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Topic section: 'There isn’t a hurricane on the way...'
'There isn’t a hurricane on the way...'
When Michael Fish said on 15 October 1987 that there wasn’t a hurricane on the way, he was actually correct. Although it was the most severe storm to hit the south of England si
Picture: 01_1983-5236_DHA7036.jpg
A couple shelter from the rain under an umbrella.
Credit: NMPFT
nce 1703, the ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 did not reach hurricane force (12 on the Beaufort Scale). Its maximum strength was 11 on the Beaufort Scale and inland it reached only 8 or 9. Nor did it originate in the tropics like true hurricanes. This would have seemed pedantic to anyone surveying the damage the next morning, but it illustrates the communication problem inherent in presenting technical data to the general public. The public tends to be sensitive to winds, and what would seem like a severe gale to the person in the street would probably be only a moderate gale (Beaufort force 7) or even a strong breeze (6) to a meteorologist. In this technical sense, the Great Storm was only a severe gale (9) in London.

To a meteorologist showers are the product of cumuliform clouds. They are always intermittent, but they can be heavy and thus closer to the popular conception of rain. Similarly, the meteoro
Picture: 02_10240875.jpg
A watercolour sketch by Kenyon with cloud studies by Luke Howard, depicting the nimbus or rain cloud, 1849.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
logist defines terms such as hot, cold and mild in terms of the seasonal average. So a day that might be cold in the sum

The ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 did not reach hurricane force

mer would be mild in the winter. For the Met Office to enjoy a hot day in July, a maximum daytime temperature of 29°C (84°F) is required, while many office workers would consider anything over 80°F unpleasantly hot. More generally, when weather forecasters carefully say such-and-such a weather event ‘could’ or ‘may’ happen, we tend to assume it will happen, with the inevitable disillusionment that results.

Picture: 02_10311942.jpg
A colour illustration, showing a polar air current sweeping across Britain, taken from ‘The Weather Book’ by Robert Fitzroy, 1863.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Furthermore, it takes only a slight deviation of the wind for the location of bad weather to change completely. Good weather tends to be more widespread. So when Michael Fish in his memorable forecast said the strongest winds would be over France, he was only about a hundred kilometres out, a short distance in global terms. However, a slight north-westwards drift meant that it hit the southern coast of England and thereby impinged on our consciousness. A few kilometres the other way and everyone would have thought the weatherpersons were very clever.

Language can not only be a barrier to understanding, it also appears to undermine the accuracy of the weather forecast.

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Topic section: Playing monopoly with the weather forecasts
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The Meteorological Office has a near-monopoly of weather forecasts in the UK. We can try to predict the weather ourselves by watching the direction of the wind and tapping the barometer or can Piers Corbyn and his sunspot model do any better?  > more

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Topic section: Just because you can model it, doesn’t mean you can predict it
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Can we forecast the weather by crunching lots of data? This idea was first put forward by Lewis Fry Richardson in 1922, but he lacked the mechanical means to do the analysis. The Meteorological Office uses the latest supercomputers to do the job.  > more
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