Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Suspect forecasters have a long history

Over the last couple of years several media outlets, most notably the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, and the Telegraph have been using a commercial weather forecasting service called Positive Weather Solutions (PWS) to give them the ammunition for such sensationalist headlines as;
After a glorious autumn... Britain prepares for Siberian freeze in just weeks (1)
Just after Christmas Guardian columnist George Monbiot began to question the credentials of such services including PWS and provider Exacta Weather. After further investigation Monbiot revealed what I think many people such as myself who had been on the PWS website had long suspected; that there was deception afoot. At the time the PWS website listed 8 forecasters and experts that they used to create their forecasts; it turns out not only were the photographs of these "experts" stock images from a Google search, but that most if not all of them did not exist! Promptly after Monbiot's inquiries the actual person behind PWS, Jonathan Powell, took the decision to close the business.

Further Monbiot suggests there is a subtext to certain media outlets use of certain commercial weather services:
The Met Office, like the BBC, is the subject of intense tabloid hostility, because it refuses to accept the consensus in the rightwing press that man-made climate change is a myth. Perversely, it prefers to rely on data. The incompetence of the Met Office and the superior skills of other forecasters are now part of the litany of climate change denial. Weather forecasting, in the hands of the press, has become a political science.(2)
Firstly I would like to congratulate Mr Monbiot on an excellent piece of investigative journalism. However, although weather forecasting does have a long political history I think he may have been rather blinkered in bringing a right versus left element into this story. As in the recent past both the BBC and even if somewhat gingerly the Guardian have used PWS's forecasts. Maybe it is just a case of such services forecasting what the media (or public) wants to hear?!

PWS became popular with the press because they were happy to stick their neck out on long range and speculative forecasts. Many of the articles they are quoted in have a fairly tempered quote from the Met Office or other weather forecasters such as Meteogroup followed by a more sensationalist claim from PWS. Longer range forecasting has large amounts of uncertainty inherent in it, especially when using ensemble forecasting techniques. Whilst such problems led to the Met Office's BBQ summer fiasco, and the subsequent withdrawal of Met Office seasonal forecasts attempts to forecast the weather beyond the immediate future have a long and colourful history.

The Bartlett Brothers predict the summer's weather in 1947. Source: British Pathe
This wonderful clip from 1947 shows professional consultants the Bartlett Brothers trying to predict when Britain's proverbial one week of summer will occur. The footage reveals little of the Brother's methods of creating such a forecast and considering that in the period few meteorologists thought it possible to predict beyond a few days ahead, we can consider their efforts speculative at best. 

Both the forecasters in 1947 and those questioned by Monbiot seem to operate on a similar speculative basis with little transparency of data, or method. Yet those in 1947 seem to go about it with a more light-hearted and whimsical air. Maybe I just have rose-tinted glasses on, or maybe, just maybe the public expectation surrounding such long range forecasting was much more realistic in 1947.

Comments as ever are welcomed, 
Thanks, Alex


  1. Yet another great post! This is fascinating, and I love your mix of past and present!