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Monday, September 6, 1999 Published at 20:46 GMT 21:46 UK


Better Alpine weather forecasts ahead

Better forecasts: MAP's work should save lives as well as money

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

An international programme to improve weather prediction and forecasting in the European Alps begins its fieldwork phase on Tuesday.

Alpine weather is marked at times by heavy rain, flash floods and fierce wind storms.

[ image: Alpine weather costs lives]
Alpine weather costs lives
Severe autumn weather in the southern Alps in the last six years has killed more than 80 people and caused damage amounting to 10 billion euros (£6.5bn).

Known as the Mesoscale Alpine Programme (MAP), the weather forecasting collaboration has been under way for 10 years. This final phase is due to run until 15 November, at a cost of about 20 million euros (about £13m).

It involves 200 scientists and engineers from the weather services of 11 European countries, and from Canada and the USA, working with the World Meteorological Organisation.

Improving understanding

The aim of MAP is to refine prediction techniques and basic understanding of weather patterns, including high altitude turbulence.

The organisers say current prediction techniques can now point to the onset of heavy rainfall, but cannot say precisely when and where it will happen.

"A new generation of numerical models, with resolution as high as one kilometre, is offering good hope of improvement of the forecast skill," says the MAP team.

"However, very accurate measurements of the atmospheric flow and cloud properties are needed to develop the best formulations and usages for these models."

Alpine winds like the foehn and the mistral are a danger to all forms of transport, and to construction workers and anyone out of doors in a severe storm.

MAP will be testing and improving a new generation of numerical models that have the potential for much more accurate wind prediction.

British aircraft

Areas where the MAP teams will be concentrating their efforts include Lake Maggiore, in Italy, which often gets heavy rain in the autumn, part of the Rhine valley in Switzerland, and the area between the Brenner Pass and the Austrian city of Innsbruck.

The ground-based instruments are supported by a fleet of eight aircraft, one of them a Hercules provided by the UK Met Office.

To provide further refinement, EUMETSAT has made available its standby satellite METEOSAT 6 for MAP's use.

This means that on request the Alpine area can be imaged at five-minute intervals by a rapid-scan operation mode which gives a much higher frequency than the half-hourly scans.

The MAP operations centre is at Innsbruck airport, with other bases at Linate airport in Milan and in the Rhine valley.

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