Interview with Gerald Fleming
Head of Forecasting, Met Éireann
When and why did you decide to become a meteorologist? Was there any one specific event that prompted your interest in the weather?
I studied Experimental Physics in UCD; first a B.Sc. then an M.Sc. When I qualified in 1980 the country was probably in a worse state than it is now – the priority was to get a job! The well-trodden paths from Physics were into the Met Service or into the P&T (now Eircom). I applied for a job with the Met Service, was surprised to be offered it, and am even more surprised to find myself still here 30 years later!! So, I’m afraid that my interest in the weather was not the result of some lofty vocation, but of the very mundane need to find employment.
Was weather your first career choice? If you had not become a meteorologist, what other career would you have chosen?
I was actually very interested in pursuing a career in Medical Physics. My M.Sc. work was in the measurement of naturally-occurring radiation, and I had gained some expertise in the measurement of radioactivity. Maybe I’ll go back to it when this whole weather thing blows over!
What is your earliest weather memory?
I remember making a snowman in the garden during the winter of 1962/1963.
What are your five most memorable weather events?
The severe thunderstorms over Dublin in July 1985 are a very spectacular memory. I was working on the night shift and went up on the roof of the Glasnevin building to see the lightning display. The Dublin snow of 1982 was remarkable for a number of reasons – not least that it fell on my first day at work in the Dublin Airport forecast office - I had just been transferred there from Shannon! The great storm in January 1990 killed about 14 people in Ireland, if my memory serves me correctly, despite the fact that it had been accurately forecast from four or five days previously. Not so well forecast was the torrential rain that spoiled the August Bank Holiday weekend across the south of Ireland in 1997. A beautiful weekend was forecast for the whole country; Donegal enjoyed just that but an east-west weather system pushed up over the southern half of Ireland and spoiled the weekend for many. Not a weather event but memorable nonetheless was the small earthquake experienced along the east coast in 1984. I was working in Glasnevin at that stage, and distinctly felt the tremor as the metal press behind me rattled. My colleague, Michael Cleary, was at that moment delivering the 07.55 forecast on RTÉ. I often joked with him afterwards that he was the only weather forecaster that could truly make the earth move!!
If you had a weather machine, that could control the weather in Ireland for one day of the year, what synoptic pattern would you choose and why?
I like a well-established summer anticyclone anchored to the west of Ireland and directing a gentle north-west breeze down over the country. Nice dry air and not too hot.
Do you find predicting the weather patterns in and around Ireland a challenge?
Every weather forecaster working in Ireland is greatly challenged by the huge variation in weather we experience and the rapid changes that can occur.
What part of Ireland do you consider to have the best climate?
Wexford of course, the sunny south east. Not just a marketing slogan but climatologically correct. It’s not the driest place (Dublin is the driest) nor the warmest (Cork/Kerry on average) but in our damp climate getting 1600 -1700 hours of sunshine is enough to get my vote. No extremes of heat, though. Of all the weather stations in Ireland the one with the lowest maximum recorded temperature is Rosslare.
What part of Ireland do you consider to have the worst climate?
I think I would find living in the west of Cavan or inland Leitrim (dull, wet, cold) rather challenging.
Do you enjoy extreme weather events?
I don’t necessarily enjoy getting wet or feeling cold any more than the next person but of course there is a strong professional interest in any weather extremity.
What is your favourite weather type?
A vigorous Atlantic storm rolling in from the west. These big storms have a grandeur and terrible beauty – they are a reminder of the tremendous power of nature and of the relatively puny nature of mankind.
Weather forecasters are sometimes said to only be as good as their last prediction. What forecast are you most proud of?
I don’t know if I could pick out one forecast. I am proud of the continuous, high-quality service provided by myself and my colleagues at the Forecast Office.
What was your least accurate forecast?
Plenty of forecasts have gone awry over the years. I remember back in the 1980s forecasting some rain and sleet on a winter’s morning with the temperatures at about 2 degrees Celsius. After the night shift, I went home, had some breakfast and turned on the radio for a few minutes before going to bed. A woman from Naas had phoned in to Gay Byrne to say it was snowing heavily there. I don’t think I got a good day’s sleep!
Do you still get nervous before doing a public broadcast?
A little nervous beforehand, but the nerves disappear once I get going.
Can you ever envisage meteorology becoming a precise science?
No. The stochastic or probabilistic nature of many of the atmospheric processes will never allow complete precision in meteorology.
In addition to your own knowledge and experience, which NWP models do you use when writing a forecast? And which model do you view as being superior?
We use the HIRLAM (out to 48 hours) and the ECMWF models as primary guidance in the Glasnevin office, though we usually consult the UKMO model and occasionally the German and the GFS models. HIRLAM has become very reliable and can accurately pick out some surprisingly small features. The ECMWF model is superb and will rarely lead you astray. If I had to live with one model for guidance, it would be the ECMWF model.
Rate your obsession with the weather out of 10.
About 7. I am happy to get completely away from weather matters on holiday etc.
What is your all time favourite song/singer/band?
I am fairly wide-ranging in my musical tastes – everything from opera to U2. No one overarching favourite.
What is your favourite food? What is your speciality?
Italian food will rarely disappoint in my experience (that is, proper Italian food, not the sort that comes in jars or from pizzerias!). I do good Italian meatballs in Ragu. In summer, it is hard to beat a fresh salad, with a good strong garlic-infused dressing. Once you make your own salad dressing you will never buy the prepared type again – they are so thin and watery.
What is your all time favourite film?
Un Coeur en Hiver.
If you were to come back as an animal, what animal would it be?
Hopefully something calm, dignified and gentle, with a long life-span. Maybe a giraffe. Statistically, if we get reincarnated, most of us are likely to come back as beetles....
What is your favourite joke?
The same as that of one A. Einstein. A physicist hung an inverted horseshoe over the door of his laboratory, for luck. He explained to colleagues that, of course, he did not believe in these things, but he heard that they often worked even if you did not believe in them!
What is your personal philosophy?
Try to avoid doing harm, and, even in a small way, try to make the world a better place for those with whom I come into contact.
Can perpetual motion ever be achieved?
No. When Niels Bohr suggested, in attempting to solve a difficulty in quantum mechanics, that perhaps energy conservation did not hold at the sub-atomic level, Paul Dirac replied that he would prefer to retain the principle of Conservation of Energy even if it meant discarding the idea that atoms were composed of protons and electrons. Neither, of course, was necessary in the end to solve the problem in question. Conservation of energy/mass is absolute.
And finally, what is your all time favourite novel?
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.