It is January, normally the coldest month of the meteorological winter in the UK. Outside, in many parts, today has witnessed snow, sleet and blustery conditions; in short, wintry weather. The Thames has not frozen over; the country is not blanketed in snow; snowdrifts have not sundered village from village, and trains have not stopped running because of ‘the wrong kind of snow’. Yesterday, indeed the early hours of this morning, was mild across much of the country, so why is it that the media is getting itself into such a frenzied state of excitement about a short spell of weather which is precisely what we would experience at this time of year? Snowmageddon. The apocalypse is upon us. Almost.
Do we witness frost giants glazing our motorway network in a lethal sheen, and fixing hard the beet in the fields? Are pancakes of ice floating in our harbours, telephone and power cables collapsing beneath the weight of ice? Do trees and bushes present a picturesque vision, thickly coated in hoar frost? No. There isn’t even any frost. It’s chilly and blustery, but I would even hesitate to call this cold.
Why is it, that in recent years in particular, certain sections of the media seem to have sunk to a state of near hysteria in their reporting of winter weather? Moreover, there are a number of papers – some in particular being more culpable than others in this respect, as shown below – that keep insisting that each and every winter we are approaching will be ‘the coldest for 100 years’? Weather, and its forecasting, has in the popular imagination ceased to be a branch of the natural sciences, and come increasingly to resemble sensationalist disaster porn. An unjustified assertion? Let’s take a look at some recent grandiose forecasting claims publicised by mass circulation dailies in the UK.
Yesterday, the Daily Express insisted in screaming at us in characteristic histrionic form - ‘POLAR VORTEX HITS: Britain to get a FOOT of snow TONIGHT as temperatures plunge to -5C’. In other words, we’re in for a bit of chilly weather. Nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary, just a bit of winter weather, which is what we happen to get in winter.
Upon seeing the following headline in the Daily Mirror dated 29 October 2014, a sense of weary déjà vu set in: ‘UK weather: Is Britain braced for worst winter in 100 years?’ The story went on to explain that ‘The worst of the weather is predicted to arrive around the middle of November.’ Did you see any snow in November? I did, but it was in footage shown in wildlife documentaries shot in the polar regions, not in this country. November proved to be mild, wet and windy, as did December, ending off the warmest year on record in the UK. So, who was behind this story of meteorological doomsday? None other than Daily Express stalwart James Madden of Exacta Weather. The penny suddenly dropped as to why this headline seemed uncannily familiar, and by the time you have finished reading the paragraphs below, you too will understand.
As 2015 got underway, the Daily Express was at it again on 1 January, running with the headline ‘Britain set for FIVE MONTH arctic freeze as 2015 winter chill sets in.’ The article began: ‘Freezing gales, snow and harsh frosts will hold out until May thanks to plunging temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean. The entire year is likely to be dogged by cold blasts with a washout summer on the way, experts said.’ Who was behind this story? None other than James Madden of Exacta Weather of course. Have we experienced such weather since then? No. It’s been a bit cold at times, but the few frosts that there have been have been insignificant, and there has been more rain than snow.
Turning the clock back a little, the Daily Express ran with the following headline on 13 November 2013: ‘HEAVY SNOW WARNING: Shock long range UK weather forecast for winter 2013.’ Its article began: ‘Winter 2013 into 2014 is forecast to be “exceptionally severe” with above-average snowfall and plunging temperatures.’ Any guesses as to who issued this alarmist forecast? The article later stated: ‘James Madden, forecaster for Exacta Weather, said Britain is braced for “copious” snowfall this winter with extreme cold expected to last into the spring. He added that Britain faces “an incomparable scenario to anything we have experienced in modern times”.’ This was pure rot of course, as although the winter of 2013-2014 across the British Isles was exceptionally stormy and wet, it was also unusually mild, and unless you happened to live half way up Ben Nevis or in the Cairngorm Mountain Ski Resort, the only white stuff you’d likely have seen dropping from the skies last winter would have been issuing from the rear end of a seagull.
When it comes to wintry doomsday scenarios, the Daily Express cannot help repeating itself ad nauseam with delusional regularity, forever citing its favourite weather prophet, James Madden; it’s like Groundhog Day. Don’t believe me? What was the weather-related headline that we encounter in the Express dated 27 November 2012? Any guesses? Here it is: ‘Coldest winter in 100 years on way’, subtitled ‘Britain will grind to a halt within weeks as the most savage freeze for a century begins.’ A little later the story states ‘James Madden, forecaster for Exacta Weather, said: “We are looking at some of the coldest and snowiest conditions in at least 100 years. This is most likely to occur in the December to January period with the potential for widespread major snowfall across the country.”’ What did we actually get? Yet another mild, wet winter with next to no snow.
How does Madden make a living out of issuing exactly the same baseless long-term predictions, seemingly every autumn with a monotonous clockwork regularity? Presumably, some Express readers lacking in scientific literacy will be lapping up this rubbish, and citing his failed ‘forecasts’ to slate meteorology, claiming that ‘science doesn’t work’, and blaming it on the Met Office, with which Madden possesses no connection. One prediction that I will hazard to make, is that the Daily Express will run with a headline in October or November 2015 that runs something along the following lines: 'Forecasters predict that the UK winter of 2015-2016 will be the coldest in 100 years!' Will they be quoting James Madden again? What do you think?
If you have children and are lucky enough to actually find some lying snow in the coming days, make the most of it and get out sledging. If you should be thinking of taking a holiday in the Canaries, the Seychelles or the West Indies, whatever you do, don’t consult a weather forecast in the Daily Express, for if you do, it may be advising you to pack thermals and snow goggles in anticipation of the coldest weather that these locations have experienced since the last Ice Age.