Nature Studies: The BBC is all at sea with its plans to dispense with the Met Office

The consistency of weather messaging will no longer be guaranteed, when in the future we may need it more than ever

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A notable anniversary falls this week, one which may be of interest to the BBC executives who have just decided to dispense with the UK Met Office as the provider of their weather forecasts. It is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the mammoth storm of August 2005 which wrecked the city of New Orleans, drowned more than 1,800 people and was the costliest natural disaster ever to befall the United States.

In the agonised lesson-learning which followed, much attention was focused on warnings and response, and in particular the role played in the disaster by inconsistent messages from various US authorities: federal, state and local. Evacuate now? Evacuate later? Don’t evacuate? Many people were confused; and many died.

In Katrina’s aftermath, it became clear that consistent messaging in advance of a major weather event is absolutely critical; and that is exactly what is being put at risk by the crack-brained and scarcely believable decision to do away with the long-established national weather service, and replace it with something from the Netherlands, maybe, or perhaps New Zealand. If it’s cheaper. Or possibly sexier. The BBC hasn’t specified.

In doing so, the Beeb at a stroke will be breaking a key link: that between the weather messages which go to what is known in the jargon as “the resilience community” – the police, the fire, the ambulance, the coastguard and all the other services which shore us up – and those which go to the general public through radio, television and internet.

At the moment, they are identical, which is as it should be. But that is going to change. The police and their emergency-responding fellows will not go to some Kiwi weather company to hear that a major storm is brewing; they will get their forecasts from the Met Office as they have always done, and will be liaising with them closely. But the national broadcaster will be looking elsewhere, and broadcasting a forecast from somebody else.

This may seem a subtle point. But it is the breaking of this link which has caused alarm and disbelief at the highest levels of the Met Office.

What if the two forecasts diverge? What if members of the public try to confirm one with the other – as they can at present – and they do not match up? Senior Met Office figures are in no way reassured by the Beeb’s bland assurance that it will still broadcast their severe weather warnings (so that in effect we will have two forecasts).

What will happen is that consistency of weather messaging will simply no longer be guaranteed, when in the future we may need it more than ever.

We might not get hurricanes, but we increasingly get major flooding, and we get North Sea storm surges, like the one on 31 January 1953 which drowned 307 people, and the one on 5 December 2013 which missed causing the same level of devastation by a whisker.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the UK Met Office is consistently the most accurate weather forecaster in the world, whatever grumbles we may have when sometimes, and inevitably, it gets things wrong. It is not infallible; but it is a beacon of excellence, and the BBC’s move to dispense with it, after nearly a century of cooperation, is crazy.

It may suit the Corporation’s bottom line, or its image of itself as a trendy broadcaster: but the commercial interests of the BBC are not the same as the interests of the nation, and this decision is a nonsense which needs to be reversed.