March 17, 2009 – St. Patrick’s Day
I love weather forecasts. I love trying to forecast the weather. As a sailor I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what winds and seas would be like in long trans-ocean races, or just for a weekend of sailing on the Chesapeake or Buzzards Bay. In our graduate sailing programs at Daniels College I’m allowed to do the weather each day before the students go out to bash about on San Diego Bay. As interesting as the subject is, I cannot explain why Sarah – the sailing director — always tells me to “keep it short.” I do try to obey orders.
Of course the weather is not easy to predict. That may be why so many people enjoy watching the weather channel in the States or the weather portion of the BBC 1 broadcasts here in the UK. The reason the weather is hard to predict is because atmosphere and oceans are chaotic systems. Sailing is done where the ocean of air meets the ocean of water, and that tangent is the most chaotic place imaginable, weather-wise. (Marriage is a whole different story, but there’s not time here for detailing that chaos.) I communicate such wisdom as this, in the limited time allowed by the sailing director. At the end of my truncated forecast I always say, “So we’re going sailing . . .” and the students chime in, “weather or not!” Can’t have more fun than that!
I religiously watch the BBC Weather Forecast at 0706 each morning of my sabbatical in Oxford. Now I am aware that it is not politically correct to criticize cultural aspects of countries one is visiting in. It’s, well, tacky. So I have waited well over two months before making the following critical comments about weather forecasts in the UK.
First, the forecasts here are too damn vague. “The weather today will be mostly dry with clear spells leading to patchy mist or fog and perhaps a touch of frost towards dawn.” That was my forecast this morning, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Words like “spells” are abundant in the vocabulary of BBC weather persons. There are sunny spells; wet spells; windy spells; cloudy spells; patchy spells of fog, etc. My Aunt Jonce used to have spells – fainting spells; dizzy spells; spells of nausea; crying spells, etc. She also had hot flashes and fits of temper. But back home we didn’t use “spells” to describe the weather.
Here’s another thing, and St. Patrick’s day underlines the point, while the BBC shows viewers a satellite view of the British Isles, the weather people never give you the weather conditions for the southern portion of Ireland. They discuss the spells that Northern Ireland is having; the temperature (in C), wind speeds (Beaufort Scale) and cloud conditions for Belfast, but for Dublin? There’s not even an indication on the weather map that the wonderful city of James Joyce and Guinness Stout even exists. And Cork or Killarney or Limerick or Galway? Nil.
I tried to discuss this matter with some British colleagues at lunch today in St. Antony’s. I pointed out that, while I was aware of “The Troubles” it seemed to me that weather should be somehow devoid of politics. Indeed that is one of my favorite things about the weather, it has nothing to do with either religion or politics, and certainly not with both together – that being more chaos than even God could imagine. My college friends responded that The Republic of Ireland was not a part of the UK, and that the BBC was a UK institution and it only broadcast in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. So there was no need to carry the weather for the Irish Republic. I said I understood the jurisdictional point, but what if I was planning on going over to Dublin for a few days of pub hopping (which I am) and wanted to know how the weather would be? I mean is it too much trouble just to draw in Dublin, etc. and put a temperature and a wind indicator? Would it be an act of disloyalty to Her Majesty? After all, the President of the Republic of Ireland is a woman (Mary McAleese) and the Queen would understand. There followed some inappropriate discussion about women, predictability, chaos and the weather that I won’t go into here.
There are a couple of things about weather reports here in the UK that I do like. The temperature is given in degrees Celsius “C” as it is in the rest of the civilized world, excepting the US. A key number for metrically challenged persons is 20 C which is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is the perfect inside and outside temperature, depending, of course, on the wind and humidity. So if the wind is not blowing in your house, turn the thermostat down to 68.! The other thing I like about the weather forecast in the UK is the use of Beaufort Scale for wind. At first, I thought the wind was always light, i.e. 2 or 5 or 7 knots at the strongest. Then I recalled that their weather maps here used Beaufort, meaning each number 1 to 12 represents a wind and sea condition, not the miles per hour or knots of wind-speed. Zero is calm; four is the perfect sailing breeze (11 to 15 knots); twelve is a hurricane (over 64 knots and you don’t go sailing). Some years back Beaufort forces up to 17 were added to the scale, mostly because of how much more violent tropical storms are becoming thanks to global warming.
Ok, ok, Sarah, I’m about to finish. But you should know that the Beaufort Scale was invented by a British Admiral who was born in Ireland, Sir Francis Beaufort. And if that isn’t reason enough to include The Irish Republic in the BBC weather forecast, I don’t know what is. So happy St. Patrick’s Day . . . and I’m going to the library . . . weather or not.