Light­ning, high-speed winds, heavy rain, droughts and even hu­mid­ity are some of the ad­verse weather events fac­ing min­ing projects. Me­tra Weather me­te­o­rol­o­gist and storm chaser Re­bekah LaBar spoke to El­iz­a­beth Fabri about how me­te­o­rol­o­gists can help re­sour

The Australian Mining Review - - CONTENTS -

Q. What in­spired you to be­come a me­te­o­rol­o­gist?

When I was 12 years old I saw my first tor­nado. It passed right by my fam­ily’s farm in cen­tral Washington State in the US, which is not a com­mon place to see tor­na­does.

I was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied, which drove me to learn about se­vere weather; I be­lieved that if I un­der­stood it bet­ter I would not be so scared if I ever saw an­other se­vere storm.

How­ever, me­te­o­rol­ogy re­mained an in­ter­est rather than a ca­reer goal for me un­til I was al­most fin­ished with my Bach­e­lor’s de­gree, when I had the op­por­tu­nity to join a sum­mer me­te­o­rol­ogy re­search pro­gram in Ok­la­homa.

Once I went on my first storm chase I was hooked, and knew that I’d found my pas­sion.

I de­cided to pur­sue my Master’s in Me­te­o­rol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa – not just be­cause the me­te­o­rol­ogy pro­gram has a world-class rep­u­ta­tion, but be­cause I wanted to chase storms.

Q. Tell us about your storm chas­ing ad­ven­tures.

Peo­ple chase storms for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons. My in­ter­est ini­tially stemmed from my pas­sion for us­ing sci­ence to for­mu­late a pre­dic­tion and ver­i­fy­ing it in the form of a beau­ti­ful, pho­to­genic storm. Each time I chase, I learn some­thing new, whether I nail the fore­cast or I bust.

I will ad­mit it is an adren­a­line rush to see a su­per­cell thun­der­storm or a tor­nado out over the empty plains.

My favourite storm chase was in south­east­ern Colorado on 31 May 2010, where my friends and I saw the most pho­to­genic tor­nado touch down about a hun­dred me­ters away from us in an open field.

It was slowly mov­ing away from us, but the hail core was slowly mov­ing to­wards us. If you’re storm chas­ing, this is what you hope to see, a tor­nado that is slow-mov­ing and doesn’t wind up hurt­ing any­one or their home.

Un­for­tu­nately, not ev­ery storm chas­ing story has a happy end­ing. On 4 May 2007, I saw a nearly 3km-wide EF5 (top-rated) tor­nado dev­as­tate the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. This tragic ex­pe­ri­ence led me to make sure I re­ported ev­ery tor­nado I saw, as soon as I saw it, be­fore I started to pho­to­graph the event.

Even if many other chasers are in the field, you can’t as­sume that some­one else has al­ready re­ported the se­vere weather.

Q. Why is me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal data in­te­gral to min­ing op­er­a­tions?

There are many im­pacts that weather can have on min­ing op­er­a­tions.

Light­ning is a safety risk to any­one out­side in the storm, and it is im­por­tant to know when to cease cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties (or avoid them al­to­gether when light­ning is ex­pected) such as blast­ing and re­fu­elling.

Heavy rain can cause flash flood­ing and make roads around the min­ing com­plex muddy or im­pass­able.

High winds can blow ob­jects around as well as pose a risk to equip­ment and any­one work­ing at heights. If the ground is also dry enough, the winds could cause a dust storm or blow coal dust over the neigh­bours, caus­ing a health haz­ard.

Ex­treme heat is an­other health risk, and alerts al­low min­ing su­per­vi­sors to en­sure plenty of wa­ter is avail­able for staff work­ing out­doors and to con­sider whether cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties should be post­poned.

Q. How can me­te­o­rol­o­gists mit­i­gate weather im­pacts for min­ers?

We fore­cast for all of these threats and more, both through fre­quently-up­dated au­to­mated fore­cast data as well as fore­cast dis­cus­sions writ­ten by trained me­te­o­rol­o­gists, so that mines can take ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion to pre­pare for each weather event.

We also pro­vide the like­li­hood of an event oc­cur­ring, so op­er­a­tions don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be called off if it’s a low risk, but at least con­tin­gen­cies can be in place.

Q. The first step is pro­vid­ing the data, but how do you put this into con­text for com­pa­nies?

While we pro­vide weather ob­ser­va­tion and fore­cast data, where we re­ally add value is through learn­ing the cus­tomer lan­guage and be­ing able to con­vey what the data means for each cus­tomer.

For ex­am­ple, we can say that it’s go­ing to be windy, but if we know how dry it needs to be, and what the wind di­rec­tion and speed needs to be, for dust to be­come a prob­lem, we can put to­gether a fore­cast that high­lights the risk of dust trans­port tai­lored to a spe­cific mine.

Or while one mine may be quite con­cerned with rain above a cer­tain thresh­old, an­other mine may need more rain for it to be­come a prob­lem.

In ad­di­tion to fore­cast graphs and weather risk ma­tri­ces for each mine, we have con­sul­tant me­te­o­rol­o­gists who pro­vide commentary to fur­ther il­lu­mi­nate why the weather mod­els might be high­light­ing cer­tain risks.

Q. What tech­nol­ogy is used de­liver data in real time?

We have a de­ci­sion-sup­port dash­board that holds many of the prod­ucts avail­able, in­clud­ing fre­quently up­dated ob­ser­va­tion and fore­cast data, and this can be cus­tomised by the in­di­vid­ual.

One par­tic­u­larly use­ful real-time tool on our dash­board is called StrikeCast, which al­lows light­ning strikes and radar images to be over­laid on a Google-Maps-type in­ter­face.

We are able to plot the lo­ca­tion of the mines on the map, and set up range rings to in­di­cate the prox­im­ity of the light­ning to each mine.

StrikeCast can also pro­duce a fore­cast of light­ning risks in ar­eas near to where light­ning is cur­rently on­go­ing.

An­other light­ning tool that we of­fer is called a Light­ning Cir­cle, where the user can set mine co­or­di­nates and the range rings of in­ter­est (for ex­am­ple, 15km, 30km and 60km), and then the rings around the cen­tre will light up when­ever light­ning is de­tected within that ring.

We also have an email and SMS light­ning alert sys­tem that will send out a mes­sage when­ever light­ning is de­tected within the de­sired range ring of the mine, as well as send out an “all clear” af­ter a cer­tain amount of time has passed fol­low­ing the last light­ning strike.

Q. How ac­cu­rate are these fore­cast­ing tools, and how far ahead can they pre­dict?

Our best model was de­vel­oped in-house, an ensem­ble model we call ePD. One of the great­est strengths of this model is the abil­ity to tune fore­casts to weather ob­ser­va­tions.

The longer his­tory of ob­ser­va­tions we have for a site, the more we can train the model to pro­duce in­creas­ingly ac­cu­rate fore­casts for that site.

Given a solid his­tory of ob­ser­va­tions, this model pro­duces ex­cel­lent tem­per­a­ture and wind fore­casts, both of which can be fore­cast up to 14 days in ad­vance.

The ePD model pre­dicts a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties, and we can use this to de­ter­mine the model con­fi­dence.

If the lower decile and up­per decile are very close to­gether, we know that we can have high con­fi­dence in the fore­cast. How­ever, if there is a large spread, we can cau­tion that the model mem­bers have not come into close agree­ment and there is a 10 per cent risk of the tem­per­a­ture ex­ceed­ing 40C, though we ex­pect it to only reach 35C.

Q. What ad­vice would you give to com­pa­nies in the lead up to se­ri­ous weather events, like Cy­clone Deb­bie?

In the case of Cy­clone Deb­bie and some other trop­i­cal cy­clones we work a bit of ex­tra time mak­ing peo­ple more aware of the sit­u­a­tion.

Be­fore the trop­i­cal cy­clone makes land­fall we send out up­dates on what the of­fi­cial fore­cast is show­ing, as well as any other titbits of in­for­ma­tion that we can of­fer.

Q. Have you vis­ited min­ing op­er­a­tions in per­son?

About a year ago, I had the op­por­tu­nity to visit a coal min­ing com­plex in the Hunter Val­ley of New South Wales. I had been work­ing with the min­ing com­pany and sev­eral de­part­ments in Me­traWeather to de­velop a suite of weather sup­port prod­ucts, in­clud­ing a dis­per­sion model that a col­league and I were able to demo.

Meet­ing in per­son al­lows us to bet­ter un­der­stand cus­tomer per­spec­tives and needs, of­ten more so than dis­cus­sions via tele­phone or Skype.

In this case, tour­ing the mine of­fered me a much bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of why the cus­tomers were ask­ing for cer­tain things, and why cer­tain weather con­di­tions prove a threat to min­ing op­er­a­tions.

Me­traWeather me­te­o­rol­o­gist Re­bekah LaBar.

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