Jim Dale: Why the Met Office got it wrong – again

The weather-watchers are too business-minded

Share
Related Topics

And so we enter another mild, globally warmed week in the quiet backstreet of largely pedestrian weather here in the UK, where nothing ever hardly happens. Wait a sec, did I say mild and quiet? Sorry. I was just taking my cue from the Met Office's robust end-of-autumn prediction, suggesting we were all in for yet another mild temperate winter.

Curiously, that came right on the back of the Met Office's other empty and forlorn forecast of a glorious "barbecue summer" – which, if you recall, dished up a very mixed salad topped off by an appallingly soggy burger. Given that two out of two important outputs have gone spectacularly wrong, in a country where the weather makes a huge impact on commerce, shouldn't we be asking some very serious questions about how and why these flip-of-a-coin, long-term seasonal forecasts tend to end butter side down for the Met Office?

Its meteorologists will say in their defence that their outputs are based on probabilities, and that their smaller probabilities won the day over their much publicised larger probabilities. But the "don't blame us, we covered all the permutations" argument apart, that response does prompt a question about their own PR machine and its failure to explain that the old horse with asthma and a gammy leg does occasionally win the big race. (And they can't fall back on blaming easy-on-the-eye TV weather forecasters: most of them are perfectly capable of explaining percentage probabilities.)

We all know that a forecast is a forecast, but if the will to be heard first and loudest in order to gain commercial advantage is paramount, then that is when the snow can hit the fan. What we actually need from the Met Office's PR machine is a detailed explanation of forecasters' thought patterns before the media get a hold of the big juicy bone ("It's going to be a barbecue summer"/"It's going to be a mild winter") thrown obligingly to them.

You see, there was a time in the not so distant past when the Met Office would decry any private forecasting organisation that attempted to predict beyond a week, let alone predict a season ahead. Nowadays, with some 30-odd independent UK weather firms out there, market share means having to push the boat out into deep and perilous icy waters, where floods, blizzards and other tempests lurk, waiting for the unwary, the greedy and the foolhardy. For the Met Office, that has meant using its multimillion-pound number-crunching supercomputers to pick the winners. Which, given their record to date, poses serious questions about the merits of supercomputers that managed to choose the pig's ear of a forecast... twice running.

It's not rocket science, and it doesn't take supercomputers to predict that a colder than average continental type winter was far more likely than not this year. The main reason for this is that we had endured the mild and wet Atlantic for several months, and higher air pressure over our latitude, and a switch change was badly overdue, by way of balance.

That's not hindsight either: our own outputs for the season ahead did predict some bitter winter spells – more than we have become used to over the past 30 years or so. That's not to say that anyone out there in the private sector predicted the multibillion-pound polar slammer that we have right now; but maybe councils and commercially effected companies might just like to take a second opinion in the future?

So yep, something isn't quite right in the Met Office stable – be it the PR jockey or the super-duper-computers. Thankfully there are other horses in the meteorological stable – like mine, and we more than welcome the competition.

Jim Dale is senior risk meteorologist with British Weather Services

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, whose expression was coveted by Alex Salmond as a young man  

Leonard Nimroy: Why Spock was the blackest person on the Enterprise

Bonnie Greer
 

Leonard Nimroy: Spock made me feel like it was good to be the weird kid

Matthew James
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?