Bright outlook for EADT's weather

The EADT has revamped its weather service. Steven Russell met the forecasters looking skywardIT WAS a bit unfair to ambush Phil Garner as he stepped from the “cupboard”.

The EADT has revamped its weather service. Steven Russell met the forecasters looking skyward

IT WAS a bit unfair to ambush Phil Garner as he stepped from the “cupboard”. He'd just presented a weather forecast from his insulated booth for one BBC radio station and had barely a moment to catch his breath before seamlessly ISDN-ing a bulletin into Radio Suffolk's lunchtime show.

He certainly didn't need the extra question from a visitor; namely me. “So, what's the weather going to be like this afternoon, then?”

However, as befits a senior forecaster and the company secretary of WeatherQuest, he took it in his stride.

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“It should get better,” he said cheerily, casting an eye at the overcast skies through the window. “That's what I've been saying today. There's a line of cloud coming through that might bring some rain between about 2pm and 4pm, though probably nothing much, and we should get a glimpse of sun later.”

He takes a sheaf of printouts from his desk. “We were keeping an eye on this rain this morning, but it's died out before it reached us.”

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The printouts are radar images showing where the wet stuff was - over Wales, judging by the angry-looking areas of yellow and green on the map. By the time the weather system has reached East Anglia, it's registering as unthreatening blues: which accounts for the rather unconvincing raindrops that briefly spattered across the window 20 minutes earlier.

“People say that Wales steals our rain - that East Anglia is in the shadow of the Welsh mountains - and, looking at this, you'd have to say it was true.”

The forecast was spot-on. A similar spattering - hardly enough to merit the term “shower” - fell at 2.20pm; and then a burst of sunshine lit up the day at 4pm.

The EADT joins WeatherQuest's growing list of customers when Phil and his colleagues start providing our improved forecasts from Monday. The new service will be much more localised and meaningful.

We'll be among an eclectic mix of clients: from BBC radio stations covering cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, to an insurance company filtering out bogus claims; from a Gaelic-speaking national TV channel in Ireland to an East Anglian farmer wondering if tomorrow is a good day to spray his crops.

The team even provides a business TV channel based in Turkey with a review of European weather.

The WeatherQuest staff went out last Friday to celebrate the company's fifth birthday. It started life after The Meteorological Office started closing its outposts, including Norwich Weather Centre. Staff such as Jim Bacon and Steve Western, well-known voices and faces in East Anglia because of their media work, were left in a quandary; there were options, such as working for the Met Office elsewhere, but uprooting was unappealing.

Dr Steve Dorling, who lectured in weather at the University of East Anglia, had enjoyed considerable involvement with the Norwich centre and realised its closure would be a great loss.

“We were all down in the dumps and thought there was nothing for it but to give it a go,” he remembers. So WeatherQuest was born - thanks to a NatWest loan underwritten by the Department of Trade and Industry. Between £60,000 and £80,000 went on essential equipment, Steve says.

Being based at the university in Norwich, on the third floor of the School of Environmental Sciences, stopped years of experience slipping away from East Anglia and made it easy for the organisation to participate in academic research.

As with any business growing from a standing start, the early years were hard graft. Early clients such as the BBC locally, and our sister paper, the Eastern Daily Press, were valued for their show of faith - as were the Notcutts horticultural empire and the Port of Felixstowe. “All are still with us,” says Steve, who combines his UEA faculty role with the position of sales and research director for WeatherQuest.

Norwich Union was welcomed into the fold three years ago.

One of the priorities for the fledgling forecasting firm was building up an historic database of weather data. It might not seem obvious, says Steve, but forecasters can only attempt to make accurate predictions about future weather if they know what's gone before. A forecast for tomorrow doesn't start with a blank sheet of paper but is part of a wider context of subtle relationships.

A well-developed database also comes into its own if, for example, a policyholder claims his modem was ruined by a lightning strike and wants his insurance company to pay out. The information bank will show if his town was affected by lightning on the date in question.

WeatherQuest managing director Jim Bacon has mentioned in the past that, in the company's experience, more than 30% of weather-related claims are not supported by meteorological evidence.

Today Jim is off with BBC East, filling in for weather presenter Julie Reinger. At other times, WeatherQuest supplies forecasts to the Beeb's regional base in Norwich.

In between his myriad radio broadcasts, Phil Garner is working on forecasts for the Irish TV station TG4 - the impressive graphics displayed on his two computer screens. Alongside him, assistant forecasters Chris Bell and John Law beaver away on data for other clients.

Weather seems to have figured large in their lives, on both a personal and professional basis. Chris, who hails from Texas, lists storm-chasing among his hobbies. Unfortunately, his parents' home, about 20 miles inland from the Texas coast, was badly damaged by Hurricane Rita last autumn. Because of Chris's working relationship with BBC local radio stations, his mum did a couple of interviews for British listeners.

John, who graduated from UEA in meteorology and oceanography, joined WeatherQuest on August 10, 2003 - our hottest of hot days - only to find his train enjoying a lengthy and unscheduled stop on the edge of Norwich, with the air-conditioning not working . . .

The company has 10 employees, covering a period from 4am to 7pm. Most live locally, but two dwell in Yorkshire and another in the south of France. Modern technology makes location less of an obstacle these days.

The early-morning period can be quite frantic, with a host of BBC local radio stations needing regular weather updates, usually delivered live on air by WeatherQuest forecasters. With areas such as Cleveland, Cumbria, Somerset, Wiltshire and Lancashire essentially being covered from Norwich, there's potential to drop a pronunciation clanger once in a while. Steve says the team works hard at learning local geography and place names, and tries to listen in to radio shows to keep abreast of local topics and to gauge the tone of a programme.

With web cams spreading like wild-fire, forecasters might also log on to a web site and check that it's not raining cats and dogs in Liverpool when their bulletin suggests it's dry!

WeatherQuest also boasts 400-500 customers from the agricultural industry, ranging from individual farmers to co-operatives.

“If you're planning to spray, for example, you really need a window of good weather, with little wind. And you don't want to spray and then see a downpour a short time later wash your chemicals away. It's expensive stuff.”

The phone trills every few minutes. The company operates a premium rate line that gets callers straight through to a forecaster, who can deliver a localised report and answer any questions for a couple of pounds or so.

Today, Phil estimates they've had 50 or 60 calls by about 1pm. Having direct contact with clients is useful, Steve reckons. “While we have all the technical gizmos, there is nothing like having 'reporters' on the ground, telling us what is actually happening where they are.”

Many of us enjoy moaning that weather forecasts are often wrong. What does Steve say to that?

For a start, he says it helps to make forecasts as localised as possible - rather than trying to cover a large area with a broadbrush description - and they should be updated as often as possible.

Suffolk and Norfolk can experience different conditions, for instance. The latter has both a northern and eastern coast; the convergence of sea breezes can, for example, lead to some interesting Norfolk weather that its southern neighbour probably won't share.

Meteorological data comes from a variety of sources, including from the Met Office's reporting stations - such as the one at Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk - and other sites: like the weather station at Broom's Barn sugar beet research centre near Bury St Edmunds.

There are organisations operating radar and satellite installations, whose data can be bought. Radiosondes - balloons carrying monitoring equipment, to you and me - also provide information on factors such as temperature and humidity. Never forget, says Steve, that what is happening on the ground is actually determined by what is happening up in the air.

Again, a detailed knowledge of the weather that's gone before is the key to an accurate forecast, too.

“You will always, from time to time, get it wrong.” The weather is not a tame beast, and we're an island nation. Conditions change. Sometimes a forecaster can predict with assuredness what is going to happen over the next 10 days; sometimes working out the weather for the next day is tricky.

“Criticism 99.9% of the time is good-natured and people seem to understand the challenge. For an organisation like us, it is about demonstrating to people they can have confidence that the vast majority of the time we will be right.”

Our fascination with all things meteorological shows no sign of flagging.

“Lots of the things we do are sensitive to the weather - not least barbecues, at the moment, and sailing,” says Steve.

“Our lives are now generally very busy, and we have only a short weather window in which to cram all the things we want to do, be they business- or leisure-related. We all want to make the best use of the time available - and the weather is something we can all talk about.

“In terms of teaching, there's a whole lab just outside the window. If I needed to, I could virtually teach a course on what was going on each day on the other side of the glass!”

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Weather spots

On average, Suffolk gets lightning on 15 days each year

The strongest wind ever recorded in Suffolk was 84 knots (about 97mph). It qualifies as a hurricane-force wind, but not officially as a hurricane - which, strictly speaking, is a storm that develops in the tropics. Hurricane-force winds are of 73mph or more, sustained for 10 minutes or more

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