Wednesday 24 July 2019

Here's how Met Eireann produce weather forecasts - and what it's like to declare a Red Alert

In the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, our reporter goes behind the scenes at RTÉ to learn how weather forecasts are put together - and what it was like to declare a Red Alert

Writer Meadhbh McGrath (centre) with RTE Weather's Audrey McGrath (left) and meteorologist Joanna Donnelly. Photo: Mark McConville
Writer Meadhbh McGrath (centre) with RTE Weather's Audrey McGrath (left) and meteorologist Joanna Donnelly. Photo: Mark McConville
Future forecaster: Meadhbh McGrath presents a weather bulletin. Picture by Mark McConville

Meadhbh McGrath

My arm is aching, my jaw hurts from smiling and I'm breaking out in a sweat under the scorching heat of the lights in RTÉ's TV weather studio. I'm doing my best weather-girl impression, but imitating the sweeping flourishes you see the presenters doing on TV is much harder than it looks.

Meteorologist Joanna Donnelly and weather presenter Audrey McGrath are my tutors and they have been patiently demonstrating the impossible task of keeping your elbow bent low as you press your palm flat behind you, as if against a glass wall.

"I don't like it when some do a sweep as if they're presenting the latest Volvo - it's not a shiny car," Joanna chides, instructing me to "be definitive in your pointing: this is the weather, that's a cloud, and sometimes it rains. Nice, strong, firm."

When Audrey later encourages me to have at go at the world forecast, I'm no better. "Remember the pane of glass! Remember the pane of glass!" she cries. "I don't want to see that side of your hand!"

I try to laugh off my unnatural poses, but Audrey points out that there's a red-level warning for flooding in Bulgaria, which is, she says, "very dangerous", so I quickly resume a straight face.

Audrey and Joanna are showing me the tricks of the trade ahead of the premiere of Weather Live, a new series due to air across three nights on RTÉ One, based in the National Botanic Gardens. Joanna will join host Kathryn Thomas and forecasters Evelyn Cusack and Gerald Fleming to explore our national obsession with the weather and the peculiarities of the Irish climate.

Future forecaster: Meadhbh McGrath presents a weather bulletin. Picture by Mark McConville
Future forecaster: Meadhbh McGrath presents a weather bulletin. Picture by Mark McConville

The show aims to mix education with family-focused fun and will feature cloud-spotting with the president of the Cloud Appreciation Society, weather reports from celebrity guests and a behind-the-scenes look at how the Met Éireann team in Glasnevin tackled Hurricane Ophelia - the most powerful storm to hit Ireland in 50 years.

Joanna was on air all through the hurricane and came to be known as the 'face of Ophelia' as she guided the country through the worst of the storm. "When I was growing up, 'you've got a face like a hurricane' was an insult, and here I was: 'the face of the hurricane'. I was thinking, is that a good thing? I'm not sure I really like that!" she laughs.

The Finglas native notes that there were some complaints from the Deaf community that the forecasts during Ophelia weren't signed, but that the response from the public was otherwise overwhelmingly positive. She emphasises that although it was her face people saw on TV throughout the day, she was backed up by a team of forecasters and support staff in Glasnevin. Joanna likens the atmosphere to "an apocalypse" and says the debrief is "ongoing".

"The aftermath is still being felt in Glasnevin; we're all still coming to terms with what happened. We were really challenged and put through all of our paces in those few days, and I think we're all very confident that we worked absolutely as hard as we could. I know I missed a night's sleep and about four meals - I'm sure that's gone up from two meals since I first told the story!" she grins. "But I'd do it again in a heartbeat, because I learned more in four days on Ophelia than I possibly learned in the 10 years running up to it."

Meadhbh McGrath presenting a weather bulletin. Photo: Mark McConville
Meadhbh McGrath presenting a weather bulletin. Photo: Mark McConville

Joanna adds that they were lucky that one of the operational forecasters at Met Éireann, Liz Walsh, had just come back from a course on extreme weather events the week before Ophelia hit. They were in constant contact with the National Hurricane Center in Florida, and she was able to quickly process their observations and pass on clear briefs to Joanna.

Throughout the weekend, she kept in touch with the Glasnevin office, the Florida hurricane centre and the British Met Office and was eager to extend the red-level warning from the south and west coasts to include the entire country, a choice some criticised as too extreme.

"There was a lot of conversation. I felt very firmly on the side of issuing the warnings," she explains. "I was very confident about erring on the side of caution."

Once the warning was in place, she says, "I felt a little more confident that, not to put too fine a point on it, but that the children of Ireland were going to be safe on Monday. I was able to relax into making sure that firm message was delivered to everybody. Thankfully, they listened and… the loss of life, as devastating as it was, was minimal."

Despite the warnings, a number of swimmers, windsurfers and coast walkers still risked the hazardous conditions and were soon criticised for putting emergency services in danger. "I definitely wasn't surprised [to see that]," Joanna says. "Only a couple of years ago, I remember looking at the charts and seeing phenomenal waves off the southwest coast, and I was thinking to myself, 'Oh, if I issue a forecast and say there's going to be phenomenal waves, the first thing that's going to happen is you'll have a dozen surfers down there looking for a thrill.'

"It's some responsibility on the forecaster there. I'm just reporting on what's going to happen and the facts, but you also know there are going to be emergency crews' lives in danger because people are going to act irresponsibly."

Meadhbh McGrath pictured at the RTE weather studio. Photo: Mark McConville
Meadhbh McGrath pictured at the RTE weather studio. Photo: Mark McConville

Joanna joined the RTÉ TV Weather Team last year but has been working in Met Éireann since 1995 and as a forecaster since 2002. "I remember 22 years ago when I started, we'd get a satellite picture every six hours. We'd have to draw on the lines of latitude so you'd know where Ireland was," she recalls. "Now the satellites are updated every five or 10 minutes."

There are 11 broadcasts throughout the day across RTÉ One and RTÉ2, which are split between TV presenters and meteorologists. Their days are long - Audrey and the other presenters usually work from 8am until 7pm, while the meteorologists' shifts stretch from 12.30pm until 10pm.

When the meteorologist comes in, he or she will pull up the information coming out of Met Éireann on the computer, alongside a graphics package that offers a visualisation of the computer models which run Met Éireann's numerical weather prediction models through various parameters of wind, rain, temperature and pressure patterns. ("Make me sound smart!" Joanna hoots needlessly as I struggle to keep up with her talk of 'short-wave variability', 'mid-level shears' and 'confluent troughs'.)

"I configure a story in my mind, and then I'll paint the pictures to suit the story that I want to tell," Joanna explains. "Oftentimes, it's similar… thankfully our climate is generally temperate and straightforward enough, it's only occasionally that we get blindsided or a completely new weather system heads our way, as we saw with Ophelia."

She occasionally slips into dizzying technical talk, but Joanna is known for distilling heaps of brainy data into accessible two-minute chunks on air. "I really like disseminating the information, breaking it down and giving it in bite sizes for people to understand," she says. "I really enjoy getting feedback that I've been able to make something clear that was heretofore a mystery - that's my kick; that's what I really love to do."

We're chatting in the middle of her shift, and so our discussions are frequently interrupted while Joanna runs off to reboot the computer models, update the graphics package and deliver a couple of reports on air.

I follow her to the weather studio, a small room where the presenters stand alone - no camera operator, no sound people, just Joanna. There's a glowing red countdown clock, and at times an ominous voice booms out of the loudspeaker: "Three minutes left, Joanna."

The first thing I notice is the heat, which beats down from the studio lights. Inside the door, there's a giant blue screen surrounded by a series of monitors displaying the weather graphs, and in the centre is the TV camera, along with an autocue that goes unused. Every time you watch a weather report, the presenters aren't being fed lines or reciting ones they've memorised; instead, they use the charts as prompts.

During our chat, Joanna wears trainers, but as the clock counts down she changes into stonking six-inch platform pumps.

"Heels just make you stand up better - it improves your pose," she explains. "I don't wear these normally because they're way too high. They're literally just for standing in that box [in front of the screen]; that's as far as I go!"

The weather team dress themselves, although they each take a different approach to their styling. "When I started on TV, I was always checking my hair, my nails, my clothes," Joanna laughs. "Now I brush my hair and I'm done."

She hands me the clicker, a repurposed bicycle handle, and is bemused by my sudden click-happy giddiness. "It's amazing how excited people get about clicking through the charts," she says mildly.

The colour of the screen dictates what presenters can and cannot wear - before my visit, Joanna tells me to avoid "blues, purple-blues and green-blues". I'm also instructed to wear block colours, preferably primary ones, and no busy patterns. As someone who lives in shades of blue, I dashed out to the high street to pick up a new blouse for my 'weather- woman costume'.

My favourite part of the visit is when Audrey produces "the magic of the weather studio", a giant blue hooded coat that covers my whole body and results in all but my face vanishing on camera, much like Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. "The kids love that," Audrey notes pointedly as I beam with glee.

Joanna advises any budding meteorologists that the road to becoming a forecaster is not geography but physics and "maths, maths, maths". That's what she studied at DCU, and her thesis considered the effects of weather on air pollution.

"I went to Met Éireann to get a load of data and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm home,' she recalls wistfully. She now works an ever- variable roster of six TV shifts a month and, in between, splits her time between forecasting and media shifts for radio and print in the Glasnevin office.

"For me, I'd do it for free: it's a hobby. Harm [Luijkx], my husband, is also a meteorologist, and I know that we bore people terribly because we will talk about the weather!"

'Weather Live' airs on RTÉ One at 7pm on November 15, 16 and 17

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