John Walsh: 'Met Office predicted a warm winter. Cheers guys'

Tales of the City

Tuesday 19 January 2010 01:00
Comments

God, how embarrassing. The Met Office is on the verge of being dumped by the BBC, because it keeps getting forecasts – especially long-term ones – wrong. Worse, its place as the supplier of TV forecasts to the nation may be usurped by Metra, a New Zealand operation.

For a quasi-governmental organisation (it's part of the Ministry of Defence) that was founded 150 years as a service to seamen and which has supplied BBC with forecasts since 1920, this is a matter of head-hanging shame. If the UK's national weather service is disowned by the UK's national public broadcaster, where on earth can it go? Who's going to trust it, after its own family has rejected it? And does this mean that the BBC may dispense with all Met Office productions and dump the – gulp – Shipping Forecast as well?

I can't say I'm surprised by this turn of events, though. Last year the Met Office forecast a "barbecue summer", and we spent July and August huddling in the rain, trying to coax some fire out of the sodden charcoal. In autumn, there wasn't nearly enough shouting from the Met Office about the Arctic ice and biblical snowfalls that were heading our way, so we wound up sleeping in freezing cars, stranded on the A3, and cursing the birdbrains who predicted a 66 per cent likelihood that winter would be warmer than average (cheers, guys). Then you take a closer look and find that the Met failed to predict wet summers for the past three years; and that its annual global forecast predictions were wrong for nine of the last 10 years. It's been running a "warm bias" for a decade.

You could forgive it some errors of computation in what is, of course, an imperfect science, where words like "probability" and "projections" sometimes seem to mean "guesswork". But medicine is an imperfect science too (my father, a GP, used to refer to his stethoscope as "the guessing tubes") and you suspect that, if the Met Office was a doctor, his surgery would be littered with dead bodies. Its actual head office is in Exeter, Devon, a purpose-built £80m glass-and-steel beauty (opened in 2004) that dazzles in the sunlight but fails to shine when it comes to supplying useful medium-term information. Fifty years ago last summer, the success of the D-Day landings and the lives of millions depended crucially on weather forecasters accurately predicting the weather on the day of the invasion. If they could get it right weeks in advance, why can't the Met, half a century later?

Some climatologists hint that the Office's problem is political – its computer model of future weather behaviour habitually feeds in government-backed assumptions about climate change that aren't borne out by the facts. To the Met Office, the weather's always warmer than it really is, because it's expecting it to be, because it expects climate change to wreak its stealthy havoc. If it really has had its thumb on the scales for the last decade, I'm afraid it deserves to be shown the door.

***

Alternatives to reading actual words, No 139. A friend who is something big in New Media tells me that the future of reading will be like this. You're on the bus, reading Nick Cave's new novel The Death of Bunny Munro, downloaded to your iPhone or iSlate. When you reach your stop, you still have a 15-minute walk to work and you want to read on, so you plug in headphones and listen to Mr Cave reading the next bit of the book as you walk along (with a specially designed 3D audio-spatial soundtrack, obviously). When you reach your destination, and fancy a closer connection with the author, press a button on your phone and the Aussie Goth's craggy features will appear, reading aloud to you. Meanwhile, Jonathan Lethem, the US author, was on Radio 4 last week telling us the future novels may feature visual (or was it "video"?) elements along with the actual words. So if you get tired of reading, you know, sentences, you can press a button and the screen will give you a dramatised version of the story you're absorbed in, with characters mouthing dialogue, and a variety of backdrops (war zone, rainy field, sunny beach, New Orleans lapdance club) to choose from.

Brilliant. If we go on like this, there'll soon be no need to interact with the written word at all. And what a relief that will be, won't it?

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