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Shaping the forecasts of the future

Researching how best to communicate future weather forecasts.

Currently, forecasts use specific terminology, symbols and imagery to describe the weather.  Our campaign and hashtag,  #3wordweather, gave the public the opportunity to tell us what weather they were experiencing by describing it themselves. In gathering this information we hoped we could find out more about the weather words that people use and in turn shape the language used in our forecast, to make them clearer and easier to understand. 

Snow or no?

With snow on the cards, we asked everybody to tweet a description of the weather in three words followed by their nearest town, using the hashtag #3wordweather.

  1. #3wordweather
  2. Add your words
  3. Include your nearest town

We then compared weather conditions to the words people used to describe them and shared our findings in real-time. People were able to click through on to an interactive map of the UK, showing regional summaries right down to individual tweets of their local weather.

Looking back

Over the years, people have received weather information, along with news, from television, radio and daily newspapers. People have become familiar with the way weather is described verbally, together with the visual symbols of clouds and sunshine used, to help make sense of the complicated nature of British weather. However, symbols were only ever designed to give a summary for the day.

Now, times are changing. In recent years, the way people have kept up-to-date with the weather has changed too.  Nowadays, just as many people get their updates from their phone, tablet, laptop or PC as from radio and TV. Most recently, natural language technology is dramatically altering the future of communication.

Description and portrayal of weather has not moved on at the same pace, largely because weather forecast providers across the globe have been reluctant to confuse their audiences. After all, meteorology is a complicated science and reducing this down into something understandable is an art in itself. 

Weather visualisations in broadcasts display land mass, typography, wind direction and rainfall moving across the country, but people still rely on symbols to absorb information quickly.  Yet our research tells us that, despite forecasters using symbols for over 40 years, many people are confused by what the symbols actually mean.

Symbols and words can be confusing

As an example, only 28% of people identified a grey cloud symbol as meaning it was forecast to be an overcast day. Over 60% thought it meant it would be a cloudy day. But what is the difference between cloudy and overcast? When does a cloudy day become an overcast day?

The World Meteorological Organization defines overcast as being ‘the meteorological condition of clouds obscuring at least 95% of the sky.’ But is this what most people think overcast means?

81% of people also believed that a grey cloud symbol indicated that it would rain, despite the fact that our weather symbols use raindrops to indicate rain.      

So, it seems that despite the weather forecast’s reliance on weather symbols, they aren’t actually widely understood.

Leading the way

As the UK’s National Weather Service, we are always looking for the best ways of communicating weather for the future. Forecasters use meteorological terms to describe weather but are these really understood?  Instead, should we describe weather in the way people describe it themselves?

Mizzle or drizzle?

We also expect to see many regional words.

It is said that one Inuit dialect spoken in Quebec has at least 53 words for snow, but that Scotland has as many words for rain! Dreich, which is Scots for a dreary, bleak, gloomy and rainy day is one of our favourites.

In Devon and Cornwall, mizzle is used to describe extremely fine rain, often combined with mist or fog, found around the coasts and on the moors.

Our aim is to use these words to help our research into how we can better communicate forecasts.  Weather forecasting has moved on, the way people receive information has moved on, but the way forecasts are described visually and verbally has hardly changed. Now, with just a few words, it is your chance to help shape the forecasts of the future.