From the Archives, 1998: And the weather will be… unpredictable

From the Archives, 1998: And the weather will be… unpredictable

February 6, 2023

First published in The Age on February 8, 1998

And the weather will be… unpredictable

JUST for a change let’s not talk about Melbourne’s weather, let’s talk about Melbourne weather forecasts.

David Brown and Channel 7 introduced a new 7 day weather forecast.Credit:Penny Stephens

For nearly a week now that courageous (some might say foolish) weatherman on Channel 7 has been attempting to predict what it will be like in our meteorologically fickle city, seven days hence.

The more cautious public servants of the Bureau of Meteorology are still only prepared to put their reputations on the line for four days ahead and that is what the rest of the mainstream media presents.

That is not good enough for the ratings hungry management at Seven, locked as they are in a to-the-death tussle with leading network Nine. Preliminary results of their gamble appear promising. On Tuesday the second night of Seven’s highly promoted seven-day forecasts, their ratings for the second half of the news bulletin were up two points on their regular performance, from 21 to 23.

A tale of two weekend: published in The Age on February 8, 1998.Credit:The Age Archives

That little jump, according to media buyers for leading advertising agencies can translate into tens of thousands of dollars in the price the station can charge for advertising time.

Seven’s weatherman, David Brown, can claim the credentials to make longer forecasts. He has a degree in meteorology and was a one-time forecaster at the bureau but is quite disdainful of his former employer. Basically they are the beige cardigan set, they are not particularly adventurous.

“They’ve got the capacity to do seven-day forecasts, they just don’t want to.”

So like the rest of the media, Seven gets its four-day forecasts from the bureau. It buys the extra three days from a private international company, Weathernews, which has access to global satellite images and a super computer in Los Angeles to crunch numbers and come up with forecasts.

Brown then adds his own forecasting skill, interprets the results and adds in the computer-generated animation that Seven has used in its weather news over the past year.

Not surprisingly, boffins at the bureau and Brown’s rival at Nine, Rob Gell, are scornful of the seven-day forecast’s reliability.

Gell refers to a graph Brown produced on Tuesday night showing that the source of the long-term Seven forecast had an accuracy within five degrees most of the time. “They are talking about a very large margin of error. If they predict a temperature of 29 that means it is acceptable to come in anywhere between 24 and 34.

“This company might be able to do longer-term forecasts for cities like Paris or even Vancouver but Melbourne is different.

“Our weather systems basically come from the west, but a couple of degrees either way for the wind direction can make an enormous difference to the temperature. A few degrees to north and the system comes over land, a Few degrees to the south and it comes over the Southern Ocean.”

Regional director of the bureau Mr Kevin O’Laughlin said the new $6 million NEC super computer recently installed would allow longer accurate forecasts to be made in the future. “We are probably going to be able to go out to five days in the near future.

“To be meaningful it has to be significantly better than chance and better than just relying on historical averages.

“If someone wants to make a decision on what they are going to wear to work… and the forecast is wrong, then it is no great loss. But if a farmer is planting a crop or spending $10,000 on spray, then it is a different matter.”

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