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18 October 2016

A white Christmas? MET office can predict winter weather up to a year ahead

Forecasters begin to get a handle on our long-range winter weather.

By India Bourke

Winter is coming – but what kind of winter will it be? And what about the one after that?

Until now, long-range weather prediction has been the stuff of druids and divination. So the news that scientists could begin to predict our basic winter weather up to one year ahead is a big deal – for businesses, bureaucrats and even brides to be.

New research published in Nature Geoscience, has demonstrated major leaps forward in the interpretation of a chaotic set of atmospheric variations, known as the North Atlantic Oscillation or NOA.

This pressure system has a large impact on European winters and was previously thought too unpredictable to forecast. But thanks to a £197 million supercomputer, scientists at the MET office have been able to test the retrospective skill of their long-range NOA forecasts – and now believe they have “modest but significant” skill in predicting the “theme” of a winter up to a year ahead. 

If the NAO pressure gradient is predicted to be “positive”, for example, then Northern Europe is more likely to experience mild and stormy conditions. If it is “negative”, then we can expect more settled dry and cold weather.

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According to Dr Nick Dunstone, the Met Office’s lead author, “this is an exciting first step in developing useful winter climate predictions on longer timescales”.

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So what does this mean for our daily lives? Will more of us be risking a January wedding or a Scottish ski trip? And will businesses alter their prices accordingly?

A prediction is not yet available for the winter of 2017-18 and even if it was, the Met Office’s Grahame Madge is not sure it would be of much use to the general public. “This breakthrough is the equivalent to the first steps on the moon”, he told the NS, “and that’s a long way from commercial space travel”.

If winter is taken as a three month block from December to February, then the most detail that could probably be provided would only be a two part “glimpse” of the general conditions.  And even that wouldn’t include much regional specificity. The NOA might suggest an early winter of heavy rain but wouldn’t be able to tell whether the Lake District, Scotland or Scandinavia would be particularly hit.

Still, commercially, there are a range of ways that such information might make an impact. Already the Met provides more detailed, shorter-term forecasts (at a price) to certain organisations and retailers – helping supermarkets schedule their produce stocks, for example. Or department stores know when to buy in umbrellas.

“You wouldn’t necessarily want to book a holiday around it”, Madge explains, but for the murky world of forecasting science, NOA prediction is welcome sunshine through the rain.