The sky's the limit

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Wells Cathedral School has such expertise in meteorology it is planning to contribute a weather section to the city's official website. It's all due to the school's head of geography, as Martin Whittaker reports

On the tree-lined playing fields of Wells Cathedral School, cricketers run for cover as torrential rain stops play. Beneath his umbrella the school's head of geography and humanities Dr Andrew Hignell shakes his head as he sees his two passions - cricket and the weather - collide.

But this sudden turn in the weather is no surprise. Showers were forecast by the school's students, who have been praised by the Meteorological Office for the accuracy of their weather reports. Since last summer their forecasts have been 95 per cent correct - an accuracy rate close to the Met Office's own.

The students don't just collect data. Their forecasts are put to practical use, featuring in local newspapers and shared with the community.

Meteorology is firmly part of the curriculum at the independent school as students gain hands-on experience of weather watching with the help of their own database of figures.

Wells Cathedral School's preoccupation with our national obsession came with the arrival of geography teacher and meteorologist Dr Hignell more than a decade ago. Another crucial factor is that Wells, England's smallest city, has its own distinctive weather. Sitting in the lee of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the imposing cathedral disturbs the air flows and wind patterns, while the city is also more than a degree warmer than its surrounding area.

The school has its own automatic weather station on the roof of the geography department. Students also take maximum and minimum temperature readings from an outdoor thermometer and measure wind speed with hand-held anemometers.

Year 7 children are carrying out a survey of local weather patterns. In Year 9, students examine climate change, while GCSE geography students do a 2,500-word project on the weather. Meanwhile A-level geography includes a meteorology module. Dr Hignell says his students are fortunate to have access to equipment and expertise that, he says, is lacking in most schools. "I think it's tragic that there are children going off to university who have never studied meteorology before," he says.

"In the age of global warming, this is something that if it does change will affect them and their children for the rest of their lives. Yet they don't learn it at school."

There are some practical applications to their work. In 2002 a group of GCSE geography students took part in a project with Oxford University to study the effects of weather on the decay of Wells cathedral's limestone.

The study found that weather damage to the stone was on a par with that of St Paul's in London. It suggested more environmentally friendly measures to reduce the city's "heat island effect" as well as a traffic-free zone to reduce pollution.

Students also compile and update their "Weather Watchers" pages on the internet, which include current data from the weather station, a decade's worth of records and explanations of the local microclimate. The school aims to extend this to local tourism by providing weather information on the official Wells website. The area, whose attractions include Cheddar caves and Glastonbury Tor, relies heavily on the tourist trade. The weather also comes into other subjects. "We are often asked by science teachers to provide information because someone's been doing local surveys," says Dr Hignell.

"In economics and business, someone might be doing a survey on the impact of the weather on tourism and need some weather data to show that it wasn't a good summer. It's not just a geography resource. I like to think this is a whole-school resource."

Students say the school's strength in meteorology gives them an informed approach to topics such as climate change - the debate over whether disruption to the Gulf Stream will produce a big freeze is a good example.

The subject has been given the Hollywood spin with the release last month of the film The Day After Tomorrow depicting the world tipped into an ice age.

A-level geography student Delia Edwards says: "Dr Hignell is very knowledgeable about the weather, so we all get very up-to-date stories from newspaper cuttings. I saw an article about flooding in The Daily Telegraph the other day. I talked to him about it and he gave me the other side of the global warming argument."

Andrew Hignell also acts as an education consultant to the Met Office and has helped make its website more user friendly. Mindful that not many geography teachers specialise in meteorology, he has helped provide notes and graphics for teachers on the site (see below).

Although the school's weather database is 10 years old, it is still too early to show conclusive evidence of global warming. "It's a starting point. In about 20 years time we will have the full amount of data. We can categorically say we are at least one step down the road," he says.

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