Thursday 23 November 2017

Summer's here... so bring your umbrella

The June bank holiday is the start of real summer and from now on we dream of long, lazy sunny days. Will we ever learn

Downpour: Members of the public brave the bad weather in Dublin city centre this afternoon
Downpour: Members of the public brave the bad weather in Dublin city centre this afternoon
Gerald Fleming

Damian Corless

Next Monday, June 1, officially marks the start of the Irish summer, but already we're being warned not to pack away the woollies. Some forecasters claim the El Nino effect is to disrupt the Gulf Stream fronts crossing Ireland for the first time in five years, blanketing the skies above us in an unbroken drab grey.

El Nino starts in the Pacific with a warming of the sea, and while the chain reaction clearly can have troublesome knock-on effects from South America to Australia to Africa, the suggestion that it's going to ruin our summer is pure speculation with no hard science behind it. What we do know for a fact is that each Irish summer is at the mercy of what's happening further north.

Ireland owes its rainy, unsettled weather in large part to the fact that it lies on the boundary where the cold, easterly Arctic air mass comes into contact with the warmer westerly air mass lying further south. This shifting boundary, called the Polar Front, can stray southwards as far as the Mediterranean during winter, and as far north as the Shetlands in summer. Unfortunately for us, during the typical Irish summer, this roving Polar Front is prone to yo-yo up and down across this island, inflicting our infamous four seasons in one day.

But sometimes, as it did for stretches of the past two summers, the Polar Front drags the Med's weather north and leaves it with us a while. Through the appliance of science, in the form of hi-tech weather balloons and radar, Met Eireann has achieved much greater forecasting accuracy in recent times, yet anything beyond a week or so remains guesswork. Ireland is not one of those lands, memorably depicted by Caroline Aherne's 'Scorchio!' Fast Show weather-girl, where every forecast could be pre-recorded months ahead.

In fact, such is the skittishness of Ireland's weather that our most celebrated meteorologist, the late Brendan McWilliams, staunchly defended what he called "the honourable ploy of hedging".

Hedging, he explained, is the practice whereby forecasters 'hedge' their bets by predicting every type of impending weather, knowing that they're almost bound to get enough of it vaguely right to muddle through. Always game for a laugh, McWilliams wrote a front-page newspaper story in 1997 urging people to come out and get to the highest point in their locality to watch the Ozone Hole passing over Ireland later that day. Thousands did. It was April Fool's Day. There were many angry letters to the editor.

But while the wild mood swings of the Irish weather can be infuriating on a daily basis, our climate has remained remarkably constant in the 9,000 years since the first settlers arrived here to bask in Irish summers some three degrees warmer than today. To show how consistent, just take North Africa. While the Irish have known more or less what to expect ever since we arrived here, the people of the Sahara have seen their land turn from arid desert to a lush, green paradise swarming with wildlife, and back to parched, featureless desert.

Not that there haven't been terrible times in Ireland that no one could have predicted.

Together with Germany, we have the finest stock of ancient preserved oak trees on the planet, allowing carbon-dating experts to piece together an accurate picture of Europe's climate stretching back 7,000 years. The data shows that we were hit by six periods of prolonged nuclear winter between 4,375BC and 540 AD, probably caused by volcanic eruptions blocking out the sun. The society that built our circle forts collapsed during 18 years of darkness and famine from 1159BC, and again around 540AD when Tara was abandoned and Christianity embraced.

While modern forecasters might be tempted to hedge, many predecessors were just brazen chancers. Benjamin Franklin was a scientific genius who, amongst other things, plotted the Caribbean current warming Ireland and named it the 'Gulph Stream'. But he was also a shrewd publisher who made a fortune from almanacs that claimed to forecast the daily weather for the coming year.

In 1838 Corkman Patrick Murphy became the most famous forecaster in the British Isles with his own almanac, thanks to a fluky guess. Murphy predicted that January 20, 1838, would be the coldest day ever recorded, and it was. People walked across a frozen Thames, roasted sheep on a spit on the Medway, and played cricket on another frozen river.

Murphy's almanac quickly ran to 40 reprints, making him rich. It couldn't last. As the year wore on and his predictions turned out to be increasingly wrong, he became a laughing stock. Confirming that his powers of prediction were a spoof, he then blew his fortune investing badly on the stock market.

When Robert FitzRoy delivered the world's first published weather forecast in the Times of London in the summer of 1861, using data compiled from new weather stations around Britain and Ireland, he also struck it lucky. His prediction of a fine bank holiday was correct, but he too quickly began to catch flak for getting it wrong. The almanac publishers hated FitzRoy's scientific approach, which threatened their existence, while the fishing fleet owners lobbied to have his Met Service shut down when crews refused to put to sea when storms were forecast. The stress of the hostility was a factor in FitzRoy's suicide.

The standard prediction of politicians that summer elections, and referenda like the ones just gone by, find the Irish electorate in a more forgiving mood towards their rulers is borne out by UK research which shows that voters punish governments that drag them out to vote in the depths of winter. Since the foundation of the State, the vast majority of general elections have been called for May and June, with only one in January and none in December.

And this bank holiday, as you listen to your weekend forecast, spare a thought for the person delivering it.

Three years back, Met Eireann's Gerald Fleming confessed: "bank holiday weekends are a forecaster's nightmare. Expectations are sky high. No one likes working on a bank holiday because you're on a hiding to nothing if you get it wrong."

Damian Corless - the author of Looks Like Rain: 9000 Years of Irish Weather - joins Evelyn Cusack in the Banter Tent at the Bloom Festival in the Phoenix Park today at 3.30pm

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