When it's Time to get Ready for Winter

Council gritter spreading salt on a rural road in Wharfedale Yorkshire England UK
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Nick Johnson
European Digital Solutions Expert, Transportation
Jun 06th 2018
Road Weather

I recently attended the Cold Comfort winter maintenance exhibition and conference 2018 events in Dunblane (Scotland) and Coventry (England). These are key events in the UK where organizations exhibit their latest winter maintenance offerings and professionals within the industry gather to learn the latest best practices from speakers from the UK and also overseas.

Vaisala has been exhibiting at these events for many years now, and this year there was a lot interest on our stand around computer vision. This offering processes images from a smartphone to provide up-to-date visual data for documenting automated inventories of street furniture and road condition analysis.

Climate change highlighting the importance of weather warning systems

The conference keynote presentation from the Department for Transport highlighted the importance of risk assessing winter maintenance operations in light of climate change and also ensuring that highway authorities have enough resilience built into their plans and policies around prolonged snow events. This theme was continued with one of the main conference topics being the ‘Beast from the East’ – the name given to a particularly severe snow event that impacted most of the UK at the start of March 2018.  It led to red severe weather warnings being issued by the Met Office for some parts of the UK, which is quite a rare occurrence. 

Three local authorities presented the measures they took prior to and during the snow event and the lessons learned.

One key theme that emerged was the importance of communication with all stakeholders in events like this, with social media playing an ever increasing role.

It was also mentioned that there sometimes seems to be a perception by the UK public that other countries with much harsher winter weather cope better in these events than we do with our relatively infrequent snow events. However, it was pointed out that the regularity of these snow events in colder climates can mean that the highway authorities are more experienced in dealing with it, and the traveling public are more prepared and more used to driving in those conditions. For example, a few UK authorities mentioned that the beast from the east was the first time many of the gritter drivers had experienced a significant amount of snow.

Also the resilience of highway authorities in prolonged snow events was a hot topic, with a few highway authorities getting perilously close to running out of salt. It was agreed that whilst the snow event was a challenge for all highway authorities, one positive outcome was that it did raise the profile of winter maintenance after several relatively mild winters.

Different points of view to winter service forecasting

The Met Office gave another interesting presentation around forecasting for winter service, specifically focusing on risk. The UK forecasting market has traditionally been based very much around deterministic forecasts stating precise road temperatures that are forecast to occur. However, the Met Office pointed out that deterministic forecasts often hide the amount of risk involved in each forecast. And the increased use of ensemble modeling means that probabilistic forecasts can help to quantify that risk. It was acknowledged that there would be a need for greater education around the concept and understanding of risk from winter decision makers’ perspective, but it was stated that this should lead to the decision makers making better decisions as they will be able to assess the risk better.

In Scotland the conference had a fascinating insight into the Alaskan experience of winter maintenance.  As you may imagine, their winters differ from the typical UK winters many of the UK delegates face in terms of temperatures and amount of snowfall. In Alaska, they also have the additional challenge of the cost of procuring the chemicals, plant and equipment needed and also getting it to the required locations.

The importance of social media was highlighted yet again to inform the travelling public of what is happening across the network, as was the need to invest in people delivering the service and the use of leading edge technology to minimize the impact of snow and ice events.

Overall the events were very successful, and I look forwards to attending them again next year. They provide great networking opportunities and are a really effective way to learn about the latest challenges our current and future customers have.

Vaisala at Cold Comfort 2018
Vaisala at Cold Comfort 2018

Nick Johnson

European Digital Solutions Expert, Transportation

Nick is a graduate of the University of Birmingham and also an Associate of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, Nick provides Digital Solutions technical and application support to internal sales and customers, as well as leading the Transportation Weather training and education team. In his 20+ years at Vaisala he has designed and delivered training programs extensively throughout the UK and Ireland and also in North America and Europe. The subjects covered include winter service monitoring and decision making, road meteorology and decision support systems for roads and airports customers. Recently Nick created and also delivers the monitoring and decision making modules for the Institute of Highway Engineers national qualification for winter service, the only accredited UK course for winter services decision makers and managers.

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