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Met meets winter

Science | In a turnabout, the British meteorological service predicted the UK cold snap-but not publicly

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

The last month of 2010 was the coldest December the United Kingdom has endured in at least a century (record keeping began in 1910). The chill and intense snowfall has taught Britons what the UK national weather service has been insisting for months: It doesn't make predictions.

Back in October the government's meteorological service, the 1,800-employee Met Office, quietly published a map on the technical portion of its website showing a 60 percent to 80 percent probability that the next three months in most of the UK would be warmer than average. But privately, around the same time, the agency warned the government that the start of winter could be "exceptionally cold." Inklings of the coming December freeze weren't publicly announced until November, in the agency's short-term forecasts.

If you can warn government, why not citizens? It turns out the Met Office stopped issuing public long-term forecasts last March, after a series of embarrassing mispredictions. In September 2008, the agency issued a press release stating the coming winter was likely to be "mild" (it was the coldest in a decade). The agency in 2009 forecast a "barbecue summer" that was mostly rainy, and again predicted a mild winter, which became the coldest in 30 years. Criticism was sharp, especially given the Met Office's trumpeting of man-made global warming and involvement with UN climate-change initiatives.

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Now the agency doesn't issue public forecasts more than 30 days in advance-the real reason being, a spokesperson explained, that "the public said they didn't want them."

Internal Met Office documents obtained by the BBC through a freedom of information request describe another reason officials scuttled the forecasts: "Hostile" media and a mistrustful public weren't intelligent enough to handle them. A February 2010 document instructed staff to direct "interested customers" to the technical section of the agency's website to find the three-month forecast, but "this message should not be used with our mainstream audiences."

Instead, the long-term forecasts would be reserved for people who understood their limitations-like the government: "'Intelligent' customers (such as the Cabinet Office) find probabilistic forecasts helpful in planning their resource deployment."

When UK journalists first reported on the mild winter map (buried in the website's technical section) last October, the Met Office immediately posted a disclaimer saying the forecast required "expert interpretation" and that newspaper assessments couldn't be taken as "a guide to the coming winter." Instead, the agency told the public to wait for its short-term forecasts.

Of course, by then Met officials privately expected the coming cold, as independent meteorologists were forecasting. But this time around, they weren't saying.

Warming Trends

Although the UK suffered a cold spell late last year, Russia experienced a summer heat wave. Global temperatures from three separate databases agreed that 2010 statistically tied with 1998 and 2005 for the warmest year on record. El Niño and La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean both factored into last year's regional weather extremes, but the head of the UN World Meteorological Organization said skeptics of global warming should take an "unbiased" look at the long-term trend: 2001 to 2010 was the warmest decade on the books.

Some scientists, however, point out a longer long-term trend: Ice core data shows the Earth has already undergone several cycles of warming more extreme than at present-perhaps as recently as the ninth century.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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