‘Weather in tropics hard to predict’

A car crushed by trees felled by Typhoon Lekima in George Town last week. The Malaysian Meteorological Department expected the typhoon’s tail effect to affect only Thailand. -NSTP/File Pic

Four months into his role as Malaysian Meteorological Department director-general, Jailan Simon has his hands full dealing with one severe weather condition after another.

He tells the New Straits Times about the dangers of climate change and the department’s complex work.

Question: What does it take to be a meteorologist?

Answer: You need to have a basic degree in math or physics. Unfortunately, no university in Malaysia has a specific meteorology course. We have a course in climatology, but that’s different.

As for myself, after obtaining my degree in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, I was sponsored by the Australian government for a one-year training at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology Training Centre.

I then came back and became a forecaster with the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia).

I then furthered my studies in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Missouri in the United States.

I’ve worked in many divisions, from being a meteorological forecaster to international communications data exchange and even agriculture meteorology. Before becoming MetMalaysia’s deputy director-general, I was the Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s aviation meteorology head.

Q: How does a forecaster predict the weather?

A: You basically have to monitor the weather non-stop. You have to look at weather data from two to three days ago, how it develops and obtain data from satellites, radars, observation stations, and data from international meteorological departments.

After that, a forecast is generated by the system on our computer, then the forecaster has to make a call on weather predictions based on the data reading and experience.

Public weather predictions are forecasted up to seven days, but aviation weather is forecasted every 24 hours. Airports around the world send their data for us to forecast the weather to help airline pilots.

Pilots can use this data to plan and save fuel, for aircraft and flight security, to avoid turbulence and storms and others. And for this, we provide them with regular updates.

Malaysian Meteorological Department director-general, Jailan Simon. – NSTP

Q: Apart from radars, satellites and stations, what other ways does MetMalaysia use to obtain weather data?

A: We use many methods. One of them is to release a huge balloon into the air to obtain the upper air profile. These balloons are equipped with sensors, which send signals to the receiver on the ground to tell us the temperature, wind and pressure.

These balloons are released every day, twice a day at 8am and 8pm, from eight stations nationwide. The cost to do this is quite high, but this is the only method to obtain the upper air profile, which is important in weather analysis and is also used by pilots.

We are also connected to a specialised network through the aeronautical fixed telecommunication network, and also the global telecommunication system to exchange data from airports and other meteorological departments and agencies worldwide.

But sometimes, even with so much data at our fingertips, weather can be hard to predict, especially in the tropics, where weather conditions seem to “mushroom” out of nowhere.

These weather events are also “short lived” and very difficult to forecast.

Q: Last week, you said that there was a weakness in our storm warning system. Can you elaborate?

A: It is true that we can forecast a storm up to seven days or so before it happens. However, we can only predict where the storm moves or hits, but not its tail effect.

This file pic dated Aug 17, shows Penang Municipal Department’s staff cleaning the roads in George Town following a storm. -NSTP/ Ramdzan Masiam

For example, Typhoon Lekima’s tail effect hit northern Malaysia quite bad, when we first thought that it would affect only Thailand. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to assess where the tail effect would be.

You can constantly monitor satellite images, but even then, it’s hard to spot.

We predict these things based on experience, studies and published journals, but there aren’t enough studies on tropical weather, compared with papers on mid-latitude weather.

The tail effects of typhoons are hard to detect, but perhaps with more studies and diligent monitoring, we can better predict the weather conditions.

Another limitation we face is when issuing warnings. At the moment, we post weather advisories on social media sites, like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, on our website, radio and television stations.

But how many people actually look at them? Sometimes, television stations only pick up our warnings when there are big monsoons and floods.

We’ve issued warnings about the thunderstorm that hit Petaling and caused flash floods in Subang Jaya. The warning was issued three times at 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.15pm.

Q: So there is a lack of public awareness?

A: Yes. And I would like to highlight that it’s not just the weather that contributes to flash floods and destruction of property. It’s human behaviour, too.

Petaling Jaya recorded higher rainfall than Subang Jaya two days ago, but it was Subang Jaya that was flooded. Road users saw that there was flooding, but they continued to drive, causing their cars to drift.

I admit that we were a little late in issuing a thunderstorm warning in Langkawi about a week ago, but the warning was issued in Penang an hour before the storm hit. But even warnings will not help if the structure of the buildings are not strong.

There are some quarters who blame us, but the best we can do is to issue a warning and it is up to the public to take action.

This August 10 file pic shows strong winds and rain recorded in Penang.- NSTP/Danial Saad

Q: It seems like we are facing unpredictable weather patterns. What is the cause of this?

A: Climate change. In the peninsula, weather increases 1.6 degrees per hundred years. The last 10 years have been the hottest for us in the country.

When this increases, you can expect ambient temperature to increase as well. When this happens, there is a possibility of more severe thunderstorms happening due to advection.

When it is hot, clouds move higher and form bigger thunderstorms. So there is a high chance of more extreme weather and rising sea levels.

However, we haven’t caught up with the science of this because there is no local university that studies our tropical weather.

MetMalaysia cannot focus on doing such studies because we are not a research institute, but an operational one. The only research we do is to support our operations.

Q: Is there any way to control the rising temperature?

A: Stop development (laughs). We know that’s impossible. Maybe we can reduce the use of fossil fuels.

But I’m happy to see that there are a lot of initiatives like going green and using solar energy. Even if we cannot reduce the effects, hopefully we can slow it down.

Ahmad Kancil and wife Rohani Saad inspecting the damages to their house following a storm in Kampung Sempering, Kangar on Aug 10. -NSTP/Shahrizal Md Noor

Q: What about the recent haze? Is it due to human behaviour as well?

A: Yes, weather changes and partly due to human behaviour. The haze has been a yearly occurrence, and the south-westerly wind blows smoke from Indonesia which causes haze here.

However, the number of hotspots in Kalimantan and Sumatra this year is not as high as before. And the affected areas in our country are in Kuantan, Kuala Terengganu and Miri, unlike the previous years.

The high air pollutant index readings are due to open burning in those areas. In Kuala Baram, the reading was extremely high, but the reading at Miri Airport, which is 20km away, is only moderate.

The same goes to Kuantan in Pahang. Peatland fires cause haze and the winds blow it to Terengganu. Open burning happens every year in Johan Setia, Klang. Even if landowners are sued, they will burn again tomorrow.

If attitudes don’t change, our conditions will remain.

Q: Why isn’t cloud seeding used in Miri to minimise the impact of haze?

A: During the dry season like this, cloud seeding is of no use. The possibility for success is very low. We used helicopters and bombardiers to douse the fires, so now it is under control. But again, all of this will go to waste if they continue to conduct open burning.

Cloud seeding involves a huge sum of money and several agencies to get it done. If the National Disaster Management Agency doesn’t declare an emergency, MetMalaysia has to do dry seeding itself and employ a private service provider.

However, we only have one service provider that does dry seeding, and it cannot operate in East Malaysia because it has no depot there. The other option is to get the Royal Malaysian Air Force to help, but the cost is very high.

To me, cloud seeding is not the best solution for haze because it is too dependent on atmospheric weather conditions.

We need suitable conditions to conduct cloud seeding, otherwise, you’re just throwing money from the air.

Source: NST, By Hana Naz Harun. 17 August 2019