Julia Slingo says the Met Office needs more computing power. Credit: Susannah Ireland

This year was a busy one for meteorologists, as they tracked heat waves, monsoons, and winds carrying volcanic ash. Nicola Jones catches up with Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the UK Met Office in Exeter, Devon, about how natural disasters and extreme weather events over the past 12 months have changed what Britain's national weather centre does.

Was 2010 an unusual year?

There was a whole host of natural disasters that were either caused by weather or affected by weather. Certainly we know the Pakistan flooding was the region's worst probably for 90 years. The Russian heat wave was unprecedented in terms of records going back 140 years. And also the Chinese flooding — the Three Gorges Dam got within 16 metres of being over-topped, and it's only just being built. The year certainly showed a very unusual pattern of weather, but we don't know exactly how unusual.

What role did you play following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland?

We run the London volcanic-ash advisory centre, and Iceland falls within that remit, so it's our forecasts that are used to manage the airspace. It was very challenging. We'd never had to predict concentrations of ash before, so a lot of work had to be done with volcanologists and the people monitoring the ash to calibrate the models. We had to pack a whole lot of science into about five days. We had to change forecasts on a six-hourly basis.

Has the Met Office become a more inter-disciplinary place because of that experience?

Yes, I think it probably has. We were reaching out to the whole natural-hazards research community anyway, recognizing that weather is often the instigator of a natural hazard. We already had the flood-forecasting centre, and we were beginning to think of other natural hazard partnerships. This very much accelerated that. We've formalized a relationship with the British Geological Survey, for example, for ash forecasts.

Are there other kinds of disasters that the Met Office can prepare for in advance?

We're talking just 10 or 20 million a year which is tiny compared to the damage done by disasters. Julia Slingo , UK Met Office

I've been aware for some time that space weather is something we should be concerned about. Particularly as we're heading towards the next solar maximum, which is likely to be in 2012 or 2013 — just when the Olympics are on in London. I was over in Washington DC at the end of June and met with the US National Weather Service and asked them what they do, and they said, "We have an operational prediction centre in Boulder, Colorado." So I went and visited. And out of that has come an offer to collaborate. We'll now be able to offer a space weather service in the United Kingdom. That's a case where a bit of horizon-scanning helped.

Is the UK Met Office playing catch-up with its US counterpart?

Certainly they were ahead of us on space weather. But generally I think we're pretty similar, really. In the United Kingdom we have climate and weather in the same building, using the same models. That's incredibly powerful and something the United States doesn't have.

What's the biggest obstacle to creating better, hazard-relevant weather forecasts?

Access to supercomputers. The science is well ahead of our ability to implement it. It's quite clear that if we could run our models at a higher resolution we could do a much better job — tomorrow — in terms of our seasonal and decadal predictions. It's so frustrating. We keep saying we need four times the computing power. We're talking just 10 or 20 million a year — dollars or pounds — which is tiny compared to the damage done by disasters. Yet it's a difficult argument to win. You just think: why is this so hard?

Would that really make a practical difference to forecasts?

Yes. In retrospect, we were able to predict many aspects of the Russian heat wave from a forecast in May. We hadn't particularly analysed it. We couldn't afford to do that.

Instead of talking about seasonal means, we ought to be saying "There's an x% probability of a heat wave of this magnitude lasting this amount of time." That's more useful. You could use that to mobilize food aid or fire-fighting equipment.

The UK has had big snowstorms both this year and last. Will this kind of weather be more common in future?

We don't know. That's exactly the sort of thing we need more computing power for. We probably have the models. We'll launch a project in the next few months to look at this question.

What's next for the Met Office?

We've established an academic partnership scheme for research with the universities of Reading, Leeds and Exeter. I was out at the US Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, last week to form a collaboration with their climate research centre, to bring together their Earth-observation expertise with our modelling expertise. And we're in the process of establishing a serious climate service, in the same way as the United States. We've actually been doing this for years without calling it climate services, but it's clear we now need a quite focused activity, with a person in place to lead it.