Your questions answered by an expert: Fran Scott!


Hello! My name is Fran Scott. I am a science communicator and Engineering presenter. My main specialism is being able to take the seemingly complicated and explain it in a way everyone can understand. This can be anything from gravity to computer coding. I usually do this through designing demonstration-based lectures and workshops, which I do through my own business as well as working at the Royal Institution on their world famous Christmas Lectures. I also present Engineering on television and have been part of shows such as Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom on CBBC, and the UK LegoMasters.

Might there ever be an invention that is remote controlled to understand what it’s like inside a tornado?
From reliable_fig, Lyons Hall Primary School, England

Hey there, well reliable_fig! You are in luck. In the US there is an agency called National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA for short) and they already use remote controlled drones to help them understand storms better. These drones are called Coyotes and they are used to study hurricanes (which are very similar to Tornadoes). They weigh just 6kg (or 13lbs), which is the same as three large bottles of cola, and they can monitor air pressure, temperature, wind speed and how humid (wet) is it.

They work by being launched from another plane and then being piloted from a distance using remote control, reaching places too dangerous for humans to go. They can fly for about an hour before all their battery is used up and they then crash into either the ocean or ground.

Does building any particular kind of buildings influence the frequency of extreme weather?
From receptive_fish, Maryknoll Convent School, Hong Kong

Buildings certainly can alter the weather (even extreme weather), but it’s not as simple as a particular kind of building being the cause. Instead, it’s about all of the buildings as a whole, where they are built and how they are arranged. For example, building a town usually means removing vegetation and making drain networks. This means that instead of rain being intersected by trees and plants and so slowing entering the water system it is all added in one go, leading to an increased likelihood of flooding. Even paving over gardens to make them into driveways can increase the flooding risk. However, in particular, buildings affect the wind. You may have even felt a gust of wind as you walked between two tall buildings. That gust has most likely been created by the buildings. Therefore, how buildings are arranged within a town or city can change how wind travels through them. If a city is laid out in an organised fashion, such as New York, then the wind is channelled through the streets and can get magnified as it goes, leading to an increased risk of wind-based extreme weather. However, if the city is laid out in a disorganised fashion, like Paris, then the wind is channelled in random ways and not magnified in the same way.

Is there any technology that individuals can use or create to protect themselves from extreme weather?
From gentle_conclusion, Beit Hanoun Prep Girls A School, Occupied Palestinian Territory

Whilst every material that homeowners use to protect their houses is technically ‘technology’ in that it has been developed and designed, there are also some high-tech solutions that can help against the effects of extreme weather. As always, each type of extreme weather calls for a different solution. For snowstorms there are now ice-melting mats that can keep your steps and driveway clear of snow. There are also heated insoles, hand warming phone cases and powered snow throwers to make a pathway through the white stuff. Of course, though, snowstorms aren’t the only kind of extreme weather so there are also portable, inflatable barriers for flooding, flames detecting roof sensors to warn of wildfires and personalised earthquake warning systems that can send a message through your own mobile phone. However, with all that said, probably the best way to protect against extreme weather is to prepare for its aftermaths by buying gadgets like a wind-up radio, USB chargers, a first aid kit and a good headtorch.

Can people with simple building materials can also do some engineering to help protect themselves from extreme weather?
From proactive_agency, Achimota Basic School, Ghana

As you probably know there are lots of different kinds of extreme weather including Earthquakes, Tornadoes, Floods, Wildfires and many more. There are lots of expensive and complex solutions to protecting yourself against extreme weather, and protecting against each of them takes a different approach, here I’ll tackle some of the simplest.

To protect against Wildfire it is recommended to have an area 10 metres around your house that is totally free from anything that could burn, and this means clearing the space of long grass, dead trees and not having a wooden fence near your home. Whereas to protect against floods, it’s all about using natural materials (such as wood) as these recover better from getting wet. Another good way to protect against floods is to place a building on stilts so that hopefully it would be higher than the water level if a flood ever came.

To protect against Hurricanes and Earthquakes is tricky. The best material to use on buildings in earthquake prone areas is steel, though not everyone has access to that. But Engineers have been studying how to make small and cheap changes which can also protect against Earthquakes. In fact a team from Imperial College, London was looking into how traditional homes in Latin America could be made safer in Earthquakes. They discovered that by simply replacing the usual heavy clay roof tiles with a lighter alternative and by damp-proofing the home, the houses could be made more likely to withstand an Earthquake. For Hurricanes it’s all about trying to stop the winds from getting into the building. The simplest way to do that is with some plywood and nails and board up any potential weak points in the house.

Do you think we could make better use of satellites and space technology to predict extreme weather?
From magical_message, Arnhem Wharf Primary School, England

I do believe that scientific research groups are already making the best use of the space technology available to them. For instance, the World Weather Research Programme (WWRP) has set up a 10-year project called HIWeather which is a group of over 2000 scientists worldwide all working together in unprecedented ways to increase our resilience to high impact weather.

Obviously, satellites are critical for weather prediction and they can provide more than 90% of the data that goes into daily and long-range forecasts. Scientists use a mix of data from Polar Orbiting satellites (which orbit close to the Earth’s surface), Geostationary satellites (high up satellites which stay in the same place) and Deep space satellites (which face the sun and monitor space weather) and feed the information from all three into supercomputers which then run computer-based analysis to try and predict what weather may be on the way. Scientific research groups are constantly looking for ways that these predictions could be improved, be that the use of more or improved satellites, better computer analysis or even the use of artificial intelligence.

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