'If we got the weather forecast right every time, we'd be God', says Met
Ewen McCallum insists the Met Office is prepared to throw its hands up and admit when it has made a mistake. But he ardently defends forecasters' performance on Tuesday night, when flood-hit residents in the worst affected parts of Cornwall questioned why weathermen did not give more notice.
Mr McCallum is clearly annoyed by claims that the Met Office could be at fault. "Our job is to predict the weather. We don't put out flood warnings – it's as simple as that. In this case, we did all we could, and then we look to the other agencies to deal with the hydrology of the situation. We have no way of knowing if culverts and drains have been cleared of debris recently, for example."
Unusually for a scientist, Mr McCallum sees communication as one of his key roles. He is particularly irritated by this week's coverage because he believes the Met Office had no problem in conveying its message of torrential rain. But he believes it was communication that was at fault when last year's "barbecue summer" headlines turned out to be a washout.
"Because you are looking so far ahead when it comes to a seasonal forecast, you need to use probabilities," he said. "The fact is that the public and the press don't understand that. When you say that there's a 65 per cent chance of a warm summer, that still means that there's a 35 per cent chance that there won't be. Getting that information across isn't easy. It's one of the big challenges we face and we have to be innovative to improve."
HALF PRICE KIDS' MEALS at HALF TERM at COUNTRY SKITTLES!View details
Yes, from Saturday 25 May to Sunday 2 June, you can get HALF PRICE KIDS’ MEALS. One half price with every adult meal purchased from the main menu at Country Skittles.
One kids meal half price with every adult meal purchased from main menu at Country Skittles, Hayle.
Must bring the voucher along, and offer cannot be used with any others we may have available.
Contact: 01736 800606
Valid until: Sunday, June 02 2013
But the headline in a press release issued in spring last year read "odds-on for a barbecue summer". When the Met Office's own staff are putting out such quote-worthy statements, can they be surprised when the media latches on?
"It's fair to say that, with the science of seasonal forecasting still being relatively immature, and with a lot of work still to be done, perhaps, with hindsight, we pushed the message too strongly," Mr McCallum conceded. "Any organisation that doesn't learn from its mistakes isn't growing. As well as the meteorology, we have to be careful about how we manage the message, and that's an art. It's a skill to get the balance right between a solid scientific statement and a tabloid headline."
Yet he dismissed as "mythology" reports that the Met Office also claimed that last winter would be "mild", when the region actually saw the heaviest snowfall for 30 years.
He said a reporter pulled out one line from a single paper on the agency's website. "Many more factors than that would have been taken into account when putting out a seasonal forecast," he said. "It was just a nonsense. We had a very good record of short-term forecasts last winter, which is what is used for making strategic decisions relating to roads and salt and so on."
The Met Office has now ditched publication of its seasonal forecasts in favour of monthly outlooks, which Mr McCallum insists has pleased the public. He admitted that a barrage of criticism did have an impact on staff morale but he believes constructive criticism is "no bad thing".
He said: "People have to understand that not every forecast will be absolutely correct. If we got it right every time, we'd be God. As an organisation, we must not be too defensive. Some of the criticism can be justified, but the media can act like a pack of wolves, and there can be a campaign to get the Met Office, or the public sector generally. We have to accept that bashing the weathermen is quite a good sport."
Despite the recent furore, Mr McCallum insists public confidence in the Met Office remains high. "The public has been remarkably robust, despite the media campaign," he said. "We're finding that perception hasn't really changed."
Mr McCallum is not a stereotypical ivory towers scientist. He is an engaging, funny Scotsman with a passion for the weather which means his high-profile job allows him to indulge in his favourite hobby each day. His single-minded approach saw him gear his teenage studies towards pursuing a career in the Met Office, where he has worked since 1974.
"I would never describe myself as a geek," the 59-year-old said. "I never had weather instruments in my back garden or anything like that – but I have had a passion for the weather for as long as I can remember."
He recalls thrilling at what caused ferocious storms in his teenage years, and examining smoke coming from chimneys to see how the wind was behaving. "In the same way that some people have a calling towards music or art, I was just born to do it," he said simply.
His long career has seen sweeping changes at his spiritual home, with the Met Office's methods of calculation evolving from a "pencils and rubbers" exercise to a high-tech operation involving massive supercomputers, which have a peak performance equalling that of more than 100,000 PCs.
"When I started, we didn't operationally have access to satellite pictures, whereas now they're a really important tool for us to investigate what's going on in the atmosphere. We didn't have radar and our view of the world was very limited. Forecasting was based on extrapolation. That's okay for a small time period but, when you're looking at a day or two ahead, you don't get the development."
Mr McCallum's first year in post as chief forecaster – his dream job back when he was an ambitious student – was in 1987. It was the year of the great storm that famously caught out presenter Michael Fish, as well as the whole of the Met Office. As responsibility for tallying up the automated models with what is actually happening lies with the chief forecaster, Mr McCallum could have been in deep water – but he dodged the bullet. "I was on leave the week of the great storm," he said. "Otherwise, I might not have been talking to you from this position right now."
Even since then, he says the technology has dramatically improved, yet conceded: "Weather forecasts can go wrong – but a four-day forecast today is about as accurate as a one-day forecast was when I first started. Every ten years, we have gained a day. That will only get better, but we have made huge leaps ahead. In the future, it may be slower."
He now believes the Met Office's key developments should lie in improving both long-term forecasting and ultra-localised outlooks. "At the moment, forecasting is quite general, and refers to the South West being cloudy or rainy, but we get really powerful variations on places like Dartmoor, Exmoor and the coasts. The detail is getting better, but it's still not as accurate as I would like to see it."
Our discussion takes place against a difficult backdrop of cuts to public services, with the Met Office under the ongoing threat of privatisation. Mr McCallum refuses to be drawn on the politics involved but predicts that every organisation will have to accept a share of the funding pain. Yet all this comes at a time when climate change has never been higher on the agenda – another development during Mr McCallum's career.
It is now widely accepted that Britain will see the same conditions as Bordeaux today in around 50 years' time – but Mr McCallum said the Met Office, which incorporates climate change research at the on-site Hadley Centre, now has to focus more on the regional impact for areas such as the Westcountry.
Mr McCallum was part of the team that relocated from a series of scattered offices with no room for expansion in Bracknell, Berkshire, to a custom-built, greenfield site in Exeter in 2003. He said the operation as a whole took an "incredible" amount of effort, but has been a huge success. The open-plan nature of the state-of-the-art building means that even high fliers such as Mr McCallum don't get their own office, but each element of the organisation is more integrated.
He also believes the relocation may have instilled confidence in others to make the move to the region and may have contributed to Exeter seeking to establish itself as a city of science.
In the years before he retires, Mr McCallum's remaining ambition is to nurture young talent as it comes through the Met Office's on-site college. He said: "I have been really lucky. Every job has its pressures and the odd bad Monday, but for me, this has been a vocation. My job satisfaction is very, very high."