Smashing the forecast: weather at the Australian Open
22 January 2018
The Australian Open, on now in Melbourne, is one of tennis' four prestigious Grand Slam events. It brings together two things the city is famous for—a passionate love of sport, and notoriously variable weather. And while players and spectators have their eyes on the ball, tournament organisers are scrutinising the skies. So why is the weather so important and how do organisers get the information they need?
Weather conditions can affect the comfort and safety of everyone attending and working at the Open. As for any large event where crowds are exposed to the outdoors, understanding and planning for all weather is important. Tournament Referee Wayne McEwen explains, 'The weather is imperative—it has a huge impact on players, fans, officials and staff, right down to the ball kids. For tennis we like moderate temperatures. Here we can have four seasons in one day and that brings challenges.'
An eye on the skies: knowing the weather ahead
Luckily, officials have a few tricks up their sleeves. They have the only Grand Slam venue with closable roofs on three major stadiums, they've installed extra shade on the outdoor courts—and they have an in-house Bureau weather forecaster, veteran meteorologist Bob Leighton, who provides a constant flow of the latest information.
'When the first Open was held in Australia (the 1905 Australasian Championships), accurate forecasting of the weather would have been inconceivable', says Leighton. 'The Bureau wasn’t even formed as a national agency until 1908, and it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that we started to reap the benefits of our evolving science and supercomputing. With the improvements since then, a seven-day Melbourne forecast now has roughly the same accuracy as a two-day forecast did 30 years ago. We’ve also been able to watch the weather much more intensively with minute-by-minute observations, greatly expanding the weather 'intelligence' available.
'The thing to remember is that changeable weather doesn't have to mean unpredictable weather. Usually, we have a very good idea of what’s going to happen, even if we’re going to go from snow to a scorcher within a few days, and then we just need to adjust for the detail of how it will play out at a particular location.'
Image: Bob Leighton, Australian Open meteorologist, outside Rod Laver Arena.
Weather forecasts now come through a massive global cooperative effort. Millions of observations daily are shared in real time and turned into a continuously updating, detailed analysis of current conditions. Giant numerical models run on the supercomputers of the world’s major meteorological agencies, including the Bureau’s supercomputer in Melbourne, then apply the laws of atmospheric physics to answer the question ‘What will happen next?’. The results are shared between countries, and finally meteorologists consider the various potential outcomes and decide on the official forecasts and weather warnings for each location.
Making the calls: using weather information to manage the action
Leighton works with the Bureau’s team of Victorian forecasters to turn the Melbourne forecasts into detailed, site-specific insights for Melbourne Park, using a stream of local temperature, humidity, wind, cloud, and rain radar observations as well as his own site knowledge. As events unfold, small variations in the weather story lead to different responses. On a very hot day, officials will need to consider the extreme heat policy. Rain and drizzle can cause considerable disruption, as seen during this year's qualifying matches. Officials can decide to close the stadium roofs, suspend play on the outside courts, and plan schedule changes. Caterers can anticipate demand for different food and drinks, and medical staff can consider possible issues. Accurate forecasting and frequent updates help organisers to anticipate the decisions to be made and respond accordingly.
The advice of the Bureau's team makes a real difference for tournament officials, according to McEwen. 'It's great to have experts in the field helping us with their professional opinion as to what's likely to happen weather-wise. It helps us to make confident, more educated decisions. While no one can be 100 per cent accurate, this expert advice decreases the amount of guesswork when it comes to crucial decisions which have a potential to affect how the event runs and how people experience it.'
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