Why “good weather” can make a bad forecast

We all like good weather, but what exactly is it? Your definition will be different from mine. As John discusses, problems can arise when forecasters make too many assumptions about their audience’s weather of choice.

 

Weather – whether we like it or not

Enjoyed that gorgeous summer heatwave? Millions basked in it. But as the weeks went on I, for one, grew to hate it! Like many others, I struggle in high temperatures. A few months earlier, by contrast, while others cursed the severe cold, I revelled in the ‘Beast from the East’.

But that’s just me. You’ll have your own view. In the distant past, things were, perhaps, rather more ‘matter of fact’ and less ‘matter of opinion’. Our ancestors’ daily lives were intrinsically affected by changes in weather – on land and at sea. There was an obvious consensus about good versus bad weather, because our very livelihoods depended on it. And extreme weather normally brought extreme hardship.

The world has moved on and the lines have become blurred. Most of us have drifted off the farm into other walks of life less directly exposed to the weather – at work, rest or play. Central heating, air conditioning and hi-tech engineering have cocooned us from many of the worst impacts of severe weather.

These days, with the growing diversity of our modern lifestyles, there’s a widening range of opinion about good and bad weather. One person’s quenching shower for the garden is another’s wet walk to work.  A strong wind may be good for kite-fliers but bad news for that wedding marquee. Severe cold brings the thrilling prospect of snow for the child in us, but paralysis for transport networks, as well as a dangerous strain on the frail and the elderly. Sun-worshippers may have relished the recent heatwave; but try telling farmers that we had a good summer; or indeed the relatives of the thousands more who died this summer, compared with normal.

 

…in identifying with one section of the audience, we risk losing another

 

Pleasing some of the people some of the time

So what is good weather and what is bad? Not so easy, is it? We can now get an automated forecast of the weather each hour for weeks ahead. But, rightly, there is still a role for human presenters to provide commentary and expert insight to qualify those automated forecasts.

Commentary yes, but value judgements? That’s more tricky. Through my lifetime, the role of the weather presenter has evolved. When I first joined the Met Office, we were still very much ‘men and women from the Ministry’. As civil service forecasters, we were discouraged from describing the weather as “good” or “bad”. We were there to deliver information, rather than express likes and dislikes.

Over the years, however, TV and radio styles have become more informal. Presenters have been encouraged to engage more with the audience, using phrases such as “lovely warm sunshine” and “miserable rain” to show our human side; even more so on social media.

All very well – up to a point. But in identifying with one section of the audience, we risk losing another. The following scenario is an example:

 

News Presenter: “So that’s the very latest on the heath-fires. Now let’s check up on the weather forecast, to see if this gorgeous heatwave is going to continue”.

 

Weather Presenter: “Yes it looks fantastic for the next few days with temperatures reaching the 30s Celsius in places. But pollen and UV levels are very high, and there’s a heat health alert too”.

 

Getting personal

This schizophrenic narrative reflects the conflict between broadcasters’ pressure to show their personality against their public service remit to neutrally inform. (Our major broadcasters are contractually obliged to deliver severe weather warnings and health alerts in their broadcasts). These opposing forces can sometimes put presenters in danger of tying themselves in knots and alienating large chunks of our audience in the process. At best, some of the people are pleased some of the time. But what about the rest?

 

Alexa – when will we get some good weather?

 

Perhaps technology will provide the solution. The ’20th Century’ model of  TV and radio feeds one message to a passive audience. In the future, however, robots will tailor the message down to our individual tastes.

Alexa – when will we get some good weather?” She won’t be able to control the weather (yet!) but she will know your preference – whether “good” means 25C and sunshine, -5C and snow, or anything in-between. Different folks, different strokes. Alexa will learn pretty quickly what you or I like and dislike.

From a passive past to a tailored future – forecasts will become more personal, serving all of the people all of the time..

 

But we’re not there yet. As winter approaches and the hype ramps up, it’s tempting to assume that the entire nation will be dreaming of a White Christmas.  Not so – far from it. So while the child in me may be dreaming of snow on ‘The Big Day’, the professional broadcaster in me will, I hope, remain agnostic.

In the meantime, “Alexa – play me some Bing Crosby”.

 

 

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