Getting the weather forecast right

An article in this week's Drogheda Independent made me smile today. The paper interviewed a Boston woman living in the area, keen to learn what she thought of the snow and the reaction to it.

Predictably she said that if schools in Boston closed for as much snow as we had this past week, nobody would ever go to school. She was forgiving, more forgiving than most Irish people have been, willing to accept that investing in the kind of equipment necessary to keep things moving in snow and ice might not be a good investment.

Then she changed tack, saying how much she enjoyed listening to the Irish weather forecasters on t.v. She described them as "optimistic," which I suppose they are, but mostly they're understated and always tentative.

Their use of language is so artful that I'm not sure I can fully describe it, but failure to understand what's being said can catch out the unwary tourist or new arrival. A few examples might help.

As Bostonian Erin McVeigh mentioned, winds are often described are "fresh" or "freshening." To Americans a fresh wind is a gentle sea breeze on a hot day. Not here. If you hear the forecast say winds will be "fresh", make sure everything's tied down tight, put weights in your children's pockets because a "fresh" wind is one that would do the city of Chicago proud on its best day.

Forecasters love to use the word showers too. "Rain, clearing to showers" is a favorite, but my all-time favorite is "showers merging to give the appearance of longer spells of rain." 'Give the appearance'? The soaking is all the same.

As for the tentativeness, the most common is "mostly dry." In other words, we think it's going to be a nice day, but if it rains on your barbecue well, didn't promise anything. "Odd passing shower" is another one. It's a very rare day when they say it will be dry everywhere for the day (and it's a rare day when that happens too). They don't deal in percentages like America's weather men and women. You don't hear anything like a "60% chance of rain."

I should add that the tentativeness only arises when they're predicting good weather. Their footing is much more assured when they're calling for rain. Predicting rain or no rain, as anyone who's spent even a few hours can tell you, the Irish weather is very unpredictable anyway. A little uncertainty in the forecast is probably a good thing.

This past weekend, however, the national met service (Met Eireann) forecasters seemed to throw caution to the wind. Time and again we heard them on RTE television and radio telling us that we were going to get a lot of snow and ice, especially on Sunday. There was none of the typical doubt and uncertainty about the forecast. I suspect they let the excitement of the unusual weather get to them.

They're so comfortable calling for rain that they took their eye off the temperature. The precipitation came in large volumes as they warned, but it came as rain rather than snow because the temperatures were just above freezing rather than right around or below as they expected.

A small, but telling error and one not quickly forgotten by a people that loves talking about the weather. We don't have a weather channel here, although I'm sure Irish people would love it, such is their keenness to engage in weather conversations.

Then again, maybe not because I think they like talking about the weather more than they'd like to watch it. And in Ireland there's a sameness to the weather from winter to summer and back again that maybe wouldn't make great t.v. No, the only great t.v. is the quirky language and the unaffected personalities of RTE's meteorologists who present the weather to us.

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