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Weathering the storm

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Oilfield Technology,

Jim Menard, The Weather Company, explains how on-platform weather radar is critical to offshore safety and efficiency.

Each day it costs more than US$200 000 to operate an oil rig, with some reporting costs as high as US$500 000/d. With so much financially at stake, it is no surprise that weather fluctuations are not welcome. Erratic ocean currents, wind speed, lightning, fog and even rain can shut down operations. The costs add up fast: hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars can be lost during a single severe weather event. Unfortunately, at the majority of remote offshore oil exploration and production sites, accurate and timely weather-peril coverage is limited, if available at all.

Unscheduled evacuations resulting from weather conditions are a particularly big risk. In addition to safety concerns, these evacuations can cost US$50 000 per drilling rig above normal transportation expenses.1 These fees do not account for the opportunity cost of weather related delays on production schedules. For example, in December 1996, a single BP drilling operation suffered wind and wave delays resulting in a US$300 000 loss.2 The bottom line is that delays due to weather add up to significant dollars wasted.

More critically, money is not the only thing at stake. Crew safety and equipment damage is also a reality when operating in offshore marine environments. A CDC study found that crews working in the oil extraction industry are seven times more likely to die on the job than all other US workers.3 Although weather does not account for every death or injury, offshore oil rigs operate in volatile conditions in which weather plays a significant role. Crew safety will always be of utmost concern. When bad weather approaches, crews must react by shutting down operations or evacuating, depending on the severity of the situation. According to the CDC, transportation accidents account for 51% of offshore oil operation deaths, many of which are caused by adverse weather conditions.4 The decisions the crew must make as weather events occur are truly a matter of life or death.

Yet those most impacted have had traditionally few tools at their disposal to predict the weather. While weather alert systems do a good job of forecasting and notifying people about weather patterns on land, offshore platforms are not covered sufficiently. There simply are not enough adequate actionable weather warnings available off the coast of Nigeria or even in the middle of the Gulf Coast. Aside from national notifications about very large storm systems, crews must rely on their eyes and on-board weather monitoring devices, which only display current weather conditions. Teams can see a dark sky in the distance and measure current wind speeds at their location, but it is virtually impossible to know what direction the storm is moving. These crude instruments force an abundance of caution that can be costly to operations.

Worse still, the problem may be getting graver. Research shows that rainfall and wind speeds for tropical cyclones are increasing as average global temperatures rise. One study projects cyclone wind speed could increase by up to 13% over the next century.5 For oil platforms floating on the ocean’s surface, wind speed is a substantial safety concern.

All of this is happening while the oil market is putting intense pressure on offshore operations to be more intelligent about resource allocation. Sustained, depressed oil prices have cut into profitability margins and operating costs must be scrutinised across the business. Production teams and rig crews are stuck in the middle between nature and economic gains. However, whilst oil production companies cannot control extreme weather, they can forecast conditions and respond to them. To be efficient at this, organisations must overcome three critical challenges: collecting localised weather data, processing data against historical context and displaying learnings in a digestible manner. Advances in technology make all three possible. For the first time building a reliable, on-site weather monitoring and forecast system is a practical reality.

Regarding data collection, radar technology installed on oil rigs provides a much needed foundation for not only observing current conditions, but effectively forecasting hyper-local weather patterns. In the past, radar devices were large and the cost to install them was extremely high because each device required a large, dedicated tower. Historically, the benefit of using these radar devices did not outweigh the cost of installation. Luckily, advances in radar technology have reduced this barrier significantly. Radar devices can now comfortably observe weather conditions in a large radius of a rig for a more reasonable cost because the engineering necessary to install and operate the device is significantly less. The X-Band Radar calibrated for weather monitoring provides sufficient data to make informed decisions and, although heavier, is roughly the size of the average human. With a reasonably priced on-platform radar, staff are no longer limited to information about what is happening at their location. When this radar data is combined with weather models, it can be used to predict the direction of weather patterns. Crews are now able to receive precise forecasts of how their specific location might be impacted by weather that is 50 - 60 miles away, providing sufficient notice to take action.

Data collection has been solved with radar equipment, but consideration must be given to how to process all of that information quickly and efficiently; it is not practical to build an entire data centre on an offshore oil rig. Fortunately, technology improvements in processing data have also been made. Advances in computing power have improved to the point that complex models can be processed against radar data quickly and accurately without the full build out of a data centre.

Next, it is important to display the forecast in an actionable manner. Consumer obsession with weather forecasts has advanced data visualisation so that mobile device displays of even very complex weather insights is commonplace and easy to interpret. The last piece of the puzzle has been connected.

If an offshore oil exploration and production operation is ready to:

  • Decrease risk of injury to crew and equipment failure.
  • Reduce unnecessary shutdowns and crew transportation delays.
  • Improve maintenance schedule efficiency.
  • Align adverse weather collaboration on rig, at the transportation port and with HQ operations centre.

Then the Weather Company, an IBM Business, is well qualified to assist. As major oil companies are looking to turn offshore oil platforms into ‘intelligent’ rigs, the company is creating custom-made on-rig weather systems to help make critical business decisions in real time that will allow improved efficiency and output, as well as keep both crews and billion-dollar assets safe.

To create an individual forecast, more than 160 different forecasts are generated combining a wide variety of government and private weather models, including IBM’s own Deep Thunder model. Machine-learning algorithms weigh factors from each forecast based on geography, time, weather type and recent forecast accuracy. The system then combines those contributions to arrive at a single synthesised forecast. The result is the world’s most accurate prediction. In fact, in December 2016, The Weather Company was named the most accurate weather forecast in the world.6

Leveraging data from on-platform X-Band Radar, oil rigs can benefit from the same skilful forecasts millions rely on each day on land:

  • On-demand forecasts, which are updated every 10 minutes.
  • 15 day forecasts for weekly planning updated in 15 minute intervals.
  • Global lightning data.
  • Severe weather forecasts that cover hurricane and tropical storms to prepare crews for the most dangerous weather patterns.
  • Seasonal forecasts, up to 7 months in advance, to inform long-term demand planning.

Additionally, crews do not need to be meteorologists to interpret the information supplied. The Weather Company recognises that oil rigs have one primary purpose, exploration and production – not weather forecasting. As a result, crews cannot be saddled with complex forecast interpretations and constant weather monitoring. Hence, the company invested in data visualisation capabilities.

Weather modelling is a very complex science that takes into account a wide range of factors. Interpreting weather data can be very challenging. Unless advanced data visualisation techniques are applied the average crew member would have no way to apply the data to their current situation. The Weather Company aims to make complex forecasts actionable by serving both consumers and the needs of energy professionals, the aviation industry and many others. Applying these same techniques to on-rig weather systems ensures intuitive displays enable all crew members to react to forecast data with ease.

With these new tools offshore oil operations can usher in a new era of efficiency by leveraging accurate and precise weather forecasts to schedule maintenance tasks, coordinate safe evacuations and minimise unplanned shut downs.


  1. EPPS, D., ‘Weather Impacts on Energy Activities in the US Gulf Coast’,
  2. Ibid.
  3. ‘Fatal Injuries in Offshore Oil and Gas Operations – United States, 2003–2010’,
  4. ‘Fatal Injuries in Offshore Oil and Gas Operations – United States, 2003 - 2010’,
  6. Forecast Watch, ‘Three Region Accuracy Overview: 2010 Through June 2016’, 

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