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How accurate are the Met Office’s predictions? A closer look at this winter’s forecast

  • 24 Feb 2014, 17:15
  • Roz Pidcock

Last week, the Daily Mail accused the Met Office of issuing a "pitiful" forecast in the run up to the period of exceptional flooding that engulfed the country.

With the Met Office defending its predictions, we take a closer look at how the Met Office makes weather forecasts, how reliable they are and what it predicted ahead of the recent stormy period.

Front page forecast

Climate change is featuring more in the national conversation as the media, politicians and commentators try to make sense of the recent weather. But no sooner were flood waters starting to retreat than accusations started flying over who or what is to blame.

On Friday last week, the Daily Mail launched a front-page attack on the UK's official weather provider, the Met Office, for what it called "the worst weather prediction since Michael Fish reassured the nation in October 1987 that there was no hurricane on the way".

The paper criticised the Met Office's forecast ahead of the recent stormy period between December and February. Rather than foretelling the exceptional weather, the Mail says the Met Office forecast predicted a "drier than normal" winter. The Mail article's headline reads:

"Could Met Office have been more wrong? Just before floods, report told councils: Winter will be 'drier than normal' - especially in West Country!"

The Independent and the Telegraph repeated the story. But on Friday, the Met Office suggested the papers had misinterpreted the forecast.

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Mail on Sunday falsely claims Met office scientists disagree on climate change link to recent UK weather

  • 18 Feb 2014, 11:40
  • Roz Pidcock

The Mail on Sunday has claimed two high profile Met Office scientists disagree with each other on what's behind the recent exceptional weather in the UK. But the scientists involved say the newspaper has got it wrong, and that "there is no disagreement."

This weekend, the Mail On Sunday ran an  article by climate skeptic journalist David Rose, entitled 'No, global warming did NOT cause the storms, says one of the Met Office's most senior experts'.

The piece quotes Professor Mat Collins, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter who is also affiliated with the Met Office. It suggests Collins disagrees with the Met Office's chief scientist, Dame Professor Julia Slingo, over the link between climate change and the recent wild weather. The piece says:

"One of the Met Office's most senior experts yesterday made a dramatic intervention in the climate change debate by insisting there is no link between the storms that have battered Britain and global warming … His statement appears to contradict Met Office chief scientist Dame Julia Slingo".

But yesterday, Collins and the Met Office issued a  joint statement dismissing the interpretation, saying "this is not the case and there is no disagreement."

A warmer, wetter world

Last week, Slingo spoke to journalists ahead of the launch of a Met Office  report, authored by her, into what's behind the recent exceptional weather in the UK. Her comments have been widely reported.

"In a nutshell, while there is no definitive answer for the current weather patterns that we have seen, all the evidence suggests that climate change has a role to play in it."

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There's little evidence that climate migration will lead to global conflict

  • 17 Feb 2014, 14:35
  • Guest blog from Alex Randall

Last Friday's Guardian carried a front page article by Lord Stern, author of the influential  Stern report on the economics of climate change, warning that climate change could cause migration that will lead to "conflict and war".

The main thrust of Stern's article is that extreme weather driven by climate change poses a threat to global society - what Stern calls "a pattern of global change that it would be very unwise to ignore."

The most recent  assessment of the climate science from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC) shows that we are now surer than ever that the planet is warming, and that this largely caused by our emissions. The IPCC has also concluded that  extreme weather events will get more frequent, more intense, or both in a warming world.

But Stern misses the mark when he talks about climate change, mass migration and war. It is true that there are important connections between climate change, the movement of people and security. But there is little evidence to support the second part of the Guardian headline - "Climate change is here now; it could lead to global conflict".

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Government ignores own evidence to promote shale gas push

  • 20 Jan 2014, 13:45
  • Mat Hope

The government claims that developing a UK shale gas industry could mean millions of pounds and thousands of jobs soon heading to a community near you. But a closer look at the evidence suggests the situation is not so clear cut.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, last week  told MPs he "really, really" wanted to get a UK shale gas industry up and running. He's certainly been busy promoting its prospects with some impressive numbers: The government claims communities could get a  £10 million financial reward for permitting fracking, with the industry supporting 74,000 jobs.

Critics have accused the government of  overstating shale gas's case, however. They point to the government's own research which suggests a considerably less bountiful future than the prime minister claims.

Community benefits

The government is keen to get the public on board with its fracking vision. To help things along, it is set to offer communities £100,000 for each shale gas well drilled in their area, along with 1 per cent of its subsequent revenue. The government says the deal could be worth  up to £10 million per site.

The  Daily Telegraph revealed the government's own research suggests the benefits could be considerably less than this, however. It says a government  report, researched by engineering consultancy AMEC, suggests the financial reward is likely to be between £2.4 to £4.8 million.

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Newsnight and the Daily Mail ponder the effect of low solar activity on the climate

  • 17 Jan 2014, 15:40
  • Roz Pidcock

Update - 20th January: The Daily Mail has  written up the story this weekend, covering some very similar ground. The main thing to remember is that scientists think the effect of lower solar activitity will be regional rather than global.

Colder winters in Europe aren't inconsistent with a world that's warming up on the whole. See  this guest blog post from Professor Mike Lockwood for a clear explanation of what scientists think is going on.

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Last night, BBC's Newsnight delved into a question that seems to fascinate the media. A six-minute report entitled "What's happening to our sun?" asked how much a drop in solar activity could affect the climate here on earth. The answer from scientists is very little.

We've written about this issue  many times. We recently had a  guest blog by Professor Mike Lockwood - solar scientist at the University of Reading - about the many myths, misconceptions and misnomers about the sun's influence on climate.

It's well worth a read. But here's a summary of the key points.

A declining sun

Back in the 17th century, the sun went through a period of prolonged low activity, called the Maunder Minimum. This coincided with the beginning of what's become known colloquially as the Little Ice Age, when parts of the northern hemisphere cooled by as much as two degrees Celsius. (Incidentally, read Mike Lockwood's  blog for an explanation of why it wasn't a 'Little Ice Age" at all.)

Scientists think the next low point in solar activity could be low enough to rival the Maunder Minimum, which often leads to the question of whether we could see a return to freezing conditions. In the Newsnight report, Rebecca Morelle asks:

"Does a decline in solar activity mean plunging temperatures for decades to come?"

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Cameron "gets the balance about right" on climate change and extreme weather

  • 10 Jan 2014, 15:05
  • Roz Pidcock

With the very worst impacts of the recent storms beginning to tail off, Prime Minister David Cameron waded into the media debate this week by appearing to connect the dots between climate change and recent "abnormal" weather.

Some newspapers suggested Cameron's comments aren't backed by the facts, but a close look at what he said shows his comments to be uncontroversial, scientists say.

Stormy weather

The heavy storms hitting Britain in recent weeks attracted a lot of media coverage. Some   commented on potential links with climate change, but most left the topic well alone, and one or two flatly  dismissed the idea of a connection between the weather the UK is experiencing and any wider climate change.

During Wednesday's Prime Minister's questions, Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron suggested the recent weather in the UK was a "destructive and inevitable consequence, at least in part, of climate change". Asked whether he agreed, David Cameron replied:

"I agree with you that we are seeing more abnormal weather events. Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that is linked to climate change or not. I very much suspect that it is."

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Labour's £4 billion energy price rip-off claim: Investigating the data

  • 03 Jan 2014, 14:35
  • Mat Hope

Credit: EdinburghGreens

It may be a new year, but the energy debate has picked up where it left off in 2013. Yesterday, the Labour party accused the 'big six' energy companies of overcharging their customers by a total of  £4 billion.

Labour's announcement was met with consternation by the energy industry, however. Industry group, Energy UK, says companies pay "the most competitive price they can" for electricity, and the party's numbers don't paint  a "true picture" of the cost of energy. But market regulator, Ofgem, says it  can't scrutinise Labour's claims because it doesn't have  access to data companies say is too commercially sensitive to share.

So how did Labour conclude households are being ripped off? We delve into its data to try and shed some light on a notoriously opaque issue.

Breaking down the £4 billion

Labour says the big six energy companies are paying considerably more for electricity than their smaller competitors, and passing that cost on to consumers.

The party backs this up by comparing the wholesale cost of electricity - which the big six pay to generators before selling on to households - with the price small suppliers pay. As the wholesale cost of electricity makes up about  60 per cent of an average household's bill, it's important that suppliers are getting the best deal they can.

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Fracking the UK won’t reduce emissions, government report says

  • 18 Dec 2013, 14:20
  • Mat Hope

Is the UK on the verge of a domestic oil and gas boom? Newspapers are excited about the prospect following the release of a new government report. But while the government is keen it's still unclear how much onshore oil and gas the UK has, and what impact it could have on the UK's emissions.

Yesterday, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published  plans to open up large parts of the UK to oil and gas exploration. That includes exploring for shale gas, which is extracted through a controversial process known as fracking.

The report claimed the UK could soon have as many as 120 frack pads scattered across the country - with some significant social and environmental impacts.

Impacts

The government maintains shale gas could be a significant part of the UK's energy mix in the future. But while the British Geological Survey has identified potentially large resources in the north of the country, it's still uncertain how much companies will be able to access.

The government's new report considers two scenarios: 'low' and 'high' activity. In the former, only 50 licenses are expected to be granted. But the government hopes that by offering to open up a large portion of the country, demand will be much higher - 150 licenses.

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Could burning coal under the sea provide 200 years of ‘clean’ energy?

  • 16 Dec 2013, 15:45
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Department of Energy

The government claims it's on a mission to clean up the UK's energy system. You could be forgiven for thinking that means an end to coal power - the most polluting energy source of all. But, thanks to new technology, the government hopes there's a new, 'clean' way to keep using coal.

Writing in the  Telegraph this weekend, Algy Cluff, chief executive of energy company Cluff Natural Resources, says 'underground coal gasification' could "provide a vital energy solution and produce abundant and cheap gas for generations". The prospect has piqued the government's interest, and energy minister Michael Fallon has  established a working group to explore its feasibility.

But is it too good to be true?

What is underground coal gasification?

Underground coal gasification (UCG) involves drilling down into coal - normally deep underground - then igniting it. The resulting gas then runs up another borehole and is collected on the surface, as the diagram below shows:

 

underground coal gasification diagram

Once the gas is collected, companies can use it to run power stations, or convert it into transport fuel. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can be added, reducing the process' emissions, and making it relatively 'clean'.

As such, the government now sees the "exciting pot

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Could Arctic summers be sea ice-free in three years’ time?

  • 12 Dec 2013, 12:41
  • Roz Pidcock

Climate change is causing a long-term decline in Arctic sea ice, and scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to be largely ice-free in summer at some point this century.

But is that broad prediction too complacent? This week, the Guardian claimed scientists working for the US Navy believe summer sea ice could disappear as soon as 2016, based on the results of a sophisticated new computer model.

But having looked at the research, it turns out the 2016 prediction is from an older, simpler model, and isn't the US Navy prediction of what's going to happen in the Arctic. It's also much sooner than most polar scientists would suggest.

An ice-free prospect

Arctic sea ice is declining by nearly four per cent per decade, according to the  latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The loss is particularly noticeable at the end of summer, when the ice reaches a seasonal low.

Arctic _sea _ice _summer

Average extent of Arctic sea ice in summer (colours represent different datasets). Source: IPCC 5th Assessment Report,  Summary for Policymakers (p8)

The change has  wide-reaching consequences, so when it might happen is an important question.

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