Britain shivered through its coldest winter in 30 years

By Alex Lewis
LAST UPDATED 2:47 PM, MARCH 2, 2010

This winter is officially the coldest for more than 30 years – and the Met Office is facing criticism for its prediction last year of warmer than average temperatures.

Despite predicting that there was only a 20 per cent chance of a colder than average winter, the Met Office’s records show an average temperature of just 1.5C. That’s 2.2C below the norm and the coldest winter since 1978/79, making it the sixth coldest since records began.

Scotland and Northern Ireland, meanwhile, have to look even further back to 1962-3 to recall a colder winter. The temperature in Altnaharra in northern Scotland fell as low as a staggering -22C on January 8.

The Met Office’s failure to predict this year’s cold winter has been seized upon once again by its opponents, who compare the organisation unfavourably with its competitors. Last autumn it was forced onto the defensive when the “barbecue summer” it had predicted turned out to be a wash-out.

The bad press comes at a particularly inopportune time, because the BBC has put its weather forecasting contract out to tender and New Zealand-based Metra, which already provides the weather graphics we see on BBC forecasts, is hoping to steal it from under the nose of the Met Office. A Metra source told the press last month: “The BBC is not happy with the service it has been getting from the Met Office; it thinks it’s too expensive.”

But one thing the Met Office’s detractors, such as the Daily Mail, fail to realise is that the forecast was given in terms of percentages not facts. The possibility of a cold winter was never actually discounted – it was given as a probability of 20 per cent, which is still quite high. You wouldn’t fly in a plane that had a 20 per cent chance of falling out of the sky, after all.

John Hammond, a spokesman for the Met Office, did say that he was “disappointed that [their] seasonal forecasts didn’t give a prediction or stronger probability of a colder winter”. But he told the Daily Mail: “Given [Britain’s] geographical position we are very much at a crossroads of weather patterns and that makes it more challenging… We will continue to do the research and make sure [forecasts] improve in the future.”

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