Long before smartphones my mum was the family’s weather app. From our house above a seaside town she could forecast rain just by looking at the sky beyond the harbour. “You’ll need your anorak,” she would say when predicting a shower. She never got it wrong.
I remembered this a couple of weeks ago. Standing in the marketplace of Otley, a town on the north side of Leeds, it occurred to me I might have inherited something of my mum’s weather eye. I was looking up at the sky and telling myself with a large degree of certainty: “It’s not going to rain.”
What prompted this thought was the discovery that all three weather apps on my iPhone were at that moment insisting the opposite. The wet stuff was definitely on its way, they said. Apple’s own weather app had just forecast “sprinkles in nine minutes” and for that length of time I was prepared to be impressed. Even my mum never dared to specify the exact number of minutes until the heavens opened.
So I hung about to see what happened, and when nine minutes were up there was still no rain. I loitered some more, and after 30 minutes the “sprinkles“ remained obstinately absent. I checked the app again. Now it was predicting a 60 per cent chance of rain in one hour. Yeah, right.
I looked at the BBC’s weather app. I was already being rained on, it told me. I quietly emitted a “huh”. So I moved on to the Met Office’s app, which a friend swears is more reliable than the BBC’s. This said I was experiencing a light shower, so I turned my face to the sky once again, just in case. Not a spit.I laughed, shook my head andsaid aloud: “It’s definitely notgoing to rain.”
There are plenty of other weather apps out there and each one gets its forecast from a different source, which explains the inconsistencies, if not the crap forecasts. The BBC’s are provided by the Netherlands-based MeteoGroup. The Met Office’s come from its own UK-wide weather stations. Apple gets global forecasts from an IBM company called the Weather Channel, which has its own app for Android phones and tempts people to download it with the words “Never get caughtin the rain again”. Hmm.
A few days later, around lunchtime I found myself in Shipley, near Bradford, and – this was turning into an obsession – I checked my weather apps. The previous night the BBC’s Tomasz Schafernaker – said to be the late Queen’s favourite forecaster – had predicted there was a chance of snow at midday. However, Apple’s app was currently saying “Drizzle”. The Met Office insisted there was “Mist”. Not surprisingly, the BBC’s app agreed with Schafernaker, showing a symbol for snow. But not a single flake came spiralling down from the sky, although there was a half-hearted attempt at a flurrya couple of hours later.
In the UK we are said to be fixated on the weather. It is our default conversational ice-breaker. But I’m bound to wonder what the point is of apps that promise hour-by-hour forecasts if they keep getting them wrong? Despite billions spent on satellites and terrestrial weather stations, all of them feeding data into computers running state-of-the art algorithms, my mum couldteach them a thing or two.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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