Category - Nature

Is Meteorology Actually A Science?

The reason I ask that is because of this BBC news item about the recent bad weather.

You see, this winter has been really mild, which is in stark contrast to the last two or three, which have been very cold with a lot of snow. Until a couple of years ago, you had to go back to the 1980s to find a winter where snow even settled, let alone hung around for more than a few days, and before that it was the early 1970s. Then there were the summers. A few years ago we had one of the wettest on record, with huge downpours, thunderstorms, and localised flooding. Not long before that we had some very warm summers, but that didn’t stop the “scientists” telling us that that was the end of the sun for the next generation or so as recently as last spring, which started later than usual.

That’s right. We mustn’t forget that only last June the Met Office was telling us that there’d be no summers for at least a decade. Within a few weeks temperatures had soared, and in the end the Met Office statistics showed it to be the “warmest, driest, and sunniest summer since 2006”. In fact, the statistics don’t do it justice, because the warm weather ran all the way from June until at least September. I don’t think I actually slept under blankets for that entire period. Even now – in early 2014 – we’re effectively still experiencing the same heat wave – just turned down a few notches for the winter months.

The Met Office has a history of making highly inaccurate predictions. There was the legendary 1987 forecast, where Michael Fish said there wasn’t a hurricane on the way, but which saw the worst storm for 300 years pounding the South East, with record damage and 19 dead. The Met Office completely failed to predict the severity of that storm. Then there was the infamous “barbecue summer” forecast in 2009, where summer actually turned out to be one of the wettest on record. It was the third summer in succession where the Met Office had got it absolutely wrong, and as a result it no longer issues long range forecasts. And back then, they were blaming the El Nino Effect. No one predicted the late spring last year, nor did they predict the prolonged heat wave or the wet weather experienced so far this year. And don’t forget that as recently as April 2012 we were in a drought which was forecast to “last until Christmas” (it began in 2010).

So it came as a bit of a surprise that the Met Office has someone it refers to as a “chief scientist”, and who – in the face of the examples I gave above – can come out with nonsense like this:

Dame Julia Slingo [the alleged “chief scientist”] said the variable UK climate meant there was “no definitive answer” to what caused the storms.

“But all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change,” she added.

“There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

It’s rubbish! Scientists cannot agree on what’s going on, and when you strip away the hype you’re just left with some weather. And by hype, I mean idiotic numbers like this:

More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. In contrast, there were only nine in the whole of 2012.

That is unscientific and meaningless. And in the story, Slingo says that the UK has seen the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”. Another useless statistic when you consider that the 1987 storm was the “worst for 300 years”.

In fact, it is quite easy to get hold of the raw data concerning rainfall since 1845 for the UK. And if you plot it on a graph, this is what you get. First of all, the winter rainfall expressed as a percentage of the mean for the entire period:

Winter rainfall since 1845

And this one is the summer rainfall expressed in the same way:Summer rainfall since 1845

For the winter graph, the trend is virtually flat since 1909 (winters appear to have been very slightly drier on average before that). It’s only when you go back as far as 1865 that you can say the average rainfall for winter has increased. For the summer graph, the trend is slightly downwards all the way through (i.e. summers tend to be a bit drier now than they were at the turn of the 20th century).

To listen to Slingo and most other meteorologists, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was a sharp upward trend. In fact, there is absolutely nothing of the sort. For every peak, there is an earlier and a later trough – but if you just focus on the last peak at any point in time you could fool yourself into arguing that the trend is upwards. I suspect this is what Slingo and other pseudo-scientists are very adept at doing, and they have the media to propagate their myths.

Another thing is that when you look at data by region, in any given year you might find one area (e.g. Wales) which has much more than the average rainfall, and yet in another area (e.g. Scotland or England) the rainfall is at or below the average.  And if you go into even finer detail, and look at individual weather stations, you might find that over any given period one station has recorded a monsoon, whereas one a few tens of miles away has only picked up a fraction of the rainfall. Indeed, this dramatic variation occurs on all scales – town to town, country to country, and continent to continent.

No one is denying that the people in Somerset have got it rough at the moment (though they’d better prepare to slip into the background again, now that the Thames is flooding). But all you have to do is look at historical floods in the UK and you see that in spite of the rhetoric (“the worst in living memory”), there are various examples from the last century or so involving British cities and towns (and those are just the dramatic ones).

All of this convinces me that meteorology isn’t a science, since those who claim to be meteorologists certainly don’t seem to behave scientifically.


Two-tone Lobsters

I came in from work tonight and switched on the TV. BBC 2 was showing Nature’s Weirdest Events – some stuff about dolphins swimming with whales, cats raising ducks and hedgehogs, walking catfish, weird noises in the sky in Canada, and so on. But the part that really piqued my interest was the trailer for next week. It showed a lobster which was two different colours either side of a perfect line right down the middle of its body.

I just had to look that one up, and I came across this article. You’ll note how this lobster was caught in Felix Cove, Newfoundland and is a distinct blue one side, and reddish brown the other. It is classed as “extremely rare”. Other than explaining that it is a gynandromorph – both male and female – the article is only about 35 words long and not very informative.Bi-coloured Lobsters

To try and get more information, I found another article. This one was caught in Dyer’s Bay, Maine, and is black on one side, and orange on the other. The article says the odds of finding one are 50 million to 1. Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. A local oceanarium said it has only seen three such bi-coloured lobsters in 35 years. No mention is made of it being a gynandromorph – this time it is explained that each half of a lobster develops separately and this specimen is missing blue pigmentation on one side.

The two articles obviously referred to different lobsters (they’re different sizes), so I searched some more. I then found this one which was pulled up in Digby County, off Nova Scotia. It’s a similar colour to the second example, though not the same one if the locations, dates, and names are anything to go by. Nova Scotia isn’t that far from Maine in fishing terms.

Then there was this one – different date, similar colour – pulled up off the New England coast (of which Maine is part). In fact, there are loads of examples. There’s even a 1959 book/research paper which discusses the phenomenon.

So, not quite as rare or unusual as is suggested either by the BBC or some of the finders or article writers.


Fastest Animal Reactions

This post is well past its sell by date now, and its original purpose is long lost. So I’m going to make it a bit more scientific.

Animals which are contenders for having the fastest reactions:

  • The Mantis Shrimp – it can move its front legs so fast and with such power that it can stun small fish and even break into crab shells or damage aquariums.
  • Anna’s Hummingbird – can dive at speeds of 89 feet per second (around 60mph)
  • The Black Marlin – clocked indirectly at 83mph

Speed is relative, though. A small mite in America, Paratarsotomus macropalpis, can run 322 body lengths per second. It’s only 0.7mm long, but it equates to a human running at 1,300mph.