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Weather Report with Phil Thomas

A weather eye

Posted on September 16 2008 at 12:40:14 0 comments

Phil Thomas

Alvechurch amateur weatherman Phil Thomas tells Richard Peach why we shouldn’t get too upset about a wet summer.

For those who enjoy shooting the messenger, weathermen are the easiest of targets. Just ask Michael Fish who, more than 20 years later, is still defending the helpful TV advice he offered to a woman viewer worried about rumours of a hurricane.

Yet that is the paradox of weatherpeople: they can seem bemused by the rest of us getting so emotional about the weather, while they devote large parts of their lives to studying and measuring it.

Take Phil Thomas, who runs his own weather station to Met Office standards in Alvechurch. He’s excited to recall that on August 13 this summer (yes, I know, but what else can we call the middle months of the year?) there was a localised downpour over the parish between 12.30pm and 2pm during which 40.3mm of rain fell.

“At one point, it was raining at 155mm an hour – that’s almost like water being poured from the sky,” says Phil.

He is fascinated by this, and clearly disappointed that at the time he was in Redditch where there was, apparently, hardly any rain at all.

For me, it just brought back the miserable memory of standing under an umbrella halfway down the first fairway at Kings Norton Golf Club, watching golf balls disappear as the green turned into a lake.

There is little sympathy from Phil – he seems to love this weather stuff. On the day I visited his HQ, he pointed out that we had already had more than the total average rainfall for September – after only five days of the month.

There is no annoyance, nor glee, at this state of affairs, just a pleasure in there having been some interesting weather to measure. Phil first became hooked by the behaviour of nature in the Earth’s near atmosphere when he was a ten-year-old boy, growing up in south Wales.

“I started in the winter of 1962-63. We had masses of snow on the Boxing Day in the valleys where I lived and everything came to a standstill and that sparked my interest.

“My dad said he knew there was something wrong with me when he took me to buy a book – any book I wanted – and I came home with one called Understanding British Weather,” he adds.

Phil came to the Midlands in the 1970s to study optics at Aston University in Birmingham – he is now an optician in Studley – and he has kept regular weather measurements ever since he graduated in 1976.

“I started to meet more accurate standards in 1989,” he explains. “If you want to run a Met Office station then you have to meet the standards of the Meteorological Office Observers Handbook.”

It’s not a cheap hobby either, with his set-up costing around £4,000, not including the computer. This includes an automatic weather station which takes rainfall, temperature, sunshine and wind strength and direction measurements which are fed to a computer and made immediately available on Phil’s website (http://www.alvechurchweather.metsite.com), which is updated every ten minutes.

Then there are the traditional instruments, such as the copper rainwater collection vessel, which has to be a precise distance above the ground, thermometers plunged to an exact depth into the soil or laid in the grass, and the familiar beehive-like Stevenson Screen containing yet more thermometers.

It doesn’t really come as a surprise when Phil reveals: “There aren’t many of us.”

The nearest amateurs like Phil are at Pershore and in Harborne, Birmingham, each with a different micro-climate to themselves.

“The measurements from Pershore are radically different to mine because it is in the Vale of Evesham,” says Phil. “The one in Harborne gets different measurements again because they are on the Birmingham plateau.”

Phil’s station is graded as an “A” and as well as publishing his measurements on his website, he collates all his readings each month and sends them off to the Climatological Observer Link, which provides meteorological research to back up that from the Met Office.

Phil provides a local weather forecast for the following day on his website each evening – which takes some dedication. ”Even when I’m on holiday, I take my laptop and will put a forecast on for the following day,” he says.

He is also a member of the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation – known as Torro. “We were the people who investigated the Birmingham tornado and we held a seminar at Birmingham University about it,“ he says.

This was the storm which was seen on July 28 2005 over Hopwood shortly before it left a trail of havoc through the southern suburbs of Birmingham.

“We believe the actual storm started a mile away from here, down in Burcot,” says Phil. The theory is that it started as it neared the Lickey incline and made its way on to the Birmingham plateau where it touched down.”

Again, Phil is clearly fascinated by this event, but he’s not about to career across the mid-west of the USA in a pick-up truck in search of more.

“I am into the recording side of it. That’s the limit of my interest, although I’ve got a lot of friends who go storm chasing in America. I would never consider going on one of those things, but I regularly speak to people at conferences who do.”

Phil’s website has been running for around four years and gets 40-60 unique visits a day (presumably it will go up a bit over the next few weeks as people reading this decide to have a look).

“When we had the snow back in April it was up to about 300 a day,” adds Phil.

He has also responded to a variety of requests for weather information. When they were building the new schools, the builders contacted him to find out when the wet days were and someone carrying out a survey of noise from the bypass used Phil’s data to see which way the wind was blowing at various times.

“It is all done free of charge,” he says.

Phil is also a keen photographer and has been made an Associate Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society on the strength of his weather photos.

At the time of writing, September has surprisingly turned dry, with blue skies and warm sunshine – which was a relief after twice the average monthly rainfall in the first ten days of the month following on from an awful summer. So just how bad was the summer?

“Sunshine in August was only 61 per cent of normal, rainfall was 180 per cent of normal, but temperatures were spot on,” says Phil. “It was very wet and grey, but not cold. June was actually much drier than normal with half the average rainfall.

“When you average the summer it was a very standard British summer. This was summer as it is supposed to be.

“People perceive things as being worse than they actually are,” he explained.

Ah, that would be a weatherman speaking . . .

Phil’s website is: http://www.alvechurchweather.metsite.com

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