Dr Beth Ebert FTSE

Advancing Australia’s weather warnings

14 July 2023

As the Bureau of Meteorology’s Senior Principal Research Scientist, I work at the forefront of improving forecasts and warnings for high impact weather, helping to help keep all Australians safe.

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Professor Beth Ebert FTSE is a meteorologist who has had considerable influence on international research in high impact weather. 

For me, professional success means doing something useful, and throughout my career, I have strived to achieve just that.

Early in my career, I had envisioned myself delving into pure research. However, my first project at the Bureau of Meteorology was just the opposite. I was tasked with developing an algorithm to detect fog and low cloud from geostationary satellite data. One of the operational meteorologists called me to tell me how useful that work was for forecasting weather at airports, providing essential information for flight safety. Hearing that feedback was extremely rewarding for me, and it changed my perspective. Since then, I have tended to work on applying weather science for practical solutions.

Over the course of more than 30 years, I am proud of the pioneering contributions I have made to improving forecast services from the Bureau and other national weather services and agencies.

As global warming exacerbates the frequency of high impact weather events, there are growing opportunities to apply weather science to improve public health, aided by improving technologies for collecting and exchanging data. I have co-led multidisciplinary science teams in Australia to develop forecasting systems for smoke exposure, high pollen concentrations, and epidemic thunderstorm asthma.

A project I am particularly proud of, was the development of a pilot epidemic thunderstorm asthma (ESTA) forecasting system in response to the devastating event in the greater Melbourne and Geelong area in November 2016. These areas experienced an unprecedented epidemic of thunderstorm asthma when a thunderstorm squall line coincided with high concentrations of airborne grass pollen. The ambulance system was overwhelmed. Over 9,000 people sought emergency medical assistance within a period of 30 hours, and 10 people died.

Pollen on car

Thunderstorm weather can cause pollen grains to burst into tiny pieces and the wind then blows them around us. When people with pollen allergies breathe in these tiny pieces of pollen, they can get deep inside the lungs and trigger an asthma attack.

Commissioned by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), my team at the Bureau of Meteorology and university partners began the development of an integrated early warning system to mitigate future epidemic thunderstorm asthma events.

It was a crazy time. The DHHS urgently needed ETSA early warnings to be available in October 2017, the start of the next grass pollen season, so we had to work quickly.

Through intense efforts and close collaboration with health professionals, botanists, statisticians, and thunderstorm experts, six new pollen monitors were deployed to locations around Victoria and statistical pollen forecasts were developed. A new system was designed and implemented to combine the pollen forecasts with the Bureau’s thunderstorm forecasts to predict the occurrence of epidemic thunderstorm asthma and inform the community and emergency and health services.

I am immensely proud of the work we did in partnership to get the world’s first thunderstorm asthma warning service up and running in less than a year. Normally, creating a new warning service takes several years. It is exciting to have contributed to reducing the health impacts of thunderstorm asthma events that occurred in subsequent years.

VicEmergency ETSA forecast

The pilot epidemic thunderstorm asthma risk forecast is based on a synthesis of the modelled grass pollen forecast combined with the forecast for a particular type of thunderstorm

Soon afterwards, from 2017-2020, I led a multidisciplinary research team to improve the forecasting of ryegrass pollen, one of the main ingredients in thunderstorm asthma in Victoria. I also instigated a series of workshops on thunderstorm asthma and pollen prediction, which has helped to coalesce a community of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who are continuing to make inroads on understanding and mitigating the impacts of thunderstorm asthma.

I am now leading a project for the World Meteorological Organization. The project aims to improve warnings for high impact weather events by using value chain approaches to evaluate the flows of data and information between relevant partners and capabilities in the end-to-end warning chain. This project emphasises the importance of integrating natural and social science to improve warning outcomes. After all, the most accurate warning in the world won’t have its intended effect if it is poorly communicated and not understand by the people who need to take action.

My journey as a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Bureau of Meteorology has been incredibly fulfilling. I have dedicated my career to making meaningful contributions to weather forecasting and warning systems, with the ultimate goal of making it easier for Australians to stay safe. Through innovative approaches and collaborations with diverse experts, I have had the privilege of improving forecasts, reducing health impacts, and advancing the field of meteorology on a global scale.

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Dr Beth Ebert FTSE

Senior Principal Research Scientist and Head, Forecast Quality Research, Bureau of Meteorology

Dr ElizabethEbertis a meteorologist with extensive experience working in governments. She holdsa science leadershiprolein the World Meteorological Organization and has had considerable influence on international research in high impact weather. 

Beth’s integration of physical and social science has enhanced extreme weather prediction improving impact management. For example, Melbourne’s 2016 asthma-causing thunderstorm overwhelmed emergency services. Ten people died. Within a year, Beth and her colleagues delivered a world-first forecasting system for epidemic thunderstorm asthma. Outcomes are demonstrably better as early warnings alert the public and help health authorities prepare. 

Beth’smethodologies forverification of forecast performancehavebeen adopted internationally. Her work also enabled rainfall probability to be included in forecasts. She is a highly collaborative mentor to many younger scientists.