Come rain or shine, they keep on forecasting
It's 150 years since the first public weather report. Paul Bignell and Matt Thomas mark a stormy history
Sunday 26 June 2011
Who would be a weather forecaster? The barrage of abuse, the outpouring of scorn that greet the men and women of the Met Office when their predictions are less than accurate is enough to put off the most committed of presenters. Yet, since the first public forecast, 150 years ago this summer, those indomitable weather men and women have carried on, come rain or shine, seeking to predict that most unpredictable of phenomena.
Next week the Royal Meteorological Society's annual conference will celebrate a century and a half of forecasting. From Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy's first storm warnings for shipping in 1861, to the latest scientific advances which allow us to receive five-day forecasts on our mobile phones, it has often been a tempestuous journey.
They are blamed for the merest wisp of cloud on a sky-blue sunny day or a spot of rain on a bank holiday when none has been foretold. Lynchings are darkly hinted at when Icelandic volcanoes ruin our summer holidays or droughts prevent us from watering our gardens.
Nobody remembers when they get it right – which they often do, particularly as technology and know-how have raised their game to stratospheric levels. No one needs a weatherman when the wind blows in the right direction, the saying goes. When it blows – strongly – in the wrong direction and they haven't predicted it, they are rarely forgiven. Just ask Michael Fish.
Today The Independent on Sunday recognises their achievements – and a few of their shortcomings. While Vice-Admiral FitzRoy would undoubtedly have applauded the improvement in the science of forecasting, it is anyone's guess what he would have made of the age of the ditzy weathergirl or of a dwarf explaining the weather on television while jumping on a trampoline.
1. The founding father of meteorology
Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy was Captain of HMS Beagle on Darwin's famous voyage and went on to become one of the founding fathers of meteorology. He headed the Meteorological Board of Trade, now known as the Met Office, the first dedicated weather forecasting outfit. In 1861, he began producing daily forecasts for shipping. These were later reproduced in newspapers. From the outset they attracted scorn and were attacked for being hokum and scientifically baseless. Ironically, despite saving many seafarers' lives with his forecasts, he couldn't save his own. The attacks prompted his depression and he committed suicide, aged 59.
2. Forecasting takes to the airwaves
On 14 November 1922, the BBC broadcast the first public radio weather bulletin. The script was prepared by the Met Office and an announcer read it. The next year, this became a daily service. From the beginning, farmers found the broadcasts very important, and in 1924 the first shipping forecast was broadcast to mariners.
3. Fisher, Dogger and German Bight
In 1924, the shipping forecast – with its hypnotic litany of sea area names from Biscay to Viking, preceded by "Sailing By", starts sending hundreds of thousands of BBC listeners a night to sleep.
4. Television's first weatherman
BBC executives decided to take the forecast further and the idea of presenting on television was born. Thirty-two-year-old George Cowling, a former RAF meteorologist, was the man chosen. And, on 11 January 1954, Cowling delivered the first televised weather forecast to the nation. It cost just £50, but it started a revolution.
5. Weathermen become presenters
In 1974 Barbara Edwards became the BBC's first female television weather presenter. The term "weathermen" had to be changed to "presenters" after she blazed a trail for females. Edwards later retreated to radio in frustration at the public criticism of her dress sense, which the male presenters escaped.
6. Michael Fish becomes a national hate figure
On 15 October 1987 hurricane-force winds hit southern England and northern France, causing the deaths of 18 people and costing the insurance industry £2bn. The weatherman Michael Fish was criticised for downplaying the severity of the conditions. He has since claimed that he was referring to the weather in Florida and went on to forecast storms in England.
7. Swede Ulrika Jonsson gets pulses racing
The svelte Swede first came to the attention of the public as a TV-AM weathergirl, particularly for her habit of breaking down in giggles. Critics claimed the choice was prompted more by beauty than brains and undermined the serious business of forecasting. Later presenters such as Lucy Verasamy would combine looks with a science degree.
8. Boscastle left submerged
In August 2004 flash floods in Boscastle, Cornwall, destroyed 100 homes and businesses and washed 75 cars out to sea. Forecasters failed to issue a weather warning that might have allowed the village to have been evacuated. Later the Met Office admitted that its five-day weather forecast was not accurate.
9. Met Office gets it completely wrong
Bournemouth's tourist board criticises the Met Office's "inaccurate and overcautious" forecasts of rain for May bank holiday 2009 resulting in 25,000 visitors cancelling visits. Having predicted a "barbecue summer", the Met Office is forced to defend itself when July and August turn out to be among the dampest on record.
10. Weatherman gives the finger
Tomasz Schafernaker was caught gesturing rudely onscreen to the BBC news anchor Simon McCoy in 2010. The Met Office weather presenter was responding to teasing about the inaccuracy of the forecast. He left the BBC later that year.
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