The Met Office team on a south Atlantic island reveal the extreme lengths they go to in order to forecast the weather
At 11.15am on a blustery spring morning, Lori Bennett stands on an exposed bluff on the remote south Atlantic island of St Helena, holding a gigantic, wobbling balloon. The wind is roaring, waves are churning up a swell and the sea air is charged with industrial hydrogen pumped from a nearby outhouse and used for blowing up the inflatable.
The Met Office station manager, born in Northern Ireland and now living half a world away from his friends and family in Swindon, is a picture of calm in a drab boiler suit, old ski goggles and a flash hood he jokingly calls his Star Wars outfit. Moments later, he prepares to let the weather balloon slip from his fingers. Swinging it around, so that it lifts straight up rather than floating across the weather station car park, he is soon watching it jiggle steadily upwards before it disappears into the clouds.
Theyve been known to scare the life out of pilots, says Bennett, flipping his goggles off. But out here in the middle of nowhere we dont get many planes. As well as launching the balloon in 45-knot winds that can pull your arm off, Bennetts main worry is the hydrogen used to fill it. A spark of static could detonate the gas inside the warehouse and violently blow the doors clean off. You wouldnt walk away from that, he says, matter-of-factly.
Sometimes, it is easy to forget the lengths to which meteorologists go to bring us forecasts: telemetry instruments and synoptic codes dont really figure in the chitchat of TV weather presenters such as Carol Kirkwood and Tomasz Schafernaker. But as the climate crisis gains new urgency, our understanding of weather systems and patterns is more important than ever and the weathermen working here are key to that. Among the last in the world to use such analogue methods as weather balloons, they are guardians of a dying art.