Tuesday, 4 December 2012

How do you know the weather?

Well, its been a while since my last blog post, a combination of (successfully!) completing my PhD and moving across an ocean have meant blogging slipped down my priority list. Moving away from Manchester, a city I'd lived in all my life, made me realise how much of my understanding of day to day weather conditions was tacit knowledge specific to the city and the North-West of England. Whilst my general understanding of meteorology may be slightly geekier than the average citizens', here in Toronto, my lack of knowledge on how the current weather conditions may develop during the day has left me feeling surprisingly disoriented.

For example, in Manchester if I was cycling down Oxford Rd out of the city centre and rain began to hit me coming in from right to left, I may stop and get out my waterproof jacket as I'd know a large downpour was on the way.
However, if the prevailing wind was in the opposite direction and I felt some spatters, I would be much more likely to gamble that it was only a passing shower and continue on cycling. Or if I awoke to another Mancunian wet morning, but from my kitchen window (facing west) I could see blue sky, I would know to hold off going to the shops for a little while as the rain would most likely cease soon.
Such a simple understanding of local geography and prevailing wind systems can be really helpful in ones everyday life, and whilst I would like to think the majority of the population apply such simple weather-lore as they go about their lives, my research so often shows me this is not the case. Take for example a conversation I have had so many times when talking about the weather with people; it usually proceeds something like this:

Me: I'm not sure if I'll be warm enough with just this shirt on.
Person B: But its 20 degrees outside (*sat looking at laptop)...
Me: I don't think it is...
Person B: It is.
Me: Well it was forecast to be 20.
Person B: Look, it says it is!
Me: Yeah the forecast says...
Person B: No. Look, weather (*click), Manchester (*click), now 20 degrees Celsius.

So often in these kind of cases- and more often than not, this conversation happens with intelligent friends or colleagues- there is a genuine lack of knowledge of how a weather forecast is made, how it is often not always updated once it is placed online/TV, and how it may vary from actual conditions in ones' specific microclimate. Such a disconnect between what forecasters mean and intend when they create their predictions, and the general public's understanding of local weather, presents huge challenges for all involved in the communication of meteorology to the public. In my recently completed thesis I explored how in the 1950s and 60s Britain's Met Office began considering how they should present such forecasts. Then, as is the case now, their greatest challenge was how to discuss probability in TV forecasts.

So how do you, the reader of this blog, know the weather and judge what is to come in the immediate future when you are out and about? Do you just use an App on your smartphone? Or do you understand the typical and dominant weather patterns in your locale and use this information to critically interpret the computer model generated forecast that you see on the TV or computer screen? I guess its a question of not only how do you know (what) the weather will be, but also how (well) do you know the weather?

Developing such thoughts even further in urban environments is Dr Vladimir Jankovic at the University of Manchester, whose recent research project has looked into the history of climate and weather information in informing the design of cities. In this video about his research, Dr Jankovic discusses how, as more and more of us globally live in urban areas, urban climatology and meteorology will only continue to increase in importance.

Well I'm off to learn about the snow-belt, overnight temperature increases, lake-effect snow, and daily variations in temperature of 15+ degrees- all of which are alien to a Mancunian. Hopefully once I've got a better understanding of how Southern Ontario's weather patterns work, I'll know whether to trust the TV forecast and understand how to read the sky from my apartment balcony. I'll leave you with the questions that Dr Jankovic's video above finishes with for you to consider:

Is the weather in the sky? Or is the weather in the street? Where is the weather?

Please leave comments about your own region's weather quirks and patterns below!


  1. how do i work out the prevailing winds in Hackney, East London? more specifically, how do i apply this to ensure that i don't get a wet bum when i choose whether to cycle to work in the morning?! Camilla

    1. Hi Camilla,

      Most of the prevailing wet weather in the UK will come from the west. This means that when it is raining in Hackney it is most commonly already raining/has rained in central London. An easy tip for cycling is to look at the online rain radar forecast and then try and assess if the weather you see outside of your window is in sync/ahead/or behind that forecast. By doing that you can usually tell whether a predicted shower has passed you without rainfall or if it is still to come. Hope that makes some sense?