It has a gigantic supercomputer, 1,500 staff and a £170m-a-year budget. So why does the Met Office get it so wrong?
By Richard North
Its supercomputer makes 1,000 billion calculations a second - then tells us to expect a mild winter. But what would you expect from a ’scientific’ organisation that for 20 years has been dominated by climate change zealots, and whose current chairman is the former boss of the World Wildlife Fund?
‘Cold of a variety not seen in over 25 years in a large scale is about to engulf the major energy-consuming areas of the northern hemisphere. The first 15 days of the opening of the New Year will be the coldest, population weighted, north of 30 [degrees] north worldwide in over 25 years.’
That is the chilling (quite literally) verdict of Joe Bastardi, a weather forecaster on the American TV channel AccuWeather.
Yet, while many months ago he and several of his rivals correctly forecast a pre-Christmas freeze, the organisation that told us last year to prepare for a ‘barbecue summer’ was getting it wrong again.
This is our own famous Met Office, which last September confidently predicted a warmer than average winter for Britain. Tell that to Eurostar passengers stuck in the Channel Tunnel for 18 hours before Christmas, the breakdown of their trains blamed on the coldest weather for 15 years.
Not until late November did the Met Office tone down its prediction by saying that there was a ‘50 per cent chance’ of a mild winter.
Spinning a coin could have given the same result - not one you would expect from an organisation that spends nearly £170million a year, has 1,500 staff and a team of scientists operating a £30million supercomputer capable of 1,000 billion calculations every second, with a carbon footprint the size of a small town.
Yet even with this brand-new computer in action since last August, on December 10 the Met Office predicted that it was ‘more likely than not that 2010 will be the warmest year in the instrumental record, beating the previous record year which was 1998′. That prediction stands unchanged.
How could the Met Office be so wrong, both about its barbecue summer and the mild winter? And could the answer to that question have anything to do with its remarkable transformation in recent years?
From a fuddy-duddy organisation created in 1854 to provide a service to mariners, and then aviators when the aeroplane was invented, the Met Office became an arm of the Ministry of Defence. But it has since transmuted into a powerful advocacy unit that sees its main mission to convince the world that we are prey to ‘dangerous climate change’.
Much of this is down to one man - John Houghton (now Sir John) who was the director-general and later chief executive of the Met Office between 1983 and 1991.
It was he, way back in 1988, who attended the first World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto and later became the first scientific chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
It was Houghton who, with one of her senior advisers, Sir Crispin Tickell, convinced the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to fund a new Met Office unit called the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. Opened in 1990, it is now based in Exeter and employs more than 200 staff, having become a temple to what many regard as the climate change ‘religion’.
Its pivotal role is now well-recognised as it is this centre, working with the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, that produces one of the most relied-upon data sets used to track the global temperature and tell us that the planet is heating up.
Crucially, it is that same CRU that has been embroiled in the so-called ‘Warmergate’ scandal, where leaked emails suggest that climate scientists may have manipulated the evidence when it did not give the answers that proved that global warming was continuing. The University of East Anglia has ordered an independent review into the Warmergate row and the allegations made against the CRU.
The point of this row - which is often poorly understood - is that the so-called ‘global temperature’ which these scientists produce, upon which rests the whole case for ‘dangerous global warming’, is not a matter of observed fact.
The data collection system is far from perfect, designed primarily for weather recording, not long-term climate prediction. Reflecting the military origins of the Met Office, many weather stations are situated on airfields. They are there to provide real-time observations for aviators and to provide the basis for short-term forecasts. They are not climate monitoring stations and arguably should not be used as such.
Furthermore, the likes of Manchester and Aberdeen airports, which were once grass airstrips, are now vast stretches of concrete, ramping up temperatures well above the surrounding countryside. This is known as the urban heat island effect.
Because of this effect, instrument changes, inbuilt errors and the huge gaps in the record, the crude data has to be ‘adjusted’ - sometimes several times.
Then sophisticated statistical techniques have to be applied before a single global figure can be produced.
The complexity of the calculations, and the considerable element of human judgment in choosing which of the limited number of specific temperatures to use from the thousands of weather stations all over the world, leave the process wide open to error and bias. Thus, the final results may actually reflect, to one degree or another, no more than the opinions of the scientists producing them.
This is where the good faith and the impartiality of the scientists involved is so important, and why the Warmergate scandal was so damaging. Far from being impartial custodians of the truth, some scientists were shown to have feet of clay, guarding their own patch rather than the science.
This was reinforced shortly after Warmergate, when Russian analysts complained that the Hadley Centre had been ‘cherry-picking’ temperatures from the Russian data set, using only those that were untypically high. Similar complaints have been made of the United States’ data set, where urban heat island effect and positioning errors may taint as much as 80 per cent of the weather station records. Last month the Met Office denied ‘cherry-picking’ and said it used data from a network of individual stations designated by the World Meteorological Organisation.
But there is an even greater reason to doubt the impartiality of the Met Office and the Hadley Centre. Having had at its helm Sir John Houghton, a conviction ‘warmist’, in 2006 it acquired a new and highly controversial chairman - Robert Napier.
Described as a ‘committed conservationist’ and then a ‘passionate environmentalist’, before taking over the most senior position at the Met Office, Napier had for seven years been the chief executive of World Wildlife Fund-UK, one of the foremost activist groups in the climate-change business.
Up to then, WWF was primarily concerned with wildlife issues and conservation. It is widely acknowledged that Napier put climate change on the map during his tenure, using his position to ‘leverage the power and experience of the whole organisation’, changing its focus to the extent that campaigning on this issue became its main activity.
Among other things, he was particularly effective in making alliances with big business, doing deals with the likes of the insurance giant Allianz and convincing the company that there was money to be made out of climate change.
Bizarrely, although the Met Office is still part of the MoD and its staff are civil servants (who, as the Met Office itself says, ‘cannot support individual campaigns that actively lobby for policy change’), the organisation has taken its cue from its new leader. It has become a powerful and vocal climate-change lobbyist, contributing hugely to the climate-change conference in Copenhagen last month, at which it launched its prediction that this year would be the hottest on record.
That raises the question whether the Met Office can still be relied upon to give accurate forecasts. Predicting the weather - both short-term and long - is not an exact science. Computers can do the number crunching but the programs or ‘models’ they work to are devised by human beings.
Exactly the same computer models that are used to forecast that we will fry by the year 2030, 2050 or even 2080, are also those used to produce the shorter-range forecasts. It was these models, back in September, that told us we were going to have a mild winter.
But the problems do not stop there. From a technical body, the Met Office has now become the producer and purveyor of endless propaganda on climate change. Its latest production is an expensive, glossy, 20-page pamphlet. It is packed with highly controversial and disputed assertions that are delivered with the authority of a government agency as if they were unarguable fact.
There is no room for doubt, for instance, in the assertion that humans are causing climate change.
‘Human activities like burning coal, oil and gas have led to…extra warming. As a result, over the past century there has been an underlying increase in average temperatures which is continuing.’
Indeed, it has snowed in the UK for the past three years, famously last October as MPs were voting through the Climate Change Bill. Each winter has been harsher than the last, and many independent meteorologists, including Joe Bastardi, believe the Earth has entered a cooling cycle.
What was once a highly respected organisation risks becoming a laughing stock in the weather community and a danger to the rest of us.