After a few decades working in defence and observing British wildlife in her spare time, she now heads up one of the UK’s most trusted institutions – the Met Office.
Most of us know the organisation through the weather app on our phone (particularly useful if you live in the UK). But we might not realise that their work goes beyond just the weather to look at future climate predictions too – helping businesses everywhere take meaningful action.
After a year like no other, hear from Penny and her renewed excitement for the future.
“My parents were very passionate about education in all its forms. My father is an engineer and my mother’s a classicist, so I was exposed to scientific concepts from a young age. They were very interested in wildlife and nature, and often took me on country walks and birdwatching trips even though we grew up in the big city.
It turns out they bred two female scientists – I chose to do science A-levels and a scientific degree, and my sister trained as a chemical engineer. If you’d asked me about my ambitions in life as I was preparing to graduate, I would have said it was to have an Endersby equation or an Endersby theory that was taught in universities. British Gas sponsored my degree and I went to work in their research arm on solid oxide fuel cells.
“My parents gave me an appreciation for the natural environment that has stayed with me throughout my life.
I transitioned into defence quite early in my career and spent the next 25 years there. For the first decade I was an armourer, designing armours for fighting vehicles. Back then, I didn’t want anything to do with management whatsoever. But when I was about 30, I took on a team and found, to my amazement, that I could get more done with more people, and that I enjoyed it and was good at it. From there, I worked my way up from team, to group, to department, to division.”
“When I joined the Met Office as chief executive, I wasn’t a weather or climate specialist, but my experience in information management and a basic grounding in physics helped me make sense of it all. Armour modelling has the same kind of computational fluid dynamics that weather modelling has, and I’d been exposed to big data techniques and satellite work too. I felt comfortable from the start doing what I do.
The Met Office began its distinguished history as a weather organisation. It’s our role to keep the climate observations across the whole planet, but particularly the UK ones. Did you know that the Central England temperate record in our Hadley Centre goes back to 1659? These days, our main work revolves around climate projections, using this incredible amount of data we have available to us to test our models and validate them so that we can make accurate predictions moving forward.
When I first started the role, I was surprised to find out that the first accurate climate predictions were made from the Met Office in 1970, the year I was born. It was frustrating to see just how long scientists have really understood this problem and how much smaller it would have been if we’d dealt with it then! Clearly, having access to rich data is just one part of the story – it’s how you share it with other organisations and help people understand it where we can really make a difference.
Did you know that the first accurate climate predictions were made from the Met Office in 1970?
Beyond just the weather, it’s about the whole of earth system modelling now, looking at the cryosphere, the atmosphere, the oceans and land use, as well as the way that humans might react. As humans change what they do, we’re now asking ourselves how that’s going to change the picture. This helps us inform policy choices around net zero and turn data into valuable information that connects with people in a compelling way.”
“One of the best things of the role is seeing how we as an organisation can turn this wealth of data into actions that affect people in their everyday lives. We’re beginning to be able to project climate as future weather and effectively predict what this means in terms of frequency of days above 35°C or periods of extreme wildfire risk. Importantly, it also provides the necessary evidence to work closely with different industries to help them plan for the future.
For short-term predictions, we engage with local resilience fora, flood-defence planning and transport on weather warnings. In the medium term, we focus more on the seasonal forecast. If, say, we’re going to have a cold, dry January, that’s a tough scenario for the renewable energy sector, as there’s not much sun and wind. This helps them plan for periods of high demand.
“We turn data into valuable information that affects people in their everyday lives.”
For the longer term, there’s lots of ways our data can be used by specialists. For example, we worked with Deloitte on a recent report which explored four plausible futures for consumer businesses – from a fossil-fuelled world to a steady path to sustainability. Each scenario showed the implications climate change had for businesses and consumers to help make better decisions today. Bringing data to life in a tangible way helps businesses engage with climate risk much more effectively.”
“You may have seen in the news recently that we announced some hugely exciting news which we’ve been working on for years. It’s an investment of over £1 billion to build not one, but two generations of supercomputers to replace our current machine, which is reaching the end of its life. It will give us the most powerful supercomputer in the world that’s dedicated to weather and climate.
“It’s the biggest investment in the Met Office’s history and an absolutely immense moment for us.”
This new supercomputer will enhance our ability both to provide weather forecasts that are more accurate and further in advance, but also to take our climate modelling to the next stage to help support with planning for net zero. It’s a great vote of confidence by the government in the quality of our science and the value and impact of our services. And of course, it means we can do even more with the climate data we have.
It’s good news for our own emissions too, given our current machine utterly dominates our carbon footprint. We managed to switch it onto renewable power during the last year, but that was the first time we could buy enough renewable energy to power it. We had to know what the supercomputer solution was going to be before we could commit to our path to net zero, but now we can say we have our own declared, signed-off strategy to be net zero by 2030.”
“I’ve absolutely loved this job from the day I started. It’s been just over two years now and I’ve already witnessed some extraordinary climate extremes in that time. We’ve seen Britain’s warmest day; we’ve seen the warmest February; we’ve seen the wettest February. We’ve seen the European heatwave of 2019, and all the years for the last 12 or so have been the hottest years on record. There’s no lack of evidence of a changing climate.
But that’s what makes our work so rewarding. Everybody who works here is massively motivated by the fact that what we do affects millions of lives. We’re passionate to get that message out there with the evidence and the specificity that enables people to act on it. I expected that during my tenure climate change would really start to be felt by the world and where it became one of the defining issues – and so it has.
We can all make small changes in our own lives. I used to look at the yoghurts in the fridge and eat the one I liked the flavour of best. Now I’ll eat the one with the shortest use-by date, because dairy is quite carbon-intensive and I really mustn’t throw away a yoghurt! Small companies may need a bit more support, but big business has an immense role to play. Seeing commitments from different nations lately and of course the investment in our supercomputer, I’m feeling more hopeful than I have for a long while.”
“It feels like at last the world is taking this crisis as seriously as it needs to be taken.”
Thanks for reading
We hope you feel inspired by Penny’s work and how climate data can fuel meaningful action. If there’s one thing we learnt, it’s that data is just part of the story. It’s what we do with it that really counts.
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