Why Kelso is on the BBC's weather map

It's a very British concern - what weather are we getting tomorrow, and how certain can we be about it?

BBC presenter Kirsteen MacDonald with the weather map showing Kelso.
BBC presenter Kirsteen MacDonald with the weather map showing Kelso.

And a Borders man is one of the people to go to if you want to get your hands on the best forecasts available.

David Underwood, once of Kelso High School, is currently the deputy director of the High Performance Computing Programme at the Met Office, based in Exeter.

He said this week that he had always been interested in the aviation side of weather prediction, something that he moved into after a Maths degree at Glasgow University and a subsequent MSc in Operational Research from Strathclyde University.

Dave Underwood, Deputy Director at Met Office in Exeter

His career at the Met office - which he joined in 1998 - has coincided with a massive improvement in the accuracy of predicting weather systems, as well as enabling scientists to give earlier warnings.

Much of this is down to the installation, in stages, of what will be, when complete, the largest supercomputer in Europe.

In fact it is so large that new halls to house it had to be built at the Met Office’s Exeter base.

David said of the prediction process:“Our main customers are government departments like the Ministry of Defence, DEFRA and the Department of Conservation.”

Dave Underwood, Deputy Director at Met Office in Exeter

The new equipment will, in David’s words, allow “the further pull-through of science into weather and climate prediction.”

In practical terms, he went on, this means that the Met Office could give flood warnings for areas at risk - such as his childhood home in the Borders - around 24 hours in advance, nearly double the average forecast time presently.

“Ultimately, that’s where we want to focus the science,” he said, “where it can do the most good in terms of securing life, as well as limiting the economic damage of flooding events.”

From the Exeter base, David also oversees the prediction of other events, including the likelihood of commercial airlines being affected by things like varying wind patterns, or even, as famously over Iceland in 2010, ash from erupting volcanoes.

So does he get asked by everybody he meets what the weather has in store for them tomorrow?

“Oh, yes it is a bit like being a doctor, everyone wants your opinion on something,” David laughs. “But, you know, things have changed a little bit over the years. We used to expect a bit of ‘Oh, you get it so wrong,’ from folk, especially when you remember Michael Fish and his famous mistake over the Great Storm in 1987.

“But, in fact, people nowadays when they find out I’m involved at the Met Office, they actually tend to say ‘You lot get it right so much more often, you’re so much better at it than you used to be!’

“I sometimes think to myself, when people tell me things like that, well, if the last time you remember us getting it really wrong was way back in 1987, then we’re probably doing something right!”

When he is asked about the theory that the inclusion of Kelso on the BBC news’ weather map is a nod to his upbringing there, David at first seems coy.

“Oh, yes, people have commented on that,” he said, “but then, when they point it out to me, I say that other Borders towns like Galashiels and Hawick have been on that map, as well.”

Then he added: “But, yes, I’m not saying any more, but when I started at this job I did have a conversation about this.”