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Predicting the unpredictable: understanding the weather

Predicting the unpredictable: understanding the weather

It’s very British to talk about the weather. So it’s fitting that a British university – the University of Reading – offers a 3-week course called Come Rain or Shine: Understanding The Weather. Taking this course will have the effect of turning comments like ‘Looks like rain tomorrow’ into more technical and perhaps even accurate predictions. Cows lying down might mean it’s going to rain, but for the curious who want to know why it’s going to rain, this course is perfect.

Especially in Britain, where the weather is notoriously variable, a little knowledge of how weather systems form and where they come from is useful in understanding the meteorological reasons why British people routinely carry umbrellas and sunglasses at the same time.

The free online course, delivered via futurelearn.com, facilitates an understanding of global weather systems and the physical processes which shape them, how extreme weather events occur, and the local effects of global weather. Thrillingly, students are given the chance to do some actual weather forecasting of their own in the form of a fieldwork project to monitor their local microclimate and make an educated guess at the following weekend’s weather. They can upload their predictions to the RMetS (Royal Meteorology Society) website and obtain a score for the accuracy of their forecast which is graded competitively with their peers’.

The course is aimed at the general public and accepts everybody from hardcore weatherhounds to those with no meteorological experience whatsoever but an interest in the topic. It might be a good one for geography teachers, seeing as the English National Curriculum and GCSE ‘A’ level specifications have recently changed to devote a great deal more time to meteorology and related topics.

Naturally enough, the course does focus partly on the UK’s characteristic weather patterns, particularly the low pressure systems that bring the British all the stormy wind and rain they love to talk about. But by the end of the course, students should be able to explain the British weather in terms of larger-scale patterns and systems, so that when a child asks, ‘Where does the weather come from?’ they will not have to make up an answer based on distant memories of their own school years, but will be able to tell a coherent story with actual science in it.

‘Rainbows are there to apologise for an angry sky’ is cute, but this is a course for people who want to be able to really explain why weather happens.