What hurricane?

1 min read

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly once asked why he needed a weather forecast when he could just look out of the window - or words to that effect.

Next week, the butt of Connolly’s gag - weathermen - or to be more specific the unfortunate Michael Fish, will fall under the spotlight as the UK media turns its attention to the anniversary of the great storm which ravaged the south east of England and left 18 people dead.

It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago that the UK was hit by the “hurricane” that Fish failed to predict. And although the Met Office has always been quick to point that out that not only was the storm not a hurricane but it had also actually forecast severe winds, it will be keen to take the opportunity to remind us of how much more sophisticated its prediction techniques are these days.

Indeed, following the events of the autumn of 1987, an internal Met Office enquiry recommended the development and adoption of a range of new sensing, computing and satellite monitoring techniques. Thanks to the efforts of the engineers and scientists who rose to this challenge, weather forecasters now have a range of technologies available to them that, in 1987, they could only dream about.

These technologies range from new types of satellite systems for acquiring more detailed information about the state of the atmosphere to supercomputing techniques that the Met Office hopes will ultimately allow it predict the weather conditions in 1km2 areas. Current techniques use 60km2 areas.

All this is very commendable, and anything that enhances our wider understanding of our atmosphere and climate is a good thing. But is it just us, or does the way the information generated by this technology and its dissemination to the public need a bit of rethink?

Today’s weather forecasts are so continuously revised and updated that users struggle to get a general idea of what the weather might be like at the weekend, and must instead watch as the five day forecast turns from rain to sun and back to rain again. Add to this the Met Office’s admission that it can still be taken by surprise by today’s increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, and perhaps Billy Connolly had the right idea.

Jon Excell