What is the shipping forecast?

150 years after its maiden broadcast, the first public weather forecast system is still responsible for saving lives at sea

Image source: Pixabay

In late October of 1859 the iron-hulled Victorian ship Royal Charter was returning from Australia to her home in the UK when she found herself dangerously close to the shoreline as winds began to pick up speed. The captain dropped the anchors and cut the masts in an attempt to prevent disaster, but within a few hours the ship had been ripped apart and submerged, leaving over 450 people dead.

The tragedy troubled Robert FitzRoy, a pioneering meteorologist who believed that he could have predicted the storm responsible for the tragedy, preventing the ship from heading into dangerous waters. In February 1861 the first shipping forecast was given after he introduced a storm warning system using an electric telegraph. The system has developed over the past century and has remained an integral part of keeping people safe at sea.

Today, the shipping forecast is produced by the Met Office and aired on BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. There are dedicated teams of meteorologists operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. They look at data and observations, monitor charts and produce forecasts every six hours. They provide weather forecasts for all the waters around the British Isles, stretching from southeast Iceland in the north down to Trafalgar in southern Spain.

These waters are divided into 31 sections known as sea areas, providing sailors with accurate weather predictions. The forecast is always read in the same format and the same order, starting with Viking and moving clockwise around the Isles.

What does the information on the shipping forecast mean?

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 106

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