Source: BBC Radio 4
Event: What’s the Point of…? The Met Office
Credit: BBC Radio 4
- Helen Chivers: Head of News & Social Media, the Met Office
- Piers Corbyn: Astrophysicist and weather forecaster
- Michael Fish: Weatherman at the BBC
- Eric Freeman: Farmer
- John Kettley: Weatherman, previously with the Met Office
- Quentin Letts: Journalist and sketch writer
- Peter Lilley: Conservative MP, UK Parliament
- Angus MacNeil: Scottish Nationalist MP, UK Parliament
- Ken Nottage: Chief Executive, Royal Three Counties Show
- Catherine [?] Potts: Historian
- Group Captain Sir James Stagg: British RAF meteorologist
- Graham Stringer: Labour MP, UK Parliament
- Andy Silvester: Campaign Manager, Taxpayers’ Alliance
- Mark Vogan: Amateur weatherman
[Sound of sheep bleating.]
Male voice [over loudspeaker]: So we’d like to extend a very warm welcome to everybody here at the Royal Three Counties Show. Indeed, the forecast was for a thunderstorm – luckily, that hasn’t happened. But then you can never trust the weather forecasters.
Quentin Letts: Can’t trust weather forecasts?! Why not? Most forecasts come from the Met Office, a government body which receives hundreds of millions of pounds of public money. The Met Office employs 1,800 people, some of them on big money. It does a great deal more than predicting the next “barbecue summer”. It has military links. It takes a not uncontroversial position on climate change. If we don’t believe its weather forecasts, what about the rest of its activities? Is it a national asset? A much-loved institution? Or a historic throwback, in need of reform? What’s the point… of the Met Office?
: The area forecast for the next 24 hours: Viking, North Utcire, South Utcire, north-easterly 4 or 5, backing north-westerly 5 to 7, mainly fair, good…
Male voice: What I have on offer for you today is going to come as a real rude shock…
Male voice: Not a lot of sunshine about today, in fact much more rainfall too, in the south, that we had expected…
Male voice: In all districts, there shall be some showers, but with bright intervals…
Quentin Letts: The weather forecasts down the ages, Met Office voices broadcasting on the BBC, for the past 90 years. An official take on the weather was the idea of a Royal Navy admiral, Robert FitzRoy, who had sailed to Australia with some chap called Charles Darwin. He started data-based predictions of the weather in 1854, but set up a forerunner of the Met Office five years later, when a bad storm off Anglesey sank the clipper Royal Charter, with the loss of 450 lives, mostly gold miners returning from Australia. FitzRoy used the latest technology for his forecasts, as historian Catherine Potts explains.
Catherine Potts: Instrumental meteorology had been improving for the last 50 or so years, so we had much better instruments to measure, to understand changes in pressure which were crucial, self-recording anemometers for the wind had been invented in the previous 20 or so years – just take the Beaufort Scale, which was invented in 1806, and that enabled people to measure wind in the same way across the world.
Quentin Letts: Was it based in London?
Catherine Potts: Yes it was, it was based in London, um, and it had stations – what we term stations, recording sites – around the UK at the ports, and they sent their information in via telegraph, the Met Office basically couldn’t have actually started doing anything without the invention of the telegraph.
Quentin Letts: What was the size of the thing, at the start, and who was funding it?
Catherine Potts: It was funded by the government and it was absolutely tiny – there were three staff and they were headed up by Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who was our founder and actually the inventor, essentially, of the science of forecasting.
Quentin Letts: The science of forecasting? The latest technology? These terms evoke egg-headish certitude, yet can we ever be sure about the climate? The weather forecast is 154 years old, but not everyone agrees with the way the Met Office boffins concoct their forecasts. They still get the weather wrong! Now, we – the British public – are buying them a £97 million computer to improve the accuracy of those forecasts. Mark Vogan is an amateur weatherman who uses ocean temperatures and soil moisture for his predictions.
Mark Vogan: The Met Office methods are based around computer, and unfortunately computer isn’t going to necessarily always give us the answers, you know. It’s human input into that computer, and the computer obviously just runs through various equations to come up with scenarios, and obviously, accuracy-wise, once you get out past 10 days, the accuracy greatly drops off. For example, we’ve got a strong El Nino developing in the East Pacific – that has a big impact on the atmosphere, so if you can understand what response that water has to the atmosphere, then you can have a rough idea as to what’s going on. For example, the North Atlantic – I’m 32 years of age, I don’t recall the last time the Atlantic has been as cold as it is, compared to normal, in my lifetime, and that has a big impact, I think that’s going to rule a cooler summer, I think it’s had an impact on the last couple of winters, so if you can understand what ocean temperature does to the atmosphere, then I think that can give you a reasonably good idea as to what kind of weather you can expect, further down the road.
Quentin Letts: Cooler summer?! I’m melting here, in 36 degrees – that’s 96 Fahrenheit, in old money. Piers Corbyn, brother of Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, runs his forecasting service WeatherAction from a cramped basement office in South London. He uses sunspots and other non-mainstream methods, yet has a strong record of accuracy. And he has some quite strong words about the Met Office.
Piers Corbyn: They spend hundreds of millions on supercomputers. Those supercomputers will – even if you spend ten times that – would not improve forecasting skill one jot. They’ve reached the limit. The reason why they’ve reached the limit is they’re ignoring external influences – solar activity and the modulation of solar effects by the Moon. If those are not in there, whatever goes in will produce what comes out, and rubbish in is rubbish out. What those supercomputers do is enable them to get short-range right answers quicker, but when it goes to anything like a few days ahead, it enables them to get the wrong answers quicker.
Quentin Letts: The title of this programme is “What’s the Point of the Met Office?”. Can you answer that question – what’s the point of this organisation?
Piers Corbyn: The point for them and the government is it’s primarily was set up to do weather forecasting, to the best of its ability and to the best available science. They fail in that, because they’re not using the best available science. The reason is, they’ve had another purpose latched on them, which is to – and you read it in their blurb on the TV – it’s to promote and defend and propagate the man-made climate change theory, and suggest what horrors are going to come, allegedly, from more CO2, which is fiction.
Quentin Letts: A contentious point, and one we’ll come back to. [James Bond signature music plays in the background.] By the way, did you know that all Met Office forecasters must sign the Official Secrets Act? Civil servants, you see… “It may drizzle in Droitwich tomorrow, 007. But if you tell anyone, I shall have to kill you”. One operative, who spent three decades at the Met Office is John Kettley, now running a weather consultancy of his own. What, for him, is the point of the Met Office?
John Kettley: The point of the Met Office is that it provides fantastic information worldwide but particularly in the UK, using the skills of experienced forecasters and the power – fantastic computer power – that is now available to organisations like the Met Office and others around the world, to provide excellent computer analysis for the future. So, you know, we are looking, these days, not only at weeks and months ahead but years ahead, if you’re looking at the fact that we’ve got the Hadley Research Centre within the Met Office, which has got to try and analyse to see just exactly where this globe is going, really, what’s going to be the position on the globe in the next century or two. So we’ve got to look ahead with these computers, which, you know, Joe Bloggs like myself, we cannot be involved in that.
Quentin Letts: In his small-screen days, was bearded, rangy meteorologist John Kettley a scientific figure or something more than that? Teatime crumpet, companionship? Are TV forecasters – “presenters”, they are now called – figures of dry, impartial fact or are they – dread word – “celebrities”, pin-ups. They tell us to take brollies or wear sun cream. Is this the duty of a meteorologist or a nanny? And need they emote so much when they tell us it might be chilly?
John Kettley: Many of us did get fan mail. Some of us did get items of clothing sent through the post –
Quentin Letts: Did you?!
John Kettley: Um…
Quentin Letts: Did you get knickers sent through the post to you?
John Kettley: Not necessarily that sort of thing but sweaters. Which may seem a little bit boring to you… [Laughs.]
Quentin Letts: I see… [Laughs.]
John Kettley: But we did get clothing sent through the post. But yes, it was just fan mail but it was all friendly stuff, and you knew where to stop.
Quentin Letts: So that’s interesting, because that’s an idea of the weather presenter, weather forecaster, being a friend –
John Kettley: Yes.
Quentin Letts: – and being almost a member of the family. So that’s part of the role of the Met Office, is it, to be companionable?
John Kettley: Yes, you go right back to the beginning, when I had my first ever audition- and it’s an awful long time ago – I had my first audition through Pebble Mill, and the presenter from Pebble Mill came in and he said to me “The first time you go on television, John, nobody’s invited you into their lounge. You’ve got to be there as a friend. If you upset them, they’ll never turn on again”. That is so vital, that is so important, it’s important now as it was then – you’ve got to be somebody who people can associate with, you’ve got to be trustworthy and you haven’t got to be talking down to them, either. You are a scientist, first and foremost, but you’re now a presenter and you’ve got to speak language over the garden fence.
Quentin Letts: Some forecasts can seem almost Biblical, these days. Heatwaves, floods, “weather events” – to use a term not found in Genesis. We once spoke of natural disasters, but they may, in part, be the fault of mankind. One enters the foggy debate about climate change at one’s peril, but is the Met Office, with its attachment to the state and its emotionally splashy presenters, truly impartial here? Its work is open to political scrutiny, not least by the Commons Select Committee on Climate Change. One recent member has been Labour’s Graham Stringer.
Graham Stringer: They’re very good and getting better, when it comes to 1 to 5-day weather forecasting and getting the detailed weather forecasts down to very small areas – I think they’re excellent at that. Er, their climate predictions are – and their medium-term predictions – are pretty random and they are very poor.
Quentin Letts: Random? That’s a bit worrying, isn’t it?
Graham Stringer: Well, it is. I mean when, at the start of last year, they said we could expect less precipitation than normal, in January and February – and the whole country was flooded. [Quentin Letts laughs.] And then the Chief Scientific Officer said that this was undoubtedly due to climate change, and most of the scientists – even in the Met Office – looked askance at that, because there’s no scientific evidence whatsoever that that rain was related to climate change. So, good at the short term, very poor at medium and long term.
Some of the scientists who believe that they’re absolutely right are saying we must save the planet, we must change the way we produce energy and therefore we will have lots of alternative renewable forms of energy which, at the moment, are very expensive. The money that my constituents are paying, effectively as a flat tax on their energy bills, I think would – that money would be better spent, i.e., not on a flat tax way but would be better spent on research so we could genuinely produce clean and cheap electricity, rather than very expensive, ugly electricity.
Quentin Letts: Another member of the committee has been the veteran Conservative Peter Lilley. Does he get lobbied by the Met Office?
Peter Lilley: I suppose we do get lobbied by them. They come before the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, on which I sat, and tell us they need even more money for even bigger computers so they can be even more precisely wrong in future.
Quentin Letts [laughing]: That’s one way of looking at it – they would say it’s going to help them to be ultra, um, long-termist and being able to tell us what the weather’s going to do and also what the climate’s going to do.
Peter Lilley: Well, in 2004 they put out a very glossy document –
Quentin Letts 2004, so 11 years ago…
Peter Lilley: – called “Forecasting the Next Decade”. So they say the Met Office Hadley Centre has pioneered a new system to predict the climate a decade ahead. “We’re now using the system to predict changes up to 2014” – this was in 2004, they made this prediction. “By the end of this period, the global average temperature is expected to have risen by around 0.3 degrees Centigrade, compared to 2004”. That’s a huge increase, because in the previous 150 years, the increase was about 0.7 degrees, so it’s nearly half as much again in the next decade, was what they were expecting – and they were 90% sure that it would be within 0.2 and 0.4 degrees.
Quentin Letts: And what actually happened?
Peter Lilley: Nothing. Zilch. There was no global warming over the ensuing decade.
Quentin Letts: Are you a total sceptic, on man-made climate change?
Peter Lilley: No, I studied physics at Cambridge, so I accept the basic thesis that a bit more CO2 in the atmosphere, or a lot more CO2 in the atmosphere, will marginally warm up the Earth. But I’m what’s known as a “lukewarmist”, one who thinks that there won’t be much warming as a result of it, and that’s the scientifically proven bit of the theory – anything going on the alarmist scale is pure speculation. The sad thing is that they’ve become committed to a particular pseudo-scientific doctrine and now are unwilling to change their doctrine when the facts refute it.
Quentin Letts: By that, you mean man-made climate change.
Peter Lilley: Alarmist man-made climate change – there is a certain amount of man-made climate change going on but not very much, and they’re pretending that there’s a lot and going to be a lot. And when their predictions turn out to be false, then they don’t change their theory. Dame Julia Slingo, the Chief Scientific Officer of the Met Office, now says that the heating must have taken place but it hasn’t shown up on the surface of the Earth because it’s been swallowed by the deep oceans, a sort of new version of “the deep oceans swallowed my homework” thesis.
Quentin Letts [laughing]: Does this lead you to think that the Met Office should be privatised?
Peter Lilley: I’m not sure anyone would want to buy it.
Male voice: In western districts, showers will be more frequent than in the east…
Quentin Letts: What a voice… For some, the Met Office’s forecasts, of weather on land and at sea, are crucial. The new Chairman at Westminster’s Climate Change Committee is Scottish Nationalist MP Angus MacNeil from the Western Isles, near Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides.
Female voice: Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey. Northwest, backing southwest 4 or 5, increasing 6 at times. Showers good, occasionally moderate…
Quentin Letts: Angus, you have an amazing journey to your constituency every week – you land on a beach, in an aeroplane. You must listen to the weather forecast with some attention.
Angus MacNeil: Absolutely, and particularly the wind speeds are absolutely vital to me, to make my journey, because sometimes the journey doesn’t happen or you can’t land – you go to the island, you look down and you return to Glasgow for the evening, so weather is absolutely vital and knowing what the weather’s going to do.
Quentin Letts: And your constituents are in that rare part of the population who actually listen closely to the shipping forecast, because it affects their lives. Which bit of the shipping forecast affects you?
Angus MacNeil: Well, I’ve listened to shipping forecasts since I was a child, and when the words “Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides” would come up, “Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides” was the cue to be quiet. And particularly the weather in Malin and Hebrides – it was always important to us to give us a guide as to what was coming.
Quentin Letts: Your new position, as Chairman of the Climate Change Select Committee at Westminster, means that you’re effectively, um, you know, you’ve got a vested interest in the Met Office. Are they right to get into the climate change issues or should they concentrate on just plain short-term weather forecasting?
Angus MacNeil: The primary point is providing the data. If they want to inform with their knowledge and provide us with a view on that data, I think that’s a useful contribution to the debate. I think what is also and must be respected is: other people might have a view on that data as well.
Quentin Letts: And is it good that they are a state body. Does that affect things?
Angus MacNeil: It’s better to be privately owned by the taxpayers than privately owned by some private individuals, if you like. They’re using data from Norway, from Ireland, from Faroes, from wherever, and I think they do a good job at that, and I think they’re very much trusted in the job they do, and that trust is vital and important.
Quentin Letts: We can laugh about the “barbecue summer”, but weather forecasting acquired a graver significance 71 years ago. Tens of thousands of lives, and even the freedom of Europe, depended on the Met Office getting its forecast right. The Normandy invasion of early June 1944 was delayed by storms. One of those waiting for the off was my maternal grandfather, a sapper, one of the first to land. He and his advance team needed the high seas to abate. It was down to Group Captain James Stagg from the Met Office to let military commanders know when the weather would improve. Advised by Stagg, Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower ordered the invasion to go ahead.
James Stagg: Certainly, as my colleagues and I withdrew from the meeting that made the final and irrevocable decision, he came across to me and said “Hold that weather to what you have forecast for us, Stagg, for Heaven’s sake hold it.”
[Soundtrack of Frank Sinatra: “Stormy Weather”.]
Quentin Letts: The Met Office’s customers – yes, they pay – include the Civil Aviation Authority, Heathrow Airport, Thames Water and – keep this to yourselves – the Ministry of Defence. Former weather presenter Helen Chivers is now the Met Office’s corporate spokeswoman.
Helen Chivers: The Met Office is the UK’s national meteorological service, and we deliver the public weather service to the UK. So what we’re doing there is providing forecasts and severe weather warnings that protect lives and livelihoods and critical national infrastructure for the UK. But we work wider than that – we work across the whole of the world and we provide, sort of, a joined-up area that will work for the different needs of everybody within the UK. So we’re global and we’re – got a real focus on saving lives and helping people be prosperous in the UK.
Quentin Letts: Makes you sound like an emergency service.
Helen Chivers: I suppose we are, in a strange way. I mean, when it comes down to it, our history and where we started was saving lives at sea, and in essence, that is still very much at the heart of our ethos. But it isn’t just at sea, now, it’s on land as well, and not in the UK – it’s across the world.
Quentin Letts: Country lore has much to say about the weather. “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight”, if bees stay at home rain will soon come, sheep climbing a hill a clear day – sign of a clear day, pigs gather leaves and straw before a storm. I’ve come to the Three Counties Show in Malvern to talk to some rural weather experts – farmers. Eric Freeman, 83 summers young, has squinted at some weather in his time. How does he work out what’s coming?
Eric Freeman: I think when you’ve been around a long time, you get a feeling. You get up in the morning, don’t you, and you think “Ah, there’s a drop of rain”, but that’s the pride [?] of the morning, isn’t it, and it comes out nice later on.
Quentin Letts: If your beasts are sitting down, in the field, does that tell you something? Because there’s that old saying, that when the cows are sitting, it’s going to rain.
Eric Freeman: I think they get up and feed when, you know, if there’s some weather coming, I think they tend to be up and about. [Sound of cow mooing.]
Quentin Letts: Here we are, talking to Ken Nottage, Chief Executive of the Three Counties Show – Royal Three Counties Show. Ken, weather is a very big thing, it’s a very big consideration for you, isn’t it.
Ken Nottage: It’s huge, and you know, it’s probably the most important factor, pre-Show [?].
Quentin Letts: To the people who’ve come here today, it’s a question of whether or not we wear gumboots, whether or not we bring a mac. But to you, it’s a question of finance.
Ken Nottage: It is, indeed. It’s not just finance, it’s also safety, for the visitors that are here. But a bad Show – one that needs to be cancelled due to weather, be that rain, be that wind, whatever it is – can be very, very expensive.
Quentin Letts: There was one year, I think, when the weather forecaster said “Whatever you do, today” – this was during your Show – “whatever you do today, folks” – he said, on the radio – “don’t go out”.
Ken Nottage: Disastrous! I can remember it – they said, they said “Stay indoors today – it’s going to rain everywhere.” And it didn’t rain here. And that cost us – you know, that was getting on for a six-figure sum, just that, you know. I wanted to kill that weather forecaster, you can imagine.
Quentin Letts: Here is perhaps the most spectacular example of the Met Office getting it wrong.
Michael Fish: 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.
Quentin Letts: There was. Michael Fish, not predicting the Great Storm of 1987, which left 18 people dead. But it’s not just dicey forecasts, that riles Andy Silvester from the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Andy Silvester: New Zealand has an equivalent to the Met Office called Metro, which has a commercial arm which outsources weather forecasting to things like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, so they can predict when they need to get the strawberries on the shelves for a hot weekend, or something, and so forth. So I think what we’d like to see there again, is the Met Office have to deal with a bit more competition. It seems, at the moment, to have a bit of a monopoly, largely because it’s an institution.
Quentin Letts: Oh, so the very fact that it is official – does it give it commercial advantage, or does it give it a moral, um, advantage? A sort of sense, among the public, that somehow it’s more reliable.
Andy Silvester: Well, I think, on the former point, on the commercial advantage, getting a huge amount of money from taxpayers, of course makes it infinitely more competitive than it would be, otherwise, because its commercial competitors don’t have to deal with that pressure. You know, you look at the supercomputers that have been bought, you know, huge amounts of money spent, 2009, 2014, on these grand new bits of technology. Of course that gives it an advantage, and that means it doesn’t have to deal with competition in the same way that any normal business would. And –
Quentin Letts: It can go to the state for its funding, rather than going to banks.
Andy Silvester: Yes, given a supercomputer, you know – they spent an awful lot of money in 2009 on the supercomputer, forecasting didn’t necessarily improve, they got a nice bigger and shinier one in 2014, we’re yet again to see the results and whether that’s actually improved it. And so I think we’d like to see a bit more competition, we’d like to see these things opened up, and we’d like to see the Met Office, as I say, get back to focusing on what it should be doing, and I think that’s around predicting severe weather, you know, flood patterns and so forth, which necessarily it doesn’t do as much as it might do now.
Quentin Letts: I asked Helen Chivers how accurate the Met Office’s predictions were.
Helen Chivers: On average, we’re accurate – if you look at a great big basket of, you know, sunshine, rainfall, temperatures – round about 80% of the time. That, actually, is a really good figure, because weather is not a simple thing to forecast – the atmosphere is chaotic, it’s a really complicated thing to try and forecast. And we’re not only trying to forecast it for today or for the next hour, we’re trying to forecast it for weeks and months and years and hundreds of years ahead, so it’s a really complicated thing to do. And we verify our forecasts all the time for all of our customers, so for the aviation industry we’re verifying what the winds have been at 25,000 feet, um, for the Maritime Coastguard Agency we’re looking at how accurate were the gale warnings, the shipping forecast, and for – let’s say, winter maintenance on the roads, we’re looking at how was the temperature and the ice forecasts on the roads, how accurate were they. So, you know, we measure it in all sort of different ways, depending on who the customer is.
Quentin Letts: You mention there that you are forecasting centuries ahead, or trying to have an idea of what’s going to be happening in a couple of hundreds of years. This is where some of your critics say you are far less reliable. Peter Lilley MP has shown us a document from ten years ago where you were forecasting for now that it was going to be a lot warmer than it actually is, and this was leading to a certain alarmism, a political alarmism, of the sort that a scientific body really shouldn’t be getting into.
Helen Chivers: Yeah, I mean, we provide the best evidence-based science that we can provide, and of course, you know, science changes and technology moves on, and as things evolve and as you understand how the Earth system – so the connection between the atmosphere and the oceans and what’s going on, on land – all of that knowledge is evolving, so things change over time.
Quentin Letts: Very good to hear those caveats, I might say – we don’t often hear those –
Helen Chivers: No, true.
Quentin Letts: – when we hear Met Office people telling us we’re all in a terrible gloom and doom, and like Noah, you lot are saying, you know, “Leap for your Arks, because the floods are coming”. I mean, it is getting almost Biblical, some of the stuff coming out of the Met Office.
Helen Chivers: Sometimes, but I think that’s more on –
Quentin Letts: It is, getting more Biblical, you agree, good, a point of agreement.
Helen Chivers: I think sometimes it – but it depends how you interpret it, of course.
Quentin Letts: But how can you interpret the top Met Office executives earning more than the Prime Minister? I’d expect them to know all about the gold at the end of rainbows – it’s in their bank accounts.
Helen Chivers: We have a total revenue of around about £200 million – this is a big company, providing services to the UK and services globally. And you have to, like any business, attract the best people. Now, we are bound by our salary structure.
Quentin Letts: You could be paid much, much more, of course, were the Met Office to be privatised. [Helen Chivers laughs.] Would that be a good idea?
Helen Chivers: Would it be a good idea? I think, because of the range of the work that we do and the huge volume of information that we have to operate with, here – so we’re providing data free that’s available on our website, we’re doing forecasting for space weather and how that might impact on technology, we’re doing all the safety of life information that I’ve been talking about. Every review of how we operate has said that it wouldn’t be possible to privatise us.
[Soundtrack of Crowded House: “Weather with You”.]
Quentin Letts: That “barbecue summer” fiasco betrayed ambition among the isobars, a hunger for public attention, a desire deep in those Barograph Berties to be noticed. This is an urge better resisted. It’s hard to place a value on the secret work the Met Office does for the Ministry of Defence. Emergency planning, a seat on Whitehall’s COBRA crisis committee, warnings to mariners, cooperation with international allies in times of ash clouds and so on – such work demands our respect. But how does that sit with sexed-up press releases, ditzy autocuties and yes – with politically risky interventions on climate change, said by some fellow scientists to be plain wrong? As the shipping forecast might put it, sober predictions of short-term precipitations, good. Longer-term visibility and political lobbying, poor. And that’s your weather.