A Change in The BBC Weather [Part 2]
Keith Hamer & Garry Smith continue the story of how the BBC Weather Forecast has changed over time
In Part 1 (RadioUser, November 2018: 20/1), we delved into the wider history of BBC radio and television weather forecasts and outlined some details of the advanced technologies in use today.
In this instalment, we are looking at some more aspects of the development of BBC weather prediction, such as the emerging satellite technologies, the structure and delivery of severe weather warnings, and a number of technical and spectrum-related issues.
Satellite Weather Forecasts
Examining ‘live’ pictures from a weather satellite such as NOAA 19 (which transmits images on 137.10MHz) can be an additional resource, as well as a hobby in itself (Fig. 1). NOAA stands for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In this context, Kevin Hewitt (Chatham) comments that strong signals from pagers on 138.00MHz can be a nuisance. For this reason, Kevin uses a special UK version of the R2ZX receiver with additional filtering.
It should be noted that the NOAA satellites only pass overhead at certain times of the day, broadcasting Automatic Picture Transmission (APT) signals. Each satellite has a different FM frequency.
There are currently three satellites in operation; NOAA 15 (137.62MHz), NOAA 18 (137.9125MHz) and NOAA 19 (137.10MHz).
[The APT transmission format is likely to be used until 2023, after which time, analogue APT is slated to be replaced by the fully-digital Low-Rate Picture Transmission (LRPT) mode with 72,000 or 80,000 bps in Quadrature Phase Shift Keying (QPSK) – Ed.]
Despite the Met Office losing their £3-million contract with the BBC, the Corporation will still be able to ‘claw back’, as it were, some of their lost revenue, by charging the new provider for supplying weather data.
The replacement company, MeteoGroup, was expected to take over supplying meteorological data for television, radio, online and app services in spring 2017.
However, the BBC had to hurriedly extend the Met Office contract because MeteoGroup, according to the BBC, “failed to be ready in time”.
A later start date for MeteoGroup was thus set for March 2018 but (to use a phrase often used by weather forecasters when they make a mistake and try to blame the atmospheric conditions) “the weather was ahead of itself”. The new-look forecasts eventually took to the airwaves on BBC-1 at 1.30pm on Tuesday, February 6th, 2018 (Fig. 2).
Unfortunately, the new graphics were not to everyone’s taste. By the end of the week, the BBC had received complaints that the new, fresh, green look for the UK was harder to discern than the previous bleak, desert-style colour scheme. The country had changed shape too. Some viewers complained that they preferred the old portrayal of Scotland which previously appeared to be ‘squashed’, compared to the rest of the UK.
The new graphics show the British Isles looking ‘normal’, as one would expect to see on a map. Viewers also complained that the names of towns and cities were too large.
Strangely, no-one has yet complained about the lack of high and low-pressure values.
Severe Weather Warnings
Although MeteoGroup has now taken over the service, the BBC will continue to show all national severe weather warnings, as agreed with the Met Office, based at their £80-million headquarters near Exeter airport.
According to the BBC, MeteoGroup will provide a new and improved service. It was anticipated that the graphics used for the on-screen weather charts would change, and the BBC has often been quoted as saying, “we will provide audiences with the best possible service”.
Perhaps, it makes one muse on what the BBC thought that the Met Office had been providing for the past 95 years? In reality, the graphics don’t look at all new, apart from land masses being shown in green, instead of the previous, bizarre, ‘sandy-desert’ colour scheme.
Strangely, the original BBC colour scheme was green way back in 1969! The long-standing national weather forecasts on ITV, which are still produced by the Met Office, look remarkably similar to the ‘new, improved’ BBC graphics. It seems that MeteoGroup is following the same perverse notion that viewers lack intelligence because the values of ‘low’ and ‘high’ pressure systems are still not indicated.
Although MeteoGroup has taken over from the Met Office as the ‘new’ provider on the BBC, the weather forecasts have been freely available for some time as an ‘app’ for tablets and smartphones.
The huge upheaval has, apparently, all been brought about by the EU Directive on Public Service Contracts (2004/18/EC).
As a result, the BBC is obliged to put its contracts for weather services out to tender.
The tender documents were published some time ago on the EU’s Tender Electronic Documents (TED) website, although very few people spotted the changes.
The global General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) also forced the issue regarding tendering and payments. Accordingly, the tender was issued by the BBC.
Several organisations initially showed an interest including Metra (a commercial arm of the New Zealand Meteorological Office) and Meteo. The latter was originally launched by a Dutch weather presenter back in 1986, although the company is now based in London.
There are currently 14 BBC national weather presenters (plus a host of presenters in all BBC Regions). It appears that most of the familiar faces will still be appearing as usual.
Many might not know that presenters are, first and foremost, employed and paid by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), courtesy of the taxpayers. However, they receive an additional, undisclosed, payment for delivering forecasts supplied by MeteoGroup, on behalf of the BBC (namely, licence-fee payers).
Despite the potential squalls between the BBC, the Met Office and MeteoGroup, it seems that the time-honoured Shipping Forecast, at 00:48 every night on Radio 4, will continue to be supplied by the Met Office, on behalf of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency as normal, at least for the moment.
Therefore, lovers of the Shipping Forecast theme tune, Sailing By, composed by Ronald Binge (born in the authors’ hometown of Derby) can relax, irrespective of the fact that the weather might be Hurricane Force 12 in North Utsire or just Violent Storm 11 in South-East Iceland.
This theme tune has been played almost every evening since the late Sixties. For much of that time, one of the most popular BBC weathermen has been Michael Fish. Michael hung up his isobars and sun symbols on September 6th, 2004 (Fig. 3).
For many mariners, the most popular type of radio communication is SSB (Single Side Band). The range of SSB signals is easily up to several thousand miles; calls are free, giving sailors the opportunity to receive the latest weather bulletins from certain coastguard stations.
Many marine SSB transceivers (such as the Icom M801E and M802 models) offer the digital selective calling (DSC) mode. This permits the sending and receiving of distress calls and also keeping in contact with other sailors if there is any stormy weather ahead.
High-Frequency (HF) radio operates in the 3 to 30 MHz spectrum, which lies between medium wave (MW) and VHF radio. HF radio waves can be refracted within the Ionosphere, resulting in mariners being able to communicate about weather conditions over hundreds, or even thousands, of miles.
Under normal conditions, and as a general rule, signals during the daytime travel roughly 100nm (nautical miles) per MHz. The chart below (Table 1) indicates some typical distances for MW and HF transmissions.
One nautical mile is equivalent to 1.851605km or 1.15078 statute miles.
[see the further reading suggestions in Part 1 of this article, in RadioUser, November 2018: 21 – Ed.].
Table 1: Propagation Distances for MW and HF Transmissions.
This article was featured in the December 2018 issue of Radio User