The Met Office is offering us the chance to name storms. But our climate is not as dramatic as we think
It sounds like a Monty Python sketch, but it is real. The Met Office, and its Irish equivalent, Met Éireann, have “teamed up” in a new venture that invites the public to send in names for “extreme weather events”affecting the British Isles. This follows the practice of giving people’s names to hurricanes and other mega‑storms, which has been in use for decades.
It’s a nice PR wheeze, perhaps, but it illustrates a salient point. No other country on Earth talks more about its weather – and no other country on Earth has such a misguided and factually incorrect impression of what its weather actually is.
Britain’s climate is indeed truly spectacular – but not in the way most of us think. It is not quite unique: most of New Zealand, parts of South America and some of the western seaboard of the United States share our climate. And what makes us – and these places – stand out is the sheer mildness of our weather. We don’t need names for ‘“extreme weather events”, for the simple reason that we do not suffer extreme weather events.
No, really, we don’t.
You thought it rained a lot in August? It was indeed damp, with seven or eight inches of rain falling in some places, making it the rainiest for 50 years. But spectacular? No. Consider the inhabitants of the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion. They can tell us about “spectacular” rain. Over January 7 and 8 in 1966 nearly six feet of rain fell in a 24-hour period. If that happened here, we would talk of little else for, maybe, 200 years. That was a weather event that deserved a name (and, indeed, the storm responsible was called Denise). Last August’s “washout”, by contrast, did not.
We had a bit of snow a few winters back (Blizzard Quentin, perhaps?). It was the sort of snow that filled several pages of every newspaper, closed our biggest airports for a day or two and led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Why weren’t we prepared? Why don’t we have heated runways and proper snowploughs like the Canadians? Why do we grind to a halt?
The answer is simple. Such events are so vanishingly rare, and so (in the scheme of things) mild, that as a nation we would be clinically insane to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in equipment that would simply rust away in the intervals between when it was needed. […]
Churchill once remarked that Britain is one of the few places where one can do something pleasant out of doors every single day of the year. We think we suffer biblical rains, forgetting that London receives less precipitation than Paris, Rome and even Algiers. It is rarely too hot; even more rarely too cold. Our summers are warmer and drier than we think they are, our winters milder.
The reality is that nothing disconcerts a Briton more than the remark: “What lovely weather we are having!” What we actually do suffer from is weather-envy. Perhaps we should think of a name for that, rather than pondering the nomenclature of the next afternoon cloudburst.