Independence Minutiae: Weather Forecasting

(Title Image: Independent)

Weather forecasting in Wales can often be reduced to looking out of the window and trying to determine precisely how wet it’ll be today.

That doesn’t detract from the fact it’s still a very high-skilled process utilising the cutting edge of computing. Meteorologists are often required to have a strong background in mathematics and physics in order to, effectively, “predict the future” using complex modelling systems.

Weather forecasting might seem trivial in the context of grand constitutional change and nation building, but it’s incredibly important when you think about it, forming the backbone of public protection and defence.

It’s therefore essential that, in the context of independence, you get the “forecast” right. Heh.

Why is weather forecasting important?

 

  • Transport – It determines variable speed limits of roads, whether to close the Severn Crossings and Britannia Bridge, shipping conditions, whether your train or bus will arrive on time and whether it’s safe for planes to land.
  • Culture & Sport – You need to know what the weather’s going to be like if you’re planning any significant outdoor event, and knowing beforehand will allow adjustments for crowd safety at things like concerts and sports matches – up to and including calling them off.
  • Long-term climate projections – This is absolutely vital in order to get a clearer picture of future trends in Wales and the rest of the world so we can be better prepared.
  • Agriculture, off-shore workers & utilities – It’s essential for farmers to have accurate forecasts for temperature and rainfall, while electricity companies need to have advanced notice of high winds and/or freezing temperatures and water companies need to be aware of droughts.
  • Civil defence and government – Knowing when and where to grit roads during icy and snowy conditions, whether schools should close, how much grit councils should store (they were caught out a few years ago) and what preparations need to be made, and where, during the threat of severe flooding.
  • Weather warnings – Letting the public at large know there’s something serious on the way (what the Met Office term “significant weather”) and to take appropriate precautions.
  • Insurance – Having advanced warning of severe weather can help insurance companies prepare, and long-term climate projections can help determine which areas are most vulnerable to weather-related damage.

The Met Office

Headquartered in Exeter since 2003, the Met Office has a similar status to the Ordnance Survey in being an executive agency/trading fund of the UK Government. It employs around 1,900 people.

The Met Office has three staffed offices in Wales – Cardiff, Aberporth in Ceredigion and Valley on Anglesey. They also have ~40 weather stations around Wales. Some are automated, others need to have their readings taken manually.

In terms of function and role, the Met Office:

 

  • Provides weather forecasts for the public, and the National Severe Weather Warning Service.
  • Provides specialist weather forecasts for the transport industry, including air and shipping.
  • Assists the NHS is determining levels of demand during severe weather (i.e. heatwaves and sustained cold temperatures).
  • Provide specialist weather forecasts for military operations around the world.
  • Monitor and research the long-term climate and climate change.

Weather presenters are usually directly employed or (at a minimum) extensively trained by the Met Office, not broadcasters. So the likes of Behnaz Akghar and Derek Brockway are a lot more than friendly faces, and the levels of knowledge and training required shouldn’t be underestimated.

The contract between the BBC and Met Office for weather forecasts was renewed for five years in 2010, despite criticism over the accuracy of its forecasts, in particular predictions of a “mild winter” in 2010 that turned out to be one of the coldest in recent memory.

S4C buys its weather forecasts from commercial company, Weather Central, via Tinopolis; though S4C weather presenters are still trained by the BBC/Met Office.

According to their latest annual report (pdf), the accuracy levels for forecasts are very high indeed and hit expectations and targets in 16 of 18 indicators in 2013-14. They generally aim to get temperature forecasts to within 2C, though there appear to be no targets for rainfall accuracy.

In terms of finances, total revenues in 2013-14 were just over £208million. Of that, £175.4million came from government, which includes funding for the public weather service, the Ministry of Defence, and presumably contracts with public broadcasters like the BBC. Once costs are taken into consideration, the Met Office was running with an £11.2million operating profit in 2013-14.

The Met Office does sometimes make significant capital investments too, such as a recent £97million supercomputer and investments in various satellites. Like Ordnance Survey, the Met Office has also been long been rumoured to be up for privatisation.

The Met Office currently uses its own Unified Model for both forecasting the weather – often with a turnaround of 36-48 hours – and predicting climatic conditions over a longer period. The Met Office licence this model’s source code out for research, forecasting and collaboration purposes and similar Unified Models are used in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, South Africa and Norway.

The Met Office is one of the pre-eminent meteorological services in the world, and in Scotland’s Future (pdf p391) it was proposed Scotland would continue to use Met Office services following negotiations where the level of contributions would be decided. Based on the current figures that would be – in Wales’ case – around £8.8million (presumably from environment, broadcasting and defence budgets).

A Met Cymru?

There would be advantages and disadvantages to creating a Welsh meteorological service, what I’m going to dub “Met Cymru”.

In terms of advantages, Wales wouldn’t be reliant on a single source of information and would be able to fully collaborate in things like the EU’s Meteoalarm system, or even use the pan-European HIRLAM forecasting model – which is also used by the Republic of Ireland’s Met Éireann and the Nordic Countries.

Also, a Met Cymru would be better placed to create, for example, a simplified and innovative warning system for severe weather and flooding – which would become ever more important with more extreme weather events resulting from climate change.

There’ve been problems in the past with the Met Office (or, more accurately, major broadcasters) not treating severe weather events in peripheral parts of the UK seriously or urgently enough. 100mph winds get different levels of coverage in different areas. A Met Cymru could issue warnings sooner (instead of waiting for confirmation from the Met Office) and bilingually – possibly preventing injury, loss of livestock and property, even deaths.

Having a meteorological service based in Wales would also no doubt be a boost to the university sector in terms of climate research and would also provide dozens of highly-skilled jobs.

In terms of disadvantages, although, presumably, it would take control of current weather stations in Wales, setting up a Welsh meteorological agency is likely to have a significant upfront capital requirements.

Then there would be questions regarding: Where it would be based? How would it be run (presumably via a government-appointed director and management board)? Who would it be accountable to (presumably the Minister for Natural Resources or equivalent)?

With progressive climate change we might also have to increasingly link weather forecasting services to (civil) defence and environmental managements services. That makes a case for a Met Cymru to be a sub-department of Natural Resources Wales (or even the Welsh military) rather than a stand-alone executive agency.

Based on Met Éireann and Met Office figures, you would presume a Met Cymru would cost around £10-15million a year to run and would employ or train around 100 people.

The exact costs are dependent on how services would be configured, but commercial revenue could be raised through Eurocontrol air traffic control subsidies (a big money-spinner for Met Éireann because they cover a large chunk of the Atlantic, but would be less so for Wales), business services (especially to utilities companies, even more relevant with renewable energy) and consultancy services to do with climate.

There’s also the option of simply contracting out weather services to a commercial company like Weather Central (following S4C’s example).

The Outlook

Well, there you go. Two and a half options – the half being to privatise weather services, but that’s not an entirely realistic proposition. So Met Office or Met Cymru?

Retaining Met Office services would be sensible vis-a-vis Ordnance Survey. We know what we’re getting from them, they’re a world leading meteorological organisation and we pretty much know what we would have to pay in service fees. The real threat is that the Met Office could be hived off and privatised, meaning some of their expensive academic and research work goes downhill and/or fees will rise, and we’ll be stuck with it.

A Met Cymru presents some opportunities – especially tailoring weather services to Welsh needs and allowing us to fully participate in global and European research – but it would also require a significant initial outlay from the environment and defence budgets to get it off the ground. It would certainly be a prestigious addition to the Welsh public and university sector, but not without cost.

So at the start I’d probably go along with Scotland’s Future and keep the Met Office; but in the longer-term a Met Cymru – even if it’s only a research organisation – should be considered.