A new place for us to talk about the weather. Again

 

IT’S A TRUISM that we always talk about the weather in this country. But first property usurped precipitation as the favourite topic of discussion, and then the recession took a pre-eminent place in our national conversation. But last month came a new website, Irish Weather Online, which arrived just as the country became gripped by snow and ice, leading talk of foreclosures to give way to school closures.

Crucially, Irish Weather Online’s arrival has also coincided with a great shift in our discourse, which is increasingly finding itself played out on the web and social networks, as well as on high streets and, of course, in the pub. As Mark Dunphy, the weather enthusiast who founded the site, puts it: “It was great to see Irish Weather Online trending on Twitter, and knocking IMF off the top.” Dunphy, who runs a PR company, says he built the site in a few hours when he was bored, but it quickly took on a life of its own – more than 3,000 Twitter followers, and more than 250,000 visitors in its first month.

“We started up a day or two before Storm Carmen, in early November, and so we got off to a very good start because of the extreme weather event within 24 hours. The Weather Channel in the US came across one of our tweets, and asked to use photos of the storm, so within 48 hours the site was featured on TV across the States. That led to further coverage, and it quickly turned into a sharing site of updates, images, video, live chat – that’s what got it going, the interactive side.”

That immediately interactive side of IWO wasn’t the primary aim: Dunphy, who has a degree in history and media, is an active member of the weather forums on Boards.ie, and the intention was to offer long-term forecasts using the knowledge of some of the other meteorological enthusiasts he knew from there. The forecasts are by Peter O’Donnell, a climatologist based in Vancouver, and Fergal Tierney, who has a qualification in aviation meteorology, but the site is a not-for-profit, enthusiast-driven enterprise.

“Because we have a national meteorological service people have an impression it’s an elite thing to forecast the weather, but really it’s just opinion based on science. It’s a myth that only qualified meteorologists can read the science of the weather, and it’s a myth that there can only be one opinion based on the science: there’s plenty of room for other voices.

“We planned the long-term forecasts, but the ‘now-casting’ element – telling people what’s happening in their area in the next 15 to 20 minutes – has just grown up naturally; people are heading out and want to know what it’s going to be like in the next 10 minutes, and we’ve been spot on with our warnings of snow. We predicted the big snowfall on the Thursday, and what made it exciting was the live reporting by people on Twitter: we’d have a downfall in Tallaght, someone would report it and someone else would corroborate it, and quickly you had a community of people talking about the weather, like a massive pub conversation online.”

That massive online conversation is going to be particularly noisy with the extreme conditions we’ve been having, and the reliance on forecasts will be greater than usual as a result. Dunphy admits that the snow has played a huge part in IWO’s quick success: becoming the hub of online conversation about the snowfalls and a focus for crowd-sourced weather observation in the space of a month was largely serendipitous.

But where does all that leave Met Éireann? “We’re aware that there are a certain number of bulletin-board conversations online that have a lot of activity,” says the veteran meteorologist Gerald Fleming, “but our main goal is to get the forecasts and warnings out there, and that’s our daily grind.” The national forecasting service has been, in Fleming’s words, snowed under by inquiries since the mercury plunged below zero. Daily visits to met.ie spiked in the past three weeks, from an average 60,000 to more than 400,000 at the height of the cold snap. “A big challenge for us is how the whole method of communication is changing,” says Fleming. “Previously, weather forecasts have been text-based or broadcast, but it’s becoming more graphical, online and immediate. Due to our position, it would be difficult to invite a two-way conversation with people, because everybody would want to talk to us, and expect and deserve a response. People put that trust in us, which is both frightening and humbling, but they put that faith in us in the knowledge that we do our best.”

Met Éireann’s responsibility is particularly acute in a country so obsessed with weather: we have been described as the most meteorologically literate people in the world, says Fleming. “I think it’s very specific; hardly anywhere has more changeable weather than here. You’ll find that in Iceland, Norway, Scotland, the few places with similarly changeable conditions, it’s also a priority.”

The immediate success of Irish Weather Online is testimony to our eternal fascination with the weather. “People are mad about the weather,” says Dunphy, “and even if they don’t have any genuine interest it’s always part of our conversation. All you need is an opinion, and the weather is unique in that it’s something everyone has in common.”