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Thursday 14 November 2019

The winking weatherman Gerald Fleming is back - this time with a serious warning

He's not been on TV for more than a decade but meteorologist Gerald Fleming is coming back to caution us all on extreme weather events. He spoke to Tanya Sweeney

Weather eye: Irish meteorologist Gerald Fleming. Photo by Steve Humphreys
Weather eye: Irish meteorologist Gerald Fleming. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Gerald Fleming made his last broadcast as the 'winking weatherman' in 2008 but it wasn't until November 2017 that he retired as Met Éireann's Head of Forecasting.

Three months later, RTÉ's weather forecasts became something of a national obsession. The Beast from the East, a rare weather combination that effectively brought the country to a standstill, saw Met Éireann's broadcast output move front and centre in the TV schedules. Meteorologists were on hand to provide rolling news coverage and weather status updates to huge TV audiences.

For a brief time, Ireland's weather-people were household names: the 'rock stars' helming dizzying coverage about the 'snowpocalypse'.

It was a hectic and exciting time in Met Éireann's offices, albeit a time during which Fleming was happy enough to be a mere spectator.

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On whether he experienced a bout of professional FOMO, Fleming says: "I did a number of those [inclement weather] events in my time. They're exciting and the adrenaline is pumping, but they're exhausting as well."

During the great snow storms of 2010-11, Fleming was reporting from the National Emergency Co-ordination Group headquarters, up until Christmas Eve. He's happy to let others take over the mantle.

"It was great to see everyone step up to the mark [during the Beast from the East] - I'd have trained people like Gerry Murphy and Joanna Donnelly, so it was good to see them cope and thrive in what isn't a media environment," he notes.

"We all come from a science background, and media attention is a long way from where we were thinking we would be when [we studied]. When you get thrust into this media world where everything is different... it's not something we're really bred or trained for."

Still, when Fleming first arrived at Met Éireann's offices in 1980 for a job at the behest of a friend, he thought he might last a couple of years at best.

"It wasn't that I deliberately wanted to get into the [TV] side of the business, but when the opportunity came, I tried it and it seemed to come very naturally to me," he recalls. "I was happy doing it and people seemed happy enough to let me do it."

As for his signature wink, he adds: "I did it sort of spontaneously when I was being trained by a director and he said, 'Watch that - that could become a bit of a trademark.' It's just a way for me to make contact with the person sitting on the sofa. It's just a way of making that human connection."

Fleming needn't worry about attempting to make a connection with TV audiences these days, as his next project is sure to make for utterly compelling viewing in its own right.

As part of RTÉ's upcoming Climate Change Week, Fleming presents Will Ireland Survive 2050?. Described as a "brutal wake-up call", it's a speculative look at what Ireland, and the rest of the world, might look like in 2050, in the event that climate change continues apace.

In March, the UN warned that millions of people will die before their time due to water and air pollution by 2050, so the programme is sure to make for unsettling viewing.

"Climate change is a bit like Brexit, in that people are probably sick of hearing about it, but it's not going away either," he notes.

"So we're looking particularly at the connection [between] climate change and weather extremes. When you tell people that the temperature will rise by one or two degrees, they might think 'big deal', but the fact is that extreme weather events, like flooding and hailstones, will become a lot more common.

New generation of protesters

"We're looking at the human stories of people who have been affected, and trying to ask if this will become a one-in-five or one-in-10-year event, as opposed to something that happened maybe once every 50 years."

Asked about climate change deniers, Fleming sighs heavily.

"The science is not that complex," he says. "I just don't know… sometimes people don't understand; sometimes they don't want to understand. In the US, too, it's become totally politicised, so if you're a Republican, you think one way. If you have your theory and your evidence, the idea of it being tied to a political party is nonsense, really."

Conversely, he is heartened by evidence of a new generation of climate change protesters, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg: "They understand that this is a problem they will have to face for a long time. My generation could say, 'Well, I'm not going to be that affected by what happens in 20 or 30 years.' Even in wealthy countries, things like migration will get worse, as the ability of people to live in certain parts of the world is going to become very much more challenging."

Since retiring, Fleming has kept skin in the game. After travelling and enjoying downtime, he now consults for the World Bank and the World Meteorological Organization, and has spent plenty of time working on projects in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

"A lot of these places have populations that are very vulnerable to climate change and, in many cases, they're not very well resourced," he says.

"A hurricane or tropical storm can really set them back, or even kill them. There's a lot of money going into that area now, and development agencies are helping the services to improve their capability of predicting flooding."

His plans are to popularise science and meteorology, and make it even more accessible to a wider audience. Fleming is happy to be back on camera, and certainly feels comfortable there, but don't expect him to show up on any reality series to advance the cause of science.

"It's not really my scene. I'm a scientist and I'm kind of happy to go into the popularisation of science, and use entertainment formats [to that end]. I don't watch it, so that sort of stuff doesn't do anything for me."

* 'Will Ireland Survive 2050?' is on Monday November 11, RTÉ One, at 9.30pm

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