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Weather forecasts are up there with dentistry

During the last few days, the British media, all of them, have been making much of D-Day, and quite properly so. The survivors from among those who fought that day who still remain with us now will mostly be gone ten years hence, so now is the last big moment of public thanks and public acknowledgement for these gents. And today will surely not pass without further mentions here of the sacrifices made on June 6th 1944, and the great purposes for which those sacrifices were made.

But the bit of the story that I keep thinking about is … the weather. How pleasing that one of our great national obsessions should have proved so extremely pertinent, at that time of all times.

The story is well known. The weather during the first few days of June 1944 was vile, and Group Captain Stagg, the man whose job was to analyse and present the weather news to those in charge of Operation Overlord, was the bearer of these bad tidings. On June 4th, D-Day, ready to happen on June 5th, was postponed, because of the weather, by one day.

But it could not be postponed for much longer than that. Too many men were revved up to go. A serious postponement would do dreadful things to that most crucial of military variables, morale.

Then, the miracle. Stagg discerned a magical moment of calmness in the middle of the weather system that was causing all the headaches, and through the eye of this meteorological needle Supreme Commander Eisenhower was able to thread the Normandy Landings. And they were all the more of a success for the fact that the Germans knew for certain that they just could not be done when they actually were done. As it turned out, the weather for D-Day was perfect, and all the more perfect for having seemed to be so imperfect.

My main purpose here is not to salute those ageing D-Day survivors, although I do salute them in passing, of course I do. No, the point I want to make here is that weather forecasting is one nationalised industry that really does seem to work, and to have been working well for some time now. All of my life I have been aware of how good weather forecasts tend to be. People complain about them, in the everyone-else-does-so-I-will-too way that they also complain about airline food, yet the truth is that weather forecasts are, on the whole, amazingly accurate. Time and again I have organised my entire day, even my entire week, around the belief that those clever weather men were telling the truth, and I have never, never regretted it. I only regret it when I do not know what they have prophesied and foolishly did not trouble to find out. Think of the economic benefits that result from accurate weather forecasts. Think of the food that is grown better because of them, the marine and aerial journeys that are better planned better because of them, the surprising pleasures identified, the disasters avoided.

In England, everyone still jokes about the time when much loved weather man Michael Fish said that a hurricane would definitely not smash the living daylights out of the South of England, at which point it did exactly that. But this was the exception that proves the rule, the rule being that, as a rule, weather forecasts these days are amazingly accurate. Fish saw that hurricane coming. He just got its exact location of maximum drama wrong. It did a wholly unpredictable left turn, northwards, from the Channel to Southern England, or some such thing. It could have happened to anyone.

No, the rule is that weather forecasting is right up there with dentistry as one of those great reasons to prefer being modern to being ancient.

Yet, excellent thought it is, in Britain as in most places, it is a nationalised industry. Anything that crucial to the fighting of wars (as that D-Day story illustrates so vividly), and that dependent upon gizmos of the sort used to fight wars, like satellites, ships and airplanes, is bound to be heavily political, and perhaps even globally political. Only world peace of a profoundly peaceful sort will persuade governments to slacken their grip on this activity.

Nevertheless, it is done extremely well, I think.

Statists do not need an explanation for state competence. They have to explain (away) state incompetence. But as a libertarian, who takes state incompetence for granted, I am puzzled by this outburst of state organised excellence. How come?

Partly, I think it is that weather forecasting errors are very public, and are revealed as eroneous very quickly. Poor old Michael Fish knew within a few hours when he made that hurricane blunder. The comedians started in on him immediately, as he must have known they would.

Then, there is the fact that bad weather forecasts affect almost all of us. If a hospital gives an illness to all its patients, or if the welfare system twiddles one of its knobs and turns a tranch of the more indolent populous into even more parasitical parasites than before, not everyone notices, and if they do, they may not know why it happened. But bad weather forecasts are an inconvenience to literally millions, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind who to blame when they go wrong.

And then – I come back to it – there is that warfare angle. Less that excellent weather forecasts do not just cause vexation to farmers and fishermen, or to misinformed commuters who stew in winter clothes in superheated trains when the weather is actually warm. The state hurts itself with bad weather forecasts. With bad weather forecasts its own plans might go horribly wrong. So, it needs a permanent regiment of weather people who really know their business. And when times are more peaceful, these weather persons keep themselves occupied by sharing their wisdom with the rest of us, in a way that is enough to make foolish onlookers imagine that all nationalised industries might be made to work well if only a bit more effort was applied to them.

16 comments to Weather forecasts are up there with dentistry

  • zmollusc

    I doubt that many ordinary people are affected by weather forecasts. How many folks can decide to work the weekend and take Monday and Tuesday off instead because the weather will suit them. Holidays are either booked months in advance or dictated from above.

  • Ron

    I’m not sure they’re as accurate as you say.

    Try the next few days looking at the 5-day weather forecast (put your postcode in the “Search Again” box) – and see how many times the forecast for a day changes over the 5 days it takes for it to appear on the right of the screen and become the current day…

  • I have no idea whether they are good or not, because I have not listened to a weather forecast in at least a couple of decades. (Not even once). I am not sure why, or if this is even good or bad, but I simply do not consult them. I just take the weather at comes. And my life seems to keep going okay.

  • Cydonia

    “Then, the miracle. Stagg discerned a magical moment of calmness in the middle of the weather system that was causing all the headaches”

    As an aside, according to an article in the Telegraph yesterday (Saturday), this is all a bit of a myth. Stagg was an administrator and a poor meteorologist. Also “a bit of a glory hound”. The actual hard work was done by three pairs of meteorologists – one pair from the Met Office, one from the U.S., and one from the Admiralty. Staggg’s job was simply to pass on their recommendations.

    Interestingly, the Americans said yes to the 5th – which would have been a disaster because the weather on that day was appalling. Luckily both the Met Office and the Admiralty voted no.

    On the 6th, The Americans said yes again, but the Met Office voted no – which would put back the invasion for weeks or months. Luckily the Admiralty got it right both days – so the 6th won out.

    Nothing to do with Stagg, though.


  • Cydonia

    The problem with assessing the competency is Government weather forecasting is that we have no “control” against which to test it.

    Also, whether or not Government always does things worse than the private sector, the one thing we can be sure of is that the Government will provide the wrong amount of things because it has no means of knowing how much there should be in the first place. Unlike the private sector.

    So maybe we do in fact get better weather forecasting than we would get without a nationalised system. But maybe we neither want nor need so much weather forecasting in the first place!


  • I read a book on Chaos theory which explained problems in weather forecasting brilliantly.

    What I learnt was that with some chunky computers its pretty much mastered up to five days ahead, beyond that it becomes a game of probabilities.

    As to the shall I take an umbrella or not? dilemma – the best answer is, apparently, if you needed one yesterday you are more likely than not to need one today…

  • Part of what you are talking about, with the open-ness of forecasting failures, is a market issue. Screw up, and the “customers” will be pissed.

    To the extent government delivers “services” (as distinct from utter necessities, such as running the Army, administering the courts) then perhaps treating government as a service provider can help eliminate the much-discussed laziness and incompetence.

    The present Administration in Washington has forced a number of administrative units in various departments to “compete” their services – in other words, form a bargaining unit, compete for a contract to deliver the services, or be eliminated with the contract outsourced to the private sector. There is inevitably some grumbling, but lo and behold, 75% or more of the time, the civil servants (who are after all often the technical experts in a given field, whether or not they get the job done) have figured out ways to win the contracts and deliver the services. It’s too soon to tell from the ongoing audits, but it appears there are some efficiency gains from the process. Big government meets big business? Maybe.

    On the other hand, perhaps a lot of our problems aren’t with the bureaucrats who actually run things, but with the Pols who decree new programs, and the bureaucrats who try to centrally manage the programs.

    This isn’t to say government programs to do all sorts of things are a good idea – just to say that maybe if we are stuck with them, the programs should be efficient and at least deliver what they are designed to deliver. Of course having a market basis means you have to be able to sanction a poor service provider with termination or reduction in payment, an alien notion to most civil servants…

  • Robert Dammers

    >>The problem with assessing the competency is Government weather forecasting is that we have no “control” against which to test it.

  • David Gillies

    Weather forecasting is really a leetle bit more important than telling you whether you need to take your brolly with you. If some malevolent force knocked out all the weather satellites today, one-third of the human race would be dead in six months. It’s that important. Prior to accurate medium-term weather forecasting, and especially real-time remote sensing, the agriculture that feeds a vast swathe of the world’s most vulnerable people was prone to random failure. Indian farmers rely on weather forecasts to know when to sow and when to harvest. Twelve hours warning of a hurricane’s approach can save thousands (and these days it’s a week’s warning). It’s actually quite hard to exaggerate the extent to which we rely on meteorology. It’s right up there with sanitation and pesticides as one of the great boons of humanity.

  • zmollusc

    “If some malevolent force knocked out all the weather satellites today, one-third of the human race would be dead in six months”

    A slight overstatement, I feel. Are you confusing weather prediction with weather control?

  • David Gillies

    No, I’m not. That’s my point. I repeat: “It’s actually quite hard to exaggerate the extent to which we rely on meteorology.” I stand by that statement. Most people simply do not understand the extent to which modern society depends on meteorologicall data. Forget the nonsense on “The Day After Tomorrow” – failure to predict the onset of the monsoon in South East Asia could kill ten million people.

  • zmollusc

    I still don’t see it. Anyway that is 10,000,000 dead in S.E Asia if we say that the 6 months includes monsoon season. Who are the other 2,090,000,000 dead?

    If the met sats are inoperative then surely people will guess? Can everyone guess so badly that a third of the world dies? Are you confusing a lack of weather prediction with badly wrong (but acted upon) weather prediction?

  • On dentistry and D-Day.

    My late uncle was a dentist and served as such in the Army. He once told me that he had gone over to Normandy on D-Day. I stupidly said that having a toothache would be least of the soldiers’ worries. Indeed. He was there to treat people who had been shot in the jaw.

  • David Gillies

    What it boils down to is that prior to modern meteorology, people did indeed ‘guess’, but now they don’t, and much of their decision-making is predicated on the availabilityof these technologies. Take them away and the system doesn’t degrade gracefully. The margin is very small.

  • David Growns

    unusually wide of the mark…. The weaher on D Day was no where near ‘perfect’, unless perfect means attacking when your enemy thinks you won’t.

    Most of the american tanks bound for Omaha sank very quickly, swamped, ultimately leading to the carnage on that beach through lack of armoured support. They were put to sea 5-6 miles out !

    The current swept the Utah beach contingent 3 miles south of the intended landing point.

    It was 11am before the clouds lifted sufficiently for close air support.

    The moderate swell meant that the landing forces were all suffering from sea sickness as if they hadn’t enough to worry about.

    so, no it was far from perfect…..kinda makes you feel even more humble at the heroic efforts they made doesn’t it ?

  • zmollusc

    Okay, I still think it sounds like a big difference, but I am not a farmer. Thanks for taking the time.