We go behind the scenes at Met Éireann

Gerald Fleming may be gone from our TV screens, but he’s as busy as ever generating forecasts from Met Éireann HQ. Jonathan deBurca Butler visits on World Meteorological Day.

We go behind the scenes at Met Éireann

As we walk out from the NASA-like peculiarity that is the Met Éireann headquarters in Glasnevin in Dublin, we discover that it has started to rain. There are four of us. Myself, my photographer colleague, Moya, and two weather forecasters, Joan Blackburn and Gerald Fleming.

“Is it raining?” I blurt out as we head out into the evening.

“That wasn’t there on the way in,” says Moya, echoing my surprise.

Gerald gives a cursory nod to the skies overhead. Joan appears to look at her watch and utters the faintest ‘Yeah’.

“Sure, you knew it was coming,” I suggest.

“Well yes, it was forecast,” says Joan in her wonderful understated manner.

Between them Gerald and Joan have 70 years service with Met Eireann. Since joining, they both agree that forecasting has changed immensely.

“It has become easier in that forecasters are better and the technology has helped,” says Gerald. “But at the same time, we’re forecasting further ahead and people expect forecasts for four or five days which they didn’t when we started.”

Gerlad Fleming and Joan Blackburn. Picture: Moya Nolan
Gerlad Fleming and Joan Blackburn. Picture: Moya Nolan

For Gerald and his colleagues, being accurate four or five days in advance is not as easy as everyone might think. Weather, while a science, is not always an exact science.

“Storm Doris recently,” says Gerald. “We didn’t get the forecast on that as well as we might have. It moved very quickly on the west coast. But we base a lot of predictions on computer modelling and if the computer doesn’t have enough input or good information or it’s just not used to something, it can’t predict it as accurately as it would like too.

“That’s updated every six hours so forecasters are reliant on observations and satellite imagery and are trying to fill in the gaps and then trying to compensate by adjusting the forecast and the warnings.”

Of course, Gerald and the team don’t like it when, on the odd occasion, the forecast may not be as accurate as they hope but as he explains it’s not something they can dwell on. “As scientists you can’t spend time beating yourself up about something that goes wrong,” he says.

“You just try to understand how and why it happened so the next time around you’ll have a better explanation of how things behave.”

For Gerald, “forecasting is really only something that you can learn by doing and building up experience”. There are several different roads you can take to get into it in the first place.

These days there is a Masters in Meteorology in UCD but when Joan Blackburn was starting out some 36 years ago, it was a nine month training stint in Galway followed by some heavy duty hands-on work.

“You had to have a physics or a maths degree,” says Joan, a UCD graduate, “and then if you had a keen interest in weather you moved into it. That nine months in Galway was actually very intense.

"You were there nine to five Monday to Friday and then after that there was six months practical where you shadowed forecasters in Shannon.”

The Met Eireann team currently stands at 30, made up of 22 forecasters and eight support staff. The operation runs 24/7. The evening I arrive, things are relatively quiet, with Joan overseeing the reports, land observations and satellite output, all of which is swirling on several screens around us.

From the outside the Met Éireann HQ looks spectacular; it is almost disappointingly ordinary inside. But then there would be something wrong if the big investments were being made on plush surroundings and not on instruments that read the weather. And we do invest heavily.

Ireland is part of EUMETSTAT, a Europe wide intergovernmental organisation made up of 30 member states whose primary objective is to establish and maintain European systems of meteorological satellites. Ireland pays about €5m per annum into the organisation’s fund, and in return we get what Gerald calls “great access” to information.

Ireland’s position out in the Atlantic means we are in a key position. “We’re the frontline. So Ireland is very important in terms of ground observation. Everyone, particularly Britain, looks to us to see what’s coming across the way.” It is this sense of co-operation and the exchanging of information that gives Gerald greatest satisfaction.

“Meteorology of its nature is very international,” he says. “And it’s one of the great characteristics in terms of organisation that everyone works with everyone else. I go to international meetings and the Jordanians are working with the Israelis or the Russians or whatever. The political stuff just disappears. There’s no place for it as those tables.”

Gerald says that despite Brexit and other issues, the weather can’t be forecast without the co-operation of neighbours.

“We will still be working with the UK Met Office and Meteo France and that’s an essential part of what we do. The sky has no borders. The same sun and the same clouds scoot across us all.”

The majority of Met Éireann’s work is of course done behind the scenes but much of what we know about our weather forecasters comes from their appearances on our television screens.

The unexpected impact of Storm Doris in some areas underlined how, while weather forecasting is a science, it is not always an exact science. Picture: Moya Nolan
The unexpected impact of Storm Doris in some areas underlined how, while weather forecasting is a science, it is not always an exact science. Picture: Moya Nolan

Everyone seems to have their favourite forecaster and whether it’s Jean Byrne and her spectacular wardrobe or Gerry Murphy and his amazing mannequin impressions, each of them have given viewers something to remember them by.

When Gerald was on screen it was his combination of cosy jumpers and that winking sign-off that captured our hearts.

“I retired from it and they haven’t come back to me on bended knee,” says Gerald. “Every so often we take people out and we train them up and offer them to RTÉ but it’s their call. None of us got into this to be celebrities.

"We’re scientists but I suppose that’s something we find interesting that you find yourself in an environment where your personality becomes and is an issue. That’s the way the media works for better or for worse.”

Far more important for the team at Met Éireann is that people use World Meteorological Day as an opportunity to think about weather forecasting and what’s involved.

“It’s a chance for education I think,” he says. “People take the weather forecast for granted. They take out their phones and say ‘Oh it’s going to be sunny in Nice for the next eight days’.

“A lot of work goes into producing a forecast. All the observations have to be looked at, all the satellites have to be created, programmed, put up there and then all of that has to put into computer models and the information taken out of that again.

“So there’s a huge amount of technology that goes into that and people working in the background working on that to make it happen and we can kind of take it for granted.”

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