For me, the weather exists in the present. I pay attention to it if it’s above my head. Forward planning—umbrellas, etc—is not a strong suit. So when I arrive at the rain-lashed front door of Britain’s weather service, the Met Office in Exeter, I am soaked. My shoes are squelching, my clothes sodden (no, I didn’t bring a coat).
Helen Roberts, a forecaster and my minder for the day, looks at me. "It was forecast,” she says, pointing to a screen in the foyer where looped satellite images show dark clouds snaking across Devon. She later confesses that meteorologists are essentially “monitoring chaos"; I feel this is some mitigation for looking as if I’ve gone surfing with my clothes on.
It’s not just my attitude that is going to preclude me from a day’s effective forecasting. The Met’s on-site college requires would-be students to have a maths or physics degree—no place for a man whose preferred method of morning temperature-assessment is to place his hand on his bedroom window. I look over one trainee’s shoulder as I’m shown round a class of ten, all staring at screens. He seems to be typing lists of impenetrable acronyms: TAF, BECMG. (A meteorologist’s caps-lock key gets a lot of use.) I’m told that BECMG is simply an abbreviation of “becoming”; TAF, though, stands for Terminal Aerodrome Forecast. This makes me nervous. It sounds like a Schwarzenegger movie.
Next, I’m taken upstairs to shadow the chief forecaster, Bob Wilderspin, a man as affable as anyone can be while monitoring four computer screens and holding a conversation. He tells me that he is in charge of the “model”, a five-day forecast updated every six hours by supercomputer, which crunches data from orbiting satellites and observation stations at a rate of 125 trillion calculations per second. Bob points to a satellite image of the Atlantic. An occluded front has appeared and I am tasked with marking it with the symbols you see on a weather map. As he moves off, the first thing I do is to Google “occluded front”.
It turns out to be a common meteorological phenomenon, where a cold front overtakes a warm front, leading to rain. I have no problems technically; Bob had explained how to click and drag the symbol for the front—a purple line with alternating semicircles and triangles—and overlay it on the edge of a cloud bank on the satellite photo. Except that, on his return, Bob points out I have outlined the wrong edge. I am attempting to create my own weather, like an incompetent version of Storm from “The X-Men”.
Somewhat ashamed, I am shunted across to the opposite desk, where a man called Robin Downton is compiling the shipping forecast with all the furrow-browed concentration of a Bletchley Park crypto-grapher. No wonder. The forecast demands that the wind, sea state, weather, visibility and ice warnings for 31 sea areas must be listed in a set order, and in under 370 words. He can run the areas together if their forecast is identical, but he can’t reorder them around weather patterns. I ask why. Robin sighs, and says he doesn’t know. I sense he’d like to get on with his honourable, onerous task, and that my line of questioning is as helpful as, “But why, Daddy?”
In search of an achievable task, I roll my chair over to yet another set of desks. Helen Roberts agrees to let me assist her with the online forecast for the Brecon Beacons. “You can read a tephigram, yes?” she asks. Hearing this as “telegram”, I nod. As she gestures to a multi-lined diagram on a computer screen I realise my mistake, and, bearing the occluded-front debacle in mind, I segue my nod into a shake. She explains that a tephigram shows the temperature of a vertical profile of the atmosphere, from which the likelihood of cloud formation can be determined. This doesn’t help.
Helen interprets the tephigram and other reports, and instructs me to tick boxes showing whether the likelihood of blizzards, gales and thunderstorms is high, medium, low, or no risk. I also add some text she dictates along the lines of “low risk of gusts to 50mph, most likely over the highest peaks”. I have become what I realise was my own ludicrous preconception of a weather forecaster: someone who just reads or writes what they’re told. Anyone you see on television gesturing in front of an animated weather map will understand everything they are showing you. All I know is that I’m 200 miles from home without a coat. And the forecast is rain.