Your web browser (Internet Explorer) is out of date. Some things will not look right and things might not work properly. Please download an up-to-date and free browser from here.

City’s island effect puts forecasters in a hard spot

Herald on Sunday column, by Philip Duncan — There are many weather sayings and terms that I loathe. I don’t like “fine”, which means dry and settled – but not necessarily sunny, as many people think. I don’t like “fresh” being used to describe a wind that isn’t cold – even though, technically, “fresh” is about speed and not temperature.

The saying I like least of all is “four seasons in one day”.

Many other places on Earth claim to have this. It’s certainly not unique to New Zealand.

But I concede that our weather is highly changeable.

Our two small mountainous islands in the South Pacific are smack bang in the Roaring Forties, making our weather one of the world’s hardest to forecast. Auckland has one of the more fickle climates, making it even more tricky.

That’s because Auckland is almost an island on its own. The city, and the North Island for that matter, narrows to just 2km at Otahuhu: the Tasman Sea to the west, Pacific Ocean to the east.

These coastlines nearly meet in several places. In West Auckland, New Lynn sits on the edge of the Waitemata Harbour (Pacific), while 3km south we have Manukau Harbour (Tasman).

With the harbours on both sides bending and twisting around, it makes most of Auckland’s suburbs more like islands. That’s why it can be sunny at 7am, overcast at 9am, showery at 11am, sunnier in the afternoon and clear at night. To only a handful of days a year would give the city a sun-only category.

Another reason for Auckland’s changeability is the lack of big hills. The Waitakere Ranges in the west are only a little over 400m high, similar to the Bombay/Hunuas to the south. These aren’t big enough to really impact on rainclouds as the big Kaimai and Coromandel ranges do to the southeast.

The predominant wind in Auckland is a sou’wester, which zips in through the Manukau Harbour, over the city then out into the Hauraki Gulf where it has nothing to stop it. The rain clouds rush though too, so the city also rarely receives solid rain for more than 18 hours, unlike the Bay of Plenty, which is surrounded by large ranges that can trap the rain for days (or trap the sun).

Auckland is like a much cooler tropical island. The weather is always changing but only slightly – from cloudy to clear, showers to dry. With weather like that it’s no wonder Kiwis think that the Crowded House song Weather With You was written about Auckland.

*Philip Duncan writes a weekly column for the Herald on Sunday newspaper


Ken Ring on 29/09/2012 1:25pm

Phil, your comments are sad but not unexpected. In 1998 a Herald Gallup Poll found that the public only had 37% faith in NZ Metservice, which was the reason they head-hunted Professor Augie Auer from Wyoming to lead them. As a result of his expertise, knowledge and personal grace it resulted in a mighty boost in public respect.

Those days are gone and they are now focussing again on ratings, thinking it’s all about graphics rather than accuracy. Wasting time and resources protecting imagined entitlement to a monopoly in the field of forecasting, they have taken their eyes off the ball.

When competitors help each other all benefit. That’s what many years ago the old trade guilds like Master Builders and Master Plumbers were set up for, so that competitors could meet, share and encourage each other. Also, farmers are not all that impressed that the weather service they pay the wages of, supports plans for unnecessary green taxation and penalties for agriculture.

Keep up the good work Phil. Remember, imitators and blockers never end up leading the field.

Duncan on 28/09/2012 12:10pm

I love all the online weather sites but what annoys me is the constant slagging of the Metservice.
I check all sites every day as much as possible and find the ww and metservice sites compliment each other, but you have to admit the metservice site is very comprehensive so sometimes you have to give credit when credit is due.
I mean ww is not perfect neither is metservice and as Phil stated that NZ is one of the hardest countries in the world to forecast so don’t be so hard on yourself or each other.

WW Forecast Team on 28/09/2012 11:12pm

Hi Duncan – our issues aren’t to do with the quality of their forecasts, it’s to do with 18 million dollars of tax payer money going into an organisation that then charges high rates for that same data – effectively stopping serious competition by using our public money – and thats why WW can’t offer rain radars that are interactive to your street, live data on wind speeds etc, and all the warnings on our site. 

We are fighting them to free up data so we can have world class and more accurate forecasts – don’t you want that?  Because it can’t happen with a monopoly – remember what our phones rates and plans were like in the 90s when Telecom had a monopoly?  Now look at what we have since competition came into the market – and Telecom is not seen as the bullying giant anymore.

MetService has also been aggressive at ringing news rooms and telling them to stop using WeatherWatch this year – something we have never done, or ever would do.  We have offered them olive branches, they have ignored that – instead shifting our pricing for receiving the highs at your place from $1200 a year to almost $30,000 a year, forcing us to cancel the service.   

The Commerce Commission is now actively investigating two complaints for anticompetitive behaviour. 

I’ll say that again – we offered, several times, to work "positively and proactively" with them, especially around severe weather events 12 months ago – their response early this year was to basically say "sounds good" then they started calling the mainstream media and advising them to stop using Philip Duncan and for the next few months, only stopping after we twice contacted their General Manager who ignored our first email – but they stopped once the Commerce Commission called and started to ask questions. 

They’ve accused us of stealing their warnings and labelling them as our own too, which is simply untrue and highly offensive to us.

I sleep well knowing the Commerce Comission has been investigating this since April – but want more than anything for them to accept we are here and work with us like all responsible government forecasters do all over the world (does it sound right to you that the only western nation that has a govt forecaster trying to limit competition is New Zealand?).

This is an issue with the govermnet and the management of MetService/pricing of data and doubling up of charges – not the quality of what they put out or the team of forecasters and staff who do the hard day to day work, who we respect – and have said that on the record many times before.


Guest on 28/09/2012 2:41am

Perhaps the best way to describe Auckland’s prevalent weather…


Derek on 28/09/2012 12:38am

Neat article Phil, explains so much about Auckland’s climate. I enjoyed reading it.

I tend to agree with your comments on some weather terms. But what would you suggest is used instead of?

I look at my home town’s weather in Birmingham , England on the BBC site and rather like some of the terms they use.

Such as different terms for cloud whether it be white or grey. They also use Sunny if that is the forecast or a more apt cloud description if cloudy, or like Sun with white cloud patches etc or sunny intervals.

From what I read there they seem to be more descriptive than here.

But with our location in the world maybe it is more difficult to be that confident.

WW Forecast Team on 28/09/2012 2:38am

Hi Derek – thanks for the comments.  Especially interesting about BBC’s terms.  Since day one our site has been about communicating the weather as accurately as possible – that’s why we break down our forecasts into 4 dayparts – and next year we’ll be adding that to each day, not just 24 hours. 

In America they use the word "sprinkles" for light showers – it’s a great term, but one that NZers may not warm too as we’ll mostly think of cake decorations!  In fact in October I’m going to the Weather Channel and also CNN to look into new ideas to bring back here. NZ can learn a HUGE amount from weather presentations and forecasters in other western nations – NZ is very much behind the times here in this particular field – the direct result of the government forecaster, MetService, having a monopoly.

But going back to your point of descriptive words, our main goal is to communicate in everyday language.  We try to write as we would talk…if someone asked me for a forecast I’d never say out loud "Scattered clouds and moderate to fresh sou’easters" I’d probably say "A few cloudy areas with fairly strong sou’easters" or "becoming windy but mostly dry, just a few clouds about". 

We’re also getting some new weather icons next year, to show when we think the afternoon clouds will be white, or black/dark grey.  This will be for our detailed forecasts – but we hope to finally add Whangarei to that list in early 2013!  We want the icons to be far more descriptive – which puts a huge amount more pressure on us, the forecasters, but that’s out job – to predict the weather as best and as detailed as we can.


Derek on 28/09/2012 4:44am

All sound quite exciting Phil, I have noticed since your arrival on the weather scene that Met Service has upped it’s game. I assume you have seen their phone app, it is quite good for a quick daily forecast. They are well and truly into updating their game now.

As you say we are behind in this business so that is where you and WW come in, good luck with it all and I am sure your followers will enjoy the changes.

WW Forecast Team on 28/09/2012 10:52am

We’ve had quite a few complaints about their app – for two reasons. 1) It’s more expensive that most apps.  2) It’s basically the same content you can get on their website which is free – so why pay for it – especially when 18 million dollars of our taxpayer money already goes to fund MetService.

That’s why our first App, hopefully coming out this summer, will be free (as it will be a smartphone version of our website).  We will have another App next year, which we will charge for – but only because it will be premium weather data exclusively found on our App in one place – and will not be something you can get for free on our website.

But yes they have absolutely upped their game – since WW came along they have invested in a new spokesperson, launched a special new Auckland weather page (well ahead of all other centres – and where WW is initially based), created online weather videos since we started doing our online videos at (which I find bizarre for a government forecaster, especially when their main clients are TVNZ and TV3 – so their own videos are competing with their own clients!?)

Anyway – we are now focused on and our exciting future ahead.  We read all the comments that people, such as yourself, post/send in – and we honestly take all ideas onboard.  

To me our site is designed by our readers and what they want in a national weather forecaster – and we’ll continue to do our best to behave like a national forecaster should do – and always put people and public safety before profits.

– Phil

Derek on 28/09/2012 10:48pm

You have a lot that they don’t or will ever have Phil and one of them is the personal touch. Also because you have to work hard for what you want to do the result will always be superior.
Having a major subsidised competitor against you gives you the drive to do better than they do, you have them worried so keep at it.

I also think it may be about time for our government to do some cost cutting here and share it around to bring on this competitiveness they are always on about.

Looking forward to you first app. I did not think of theirs in the way you describe so think I was overcome by the eye candy!!

Related Articles