The Meterological Office & Extreme Weather in UK

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A review of Risk, Blame, and Expertise: The Meteorological Office and Extreme Weather in Post-War Britain, by Alexander Hall.

In 1987 Michael Fish, a BBC and Meteorological Office (MO) weather forecaster, ended his forecast segment with a comment on a recent call to the BBC expressing concern that a hurricane was on the way: “Well, if you’re watching don’t worry — there isn’t.” The next day, the worst windstorm since 1703 hit the southern coast of England, and the clip of Fish’s forecast gained sufficient notoriety to warrant inclusion in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics (p. 17). The ensuing blame that focused on Michael Fish and on the MO nicely encapsulates the explanandum of Alexander Hall’s textured and insightful dissertation, Risk, Blame, and Expertise: The Meteorological Office and Extreme Weather in Post-war Britain. Through his account of the development of the public services, weather warnings, and public forecasts of the MO, Hall argues that the very growth of the MO as a communicator of risk to the public made them vulnerable to blame when disaster struck.

In a narrative spanning the years 1945 to 1963, Hall examines the development of two parallel but connected elements — the development of procedures for communicating risk and warnings, and the evolution of public perception through which blame was assigned. In the case of the former, Hall traces the numerous policy choices the underlay the development of the MO from an information service issuing short forecasts to specialized agencies, to a policy consultant serving other agencies at their request, to primary issuer of warnings for floods and general forecasts, to de facto manager of weather risks for the general public. In the case of the latter, the understanding of weather risks evolved from a perception of “natural” disasters like floods and snowstorms as “Acts of God” to a perception of such disasters as risks to be warned against and managed by the government, particularly by the meteorologists at the MO.

In developing his framework connecting risk communication, perception and blame, Hall draws on a cornucopia of sources gathered from all corners of the social sciences. Disaster studies using psychology, economics and political science are present. He uses Mary Douglas’s cultural theory of risk to support the connection between antecedent risk communication and perception and later assignment of blame (p. 32). And he draws on the sociological theories of Ulrich Beck and the STS work of Brian Wynne and others on the role of experts in risk assessment and management. However, Hall finds that although “[d]isaster studies literature is clear to state a link between levels of pre-disaster perceptions of risk and post event allocation of blame… most writing in the area is vague about exactly how this relationship may function, transmit and operate” (p. 78). His own narrative therefore emphasizes the specific decisions made by his actors. In implementing guidelines for the language of forecasts, for instance, the MO decided to use deterministic and colloquial language — “the windy weather would make it a good day to hang out the laundry” — rather than probabilistic language — “there is a high probability of it being windy today” — in order to connect better with viewers (p. 187). This choice led to a greater sense of certainty than warranted, and likewise a significant danger of blame if the forecast proved incorrect.

In Chapter 2, which follows the introductory chapter, Hall looks at the first of two unusually harsh winters in the UK. (The second occurs in 1963 and is discussed in the last chapter of his dissertation and acts as an effective demonstration of the changes that have occurred in both the public role of the MO and the public perception of the MO’s role in managing the risk of extreme weather events.) Hall uses this chapter to show the state of affairs before the growth of the MO’s public services, as well as to illustrate the complex narratives of blame that can form in the collective memory of a public disaster. Hall details the numerous missteps of the Ministry of Fuel and Power in coping with a shortage of coal during “the coldest winter since 1894” (p. 63). Notable in the crisis is that it was by no means a purely human crisis — the weather was unusually cold, and indeed, even the opposition had to concede that “it would have been a miracle indeed if the present Government had overcome that shortage in no more than 15 months” (p. 75). And yet, despite the clear meteorological dimension to the crisis, the MO was conspicuously absent from the government response or from the narratives of blame that emerged from it. Weather was still an “Act of God” to most people and, as Ted Steinberg has shown in his book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), nature has been a convenient object toward which politicians can deflect blame.

Since the MO was clearly absent from the narratives of the second chapter, Hall digs further into the history of the period to get a grainier picture of the lines of communication and decision-making in which the MO was active in the years after World War II. Many historians, especially Kristine Harper, Frederick Nebeker, James Fleming and Paul Edwards have highlighted World War II as a watershed in the institutional and professional development of meteorology. Hall agrees that the war was a crucial factor in pushing the development of numerous policies by the meteorological services, and as an example, he offers a case study of the agency’s role in developing the Fuel Control Act of 1942-1943. Hall argues that the MO’s involvement in the determination of fuel rations signified an important change in the agency’s role, from that of information service to that of consultant on government policy. It also opened up numerous lines of communication between government bureaus that would persist into the post-war period. However, Hall also recognizes significant limitations in these developments. The MO’s involvement in these projects was ad hoc, dependent on the initiative of outside agencies to invite the MO to the table. While this may have been done in the early stages of policy formation, no official thought for a moment to involve the MO in the handling of a crisis like that of Winter 1947. Hall frames this decision in terms of the prevailing narratives of risk and blame that he analyzed in the earlier chapter. Weather was still seen as a factor outside of human control, and politicians were quite happy to have it there as a last resort in assigning blame.

For Hall, the pivotal moment that heightened the MO’s involvement in weather warnings was the subject of Chapter 4: the North Sea Flood of 1953 and the resultant appointment and report of the Waverly Committee. The reforms resulting from the committee made the MO one of the central issuers of flood warnings and enhanced its role in the management of risks to the general public. Hall frames the commission as “an early case of a government inquiry, resulting in tangible policy changes, which had scientists at its core” (p. 126). At the same time that he situates the response in the context of the rise of experts in policy advising, though Hall is quick to highlight the contingency of the response on the key features of the event itself: “Probably the most significant underlying factor which has influenced the differing contemporary and modern interpretations of these events is their actual meteorological nature… Flooding presents a clear disruptive juncture in people’s lives — spatially, physically and temporally” (p. 163). The suddenness of the event created a policy window through which reforms could be implemented, and the clearly meteorological nature of the event pointed to the MO as a potential player.

Although the North Sea Flood proved a watershed in integrating the MO into the flood warning system, Hall argues that the MO’s main involvement in the public sphere — forecasting — was through a different channel, that of the televised forecast. Once again, Hall describes not only the expansion of the MO into the public’s living rooms through the advent of televised weather forecasts, but also the many different forms of that expansion, especially regarding who, and how, to present the forecast. Of primary importance were the decision to put meteorologists on screen, and the use of language and imagery that removed probabilistic language from the forecast. Although these decisions were made with a view toward educating the public about weather systems and the uncertainties of the forecasts, Hall notes that the MO was naïve about the public’s (in)ability to properly understand probabilities and found it difficult to balance the need to educate with the need to be accessible. The result, in accordance with Mary Douglas’s connection of antecedent risk perception and subsequent blame, is that the failure to communicate uncertainties opened the MO up to considerably greater blame for erroneous forecasts (p. 188).

In Chapter 6, Hall examines “how the MO went beyond being a prominent scientific expert body, to become an organization upon whose authoritative voice the public have come to rely in extreme situations” (p. 203). He gives considerable evidence of this public orientation, from the placement of the Public Services Division (MO-18) under the immediate supervision of the director, to director Graham Sutton’s vision for the MO that “aimed to ensure that all people in the UK benefitted from their Meteorological Office,” and finally to the eventual development of regional offices of the MO on high streets, rather than in the airfields (p. 203).

The increasing public profile of the MO was also evident in the development of the flood warning system. The developers of the warning systems had consistently avoided transmitting warnings through the BBC, out of concern that they might insight panic. Additionally, the agencies involved consistently avoided taking on the executive responsibility in deciding whether to evacuate communities. The ultimate responsibility for risk management was to be delegated to local communities. This was the plan, anyway, but Hall argues that it was not the case. Rather, the public profile of the MO meant that warnings intended for the police would be intercepted by the press and by amateur HAM radio operators. Although the MO had no formal responsibility for issuing directives, they ended up becoming the de facto risk managers simply by issuing the warnings. With the advent of numerical weather forecasting assisted by computers, the MO’s authority, as well as its confidence, increased to outsize proportions. The public was no longer informed by the MO — it was dependent on it in cases of both normal weather and extreme.

Hall bookends his narrative with a final chapter on the Winter of 1963. The government response to this crisis stands in stark relief to the Winter of 1947. In 1947 the MO was nowhere to be found. In 1963, it was everywhere, providing forecasts and ice and snow warnings, drawing maps of expected flood plains during the spring thaw, and providing commentary to the newspapers. However, Hall notes in his comparison of the two winters, the MO was still nowhere to be found in the narratives of blame that emerged. How might this be? This is where Hall has one of his keenest insights. The absence of commentary, even with tremendous MO involvement in the day-to-day response to the winter, is evidence of its ubiquity in British public life. This is further evidenced by the concern the MO directorate had for the language that was being used in the forecasts; a miscommunication of a forecast could result in the wrong action by the public.

In concluding his chapter with a discussion of the invisibility of the MO in the public sphere, Hall’s model fits nicely with that of another recent dissertation, Roger Turner’s recent account of the development of American aeronautical meteorology, “Weathering Heights” (see Roger Turner, Weathering Heights: The Emergence of Aeronautical Meteorology as an Infrastructural Science, University of Pennsylvania 2010. Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations, Paper 147). Turner casts meteorology as an “infrastructural science,” part of a group of sciences that “share a set of attributes that make them crucial to industrial society but simultaneously render them obscure to outside observers” (p. 15). Alexander Hall, similarly, observes that “[o]nly when and where [MO services] were to fail in the future would the true extent of the public’s reliance on them become apparent” (p. 264).

Hall’s dissertation will take an important place in the history of meteorology as one of the few works to deal directly and in a sustained manner with the public response to weather forecasting. The other work that comes to mind in this context is yet another recently minted dissertation, Jamie Pietruska’s Propheteering: A Cultural History of Prediction in the Gilded Age, an account of the role of prediction — whether it be weather and crop forecasting or fortune-telling — in an age of uncertainty (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2009). Pietruska argues that the search for predictability resulted in the rationalization of uncertainty. Hall continues in this vein by taking us into the age of rationalized uncertainty, what we might call the age of risk, a period that, for Hall, is embedded in the invisible infrastructure of risk communication and management. Although the MO organized its operations around meteorological dangers, in a manner consistent with Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society, “it also enabled the general British public to pass their concerns over such risks to the MO” (p. 274). Alexander Hall’s thesis points us to the possibility of further understanding the processes by which societies routinize and delegate risk.

James Bergman
Department of the History of Science
Harvard University
jbergman@fas.harvard.edu

Primary Sources

BBC Written and Sound Archives
National Meteorological Archives
Public Record Office, the National Archives: numerous files, including those of the Meteorological Office, Air Ministry, Cabinet, Home Office, Ministry of Agriculture and Food
Papers of various officials (especially Clement Attlee at the Bodleian Library and Emmanuel Shinwell at London School of Economics)

Dissertation Information

University of Manchester. 2012. 307 pp. Advisors: James Sumner and Simone Turchetti.

 

Image: Screenshot from Michael Fish’s weather forecast, October 15, 1987. British Broadcasting Corporation.