Should I wear my lightweight tweed when partridge-shooting next week? Will the hard ground mean the opening meet is postponed? Would it be sensible to release my poults this weekend? Weather conditions play a pivotal role when it comes to fieldsports and inclement weather can break even the keenest sportsman. Nothing is more frustrating, when one has been led to expect ideal conditions, than to wake up to floods or ice. People have been trying to foretell the weather for millennia, so why are modern meteorological predictions so inaccurate?
The weather is a national obsession and for none more so than fieldsports enthusiasts. When that money-can’t-buy invitation arrives, shooters yearn for dry, overcast days with a gentle breeze; hunting folk crave good going and scenting conditions; and fly-fishing fanatics want cloudy, dry days. According to a survey last year, Britons talk about the elements almost five times a day. “Being British, we are uncommonly afflicted by weather worry, and this goes double for rural people,” muses the Countryside Alliance’s Jill Grieve, adding, “The tutting and shushing that goes on during the Countryfile weather report shows how important a decent forecast is for farmers and sportsmen. And for those of us who make a living on the land it is vitally important that it is accurate. Whether your crops are at risk, you’re worried you will need to move your livestock or your longed-for day’s hunting or shooting is at risk from bad weather, country people are utterly obsessed with the weather.”
So, who can we hold to account for Britain’s less-than-loved weather information services? As well as the state-owned Met Office, which supplies the BBC with data, there are around a dozen independent weather forecasters in Britain ferociously defending their ability to read the skies. In the past, these small, privately funded operations have been accused of feeding the national press with alarmist headlines about incoming severe weather. Just last November independent forecaster Positive Weather Solutions predicted a “Siberian freeze” in Britain, which the tabloids emblazoned across their front pages.
“The hype surrounding last year’s winter forecast was remarkable, unparalleled in my 20 years as a meteorologist,” blogged Paul Hudson, weather presenter for the BBC’s Look North in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. “Driven largely by sections of the tabloid press and several small, private weather companies, the idea that this winter could be the worst ever recorded was firmly planted in people’s minds.”
Despite numerous forecasting failures, such as Netweather’s prediction of a heat wave that didn’t materialise last summer and the non-event of the cold, snowy October blast forecast by Exacta weather, such stories are lapped up by the media. “There are several reasons why we have seen a rise in sensationalist weather stories recently,” Hudson says. “Firstly, weather sells newspapers. I remember when I worked for the Met Office they tried to tackle one national newspaper about its over-the-top coverage of weather stories only to be told that weather sells newspapers, a rise in circulation of 10% each and every time there was a front-page weather headline was quoted by one newspaper editor.”
Surprisingly, Britain’s weather industry is not regulated, meaning anyone can claim to be a bona fide forecaster. Professor Paul Hardaker, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, has been developing a quality standard for forecasters due to launch next year: “It will be a kitemark for service providers and will hopefully put a stop to sensationalist headlines and scaremongering. The public needs to be able to trust forecasters and the current lack of regulation has led to a lot of negative press. At the moment it is easy to set yourself up as forecaster – even if you do not have any formal training. Numerous websites allow you to download forecasting kits.”
Perhaps the Royal Meteorological Society should follow South Africa’s example. To stop false forecasts causing national panic, weather forecasters in South Africa were told they could be imprisoned for up to 10 years – or fined up to £800,000 – for repeatedly issuing incorrect severe weather warnings without written permission from the country’s official national weather service. Critics have dismissed the change as draconian, but many feel that Britain could benefit from similar rules.
So who are Britain’s dissident forecasters? Until recently, Jonathan Powell of Positive Weather Solutions (PWS) was one of the most active in Britain. His forecasts were quoted in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Guardian. However, George Monbiot, a Guardian journalist, alleged the team of eight forecasters listed on Powell’s website did not exist. “An internet picture search suggests an impressive range of talents,” he explained. “Take ‘Serena Skye’, for example, listed by PWS as a ‘contributing weather forecaster’. She also turns out to be a mail-order bride and a hot Russian date. How she finds time for it all we can only guess.” Powell, who has shut down the business, admitted using stock photos but denied his forecasting team was fictitious. Whoever thought the weather forecasting industry could be so scurrilous?
Before he went to earth, Powell told me there is an ongoing “weather war” between forecasters. “The Met Office does not feel we are a credible source. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge our existence,” he said. “We are all jostling for recognition, when we should be working together. Weather forecasting has become very tribal, with everyone defending their own patch. I’d love to have a round-table discussion with other forecasters but I fear we may end up throwing barometers at each other.”
WeatherAction.com‘s Piers Corbyn, an astrophysicist, specialises in long-range forecasts up to 12 months ahead using solar and lunar patterns and cycles: “The Met Office denounces independent forecasters but we are far more accurate when it comes to long-range predictions. In the past, they have accused us of being alarmist but I feel that their reporting is mediocre and often non-committal. Their forecasts can be confusing; they choose language that means everything to everyone.”
To put an end to industry in-fighting and sort the forecasters from the fantasists, the reliability of weather forecasting is set to be analysed by the BBC’s forthcoming Weather Test. The seven forecasters approached to take part include the 150-year-old Met Office, independent forecaster WeatherAction and Kent-based amateur David King.
After debate and public consultation to determine the param-eters of the test, forecasters will be asked to forecast temperature, rainfall and wind speed for one, three and five days ahead and also to offer a seasonal forecast. The project was initiated by the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin and the Today programme to demonstrate to the public how much they can trust forecasters when they predict it will be hot or cold, wet or dry or windy. The results will be analysed at the University of Leeds.
The Met Office’s forecaster Dave Britton says the Met Office welcomed the BBC undertaking. “Independent forecasters often lack consistency,” he claims. “It is no good simply forecasting extreme weather; you need to be able to spot everyday weather. Some of the independent forecasters refuse to publish their methodologies, which goes against normal science protocol.
“You have to have thick skin to work for the Met Office. People often moan about the weather or weather forecast but I always point out that the Met Office is consistently one of the top two weather forecasting services in the world.” According to the Met Office, 80% of its next-day max temperature forecasts are correct to within two degrees. “We should be proud of the Met Office,” Britton adds.
What he resists pointing out is that besides failing to publish their methodologies, some independent forecasters’ websites advertise such items as winter car tyres and grit, which hardly suggests impartiality.
Professor Alan Thorpe, the new director general of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, thinks that weather forecasts are too short to give sufficient detail, often leaving viewers with the impression they are wrong. “The Met Office’s problem is that they have to shove so much into two minutes at the end of the news and it is very hard,” he says. “It would be great if the nine o’clock or ten o’clock news had more time to describe the forecast. To be able to do it in 30 seconds or two minutes is asking a hell of a lot. The public gets a very broad-brush picture.”
Last year the Met Office was awarded a Plain English Campaign Golden Bull prize for misuse of language in the preceding year. One of the offending phrases was the prediction that an area would suffer “a rash of beefy showers”. Another was the tautological “excess surface water” on roads.
Hardaker admits that forecasters could do more to improve their communication skills. “Forecasters are regularly accused of being ambiguous – more work is needed to communicate the weather. In future, the public will see greater use of probability forecasting. However, some feel that this is still quite vague – if there is a 10% chance of rain, do you take an umbrella or not?”
Perhaps we should turn to our ancestors for help. For centuries people have relied on lore to foretell weather. Farmers watched cloud movement and the sky colour to know when to sow and reap. Mariners noted wind shifts and watched waves for signs of change. Hunters studied the behaviour of insects and animals. Dorset-based weather-lore expert Ruth Binney, author of Wise Words & Country Ways: Weather Lore, thinks rural folk are best placed to predict the elements. “It is hardly surprising that there are hundreds of sayings relating to the weather. The oldest go back to records made on Babylonian tablets in the 12th century BC, including, ‘When a cloud grows dark in the sky, a wind will blow.’ The first weather saying to make an indelible impression on me as a child was the one that my father would come out with every year on the 22nd of December, the day after the winter solstice. He would look up from his breakfast newspaper and pronounce: ‘As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.'”
Binney believes Field types are best placed to read the skies. “I feel enormously frustrated when I hear the official weather forecast, as it is so often wrong. Although I have a scientific background I always turn to weather lore. The trees, sky, wildlife and livestock tell me if there is adverse weather on the horizon. In fact, one of the best ways to predict my local weather is to chat to the people with arthritis in my village – they are more accurate than everyone else put together!”
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