Month: July 2019

Image by Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

“Mainly dry for most”: compulsive hedging language in weather forecasting

One thing is certain about the British weather: its uncertainty.

That uncertainty will only increase over time as the polar ice melts, sea levels rise, the jetstream gets further disrupted, and one-in-a-thousand-year events start to occur annually.

Pity then the intrepid British forecasters whose every word is hung onto nightly by farmers, fishermen, event organisers, sportspeople, families and dog walkers – and insurers.

Coming up with the right scenario from hundreds of computer-modelled scenarios is hard enough in itself. Finding the right language to describe the selected outcome – to deliver with airy reassurance, grim precision or obvious glee – is even harder.

So it’s hardly surprising that forecasters are inclined to be not very definitive in their predictions. The risk to reputation is one thing. More than thirty years on people still chuckle at poor Michael Fish and his quote, inevitably taken out of context, from the afternoon of 15th October 1987.

The economic risk to the farmers and fishermen is another thing. The weather matters meaningfully to many. Livelihoods and even lives are at stake: best to not get it wrong.

Still, couldn’t the forecasters be a bit less – well – vague?