Sunday 22 September 2019

Feeding a national obsession: behind the scenes at Met Éireann

They help to keep planes in the sky and ships safe at sea - and they feed a ­national ­obsession. Kim Bielenberg reports from inside Ireland's weather centre

Nerve centre: Head of forecasting Evelyn Cusack with Eoin Sherlock, who helped devise a new weather app for Met Éireann, at the meteorological service’s HQ in Glasnevin, Dublin. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Nerve centre: Head of forecasting Evelyn Cusack with Eoin Sherlock, who helped devise a new weather app for Met Éireann, at the meteorological service’s HQ in Glasnevin, Dublin. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

It is hard to fathom now, but almost two decades ago RTÉ tried to get rid of professional weather forecasters from our TV screens.

Evelyn Cusack, now the head of forecasting in Met Éireann, actually remembers saying farewell to RTÉ viewers live on air.

Professional meteorologists were axed in favour of "weather presenters" - and critics felt they were chosen more for their looks than any knowledge of isobars and cold fronts coming in from the east.

The abolition of the meteorologist caused a storm of protest that everyone, apart from senior management in RTÉ, could have seen coming for days ahead.

Climatologist Mary Curley (left) with some old weather diaries. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Climatologist Mary Curley (left) with some old weather diaries. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Fishermen warned that lives could be lost, farmers fretted over whether they would learn the right time to make their silage.

And most of all, the general public demanded that the details of the weather, grim as they may be, be delivered by experts with an air of authority.

They wanted to see in front of them individuals who were even more obsessed with the quirks of Irish weather than themselves.

So, RTÉ surrendered - and the meteorologists quickly returned to the main bulletins.

In the age of Netflix, YouTube and social media, they are now among the few stars left on RTÉ, and are in more demand than ever.

When the storms blow and rain falls in torrents or blizzards cover the country, prompting orange or red warnings, we binge-watch the weather.

And the meteorologists not only pop up on the forecasts, but on news bulletins and chat shows.

In the depths of Met Éireann's headquarters among the computer models showing spring drizzle, Evelyn Cusack tells me: "In the 1980s and 90s, television producers wanted to jazz up the weather, and make it all very flashy, but now the citizen wants more serious weather."

Yes, we like serious weather. And Cusack is keen to point out that there is a lot more to forecasting and the work of Met Éireann than the well-known presenters who appear on the screen, prompting Gogglebox-type remarks about their appearance and dress sense.

Behind the scenes and away from the cameras, they play a role in keeping planes in the sky; they safeguard boats from storms through sea-area forecasts; they give emergency services detailed briefings as they embark on search-and rescue operations.

They give advice to farmers on issues such as soil moisture and the spread of potato blight, and they are developing a more elaborate system for forecasting floods.

Brains of the operation

Evelyn introduces me to the research scientist Dr Emily Gleeson, who works with the evermore elaborate computer models that form a picture of the atmosphere using mathematical equations.

"The modellers are the real brains of the operation," says Cusack. Dr Gleeson shows me the Harmonie forecast model that has been developed specifically for Ireland's weather and climate. It is seen as the most accurate short-term weather soothsayer available.

As well as gazing into the future, Met Éireann is a trove of information about how the rain fell and winds howled in the past. Cusack and climatologist Mary Curley usher me into a library with a locked archive of weather records dating back almost 200 years.

These records, which are gradually being digitised, are enabling climatologists to gauge how our climate has changed, and how it is affected by global warming.

"Based on studies to date, seven of the warmest years between 1900 and 2016 have occurred since 1990," Mary Curley tells me. She shows me bound volumes of early records that were taken down in meticulously handwritten notes with fountain pen by whiskery Victorian gentlemen, enthusiastic amateurs who had their own mini weather stations.

In a typical entry in his records in 1870, the Dublin physician JW Moore notes: "The wind is flying round to the west with heavy rain." It may be seen as an inconsequential conversational ice breaker, but predicting the elements has always been a matter of life and death.

Showing me through this library, Cusack tells me that the whole idea of "forecasting the weather" came after 1859 when 459 lives were lost in the Irish Sea in a storm on the passenger steam clipper Royal Charter.

Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who had captained Charles Darwin's ship the Beagle on his famous trip to the Galapagos Island, established 40 weather stations in Britain and Ireland so that there could be gale warning charts.

In the summer of 1944, the fate of an entire continent lay on the accuracy of a forecast based on information coming from an Irish weather station.

Under General Dwight Eisenhower, Allied Forces planned to land in Normandy on June 5 in their push to defeat the German army.

But soon after 2am on June 3, Irish coast guardsman and lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney sent a weather observation report from Blacksod Bay, Co Mayo. It contained an ominous warning of "a Force 6 wind and a rapidly falling barometer".

There were regular phone calls between Blacksod and meteorologists in England in the hours that followed as weather charts were drawn up. As a result of Sweeney's report, the D-Day landing was put off for a day until there was a break in the weather.

Nowadays on the forecast floor in Met Éireann, the meteorologists sit next to banks of computer screens looking at models of how the atmosphere is shaping up.

Now, using the European computer models, Met Éireann forecasters can form a picture of the weather up to 10 days ahead, and the new Met Éireann app predicts seven days ahead.

When I arrive on the forecasting floor, Joan Blackburn is preparing a lunchtime broadcast for RTÉ Radio.

While the computer models produce reams of information, a forecaster still has to interpret the data and tell a story in plain person's language of what is about to happen. And Joan is also getting a picture of what is really happening around the country from weather stations, radar and satellite pictures.

"While the models are very good, they were not picking up the extent of rain this morning. So, I have to adjust the forecast," Joan says.

From early morning until the dead of night, the radio forecasters broadcast from a tiny studio at the top of the building.

In the week when I visit, there is familiar spring weather - sunny spells followed by scattered showers.

They are the sort of conditions that prompt the hoary saying: "If you don't like the Irish weather, wait five minutes."

Naturally, it is the extreme weather events that cause the most excitement in Met Éireann.

Meteorologist Liz Walsh studied science at Trinity College, but it took her some time before she discovered what she really wanted to do.

"One day, I was in Sydney, and I saw a thunderstorm unfolding across a river. I thought it was so dramatic that I wondered - how the hell does that work?"

Blizzards may have blanketed the country during Storm Emma, but the freak event that they talk about in Met Éireann was Storm Ophelia, the near hurricane of last October that strayed across the Atlantic into our waters, razed roofs uprooted trees and led to the loss of three lives.

Liz Walsh worked during the week before the storm hit Ireland, and found it a nerve-racking but exhilarating experience.

The forecaster was on duty in Glasnevin seven days before the storm hit, when almost by chance she spotted an unusual phenomenon developing out in the Atlantic.

Walsh was just back from a training course on extreme weather at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting in Reading, England.

"I was looking at a few new tools which I had learned to use on the course, and I noticed something strange. It was a tropical depression, but it was in a very unusual place south west of the Azores," said Walsh, who had some experience of extreme weather events as a meteorologist in New Zealand.

Liz Walsh tracked the strengthening storm on the following day as it headed in our direction, and it soon became a topic of discussion in Met Éireann.

"At times like that you like to talk to some of the more experienced forecasters. It is very much a team effort."

Status Red

By Wednesday, Met Éireann was talking to colleagues in Britain about the approaching storm, and the US National Hurricane Centre was also in touch. Walsh came in to work an extra shift, and the country was eventually put on high alert with a Status Red warning.

When the storm eventually hit on October 16, gusts reached up to 191km per hour off the south coast. There was extensive damage and thousands of homes lost power, and although three lives were lost, Met Éireann's precise warnings probably prevented many casualties as the country shut down.

Forecasters can have decidedly mixed feelings in anticipation of a storm hitting the country, and sometimes there are sleepless nights. "You want your forecast to be perfect, so in that way you want the storm to arrive," says Evelyn Cusack. "But you don't want any citizen to die or have houses flooded."

In an era of fake news and fake weather, Cusack says Met Éireann has a more crucial role than ever as a source of reliable information.

The national weather service has always faced an element of competition from the farmer who could predict a rain shower from the pain in his knee or the old geysers predicting a long, hot summer based on the arrival of the dolphins in Dingle Bay.

"If the dolphins could really forecast the weather, we would use them," says Cusack.

As well as the folklore and old wives' tales, Met Éireann faces competition from a torrent of websites, social media posts and multinational apps.

"There are so many forecasts available now and so many apps, it is important to get to the meteorological truth," says the head forecaster. "Our forecasts aren't perfect, but we believe they are the best available."

Eoin Sherlock, who led the project to devise Met Éireann's new app, says: "Our app works better for Ireland, because we use the Harmonie model, which gives much more detail of what is happening in each area."

As I come to the end of my visit, Evelyn Cusack says that when she signed up to study physics more than 30 years ago, she never expected to be a household name.

"When people watch the forecasts on TV, they may have their favourites - people they like and dislike - but really the weather is the star."

The elements will continue to be our obsession. But as a wise observer remarked many moons ago, everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

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