Lies, damned lies – and the long-range weather forecast

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Having predicted a sizzling hot barbecue summer back in April, the weather forecasters are now sheepishly revising seasonal forecasts as it becomes apparent that, with time running out, the summer of 2009 is not going to be that hot after all.

Quelle surprise! I have long given up relying on weather forecasts. From experience, I work on the premise that they are invariably inaccurate.

To borrow the words of another renowned wordsmith, Mark Twain, climate is what we expect; weather is what we get. Moreover, as there is nothing anyone can do about it, it is advisable just to take each day as it comes and make the most of whatever the weather conditions are, because when it rains, the worst thing that can happen, apart from a very occasional flash flood, is that we get wet.

As homo sapiens is waterproof and is not likely to shrink when doused with copious amounts of water, it’s no big deal to get drenched occasionally.

With our beloved politicians on day 21 of their 53-day summer sojourn (a brief interlude compared to the 82 days currently being enjoyed by their Westminster counterparts), who is there to keep us entertained with improbable suggestions or to act as proverbial punchbags for our frustrations as everything in life goes slowly but surely belly-up?

Apart from the Island’s equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer doing a pretty good impression of Freddie Kruger after an Elm Street residents’ wine and cheese party as he cuts everything in sight, the Island is winding down nicely for the slowest and quietest month of the year. With MPs back in their constituencies rethatching floating duck houses and removing algae from moats, the beloved inmates of Charlie Chuckle’s Laughter Factory are keeping their heads below the parapet.

If not sunning themselves in assuredly warmer climes or sailing off into the sunset, they are holidaying at home, polishing gravy boats and relaxing over-inflated egos.

In the absence of clucking politicians pecking their way up or down the political order, it is the poor bods, who in their innocent youth imagined that weather forecasting was a good career prospect, who have become society’s summer fall guys.

With all those satellites whizzing around our world and the wonders of modern meteorological science, what is the likelihood, nearly a quarter of a century after the Great Storm of 1987, of making a Fishism? Alarmingly high, it appears.

In spite of protestations that people misunderstood him, weatherman Michael Fish will for ever be remembered for his forecast just hours before the worst storm since 1703 decimated the south of England, northern France and the Channel Islands. During the late evening forecast on BBC1 he confidently said: ‘Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!’

I recall a howler in a similar vein from our very Met Office not many moons ago, on one of those strange Jersey winter days when snow was falling in the west, turning to rain in the vicinity of the Centre Stone and while the east basked in watery sunshine. In spite of a dusting of snow, a forecaster insisted what was falling was ‘enhanced rain.’

The subsequent story in the pages of this newspaper did not go down well with the forecasters, who were subjected to light-hearted ridicule further compounded when a picture of a snowman was published Under the Clock, described as ‘an enhanced rainman’.

Weather forecasters just can’t win. We curse them when the sun doesn’t shine when they said it would and we admonish them every time it rains.

It is comfortably reassuring that in spite of all man’s technological advancement, computer wizardry and instant worldwide e-communications that nature is always ready to bowl a googlie – usually when the Aussies arrive to defend the Ashes.

Forty years since man first walked on the moon we still cannot predict the weather with absolute certainty. I find it refreshing that even with a formidable array of tools to forecast the weather – human and machine observations, satellite pictures, radar, balloons and aircraft reports, as well as numerous numerical models of how the atmosphere is likely to change over the next ten to 14 days – it is the ancient sayings that are part and parcel of our folklore that still ring true.

We can all rattle off a bevy of traditional weather proverbs which are curiously common to cultures all over the world: Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.

Rain before seven, stops before 11.

Halo around the sun or moon, rain or snow soon.

Rainbow in the morning, travellers take warning; rainbow at night, travellers delight.

The state of the weather concerned probably the greatest thinker of the Victorian age, John Ruskin – so much so that in 1839 he diverted his attention from the world of art and the brutish industrialisation of society to publish his observations on the ability of meteorological science in Transactions of the Meteorological Society.

His words ring true today: ‘Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.’

We can’t predict the weather with any certainty and we certainly can’t change it. I do feel sorry for the weather forecasters. In a world preoccupied with the weather, climate and global warming, theirs is a thankless task.

If forecasters in vast continents such as America and Australia can’t get it right, what hope is there for those predicting whether a comparatively tiny rock as Jersey will be deluged by rain, warmed by sun or chilled by snow?

As the saying goes: ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’

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