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Dublin: 13°C Sunday 19 September 2021

Predicting this winter's weather is like 'gazing into a crystal ball'

We asked the experts.

Bewick swans at Slimbridge A Bewick's Swan, presumably not the Bewick's Swan that is responsible for recent weather headlines. Source: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

YOU MIGHT HAVE noticed the media focusing on the habits of a swan not many people would have paid much attention to before.

The Bewick swan migrated from Siberia to the United Kingdom earlier this year than it has in the last 50 years, arriving 25 days ahead of schedule and prompting The Telegraph to warn that this means a long winter for Britain.

Due to our proximity to our neighbours, that means Ireland could be in for some nasty weather as well.

But these headlines appear each and every year, often sourced from predictions made by private forecasting companies, and grab our attention – we all want to know if we’ll be having a white Christmas.

Met Éireann has absolutely no time for this kind of long-range forecast, dismissing the reports each year.

“It’s crystal ball gazing,” Met Eireann spokesperson Hugh Daly said.

Our climate is just so changeable. Forecasting that far in advance is mostly nonsensical guesswork.

“There is some experimental seasonal forecasting,” Daly noted, “This might give a vague indication of whether the temperature over a large area will be a degree above or below average, but that’s no use for planning or making decisions.”

Like other meteorologists, Daly isn’t too impressed with predictions of a cold winter, calling it “irresponsible”.

We often get calls from frightened pensioners, asking if the reports are true and if they’ll be okay.

The forecaster’s scepticism aside, there are some weather patterns or environmental conditions that have been linked to future weather events. For example, the strength of El Niño gives some indication of what the weather will be like in certain parts of the world.

El_Nino_regional_impacts Source: NOAA via Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Some of these ‘building blocks’ are in place to suggest how the winter will turn out, as the founder of Irish Weather Online Mark Dunphy noted.

Dunphy, also editor of The Clare Herald, noted four factors right now:

  • “Record-breaking cold sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic.”
  • “Entrenched early season cold in Russia and soon Eastern Europe.”
  • “A strong El Niño (likely to finish as second or third strongest since 1950).”
  • “Periods of high pressure blocking in recent weeks dragging in a polar continental air mass across Ireland and Britain.”

But does that really mean we know how things will turn out? Nope.

“Strong El Niños and cold Atlantic waters have come and gone without record breaking cold occurring in this part of the world in the past,” Dunphy wrote in The Clare Herald.

For example, the strong El Nino year of 1991-92 winter season saw October to May in Ireland and Britain producing warmer than average conditions.

This uncertainty doesn’t stop some meteorologists forecasting the future – and, occasionally, with some success.

Piers Corbyn of WeatherAction (and brother of one Jeremy Corbyn) predicted that harsh weather in 2010, while Joe Bastardi of WeatherBELL correctly forecasted when Hurricane Sandy would form and where it would make landfall.

Predicting this winter's weather is like 'gazing into a crystal ball'
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  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Bicycles are left chained up on O'Connell Street in Dublin as blizzard conditions set in.Source: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Eamonn Farrell/ RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie
  • The Big Freeze 2010

    Source: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

Bastardi’s former employer AccuWeather, who provide information for the default weather app on several smartphones, released their long-range winter forecast for Europe yesterday.

They claim this winter is going to lack extreme cold, and bring fewer storms across western and some parts of central Europe

“High pressure to the north of the United Kingdom for much of the winter season will result in a very typical winter for parts of northwest Europe with stretches of tranquil weather and overall near-normal temperatures.”

Scandinavia, however, will face ‘abnormally cold ‘weather.

650x366_10091538_2015-europe-winter-highlights(1) Source: Accuweather

AccuWeather meteorologist Tyler Roys looked into this in a little bit more detail for Ireland. He believes the winter will look a little bit like this:

  • Colder than average due to a colder-than-normal Atlantic, but still relatively mild temperatures.
  • We’ll avoid the nasty wind storms of recent years. Some will graze Ireland, but only as they move south and hit France. Sorry, France.
  • There will be a window of as long as two weeks where there’s a chance (a chance) of snowfall.

“Everyone’s going to say this is an El Nino year, and try to make these crazy predictions,” Roys told this website, “There’s no hard evidence that truly indicates [any impact] for Europe.”

He believes it’s going to be a mild, uneventful winter.

Hang on, wasn’t Met Éireann saying this kind of thing is impossible to predict? How does AccuWeather construct these forecasts?

Roys explained that they look for consistent trends in weather over a number of months. They then construct models based on this information that builds up year after year:

Our confidence increases as times goes on.

We can go back and forth between one meteorologist and another until the winter actually sets in, but let’s not forget who started this recent spell of bad-weather doomsaying.

Irish swans, unlike their British counterparts, haven’t provided an indication that bad weather is on the way.

Whooper Swans. Martin Mere WWT Burscough, October 2013 Whooper swans in flight. Source: Gidzy via Flickr/Creative Commons

Niall Hatch from BirdWatch Ireland said that whooper swans have arrived “bang on time” this year. Same goes for Greenland white-fronted geese in Wexford, and a smattering of Brent geese.

“It’s all perfectly normal,” Hatch said, and cautioned against trusting birds with meteorological predictions.

They react to the weather at the moment, not what it’s going to be.

IMG_0333 A family of Greenland white-fronted geese at the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve. Source: Wexford Wildfowl Reserve

Read: Met Éireann’s Gerald Fleming explains the ‘cool anomaly’ that ruined our summer… >

About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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