Eoin Butler's Q&A

Sat, Jul 21, 2012, 01:00

GERALD FLEMINGIrish meteorologist looks back on 50 years of TV weather forecasting and answers the question “So, what happened to our summer?”

So . . . What happened to that summer we were expecting?

Well, why were you all expecting it? Yes, we’ve had a lot of low pressure, a lot of cloud and a lot of rain. But this is Ireland. Those conditions are not atypical for this time of year. We should learn to take the rough with the smooth.

Or the rough with the rough.

I don’t know. Irish people have a tendency towards irrational optimism.

Maybe if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to live in this country and stay sane. The hope that there is something better coming around the corner sustains us when, if we were to look at the statistics and accept the grim realities, life would be a lot more difficult.

Does the public ever blame meteorologists for bad weather?

Yes, absolutely. It’s irrational and there’s nothing we can do about it. But we are the personification of the weather in a lot of people’s eyes and, when things are bad, they sometimes need a scapegoat.

What’s the biggest influence shaping our climate in this part of the world?

The Atlantic Ocean. There is a lot of cold, dry air blowing down from Canada and Greenland. It mixes with the moist, warm air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

So out there over that vast expanse of water is where all of our weather systems generate. They blow up and they die away and as they do so they pass over us. Trying to understand them is the basis of forecasting in this part of the world.

How has weather broadcasting improved in the time you’ve been on air?

Oh it has come on enormously. When I began broadcasting in 1985, we used sticks and hand-drawn charts. At one stage, there was a triangular tripod that we rotated in order to display different charts.

In the 15 years that followed, between 1985 and 2000, there were huge changes as computer graphics came in. Things haven’t changed quite as dramatically since then, but the technology is improving all the time.

In the UK, the BBC’s Michael Fish is still remembered for failing to predict the Great Storm of 1987. Any cock-ups of that magnitude in this country?

Well, we’ve gotten forecasts wrong on occasion. Happily, not too often.

The most notorious case in point was the August bank holiday in 1997 when we predicted fine sunny weather. Unfortunately, a weather front moved up unexpectedly and the south of the country got absolutely soaked.

Bank holidays are very pressurised for meteorologists. If we get them right, we could almost do nothing else for the rest of the year!

There must be a certain pressure to get the sea area forecasts right too?

We try to get it right for the general populace. But obviously, the sea area forecast is a matter of life and death often. With modern boats, the danger isn’t as great. The fleet is smaller and the boats that go out are very well equipped. But even though the dangers are less than before, there are still dreadful accidents every year. We also work closely with farmers and the road authorities in the case of severe weather.

Tomorrow you’re presenting a documentary called Weather Permitting, celebrating 50 years of TV forecasting in Ireland.

That’s right.

One episode that’s glossed over slightly is the abortive attempt by RTÉ in 1999 to phase out meteorologists in favour of so-called “professional presenters”. Is that still a sore topic?

Yes, there was a particular movement in RTÉ at the time. One or two people in positions of influence wanted to move the station in a particular direction. Not just in weather but across the board. Obviously, we felt that we provided a good service and had earned our place in the schedules. Fortunately, the move elicited a huge public outcry but it was a difficult time for us.

TV3 had recently brought in Martin King, who was telling jokes and reading requests during his forecasts. Do you think the move by RTÉ might have been a response to that?

I think that was part of it, yes. I have no problem with Martin and his style of doing things. It’s not a style I’d want myself, but I recognise that it’s valid for a certain segment of the audience. Television as a medium constantly has to reinvent itself to stay relevant. This was just an occasion on which an attempt to reinvent things went too far in a particular direction.

Finally, if two meteorologists find themselves sharing a lift, say, what do you make small talk about?

Oh, there’s always lots to talk about. When you’ve been working on a forecast all day and then have only two minutes to deliver it, you’re always preoccupied with what you’re going to leave out and what you have time to squeeze in. I’m usually wondering, what is the main message I can get across today?

Weather Permitting will be broadcast tomorrow at 6.30pm on RTÉ1

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