Memories of the past, ideas for the future

Sticks to satellites

Paddy McHugh presented his first weather forecast on RTÉ Television’s fourth night on air in 1962 and continued to do so for another 26 years, until 1988. During that period he witnessed huge technological advances, both in forecasting techniques and in presentation, from stick and board to satellite images. He retired from Met Éireann, where he was in charge of the forecast office, in 1990.

“Prior to television, the forecasts were written out and sent to RTÉ by telephone, teleprinter or telex, and were read out by the radio presenters. When RTÉ Television started in 1962, we agreed in the Central Forecast Office to put on a weather broadcast each evening from Monday to Friday.

“In Ireland the weather varies so much and so continuously, and at different parts of the country at the same time. It wasn’t possible to give a complete picture but once you could just speak about a weather chart and explain what it meant this was a great leap forward for all forecasters. That’s why we were very encouraged and delighted to take part in presenting the weather.

“Before RTÉ there were the British channels [available in Ireland] so we saw it being done but we had virtually no training in advance. I was in the Central Forecast Office which was in O’Connell Street, just opposite the Gresham, until we moved out to Glasnevin in 1979.

“[Technology] was gradually improving all the time from the beginning. Every six-hour weather forecast chart was plotted in the office and then analysed by the forecasters on duty. There was a smaller chart every three hours between the two, main, six-hourly forecasts. Then for local areas in Ireland there was a further chart plotted and analysed.

“It wouldn’t be possible to forecast for Ireland just on its own. Weather is the state of the atmosphere at any particular time. That means the amount of cloud, whether it’s raining or not, whether there’s sunshine, fog, the strength of the winds, the actual temperatures relative to the average temperature. To produce that kind of information, it is necessary to start from the actual weather situation in a country or place at a particular time and then forecast ahead how developments that were taking place [would affect Ireland].

“Most of the developments affecting Ireland would have occurred over the Atlantic, or perhaps over Europe; over Britain or down over France, so it was necessary for us to have the information of what had happened in these places and then to project that into the future as far as we possibly could.

“Weather forecasting, of its nature, depends on extreme cooperation between all countries in the world. Every country has its own network where the weather is observed at particular points in the country. There is an international network of communication - called a synoptic network - where every country collects the weather information for itself and puts it on this international circuit dedicated to weather information. The information came into the Central Forecast Office mostly by teleprinter but by wireless as well. [The technology] was gradually updated and became more and more efficient as the years went on.

“Since about the late 60s, weather satellites are available that circle the earth. Others are centred out in space, in a geocentric network – where they stay in the same space in the sky relative to the earth as the earth spins around. They assess the state of the atmosphere, the temperatures and the winds at different levels, the humidity, and the interaction between the sea and the atmosphere; giving a continuous picture of what’s happening at any particular time.

“[The weather reports] never ran 100% smoothly. There were always little things. There was one time when there was a triangular weather forecast board where we had three charts on three different sides, so it was necessary to swing it around. Sometimes it might bang into a ladder that was left in the wrong place, with a consequent thunder storm where no thunder storms were intended!

“I remember one time in the early 80s, when a stream of snow showers came in from the Irish Sea just at the time when I was trying to get from O’Connell Street out to Montrose. First of all the buses stopped and then the taxis stopped. It was necessary to walk out as far as Montrose. Luckily I knew that these showers were freezing on the ground as they came in and started off early enough to get there in time.

“Digital forecasting, using extremely powerful computers, was developed through the seventies and into the eighties. Virtually all forecasting is produced this way now. Weather information is fed into the computers which operate on that in accordance with various equations of motion and mass. The main art in presenting the weather on television is to translate into understandable language the information which is presented to the forecasters by the computers.

“I wouldn’t think [it’s a much easier job now]. For anybody doing it it’s essential that they have to know exactly what the charts are telling them. They’re mostly fully trained for any presentation nowadays. The computer forecasts that are available are so much better than the forecasts it was possible to prepare way back in 1962 because there is so much more information available. The extension of the time that forecasting can be attempted with a reasonable prospect of success has extended from 24-48 hours way back in ’62 to seven to ten days now.”

Paddy McHugh was in conversation with Jan Battles

Paddy is among Ireland’s TV forecasters who feature in 'Weather Permitting', a new, one-hour documentary on Ireland’s weather, available to watch on the RTÉ Player.