Prof. Timothy Palmer named as IMO Prize Laureate

06 June 2023

Professor Timothy Palmer has has been named as the laureate of the World Meteorological Organization’s top award, the IMO prize, for his outstanding contribution to meteorology, and in particular his role in developing probabilistic ensemble prediction methods for forecasting on all timescales.

“Ensemble prediction is an almost universally used in weather prediction today, on all timescales,” said the award citation.

“Developing reliable ensembles lies at the heart of many weather service strategic plans. Importantly it is completely transforming the way in which disaster relief agencies operate. Now finance can be provided to regions at risk of extreme weather if the ensemble-based probabilities exceed some pre-determined threshold. This allows these agencies to become proactive, rather than merely wait for the weather event to occur and provide aid retroactively. Improving ensemble systems will be vital to make society more resilient to the new extremes of weather associated brought about by climate change,” it said.

The award was announced during the WMO’s Executive Council session. Prof. Palmer will collect the award and deliver a keynote lecture at the Executive Council meeting in 2024. Dr Sue Barrell of Australia is this year’s recipient of the IMO prize, named after WMO’s predecessor, the International Meteorological Organization.

Professor Tim Palmer
University of Oxford

Prof. Palmer, who holds UK and Irish nationality, is currently a research professor at the University of Oxford, Department of Physics, Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics. He already has won a string of prizes and honours and authored numerous scientific papers.

First operational ensemble forecast system

In 1985, with colleague James Murphy, Prof. Palmer developed the world’s first operational ensemble forecast system, for monthly forecasting at the UK Met Office. The ensembles provided probabilistic estimates of large-scale weather regimes and these were combined with forecasts from statistical-empirical models.

Prof. Palmer brought these ideas to the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in 1986. As Section and Division Head, he led the work leading to the operational implementation of the ECMWF medium-range ensemble in 1992.

Prof. Palmer and his team developed innovative techniques to ensure the ensembles were reliable. He strongly lobbied for the extension of the ensemble forecast systems to the seasonal timescales and was head of the division that developed the ECMWF seasonal forecast system.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, he led the EU PROVOST and DEMETER projects which developed some of the first multi-coupled-model ensemble forecast systems in the world (now the backbone of IPCC). The present-day Copernicus multi-model seasonal ensemble is a direct result of DEMETER.

Prof. Palmer has also been a tireless advocate of seamless weather and climate prediction. He has  advocated the use of seasonal forecasts to calibrate climate attribution studies. Because climate models have systematic errors in simulating long lived weather regimes (such as blocking anticyclones), attribution studies based on events (such as heat waves) associated with these regimes may not be fully reliable. Attribution probabilities can be adjusted according to the reliability of the seasonal forecast ensembles for these regimes.

Prof. Palmer is currently writing a popular book “The Primacy of Doubt” emphasising the role of chaos and ensemble forecasting not only in weather and climate (where many of the ideas originated) but in economic and pandemic modelling, neuroscience and in fundamental physics.

Palmer is very active in public outreach work, lecturing on climate change.