Come Rain or Shine: Summer 2019 Festival Highlights Report
The stage is set, the band tunes-up and the audience is ready. But while this is happening, behind the scenes, there's a hive of activity at the command center. Everything (and we mean everything) that's required to keep the show going is happening: monitoring decibel meters, managing the crowd management, and first aid staff ready to provide help: it's all there. Alongside them are the weather experts, a crucial part of the team, providing the latest weather forecasts to festival organizers.
For now, the weather is perfect, an enjoyable 25 degrees with just a few clouds. But if the weather experts believe it will change, there is a list of protocols ready to be executed if necessary. Will they need to activate the protocol for thundershowers? Perhaps. Come and discover how the weather experts helped to support festivals and outdoor event organizers over Summer 2019.
Weather Monitoring is an Important Feature of Most Events
The demand for meteorological assistance during outdoor events has increased over the last ten years. This trend was triggered, in part, by the tragedy at Pukkelpop in 2011. A big shower produced a heavy downburst, large-sized hail, and lots of rain. These weather conditions caused the performance stage and a big tent to collapse, resulting in five fatalities and further injuries. As a result, nowadays, weather monitoring is an essential feature of most events.
MeteoGroup performs this service for dozens of clients. In most cases, we manage meteorological assistance from our European offices. We provide specific and very local weather information, weather warnings, and whatever the client desires, at agreed intervals. And, where needed, we're even on-site. In Summer 2019, the weather experts supported both the annual rock music festival Rock Werchter and the electronic dance music festival Tomorrowland.
Rock Werchter, held in Belgium, attracted around 350,000 people between 26th - 1st July 2019t.
Preparing the site before the festival starts (getting the terrain ready, campsites setup, power lines in place, and all the stages assembled) takes about six weeks, and dismantling it all after the event takes about four weeks. MeteoGroup provided weather information for the whole period, including on-site support during the festival itself.
"The most important weather phenomena to watch closely are events like torrential rains, thunder, heavy winds, and high temperatures," says Heleen de Boer, one of our senior monitoring meteorologists. She spent a few 12-hours shifts at Rock Werchter this summer. "There are many risks to take into account, such as the risk of hypothermia. Or what to do about gusty winds, which might damage stage or tents, cause material to fly up in the air and become missiles. In 2018 we had a dry season, with consequences for the fireworks, and the drought also kept the fire brigade watering the dirt roads to avoid a too dusty and stuffy environment. Initially, it looked like it was going to be soaring hot this year, but fortunately, the warmth was less extreme. Anyway, they had already prepared the whole terrain by placing various water taps and mist cannons. The showers we had were normal, luckily. Summer season is renowned for thundershowers, especially when it gets warm, so it is always important to closely monitor shower development, as we did. A fairly new challenge for the organizers was the presence of caterpillars. Two weeks in advance, the fire brigade started with removing hot spots of the oak processionary moths and continued their work during the festival."
Tomorrowland, covering two weekends, also takes place in Belgium, close to Antwerp. Like Rock Werchter, the festival organization receives forecasts from the moment they start constructing. The core of the forecast is a risk evaluation table that offers a direct view of potentially dangerous weather. It not only mentions the risk of temperatures over 25 degrees, the chances of a shower, the risk of thunder, and the possibilities of gusty winds; it also shows those risks by color-coded tabulation.
Our senior monitoring meteorologist, Michiel de Vries, spent some shifts at this festival. "There are 0.5 million people each weekend. There's a lot at stake. Already during the first weekend, I had to warn for thunder. It's crucial to be on time with these warnings, as, for example, evacuating visitors from the big wheel takes about 45 minutes." During the second weekend, it was not only the thunder but also the warmth and the gusty winds accompanying the showers. "Being in time with a warning means you can take action," Michiel continues. "The upper parts of various stages were disassembled so they would catch less wind. We as meteorologists try to act as proactive as possible."
Having Protocols in Place to Take Action
Practical actions can only be taken if one has gone through scenarios like thunderstorms, heatwaves, and stormy weather beforehand. If the meteorologist on duty warns for a storm that is going to pass the terrain within the hour, the immediate focus of the whole festival team is at the thundershower protocol. So, at big events, they switch on the warning signs at the field, start the distribution of rain suits, cover the stages and the equipment for sound and light, stop the big wheel, manage the masses to go indoors, and so forth.
Crucial to procedures are the protocols, or action plans, which describe in detail which steps should be taken in case of certain events. Michiel notes that "big organizations nowadays know very well how to be in control. Smaller events sometimes still struggle with this concept. I spoke one client during summer to warn them for gusty winds. He responded: 'and what should I do now?' Well, this is part of the preparation that belongs to the organizer. Because we don't know what tents you use, how high the lighting towers are, or where the people might find shelter."
Considering All Aspects of Weather
An important weather element that is easily overlooked is the temperature at night-time. The Red Cross at Tomorrowland was very eager to hear from us if temperatures would be going below 15 degrees, as this is the proven level of risk of hypothermia. It doesn't sound that cold, but it can turn out fatal. As the music stops, visitors still need quite a bit of time to get to the exits and the campsites. In relatively cold air, the body starts to lose more warmth than it's generating. Stopping for a small rest can be a bad idea.
Added Value of Weather Forecasts
Alfred Snoek, a senior monitoring meteorologist, has been assisting festival organizations for many years now. "Every year, we notice that customers appreciate all the knowledge we have and all the relevant information we issue. They suck it all up," says Alfred. "If we monitor a festival, either on-site or from the office, we find ourselves in continuous consultation with them. One of the benefits of this close contact is that we can explain a lot, which makes it easier to understand each other."
"It's important to focus on the risks. For example, if heavy showers are coming, you can start indicating risks about 12 hours in advance. We tell them which time-period those showers are to be expected and with what phenomena these showers might be accompanied. For example, no heavy gusts are expected, or that the showers will be short-lived. Or in other cases that showers might bring heavy thunder or torrential rain. In the following hours, we can fine-tune the forecast while informing everyone and indicating the ifs and buts. When showers are nearby, we turn to nowcasting." This situation resulted, for example, in an adequate forecast for the municipality of Barneveld. They were organizing the annual conference of the association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG). During the festivities that evening, we kept a close eye on the possible formation of thundershowers nearby. We warned them in time, and they stopped the party an hour early. They got all the guests inside busses on time and on their way to their hometowns - just before the heavy showers arrived.
Sometimes the meteorological information leads to event cancellations. This scenario happened in June, after gale-force winds and extreme gusts wee forecast for the Pleinvrees festival in Amsterdam. After consultation with the municipality and the security services, the organizers had no other option than to cancel the event for the sake of safety.
Our forecasts are an anchor point
Our forecasters feel healthy pressure rather than stress while monitoring an event. They feel the necessity to be on top of the forecast, to explain things clearly, and not to be distracted by all the other inputs. Executed correctly, it means becoming an anchor point for the organization, just like all other members of the command center play their essential roles.
"It's fun to be part of the success of the festival, together," says Alfred Snoek. "Communication lines are short, and in critical situations, there is a lot of consultation and discussion. Usually, monitoring already starts during the construction phase. It's important to be prepared and take precautions." So, we're there from start to finish. Our monitoring meteorologists will always be ready and available.
(Photo by Alfred Snoek)
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