Why is our weather so changeable?

‘Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning…’

Thankfully, the days when we had to rely on the morning sky or checking to see whether nearby cows were lying down for our weather predictions are long gone. But working out what the weather’s going to do next still isn’t easy.

Before computers were invented, forecasters used past records to identify patterns to determine what the weather was likely to do next. Slightly more accurate predictions could be made using mathematical models calculated by hand, but it could take six weeks to produce a six-hour forecast.

But when affordable technology became available, the business of predicting the weather changed forever. Complicated equations could be completed in seconds rather than weeks. And thanks to improvements in technology, forecasters are getting better and better at working out what the weather is going to do next.

We asked Dr Catherine Muller of the Royal Meteorological Society (rmets.org) to tell us a bit more about why British weather is so unpredictable and how technology is helping forecasters like her make more accurate predictions.

Why is the weather so changeable in the UK?

In the UK, the weather can change hour by hour and day by day. We’re an island surrounded by a large body of water to the west, with a large continent to the south and east. That means we’re influenced by five competing air masses – from cold polar air from the north to warmer air from the Tropics - and each air mass brings different types of weather to the UK. Where air masses meet, a weather front forms, and they battle to determine our weather.

Does predicting the weather get easier as technology gets better?

Today, thanks to computers, the three-day weather forecast for the UK is as good as the one-day forecast was 20 years ago – so advances in technology means things are certainly improving. It’s mainly thanks to more powerful computers, a better understanding of the physics of the atmosphere and improved forecasting models. However, forecasts will never be 100% perfect.

So is it getting easier to predict patterns even further into the future?

A five-day forecast is now fairly reliable, unlike a two-week forecast. But when we’re talking about long-term climate, rather than longer-term weather, we’re able to use computer models to explore how our global and regional climates are likely to change – and this allows us to predict long-term patterns.

Are there parts of the country that experience unusual weather even for the UK?

There are lots of places that experience ‘microclimates’. For example, the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall are protected by a valley, and contain camellias and tree ferns, both of which are normally found in the heat and humidity of subtropical climates.

Finally, should we ignore all those old wives’ tales we hear about the weather?

There are lots of pieces of folklore that aren’t true – for example, ‘cows lie down when it’s about to rain’ (no scientific backing) or, ‘it’s too cold to snow’ (it’s unlikely the UK would reach a temperature cold enough to influence whether it will snow). Some can be true to a degree, though. For example, ‘Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning’ - a red sky in the morning can imply that the sun, which rises in the east, is illuminating clouds in the western sky, indicating that a weather system and poor weather is on its way.

It’s impossible to get the weather right every time. But you can make sure your home is always the right temperature for you, and save energy at the same time. First Utility offer a range of energy plans not only to suit your budget but also your lifestyle, with extras that range from smart thermostats to wine. Our energy plans change from month to month, so be sure to check our site frequently.

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