Farm Ireland

Thursday 17 January 2019

Opinion: Met Éireann has come a long way from the pointy sticks and wall charts

Met Éireann forecaster Gerald Fleming at work
Met Éireann forecaster Gerald Fleming at work
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

An old farmer I knew had a 'set' against Met Éireann's Gerald Fleming, who used to do the weather forecasts on RTÉ TV.

It wasn't personal; just a feeling that he of the relaxed style, woolly jumpers and signature sign-off wink was always wheeled out whenever there was bad weather on the way.

The farmer died a while back but, in his later years, developed another strongly held view, that the forecasting had become more accurate since all the 'girls' had started doing the weather.

He was right in that forecasts have become more accurate, but that's more to do with improvements in the quality of the information that is available than the gender of those relaying it.

Along with the Gerry Murphy, the RTÉ weather panel now comprises Evelyn Cusack, Jean Byrne, Joanna Donnelly, Siobhan Ryan, Karina Buckley, Audrey McGrath, Helen Curran, Michelle Dillon, Nuala Carey and Louise Heraghty. Some are meteorologists, others not.

Back in 1999, RTÉ tried to drop the meteorologists from their presenting staff in favour of younger, non-expert staff, but massive public outrage led to their quick reinstatement.

When Gerald Fleming started off with the met service in 1980, pointy sticks and a chart on the wall were the order of the day. He did his first TV broadcast in 1985 and once said that he adopted the wink to make a visual connection with the viewer.

Fleming stepped down from his TV role in 2009, but continued on as head of forecasting until his recent retirement.

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He always said that forecasting is a science, but not an exact science.

In the way that jockeys say you are only as good as your last winner, weather forecasters face the same sort of pressure so I imagine that he must feel some relief at escaping without a Michael Fish moment.

Fish was a weatherman with the BBC who became infamous in the wake of the Great Storm of 1987.

Hours before the storm broke, he opened a forecast with the words: "Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't!" South East England was subsequently hit with its worst storm in three centuries.

The term 'Michael Fish moment' is now sometimes applied to public predictions of any kind which turn out to be embarrassingly wrong.

The increased accuracy of weather forecasts has been gradual and is thanks to improvements in areas such as satellite imagery and computer modelling.

It used to be something of a national pastime to give out about Met Éireann but, since its forecasts got better, we viewers had to find something else to move on to.

Into the breach stepped the ladies, led by Jean Byrne, with her quirky, edgy sense of fashion. For some people, forecasts are now less about what's coming in terms of weather than seeing what Jean Byrne is going to be wearing.

The growth of smartphones and the introduction, in 2011, of colour coded alerts, designed to increase public awareness of the risks associated from extreme weather events, have brought the weather to younger generations.

Maybe it was a throwback to the bad old days but, when Met Éireann was forecasting the recent episodes of snow, I was very sceptical. Especially the latest. Snow in the second half of March?

Though, when they turned out to be spot on, I did feel a tinge of relief on its part.

So, well done Met Éireann, you've become very good at forecasting snow.

Now, if only you could only replace it with some sunshine.

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