The weather in 1.85 characters.

My desk in the Met Office is some way from a window, but if I peer across the heads of a few colleagues I can see that the weather outside is, well, disappointing: A gloomy day, with the sky filled with mottled grey clouds from horizon to horizon (though at least it’s stopped raining). Here in the UK we’re famously obsessed with talking about the weather, but sailors would have no time for such waffle: Following an example set by the famous Admiral Beaufort they record the current weather in a terse code, and today’s weather in Exeter would be simply ‘o’ (overcast), or perhaps ‘oc’ (overcast cloudy) if they were feeling extravagant.

The weather code system has evolved quite a bit since Beaufort’s day, and it’s a powerful and concise way of recording notable weather events. The basic code records the amount of cloud in the sky, and ranges from ‘b’ (clear sky or mostly so), through ‘bc, and ‘c’ to ‘o’ (overcast). These are by far the most common codes, but you can add to them to record many of the various nastys the atmosphere can inflict on you – there are codes for rain, snow, hail, gales, squalls, fog etc.

This means that the longer the code recorded in a logbook, the worse the weather was (or at least the more exciting it was). The longest code I’ve found in the logs completed so far is ‘ocpqrlt’ (overcast, clouds, showers, squalls, rain, thunder and lightning) from HMS Bacchante, at Dakar at midnight on 31st August 1917. (Thanks to captain richbr15, lieutenant dazedandconfused, and the crew for patiently typing all that in). This sort of detail, however, is rarely necessary, and, on average, the logs only need 1.85 characters to record the current weather.

I’m excited by the weather codes because they offer a new opportunity to test our climate models. In principle, if we know the surface pressure and temperature (also in the logs, of course) our models should tell us where it’s clear, where it’s cloudy, where it’s raining, and even about thunderstorms and squalls. In practice it’s not quite as easy as that, partly because our computers are not yet powerful enough to run atmosphere models that are detailed enough to resolve small features like thunderstorms and squalls; but even so I look forward to learning more about the accuracy of our cloud and rainfall models. So please keep entering the weather codes – we need the ordinary records of cloud cover as well as the unusual events.

Since I started writing this the rain has come back, so I should modify my current weather report to ‘or’; but improvement is in sight – the forecast for this weekend is for ‘bc’ (broken cloud), maybe even ‘b’ (little or no cloud) at times. The designers of the weather codes were uninterested in particularly fine weather, so there’s no way of encoding ‘glorious sunshine’ for example (‘gs’ would be gales and snow). Still I wish you all as much ‘b’ as you care for, except for a dose of ‘r’ (rain) for anybody praying for it.

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