Meet Britain's bedroom meteorologists

Weather apps are notoriously bad at predicting extremes. Image: Getty.

Michael Fish, Ian McCaskill, Jack Scott. These famous weathermen, whose presence on the BBC weather show would once have sparked furious debate around British dinner tables, would today be more likely to receive a “Who?” from a distracted teen behind the screen of an iPhone.

The vibrant personalities and cultural significance of the 80s weather forecaster has since been replaced with rain emoji’s and no-nonsense weather apps. But while TV weather forecasters have lost their cultural status, there’s a lively community of bedroom meteorologists bubbling on the Twittersphere. Charming British weather forecasters are far from extinct; they’ve just evolved into something a bit more …geeky.

Self-taught weather enthusiasts are now forecasting rain and cloud alongside their slick, professional TV counterparts. These – mostly young – bedroom meteorologists have made predicting the weather more personable, more frequent and more competitive than ever before. But can a bunch of amateurs really be more accurate than the Met Office? 

“What a good question,” says 23-year-old Norwich-based Business student and amateur forecaster Nick Jager – who goes by @_NorwichWeather on Twitter – when I ask him.

“Sometimes, yes! Why? I don’t know – they can see everything we see – and more – and I am under no illusion that they have many, many more years’ experience than I do, plus the qualifications and so on.”

Here’s one good example: Back in 2018, Daniel, a young forecaster who goes by @TheSnowDreamer on Twitter accurately predicted that the now notorious Beast from the East would wreak havoc on London and the South East two weeks before it had even arrived. While many professional meteorologists remained sceptical, @TheSnowDreamer was firm in his prediction that we would see snow – and that we would see a whole lot of it. As the cancelled trains later that month signalled, he’d got it right.

“I would never like to discredit anyone at the Met Office personally, but yes, on occasion, I have noticed some of us amateur forecasters get something correct when the Met Office fail,” Jager adds. “It is totally understandable that… amateurs will nearly always call it before the Met Office, quite simply because we can call it early, take a risk, make a punt and if it’s wrong, it’s wrong – you might lose a couple of followers but otherwise it’s soon forgotten. The same can’t be said for the Met Office.”

On 30 November 2018, Jager published his ambitious 2019 winter forecast report on Twitter. In his forecast for February, he wrote there’s “a risk of cold and very snowy outbreak with a widespread cold/snow event – I’m calling it for early to mid-month.” He was partially correct.

Nineteen-year-old Wakefield-based forecaster James Young, who runs @UKWX_ – one of the biggest UK-based amateur Twitter weather forecast accounts – deviated slightly from Jager’s forecast, and got February pretty spot on, predicting a milder month with an early dose of spring. 

If you were a professional meteorologist looking at Jager’s or Young’s three-month advance forecast, however, you probably would have looked on with disapproval. There is a reason why professional meteorologists choose not to speculate on the weather months in advance.

After popular weather app AccuWeather implemented 90-day forecasts back in 2016, US-based meteorologist Dan Satterfield wrote on his blog: “Forecasts of this type beyond 7 to 10 days (at the most) are simply not possible. If someone tells you otherwise, they are wrong, because we are in the realm of palm reading and horoscopes here, not science”.

As Jager himself admits, “sadly it goes massively wrong for this month, but that’s the thing with long-rage forecasts, they’re 75% just for fun, really.”

While amateur forecasters use a smorgasbord of factors to help them predict the weather – long-range models, sea surface temperatures, zonal wind forecasts, climatology, analogues, El Nino, La Nina, solar activity, Siberian snow cover and QBO (Quasi-Biennial Oscillation) – all of these factors only minimally increase or decrease the probability of predicted weather events.

“The Met Office’s supercomputer only really manages five days ahead, so three months ahead is almost just a punt, just an educated one,” Jager says. “I have always said that there’s a very good reason why the Met Office stopped issuing seasonal three-month forecasts – they aren’t stupid, but of course, us amateurs can do it without the worry they have.”

And that’s generally the crux of amateur weather forecasting: it’s just for fun. The only thing that incentivises them to forecast is their sheer love for the weather and all it has to offer.


Most of these amateur forecasters have always been passionate about the weather in some capacity.

“I was always obsessed with extreme weather documentaries,” Young tells me. “Ever since the age of three, I would watch weather forecasts before going to school and before going to bed. It was an obsession I couldn’t get rid of.”

The majority of these amateur forecasters have taught themselves all about the often confusing and complex mechanics of meteorology.

“I learned from websites, and the weather enthusiasts here on Twitter,” Young, who will be going to university to study Environmental Science later this year, adds. “If you wish, you could buy a cheap weather station from eBay or Amazon for £40 to £60 and track the current weather there. It’s interesting to watch your weather station gather data in real-time.”

Like Young, veteran amateur forecaster Gavin Partridge has been interested in the weather ever since he was a kid, experiencing Britain’s numerous cold winters in the 1980s. Partridge produces three forecast videos on YouTube a day, in a manner akin to TV weather forecasters.

He tells me that it started as a hobby on an online forum and has snowballed into an enormous operation spanning the GavsWeatherVids channels, website and social media accounts.

“As a child I would watch the BBC broadcast fanatically, and of course back then, they would go more in-depth. Back in the 80s and 90s, they used to show the weather charts a lot more,” Partridge says.

“That’s primarily how I first started learning about isobars and the way that the different mechanisms like El Nino, for example, would drive the weather.” That being said, he’s adamant that he wouldn’t make the move to the BBC, simply because the forecasts are too restrictive – condensing the weather into two-minute chunks: “I like to go in-depth“.  

But 25-year-old amateur forecaster James Smith, who prefers to be called a weather commentator – and runs the @UKWeatherLive Twitter account – entered the world of meteorology from a completely different angle.

“I used to be scared of thunder after nearly being struck by lightning,” Smith explains. “The phobia got in the way of life, so I decided to learn everything I could about thunderstorms so I could predict when one was actually coming.”

After spending an inordinate time researching the weather, he stumbled on GavsWeatherVids’ YouTube channel and WeatherSchool on Twitter, and as they say, the rest is history.

The growth of the amateur forecaster has challenged media institutions’ monopoly over the weather. While televised weather reports often focus on the short-term picture and cover the whole of the UK, amateur forecasters are able to go into detail, covering the weather that is important to their community of followers and offering quick predictions to their followers on Twitter.

“People want place-specific forecasts and details,” Smith explains. “What I find is during severe weather – snow or thunderstorms usually – is people asking for specifics about their area, traditional reports can’t do that. Professional meteorologists might try on Twitter but don’t have the resources to do so. We can have a conversation with them.”  

Professional meteorologists and amateurs have their differences, though. Scroll through Twitter and you’ll see the two tribes repeatedly butting heads over minute details about their weather predictions.

But Partridge says that amateur meteorologists and professional meteorologists don’t need to be in competition with each other. In fact, the two work together quite nicely.

“What the BBC is doing is giving a snapshot of the weather, and they tend to focus on a very short-range timeframe. What I do is explain why the weather is doing what it’s doing,” Partridge says. “There’s space for both what the BBC do and what I’m doing, I think in many ways, we complement each other.”

While they may disagree on specific forecasts, one thing they do agree on is that weather apps aren’t to be trusted when it comes to extreme weather events.

“Weather apps aren’t as accurate because they are solely based on one run of a model,’ Young says.


“They aren’t always the most accurate,” Jager adds. “A lot of people don’t actually realise that the well-known weather apps do not have any human input, it is all done based on very latest model runs which then automatically update the forecasts on the apps.”

Without human input, your apps will struggle with rain, sleet, snow, thunder or anything that strays from the norm. If you’ve ever seen a weather app flip-flop between British rain and clouds, you’ll know how indecisive they can be.

“Weather apps are always wrong when it comes to snow and thunderstorms, so people ignore that and come to Twitter,” Smith explains.  

Whether they’re slightly right or slightly wrong, having a place where weather enthusiasts can debate and forecast freely is changing the landscape of traditional weather forecasting.

And if these bedroom meteorologists had been forecasting on Twitter back in 1987, they would have called the great storm that battered the south coast, and probably would have done it two weeks early. Sorry, Michael Fish.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.