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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 15:07 GMT
Weathering the predictions
By Clare Babbidge
BBC News

As severe winter weather is predicted, spare a thought for the forecasters whose work affects commercial moves by fuel firms, airlines and superstores - as well as thousands of personal decisions.

Rainy scene in Glasgow
Need to take an umbrella?

While the Met Office's prediction that a bitter winter could be on the way is discussed in pubs and offices around the country, thousands of firms are also taking note and trying to act with suitable business acumen.

Meteorologists have sent an "amber alert" warning to the government, fuel firms, businesses and the health sector in a bid for forward planning rather than scaremongering.

Eddy Carroll, a chief forecaster at the Met Office, said there was a lot of pressure on meteorologists to get things right.

Money issues

"Forecasts have become more accurate and improved over the last 20 years, certainly, and because of that people have become more confident about using them for commercial decisions. There is a lot of money in it," he said.

He said more accurate forecasts resulted from improved technology, such as better computer models and satellite imagery, as well as improvements in interpretation.

Mr Carroll, a forecaster for more than 20 years, said the Met Office provided industry and companies with forecasts often tailored to their needs.

The aviation industry is one of the main ones. Wind speed and direction predictions for 30 to 40,000ft affect how much fuel aircrafts carry - an important financial consideration.

Mr Carroll said forecasts at this height could be predicted more accurately than at the "boundary layer" - the area of the atmosphere close to the ground.

This year due to the predicted cold weather we've increased orders of hot water bottles and many lines of soup
Tesco spokeswoman

British Gas spokesman Mish Tullar said weather was a "huge issue" for the fuel industry and was used to help predict gas purchasing and the deployment of gas engineers.

"Cold weather affects demand for gas and electricity, although gas is far more directly affected by weather than electricity," he said.

Mr Tullar said for this reason the firm checked forecasts daily and its Met office contract provided forecasts for up to two weeks ahead.

He said weather also affected the firm's home services business as there was a "direct correlation" between cold weather and the number of central heating breakdowns.

A normal week would see around 45,000 breakdowns but in a "really cold" week this would go up to around 80,000.

The firm has currently gone on to "red alert" due to the predicted severe weather, with engineers expected to do overtime, people taken off training and other contractors may be brought in.

Soup lines

Supermarket Tesco said ordering was affected by weather forecasts at any time of year.

"For example August Bank Holiday was hot and we planned weeks in advance for that," said a spokeswoman.

"If nice, barbeque stuff flies off the shelves."

Farm in Slayley near Newcastle during cold spell
Forecasters predict temperatures are due to plummet

She said in cold weather the store sold lots of coal and cinder from its petrol stations.

"Also people buy a lot of comfort foods, such as custard, hot chocolate and sausage and mash," she said.

She added: "This year due to the predicted cold weather we've increased orders of hot water bottles and many lines of soup."

Accurate forecasts are also important to farmers, although a National Farmers Union spokesman said they tended to follow them on a "day to day basis".

"Weather is simply a part of farming, it's as simple as that," he said.

"We have to take into account what we are being told, but at the end of the day we have to take it as it comes."

He said forecasts helped farmers plan activities such as harvesting grain and making hay bales, which needed to be done in dry weather to avoid extra costs of drying.

They also used forecasts to help with crop spraying, which cannot be carried out if conditions were too windy, he said.

"But you're not talking about an exact science," he said.

"Your talking about a weather forecast that's not for your own backyard, not for your top paddock, so you usually have to take it day by day."

Public perception

The Met Office's Mr Carroll said the public tended to focus on forecasts which were wrong, rather than the majority which were right.

"I think it is because we do sometimes get it wrong, but also people do not always understand what we are trying to get across," he said.

He said this was sometimes down to a "lack of communication" where the meteorologist may not have explained well or someone may only have heard a part of the forecast.

He added there was especially pressure on chief forecasters when they "stuck their neck out" and, using other methods and knowledge, went against the computer model's prediction.

He said predicting snow was one area where forecasters could be more accurate than the models.

The forecaster said: "I think the companies we have commercial contracts with, they know once in a while we will get it wrong - by the law of averages this will happen.

"But on the majority of occasions we will make the right forecast and companies benefit. We don't pretend to always be right, it is just a forecast - and so don't face litigation."

Mr Carroll said one of the most famous examples of a wrong forecast was "the great storm of 1987".

Forecasters predicted a depression would pass south of the UK but it changed track and "devastated south east England".

He believes better computer models and forecasts "not being so black and white" meant such a mistake was unlikely again.

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