IN OCTOBER 1987, weatherman Michael Fish stood in front of a rainbow graphic and reported that a woman had phoned the BBC to say a hurricane was on the way.
“Well if you’re watching, don’t worry,” Fish reassured his viewers. “There isn’t.”
Two days later, 18 people were dead, millions of trees were uprooted and a cross-channel ferry had been driven ashore. It was England’s worst storm in living memory.
Fish’s blooper has become a cautionary tale. But there have been others. Remember the “barbecue summer” forecast by the British Met Office in April of 2009? On that occasion, the public were told to expect lower than average rainfall. A summer washout followed.
If weather forecasting is a tricky business, long-range forecasting is even trickier. And yet, because farmers, planners, holidaymakers and others could benefit so much by knowing what kind of winters or summers to expect in advance, stabs at seasonal predictions are in plentiful supply.
The difficulty is in knowing who to trust. Met Éireann doesn’t forecast more than 10 days in advance. But what about those who predict the weather based on solar activity, lunar cycles, statistical number-crunching or plain old cats sitting with their back to the fire?
Ken Ring, a New Zealander who is regularly consulted by the Irish Farmers’ Journal, makes his long-range weather predictions based on lunar orbits and tidal frequencies. A maverick who wears a snowy white beard and cowboy-style hat, Ring made headlines in 2009 by correctly calling a “mainly wet” July and “a wet month” of August when the Met Office was predicting a scorcher.
Last summer, Ring was also correct to forecast improved weather after several dour years, and some particularly fine spells for the end of May. He has a 2011 almanac for Ireland for sale on his website, including everything from rain and sunshine predictions to fishing tables.
But he’s not always right. In a YouTube video dated October 17, 2010, Ring looks forward to the winter bearing down on Ireland. “I think a lot of the colder temperatures for Ireland may be at the end of this month, October,” he chirps. Winter in Ireland “might even be boring”.
In fairness, he also predicts snowfalls in the run-up to Christmas Week, cold weather after Christmas and a “cold and frosty” first half of January. But “boring” hardly describes the big freeze.
According to Met Éireann, the dominant influence on Ireland’s climate is the Atlantic Ocean. “Winters tend to be cool and windy, while summers, when the depression track is further north and depressions less deep, are mostly mild and less windy,” it says.
Seasonal forecasting is not possible, insists Met Éireann’s John Eagleton. “But that doesn’t stop people having a go at it. What we do is take today’s weather, look at what it has been like, and project into the future … that approach is only possible for around 10 days.
“Even with infinite computer power it won’t be possible down the line, either,” he continues. “You can’t calculate it; due to the inherent randomness in the variables. What you can do is take a guess. And that’s what these guys are doing.”
At Positive Weather Solutions, an independent group based in Wales, forecasters believe long-range forecasts can indeed be achieved — by crunching decades of historical data and analysing it in conjunction with recent trends and other variables.
Last summer, senior forecaster Jonathan Powell correctly called a favourable few months for Ireland, predicting a warm and settled opening to June, heavy rain at the beginning and end of July, and thundery patches in mid-August.
The wet conditions he predicted for mid-June failed to materialise, however, and overall, summer did not quite match the “top-five warmest on record” as he hoped it might.
“Unfortunately, I think overall the long-term trend is for poorer summers,” he says.
Another man with an alternative method is Donegal postman Michael Gallagher. Based in Glenfin, Gallagher makes weather predictions based on signs he reads from the wildlife and landscape — signs he has learned from older people in remote communities in the Blue Stack Mountains.
Last year, Gallagher told the Irish Examiner he was confident about a good summer. The late presence of snow on the Blue Stacks, and the fact that the sheep were going to the hills in late spring, he took to be good omens. As it turned out, June and July were warmer than usual.
He also got Will and Kate’s day spot-on last weekend, saying it would be sunny and hot, despite the British met service predicting possible rain.
Gallagher has been wrong too, of course, but he also predicted the cold snap that characterised winter 2009/10. He made the latter forecast after noticing the hunger in sheep, cattle and foxes, the way the sun shone on the mountains, and the late grass growth in October.
Of course, predictors like Ring, Powell and Gallagher only have to be right on one high-profile occasion to make media headlines. Met Éireann has to provide reliable advice daily.
That’s one reason why, despite the potted success, critics take issue with what they see as the unscientific methods, vague language (’warm’ or ‘cool’ are wide open to interpretation) and mixed records of predictors they portray as hobbyists or downright charlatans.
“That’s because they want people to tune into them,” counters Ken Ring.
“The reality of the situation is that once upon a time we were all farmers; we all wanted to know this stuff because we were all planning ahead. Now there is not the same requirement.
“The requirement for people in the cities today, which Met Éireann and others are satisfying, is to tell them what’s happening now and the next day, so they know whether to take a hat or give the kids a coat.
“That’s fine, I have no quarrel with that, but I’m saying here is a long-range system that is still being used in Asian countries and has been for thousands years.
“You can’t pooh-pooh something that has been honed for thousands of years just because you want people to regard you as the expert.”
In a long-range forecast you may not want to hear, Ring is also predicting a white Christmas.