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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.