Over the past few weeks some parts of the media have carried some colourful headlines about what’s in store for this year’s winter. Reports of ‘-20 °C within weeks’, ‘a winter fuel crisis on the way’ and ‘widespread snow by the end of October’, have all whipped up a frenzy of expectation for an ‘Arctic winter’.
In response Met Office Chief Executive, John Hirst has written in The Times today calling for a sense of reason in light of these headlines that can confuse and even scare vulnerable people in our society.
You can read the opinion piece here:
Winter will be cold – but don’t panic just yet
It’s absurd to make alarmist forecasts of a whiteout. That’s not how our weather works
Last year Britain had the coldest start to winter in 100 years and the repeated snowfalls over 40 days before Christmas cost the economy up to £130 million a day.
So it is understandable that there is intense interest in this year’s winter. But the colourful recent headlines predicting “-20C within weeks”, “a winter fuel crisis” and “widespread snow by the end of October” bear no relation to the kinds of weather that forecasters at the Met Office are currently expecting — there is no need for alarm.
These stories do reflect our national obsession with the weather but they can also confuse and even scare vulnerable people. The Met Office’s job is to provide accurate and reliable information and at this stage we see no scientific evidence to support these premature predictions. In fact the scientific capability does not exist to allow such extremes to be identified on a long-range timescale.
We can say with reasonable certainty that today will be largely overcast, with rain for many places, but as we move towards the weekend it will become mostly dry with skies brightening in the south and east. Over the weekend rain will move southeastwards. We can also say that the current 30 day outlook suggests that next week will be rather cold at times with some snow over high ground in the north of the UK, and frost in some sheltered locations too. What no forecaster can say is whether we’ll see a week of -20C temperatures in Manchester in the second week of December.
This does not mean that harsh winter conditions are not possible, just that they cannot be identified at the moment.
As winter approaches, local government and businesses are preparing for the worst that the British weather can throw at us. But the fact that local authorities are stocking up on grit is no cause for alarm. This is what contingency planners do. In fact, their preparations are encouraging because they mean the country should be in a good position to respond to our short-range forecasts of severe weather.
Last year there was some confusion between our longer-range outlook which provided good advice over the whole winter — as January and February were relatively mild — and our shorter-range forecasts that correctly identified the prolonged cold and snowy weather early in the winter. In fact, our forecasts of where and when it would snow were second to none. Although it is not possible to prevent disruption, our detailed forecasts allowed agencies to put their resources in the right place at the right time to ensure that it was kept to a minimum.
You may ask why we can provide long-term forecasts for things such as the North Atlantic tropical storm season, but doing the same for the UK is still so difficult. It is because the UK is a small island sandwiched between an ocean and a continent, and it lies on a latitude where warm tropical and cold polar air masses fight for supremacy. The UK is also about as far away as it is possible to be from key drivers of long-range predictability, such as La Niña. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Met Office and the Japanese Meteorological Agency are consistently ranked the top two operational forecasters in the world, given that both ply their trade on island nations with notoriously changeable weather.
There are many contributing influences to long-term weather patterns, such as Atlantic Ocean temperatures, pressure patterns and the extent of Arctic sea ice. Research published by us only this week casts new light on how solar ultraviolet output affects Europe’s winter weather. The long-term challenge is to understand how they might be affected by a changing climate.
In recent years we have seen great scientific and technological advances that allow us to warn of impending severe weather with ever greater lead times and with ever greater detail. Rest assured that this year the Met Office will continue to offer that service, warning of any severe weather in plenty of time to get out the gritters — and the jumpers — when it matters.