Bill Giles: Viewers need weather forecasts, not fear-mongering

Our forecasters must beware of behaving like nannies, says former weather presenter Bill Giles

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We seem to have been inundated with weather warnings this winter, not least when Storm Doris crashed in from the Atlantic in February, bringing misery to great swathes of the country. Whatever you think of the Met Office practice of naming storms, it’s designed to add to the drama and credibility of the warning.

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But when we receive as many warnings as we do, are they effective? And should the weather presenters scare us with the effects of the storm, or should they just stick to the meteorology? This has been a dilemma since 11 January 1954, when the first weatherman, George Cowling, appeared on our television screens.

When I began my career on screen it was forbidden to mention flooding. The Met Office view at that time was, “We forecast the rain coming out of the clouds but when it hits the ground, it’s a local authority problem, not ours!” We got around it by talking about “excess surface water” on roads and pavements, but that was a coded warning. On frosty and snowy nights does the forecaster really need to tell people to watch out on untreated roads and pavements? I think they could safely just mention the ice and expect viewers to use their common sense.

Cast your mind back a little further to January, when we were being told about high levels of pollution and freezing fog combining to give us the dreaded smog. Again, should the weather presenters really tell their listeners and viewers not to go out in it? No one wants to give healthy individuals a cause for worry, or an unnecessary reason not to go to work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yk4X-oEl-qI

Of course, if the forecast is for exceptionally severe weather, which happens about once every five years, then due warnings and possible consequences must be given. But to do this with all of the dozen or so named winter storms risks making people immune to the warnings. And just because we’re now into spring – at least where weather forecasters are concerned – it doesn’t mean the warnings will stop. We have yet to get the summer thunderstorms and consequent flooding as well as a warning of impending heatwaves.

So while we must consider the effects of severe weather on the population at large rather than just pure weather information, for weather warnings to be effective our forecasters must beware of behaving like nannies. The Met Office already has a great relationship with the Environment Agency and the two sets of forecasters work together to issue the flood warnings. Only sensible warnings of the effects of bad weather, duly considered by all of the experts, would be given out when relevant and it would reduce the number of off-the-cuff remarks that happen today.

Of course the forecasters have a very difficult job, and March is an awkward time as we move from winter into spring because it’s a battle between milder, wetter Atlantic weather and cold air from the continent – and it’s no different this year.

So here’s my personal forecast for the weeks ahead. I think much of England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be mild with periods of rain, whereas Scotland could still be in the grip of winter. But there is a chance, albeit fairly small, that sunnier, colder weather, with night frosts, could encroach further south. The second half of March should continue in the same vein, with milder wetter weather still the most likely, but the Scandinavian high pressure doesn’t give in that easily and could still give us another flavour of winter – so there’s every chance of damaging frosts well into April.

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Which, as a gardener, is the one weather warning I do really want to hear.