Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Here Is The Weather

This morning as I walked home from Quillan there were two factors not experienced for a while. One was the crunch of frozen ground underfoot and the second was snowflakes in my eyes.

The rain turned to snow yesterday. I know I said recently that there was snow on the Pyrenees, but now it has come down to our level (our house is at 500 metres above sea level). We had quite a lot of it yesterday. I thought we were going to get snowed in, but the wet ground and a temperature of 3 degrees kept it away. When I drove to Lavelanet - immediately out of Puivert the road climbs to about 650 metres - the snow was quite thick by the side of the road and had obviously been snow-ploughed off it.

Today the temperature is down to zero, but fortunately not much snow falling, just enough to look pretty. The forecast in one of the local newspapers, which was correct for a change, was for some "floçons" (snowflakes, although it can also apply to cornflakes, et cetera). Floçons is a funny word. It has a cedilla under the "c". The cedilla is a diacritical mark which is supposed to soften the "c" into more of an "s" (actually into a Visigoth letter) but in this case it seems to harden it into a "k".

Despite all those floçons and cedillas, I suppose we should celebrate the fact that we found a weather forecast which turned out to be true. As with most people, it has come to my attention, almost every day in fact, that weather forecasting is one of the most inexact sciences in existence.

Our two local newspapers almost always give completely opposite forecasts. They can't both be right, and frequently neither of them is, although it may just be a cartel agreement between them to increase the chances of success.

To anyone who lives in a mountainous or even moderately hilly area, it is quite clear that the weather changes every time you pass along a road and into and out of different types of terrain. Of course the hills have an effect on microclimate, and so many other things do also. So how could a weather forecast for the broad areas favoured by weather forecasts be meaningful?

And what about the number of times you see the forecast on tv, or hear it on the radio, when it should be pretty much up to date - the forecast says blue skies - you look outside and it is raining - if they don't know what it is doing at the moment, how can they tell you what it will be doing tomorrow?

I have been involved in weather forecasting to a degree, so have a bit of inside knowledge. Even more than most people without that involvement, I am aware of the huge sums expended, and appalled by the puny, unreliable results.

When I was, I think, the youngest Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy, I was part of the team on one ship which would take, every few hours, readings of sea temperatures, wind speed, air temperatures, and the like, and transmit them post haste (using what is now an archaic item - the morse key) to the Meteorological Office. One of my few souvenirs of those days is an award from the Director General of the Meteorological Office for my "services at sea" to weather forecasting.

Strangely, in my next job, which was in an intelligence organisation of which, at the time, even the very existence was top secret and beyond revelation, one of the confused cover stories some of us (!!) were given, to be produced in answer to queries about our role, was that we worked "at the Met Office place". We didn't, although strangely enough, that same organisation now ranks, I believe, with the Met Office in terms of its expenditure on huge computers. (The existence of the organisation is now known, but I don't know whether there has been any coordination about a cover story for what they actually do).

I became aware of the enormous expenditures on Met Office computers in my next job, for a computer manufacturer. I don't have the figures at my fingertips, but the amounts, as well as the number-crunching supercomputers, are gigantic. And that is just in one small country. Almost every country has its own forecasting organisation, so the cost must be colossal.

And the results? You know that as well as I do. The gnarled peasant casting an eye at the sky or toeing the ground is just as likely to be correct as the output from these gold-gobbling goliaths.

1 comment:

French for a While said...

We even had snow in Antibes! Actually, it was a freak hail storm.

Happy Thanksgiving!