The British weather and its vastly unpredictable patterns can often be overheard as a common topic buzzing around the waiting rooms of doctor’s surgeries or polite conversation at bus stops here in Blighty. But this winter, the mutterings of utter confusion appear to have taken on a new undercurrent of exasperation as we sit amid largely mellow temperatures and wait for the much publicized ‘Great British Freeze’ to occur.
As in previous years, tabloid readers were treated to near hysterical reports throughout October 2011 predicting a harsh winter with ‘Siberian Temperatures’ of – 20˚C. Discerning weather watchers were urged to stock up on extra stores of salt and food as ‘Exacta Weather ‘ and many others reported expectations of heavy snow drifts throughout the country amid a flurry of newspaper , radio and television bulletins. Given the record- breaking icy conditions of the last two winters, much of Britain was held poised with preparatory measures during November, then waited…and waited.
However, as the winter has thus far transpired, the North of England and Scotland have witnessed their third wettest and windiest winter on record with average temperatures and not much snow whilst the South of the UK has seen milder than usual temperatures and the odd blustery storm.
The question on the high street is undoubtedly “how could they have got it so wrong?”.
Having been approached with this question so many times over the last week or so, I interviewed The Met Office Chief Press Officer David Brett hoping to gain some clarity on the subject. As suspected, it appears the enormous hype and propaganda from last year was completely unfounded and without any scientific backing whatsoever. When pressed on this matter Mr Brett states:
“Certain regional forecasters and websites came out with hyped information, and therefore grabbed the headlines. They were working on the assumption that the trends of the past few years were going to follow the same pattern this winter, but science doesn’t allow for such predictions. A long range forecast is meant as a guide for probability running on previous years’ weather charts, not as an accurate source of information. “
He further explained that by their very nature, long range forecasts cannot be accurate due to the perpetually shifting conditions within the atmosphere. He claimed anything being predicted past 5 days or so should be counted as “very probabilistic”. He was also keen to point out that throughout the whole of the snow- based hysteria, the Met Office remained completely silent on the subject.
“One of our many roles is to provide accurate information and support to the Government, assisting them with the best scientific facts possible so they can inform the road and highway agencies, airports and emergency services in the appropriate way when required “ he explained. As the most reliable source of accurate weather information in the UK, The Met Office would not commit to any forecasting predictions outside the realms of scientific proof.
I continued along the same theme and asked why the nationwide pattern expected by so many this year hadn’t occurred after all thus far; especially when several weather forecasting sources were talking of over 60% assurance of snow at some point between November and January at least.
Mr Brett informed me “There are always natural variables in the annual patterns of weather systems. The pattern of the last 2-3 winters occurred because the normal system was blocked by a heavy stream of cold easterly winds which were stuck over the UK. This caused an oscillatory blip in an otherwise fairly predictable succession of British winters and subsequently prolonged the duration of the ice and snowfall. This year, the pattern appears to have returned to normal with no such stream of harsh easterly winds as yet”. He also pointed out that although December 2010 was recorded as the coldest for 100 years, the following February (2011) was in fact the mildest on record for many years.
These highlighted contrasts brought us on to my final area of intrigue: the vagaries of weather systems. I asked him why it should be so hard to predict even an hour beforehand sometimes, whether a storm will sweep through the south west of the country and across to the east, or whether it will head north and wreak havoc there instead. This, I was assured, is largely due to a whole gamut of possible changes within the conditions. These range from small temperature differences, the strength and curve of the jet stream, influences in tidal pressure, wind change and differences in atmospheric pressure; any one of which can change at the last minute depending on their influence on each other. The forecaster’s prediction is often a scientific game of percentages and probabilities gauged against the physics within the weather systems and graphs from past trends.
So the next time someone asks you if you think it’s going to snow, it’s probably best to direct them to the roof of The Met Office; arguably the best place to attempt predicting the unpredictable!
© Tess Egerton 2012