Measuring the ocean waves
For the second in a series on innovative Taranaki businesses, Susan Strongman talks to MetOcean Solutions' Peter McComb about how the multi-million dollar business was inspired by his pursuit of the perfect wave.
From his tiny office in New Plymouth, Peter McComb has the world's oceans at his fingertips.
The oceanographer is managing director of MetOcean Solutions, one of the largest privately owned physical oceanographers in Australasia.
Last year New Zealand Government-owned MetService bought a 49 per cent share in the business for a sweet $3 million.
McComb, a New Plymouth-born surfer, loves his job and jokes that the only reason he got into the business was so he could find out where to catch the best of the approximately 6 million waves that are generated around the world each year.
Now the company, which he founded with two of his colleagues in 2005, does marine weather forecasting and scientific research for clients with projects in the Persian Gulf, Australia, the North Sea, South America, Indonesia, South East Asia, India, East and West Africa - and New Zealand, where it all began.
"New Zealand is a great place to do oceanography, because we get so much weather," McComb tells me, from his Strandon office, which is dominated by a desktop computer and sparsely decorated with university degrees, childrens' artwork, a bright yellow waterproof briefcase and jars containing Latin-named crustaceans.
"We go from subtropical to subantarctic. There are big gradients in winds, waves and temperature. It can be windy here but calm 40 kilometres down the road."
Once the MetOcean team managed to conquer the challenges posed by New Zealand's mercurial weather, it found the techniques worked anywhere in the world.
The company has a staff of 19 and is recruiting another four scientists.
It has recently completed a project grant from Crown entity Callaghan Innovation, worth about $230,000, to develop its marine forecast operations planning system and also received funding for three student interns to work on projects.
Employees are split between offices in New Plymouth and Raglan, and McComb says there is no need to run the business out of a bigger city.
"We believe we can achieve high quality science in the regions. People value lifestyle. A lot of the scientists who work for us could work anywhere."
Most of the staff, including McComb himself, have PhDs.
They come from all around the world - New Zealand, the UK, Brazil, France, Portugal, the US, Germany - and most have a background in computational mathematics, meteorology, oceanography or physics.
But there's a common denominator among them all - their love of the ocean and weather.
"Usually the reason they've got into oceanography is because they're into things like sailing or surfing. We totally value that, because it means they can put a reality check on what they're doing. It's not just numbers."
"We run flexible hours for most staff. In Raglan when the tide goes out and the waves are good, the office tends to empty, but at 10 o'clock at night you'll find people in there working."
MetOcean Solutions does three things: Marine weather forecasting, hindcasting, and scientific consultation.
"Essentially we're a bunch of scientists who sit there and run calculations, solve problems and sell data," McComb says.
About 20 to 30 per cent of total staff time is spent on research and development and they access large computing facilities in the United States.
"I guess what's unique about our business is that we run very high resolution scale models on a customised basis," McComb says.
"People need information for right where they are working.
"For example, if a vessel is working in East Africa, the global scale models will only resolve the ocean into 50 kilometre blocks.
"But the ocean changes and that's not sufficient resolution to capture the actual situation, so we nest our models inside the global models sequentially smaller and smaller to create high resolution weather patterns in the area of interest."
"At Port Taranaki we scale it down to a 25 metre resolution. It's the next level up for weather forecasting."
Oil and gas and ports and harbours are the two main parts of the business and MetOcean has worked closely with Port Taranaki, where McComb also did much of the research on wave dynamics for his PhD.
"We really like working with ports and harbours. Ships are the best way of transporting goods around the planet.
"It's really efficient and global trade is so important because it's a method of distributing wealth globally and there are a lot of good things that come from that.
"Ports are a critical part of this trade network and a good one has the ability to transform a location. If you look around New Zealand, all the centres of prosperity are located where you've got a port."
MetOcean do a lot of offshore design work, recreating the historical marine weather conditions going back 30 to 40 years by running their models at very high resolution.
These data are analysed to determine how a berth should be angled, or what height waves might arrive at a gas platform, from which direction.
The company can assess how an oil spill might travel, where discharged ballast water containing invasive species could go, or in the case of the 2012 Paritutu tragedy, where a body might be swept by the sea.
MetOcean provided oil spill forecasting for Maritime NZ during the Rena disaster and is still involved in the salvage efforts.
It routinely examines the potential impact of deep sea drilling activities in New Zealand waters.
"Climate change presents a new challenge to marine and offshore industries and while we now have the last 40 years of ocean data to analyse, we cannot necessarily make the assumption that the next 40 years are going to be the same."
The physics that are used to create forecasting models are essentially a bunch of equations that are solved with computers.
"We have a team of scientists that manage the code and they really understand the dynamics and the processes that are involved."
With hindcasting the company creates a historical time series going back 30 to 40 years.
"When we do a study for a particular location we run the models in hindsight and re- create the conditions hour by hour - the waves, winds and currents for any place on earth."
"In most cases the models are validated with short periods of actual measurements to ensure the results are correct."
If, for example, Port Louis, Mauritius wished to do some work in April, MetOcean could look at what would typically happen in that month by analysing the past 40 Aprils.
"Also a lot of these people are dealing with vessels at sea, so typically they may ask for information on wave height or wind speed but that's actually not what matters.
"What matters is how much their construction barge will rock and roll, because that's what's limiting their safe working conditions.
"So we do a lot of derived analysis whereby we re-create the weather conditions and translate them into operability using techniques that would simulate the way a vessel would behave in various sea states.
"We can then say with more confidence they can or cannot operate safely."
Scientific integrity is the core ethic of the company, which McComb says is run like a science problem.
"None of the management are from a business background, we are all scientists.
"We probably don't follow the same rules as business people would, we can only deal with it in a way we understand.
"It works for us."
On March 5, McComb will give insight into what makes waves work, what generates rips, why good surf breaks are concentrated in one area, the mysteries of wave sets, how to predict when a good group will come through and more, between 6 and 7pm at Puke Ariki Library's Taranaki Research Centre.
Taranaki Daily News