This year’s Reading Half Marathon was cancelled at ~6:40 AM on the day of the race (Sunday March 18) due to substantial snow in Reading and the surrounding area (indeed, across most of England…). The cancellation of the event only ~4 hours before runners would be taking to the course was far from ideal, with many having travelled from afar and stayed the night in Reading. As expected, there was much consternation on Twitter and Facebook, with runners venting their frustration at the last-minute cancellation. As both a meteorologist and a runner, this clash of my two favourite things was a bizarre experience.
The question is – was this last-minute chaos avoidable?
The answer, in my opinion, is a firm YES. And I believe the problem lies with the trusting of forecasts.
On March 13 (5 day lead time!), it became very clear from forecast models that the “Beast from the East” would be returning in time for the race. Cold temperatures were certain, but the extent and intensity of snow was more difficult to predict. I tweeted the Reading Half, enquiring under what circumstances the race would be held off:
I received no reply. As I had seen the Bath Half cancelled with the first “Beast” event earlier in the year, I was very aware that the same fate could befall the Reading race.
By Friday March 16, the Met Office had issued yellow warnings for snow in Reading with a more severe amber warning nearby. The forecasts for Reading (models such as the GFS, ARPEGE, etc.) indicated 3-5 cm of lying snow on Sunday morning. With the model consistency, the severity of the alerts from the Met Office and the huge distances people travel for the Reading Half, I was convinced enough at this point that the race should be cancelled:
Still, the race organisers made no mention of snow and just kept mentioning cold weather. They were determined to ‘plough on’ (pun intended). The announcements were mainly that they were “gritting the route” – which is all fair enough, but hardly going to work very well with significant snowfall, and not going to help those travelling from afar.
Come Saturday, the Met Office forecasts had become worse for Reading, with heavy snow indicated all night. Forecast models still suggested 3-5 cm lying snow on Sunday morning across the south. Runners began to feel less at ease with the idea of it going ahead, and those travelling far wanted clarity.
By Saturday evening, with heavy snow already falling, the organisers cancelled the kids’ fun run, and left Half runners with the statement that a “final confirmation could not yet be made”. More bizarrely, they stated that “if conditions deteriorate further” then they would reconsider.
Prof. Mat Owens from the Reading Met department was just as confused as me, and expressed his feelings toward the race in a great tweet:
The forecast was for exactly that overnight deterioration to happen, and it was still the same message that had been said for days.
Met Office forecast from 6 PM on Saturday indicating high likelihood of HEAVY SNOW.
I went to bed knowing the Half would be cancelled, yet having to “pretend” as though it were on…just in case it was…somehow. I woke up at 6:15 AM to the expected 3-6 cm of snow, and had to wait until 6:40 AM to find out it was indeed cancelled.
Now, before criticising too much, I want to say I love the Reading Half. I’ve run it twice, and both races being up there with the best experiences in my life. I’m aware it’s a tremendously big and important race.
However, why did it take until the snow was there, lying on the ground, covering the start line, the route and the finish line, with the M4 and M5 paralysed, for the organisers to believe the forecast? The situation that unfolded on Sunday morning was exactly as predicted. There must have been a moment on Sunday where the organisers said, “Oh…the forecasts were correct.”
The fact is, we can now forecast so accurately that a 1 day forecast is pretty much a certainty, unless it’s for a shower in a given location (which we might never be able to accurately predict). The reason we have made such advancements in forecasting power is precisely to avoid situations like this. It’s one of the greatest achievements of the human race. It’s also perhaps the most under-recognised.
What INFURIATES me, is that the announcement on the day claimed that conditions had deteriorated “more than forecasted”. That is, when it comes down to it, a lie. Either that, or whoever was providing the forecasts was not giving the best available forecast. They claimed to have been in contact with the Met Office…well, the Met Office forecasts I was looking at had expected exactly what happened.
The official race cancellation announcement stating that conditions “deteriorated more than forecasted overnight”.
In my opinion, the announcement was to try and make forecasters a scapegoat for poor event management, with too much concern for a false-alarm scenario: “what if we cancel it and then it doesn’t snow?”. I was lucky to have not been so badly affected by this as I live only 2-3 miles from the start line – for those who travelled, I feel deep sympathy.
I sincerely hope Reading Half have learnt their meteorological lesson. And I hope people begin to understand that, whilst of course sometimes the forecast goes wrong, we can now trust it in times like these – and that’s thanks to the pioneering work of many meteorologists, data assimilation scientists and computer programmers over the last few decades.
It really is quite amazing.
But if anyone knows what reasons they had to fully believe the race could safely go ahead until 6:40 AM on Sunday, then please let me know – I’m all ears.