Cloudy with a chance of confusion 8



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Last weekend the plan was to invite a few chums around for a BBQ which would allow me to demonstrate my culinary skills. It’s not Masterchef but it will do, especially given the sort of people I usually attract.

One needs to plan ahead for these things and I never fail to be surprised at how busy some very ordinary people are. Refusals come with reasons such as having to wash the hair or take the cat to the vet. Naturally, I consulted the Weather Bureau about what the weather would be like on the intended Big Day. Funnily enough, they couldn’t actually tell me what I wanted to know, yet I’m expected to believe the same lot when they grandly announce that the temperature will be one degree warmer in a century. As if I care.

I’m old enough by the way, to remember that back in the 1970s really important scientists were telling us that the planet was actually freezing, not warming.

Even the day before the Big Day, there was an unsettling uncertainty about what tomorrow might hold. The forecast was hedged about with weasel words like “likely” and “expected” and “anticipated”. What was certain was that there was no certainty. Frankly, weather forecasts on TV are complete waste of time in my opinion. We get either an earnest middle aged man or a bright, bubbly young lass standing in front of a map of our wide brown land which is covered with wriggly lines and what I think are representations of clouds.

Some wave around a stick like some demented orchestra conductor and babble on as if they know what they are saying about the southern oscillation index, synoptic charts, highs and lows, the variability index and all the rest. So off I went to the Bureau of Meteorology website and what a treasure trove of information it is. I did like the snappy and engaging declaration that, “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get”, although I got the feeling that they were presenting an alibi in advance for forecasting failures. They have a splendid glossary of terms used in the weather forecasting game starting with Advection (“The sideways movement of air in the lower atmosphere due to differences in air pressure”), to Zonal Flow which you can look up for yourself. Oh, and “differences in air pressure” is commonly known to the uninitiated as “wind”.

I just loved the section headed “Weather Words”. How could you not love this definition for example? “Drizzle: Fairly uniform precipitation composed exclusively of very small droplets (less that 0.5 mm in diameter) very close to one another”. What if some droplets are larger than the official description? Does drizzle then become rain? Not necessarily. Once again, go look it up; I’m providing the map here or should I say, the synoptic chart?

Under the “Sea and Swell” section there is a definition of “swell waves” which doesn’t mean really nice waves as our American cousins might think! Did you know that a low swell lasts less than eleven seconds? And that a short swell of moderate height lasts less than eight seconds? Funnily enough, a short heavy swell lasts exactly the same time so when you next take the family to the beach take along a stopwatch. It’s good clean family fun for all age groups and I predict it will take over from train-spotting and stamp collecting as the entertainment wave of the future.

The Apparent Temperature/Heat Index is “an adjustment to the ambient temperature based on the current humidity and wind speed, designed to be a measure of the discomfort caused to an appropriately dressed adult, walking outdoors in the shade by the current wind and humidity levels”. Later, I might run up and down our street “appropriately dressed” in a variety of different costumes from budgie smugglers to a heavy fur coat just to see if there is any difference in my discomfort level. Then again, perhaps I won’t. The neighbours have more than enough to talk about.

I was just a lad at the time but I remember that lots of work went into switching from the Fahrenheit scale to the Celsius scale and the nation embraced this innovation in September, 1972.  It was the only exciting thing that happened during the McMahon Government so we were all jolly lucky that the Whitlam came along in December.

And some of these new terms are quite preposterous. I mean “El Niño”, for example. When I was a boy it was a drought so why go all bloody multicultural about the weather? And “Tsunami” – why a Japanese word for what used to be plainly called a “Tidal Wave”? It’s not as if the Japanese invented big waves, although, to be fair, they have had more than their fair share of them.

Look, all I want is a weather forecast for next weekend that is rather more spot-on than spot-off. Is that too much to ask?

I don’t care what they do with their anemometers, barometers, hygrometers and thermometers and everything else they use but, please, just get it right.

Yes, I’m planning another BBQ.


Do you agree with Russell and have no idea what the forecasters are talking about? Should we just look outside?

Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. I always check the weather report and 9 times out of 10 it is wrong..meteorology is not exact science, there are to many variables

  2. I sometimes wonder if they can tell you what yesterday’s weather was, let alone tomorrows!

  3. The one that always amuses me is when they tell us the possibility of rain along with the likely amount … such as “a 20% likleyhood of rainfall, likely amount 0mm.
    Surely if the likely amount is zero then the possibility is also zero? … but the bureau doesn’t seem to understand that.

  4. I watch the BOM radar and have good success with it. I can see that a heavy downpour will be followed by a space of light rain and wait for that to go out.

  5. Lol! Just check with me! Absolutely sure fire that we will have a storm with hail and strong winds every time we have a Barbie! And it comes out of the blue, literally!

  6. I enjoyed your tongue-in-cheek approach, Russell. I must say, in a way, we in Tasmania are a bit better served than I often see on the mainland (relative to the middle-aged men and pretty little flibbertigibbets who point sticks at lame spermatozoa on what purports to be a synopsis). At least our ABC weather is provided by the meteorologist who prepares the report. I must admit, however, that the rain we are forever promised is yet to truly happen. Perhaps, then, we are no better served…

    1 REPLY
    • Hi John and thanks – I tend to think that the Weather Bureau is an equal opportunity disappointment wherever one lives!

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