecasting centres in order to disseminate essential meteorological and related environmental information and services in all countries.”

As extreme weather conditions become more commonplace (due to global climate change), investment in new technologies to more accurately predict extreme events and natural disasters are becoming increasingly important. Investing in early warning technologies allowing us to be ready sooner – to prepare for, and even prevent, disasters – makes perfect sense. As an example of this, an international project known as THORPEX (THe Observing system Research and Predictability EXperiment) is working on new techniques and technologies to extend forecasts of high-impact weather events to two weeks (current state of the art systems can provide reliable predictions of between 5 and 10 days). THORPEX is an international collaborative project between ten leading forecasting centres.

To quote M Jarraud, Secretary-General of the WMO: “More than ever the world needs global cooperation to promote and coordinate the provision of better and longer-term weather and climate forecasts and early warnings to protect life and property. The 2013 World Meteorological Day offers an occasion to reinforce this message and to contribute to address- ing the challenges of the 21st century.”

Definitely a message worth supporting and sharing.

Chasing away the winter blues with a roisterous “Hoodie-Hoo!”

Today us folk in the Southern Hemisphere get our turn to celebrate ‘Hoodie-Hoo Day’ (about 6 months after the Northern Hemisphere version). So what is Hoodie-Hoo? Well, in a nutshell it’s the day where we should all go outside at noon, drink in the (hopefully) warming weather and at the top of our lungs yell “Hoodie-Hoo!!” to chase away the winter blues and to celebrate the fact that spring is on it’s way.

According to some sources, you can celebrate the day in even more authentic style by donning a funny or unusual hat while performing your celebratory shouting.

‘Southern Hemisphere Hoodie-Hoo Day’, and its companion ‘Northern Hemisphere Hoodie-Hoo-Day’ are two of 80-odd holidays dreamt up by the folks over at Wellcat.com, a herbal company who felt the world simply didn’t have enough holidays, and came up with a bunch of new ones under the moniker of “Wellcat Holidays”.

The reason I decided to feature this day is that it got me thinking about this amazing time of year, when the seasons almost imperceptibly start changing. It is more often than not still cold and miserable, but everyone knows it’s not quite winter anymore – animals stir from hibernation, trees start budding all over the place, flowers appear as if by magic and there really is a sense of anticipation in the air.

The fruit trees in our garden, including this plum, are all doing their blossomy version of the Hoodie-Hoo.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Ever wondered how plants know spring is approaching? In a New Yorker article I found, Dr Susan Pell from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden explains things very nicely. According to Dr Pell, “Why and how plants flower when they do is something that has puzzled botanists for centuries. We’ve come a long way, but there is still quite a bit about the signalling details that we don’t know. There are many factors involved, but given the right growing conditions (soil nutrients, water and sun exposure), day length and ambient temperature are the key factors.”

Various proteins in the plant (such as phytochrome and cryptochrome) can actually sense the relative lengths of the light and dark parts of the day. (This is an example of photoperiodism.) Furthermore plants also sense ambient temperature, with some plants requiring a cold snap before they will start flowering. Once the nights become short enough and the temperature reaches the right level, growth, and specifically flowering, is triggered in the plants. As far as temperature is concerned, plants tend to not be fooled by a single unexpected warm day, but rather react to a sustained warm period. If such a period occurs too early, it can trick the plant into flowering earlier than it is supposed to, which could expose the fresh growth to frost damage in a subsequent cold spell. The plant’s light and dark sensing abilities should keep this from happening, but particularly in cities with lots of artificial light, these sensors may be too confused to function correctly.

Dr Pell furthermore says, “The hypothetical protein that signals plants to bloom once the ideal conditions have arrived has long been called ‘florigen‘, but it is uncertain whether or not it has actually been identified.” Claims to its identification has been made in various research papers, but no conclusive evidence have been presented.

I sometimes wonder whether us humans also have our own florigen-like trigger telling us that spring is on its way? One definitely gets a sense that the seasons are changing – this sense of new life stirring – even before you see spring flowers appearing. The world not only looks different (subtle changes in the colours of the sky and the land), but it also feels different – an early morning jog is still nippy as hell, but the cold somehow starts to feel refreshing, rather than depressing.

I don’t know – perhaps its merely the fact that my diary tells me spring is on its way that makes me see and feel things.  Whatever the case may be, and whether it’s florigen induced or not, I am definitely going to let rip with a loud ‘Hoodie-Hoo’ holler today!

(And to all my Northern Hemisphere friends – hang in there, and mark 20 February in next year’s diary. It may still be six months off, but your chance to ‘Hoodie-Hoo!’ is coming – better start practicing!)