After 31 years with the Met Office, Chartered Director Rob Varley is to be the new CEO
Rob Varley is a weather man through and through. Meteorology and a love of weather patterns has always been in his blood.
Now, after 31 years with the Met Office, Rob is the Exeter-based organisation’s new CEO. Olivier Vergnault went to see him to find out what’s so special about the weather.
What’s your background?
I was born in the Cotswolds. Now I live in Mid Devon near Tiverton. I have three grown-up kids. My daughter is a mum so that makes me a granddad to a one-year-old girl. My elder son is a geophysicist about to start a PhD at Durham. My younger son has learning difficulties and lives in a very special community in South Devon where he enjoys pottery, weaving and looking after the chickens.
31 years this summer.
How did you come to work for the Met Office?
My father was a weather forecaster. He joined the Met Office in 1950 and worked as a weather forecaster for 34 years. I grew up with the Met Office and my dad was obsessed with weather. It must have rubbed off on me. I studied meteorology at the University of East Anglia then joined the firm in 1983. My dad retired a year later.
A lot of science is fascinating but can be a bit abstract. But meteorology is quite special. It is not like most other sciences. It is tangible. You can feel it. You can touch it. It is also an extremely challenging and complex science. You study the big problems facing mankind, like our changing climate and the impact it has on the environment. But at the same time it is also immediate and tangible. Whether it is the violence of floods and destructiveness of storms or whether it is the beautiful sunshine beaming on Devon while the sky is blue. It’s all weather, and the sky is our laboratory.
What does the Met Office do?
Most people will be familiar with our Public Weather Service, providing forecasts and warnings via TV, radio, web and mobile. But as well as this we provide weather and climate services to a huge range of customers in the public and private sectors and to international clients. This includes two-thirds of the world’s long-haul aviation and the UK military wherever they are serving – we have had staff in Afghanistan since 2001.
How does the Met Office make money?
We are a Trading Fund Agency within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Eighty-five per cent of our revenue come from the public sector through trading agreements with various organisations such as Defra, the MoD, the Environment Agency, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The other 15 per cent is from commercial contracts.
What is the Met Office’s turnover?
Last year it was £208 million.
How many staff do you employ?
We employ around 2,000 people, of whom 1,400 work in Exeter. This includes over 500 research scientists. We also run our own college to train the future weather experts from all over the world.
In your 30 years at the Met Office what has changed?
The science, as in other fields such as medicine, has improved tremendously. And our understanding of weather and the physics of the atmosphere continues to grow. This is helped by remarkable advances we have made in measuring the atmosphere – on land and sea, by in-situ measurement, radar and especially by satellites. TV viewers will be familiar with the animation of clouds across the map of Britain, but this is just a byproduct of the main task of our satellites: to measure temperatures, moisture, wind surface pressure, and atmospheric constituents across the whole globe with great accuracy. Then, of course, there is the enormous advance in computer power over the past 30 years – crunching the data using sophisticated weather models. Back when I started the computer was a helpful basic guide for the first day or two. Now our computers are remarkably accurate on a regional scale up to five days ahead and beyond. This helps us to spot major changes in the weather well in advance.
How important is accurate weather prediction?
Accurate prediction allows for better forward planning. Take for instance the St Jude storm which ripped through the South of England last October. We were able to predict it accurately five days ahead and so issue detailed warnings well in advance – this would have been impossible 30 years ago. As a result of our warnings, some train services in the South East were cancelled, and people were advised to stay at home. The storm brought down more than 200 trees onto the tracks – just imagine the danger and chaos for travellers if trains had been running.
And think back to last winter – the wettest ever recorded in England and Wales with some huge storms battering the South West coast. Being able to give accurate warnings to emergency services and communities likely to be affected by the weather helps save lives and helps minimise the disruption to businesses. That’s what really counts. The more accurate we can be the more people rely on our services and can plan appropriately.
Five years ago we were promised a full summer of barbecue weather. What went wrong?
Predicting conditions several months ahead is one of our big scientific challenges. It’s just not possible to forecast that far ahead with any certainty. All we can do is hint at how the odds are stacked, and in 2009 the summer didn’t follow the most likely pattern. Despite their limitations, our three-month outlooks can be useful for business planning, but we now recommend that the public wait until a week or two ahead before to get a useful forecast.
How do you make your weather predictions?
It’s a sophisticated scientific process, in three key stages. First we need an accurate view of the weather right now – all over the world. So we collaborate internationally to measure the whole atmosphere. Secondly, we use high-powered computers to calculate how the atmosphere will change over time. Finally, our expert meteorologists interpret the computer predictions and give advice to meet the particular needs of all our customers.
What will the new £97 million supercomputer do for the Met Office?
There is a huge untapped potential within our science. Today we just don’t have the computer power to use it. So with this more powerful computer we will be able to apply more sophisticated science and so improve the forecasts.
It will allow us to forecast today’s weather with greater accuracy, and also make more detailed climate change projections. This will mean better advice for the Government, companies and individuals of the coming changes – whether that’s days, weeks or decades ahead.
Can you predict the impacts of global warming?
When you talk of global warming it’s generally understood that if you double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere you will increase the average surface temperature across the world by something like 3C. I imagine that what most readers will be more interested in is what’s going to happen in Devon and Cornwall. And not just to average temperatures but to the extremes of heat, cold, wind and rain. We want to know how frequent and how destructive the storms are going to be. We want to know how high the tides will reach.
That’s what planners want to know so they can build the right sea defences and be prepared. It’s the extremes which do the damage. On a world scale the science of global warming is clear and unequivocal. But our understanding of the local scale impacts is still developing and there is much more to do. That’s a key reason why the Government is investing in more computing power.
How closely do you work with other Met Offices in the world?
Very closely. Meteorology is a very effective international collaboration. We are all dependent on the weather and on each other’s data. The Met Office belongs to the World Meteorological Organisation, an agency of the United Nations. We share satellites, science, data and expertise. We also have specialist collaborations with many scientific institutions around the world.
Is there a universal meteorological prediction system?
All weather services use the same basic approach. Some run their own weather models and others collaborate to get the data they need. The Met Office leads the Unified Model Partnership with Australia and South Korea. Each country has areas of expertise and we all benefit.
As CEO of the Met Office, how do you take the role and the organisation forward?
The Met Office is a world leader in its field and I am hugely proud of that. We have 2,000 highly skilled staff who do an immense range of vitally important work for the UK and the world. I have great sense of responsibility on taking on the mantle of leading this organisation and continuing our great work. One of the main areas for development is our international work.
We are working increasingly in developing countries to help them develop their own weather services and be better prepared and better manage severe weather. Working in so many countries creates new challenges for us, but I am excited at the possibilities to grow our work and make a real difference both with governments and with the private sector.
Have you been involved with recent events around the world?
We worked closely with the Philippines weather service in July when a nasty typhoon was approaching Manila. When typhoon Rammasan hit, there were winds of 70 knots and 400mm of rain fell – that’s nearly half our average annual rainfall. Our work ensured that people and businesses were better protected by being better informed.
As a CEO of the Met Office that’s one of the things I want us to do more of. Working in the international arena to reduce the impact of natural disasters and to promote preparedness for the effects of climate change. If you can help countries be better prepared and minimise loss of life then it’s worthwhile.
Were you involved in the move from Reading to Exeter?
I led the project to build our Exeter headquarters. My role was to ensure a purpose-built building was constructed, on time and ready for moving 1,000 staff and their families down to Devon smoothly. I wrote the business case, ran the competitive process to find a contractor and an architect, and then supervised construction on site.
It was a £150m contract. I moved to Devon in 2001 before the first sod was cut, watched the building take shape and the Met Office relocated in 2003. It was stressful but exhilarating!
Was moving down to Exeter a good move for the Met Office?
It has transformed the way in which we work together, especially in term of sharing ideas, flexibility, and accommodating new things. Most people enjoy working here. The key thing is having motivated staff who want to come to work. We moved 1,000 people and their families from Berkshire – which of course was disruptive for everyone. Most people love being in the region. It is a great place to live and raise children.
What were the reasons to come to Exeter?
The cost of running a business down here compared with the South East is much lower. And for the staff the cost of living is cheaper. Services and housing are cheaper, there is less congestion and it is a beautiful part of the country to live. It is beneficial for the staff. We have world class experts working for us and we are particular about who we employ. So we had to make sure that our staff wanted to come to work down here. Our staff turnover is about seven per cent which is very good. It means we retain our staff. They are loyal to us.
When not busy managing the Met Office, what do you do?
Of course I have my family. And I love the outdoors – in all weathers! I love to walk on the moors and the coast, as well as exploring other parts of the UK. I travel all over the world in my work, but I still think Britain is the most beautiful place to live, and you can’t get much better than Devon.
Find out more about Rob by viewing his LinkedIn profile