pdf version: blog2
I have an admission to make: I’m a weather freak. I find the daily weather bulletin (dwb) as riveting a read as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and browsing through climate statistics as exciting as watching the IPL final. There was a time when watching the evening television weather forecast was the highlight of my day.
Since I’m a South African, this inevitably means I have found myself consulting data and forecasts provided by our met office, the South African Weather Service (SAWS). I remember the first time I was introduced to the internet (in 2001, I think), how excited I was to find the amount of climate and weather data that was available from their site. I have followed its development with keen interest. But the journey has not always been a smooth and pleasant one; recently the site has been regularly relaunched or updated, with increasingly elaborate graphical displays, but also more forecast locations, longer range and more detailed forecasts for more variables. While many others became increasingly irritated with a somewhat cumbersome interface (for those who did not visit the site quite as frequently as I do), displays that were difficult to read and forecasts that were more difficult to interpret than the straightforward output that had previously been available, being the data lover that I am, I remained supportive of the site and its evolution.
Until late last year, that is, when, in the aftermath of their latest upgrade, disillusionment began to set in. I remained patient for a long time while they claimed to be responding to people’s concerns and problems with the site, admittedly bringing back previously free features that they had made available to paying subscribers only. But the problems at SAWS are becoming all too painfully apparent on the site. Over the course of the past three years, my beloved dwb has become increasingly ridden with missing and highly suspicious data values. Missing data have also become increasingly common in daily, 10-day and monthly rainfall statistics. This appears to be a symptom of increasing neglect of surface data stations,which we will have to rely on for data to assess climate change trends and model accuracy. There has been a slow but marked trend towards fewer active, reporting weather stations in South Africa for a number of decades, but, from my limited exposure to their data, the trend seems to have accelerated alarmingly of late. And this while SAWS proudly proclaims on a banner on their website: “We calibrate our weather forecasts against 2400 weather stations in SA,” and “We use far more extensive observation and prediction infrastructure than any international source in SA.”
Not that humility is something that has been in particularly great supply from SAWS of late. For example, the site allows one to share free forecasts and images with one’s virtual buddies on social networking sites such as Facebook, where links appear with a thumbnail announcing “South Africa (sic) Weather from the official MET office. The ONLY accurate source of SA weather.” Further evidence that their confidence exceeds their grammatical competence is provided by a banner on their site proclaiming: “The highly skilled forecast team is made up of South Africans with insight into the local climate and prevalentweather (sic) conditions.”
All of which might have been forgiveable if they were at least producing publicly available, quality weather forecasts. Which they aren’t; certainly not on their website, at any rate. Perhaps the most significant problem is the astonishing inconsistencies in their forecasts: on one graphic they appear to predict sunny skies, on another rainfall, yet another indicates partly cloudy weather or fog. All for the same time and the same place. Sometimes the associated description is of yet another weather pattern altogether. The above example forecast and the activity log for a sunny week in Kimberley demonstrate this amply, I think (notice, for example, how the temperature forecast for 6am on the Monday is 6°C higher than the predicted minimum).
Not only are the website forecasts inconsistent – sometime, they are truly bizarre. Such as the icon corresponding to “cloudy and cold” looking suspiciously to me like sleet – something which comes across as somewhat out of place in a forecast for Clanwilliam in February, for example (even if the day might be cool and rainy).
Recently the site has also been upgraded to give free forecasts for 350 locations, which seems great on the face of it. Until you realise that many of the locations are either given exactly the same forecast as surrounding areas (try finding differences between the forecasts for Cape Town (City Bowl), Cape Town (Region) and Cape Town (Kirstenbosch)) and that some forecasts are strongly biased (the forecast for Vredendal is generally 4 -8°C lower than what the dwb reports the next day). I could continue to give many more examples, but I think the point is clear: somewhere along the line, something is very wrong.
The description from the forecast shown does note that it “will not coincide with [the forecasts for the] times [shown beneath it]” (which begs the question which one should be trusted). Experience has shown the description to be generally far more accurate than the tabled data. Suspecting that this perhaps indicates that the description comes from the actual forecast provided by meteorologists, which then becomes entangled and lost somewhere in the making of the included graphics, I decided to do some checking on who runs the site.
An innocuous disclaimer at the bottom of the SAWS home page states: “website operated by Weather Intelligence Systems.” A quick web search reveals that Weather Intelligence Systems (WIS) is a subsidiary of the FutureForesights Group, a company specialising in “business building,” and “bid development.” It proudly proclaims on its home page to have led MTN’s controversial Iranian mobile license bid and that they ” have built arguably the world’s most advanced telecommunications valuation model” which has been applied ” by more than 5 sugnificant (sic) operators.” More to the point, they also unashamedly state that WIS is “commercialising” SAWS and that it has “exclusive rights to the … amazing technical aptitude [of SAWS].”
I suspect many may beg to differ with the use of such flattering language in relation to SAWS, but the main point here is that the company exclusively responsible for SAWS’s sales and marketing services, and therefore intimately involved in the dissemination of most of their information, is not particularly concerned with providing reliable forecasts for average folk; or, for that matter, the collection and preservation of important meteorological data – they want the cash that only big industry can provide.
Whether other weather sites produce better forecasts is a question open to debate – I will reserve judgement until a rigorous comparative statistical analysis is conducted – but when it comes to South African weather and climate data, I have simply not been able to find any other comparable source of information (if anyone knows of some such a thing, please let me know!). Since SAWS is legally mandated to provide certain services to the South African public and as a result have numerous exclusive rights (such as for providing weather warnings), our nation remains dependent upon the functioning of the organisation – we can’t simply shift to using forecasts from other private providers.
In effect, the current combination of profit-centred privatisation with what appears to be an inefficient bureaucratic organisational structure could have potentially disastrous consequences for meteorological and climatological services and research in South Africa.