Mark Bain reports on Northern Ireland’s weather stations
They are not exactly names that trip off the tongue. You may have passed through them without even knowing you were there.
For Ballywatticock, read also Thomastown, Killylane, Peatlands and Altnahinch Filters – the locations of Met Office weather stations feeding information on temperature, wind speed, clouds and atmospheric pressure back for analysis. If you are asked to pinpoint them on a map, there would be a few puzzled faces.
But they sit alongside one or two more popular areas, like Hillsborough and Helen’s Bay.
Until last Saturday, when Ballywatticock registered what was presumed to be the highest temperature ever recorded in Northern Ireland, it was a mere townland on the outskirts of Newtownards.
There are 33 stations dotted around Northern Ireland, some still manually operated, some automatic.
On Wednesday afternoon, one in Castlederg stole Ballywatticock’s provisional record, feeding back a temperature of 31.3 degrees.
The game of musical temperatures continued on Thursday with Armagh stealing the crown at 31.4 degrees.
These weather stations measure a large variety of different meteorological parameters, including air temperature, atmospheric pressure, rainfall, wind speed and direction, humidity, cloud height and visibility.
Stations are usually around 40km apart, enabling experts at the Met Office to record the weather and climatic conditions associated with the typical low pressure and frontal systems that cross the UK. You only normally hear about them when weather hits the extremes of history.
Such as this week. And it has been one of the most exciting for the Met office’s Regional Network Manager for Northern Ireland Donald Ferguson.
“These are big, big moments for anyone interested in the weather in Northern Ireland,” he said. “When you think about all the summers, all the hot days, we’re living in the hottest ever recorded, all be it provisionally until all the necessary checks are made.
“We always have a series of checks when it looks like a record has been broken.”
As for Ballywatticock, it’s moment in the sunshine lasted only a few days, but at least now everyone knows where it is.
“The weather station has actually been there since the 1960s,” added Donald. “Like so many of the locations, it started out with an amateur enthusiast with a rain gauge who would report the figures back to us by Royal Mail. It only became automated around 10 years ago.”
Things may have advanced a little, but there remains an army of volunteer weather-watchers around the UK who report back, supplementing the constant readings being gathered automatically.
“Yes, there are still some stations which rely on the goodwill of people out there to feed back the information. And it’s all vital in building up a picture of the change in weather patterns across decades,” said Donald.
“But a station like Ballywatticock isn’t just there by chance. We still get people volunteering information, but we have to access the suitability of every site that might be offered.
"The area has to be not too sheltered, not too open. We can’t rely on somewhere like Wimbledon, where you could see a temperature gauge reading over 110 degrees on centre court. That’s in direct sunlight all day long, sheltered from the wind. That’s not an accurate reading and all those factors have to be taken into account.
“Airports tend to be the best sites, with open ground and limited buildings. There are simple things we have to consider, like whether a site is downwind from obstacles which will give an untrue picture.
“And it’s happened before that a station started giving warmer readings than before, so we went out, did our homework and realised a new car-park has been built next to it and the heat of the tarmac in the sunshine was giving higher ground temperatures than before.
“There is a science behind it, but we’re still always happy to look at readings and statistics from anyone around the country who fancies themselves as an amateur weather-watcher.
“There’s a page on our website which allows anyone to feed back their live information and, as with everything, the more information we get the better the overall picture of weather we can piece together.
“We hope the the Weather Observations Website (WOW) will appeal to schools, amateur meteorologists, and weather enthusiasts across the UK.
“This extra data will be extremely useful in forecasting and monitoring localised extreme weather events such as heavy snow and rain. WOW has been developed by the Met Office in partnership with the Royal Meteorological Society and the Department for Education.
“But not everywhere is suitable. We have to turn down a lot of requests from people who would like to help because the area isn’t right. We have to look at the location, even things like if readings were at low tide where excessive salt levels can affect the climate at any given time. There’s a forensic operation behind it all.”
Ideally, the Met Office is looking for level ground with no surrounding trees, buildings or steep ground nearby that might influence the measurements.
The warming effect of buildings can have an influence on the measurement of temperature while shelter or shade from trees effects the measurement of sunshine and wind.
The top of hills isn’t ideal either where winds will be unrepresentative of the wider area, while hollows where frost is first to gather overnight in winter can see temperatures on still clear nights far lower than at neighbouring locations.
And, at the end of the day, every temperature matters.
“What we are able to do is build up a long-term weather profile, which can be used by governments, utility companies, like NI Water, when predicting water supplies, and the roads network. There’s a long-term safety aspect to it all away from the simple reporting of hot and cold weather, high winds and record rainfall.
“Airports need the information on cloud recognition, so we provide regular landing reports. A lot of the training for what we do takes place at Aldergrove.
“Every station we use has to be checked annually to make sure everything’s working properly.”
While the manual information is taken at the same time every day – usually 9am – the automatic equipment provides a constant update on the changing conditions around the country.
In weather-watching terms, snapshot observations of weather which continue through the day are known as synoptic observations and daily summaries of the weather known as climate observations.
An hourly temperature is a synoptic element, but daily maximum and minimum temperatures are climate elements; cloud is synoptic, but sunshine is climate.
The climate observations are made at 9am in winter and 10am in summer, with some sites making a further observation at 9pm, or 10pm.
A few sites send in hourly climatic observations. Observations from around 270 UK synoptic stations are collected in real time; climate data from synoptic stations also comes in straight after readings are taken.
However, climate observations from around 170 co-operating observers come in as collectives at the end of the month.
It is only when all the information is gathered together that an overall picture is formed and potential red flags and discrepancies can be investigated.
“If one station is out of line with others around it, that could mean a problem with the equipment, so we have to send someone out. Some of the stations are quite remote, so it’s an all-year-round job to keep the whole system operational,” said Donald.
There remain a few areas where the Met office still struggles to get information from.
“There’s a big gap in the Sperrins, a swathe of wide open land where we don’t have record for. And from Ballymoney to the North Coast and down towards Lough Neagh is another area we’d love to hear information from.
“I suppose there’s a certain element of geekishness to it all. I could be out with a camera taking pictures of cloud formations, but it all turns into vital information in planning for the future, as well as providing talking points when records are broken, as we’ve seen this week."