News

Fact/Fiction: Are sensational weather stories blowing hot air?

Old news, truthfully retold. What's a weatherbomb and is it really the end of the world?

How it was told

You’ve seen sensational, ALL CAPITALS-headlines pronouncing a WEATHER BOMB will batter the UK. And presumably you’ve also seen the social media snapshots of a bin toppled over by a gust of wind and the accompanying declaration: “We will rebuild”.

This is no happy accident, and if you scour the weather stories online or on the front pages then you will see many a false claim. Brace yourself for a lot of the Daily Express in this section – we forecast that they are likely to feature prominently. Take, for example, its November 22 SEO-scouring claim of “UK weather forecast: SNOW STORM WARNING: -10C Baltic blast to freeze Britain til CHRISTMAS”.

Stablemate the Daily Star followed suit on December 13, embracing its inner Bing Crosby with “White Christmas: Bitter -20C Russian FREEZE to hit Britain with festive SNOW”. As did The Sun with December 14’s “BLIZZARD OF OZ: UK weather forecast – Britain braced for ‘500-mile SNOW curtain’ this weekend as -15C Baltic blizzard sweeps in”.

After Christmas, attention has turned to a follow up to last March’s Beast from the East with Sky News, Express Online, The Independent and the Daily Mirror Online all suggesting the freezing weather that brought the UK to a standstill last year could return.

Do these stories have any merit though? There was certainly no festive WEATHER BOMB.

Facts. Checked.

Telly meteorologist Liam Dutton has waged a one-man war on dubious weather stories on both Twitter as well as in a Channel 4 News video identifying the tell-tale signs that give the game away. He says the stories “make his blood boil”.

Two of the stories that sparked his fury recently were from the Daily Express with: “UK weather forecast: DANGER TO LIFE alert – Britain braces for DOUBLE-VORTEX SUPER-TEMPEST” and “UK weather warning: Britain set for FORTNIGHT of HEAVY SNOW in longest FREEZE for 70 years”. Dutton slammed one as “utter garbage” and hit out at the other for “trying to make snow that’ll affect a few who live up on a mountain sound like snow for everyone”.

The use of temperature can be misleading with Fahrenheit measurements used to inflate hot temperatures and Celsius for cold temperatures in a race for the most attractive number. Another sneaky way to boost the figure is to use ground rather than air temperatures, which can differ by up to 15 degrees.

The source of the prediction is also important. The Met Office has earned itself a trustworthy reputation in its 165-year history and now has a network of weather stations and supercomputers devoted to analysing the weather. That is not quite good enough for the BBC, which pivoted to using the MeteoGroup in recent years.

But both can be considered more reliable than the often-quoted WeatherAction. Both of the stories that Dutton targeted were from WeatherAction, run by Piers Corbyn – brother of Labour leader Jeremy.

Another factor is the timing of forecasts, with predictions becoming less accurate over longer periods of time and ahead of time. And that should bring caution for any headlines proclaiming Beast from the East II is definitely on the way.

That phenomenon came from a polar continental air mass – a rush of cold air from the Eurasian landmass when there is high air pressure in the atmosphere above Scandinavia.

The Met Office’s deputy chief meteorologist Jason Kelly explained that there is no sign of the cold easterly flow that preceded last year’s conditions for early January and it is too early to predict the rest of the month’s weather accurately.

That’s why the Met Office’s long-range forecast warns of an “increased likelihood” of a cold spell towards the end of January but tempers that by saying it is “by no means certain”.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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