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.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.