Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Snow news is good news

I once worked with someone who tried to get puns based on the phrase "no news is good news" into his stories.  He often succeeded, getting "no noose is good noose" into an article about rope making, and "snow news is good news" into an article on icebreakers. In memory of that colleague, Ted Crowley, I am using his headline for this blog post about weather forecasting.

I have followed Weather Action and Piers Corbyn for more or less the entire time I have been online, about sixteen years.  For those who aren't famliar with his work, Piers Corbyn is the wild-haired weather forecaster who runs Weather Action, a site which promises long-range weather forecasts to anyone who will pay their substantial monthly subscription fees. 

When I first came across Weather action, they were providing some short or medium range weather forecasts for free to the public, while they charged farmers and event organizers for long range weather forecasts.

Piers is a physicist who has developed what he calls the solar-lunar technique for predicting long-range weather forecasts.  He has documented the solar weather since he was a child and says that the sun has a greater effect on the weather pattern on earth than conventional forecasters realize.  He has allegedly offered to collaborate with the Meteorological Office on long-range weather forecasting, but declines to reveal his methods or subject them to peer review, and so they have refused.

He came to national attention as the only weather forecaster who predicted the sudden snowfall in December 2010 which brought the country to a halt.  He got considerable publicity as a result of that, because the BBC and other outlets were not predicting the heavy snowfall even a day ahead, and Piers had predicted it about nine months ahead.  He predicted the route and date of hurricane Sandy and was right about that, thus drawing some attention in the US as well.

His detractors say that these are flukes, that he is more wrong than right, and most damningly, that he claims success when he has failed and never apologises for his own mistakes while highlighting any shortcomings in the Met Office forecasts.

His supporters point to the many successes he has had with long-range weather forecasting and the fact that betting on his own predictions made him a profit in the years when he did that for the publicity value.  They say that commercial clients running farms and tourist attractions would not pay for the forecasts if they were wrong all the time.

Some months after the successful prediction of the snowfall, in October 2011, there were dire hints from Piers on twitter and on the weather action blog, of a storm surge to affect the coast of the Netherlands and the east coast of England.  Having a partner who lives in Rotterdam, I decided to buy the forecast to see what the actual prediction was.  I later realized that apocalyptic warnings of various types are stock in trade for Piers and Weather Action, providing click bait for twitter followers convinced that they must buy the forecast to understand what is about to befall them.  His infographics posted on twitter have to be seen to be believed, covered in capital headings and bold colours, exclamations and dire warnings.  He gives every appearance of having got his PR technique from the mad professor book of publicity.

The forecasts are pretty difficult to understand, and fairly vague in many respects, with different levels of confidence included in the forecasts, and comments about the date range for some pats of it. 

In the end in 2011, there was a storm surge, but it wasn't in the place it should have been and so affected the southern coast of England, and not the Netherlands or the east coast.  He claimed in his Autumn 2011 review to have been right about all major weather events, which is certainly not the case, unless you accept that floods predicted for the East Anglia, Netherlands and Belgium happening to be in Bournemouth instead is a "hit".  And there is the paradox about the whole service.  It seems to me that there is something to his solar-lunar technique and he is able to predict weather patterns and unusual events, but not with any accuracy or conviction which would make them useful to ordinary individuals.  The storm surge wasn't where it was predicted to be, and subsequent predictions have also failed to materialise:  of snow and ice last winter, and the hottest August "for 300 years" turned out to be fairly mild and not terribly warm.  He criticised the Met Office for their 2009 forecast of a barbecue summer which turned out to be damp and cold, but didn't apologise or mention his own failure in 2014.

Recent dire predictions of snow and ice have been wrong too, earlier this winter when the heavy snow apparently went to Holland and Germany instead of making landfall here, and for February 17-19, 2015, when Piers Corbyn warned of a period of diabolically cold weather, thundersnow and ice.  In fact in my area of the country it has been relatively mild, we haven't had the promised snow.  He noted that the snow might be delivered a couple of days late but it hasn't arrived, although it has become colder.  But then it is February.  I could have made the prediction that there might be snow, it would be cold and possibly windy.  Buying a prediction which says diabolical cold and snow is on the way only makes sense if it actually is.  If it doesn't arrive, or arrives in a different place or on a different timescale, it's useless.

From my observations I would say that it is incorrect to say that there is nothing to the Solar Weather technique, but it isn't accurate enough to be used for general weather forecasting and there is probably not enough evidence that it is a real mechanism for anyone to pay the website fees and buy the forecasts.  What irritates me most is that Piers Corbyn will jump on any defect in the Meteorological Office weather forecasts, and yet goes silent when he has got it wrong and advised the government to prepare for snowmageddon and it hasn't materialised.  It's fine to be critical of other people, as long as you apply the same level of discrimination and criticism to your own output - if you don't, you look like a charlatan.

I won't be surprised if time shows that there is some merit in Solar Weather Technique, but I shall be surprised if Weather Action is still in business when the time comes, frankly, unless it becomes a lot more reliable, and openly admits its mistakes when they occur.  At the moment, Piers Corbyn seems to be pretty much allergic to saying that he got it wrong - he always wants to explain why things were different from the prediction, or why it went the way it went, not realising that to a customer that part of things, the explanation,  is irrelevant unless you have apologized for charging them £25 for something which turned out to be a work of fiction.

He is a determined Climate Change denier, convinced that the climate change we are experiencing is nothing to do with CO2 and that man has not caused the changes.  He says we are in a mini ice-age, and is vociferous in his opposition to the idea of man-made climate change. I'd link to some more of the videos but they are pretty tedious, and mostly say the same thing: everyone else is wrong and doesn't understand what he understands.  The Weather Action channel appears to be dormant with the most recent videos having been posted more than two years ago, but Piers Corbyn's channel is still active.

I have some affection for someone who appears to be a great English eccentric of the old school, despite my criticisms of him and his company.  I expect Boris Johnson was glad he took his advice for 2010, but he may be less glad of the false alarms that have followed.