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Rain, Rain Go Away: Behind The Scenes Of Weather Forecasting With MET Malaysia's Director General

What ‘small talk’ about the weather?


  • By: Afiqah
  • Tuesday, 23 March 2021
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Rain, Rain Go Away: Behind The Scenes Of Weather Forecasting With MET Malaysia's Director General
MET Malaysia

Meet the weatherman.


To many of us, everyday folks, ‘meteorology’ probably comes off as a dry subject.

But after an enlightening conversation with Jailan Simon, the Director-General of Jabatan Meteorologi Malaysia (or MET Malaysia as they usually go by), we must admit that it actually is a fascinating field! 

Jailan’s journey

Jailan Simon, the Director-General of the Malaysian Meteorological Department.
To be in the meteorology line of work was never part of the plan for Jailan. And that’s simply because he grew up not knowing that such a field exists. 

However, being a Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam scholarship recipient, he was assigned to the meteorology department upon completing his Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Physics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). 

“Somehow, when I joined this department, I got interested in it,” he told us.

It must have been quite the interest that he developed as he was willing to forego several other offers he received which included pathways to being a lecturer and teacher. 

16-year-old Jailan with his mates from the renowned Sekolah Alam Shah.
But his choice of career wasn’t quite widely-accepted then.

During the early days, Jailan stated: “There were some religious concerns about weather forecasting. In fact, the very first day when I started working on the operations at Subang Airport, when we went to the mosque, we heard the khatib (person who delivers sermon) reading the khutbah (sermon) saying that weather forecasting is haram (prohibited).”

That got his family, especially his parents, worried. 

A proud UKM graduate.
However, upon clarification from learned members of the Islamic religion – both in the country and abroad – the air was cleared.

“In fact, if you study the weather, it will make you closer to God,” Jailan affirmed.  

The early days

His involvement as a weather forecaster since 1984 has opened many doors of opportunity for him to expand his knowledge in this field. And seized the opportunities, he did. 

He obtained his Graduate Diploma in meteorology from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology Training Centre. Upon his return, Jailan served as a forecaster for aviation and public weather.

He was then sent for a six-month attachment and fellowship training at the International Drought Information Centre (IDIC), University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the United States of America and would come back to serve in agriculture meteorology.

Back during his days in Missouri.
A few years later, he pursued his Master’s degree in Soil and Atmospheric Science at the University of Missouri Columbia.

But Jailan was in for a surprise when he came back.

“Instead of putting me in the field that I studied – the forecasting as well as the soil or agriculture – I was asked to do the migration from manual to digital or computerised weather monitoring and forecasting system,” he reminisced.

It probably had something to do with the fact that he had his own webpage which he started back in the U.S. He spent about a decade in the ICT division.

His early days at MET Malaysia.
Looking back, he said, “Those were very interesting years because, at the time, all our processes were manual. And during those 10 years, we managed to change the process all the way – from the observation up to the producing the chart and so on, automatically.” It is a feat that Jailan continues to be proud of. 

Jailan was also involved in a lot of negotiations for climate change. Later in his career, he got back to work in aviation meteorology where he was based at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. 

Meet MET Malaysia 

It is fair to say that many of us are not quite aware of the functions of MET Malaysia besides its role in forecasting the weather. But there’s certainly a lot more to the department than just that. In fact, it’s a long list. Jailan shared with us some of their major tasks. 

“Our biggest responsibility actually is dealing with the aviation meteorology where we supply information to the airlines – military and civil aviation,” he stated.

The information here refers to the forecasts required by the aviation services to prepare for their journey. 


“Every plane – before they fly – must have the weather forecast. If they don't have the weather forecast and something happens, they cannot claim from the insurance. On top of that, they use our weather forecasts to do their planning.

"For example, if they want to fly to London, we have to tell them along the route, whether there's going to be a storm or strong wind or turbulence and such. This is so that they can plan for the safe route as well as how much fuel they are going to carry,” he elaborated.

The big difference between the information provided to the military and the public is in terms of specificity.

“For the public, basically, we just deal with the weather; wet, dry. But in the military, they are very specific. For example, if they want to go to the sea, we have to provide them with a certain chart of where the storm will be and what time is a good time for them to go, where is the big wave and so on,” he enlightened us. 

MET Malaysia also provides their service to a wide range of other industry players like oil and gas, agriculture and event organisers. 

It is their duty to stay on the alert.
Besides that, disaster management planning is also one of MET Malaysia’s main responsibilities. It includes monitoring the haze, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis in our country and issuing the appropriate warnings.

It is a process that involves several other parties such as the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA) and Department of Irrigation and Drainage which is otherwise known as Jabatan Pengairan dan Saliran (JPS). 

It is also worth noting that data authorised by the MET Malaysia’s meteorological officer serves as evidence that could save one from being unfairly penalised. It proves that there really were weather disruptions that caused an unavoidable delay in executing certain tasks. Powerful stuff.

Hard at work.
MET Malaysia officers also have to appear in court as expert witnesses when required. Jailan himself had experienced it when his expertise was sought to determine whether or not the victim had died due to the crime that took place or due to the weather implications. 

The list of what is within MET Malaysia’s purview continues. Serving as the Director-General since 4th May 2019, Jailan is responsible to make sure that the tasks are carried out in proper order. 

Weather Forecasting 101

Our existing knowledge probably limits our ability to fully understand what the forecasting process is like. But that didn’t stop us from asking Jailan more about it. Understanding our eagerness, he explained in layman terms.

High-tech equipment is a common sight in the meteorology department.

“We use a lot of radar to detect the rain cloud. We also have a satellite receiver,” he stated. Satellite images from Japan, Korea, China and the US are utilised by the forecaster in coming up with the weather analysis. 

At the moment, there are 12 radar stations in the country. They are in the process of setting up more stations so that by 2023, there will be 25 of them.

This would allow them to overcome the issue of blind spots when their radar is unable to pick up the heavy rain that occurs in the area. 

Weather radar in Miri, Sarawak.
They also have almost up to 400 automatic weather stations whereby data – from not only our country but also from all over the world – is received round the clock. “Meteorology is an open world. We are connected,” Jailan emphasised.  

And every day at 8am and 8pm which is UTC±00:00, a weather balloon (also known as a sounding balloon) would be released from eight stations in the country. 

(Fun fact: UTC stands for Universal Time Coordinated. It is also known as Zulu time. #NowYouKnowLah)

Preparing for the release.
This is not your everyday balloon though. It carries out an important purpose.

“Each balloon is attached with a sensor at the bottom and the sensor will measure the temperature, pressure, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction and such,” Jailan explained.

With all that, the total cost of a radiosonde operation amounts to almost RM500. 

The way it works is that once the balloon is released, it will continue to ascend until it reaches a high altitude where it would then burst. The sensor will drop. Jailan said that there is a parachute for the sensor, so it could drop just about anywhere. 

Speaking of which, he brought up a story that took place during a high-profile court case involving a prominent politician from way back when.

“The sensor dropped at the court and everybody ran away because they thought it was a bomb. But actually, we do put a sign that (you should) just throw away if you come across it because it's of no more use.”

A sensor or a bomb?
By 12 noon when they have received the data they need, they would then begin the forecasting process. It would take a few hours. 

They also have the help of supercomputers. In fact, we learnt that the meteorology field is one of the pushing factors that contribute to the strengthening of computer resources.

“We are the biggest user of supercomputers,” stated the sexagenarian.

He also mentioned that MET Malaysia probably has the biggest operational supercomputer in the country.

And from the many screens that they have in their office, they would try to figure out the possibilities that could happen – where the wind is going to converge or diverge, how strong is the wind, where there is going to be low pressure or high pressure, how strong is the pressure and more! 

Inside the control room.
“And from all this information, it will be plotted into many charts – wind chart, temperature chart, pressure chart, all sorts of charts,” said Jailan with a chuckle. 

(FYI: “Mid-latitude countries depend more on the pressure but for our country that is in the tropics, we are more dependent on the wind direction and wind speed.”) 

Only once they have figured all that out would they be able to come up with the forecast. And even then, there would be a lot of briefings and discussions that would take place before they could issue the forecast. What you see on television is simply the final product.

Predicting the weather.
Also, the art and science of weather forecasting requires knowledge and skills.

“(If) you want to forecast today’s weather, you have to follow the weather for the past few days, look at the pattern and you must know the locality of the area. Where's the hill? Where's the banjaran gunung (mountain range)? So roughly, you know where the wind is going to flow if there's wind and so on. Those are important,” Jailan explained. 

Of course, they could just rely on the supercomputer to do the tedious work. However, using the 12-hour data, the supercomputer would require six hours to process it and that is with certain limitations.

Hence, despite championing the migration to a more sophisticated system, Jailan still insists that a forecaster cannot simply depend on what is forecasted by the computer. The human mind is still great after all.

Not all sunshine and rainbows

85 per cent is the rate of accuracy of MET Malaysia’s forecast. While it is recognised as a rather high percentage, Jailan is still concerned over the 15 per cent error. 

Shedding light on the reason behind it, he admitted: “The most difficult part is during the inter monsoon period where you don’t really know the pattern of the weather, especially when the wind keeps on changing.” 

Weathering the weather.
“Sometimes, we know roughly that it’s going to rain in the late afternoon. But we can’t really pinpoint which area exactly. We know that it is going to rain in Kuala Lumpur (KL) but we don't know which area exactly in KL – maybe in Cheras or maybe in Damansara,” he added.

The timing could also be wrong, especially for a 24-hour forecast.

Jailan noted that “in our country, the weather  system is a convective cloud type where the cloud can develop within half an hour and can dissipate within one or two hours.”

This means that before they could even issue a warning, the weather would have changed. Hence, in certain cases, weather forecasts could not be issued. The situation is especially prevalent during the inter-monsoon season. It is an issue they are working hard to solve.
 
For these shortcomings, he accepts the complaints that come in plenty. However, Jailan is glad that with social media, they could now have a two-way interaction with the public and provide a better explanation.

“We actually receive very much lesser complaints compared to when I was a forecaster last time.”

Jailan also noted that when he first started his career, “people don’t really believe in weather forecasting.”

Now, over 30 years later, they want - and expect - more.

“The challenge is that more is expected from the people. Nowadays, people want more services. For example, they want better graphics, more specific time and more specific areas. Last time, it is okay for you to say, ‘Daerah Batu Pahat dijangka hujan’. Nowadays, they want (to know) which area in Batu Pahat and what time.” 

Hear him out

We put Jailan in the hot seat as we asked for his comment about the criticisms concerning lack of proper preparation despite flood hitting certain states in our country every year.
 
Well, Jailan clarified that flood response is not under MET Malaysia – it’s under JPS. 

“Put it this way; although we can forecast that the (rainy) weather is going to come, it is very difficult to tell whether it’s going to flood or not.”

He highlighted what took place this year. Preparations were done in areas where flood would normally strike first, like Temerloh. But what happened instead was that the flood had hit Raub first. 

A briefing on the preparation of the Northeast monsoon with the Supreme Head of Malaysia.
With road closures everywhere, it gets difficult to move their resources that were originally stationed at the areas they presumed would be affected first. 

“It's not the same situation. Every year is a different situation,” he explained, but he added that he's optimistic about the future.

“I think JPS has done three river basins located in Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. But (in) other states, it is not completed yet. I think once it’s completed, it will be better in terms of supporting disaster management in the country.” 

It's just a need 

Imagine a world without our nation’s very own meteorology department. How bad can it be, eh? 

Well, based on Jailan’s answer, we can conclude that it would be pretty awful.

“First of all, the monitoring of your airspace in terms of disaster and so on will be taken by other countries. This happened to Fiji and Papua New Guinea before where others took care of their weather forecasting and they didn’t have any control over that.”

Without our own meteorology department, we would lose control over so much valuable data.
It would also affect the nation’s aviation industry as it would have to depend on engaging the service from other countries. That would come at a cost, of course.

​Jailan remarked that as it is, you could still do so. It’s just that as they are a government department, they provide their services to our aviation industry at no charge. 

Then, there’s the whole military, security and disaster management aspects to it. It seems rather impossible to operate effectively without a meteorology department. Our fishermen also rely on them. 

Hence, it makes sense that the meteorology department is considered an essential service. 

Making it rain

Our inquisitiveness also led to the question about cloud seeding.

To that, Jailan began his explanation by stating: “Many people think cloud seeding is making rain.”

He acknowledged that it is this thought process that also contributes to why some people deem meteorology as haram.

But let’s get this straight: “Cloud seeding is not making rain. It actually induces rain to make it fall faster in the targetted areas so that it wouldn’t fall in other areas.”

Any later, the wind could blow the cloud away and the rain would fall elsewhere.

How cloud seeding works.
And cloud seeding can’t just be conducted whenever one pleases. Before they get that pilot on the aircraft to carry out the process, they must first get the forecast right to ensure that the criteria required are in place.  

“First, the atmosphere must be unstable so that it can create the convection. Secondly, the cloud must be there – especially the big cloud, like the towering cumulus or cumulonimbus. If we have that cloud, then, we can make sure that we spray the nucleus to the cloud and it (the rain) will fall faster. And then, the wind; you must have the right wind as well.” 

There are two methods of cloud seeding – wet seeding and dry seeding. With wet seeding, natrium chloride which is a salt and water solution (yes!) is sprayed into the clouds to become a nucleus. 

Salt and water can work wonders.
The salt will attract water vapour and form water droplets. The water droplets get bigger and bigger until they finally fall as rain. 

Dry seeding, on the other hand, would involve the hygroscopic flare.

Jailan explained, “It's like bunga api (firecrackers) that we attach to the plane's wing. When the plane flies through the cloud, then we burn this flask and it induces the cloud to fall.” How exciting! 

But remember, it could only be done when the conditions are met. 

The hygroscopic flare.
“During jerebu (haze) time, people think that we can clear the jerebu with the cloud seeding. That is wrong actually because the jerebu does not come from us.”

If they were to proceed with cloud seeding, sure, the smoke might clear for that particular moment. 

But with the continuous supply of smoke from our neighbouring country, the haze would make its reappearance in a matter of a few hours. If the cloud seeding is done at the source, then, it’s a different story altogether.

“But the problem is during jerebu time, it is very dry and hot. There is no cloud, so you cannot conduct the cloud seeding.” 

Let it rain, let it pour!
If you decide to disregard these criteria and carry on anyway, well, be prepared to face failure in the cloud seeding.

However, Jailan admits that “it is very difficult to prove that the rain that falls is due to your cloud seeding or due to the natural things. Unless we can do it in the lab, then, it's different.” 

It’s magic!

We steered the conversation a little off the scientific realm to ask Jailan about bomoh hujan (rain shaman). We have heard stories about them being able to hold off rain or ‘move’ it so that it pours elsewhere – especially helpful for outdoor events.

It has been reported that the organisers of Mariah Carey’s concert in Indonesia engaged the service of bomoh hujan. Closer to home, bomoh hujan was also engaged to hold off rain during the shoot of ‘Vikingdom’. 

Are they real?
Well, as it turns out, Jailan has heard of them too. In fact, he had seen them in action with his own eyes too back at his kampung during a wedding preparation. Certain conditions are to be adhered to though.

"They exist but I don’t know how effective they are," he chuckled

With his role, he had also been approached by some bomoh hujan who offered their service. However, upon ‘requesting’ for rain for one week straight (it was a terribly dry season), they never came back.

Preparing for natural disasters

While Jailan might not believe in the supernatural, natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis are entirely a different matter.

We learnt that when it comes to earthquakes, there is no way for MET Malaysia to issue a warning because apparently, you can’t forecast earthquakes. 

That devastating earthquake that hit Ranau, Sabah back in 2015 was of 5.9 magnitude.
“Normally, we just issue the earthquake information. Any earthquake within our region – the Southeast Asia region – of certain strengths, we have to issue information within eight minutes to the public and to our top management.

"But for earthquakes within the country that exceed three magnitude scale, we have to inform the top management.”

The National Weather & Geophysic Operation Centre is responsible to relay the information to the higher management. 

The tsunami early warning system.
As for tsunamis, there are certain things that could be forecasted.

“If the earthquake happened in the sea at a certain depth and certain strength, then, there’s a possibility for a tsunami to occur,” stated Jailan.  

The sirens that could potentially save lives in Semporna, Sabah.
Given such a possibility, they will issue a warning – the first one being a preliminary warning.

Should they have reasons to believe that it will affect our country, MET Malaysia will request that NADMA initiate the sirens that are in place in areas around the country like Kuala Muda, Langkawi and the east coast of Sabah.

Just thinking about it has us feeling scared. 

A terrifying future

Jailan is of the opinion that Malaysia is geographically blessed. He noted that we do not face that many tropical storms, unlike our neighbouring countries.

The two tropical storms that had hit our country directly were tropical storm ‘Greg’ in 1996 and tropical storm ‘Vamei’ in 2001. Others just pass through, he said. 

Tropical storm Vamei hit Malaysia on 27 December 2001.However, folks, we have some interesting but also terrifying news for you.

“Last time, we didn't accept that a tornado could take place in Malaysia. But nowadays, we have seen it with our own eyes. Small tornadoes, not big ones, but still can damage a lot of things.”

Jailan also revealed that they also receive reports from the public, especially those in the northern part of the country like Kedah and Perlis, who managed to capture the phenomenon on video with their mobile phones. 

A mini-tornado reported in Langkawi back in 2019.And such extreme weather, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the signs of climate change.

Jailan who has had his fair share of being a negotiator for climate change revealed that

“In terms of monitoring the climate, we have the data that tells us that temperature is increasing.”

The temperature for Peninsular Malaysia is increasing by about 1.6°C per 100 years. Sabah and Sarawak’s increase are slightly lesser. The rising temperature which also leads to rising sea level is also a clear indicator of climate change. 

When asked if that should be a matter of concern, Jailan was quick to respond with a definite “Yes.”

He explained: “We should be worried because as the temperature increases, there will be more extreme weather. For example, there will be more drought or there will be more heatwave. And those areas like Cameron Highlands where it used to be cool would become warmer. We cannot plant our vegetables there anymore.” 

As for the implications of rising sea level, well, when that happens – as our country is surrounded by seawater – we would have to leave because the water would make its way to us.

“If it (the rise of sea level) is very bad, then, we will sink – especially in the coastal areas.” 

Floods would get worse.
But even if it does not get to that extent, we would still have to face saltwater intrusion.

“When there is a saltwater intrusion, then some of your water resources will be affected and you have to find new water resources. Secondly, your agriculture will be affected. Your soil will not be suitable for agriculture anymore because of the salt,” he stated.

Flood cases may become worse with the combination of floodwater and seawater. Industries like fishing and aquaculture will definitely be badly hit. And this is just one aspect to it. 

On that note, Jailan stated, “We have to start to be aware that what they do actually can cause climate change. So they have to start using maybe energy-saving appliances or whatever you can help the country and the world to reduce the climate change effect.”

He has seen enough to be able to confirm that climate change is real.
In conjunction with World Meteorological Day, Jailan would like to assure you that MET Malaysia continues to strive to provide better service. 

“People must play their role in combatting the effect of climate change as well as pollution, especially river pollution, ocean pollution. This is so that we can have a better life in the future and we can leave this world for our future generation in a good state.”

Like the great Michael Jackson once said: 'Heal the world, make it a better place'. It is all in our hands.

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