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outside  arms foldedAs I get older I feel more of a need to under­stand the work­ings of the world around me. Not that it’s a burn­ing yearn­ing, more like a passing interest. Herein I try to find the answers to the ques­tions that pass fleet­ingly across my cereb­ral cor­tex. Not the big ques­tions, like, “What’s for lunch?” or “What does this but­ton do?”, but the ones that we have all asked ourselves at one time or another.

Such as: “What the hell do weath­er fore­casters know anyway?”


New Zeal­anders talk about the weath­er more than any oth­er people on the face of the plan­et (I con­firmed this by ask­ing folks I know from oth­er coun­tries — good enough). We even sing about it more than oth­er nation­al­it­ies: ‘Rain’ — Dragon; ‘Break in the Weath­er’ — Jenny Mor­ris; ‘Weath­er With You’ — Crowded House. I can’t think of any more without help from Google, but you get the idea.

As a nation with more than our fair share of farm­ers and fish­er­folk, it’s also true that some of our biggest indus­tries rely on the abil­ity to pre­dict the weath­er with some degree of accur­acy. But can we?

In the years before tele­vi­sion, those very people — farm­ers and fish­er­folk — seemed to be able to squint sky­ward, sniff the air, scratch at the parts that itch, and then quietly wander off con­fid­ent that they knew what the next day held.

These days we tune in nightly hop­ing to get a head start on work­ing out what to wear, or know­ing if the kids’ sport will be can­celled again, with the help of multi-mil­lion dol­lar graph­ics, satel­lite images and iso­bars. Then when it’s wrong — even slightly — we spit explet­ives from our mouths and won­der if the boffins at the Met­Ser­vice ever both­er to look out the window!

Kar­en Olsen, fam­ous TV ONE weath­er fore­caster (and Wel­ling­to­ni­an-at-heart), reck­ons that Kiwis might grizzle, but we’re very rarely nasty. “You might get a bit of good-natured rib­bing,” she tells me.

So we’re polite to their faces, but secretly we want to know: why can’t met­eor­o­lo­gists just get it right? Guess what: more often than not they do. Says Kar­en, “Often the fore­cast is right, but the tim­ing is wrong.”

But why, Kar­en, why?”

New Zea­l­and is a dif­fi­cult coun­try to fore­cast,” she explains patiently. “It’s long and skinny and sur­roun­ded by water. Water tends to do funny things to weath­er. It speeds it up or slows it down or expands it or takes energy out.”

Also, a lot of the time, we’re quib­bling about the dif­fer­ence between drizzle and light rain, or a mod­er­ate north­erly and a strong nor’wester. If you pre­dict one and it turns out be the oth­er, is that wrong? If a thun­der­storm strikes a forest and there’s no one there to fore­cast it, does it make a sound?

To answer eso­ter­ic ques­tions like that would take three or four years of maths or sci­ence at uni­ver­sity and anoth­er year of spe­cial­ist Met­Ser­vice train­ing. Which, coin­cid­ent­ally, is exactly what’s required to become a met­eor­o­lo­gist. That’s right — to read weath­er maps cor­rectly you need four years of learning!

Side note: Kar­en her­self did not take the usu­al road to the job she’s in. As a little girl she had an unusu­al fas­cin­a­tion with dis­eases like the black plague and decided it would be cool to become a micro­bi­o­lo­gist. So she set off on a search for a cure for can­cer. It turned out, though, that the intric­ate exam­in­a­tion of patho­gens and bugs is not as glam­or­ous as she’d hoped: “It’s no fun com­ing back from lunch to find out you’re on the fae­ces desk.”

That seems like a pretty good place to leave it.

Steve Joll

Steve works as part of the breakfast show on wellington's The Breeze radio station. In past lives he's been a sports journalist for ONE News, a presenter on iconic children's show What Now and one heck of a forecourt attendant. He has three kids: a talkative son (Theo), aged six, and twin daughters (Margaux and Lila), aged three. He adores them and yet is counting down the days until they leave home. It seems a long way off.

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