How to tell if it will snow or not!


Satellite image from the University of Dundee, January 2010

Usually I end up writing my ‘In Defence of Meteorologists’ posts after negative incidents – namely, when people complain about them failing to have performed their duty as magical future-telling wizards with 100% accuracy…

But this time I’m writing it following a happy incident. It’s snowed in the UK, yes, snowed, in November, and a lot of people are pretty pleased about this, because who doesn’t love snow? However, the inevitable response is actually pretty dismissive of the entire field of meteorology as a result, and it goes something like this: ‘I can’t believe they *actually* got something right for once!’

It seems that even when a good thing happens, meteorologists are still sidelined. What would it take for people to treat the utterly impressive work they do with any kind of respect? I see others rise to defend other areas of public service, such as the NHS, when somebody has had a bad experience and insists on tarring the whole service with that brush, but I don’t see as much of this in meteorology, and it’s probably because people don’t have as much of a personal connection with the field, nor enough knowledge. So, my intent is to change that.

Weather forecasting systems are the supercomputers of our time – they deal with more variables than anything else, with greater levels of uncertainty even than the most tricky field of insurance, and they are awe-inspiring bits of tech. I mean, check out the Cray High-Performance Supercomputer plans that are taking up a huge portion of the Met Office’s investments at the moment.


Here’s an existing Cray supercomputer in the ECMWF offices

The fact that in this day and age we have any kind of way to predict the future at all is stunning. And let me make a distinction – it’s not actually ‘prediction’ – it is ‘forecasting based on probabilities’, because actually knowing what’s going to happen in the future is impossible.

Why is it impossible? You might think that, provided we had all the correct equations ready and all the possible variables of the earth-atmosphere system input into a machine, that we would be able to solve for all future configurations of that data?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. See, especially when it comes to fluid dynamics, there are some non-linear equations, such as the Navier-Stokes equation, with are unsolved in certain areas and this is a pure mathematics problem. Despite the issues with turbulence and flow interactions, however, the weather forecasting services still manage to make truly impressive efforts. And in the future, who knows? In fifty years I imagine we will have advanced even further, and I look forward to returning to this article when that happens, to compare how much better things have gotten. Endless possibilities!

There is much misconception about weather forecasting because of the sheer number of illegitimate reporting being done. The Daily Express is well noted for this, for instance, and other news outlets have been known to issue scaremongering reports rather than reasoned and interesting reports on the actual science being done, which is a shame, because it means that when the Met Office releases something with scientific legitimacy, it is often overload for the non-scientific layperson, who ends up classing it ALL as bogus.

Here’s some starter info from the Met Office on how snow forecasting works. But in addition, I would urge everyone to learn to read synoptic charts (the lovely surface pressure charts with all the cool lines and stuff going on over them). If you do this, it would be well worth your while and allow you to have a clearer idea of what weather forecasters are talking about. Synoptic charts are beautiful, and once you understand thickness lines, you yourself can more accurately understand whether reports of snow are likely to result in actual snow or not.

Met Office synoptic chart for Sunday 22nd November

Look for the dotted lines. They will be either blue or red (note – these are not the lines with the blue spikes or the red semicircles – these are much smaller, thinner dotted lines that may not be apparent on first glance). These lines don’t show up on every graph. If and when you find them. then look for the tiny number reading around this. These numbers tell you what the air pressure is at the top of the air column. In general if it’s above 528millibars, it means you’re probably on a warm patch of air (because warm air rises). If it’s below, you’re likely to get snow (and remember, likely does not equal inevitable). So, based on the above chart:


This means it’s likely that the part of the world that I live in is likely to experience the snow that those in the UK are experiencing today (since the air mass is moving from west to east). And remember too that thickness lines are one thing, but to get snow you also have to have the right temperature range and the right amount of moist polar sea air coming in.

Thickness lines are a complicated subject. But you can gain a lot just from looking at the areas of highs and lows. In general, areas of Low pressure bring cyclonic weather, where air converges and rises. This is responsible for the tropical thunderstorms around the Equator, and also for the cold and wet batterings the UK gets from the North Atlantic. Areas of High pressure bring cloudless summer weather to the UK, but they also can bring ‘Siberian’ weather in the winter. Cold, dry and icy. Almost the whole inner area of Antarctica, for example, is a constant area of high pressure, and it is the driest place on earth (yes, even drier than the Sahara – it is officially classed as a desert).

So just knowing a.) what season it is and b.) what kind of pressure zone you have overhead can go a long way in aiding you with knowing what sort of weather to expect. Then there’s knowing where the prevailing weather fronts and air masses are currently sweeping in from. Knowing this gives you a real sense of connecting with the complicated and chaotic earth-atmosphere system once you get into it!

On a related note, the UK has a very interesting convergent trough approaching this noon (check out the flecked black line over Cornwall and South Wales – this is cool because usually the circular centres of lows are convergent, so having a convergent line is extra awesome):


I hope more people get interested in the cool charts available (for free!) from reputable weather agencies. NOAA – the American Oceans and Atmosphere Administration – is also excellent for this, as is the ECMWF – the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, based in Reading.

And if you’re not already using the free Met Office app, you really should have it on your smartphone at all times. It’s great – not only does it give you UK weather forecasts and world forecasts, it also provides synoptic charts (aka surface pressure charts) and satellite data of cloud coverage, temperature readings and rain cover.

Another thing that complicates our weather research is government policy. The Met Office currently gets £117 million to run its service every year. It’s peanuts compared to many other services, such as the NHS (£115 billion), and even the Church of England (£170 million). That’s right. The government spends more money each year on the upkeep of old Church of England buildings than it does on the Public Weather Service… And to make matters worse, because of budget cuts, the BBC has dropped the Met Office’s contract starting next year. The mere fact that they’re opting for an even cheaper service signals the importance of ‘money savings’ over rigorous science, and that is a real shame.

Imagine if, instead of wasting energy dissing meteorologists, people with platforms spent that energy exploring the actual state of the tech, the actual state of the field of weather forecasting? We would surely all become more knowledgeable, more aware, and maybe even lead to more improvements in the field! That sounds like a much better use of time to me.

Hitting the wall

I’m fifteen days into NaNoWriMo, and have written twenty one thousand words. That’s a world record for me, although I won’t hide that I’m jealous of people who have already broken fifty thousand.

Yes, I am a little bit behind target, but I’ve had a rather demoralising experience. Not because of any incidents in real life (although in all fairness, it has been a saddening and depressing week for many of my friends), but because I have hit what long distance runners call The Wall.

It’s a little different from writer’s block, which can happen to anyone, anywhere, any time. It specifically happens at, or around, the halfway point of a predefined venture. In this case, it’s the end of the second week of NaNoWriMo, the point where I should have written around twenty five thousand words. I’m four thousand behind. I’ve had an almost completely stagnant four days in which under twenty words, cumulatively, were written. I gave up trying yesterday and replayed the entirety of Sonic Adventure 2, surpassing the final boss battle that had eluded me since I was fourteen. I do think there’s a benefit to giving in those moments, and distracting yourself with something completely ridiculous, whether it’s getting out the house for the day or just slobbing around eating pizza and playing videogames. I think I got most of it out my system, because today I’ve started writing again, and have another couple of thousand under my belt. Hopefully this means I’ll be back on track, and I hope my friends taking part in this writing challenge overcome their personal walls too.

It has been a very emotional week, and I know it’s a combination of personal relationships, terrible health, wider world events and my own internal landscape. I’m not writing about very healthy or fun topics, and this world I construct in my head does colour everything I do in reality, even if only a little. It’s made me want to fall back on some very old habits, and I’m glad that for the most part I turned to playing Sonic instead. From this I could postulate that Sonic is the cure for hitting the wall, and yeah, I’m happy with that.



November begins

And so does my writing. For the remainder of this month, I will be partaking in NaNoWriMo, and for the first time in years. I’m feeling more enthused than usual about this, largely because of my writing network having expanded – I am now in touch with a lot of writers who are serious about what they’re doing, and it lends me a lot of motivation to take myself as seriously as I wish to become.

So this month I’m using to finish up Trees in November and City of Dis. It’s the perfect month, as both those stories are terribly depressing. November’s good for that. I’m only about 20k into Trees, but am much further into City of Dis, so that’s coming first. If I can get first drafts for both by the end of the month, it would be fantastic!

After Sunday I’m already off to a good start with 4k in the bag, bringing City of Dis to a total of 60k words – almost enough for a first novel – and I’m especially happy that I’ve tackled some tricky scenes from the point of view of a rather unpleasant character. I’ve had real trouble trying to connect and make that character sound natural, because there’s so little in the way he thinks that I can emulate genuinely. But last night I got some great scenes down (well, I say ‘great’, but the truth of that will become apparent in the later editing…). I’m feeling positive about tonight’s writing. With a bit of focus and application, I might actually beat this year’s NaNo challenge!

If anyone’s on the NaNo site, why not add me? My author page

Of Monsters and Men

While watching the official trailer for Marvel’s upcoming series Jessica Jones, I discovered a new band named Of Monsters and Men. They’re an Icelandic chamber pop group, and they sound ethereal, chill, and peaceful in the sort of way that you might feel yourself before a storm breaks. The song of theirs used in the Jessica Jones trailer is called Thousand Eyes and is fantastic.

A pretty fitting song for Halloween too. The lyric video is particularly odd, but interesting.

Can you change the world?

That’s a tall order contained in that question, but it’s something that everyone’s thought about at some point or another. The realisation that you don’t have to settle for being a bystander, that you can do something that will affect the world, is a potent one, and one that forms the basis of most great stories.

On a literal and slightly pedantic level, we are changing the world in minuscule ways every time we buy a coffee or walk past somebody. Those small changes we make – how hard we push past somebody, whether we roll our eyes or look interested when someone talks to us, how much we tip a waiter or waitress – can affect others in small ways that, like sand grains, contribute towards the bigger changes. But that seems obvious – we can’t exist in the world without interacting with it, and even the decision to not interact has implications. So what about the bigger picture?

There’s a story I’ve been wanting to write since I was fourteen. It’s a big undertaking, so it won’t surface for a good few years yet. But the route those characters take ends up with them affecting their world in a big way. And, like most people I’ve met in most jobs and most places in the world I’ve been to, they never set out with that end goal in mind. They sort of stumbled in to it, then tried to make the best they could of it as they discovered more about themselves and the values they hold dear.

I hold my characters up on the road ahead of me when I’m uncertain. When I’m feeling despair – as in the previous blog entry – those moments eventually pass and my mind starts searching for reasons to continue, for motivation, for promise that I can potentially do something about the things that make me sad. So I put the characters from this future story up there and I say, ‘They aren’t particularly special. They lucked out in a few ways, they ended up with some privileges and some misfortunes, but most importantly, along the way, they noticed something was wrong. They noticed people were getting hurt and they tried to do something about it. They had no idea what they were capable of, but they tried anyway.’

And if only I can catch up to them on the road. I can see them up there, not heroes but just people, and it’s comforting. It feels like there’s hope there. I sometimes wonder if this is why I write – so that the dark feelings of the previous blog entry are not all there is – both for me and for anyone else who might have felt similar dips in their outlook. I have to try anyway.

Last night I walked under the trees by the harbour, and golden leaves showered over my head in the breeze. It felt like being on that path. I wanted to share that with others.


One Place Left in the World / Optimistic Pessimism

I saved this one from a few days ago, because it’s not good to publish when you’re in a depressive episode. But I think it’s important, as a thought, a concept, one way of looking at the world – one side of a many-sided die. 


Let me preface this by saying that I probably shouldn’t write during a depressive episode, but I would like to get some thoughts out my head. It might help, or something like that.

I like how hopeful Peter Garrett sounds when he sings the lyrics of Antarctica. 

“There must be one place left in the world
Where the skin says it can breathe
There’s gotta be one place left in the world
It’s a solitude of distance and relief.”

It’s something to believe in, even if it doesn’t exist. And today is one of those days where I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m bemused sometimes when I read social commentary these days, particularly around safe spaces and the decrying thereof. Safe spaces have never existed, and they never will. People are too cruel, and that is the honest truth. When have I ever had a safe place to run to?

Never. Not even in my own head, because even if I make imaginary havens, memories still have the power to rush in there, to find me in the dark of my subconscious where I have no control and no way to repress.

Safety is a lie. So it’s funny to see people talking as though it’s something people get too much of. As if it’s something people even get at all. I’ve never been safe, despite the best efforts of those who love me. And I’ve long since given up thinking I ever will be. Like that’s going to happen. I don’t think I deserve anything. It doesn’t matter. We’re not important. Every time an attempt will rise to create safety, the counterbalance will fall and it will be reset. It’s a Sisyphean struggle, and more than a little pointless.

In a way, it was easier getting over things when I was thirteen. Outside of the expected fallout of superficial verbal abuse, I only had to deal with the in-depth cross-analysis from my own brain. I had no way of knowing what another person truly thought without a good few hours of deep conversation. I had limited access to newspapers. And so, I could hold the delusion of the world outside my immediate situation being ultimately a supportive place.

But I think I am grateful, now that I know more. It’s better than not knowing, because life would be shit if you kept moving forward only to have your hopes dashed each time. I’d rather move forward with more certainty. So, some things to remember: Everything is hostile. Don’t expect anything from anyone. Assuming kindness will only make it hurt worse. Assume it’s all terrible, and you might get the odd nice surprise (but don’t hold out for it). Optimistic pessimism. It’s not safe, but nothing is, and it’s better than hope. It might even keep me alive longer too, because apparently that’s a thing people care about.

And yet, I’ll still listen to those songs, because make-believe is nice to indulge in.

A rejection and a promise.

A while back I entered the MsLexia First Novel competition for the first time. I’ve known about this competition for years, but never bucked up to do it. And it was a real heart-sinking feeling to get the rejection letter, because I had been feeling incredibly confident about entering City of Dis.

But every cloud is not without a silver lining, and I did get a nice rejection letter with a view of overall trends in this year’s submissions, which is useful if only for the fact that it makes it easier to forecast what kind of approach I should take towards future submission cover letters and the like. In addition, there were some nice comments about the quality of writing in the genre I wrote (dystopian) although I’m worried they may have mistaken my first 5000 words for YA, which the novel is not, as the content is far too adult in nature.

So: I’m checking off the bonus points for writing quality, and the bonus points for starting the dystopian adventure straight in the middle of the action, which the judges seemed to like.

I am interested to see who won the competition, as it would be good to compare their work with my own and see what I can learn from it.

And regarding MsLexia itself, it’s the first rejection that’s left me feeling this positive. I’m potentially going to be subscribing to the magazine as it seems to be a good place to nurture confidence.

My current peak of confidence might just be a case of good timing, however. I’m feeling stronger than usual after letting a friend read the first chapter last weekend. Her review was positive, and she wants to read more. So I just have to keep trucking, and will be using NaNoWriMo as a creative space to get some serious editing done.

Forty eight hours with only half the truth told.

I’ve got stories to finish but the motivation is not there. It’s nice that people say I’m good at stuff, but last weekend my motivation was stolen by a ghost.

Isn’t it sad that old friends hold the power to rewrite your history when they talk to others? Isn’t it sad that those others actually believe it and take it as truth? The truth those others now hold in their heads is a half-light in late autumn; a mirage, and it’s cold. I want to reclaim that truth but I feel I’d just be screaming into a void. At the same time I just don’t want to be a fast-track route for people who once acted horribly to get to feel better about themselves now. I have nothing more to give.

Isn’t it sad that people think ‘being the better person’ is more important than being healthy and getting on with your life? I was so close to being healthy again. There’s people I don’t want to talk to any more and that should be respected. Just like who I have sex with, it’s my choice.

That never maps out to reality though. I mean, in the past, sex has not always been my choice either. And this leads to one final fact. If enough things are forced upon you and enough people keep saying I should forgive, forgive, forgive, it grates enough I want to leave everyone behind.

There’s his voice in the back of my head that says just let it happen. let them tear the skin. let them rip it from you. you’re not important; they are. let them take all your gifts and then take more. will they feel sad if they destroy you? that doesn’t matter – just let them, just let them. it’s easier this way, let them have it. I hate his voice, despite the fact that he saved me many times before, and I want to shut everything out.

The saddest thing of all is, I know of people close to me who have spent years, even decades, trying to get away from unhealthy people, and even when they manage it, start new lives, gain self-esteem again, they get followed by these people who won’t take no for an answer. I don’t want to get to my fifties and still be in this situation.  I wish it wasn’t happening to them. Closure is a bullshit concept and doesn’t taken into account their feelings.

Today, I don’t feel like eating is worth it (his voice is very commanding), but I will try to convince myself. I promise I’ll try. I don’t want to hurt anyone who cares about me.


All change! has undergone some changes recently. I’m trying out a nicer looking theme (admittedly, it’s one I cobbled together in a few hours last week but it’s still nicer than the last one) and while I got sidetracked by work, and by writing, I am going to finish up the rest of it soon.

I’ve been doing a lot more fiction writing these days, but that’s not to say I’m planning on stopping the scicomm stuff. The old articles will be back presently, and instead of dividing the domain up into subdomains and child blogs for each separate area, it will be divided up by page theming instead. I’ll have category browsing enabled, so you don’t have to catch the fiction-writing updates if you don’t want to!


On naïvety

Like many with anxiety, I sometimes worry that the people I know consider me to be too naïve, and too much so to take seriously. I hear it in the little things, the small judgemental phrases they utter, acerbic, to their friends, about certain behaviours or activities that they find naïve which happen to correlate with things I enjoy doing. I hear it in the absence of my own words as I am talked over for the umpteenth time.

Now I’m going to preface this by saying that the anxiety does, undoubtedly, play a large part in my feelings on this issue. Anyone else who has been deeply anxious will understand me when I say that my paranoia about this does not equate to me actually genuinely thinking people are talking about me. That’s the nature of paranoia; it twists beyond what your rational mind thinks. I think highly of those I call my friends, and I have enough common sense to not put too much stock in something a mere acquaintance might think. But still, the worry comes.

I have a tendency to get excited about things. I have a tendency to overuse exclamations in my speech. I err on the side of kindness. And I’m not very judgemental – I find it hard to make up my mind about something unless I’m fully informed on the issue, and in lieu of further information I tend to choose the option that is most considerate of other people (or indeed, of other living creatures full stop). Somehow all of these things combined make people think I’m somehow less intelligent, less worldly. Or, at least, in my mind it is a likely possibility that they think this way, a paranoia that strikes through to old childhood fears.

If it were true that people were currently thinking this, as others have in the past, it would make me a little sad because it would mean they only see the surface layer. I’m often overly-enthusiastic because I’m actually incredibly cynical. Yep, I’m a pessimist. But if I’m not changing things and making others excited, I’ll be exactly like all those things that made me cynical in the first place.

And further, it makes me worry that people are more concerned about appearing stern and cold than about doing the right thing (whatever the hell that is anyway, it’s all subjective, to an extent). Permeating through society there’s an idea of what makes a person wise and learned, just as there’s an idea of what makes a person naïve and innocent. If it wasn’t for these archetypes, people certainly would never have called me naïve in the past. Because I was talking about peace? Talking about reducing poverty? Stopping bullying? Anything with the suggestion of a silver fucking lining? I didn’t fit their model. Often people would interrupt me to tell me, in a harsher tone, the exact same thing I had been telling them.

Oddly enough, the times where I haven’t had the energy to be positive are the times when people seem to consider me incredibly worldly. This is worrying.

A couple of years ago I was writing a scene in which a character commits suicide. The feelings took me down somewhere burning white with emptiness, not a good place to be. But I was surrounded by friends when I wasn’t writing, and my saving grace from the blank terror was having the kind of bubbly personality that, I have since discovered, people love to take the mick out of. I had fun drinking with friends, and being sciencey types we soon turned the conversation to extinction events and natural disasters. Well, I got rather animated about this subject and was, to my complete surprise, shot down by an acquaintance, who told me I was ‘too happy about everything all the time, and was lucky to not understand what it was like to have suffered.’ It knocked me sideways, and it was no wonder after that that she had blocked out any possibility of me ever becoming close enough to confide in her about the dark things I was writing, or indeed about any real-world problems I was having. Needless to say, the rest of that suicide scene I was writing went fantastically.

I had another friend who also used to think bubbliness equated innocence, and she used to routinely not give any worth to my feelings. After she found my modelling photos, she had this thing she’d always say, which was ‘You’re far too innocent to do anything sexual,’ (and god, we were twenty two at the time). It didn’t really stop after that, and it was a very effective way to belittle me. Anyway, it turns out putting your own assumptions about someone on a higher pedestal than their feelings is not a sustainable way to maintain a relationship.

The bottom line is: it’s not a healthy idea to put so much stock in the idea of naïvety and its significantly cooler-sounding counterpart, hard-assed worldliness. More often than not it won’t match up to reality.

The other bottom line of course is that it’s really none of my concern what other people might think. For anyone with anxiety it seems like the kind of throwaway statement someone without anxiety might say. ‘If only I’d known it was as easy as just telling my brain not to be shit!’ I want to say sarcastically when I hear things like that. It’s incredibly difficult but ultimately I have to keep being ‘optimistic from my pessimism’ and keep on trucking despite the potholes.

And finally, I will say this for the writers: the above discussed is a great way to introduce realistic relationship dynamics between your characters!