The Big Question: Should the BBC drop the Met Office as its official weather forecaster? - Big Question - Extras - The Independent

The Big Question: Should the BBC drop the Met Office as its official weather forecaster?

Why are we asking this now?

Rather than renewing its current weather forecasting contract with the Met Office automatically, when it expires in April, the BBC is putting it out to tender – for the first time since 1922, when national broadcaster and national forecaster first became partners. No one on either side says how much the contract is worth.

Why would the BBC drop a national institution?

Allegedly because it is looking for a cheaper alternative from among the many independent weather forecasting companies which have sprung up in the last 20 years. But the Beeb's move also coincides with a period in which the Met Office's forecasting accuracy has come under unprecedented fire. There is speculation that the two may be linked.

Have recent forecasts been inaccurate?

Some of them have. Most recently was the snow in London and the south-east last Wednesday morning, which was heavier than had been predicted, and caused widespread disruption. But beyond that, the Met Office failed to predict this year's Big Freeze as a whole.

The winter seasonal forecast for 2009-10, issued on September 29 last year, said that "winter temperatures are likely to be near or above average over much of Europe including the UK. Winter 2009/10 is likely to be milder than last year for the UK, but there is still a one in seven chance of a cold winter". As it turned out, we are in the middle of the coldest winter for 30 years. And then there was the famous case of the "barbecue summer".

Can we recap on that?

Last April, the Met Office issued its seasonal forecast for summer 2009, and said it was "odds-on for a barbecue summer", in a tremendously resonant phrase which made big headlines everywhere, not least because it was such a terrific piece of good news after the washout summers of 2007 and 2008. Chief forecaster, Ewen McCallum, said at the press conference: "We do not see the London bus syndrome of three wet summers coming in a row. The likelihood of that happening is extremely small." That was a hostage to fortune if ever there was one: July turned out to be one of the wettest summer months on record.

By the end of it, the resentment from a public whose hopes had been firmly raised for hot dry evenings on the patio was so intense, that the Met Office felt obliged to issue a public apology.

Why were they wrong?

The funny thing is, on one level, they didn't; the key phrase was "odds-on", and the odds Mr McCallum was talking about were precise: they were 65:35. That meant that the Met Office supercomputer had run 50 different simulations of the weather over the coming summer, in what is known as an "ensemble" of forecasts, and 65 per cent of these had indicated it would be warmer and drier than average, while 35 per cent had indicated the opposite.

So the Met Office did say there was a 35 per cent chance or rain, which is how it turned out – but that was entirely lost on the public in the forceful catchiness of the "barbecue summer" phrase, which, of course, was chosen to make headlines. The Met Office got its headlines, but it paid a very high price, in image terms, for getting them wrong: barbecue summer will take a lot of forgetting.

What does the Met Office say in its defence?

That dealing with a chaotic system such as the earth's atmosphere means one can never make forecasts with complete accuracy, especially a season in advance. Although it is accepted that "barbecue summer" was a big blunder, the Met men assert that most of their forecasts are right most of the time, and although last Wednesday's snow might not have been fully predicted, most of the episodes of the big freeze have been accurately called.

Who might take over as BBC forecaster of choice?

The Beeb is said to be talking to Metra, the commercial arm of New Zealand's state-owned national weather forecaster. Weather Commerce, Metra's UK subsidiary, already supplies forecasts to Tesco, Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, which help with sales predictions and weather-related distribution issues. Metra is clearly panting to win the contract (it was obvious from news reports at the weekend that Metra itself was the source of the story). It could do so.

In the past, only national weather forecasting services, such as those of the UK, the US or Japan, had the resources to perform full-scale weather prediction, which needs immensely-complex mathematical models of the global atmosphere and supercomputers costing billions of pounds on which to run them (and which have to be replaced with newer and even faster models every couple of years).

But the advent of the internet has meant that these forecasts can be available and downloaded, sometimes free, sometimes paid for, by many smaller firms, who can then tailor individual forecasts to specific clients – such as north sea oil companies. One potential advantage such smaller companies may have is that they take into account a wider range of forecasts than a single national weather service relying principally on its own weather model. But you have to be fairly big to fill the BBC bill: only companies with a turnover of more than £10m have been invited to apply.

How do you win the contract?

You have to provide the BBC with meteorological data for five years, at a competitive price, obviously. But there's something more tricky, too. You have to provide them with weathermen (or weatherwomen, or weatherpersons) – a cohort of 20 meteorologically-trained TV presenters, who will become household names and household faces. You have to provide the next Bill Giles (he of the tough reputation). The next John Kettley (he of his own pop song). The next Michael Fish (he of his own hurricane).

Is that so difficult?

It's something that the Met Office, with its big staff, can do easily, but it may be a much tougher call for a small company. Live broadcasting is a challenge. So the Met Office is still in with a good chance of recapturing the BBC contract; don't be surprised if it carries on. It said yesterday: "We consider we are in the best position to provide the BBC with accurate and detailed weather forecasts for the UK, and we hope this successful relationship continues."

Wind of change

1854 Met Office founded to provide information on the weather and marine currents to the marine community by Robert Fitzroy, captain of Darwin’s ‘HMS Beagle’ and later Governor of New Zealand

1909 Transatlantic shipping starts to use wireless telegraphy to transmit weathermessages ashore

1914-1918 Military personnel become dependent on Met Office forecasts for war planning

1939 Second World War sees introduction of radio sondes – ‘a collection of balloon-borne sensors transmitting data on pressure, temperature and humidity to receiving sites on land’

1940 The Met Office moves from London to wartime accommodation at Dunstable

1953 Major floods in south-east England, caused by storms in the North Sea, lead to the construction of the Thames Barrier

1954 The first live BBC Television forecast, lasting five minutes, was made by Met Office forecaster George Cowling

1959 London Weather Centre opens in Bracknell

1964 The first operational satellite images become available

1972 An IBM 360/195 computer is installed in the Richardson Wing of the Bracknell headquarters

1974 The Met Office takes part in the first global observation experiment

2003 One of the world's fastest supercomputers – the NEC SX-6 – isinstalled at the Met Office

2004 The Met Office's new headquarters in Exeter is fully operational

Would the BBC be justified in abandoning the Met Office?


*If it could secure a substantial saving for the same quality of service

*Some recent Met Office forecasts have been very wide of the mark, such as last year's barbecue summer and the recent big freeze

*The internet means a national weather service is no longer needed for serious forecasting


*The Met Office's general forecasting record is nearly 90 per cent accurate. Could others do better?

*It has more experience than any other weather service in the world (it dates back to 1854)

*It is a respected national institution and the appropriate weather source for the national broadcaster

Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
Kenny G
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week