Saturday, January 12, 2013

It's Cold Outside

Now that the story of the death of Princess Diana is completely exhausted of any news mileage, some august journals have become fixated with the weather. It is strange that middle-market tabloids, dyed-in-the-wool climate change deniers, should use the extremes of weather we have experienced over recent years to make their daily bread, but they do. The endless rain and the countless flood alerts have been the subject of obsessive coverage throughout 2012 and, in the grip of winter, the potential for cold weather has got them very excited. They feel safer with the cold; their attitude seems to be: Global warming? Really? When it’s that cold outside? And now, with forecasts of snow, their shrieking has reached hysterical levels.

I used to have a similarly childish obsession with the weather – when I was a child. As a kid in London, I was familiar with the place name Herstmonceux for two reasons. First, I was slightly annoyed with it for nicking the Royal Observatory from up the road at Greenwich. Even though it happened in 1947, I felt I had somehow been deprived and that all the tourists milling about outside the building at the top of Greenwich Park were being conned. The second reason that Herstmonceux was familiar to me was because it frequently cropped up on the weather forecast; well, not so much the forecast, as the review of the day’s weather that Jack Scott or Bill Giles sometimes gave at the start of a forecast. If there had been extremes of weather – temperature, sunshine, rain, snow – very often Herstmonceux would be mentioned as having the highest or lowest of whatever was being measured. I am sure that other places were mentioned just as regularly, but an observatory thief with an unpronounceable name with the letter ‘x’ in it, stood out. In my naivety, I assumed that the Meteorological Office knew what the weather had been like across every inch of the land, and I was fascinated with the idea that Herstmonceux was the epicentre of extreme weather in southern England. I never made the connection between the observatory and weather; and so it never occurred to me that the reason it experienced more sunshine or the lowest temperature was because there was a weather station there to measure these things.

In 1990, the Royal Observatory moved again to Cambridge but gradually throughout that decade its various functions – astronomy, particle physics, hydrography – were scattered to different locations. I am not sure when the Herstmonceux weather station would have moved but it is now in West End, a minor road leading out of Herstmonceux village to Gingers Green and Stunts Green. Since ending up living in Herstmonceux, I pass it every day I go to my allotment. It is a very unassuming single-storey wooden building, protected by tasteful racing green metal security fencing as it is unmanned and automatic. Equipment there measures air temperature, atmospheric pressure, rainfall, wind speed and direction, humidity, cloud height and visibility. The station produces constant observations and transmits them to the Met Office in Exeter; the minute-by-minute readings can be accessed on the Met Office website. It is said that weather balloons are launched twice daily from the station but I have never seen one. A friend has, and sighting one myself has now become a minor obsession. The Met Office has over two hundred weather stations around the country but only a handful are still manual. It’s a shame: I think I would be quite good at looking out of the window of a wooden hut and then phoning in the news that Siberian Snow Chaos Hits Britain.

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