Beast from the East: How we became a nation obsessed by the weather

A woman faces Hurricane Ophelia head on. Ben Birchall/PA Wire
A woman faces Hurricane Ophelia head on. Ben Birchall/PA Wire
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From the Beast from the East to snow-maggedon, Sarah Freeman meets Professor Liz Bentley, the one woman who is glad we became a nation of weather obsessives.

It hasn’t snowed much down Professor Liz Bentley’s way. When we speak, the much heralded Beast from the East has only delivered the lightest of flurries on the offices of the Royal Meteorological Society where she is chief executive, not that it has stopped her talking about it.

Prof Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society.

Prof Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society.

For Prof Bentley any bout of extreme weather is a good opportunity to big up the work of the RMS, that most august of bodies which when it opened its doors in 1850 stated its rather grand aim should be “the advancement and extension of meteorological science by determining the laws of climate and of meteorological phenomena in general”.

“It’s February, it’s snowing and I know there are a lot of people who get a little annoyed by the tendency of the tabloids to err on the side of hysteria,” says Prof Bentley. “They may have a point, but actually in this case there is something interesting to talk about.

“Normally in Britain our weather comes from the west. That means that it tends to be wet, so even when we d0 get snow normally it’s a little sleety. This is different. Because it has blown in form Serbia it’s incredibly dry and powdery. “It’s no good for making snowballs, but apparently if you are into skiing, which I’m not, then this is not just any snow, it’s what you call Champagne snow.”

Prof Bentley’s own preoccupation with the weather began long before she joined the RMS. In fact she traces her mild obsession back to her childhood growing up in Lindley near Huddersfield.

“We lived high up near the M62 and some of my earliest memories are of walking to school and arriving after a good soaking,” she says. “When you live somewhere like that, you know what real weather is from an early age. Even before I left school a career in meteorology was pretty much inevitable.”

Prof Bentley joined the Met Office after a PhD in maths at the University of Manchester. Training alongside Look North’s own Paul Hudson, she spent 25 years as a forecaster and eventually landed what some might have viewed as the unenviable job of managing the BBC Weather Centre in London.

“The Met Office does get blamed for many things and few of them are justified,” she says. “People only tend to remember the minority of forecasts it gets wrong, rather than the majority it gets right, but that’s just the way it is.”

It might be more than 30 years since Michael Fish famously dismissed the caller to BBC who had rung in to ask whether the rumours she’d heard about a hurricane were right. Just hours later the worst storm in 300 years hit the south of England.Fish never lived down the gaffe, but it’s one that shouldn’t happen again.

“Since I got my first job as forecaster the Met Office’s super-computer has been upgraded four or five times,” says Bentley. “Go back 10 or 20 years and weather warnings were only ever issued up 36 hours in advance. Now because the technology has become more sophisticated they can be issued up to six days in advance.

“I think that has to be a good thing, but by the very nature of our chaotic weather system it means that occasionally the great dumping of snow you heard about for almost a week in advance fails to materialise.”

It was in 2015 that the Met Office decided to launch a pilot scheme to name that season’s storms. Potential names were collated via a social media campaign, but three years on having been warned to batten down the hatches against the likes of Aileen, Brian, Caroline and Dylan some have been left wondering whether the move has only served to whip up a storm in the proverbial tea cup.

“I was a supporter of the naming of storms and I still am,” says Prof Bentley. “It’s good in raising awareness of extreme weather, but it’s also really useful afterwards for people like me. When you are looking back at particular period of weather it is much more helpful to refer to Storm Doris or Barbara rather than asking people do you remember that day a few weeks ago when it was very rainy and incredibly windy.”

While we are still attached to those old weather symbols used by the likes of Bill Giles and any change in the nightly forecast prompts a deluge of complaints to the BBC, Prof Bentley would like to see a more nuanced approach to the business of forecasting.

“In America, they have really embraced percentage forecasting, so they will say things like ‘tomorrow there is a 50 per cent chance of rain’. I would really like to see us move much in that direction. It is a much more accurate way of forecasting, but I am aware that if you said to most British, ‘tomorrow there is a 50 per cent chance of rain’ they would simply accuse you of sitting on the fence.

“When people know what I do for a living they will often turn round and say ‘Ooh I’m going on honeymoon to South Africa what will the weather be like?’ They assume that you have some in-built forecasting device, but I don’t mind, it comes with the territory.”

Prof Bentley joined the RMS in 2010 and part of her brief was to make the society more publically accessible. It was why the following year she set up the society’s Weather Club, an online portal which acts as a virtual meeting place for cloud spotters and storm chasers.

“There are a lot of closet weather fanatics out there,” she says. “It’s a guilty little secret and one of the reasons for starting the club was to get people to share their passion and it has been a real revelation to discover what people are most interested in.

“Right from when we launched, our top hit has always been on our graphic on the Beaufort Scale showing the different strength of winds. I know, even I was surprised by that and we also get big hits for anything about pollen levels.

“The fact is that history is littered with weather eccentrics. One of my favourites is William Bentley. He was born in 1865 and by the time he was a teenager was perfecting the art of photographing snowflakes. Remember how big and unweildy cameras were back then? And yet somehow, by using a piece of black velvet cloth as a backdrop he captured thousands of beautiful images.

“That’s what I call dedication and if we at the RMS can encourage the next generation of weather enthusiasts then so much the better.”

While the Beast from the East left planes delayed, trains cancelled and schools closed, worse may be yet to come. According to Prof Bentley we should now be braced for Storm Emma. Heading over from Portugal it might sound more demure, but it could pack and even greater punch.

“There is a wide band of snow coming from the continent which looks likt it will hit us on Thursday. There is that old saying that if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. It could well be that after this snow we will be in for a good summer. Just don’t hold me to it.”