Gritting One’s Teeth

We’ve finally experienced some seasonal weather conditions here in the UK. Gone is the dizzying mildness of October and November, and with us are the sparkling frosts of December. There has even been some festive snow across Scotland and high ground in northern England, although not to the extent that the meteorological-maniac that is Exacta Weather, and its bedfellow riot that is the Daily Express, would have you believe (more on this another time).

As a meteorologist in an operational weather centre, a large proportion of my wintertime workload involves liaising closely with local authorities who are responsible for salting the road network during cold, icy nights. A significant proportion of the gritting forecasts in the UK, disseminated among the many hundreds of authorities and highways agencies across the country, are produced by the private weather sector. These are not your average run-of-the-mill media forecasts either. They are, instead, extremely detailed, hour-by-hour predictions of road temperatures, wind speeds, cloud cover, rainfall amounts, snowfall amounts, humidity, and so on. Gritting authorities receive these forecasts daily and plan their salting actions accordingly.

But it doesn’t stop there. As most people are snuggled-up in bed during cold winter nights, meteorologists are manning 24hr weather desks, closely monitoring road and weather conditions across the country. If a frost suddenly develops in one portion of a county, the relevant authority is notified and gritters can roar into action to deal with the hazard quickly.

road-weather-station_Suchy-Vrch
One of many hundreds of roadside weather stations, monitored by forecasters day and night, to keep the roads safe for travel.

Gritting, or salting as it should probably be referred to, is a very scientific process. When salt is applied to a road surface, any moisture on that road has its properties changed. Whereas water normally freezes on roads at zero degrees Celsius, salt lowers this freezing temperature. In other words, water could drop to -5C, -10C, or even lower, before freezing. The principle is simple but, in reality, it’s not quite that easy.

You see, each authority has hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of road network to treat. This normally includes major A-roads, dual-carriageways, and other important road infrastructure. This doesn’t however, include the tens of thousands of miles of back-roads. Why, might you ask, are some roads allowed to freeze? Well, every full grit of the primary road network (that excludes back-roads) costs councils, and therefore YOU through your taxes, thousands of quid a pop. You not only have the cost of the lorries, diesel and salt to think about, but also the man-hours.

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A Highways Agency gritter, doing its thang!

This leads nicely to my inspiration for this meteorological musing, poorly disguised as a rant; the public’s gross ill-perception of gritting.

Picture the scene, if you will, and see if your response defines you as ignorant or educated. You’re driving along and you notice that the road ahead is covered in frost. Which of the following runs through your mind?

A) They haven’t gritted the roads and my taxes are being wasted.
B) There’s frost on the road, I’d better adjust my speed and take responsibility for myself.

Alarmingly, if widespread comment in social media, in news reports, and through day-to-day overhearing of conversations are anything to go by, the overwhelming answer of many would be “A”. If a poor fellow crashes on an icy road, or if someone slips whilst walking to their car on a frosty morning it seems that, invariably, it must be someone else’s fault.

On enountering a frosty road, or a road that is covered in snow, the following comment is all-too-common and I hear it almost daily:

gritter

Now, leaving aside the issue that the road may not actually be on the treating network in the first place, one thing comes to mind when I hear these frequently-uttered condemnations.

A gritter is a single lorry. It travels at 30-40mph and may take a few seconds to pass your house. It only needs to drive past once, and then it’s gone. The only sure-fire way of knowing whether a gritter has driven past is to stand at the roadside, all night in freezing conditions, until you spot one. You would be expected to wave merrily at the driver as it passes, of course.

But how many people sit on gritter-watch 24hrs a day? It must be frustrating to be a gritter driver, dragged out of your bed at 4am, putting your life on the line to treat a dangerously icy road, only to hear your neighbours crowing about how “the gritters weren’t out last night”.

Rather than a function of whether someone has actually seen a gritter with their own eyes, I suspect the main conclusions people draw as to why they believe the gritting lorries stayed back at base, is because the road is covered in ice, frost or snow.

An icy road  in Knutsford, Cheshire
A possible solution? Signs on every corner in winter. That’d do it!

At the risk of turning this musing into a Sunday afternoon lecture, here are the facts you should know about road gritting and hazardous highways:

* Grit/salt is not magical, mystical dust that wafts waves of warmth across the road, preventing the formation of ice or frost. It’s very helpful but not a complete solution.

* On roads that are sparsely-trafficked, ice, frost and snow will settle even if the road has been heavily gritted. Car movements will mix together the wintry hazard with the salt, allowing that hazard to melt but, without traffic, this process can’t occur and the frost or snow can literally sit on top of the salt.

* Salt has to be liberally scattered across a road surface. You’d complain about dirty cars and cracked windscreens if it was dumped by the tonne outside your house. Don’t assume every square inch of tarmac is free of ice as there’ll be areas that salt hasn’t managed to spread.

* When snow falls heavily, the rate of settling normally outstrips the rate of melting caused by salt. Therefore, a road covered in snow has probably been gritted but it will take time for that grit to work (and again, traffic speeds this up).

Just to repeat that last one, snow will settle on gritted roads. It’ll make me feel better if only one person reads that last bit!

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Tandem gritting!

The public misunderstanding of winter road gritting is not an excuse for its ignorance. There is a pandemic of science-scepticism across the world today and much of this is borne-out from people with little knowledge of a subject, having strong views on what they believe to be right. The simple act of winter road maintenance is at the sharp end of huge ignorance, fanned by a pathetic tabloid press, and forecasters, councils and gritting authorities are dealing with unprecedented, ill-informed complaints.

Ultimately, if it’s cold and frosty outside, drive to the conditions. Don’t assume roads have been gritted but, equally, don’t assume a road covered in ice or snow, hasn’t been.

This must stop now.

Earlier this year, I wasted many a minute collating and verifying weather stories printed in the Express newspaper. The aim of my news gathering antics was to concoct a humorous overview of how consistently forecasting the same apocalyptic weather would verify eventually. Of course, in the case of the Express claims of the worst snow in history, it didn’t verify, not in the slightest, and we endured one of the mildest, wettest winters in living memory.

The bulk of the material for the Express’s extreme meteorological misery was pumped from “Exacta Weather”, a one-man company claiming unrivaled success in long range forecasting. At winter’s end, I even bungled together Exacta’s weather graphics for the entire winter, ultimately proving how the repetitive prediction of snow in one of the mildest winter’s we’ve witnessed, can make a man look ridiculous.

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Exacta Weather graphical forecasts for the winter of 2013-14

The symbiotic relationship between Exacta Weather and the Express was also discussed at great length and I was rather frank about my opinion of these bedfellows. Should it be right, or even legal, that one can set up a weather “company” with zero meteorological training or credentials, make completely unsubstantiated claims about your accuracy and forecasting methods, and enjoy your forecasts published in the mainstream media for all to see? Should hard-working, legitimate weather companies have their industry dragged through the mud (waist-deep in the case of last winter) so that rogue traders can publicise their name and make extra cash for the tabloids?

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A re-hash of the back-scratching relationship

You would think, with such negative publicity and disastrously embarrassing forecasting results, Exacta Weather may lay low this year. Sadly, the reality is quite unbelievably different.

As early as September, Exacta were already making claims about the coming winter of 2014-15, and how it would be incredibly cold and snowy. The Express were soon on the case, spilling Exacta’s claims into homes and offices near you. Once again, the weather industry was becoming a laughing stock because of the potentially narcissistic tendencies of one individual hiding in northern England.

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Just one of the numerous Express stories, instigated by Exacta Weather, that you’ve no doubt seen this year!

This is no longer substance of humour, not for those who work within the legitimate weather industry at any rate. I’d also suggest it’s a rather serious development for those who aren’t party to Exacta’s track record and part with hard-earned cash for Exacta’s forecasts (yes, apparently they do sell them). The situation has become so significant that comments and debates in various social media and forums are bordering on legal minefields.

Exacta, headed (or solely inhabited by) James Madden, have pulled their Twitter account due to intense scrutiny. They have, however, kept their Facebook account. Why, you may ask? Well, unlike Twitter, Facebook page owners can delete, at will, any comments or replies that are not to their liking, thus removing anything that may cast their company in a bad light.

An amusing Facebook niggle, however, is that a strap-line exists to display the number of comments that have been left, even though you cannot read them. In an endless cycle of rinse and repeat, each new addition byExacta Weather in their Facebook group (invariably forecasting snowfall hell) is followed swiftly by “8 comments”, “15 comments”, “25 comments”. However, disappointed readers discover that, when attempting to view these comments, they simply don’t exist. Worse still, the comments’ authors have been mystically banned from commenting in future. It’s certainly a far-cry from the UK’s national agency, the Met Office, who are required to air their accuracy statistics and accept all comment in return. Make of this what you will.

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Just one of the endless examples of phantom feedback.

I’m choosing to keep very much at arm’s length just now as, bewilderingly and presumably under pressure, James Madden has taken to task some of those levying criticism at him with some potentially slanderous remarks.

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The latest update from James Madden, levying criminal claims at other weather companies (I’ve chosen to remove identities and links for legal reasons).

So, the current situation is that Exacta Weather are predicting another winter of the worst snowfall ever. They’re working at light-speed to banish any potentially damaging references to their previous forecasting claims or performance. They’re becoming increasingly volatile, delving worryingly close to legal storms.

But, Exacta Weather and James Madden, are still enjoying their name in lights on the front pages of national newspapers, damaging the credibility of the entire weather industry and even destroying any credibility the tabloid press has.

This has to stop. Now.

A Hail Of Nonsense

It’s been a while since my last meteorological rant. I’d like to explain how I’ve had no time for clattering the keyboard, having spent the past couple of months digging myself out of gable-height snowdrifts, left behind after the snowiest winter on record. Sadly, despite weekly tabloid forecasts that should have supported snowy-hell, I’ve simply been too busy mowing the lawns, packing away the sandbags and ranting at my insurance company, after one of the mildest, and certainly the wettest, winters in years.

Whilst I’m on the subject of the gutter press, it might be worth cleaning out those gutters, or buying a whole new roof in preparation, if the latest Express headline comes to fruition:

hail

Nathan Rao, the Express newspaper’s weather guru, is back in town. No matter what I’ve suggested about this upstanding chap in the past, not even he can predict snowstorms in June. To compensate for this, he’s now predicting ice of a different form;

Ice stones the ‘size of cricket balls’ will cause devastation across the country in what forecasters fear could be the the worst hailstorms since a deadly ‘supercell’ led to hailstones leaving craters FIVE FEET deep across England 171 years ago.”

Now, before I dissect this weather story in laborious detail, I should put on my meteorologist’s hat for a moment. With low pressure to the south and west of the UK this coming weekend and early next week, some extremely warm air looks set to ride northwards through Spain, France and Germany, glancing into central and eastern parts of the UK. This may well see the major storm-fuel parameters increase, namely temperature and humidity. In the next seven days, it’s almost certain that some of us will experience nature’s fireworks at close quarters and we could even see some hailstones, gusty winds and localised flooding.

With that prediction in mind, don’t let the Express, or their battalion of armchair weather ‘forecasters’, claim success. There’s a very big difference between reporting on likely weather conditions and over-egging the predictions with the view to selling newspapers.

A few months ago, I attempted to drill-down into the mind of the tabloid reporter when constructing a weather-related story, and came up with the following:

expressflow

The latest epic by Nathan Rao pleasingly follows this flowchart beautifully, and so can we!

The threat of storms and heavy rain is supported by Met Office warnings, but the report itself is based largely on quotes from armchair weather enthusiasts. The Express appears to have distanced itself from Exacta Weather and their borderline fraudulent forecasts (a review of Exacta’s winter forecasting (broken) record), so it’s down to Vantage Weather to work overtime now. A quote from this report:

“Jonathan Powell, forecaster for Vantage Weather Services, said ferocious storms, rain and winds cold last until the end of next week. He said raging temperatures will trigger “spectacular” thunderstorms while colliding air masses will trigger ‘extreme tornado activity’ in parts of Britain. He said: “We are expecting a crescendo of heat on Friday and into Saturday and this is expected to trigger violent, almost tropical storms across the country. It is possible we could see hailstones the size of cricket balls. There is also a risk of severe tornadoes which are whipped up when two weather fronts battle it out, as we are expecting.”

In time-honored tradition, Nathan Rao’s report has been sensationalised in the extreme using attention-seeking weather outlets. What Nathan, and these weather outlets, have in common is that they are addicted to publicity in whatever form this may take, and generate this publicity with catastrophic forecasts devoid of science, accuracy or even truth. Neither show any remorse for scaring, amusing or annoying the public (delete as applicable) and the damage they cause to the wider weather industry continues.

lightning
A likely scene across some parts of the country this weekend and into early next week, captured by my humble self in Surrey back in 2011.

So, in summary, prepare for some very warm weather, some intense downpours, vivid lightning and even some hailstones but don’t leave the country just yet. However, at the same time, please continue to disregard the Daily Express, Nathan Rao and their platoon of weather-frauds.

And if you have to leave the country off the back of these predictions, please take all of the above with you.

Exacta-ly the opposite!

The facts and figures for the winter-that-never-started are now in. Unless you live at an altitude that requires a 4×4 and an oxygen tank, just to reach the end of your driveway, then you cannot have failed to notice that the landscape hasn’t been as monochromatic as you might expect during a normal winter.

The Scottish Highlands have had a phenomenal amount of snow during the winter of 2013/14. There’s been so much snow, in fact, that skiing has been difficult at times. That’s not stopped the winter-sport industry in Scotland enjoying a bumper year, however. The high ground in northern England has also received stately dollops of the white stuff on more than one occasion. However, I’d be willing to bet my Michael Fish socks (that aren’t worn under sandals, incidentally) that everyone else in the UK can count on one hand the number of times their garden has been snowed upon. In fact, I reckon folks across the southern half of England and Wales could count the number of falling snowflakes they’ve witnessed in winter 2013/14 on a solitary pinky. And even that was probably sea foam.

Below are key graphics from the Met Office’s assessment of the winter months (December, January and February). Whilst I’m risking the wrath of Crown Copyright by posting these images below, I’m hoping that linking to the Met Office site will direct the scant viewing numbers of my measly little blog to the state weather forecaster’s homepage, thus cutting me a little slack.

Firstly, here’s the overview of mean temperature for the winter just gone compared with average winter temperatures for the 1961-1990 period. Not surprisingly, this winter was a warm one, preliminarily thought to be the 5th warmest on record.

2014_16_MeanTemp_Anomaly_1961-1990
Copyright Met Office

We don’t need graphics to tell us how wet it’s been. It’s been one of the wettest winters on record; you can take that as fact. Just as interesting, however, is just how little frost large parts of the country have received. The following Met Office graphics show the number of air frosts per month (Dec,Jan,Feb), where air temperatures fall to zero degrees Celsius or below. Some southern areas have probably had fewer than ten air frosts all winter!

Image3
Copyright Met Office

So, was this winter predicted to be one of the warmest and wettest on record? Of course not. Nobody in their right meteorological mind would predict extremes in a long-range forecast. Or would they?

Us weather folk stick together. We’re bound together by our quirky fondness of all things atmospheric. Many of us work for rival companies and it’s fiercely competitive since private weather businesses entered the market. However, a meteorologist is a meteorologist, and we’ll bury the competitive hatchet and stick together when one of our own is under fire.

Recently, the image of meteorologists and the weather business has been brought into disrepute by fakery and impersonation. The age of the internet has bred armchair weather forecasters as much as its bred armchair experts on every topic under the sun (and beyond the sun). Professionals aren’t pedestal-lovers and in my opinion, if people want to give forecasting a crack, that’s fine by me. My patience wears thin, however, when those with little knowledge in the topic, totally devoid of meteorological training or qualification, excrete forecasting claims to the wider masses under the banner of “the weather industry”.

punxsutawney-fraud
The weather forecasting groundhog; recent addition to the Express’s meteorologists. Borrowed from Punxsutawney Phil’s exposure!

Anyone reading my previous blog rantings will know that I’ve taken exception to one such forecasting outlet, Exacta Weather. “They” have had a high profile in the last year or two, born largely out of their symbiotic relationship with tabloid gutter press. As I’ve rambled about before, Exacta Weather create sensationalist “forecasts”, normally containing the worst weather in history, and the tabloids put it to print in order to build their readership. It’s very much like the mutual flea-picking that goes on between jungle primates.

The cosy relationship between meteorological fraudsters and tabloid nutters would be all well and good if the distinction was made between the likes of Exacta Weather or Vantage Weather, and reputable forecasting companies. However, it isn’t. Forecasters are forecasters, or so the press would have us believe.

Successful and respected weather companies, of which the Met Office, MetDesk, MeteoGroup and Weatherquest are but a few, are answerable to their customers. Businesses and industries pay for accurate forecasts and, if they fall short of expectation, they take their business elsewhere and even receive forms of compensation. However, if your business is answerable to nobody, how can your forecasts be verified and how can your business be kept on the straight and narrow?

This is deep stuff. Too deep, in fact, and I’m depressing myself. And probably you too.

I’ll lighten the mood to finish and those feeling that I’m being a little harsh and singling out Exacta Weather unfairly, may wish to verify their winter forecasts yourselves. As if by magic, I hereby present to you a montage of Exacta Weather’s predictions for the winter of 2013/14. I’ve compiled every image accompanying Exacta’s predictions of heavy snow and severe cold, starting in August 2013 and finishing in early March 2014. There were one or two other updates on their Facebook page, but I don’t feel that vitriolic attacks on the Met Office would settle very well on a page where I’ve effectively half-inched the MO’s weather graphics!

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Winter 2013/14. Look at all that snow!

I cannot fault Exacta’s creation of spiffing imagery to capture the snow-lovers’ imagination. If I ever set myself up in business I’ll definitely be hiring these guys to design my logo. I won’t, however, be hiring their forecasting talents. My prime recruitment requirement would be the ability to predict anything other than snow in one of the warmest, wettest and stormiest winters in living memory.

Still, if you’ve forgotten what snow looks like, that montage is for you.

Gutter Express

It’s been a woeful winter for embattled Brits. Sharp, crisp frosts, Dickensian snowfall scenes, sparkling icicles; few of us have witnessed any of them. Instead, it’s rained on top of rain, and then rained again. We’ve had heavy rain, very heavy rain and, most frequently, sideways rain, as storms have rifled in from our nearest ocean. Oh, and salty rain containing small pebbles. Flooding has been rife, especially across the southern half of the country, and thousands have lost homes and possessions as a result.

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The Thames bursts its banks near Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.

The Environment Agency has taken a beating over the last few weeks, accused by angry residents, and by spherical government ministers, of not only failing to contain the floods but actively causing them. However, it would seem that sufficient heads have not yet rolled in response to our terrible winter, justified or not. In the last week, it has been the turn of the UK Met Office to come under fire.

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Headlines from the Express and Daily Mail

Reports claim that the Met Office seasonal forecast, which give broad indications on what to expect over a 3-month period, could not have been wider of the mark. If you believe the blunt-edged swords of tabloid press reporting, the Met Office predicted a dry winter, and we don’t require meteorological statistics to tell us it’s been anything but. Dig a little deeper than the initial claims, however, and the waters are rather more silt-infested-Somerset-Levels than turquoise-Caribbean-atoll.

The Met Office seasonal forecasts took a major blasting back in 2009 when they predicted a warmer and drier than average summer. Of course, we’ll all remember the unfortunate spin placed on the prediction by the Met Office’s own press department who, in their moment of genius, coined the “BBQ Summer” phrase that will live in forecasting infamy.

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Seasonal forecasts were then pulled from the public eye and rightly so. The Met Office had always admitted, as any reputable scientific organisation should, that seasonal forecasting was inexact and merely gives indications rather than hard facts. These forecasts are now issued only to councils and other infrastructure outlets for contingency planning.

The parallels between the Met Office summer 2009 prediction, compared with the way in which the media reported it, could not be more similar in this winter’s case.

Amongst other things, here’s what the Met Office stated in November, regarding the winter 2013-2014 (December, January, February)

“The probability that UK precipitation for December-January-February will fall into the driest of our five categories is around 25 per cent and the probability that it will fall into the wettest category is around 15 per cent.”

Like horse racing, the predictions are based on probability, and the Met Office were favouring a drier-than-average winter. As you’ve probably noticed though, there was only a difference of 10% between a drier-than, or wetter-than, average winter.

I’m not in the business of defending this prediction. Ultimately, the wrong horse was backed, as it became stranded in a flooded field, and probably drowned. However, contrary to tabloid reports, the Met Office had not bullishly predicted a dry winter.

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Met Office horse.

Moving on, and I am very definitely going to turn my attention to the repugnant reporting of the Express newspaper and, in particular, their self-confessed weather expert, Nathan Rao. This publicity-desperate chap has been a reporter for the Express since 2010 and, during that time, has led the Express’s obsession with severe, doom-bringing weather stories.

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Nathan Rao of the Express, tossing a pizza base. Expert forecaster. Expert tosser, of pancakes.

Nathan displays his lifetime curriculum vitae on his own website but, peculiarly, omits any reference to where his weather expertise has been gained. He’s clearly a scientist, having studied biochemistry and pharmacology. However, as his professional career progressed, he seemed to move towards sales, reporting and journalism. Perhaps a life in scientific academia where facts, figures and truths drive all, was too much for Nathan and a move to tabloid press and morning television, where all of the above are frowned upon, was more fitting.

Missing from Nathan’s CV, or from anything Nathan has ever excreted onto paper, is expertise in forecasting and meteorology. This is, perhaps, rather concerning but not surprising.

As I mused back in January, the Express’s reporting of weather follows very simple guidelines. As a scientist myself, I feel that this process would be better represented in diagrammatical format.

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Express weather story guidelines (in Exacta Weather structure and typeface)

But that’s enough of picking apart the Express’s journalists and journalism, words that imply accuracy and honesty. I’d rather now focus on the recent Express report, cobbled together by Nathan Rao, as to why forecasts from Exacta Weather and the Express articles that featured them, were correct. The best place to start would be the graphic at the header of this report:

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0.0001% of the Express weather headlines since October 2013

For the eagle-eyed amongst you, the most prominent, overlapping headline here speaks of storms and floods. This publication, of course, went to print long after the floods had set in and was based largely on Met Office forecasts. The other two front-pages, hidden slightly behind this rather moist issue, warn of “100 days of heavy snow” and “Winter 2013 to be the longest in history”. Both of these are from back in November/December 2013 and represent the bulk of Nathan Rao’s weather topics during this winter. Incidentally, I’ve been scientifically researching the “longest winter in history” prediction and the only outcome I can deduce is that we would require an extra day in the calendar for this to happen, perhaps ‘December 32nd’ to allow New Year hangovers that extra day.

So, we face a quandary here. The majority of the Express’s weather headlines this winter have warned of heavy snow. We also know that one of their main sources, Exacta Weather, whose forecasting record from September to January has already been discussed (February’s verification is still to come), also predicted snow on snow throughout. So then, how can the Express still claim to be correct when the winter has been one of the most snowless in recorded history?

Below are the key parts of the Express article that act to vindicate its forecasts, and forecast “providers”:

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Section from Express article.

Here is another clipping from the article, in which Exacta Weather and Vantage Weather explain their side of the bargain (highlighted for discussion later)

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From Express article.

We all have our first encounter with meteorology when we’re knee-high to a snow-buried grasshopper in primary school. Geography lessons often see many of us taking to the playground to sample air temperatures with dusty thermometers and testing wind direction by lobbing grass at each other. We’re also taught something very fundamental about the UK’s climate, something that you’d be hard-pushed to find a Brit ill-aware of.

“Winds from the north and east bring cold, and winds from the south amd west bring mild”.

Those who paid even more attention in class may also recall the following:

“Winds from the north or east are generally drier than winds from the south and west”.

This very basic, and mildly insulting graphic to anyone who knows their rain from their snow, illustrates the broad link between types of winter and predominant wind directions.

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Back to school

Of course, we get dry spells from all directions and, equally, we get wet spells from all directions too. However, there’s a very good reason I’ve included this condescending, 1980s-commodore 64 graphic above; the Express and their weather sources seem oblivious to it.

There are two main reasons why cold often means dry in the UK. Firstly, winds from the coldest easterly directions blow over large expanses of continental landmass, drying out as they do so. Compare these with westerly winds that blow over 1000s of miles of Atlantic ocean, picking up lots of moisture. The second reason for why cold often means dry is that cold air cannot physically hold and transport as much moisture as warm air. We do, of course, get lots of snow when it’s cold but not in the sort of quantities that can break precipitation records.

Analysing the responses of Exacta Weather and Vantage Weather to the exceptionally wet and very mild winter, it seems to me that they were both predicting a much wetter-than-average winter but also a much colder-than-average winter as well. They go on to explain that their predicted snow actually fell as rain and was due to very subtle shifts in broad-scale weather patterns. In essence, their forecasts were accurate bar one or two tiny omissions.

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Forecast verification – Express style.

I’d prefer to remain impartial-on-the-surface in my blogs but, for this one, I’m going to make an exception. A huge, whacking exception. The Express, Exacta and Vantage weather, in their follow-up to the winter’s events, are either displaying a pre-primary school knowledge of weather and climate or are, more worryingly, lying through gritted teeth (or, more likely, non-gritted teeth as it’s not been cold enough for gritting).

For the reasons I’ve discussed above, it is all-but impossible in the UK to have a winter that is both extremely wet and extremely cold at the same time. One counteracts the other. Put very simply, compared with the Express predictions for the winter, the weather has been coming in from completely the opposite direction for the entire three-month period. That is not a small shift in weather patterns, that is, meteorologically-speaking, a c*ck-up on a hemispheric scale.

Inability to acknowledge the connection between cold/dry winters and warm/wet winters is a worrying development and, in my opinion, casts doubt on whether the Express, Exacta or Vantage weather should go anywhere near a weather chart in future. The addition of Met Office criticism in the very same Express article is a smokescreen to their own failings; deceitful, woeful, disgraceful failings. It is gutter (Ex)press at its purest.

Ironically, it does look as if there may finally be a little glimmer of snow around as we head into the last day of winter and first few days of meteorological spring. Without looking, I imagine the Express, Exacta and Vantage weather are already bleating about how they forecast it first, and how it’ll bring the entire planet to a standstill.

One thing is for certain, however: the Express weather stories will be accurate. Thank heavens for that! Should they be inaccurate, one would have to question everything else they print.

Where there’s rain, there’s blame. And probably a claim.

Warm sunshine is filtering across the Somerset Levels this afternoon, illuminating beautifully A Burt Reynolds-style chase scene, beamed live from a BBC News chopper to my living room TV. As water levels continue to rise and charge across the landscape, they’re chasing a Toyota 4×4 which is scurrying across mud-laden farm tracks. In hot pursuit of this 4×4 I can see ant-like news crews and local villagers sloshing through flood water, wanting their piece of the car’s occupants. Really, the only thing missing from the footage are scantily-clad maids, occasional spankings and Benny Hill music.

This is no laughing matter, of course. There’s anger and heartache on the Somerset Levels as local residents are forced to watch their homes, possessions and livelihoods washed into nearby fields. Visiting their landscape of anguish is Lord Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency and boss of all-things floody. He’s the prized occupant of the pursued 4×4, by the way.

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Lord Smith paraded in front of the press. Perhaps he should be wearing that hardhat.

There seems to be a widely-held belief in the Somerset villages inundated with water that the Environment Agency are solely to blame for the current fluvial carnage. Suggestions that flood defences are lacking, dredging of rivers hasn’t taken place and the response to the floods have been inadequate are whipping residents into a fury. The media are widely reporting this issue in symmetry, attempting to remain impartial but essentially laying blame on the EA as well. A couple of counties west of Somerset, Cornwall and Devon have been blasted by storm-force winds and giant waves since Christmas and it has taken its toll on coastal defences. The main railway line from London to Penzance now lies somewhere in the English Channel, a notorious casualty of our relentless storms. At fault for this loss of infrastructure, it would seem, are a combination of Network Rail and the government, where funding and flood defence cuts are responsible. I’ve even heard that Londoners should shoulder some of the blame as their sparkling HS2 benefits (the proposed high-speed rail line from London to the north) sap funding away from rail infrastructure where it’s most needed.

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Destroyed railway line in Dawlish, Devon.

I’m not going to go down the route of placing flood-related blame on the fact we build on floodplains. I’m not going to suggest that the Somerset Levels are so called for a reason. That much is obvious, so I’m leaving that aside.

So, who else is to really blame for the UK’s weather woes? Should it be those responsible for monitoring flooding, the Environment Agency? Perhaps transport authorities have been neglecting their structural responsibilities. Maybe it’s weather forecasters, those reservoirs of meteorological blame.

Maybe, just maybe, deep down in the motherboard of blame, the weather may have something to do with this?

The Met Office have just published their statistics for December and January and, to most, it’ll come as no surprise. For southern parts of England, probably some of the worst-affected areas weatherwise this winter, December and January combined have been the wettest for nearly 250 years (full report here). One would surely arrive at the notion that this sort of rainfall is going to cause problems?

It’s no secret that we’re in a very litigious society in this day and age. If we’re wronged then someone must take responsibility. If it’s mother nature playing the part of the baddy, there must still be someone to receive pointed fingers.

03
Evil Monkey blames YOU!

Let me make something perfectly clear. It’s very easy for those of us who aren’t reduced to watching our homes destroyed to form strong opinions as to who is, or who isn’t, at fault. Those pour souls currently losing everything are, of course, filled with emotions including sorrow and anger, so one can forgive their outpouring. This does not make our climate of blame right, though.

Take the Somerset Levels. “Dredging” is the buzzword of the week and, apparently, adequate dredging of river beds would have kept those flooded areas as arid as a birdcage floor. At least, that is what local residents and news channels are telling us. The Environment Agency and fluvial scientists are dispelling this as myth, suggesting that deepening the rivers would not help in the long run as the water still has nowhere to flow to. The opinion of the latter would be classified by me as expert-opinion, individuals and groups heavily well-read in the subject at hand. Side-by-side with increased litigiousness in our society these days is also a hefty scepticism of “experts”. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the opinion of someone well-versed in a topic would carry more weight than a fellow citizen with an uninformed opinion. This is a dying notion today, something beautifully covered in this blog discussing “The Death Of The Expert“.

I have friends who work for the Environment Agency and I know that they are utterly rushed off their feet at the moment. They’re normal people, earning normal wages, with normal meals to wolf down between shifts. Yet imagine working a 12hr shift to the limit of human ability, only to hear that your organisation isn’t doing nearly enough to protect the UK’s population. Try talking the EA staff on the ground, spending weeks knee-deep trying to help people to help themselves, only to see the BBC News strapline condemn you as incompetent and wasteful?

In my own mind, the major problem here is that the human race are losing touch with our position on planet Earth. There’s a fundamental loss of consciousness regarding our position in the chain of nature and too many are now so far-removed from the environment and our weather that we believe ourselves to be in control. As a species we have excelled at mitigating and controlling our surroundings more than any other species but that does not mean we are omnipotent. Too many ignore their natural surroundings only to demand answers when those surroundings encroach their daily life.

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The current BBC News website: Lord Smith – Cause of UK flooding.

Until we return to an acceptance that Mother Nature will triumph in the long run, then I don’t feel we can respond to challenges like those we currently face, in a satisfactory manner. The authorities have a part to play in this as well. Buried by expectation, councils and governments all-too-often release statements about how they will cope perfectly with severe weather, ranging from gritting authorities stating that they are perfectly prepared this winter, to the Environment Agency reassuring us that they will control flooding. Far better, in my opinion, would be an obvious acceptance of capability with hand-on-heart openness that we cannot cover every eventuality.

I wish those facing terrible anguish and distress, as a result of the seemingly endless storms, the very best. Nobody deserves to go through what you are going through. The prospect is not good, however, with a railroad of storms expected to batter the UK for at least the next week. Will these areas of low pressure bring higher pressure for the authorities? Will zombie-style blame of authorities flood through the media to the conscious of those seeking terrified reassurance that human-kind is benevolent in the face of our environment? I fear so.

A Winter Bug

As temperatures have plummeted to near-normal over the past few days, the almost-wintry conditions have allowed the re-emergence of a worrying ailment.

The condition in question has tended to manifest itself during the winter months over the past few years and affects individuals very differently. Within the industry, it creates disgust and rage, with those working hard to make an honest living most outraged by the parasite. However, within the lesser-informed public, it creates confusion and misinformation whilst the elderly may display advanced fear.

cartoon

Whatever the outcome of this virus, it shows no sign of abating. This is despite the fact that the weather most associated with the spread of the condition, namely record-breaking cold and neck-deep snow, have yet to manifest themselves this winter (see here for a discussion of winter prediction VS reality so far).

One thing is for certain, however, as demonstrated currently on Exacta Weather’s Facebook page:

madden

….if there is a suggestion of snow across the mountains of the UK, irrespective of whether it’s hinted at using defunct “standard meteorology”, this terrible disease will be here to stay!

And don’t think we’re safe once summer arrives. Scientists believe that the condition may return with a forecast of the hottest, driest, sunniest, wettest, most thunderstorm-laced record,-breakingly unbearable summer the UK has ever faced. You have been warned!