Friday 18 October 2019

Caroline O'Doherty: 'Now Storm Lorenzo is gone, the biggest challenge for Met Éireann is forecasting the public mood'

Warning: As oceans warm, storms will get more dangerous

Evelyn Cusack speaks to the media. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Evelyn Cusack speaks to the media. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Caroline O'Doherty

Evelyn Cusack is nervous. She may be head of forecasting at Met Éireann, one of the country's most senior meteorologists and a veteran of nearly 40 years of reading the charts, but in her line of work the unexpected is just an isobar away.

It is not a lack of confidence in her knowledge or experience that makes her edgy - it's the concern that what she says and what the public hears can be two very different things.

So she approaches interviews with the look of a dog owner who has just assured a room full of parents that the pooch sniffing around their toddlers' toes never bites.

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Her heart tells her never but her head says there's always room for something to go awry. "It's not a hurricane. We can't get hurricanes in Ireland," she says, before adding: "I say that but… Michael Fish!"

Fish was the unfortunate forecaster who smilingly told the British public in 1987 that rumours of a hurricane heading their way were wrong.

Overnight the south coast of England was slammed by a devastating storm with gusts of 185kmh that caused widespread destruction and killed 18 people.

READ MORE: Thousands of people without power after Storm Lorenzo as fresh weather warning issued for six counties

Fish was hampered by less sophisticated satellite imagery than is available now, and the failure of colleagues feeding into his presentation to accurately assess storm activity off France, but technically speaking he was right - it wasn't a hurricane.

Hurricanes need warm air to maintain their very specific characteristics and as they move over the chilly waters surrounding the likes of Ireland and Britain, they change in strength and temperament.

But what about Hurricane Charley, which came charging through Ireland in 1986? That wasn't a hurricane either but an extra-tropical cyclone that began life as a hurricane in the US but, like Lorenzo, changed form on the Atlantic crossing.

So what does it matter? Well, when we first heard Hurricane Lorenzo was heading our way, the news whipped up excitement and alarm.

When the National Emergency Coordination Group (NECG) announced they were getting together early this week, we assumed the worst.

READ MORE: Storm Lorenzo: Major search operation for missing surfer stood down in Kerry after man located safe

When the local authorities said their crisis management teams were in place, sandbagging had started, school closures were mentioned and the Defence Forces were on standby, it began to feel very real.

Images appeared of the Azores getting a hammering as Lorenzo stampeded across Europe's most westerly outcrop.

And then we were told it wasn't a hurricane any more, that there would be no status red warning, only Orange at worst; that the anticipated thunder and lightning wouldn't materialise and the expected widespread deluge of rain would now be rather more modest and patchy.

High seas and winds pictured this afternoon on Dún Laoghaire Peir this afternoon... Pic Stephen Collins
High seas and winds pictured this afternoon on Dún Laoghaire Peir this afternoon... Pic Stephen Collins

Had the NECG cried wolf? Was the nanny state unfurling too many rolls of cotton wool? If it wasn't such a big deal after all, what would Galway city do with the 20,000 sandbags its staff, assisted by members of the Defence Forces, had so determinedly filled?

What would householders do with all the spare loaves of sliced pan they'd panic bought? And is there a risk of us all become blasé about 'emergency' warnings?

READ MORE: Editorial: 'Storm Lorenzo roars a warning for our future'

The NECG seemed to sense they might be losing attention and pleaded that the country still take Lorenzo seriously.

"Status Orange is a serious condition. It may pose a threat to life and safety," said Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, who hosts the NECG. "We're trying to get this across: Status Orange - infrequent and dangerous weather conditions which may pose a threat to life and property," said Evelyn.

"Someone did die during an Orange warning last year," her colleague, Eoin Sherlock, head of the flood forecast division reminded.

A sea swimmer takes to the water at the Blackrock Diving tower near the Promenade in Galway. Photo: Frank McGrath
A sea swimmer takes to the water at the Blackrock Diving tower near the Promenade in Galway. Photo: Frank McGrath

And they and the rest of the NECG stressed repeatedly that things could change, and appealed for people to stay tuned in and keep up to date with the latest developments.

"This storm system has originated from a hurricane system. It is a post-tropical storm now but that gives it some features which make it very unpredictable," said NECG chairman Keith Leonard.

"We're dealing with nature and while we have good confidence in the track and intensity of Storm Lorenzo, there is always some uncertainty with these types of storms."

Evelyn Cusack sought assurances about how the advisories she issued would be treated in the media. "What I'm saying now is what we know now.

"Things can change. Please ask people to keep up to date," she asked, anxious that her predictions at 1pm with the fingertips of the storm just creeping into Irish waters would be held against her 24 hours later when its full fist had punched its way through.

It's not her reputation she's worried about - even Michael Fish recovered - it's the knowledge the public put a lot of faith in the Met service and she doesn't want them misled.

Ironically, the better meteorologists get at their job, the more often they'll tweak their message for accuracy and the more likely the public will end up confused.

Met Éireann now has the tricky task of judging not just the weather's mood but the public's too.

With climate change, those dual tasks are becoming more tricky, because as our oceans warm, the dog that never bites might just find its teeth.

Evelyn Cusack Met Eireann speaking to media following a meeting of the NECG this morning at the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre, Agriculture House, Kildare St, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Evelyn Cusack Met Eireann speaking to media following a meeting of the NECG this morning at the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre, Agriculture House, Kildare St, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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