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Met Office in big trouble

A blogger called Katabasis turns out to be the first person to get his hands on the Met Office's correspondence with the Cabinet Office - this was where the Met Office is alleged to have warned the government of a cold winter ahead.

As readers here learned the other day, this alleged warning was hard to construe as, well, a warning, but the correspondence that Katabasis has obtained shows that the situation is actually even worse. The line agreed between the Met Office and the Cabinet Office was that there was nothing clear in the forecast:

Someone at the Cabinet Office wrote to the Met Office to tell them what the official position would be: "The Met Office seasonal outlook for the period November to January is showing no clear signals for the winter". The Met Office writes back - "That is fine." - also note the first mail sent my the Met Office, these are their "initial thoughts" (!)

It seems clear that the public were lied to over this issue. But this is, of course, the public sector, so expect nobody to be responsible, especially not Mr Napier, the environmentalist who is in charge at the Met Office, nor Mr Hirst the chief executive, and glad receipient of a 25% pay rise last year.

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Reader Comments (30)

I put in FoIs to the Cabinet Office and the Met Office and received the information back on the 27th and 28th January respectively. I have emailed the details to my MP to ask him what the Government is doing about this blatant collusion between the Met Office and the BBC to lie to the public and to try to put the blame on the Government for both the total unpreparedness of the country to cope with the coldest December on record and for the enormous cost to the country, both financially and in terms of its reputation.

My MP is a LibDem member of the Government. Unfortunately the wheels of bureacracy turn slowly, so I don't hold my breath for a rapid resolution.

Jan 29, 2011 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Well, the Met Office was lying to save their own skin. Not pretty, but perhaps understandable.
But what about Mr Harrabin? He is supposed to be a journalist. What a disgrace!

Jan 29, 2011 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterJonas B1

Napier - Head Of Met Office. former wwf

Also part of the Green Fiscal Commision, ie Green taxation
and the Carbon disclosure project

Jan 29, 2011 at 10:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Your Grace: "It seems clear that the public were lied to over this issue."

At the risk of pedantry, I don't think it is 100% clear. Harrabin made the only public statement and he may well have believed what his Met Office informant told him. If so, then he wasn't lying (not that that fully absolves him as a reporter). As I recall the episode, the Met Office itself did not issue a formal statement, rather an unnamed Met Office source spoke to Harrabin [and, one must assume, asked Harrabin to protect their anonymity]. This individual may have lied to Harrabin, but, then again, if they were, say, a junior PR person, they may also have believed what they were telling him. The anonymity request ought to have rung alarm bells for Harrabin, of course. And the Met Office should have corrected the record as soon as Harrabin's words appeared in print.

I would rephrase your statement to say that "it seems clear that the public were deliberately misled about this issue."

A journalist's responsibility to protect the anonymity of a source ends when it is discovered that what the source said was untrue. So Harrabin should now disclose the identity of his source.

Jan 29, 2011 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterJane Coles

@Philip Bratby

Hi Philip, I also emailed my MP - on the 5th Jan - to ask him about this story. Specifically, I wrote:

Perhaps I can bring to your attention the unedifying scandal that the UK Met Office is now claiming through the BBC and MSM that, although they predicted a mild Winter for 2010/11, they actually privately informed the Cabinet Office in October that the self-same Winter would be vey cold.

I think you will agree with me that it is a dereliction of their duty to the public, who pay their £170M a year running costs, to issue two contrary forecasts. I would dearly like to know what your reaction is to this story and, furthermore, what you intend to do about it.

I'm still waiting for his response.....zzzzz

Jan 29, 2011 at 10:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterSnotrocket

I see this issue as disappearing in the same way as the Climategate inquiries; no particular individual has been clearly found guilty of wrong-doing, rather it is unnamed people inside large opaque organisations making decisions of the wrong kind.

But without a clear culprit, the story will lack legs, and the organisations concerned will weasel their way out again.

Jan 29, 2011 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Title: Fraud
Offence: Obtaining a Pecuniary Advantage by Deception
Legislation: Section 16 Theft Act 1968

Jan 29, 2011 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse


I didn't have Harrabin in mind here - I was thinking of the message that came out via Quarmby - that a warning had been issued.

Jan 29, 2011 at 11:03 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

When I read the Quarmby review's statement that the Met Office had advised them that the probability of severe winter is 1 in 20 and that severe winters are statistically independent (which would make the probability of three severe winters in a row 1/8000), I put in a FOI/EIR request to the Met Office, asking for:

* A copy of the communication to Dr Quarmby or to his colleagues in which this information (probability = 1-in-20, statistical independence) was provided.

* A copy of the Met Office internal report stating how this probability estimate was derived and giving an assessment of the evidence for statistical independence.

* A copy of the Met Office document in which this information was approved for release.

So far, their response has been pitiful:

- A couple of pages from a draft of the Quarmby review ( which by then already contained the 1/20, statistically independent statement), annotated with some changes to wording by Met Office staff.

- An email from a Met Office staff member to another, with a brief mention of some calculation "of changing odds" with a mention "odds of 1 in 20", but very far from anything like a report giving details of the derivation of the 1 in 20 probability provided to Quarmby. No mention whatever of how the information that severe winters can be considered statistically independent was derived.

- A statement that the release of the information (1/20, statistical independence) was approved verbally in various meetings and teleconferences but that no document recording its approval for release is held by the Met Office.

I replied to the Met Office that my requests have not been complied with and they say they are now looking into "my questions". Details on

Martin A

Jan 29, 2011 at 11:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

The Met Office said

Looking further ahead beyond this assessment there are some indications of an increased risk of a mild end to the winter season.

The Met Office seems to use "chance" and "risk" interchangeably. Now risk is the product of the probabilty of an event occurring and the adverse consequences of that event. I fail to see what adverse consequences there would be of a mild end to winter. Most people would welcome it (farmers, gardeners, anyone with fuel bills), perhaps owners of ski slopes in Scotland would not be so pleased, but they would be in a tiny minority and I doubt the Cabinet Office needs to be informed of this.

I think this is just another example of total Met Office incompetence.

Jan 29, 2011 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Martin A

I think those responses would be typical of the way the Met Office works. They obviously have no QA system controlling their output, no checking of statements, no use of evidence, and peer review does not figure in their lexicon.

Jan 29, 2011 at 1:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

It still beggers belief that £170M a year and with a computer worth £40M (ok thats what it cost, 2nd value is a lot less ;) ) the best forecast they can up with is not far from 3433/33 cold/normal/warm . Now this is from the same code that runs the AGW models, what faith can be put on the models now.

Jan 29, 2011 at 1:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterBreath of fresh air

I'm sorry, but in my world "deliberately misled" and "lied to" are synonomous.
No doubt in the world of PR and politics a tortuous case can be made for differentiating between the two which only proves the extent to which both professions treat the rest of humanity as ignorant proles who deserve no better than to be dealt with on the mushroom principle.
I expect my politicians to lie to me when to tell me the truth would put international relations or the security of my country at risk. I do not expect them to lie to cover their own backs, save face, or in other ways to use mendacity as a normal tool of government.
It used to be said of Nixon that lying was his default mode and that if he caught himself telling the truth he would tell a lie just to keep his hand in. I find it shameful (and a little creepy) that the UK government seems to take him as their mentor.

Jan 29, 2011 at 1:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterSam the Skeptic

May I draw your attention to the date of this e-mail exchange: October 25th 2010

At that time, there were already parts of Scotland covered in snow.
It is at least odd of the met Office to tell the Government that the coming winter will be normal, perhaps a bit colder, perhaps not ...

Is this really the best the Met Office can do, in view of the rather large amounts they get from us taxpayers?

Jan 29, 2011 at 1:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterViv Evans

Following through Katabasis' blog to the file referenced (, doesn't the Met Office's assessment clearly state that the most likely of the three outcomes presented (mild conditions, average conditions and cold conditions) is cold conditions, a third more likely than either of the other two outcomes individually (presuming they are mutually exclusive)? Cold conditions, being an average UK (presumably near-surface air) temperature 1.5 C colder than the long-term average, are not more likely than the other two combined, so the tone of the prepared statement, suggesting a lack of clarity and a 'slightly increased risk' for a cold winter doesn't seem to disingenuous.

Is a more decisive report really expected? It is known that weather prediction becomes increasingly less accurate the further into the future we go, so to hope for anything more than a probability distribution is surely asking too much?

I appreciate that there has been some grave-digging since the initial report, I'm just a little perplexed by the analysis of their results - they do seem to have suggested that a cold (start of the) winter is the most likely outcome.

Jan 29, 2011 at 1:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterChris

Sam the Sceptic: "I'm sorry, but in my world 'deliberately misled' and 'lied to' are synonomous".

But, as you go on to imply, they aren't in the Yes, Minister world and that's the world that His Grace is considering here. Hence my pedantry [albeit in relation to Harrabin rather than Quarmby].

Jan 29, 2011 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterJane Coles

But, as you go on to imply, they aren't in the Yes, Minister world...
I don't think I implied anything of the sort. I said that it was acceptable to lie in certain fairly precise circumstances and I was referring specifically to government not any of its arms length agencies.
If you (or a senior CS at MoD or the Cabinet Office) can tell me why the forthcoming winter weather was a state secret then I will concede the point.
All I see here is an assorted group of bureaucrats with their knickers in a twist because they are about to get egg on their faces because whatever the weather does now one group or the other is going to get caught with its pants down.
I hope I haven't mixed too many metaphors here.
This isn't Yes, Minister, Jane; it's the real world and there are consequences which can be serious when organisations invest so heavily in one meme that they can't back out. We end up paying the price for their incompetence and intransigence.
And they get found out anyway!

Jan 29, 2011 at 3:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterSam the Skeptic

>The Met Office writes back - "That is fine."

So they thought it was going to be sunny as well..? :-)

Jan 29, 2011 at 4:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Are the any consequences in the UK for lying, misleading, fraud, hiding declines, etc?

(If not, there is a famous 'world leader' shortly to be a available for any positions of authority that may be vacant in the UK. His family are already in town...).

Jan 29, 2011 at 5:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

A pedant writes in reply to the earlier post by Anoneumouse
"Title: Fraud
Offence: Obtaining a Pecuniary Advantage by Deception
Legislation: Section 16 Theft Act 1968
Jan 29, 2011 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse"
This offence was repealed by Schedule 3 of the Fraud Act 2006
Wiki provides a decent explanation

Jan 29, 2011 at 7:21 PM | Unregistered Commenterrockchicken

@ rockchicken

In that case, sections 1,through to 5 of the Fraud Act 2006 are pertinent.

As is the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 if relevant.

Jan 29, 2011 at 7:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse

Sam the Sceptic: "This isn't Yes, Minister, Jane"

On the grounds that Yes, Minister was fiction, not fact? I fear you are not cynical enough. Anthony Jay was very familiar with his subject matter. I'm not condoning what the Met Office appears to have done. Just making the point that, for our politicians and their apparatchiks, there's a distinction between lying and being deliberately misleading.

Jan 29, 2011 at 8:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterJane Coles

The post by Martin A., and the responses of the Met Office to his EIR request, is actually most informative (even though they did not properly respond to his inquiry). More than informative, it is scary, and shows the impact that presumptions of AGW have had on the work being carried out by the Met Office (with consequent negative impacts on government planning and preparedness).

In the email from the Met Office dated 26 November 2010, it discusses in very general terms how the Met Office arrived at its assessment that there was only a 1 in 20 chance of the risk of a "cold" December like December 2009. This information was duly included in the Quarmby report and, presumably, informed in part its conclusions about the risks to the transport system and what steps are required to improve “resilience”.

Here are the relevant excerpts from the Met email:

“I calculated the CET anomaly up to the 4th January [2010?] and then made a calculation of the frequency of such an anomaly now and if we had had no anthropogenic climate change. …

The roughly 1 in 5 year odds are verified directly by looking directly at the CET record which shows about this frequency of colder than Dec 209 December anomalies over the 350 year record of CET. For the 1 in 20 odds I needed to estimate how different current mean climate is from the pre-industrial era of CET as a result of global warming.”

So, based on historical results, odds were about 1-in-5 of a COLDER December temperature anomaly than that experienced in December 2009. This was transformed to 1-in-20 by reference to the Met's modeling of anthropogenic global warming. Thus, the Met Office is advising government (and government agencies), that the risk of cold winters has dropped significantly. The conclusion from this assessment must therefore be that scarce government resources should not be expended to address such a risk (certainly, not expended in the same quantity as if the risk had been categorized as 1-in-5, or something in between).

The email acknowledges that the assessment is crude and should be regarded “as rather uncertain” (without quantifying that uncertainty). It is not clear how or whether this uncertainty was communicated to the Quarmby inquiry. The Interim Report notes that the estimate is “about 1 in 20”, but does not suggest any particular uncertainty level (p. 13, para. 54, first bullet). In the final report, the advice from the Met Office leads Quarmby to conclude: “the chance of such severe winters [as 2008 and 2009] in any one year is around 1 in 20, and declining.” [section 10.4]. (Fortunately, Quarmby DOES call for preparations being equal to this 1 in 20 winter: but faced with such (apparently declining) odds, how likely is that to be followed?)

Thanks to Martin (and all other here) for persistence in the face of the Met’s foot dragging. We will all be watching to see how the EIR / FOI requests fare in the coming days and weeks ahead!

One issue that I would suggest Martin consider as a further follow up to his EIR request, has to do with the date of the materials released. The Quarmby report came in two parts: Interim Report (July 2010) and Final Report (October 2010). The “1 in 20” calculation of “the next winter [2010 -2011] being severe”, was present in Interim Report. That information, therefore, was calculated and communicated sometime before that Interim Report was released on 26 July 2010. The date of the Met Office email about the 1-in-20 calculation was 26 November 2010 – well after both parts of the Quarmby report had been released. Perhaps Martin should further refine his request to obtain information on how and when the calculations originally were performed, and when they were provided to the Quarmby inquiry? He might also ask for copies of any notes of telephone conversations or discussions between the Met Office and Quarmby (given that they apparently did not keep official minutes). Just a thought.


Jan 29, 2011 at 8:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterIan

I seem to remember that at one stage Harrabin had said or had written that he had submitted an FOI to the Cabinet Office.

Did Harrabin submit his FOI as an individual or on behalf of his employer the BBC?

We need to know if Roger Harrabin is still on Richard Blacks Christmas card list!

Jan 29, 2011 at 8:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse

Ian - thanks for the suggestions.

Jan 30, 2011 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

Was going to post this at Katabasis' site but the post a comment didn't seem to open right, so I'll post here instead.

I looked at the documents Katabasis got from the FOI of the MET office. The predictions from the Met are even poorer quality than appears at first glance because their categories for mild average and cold overlap!

Mild -0.1 to +1.3 Probability 30%
Average -0.5 to +0.6 Probability 30%
Cold -1.5 to +0.4 Probability 40%

That also means their probabilities make no sense, and gives them a double dip, or even a triple dip! If the actual anomaly was, say, 0.0 then it would be in all three categories. Brilliant! Everyone's a winner...

Jan 31, 2011 at 8:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterThinkingScientist

With regards to what ThinkingScientist has pointed out it would seem that, because the category ranges are not mutually exclusive or "independent" then the total of the probabilities cannot add up to precisely 100%. The sum would have to be greater.

Feb 1, 2011 at 1:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterKerry

With regards to what ThinkingScientist has pointed out it would seem that, because the category ranges are not mutually exclusive or "independent" then the total of the probabilities cannot add up to precisely 100%. The sum would have to be greater.

Feb 1, 2011 at 1:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterKerry

Good eye! Now keep going ... if the categories overlap, these probabilities are double counted, so there are missing probabilities. The categories cannot add to 100 . Some of the missing categories: "very cold -5.0 to -1.5" and "extremely cold below -5.0" . Guess which one applies ??? :)

Feb 2, 2011 at 5:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert in Houston

Great list, interesting to find your own comments styling on them ;). But the list is very interesting nevertheless.. and your comment styling great as well.

Mar 16, 2011 at 3:49 PM | Unregistered Commenterhabib arti

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