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Eye of the storm

Paul Fox Hughes

Real-time severe weather forecasting gets the adrenaline flowing, and it’s a rush that results from keeping people safe.

University of Tasmania alumnus Dr Paul Fox-Hughes spent two decades chasing wild weather, at home and overseas - and in the process saving lives.

Like on his first nightshift as the new National Forecaster at the UK’s Meteorological Office in 2007, as a huge North Sea low pushed a storm surge down the English Channel.

“The Met Office management were in conference with the Cabinet Office briefing room, trying to decide whether to evacuate 20,000 people from the East Anglia coast in anticipation of flooding,” he says.

“I thought ‘Oh, it’s all go here, isn’t it?

“It’s a pretty small place but it’s densely populated – almost anything that happened weather-wise was going to affect somebody and affect people quite substantially.”

Back home in Tasmania, the Hobart-raised meteorologist faced challenges that could be similar, but also very different.

A crucial call around the ever-present threat of fires in Hobart’s bushland surrounds stands out during his time as a Bureau of Meteorology forecaster for the state.

“I remember talking to a fairly nervous incident controller who was managing a fire on the northern outskirts of Hobart in the early 2000s, and reassuring him the cool change was coming within the next hour and plenty of time before the fire got to the edge of the suburbs,” the 56-year-old says.

It was times like that Dr Fox-Hughes felt he’d made the right decision to shift from a PhD in theoretical physics to, as he puts it, “something more immediately applied”.

His doctorate was completed at the University of Tasmania in 2015 and followed a Bachelor of Science, also from the University and finished in 1985, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Meteorology completed with the BOM.

He’s focused more recently on the two-way interplay between fire and weather, the subject of his talk at the 2020 AMOS/AMSA National Science Week Forum hosted by the University.

In a phenomenon recorded in Tasmania just once - among the massive plumes of the 2013 Dunalley bushfire – the heat from a large blaze can create its own thunderstorms in the atmosphere above.

“It’s becoming increasingly common and occurred a couple of dozen times over the black summer last year,” Dr Fox-Hughes says.

“The heat and intensity of a fire is sufficient to cause a thunderstorm which can be extremely dangerous because the winds become quite erratic. You can get lightning which spawns additional fires.”

Now in research, including an affiliation with the University’s Fire Centre Research Hub, Dr Fox-Hughes is also involved in overhauling the fire-danger rating system familiar to the public from roadside signs.

Developed in the 1950s and ‘60s, it will be made more applicable to the 75 per cent of the Australian continent that isn’t dry forest or grassland.

“In Western Tasmania we’ve got buttongrass moorlands that behave very differently to longer grass or forest. Much of Tasmanian forest is wet eucalyptus forest rather than dry forest,” he says.

“The new system will be adaptable and applicable to pretty much every vegetation type in Australia.

“It will be able to be updated as new science comes to light.”

From Sky to Sea: Bushfires, the atmosphere and the marine environment takes place online on Tuesday, August 18 at 1pm, presented by the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, the Australian Marine Science Association and Island of Ideas as part of National Science Week.

Published on: 12 Aug 2020 11:40am