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Thursday, October 18, 2007

A storm in a teacup

I always admire the weather forecasters for the service they provide and often not being duly appreciated. Making a forecast is a risky thing, because there is always the chance that it does not come through. But I really did not know much about the history of weather forecasting and how risky it can be when I read the story told in this Timesonline article earlier this week:
Ever since Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy set up the world’s first national meteorological office in England in 1854 forecasters have been blamed for getting the weather wrong. In fact, FitzRoy was so widely ridiculed whenever he made a wrong forecast that he committed suicide.
It's been over 150 year since then. With the advances of science and technology, I am sure Admiral FtizRoy would enjoy the many accomplishments of the profession he started and probably will not take his own life again. Of course perils remain. As reported in this same article:

So you have to feel sorry for Michael Fish. Every anniversary of the Great Storm of October 1987, out trot the repeats of his legendary forecast about “don’t worry, there is no hurricane on the way”, just hours before the big storm struck. Actually he meant a hurricane in Florida, and added it would be windy in England that night. But everyone went to bed thinking there was nothing to worry about. So there was national horror when 100mph winds felled 15 million trees, power and transport links collapsed and 19 people died, the most devastating storm in England for more than 250 years.

The Met Office was roasted. It had forecast the storm, but thought it would largely miss England. Crucial weather observations were missing after weather ships had been withdrawn as part of financial cutbacks. Though its big weather forecasting computer was not up to tracking highly explosive storms, the human forecasters were too enthralled by it to question its results.

Things changed afterwards. Satellites beamed down more information, a bigger computer was bought and run on better models, and forecasters dissected the 1987 storm to learn every lesson. Only three years later the Met Office correctly forecast the huge Burns Day storm that battered the country with even greater devastation.

Forecasts are now better, and we are told another 1987-type fiasco is highly unlikely. But blunders still happen. In January 2003 the Midlands was brought to its knees when the Met Office predicted snow and councils gritted their roads.

Then unexpected rains washed away the grit and a cold snap froze the roads into sheets of ice. In 2004 seaside resorts were left seething on May Bank Holiday when heavy rain was predicted, only to see glorious sunshine but no visitors.

The list can go on and, of course, the forecasts that go wrong are more memorable than the majority that are right. But the Met Office is now entering some murky waters with its seasonal forecasts made months in advance. Last winter was billed as milder than average but colder than in recent years, which led some media to conclude that we were heading for an Arctic freeze with icebergs floating down the North Sea. And what happened to predictions back in May that this summer’s temperatures would be above average, with “70 per cent certainty”? As it turned out, temperatures were just below average, but that was the least of our worries when the rains crashed down.
It is a very informative and educational Times article well worth a detail read. With this being the 20th anniversary of the 1987 storm, it is probably a hard time period for the famous Michaeel Fish. An article entitled "A storm in a teacup" by U.K.'s Channel 4 News has this to say:
Twenty years ago, on the eve of the big storm of 1987 which killed 18 people, Michael Fish, BBC weatherman, said these immortal words: "Earlier on today apparently a lady rang the BBC and said she heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well don't worry if you're watching, there isn't". Not long after, the storm hit - and Fish was left with egg on his face. 20 years on, he's still trying to wipe it off. The clip's played over and over on YouTube, adding to his misery. The name of the woman who rang in was even an answer in Trivial Pursuit.
Fish, now retired, has just published a book "Storm Force -- Britain's Wildest Weather" presumably trying to clarify things. Reading this Channel 4 article it does not seem that's very successful. Being the most famous weatherman in Britain and two songs written about him, I think Channel 4 think Mr. Fish should be satisfied and get on with it.

Twenty years ago this time U.K. had their great storm, this side of Atlantic in U.S. a different kind of storm was brewing -- the October 19, 1987 Black Monday stock market crash. With the resilience of U.S. economy in the last two decades that essentially rendered that '87 crash insignificant, not too many people are likely to pay attention to that date any more. One thing I remember about it was a Dr. someone, his name escaped me, who claimed that he predicted that crash and probably got his instant fame. He was a perpetual pessimist, his bleak forecast came through for that day. At least I was not aware that anyone had ever characterized that crash as a freak wave!

At any rate this post today was inspired from being amused by the charming title "A storm in a teacup."

Update:

On this day, October 19, 2007, a good commemorate of the day may be the comment given by Andy McCarthy on the Corner on National Review Online: "When the Dow closes down 367 points and everyone yawns?" with the title "How bad can it be?"

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