150 years of British weather forecasts
“One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.”
Albert Einstein, Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, New York, 1941
Britain’s first weather man was mercilessly ribbed when he got it wrong. Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy declared: “General weather probable during the next two days”, in his first weather forecast – which was printed in The Times on August 1, 1861.
FitzRoy (pictured) was a pioneering meteorologist who was renowned as captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s voyage, and later set up the Met Office in 1854.
His work was applauded abroad, but in Britain it was a different story. “Whenever he got a forecast wrong, he suffered criticism and was the butt of jokes”, said the Met Office.
But 150 years on, has anything changed? FactCheck turns weather girl, and takes a look at British forecasting.
In the early days of TV forecasting in the 1950s, Met Office weather man George Cowling used a weather map, a pencil and a rubber to show the weather had in store for the British Isles.
But today, the Met Office uses a computer with 20,000 times the power of normal PCs to predict weather patterns.
The Met claims that its one-day forecasts are right six days out of seven; and it says that today’s four-day forecasts are as accurate as one-day forecasts were 30 years ago.
However the Met admits: “While this shows great advances in reliability, we cannot always predict detailed differences in weather at a local level”.
So why is it still so hard to get it right? It’s all about location, according to the Met.
Even subtle changes in the wind direction affect the UK because we are bobbing between the Atlantic Ocean and continental Europe. The UK also lies on a “battleground” of warm air from the tropics and cold air from the Arctic, which collides to create a “highly active and volatile climate”.
The Met pulled the plug on public weather forecasts during World War II for fear of aiding the enemy. The weather is critical in military operations, and it was bad weather that almost scotched the D-Day landings in 1944.
High seas and strong winds left German commanders convinced conditions were too awful to launch an invasion fleet. But General Eisenhower’s chief meteorologist James Stagg – who went on to become a Director of the Met – forecast a brief improvement for the 6th June.
On the strength of Stagg’s forecast, Eisenhower went ahead with the launch of the largest amphibious invasion in world history. It was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s hold on Europe.
Perhaps the worst weather forecast in British history was in 1987 – the year of The Great Storm, which blew winds of more than 100mph, killing 18 people and wreaking havoc across the UK.
Before the storm hit, the BBC’s Michael Fish made his now infamous statement on a lunchtime bulletin: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she’d heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t…”.
Fish’s failure however has become something of an urban myth – he has always maintained that he was referring to a tropical cyclone in Florida. “I wasn’t even on duty that night, it was Bill Giles”, he said in 2007. “So I cannot claim any responsibility whatsoever.”
And another point…
It would be remiss of us not to mention our very own singing weatherman. In honour of Channel 4′s Comedy Gala comedian Rich Hall presented the Channel 4 News weather in his own unique style. You can watch it again here, apologies to the people of Aberdeen.
The Times might have printed the first forecast, but it refused to take responsibility for the Met’s “common failures”.
“While disclaiming all credit for the occasional success, we must however demand to be held free of any responsibility for the too common failures which attend these prognostications,” the newspaper said.
And with the Met Office still weathering the flak, it would seem very little has changed – not least our unpredictable weather.
But if there’s a silver lining to the grey clouds above us, it is that the unpredictable nature of British weather is always the perfect conversation-starter.
As Debrett‘s etiquette guide rules: “With the weather as a topic, conversation is never going to falter”.
FactCheck suspects its readers know this already.
By Emma Thelwell
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