The Irish Independent today asks ‘ Is Ireland heading for its longest winter in 50 years?‘. Mark Dunphy, Editor of The Clare Herald examines the truth behind the headline.
There are some scientific/meteorological reasons to suggest that the building blocks for a colder than average winter to verify are in place. They include record-breaking cold seas surface temperatures in the North Atlantic, entrenched early season cold in Russia and soon Eastern Europe, a strong El Nino (likely to finish as second or third strongest since 1950), and periods of High Pressure blocking in recent weeks dragging in a polar continental airmass across Ireland and Britain.
But – strong El Ninos and cold Atlantic waters have come and gone without record breaking cold occurring in this part of the world in the past. For example, the strong El Nino year of 1991-92 winter season saw Oct-May in Ireland/Britain producing warmer than average conditions. The below UK Met Office data shows strong/very strong El Nino years (circled in red) not exactly supporting the circulating theory of impending record breaking cold.
Furthermore, this UKMO plot confirms that the relationship between El Nino and cold winters in Ireland doesn’t hold for STRONG events.
The thrust of the Irish Independent article is based on the fact that migratory birds have migrated to this side of the world. Nothing too unusual about that you might think. The birds in question migrate to the UK every year and have arrived early for two reasons. Easterly winds have been persistent in recent weeks meaning that they have decided to take off west while the going is good (easier flight than the flight they normally make against westerly winds). The other reason is that Siberia has seen winter kick in rather early. Eastern and central Europe too will experience some snow over the next few days. Ultimately, if these birds were such wonderful amateur weather forecasters of a severe winter then you would have thought that they would be flying away from rather than towards the location set for its coldest winter in 50 years. I hear Southern Spain is quite nice this time of year.
Many other similar newspaper articles have appeared in recent weeks with no concrete evidence other than supposition to claim that Ireland is set for its coldest winter since 1963. It should be noted that this is a pattern that arises in our media every year. Why? Statistics show that a newspaper tends to sell more copies if it contains a weather story.
As for signs provided by nature, I am not a big believer in this. Nature responds to past and present conditions as opposed to future climate changes. You see how the Donegal Postman uses nature as his guide and he has as bad a track record at forecasting as the Moon Man from New Zealand. Moon cycles alone do not provide accurate weather forecasts nor can they predict earthquakes as is claimed. Last year, we had a huge crop of berries and fruit in the autumn which some people and the media said was a sign of a harsh winter on the way. In fact, the media here reported that it would be the coldest winter in a century. It turned out to be one of the mildest in years. They say the natural world has been used as a forecasting tool for millennia which means that people went out without their coat and got wet for thousands of years.
Science as opposed to pseudoscience is by far the more reliable approach to forecasting our weather. All we can do is look at the now and forecast for the short term up to a period of 10-14 days at most. Met Éireann has admitted as much while the UK Met Office gave up the chase some years ago. Beyond the reliable forecasting period, the world climate has so many variables in motion that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon may just kick-start a succession of Atlantic storms this winter, or so ‘they’ say.
Weather forecasting should be about producing forecasts based on what you think might happen, using available data and modern technology, as opposed to what you would like to see happen. Long range forecasting is akin to thinking about what you would do with your money if you won the Lotto but without ever buying a Lotto ticket. It’s Wishcasting at its worst.
Is it time to file Long Range Forecasting under ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘science’? Are weather forecasts based solely on the sight of roadside hedges drooping with the weight of autumn berries or a fox doing the Siege of Ennis with a mountain goat on the slopes of Errigal old wives tales? The doom merchants predicting snowmageddon may turn out to be correct this year. However, it will be by chance rather than design. After all, a stopped clock is correct twice a day.