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Snow joke... when predicting winter weather turns silly

Amateur buffs are already prophesying the biggest freeze here for around 100 years. But the more traditional forecasters are refusing to be drawn. So who do you believe? Ivan Little investigates

The chilling warnings have become as much a part of the changing seasons towards the end of an Ulster year as the falling leaves, the clocks going back an hour and the Christmas advertising campaigns kicking off before Halloween.

For where on earth would we be without the annual dire predictions that every approaching winter is going to be the worst in years? Or in decades. Or in a century, according to the latest forecasts and forebodings for 2014/15.

Yes, the harbingers of horror have been warming to their own particular brand of cold calling with extra zeal this year.

And, if the prophecies are to be believed, the months ahead could leave the UK near breaking-point. Or brrr-eaking point, as the more colourful headline writers might put it.

A number of the anything-but-fairweather forecasters have urged people throughout the British Isles to brace themselves for the most appalling winter in 100 years, saying that the winter woollies should be dusted off, the food cupboards stocked up and the cars loaded up with de-icers and spades for snowdrift emergencies.

The buzzwords have all come out of cold storage with blizzards, freezing temperatures, icy blasts, nightmare travel conditions and black-outs among the choicest.

A number of weather-watchers - not the Frank Mitchell kind - claimed the white stuff would be here within days, though it has to be said that they issued their warnings before the end of October and it's been a no-show by the snow, or major frost so far.

So where are all the hot tips about the bleak winter coming from?

Well, basically from everywhere except the Met Office. A little known online company called Exacta Weather have been most widely quoted in the storm of stories and it's not the first time they have foreshadowed extreme conditions.

Several weather bloggers including the BBC's man for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, Paul Hudson, who lives in a village called Wetwang - where else? - have been advising people to treat the independent forecasts with scepticism.

Another conventional weather forecasting source told me "What's undoubtedly true is that the internet has allowed anyone and everyone to set themselves up as a weather expert, with easy access to a sometimes gullible public."

One of the alternative forecasting companies singled out for criticism in the past was called Positive Weather Solutions.

Among the "forecasters" whose pictures appeared on the PWS website was the unlikely-sounding Serena Skye, who was also featured in other parts of the internet as a Russian mail-order bride.

The Positive Weather Solutions website now contains only a solitary picture of a pretty windswept blonde and an announcement that the site has been closed down.

One of the main contributors to the weather debate in Ireland, especially in the Republic, is an amateur forecaster from... New Zealand.

Ken Ring a former teacher, musician, and actor from Auckland, claims he can use lunar cycles to predict not only the weather, but also earthquakes.

Every year, he produces three almanacs for Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, giving weather forecasts for the entire 12 months.

He correctly predicted that Ireland would have a heatwave during the summer of 2013 and a warm September this year and of next winter he said: "There's a bit of snow coming in November, with heavy falls in the last three days of the month. December will be cold and wet and snow will fall mainly between the 4th and the 18th."

Ring predicted snow before and after Christmas and colder weather coming into January with temperatures down to minus four or five.

He said that after the new moon in January it would get warmer, but the end of February and the start of March would see the worst of the snow.

Ireland, of course, has long had its own famous amateur meteorologist - Donegal postman Michael Gallagher, who delivered stinging ripostes against Met Eireann, who have said the public should only listen to conventional forecasters.

Mr Gallagher said: "They're looking up at the sky, but we're looking around us and that's more important than what's above us."

For its part, the Met Office diplomatically declined to talk about the alternative, or amateur, forecasters, of whom there are a veritable deluge around the world.

But it's tempting to conclude that what it doesn't say about its "rivals" speaks volumes about what it thinks of them.

I spoke to Mark Wilson from the Met Office and he sidestepped any engagement in discussions about any other sources of weather forecasts.

"All I can say is that our most detailed forecasts are our five-day ones and our longest forecasts are for up to 30 days ahead. We use the most advanced science available to us," says Mark.

"And when you read these dramatic headlines talking about 100 days of snow, or whatever, they are not from us."

The Met Office said that forecasting is less accurate the more it tries to look ahead. Mark explains: "That's the caveat we always give - that the further into the future it goes, so the uncertainty increases."

The long-range Met Office forecast, which is updated every day, doesn't tally with the outlook elsewhere.

Mark adds: "Based on our latest computer models, we think it's going to be pretty standard for early winter.

"We think that it's generally going to be rather unsettled overall across the UK.

"Unlike some winters, where there've been prolonged periods of dry weather, it doesn't look as if that will be the case over the next 30 days, when there'll be spells of wet and windy weather across the UK.

"Despite that, there will be some spells of drier, calmer conditions, with clearer skies leading to sunny spells by day. But overnight that effect will mean some really cool nights."

Mark also believes that, as November progresses, there will be more clear skies overnight and more sub-zero temperatures, though later on there will be milder nights with cloud cover that brings wetter and windier conditions.

"But all that is very standard weather for this time of the year."

Mark wouldn't be drawn on that topic which is so beloved of the British public - the prospect of a white Christmas.

"If you go onto our website in about three weeks' time, our 30-day forecast will be going up to Christmas Day, so you can read about it then." Nothing, however, will stop gamblers taking a punt. Bookies across the province are expecting the usual flurry of wagers and the McLean chain is offering 6/1 on snow falling in Northern Ireland, though all bets are off if there's no snow at Aldergrove.

Of course, it's not only at Christmas that the weather is a major talking point in Northern Ireland, where it's a regular ice-breaker in thousands of people's conversations - one of the few totally safe non-political and non-contentious topics for discussion in the still-divided province.

The obsession about the air temperatures is also reflected on the airwaves.

Celebratory status has been thrust on a whole range of television presenters here, like Frank Mitchell and Barra Best, who's taken forecasting to a new level - thanks to his omnipresence on social media.

Barra posts incessant messages about the weather and at the last count earlier this week had 21,107 followers on Twitter and had posted 42,570 tweets.

His opposite number on UTV, Frank Mitchell, had 9,330 followers, while the Beeb's Angie Phillips had 3,109 followers, Cecilia Daly 2,276 followers and Geoff Maskell 921.

The BBC have expanded their broadcasts, with the latest news on the weather front going out morning, noon and night, because they say they know how much their audiences depend on and value an accurate forecast.

Kathleen Carragher, head of BBC News NI, said: "We're continually looking at how best to use the latest technologies, data and techniques available to make our weather forecasts as accessible as possible to audiences across all our platforms, on TV, radio, online and on social media."

She added that the Beeb's weather team was in constant contact with the Met Office and with the BBC weather centre in London to update its service.

But more and more the BBC and UTV rely on their viewers and their radio listeners to keep them in touch with what's actually happening around Northern Ireland by sending them pictures on Facebook and Twitter.

However, for thousands of people here the weather forecast is more than a casual interest or a bit of entertainment.

It can be a matter of life and death for farmers who want to know well in advance of any strange weather happenings.

The president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, Ian Marshall, said they look to the credible forecasters for predictions of what lies in front of them.

Ian said: "Here you have to build your business on worst-case scenarios - extreme wet, extreme cold, or extreme drought.

"So you have to do some sort of weather-proofing, in that you try to conserve forage for the wintertime, so you would have some degree of cover."

Farmers here are still recovering from the devastating winter of 2012/13 when thousands of sheep and cattle died in spring snowstorms.

Ian added: "We've seen all the headlines about how we are in for the worst winter on record, but no one saw the last one coming."

The Department of Regional Development, which is responsible for Northern Ireland's roads, keeps an eye on the skies and an ear to the weather forecasts.

And their renamed Transport NI unit have revealed their plans to try to cope with whatever winter can throw at motorists, with 300 staff and 120 gritters - including a large number of new vehicles - on standby from now until the middle of April to keep the province's roads salted.

Almost 110,000 tonnes of salt are already in special barns and, when the call comes for teams to go into action, they can salt around 7,000km (4,350 miles) of roads in just under three hours in an operation which costs £80,000 per night.

Transport NI say that they can fit all their gritters with snow ploughs and, in the worst of the weather, special snow-blowers can be used to shift 1,600 tonnes of snow an hour.

A spokesman said arrangements are also in place to enlist the help of contractors, including farmers, to clear blocked roads.

Improved communications have been introduced and special measures are in hand to help 50 rural schools, normally hit by wintry conditions.

The public will also have access to 4,800 salt bins and 50,000 grit piles to use to prevent the formation of snow and ice on pavements and untreated roads.

As one source said: "We hope we're ready for anything, but two years ago proved that nothing is foolproof."

Last year was one of the worst on record. Here are 10 of its key moments:

1. In late October, a powerful storm named St Jude caused chaos across Europe. Four people died in Britain, leading to 625,000 homes losing power and rail and flight cancellations. At the height of the storm, a top windspeed of 99mph was recorded on the Isle of Wight.

2. In December, during the annual tidal surge, a series of major storms battered the country, causing disruption as the strong winds and rain brought down power lines, flooded homes and triggered landslides.

3. Much of the south of the country was shaken by further storms over the Christmas period. High winds and heavy rain caused power outages, road closures and travel disruption.

4. December 2013 turned out to be one of the windiest since January 1993. The figures were based on analysis of wind speeds above 50 knots (58mph) at a number of weather stations across the country.

5. The New Year didn’t bring much respite. Stormy weather continued to wreak havoc into January. A combination of high winds, rain and strong waves battered the coastline and caused flooding further inland.

6. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson — formerly Northern Ireland Secretary — was lambasted by residents for government inaction when he visits areas hit by flooding.

7. Like December, January ended up breaking records for rainfall. Parts of the country had their wettest January since records began more than 100 years ago.

8. Another major storm in early February forced more people from their homes, left thousands without power. Prime Minister David Cameron announced an extra £100m for floodworks.

9. Gales continued to batter southern parts of the UK. Gusts reached 80mph on the coasts of Cornwall, the Bristol Channel and west Wales. Landslides and floods meant all rail routes into south-west England were blocked.

10. As February continued, more bad weather arrived. Thousands of properties were left without power following winds of up to 112mph. The Thames reached its highest level for 60 years.

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