50 years of Celsius weather forecasts – time to kill off Fahrenheit for good?

Fifty years ago, on 15th October 1962, British weather forecasts switched over from the Fahrenheit scale to Celsius. Fifty years on, some parts of the British media inexplicably cling on to Fahrenheit measures, and the UK Metric Association (UKMA) says it’s time to kill off Fahrenheit for good.

[Press release issued on 15 October]

The UK Met Office has used the Celsius scale – formerly known as “centigrade” – in its work since 1st January 1961, to allow for greater international co-operation and because of the convenience of the scale. As the Met Office reported in 1962, this “led to the consideration of the desirability of introducing it in weather reports and forecasts for the general public.”

With the agreement of industry and the government, the Celsius scale was given after Fahrenheit from January 1962 as an interim measure, and then from the 15th October, Celsius became the primary unit given, with Fahrenheit retained as a secondary unit to aid the transition “for a period of several years.”

The Met Office is to be commended for accomplishing the change to the metric system of measurement so rapidly, in sharp contrast to some other parts of the government, such as the Department for Transport, which is still, fifty years later, dithering even about adding metres to safety-critical warning signs.

However, despite this early and rapid switch to Celsius-first forecasting, at the time of switchover, there was no timetable for the withdrawal of the Fahrenheit secondary measure. Says UKMA Chairman Robin Paice, “The officials at the Met Office in 1962 would almost certainly be incredulous at the prospect that, fifty years later, some media outlets would still be using Fahrenheit, and in some quarters, even as the primary scale. Two generations have now passed since Celsius was introduced, and yet we still see occasional headlines, normally in hot weather, about the temperature given in Fahrenheit.”

UKMA believes that with fifty years of Celsius weather forecasting now behind us, it is time for the British media to ditch Fahrenheit for good. “Media outlets should reflect on how they reported decimalisation; “new pence” are almost a decade younger than the Celsius temperature scale, and yet no newspapers feel the need to convert pence to shillings in their reports, and rightly so; why cling on to an even more obsolete temperature scale?”

The Met Office declined an invitation to comment.

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122 Responses to 50 years of Celsius weather forecasts – time to kill off Fahrenheit for good?

  1. Mary says:

    Recently Sean Woodward, at Hampshire County Council, told listeners to the BBC Radio 4′s ‘The World at One’ , road temperatures were 120 degrees Fahrenheit
    [Heard on Fri 19 July]

    In the following newspaper article he does not mention Fahrenheit
    http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/news/business/local-business/winter-gritters-called-in-to-help-overheated-roads-1-5305128

  2. BrianAC says:

    @Mary
    Another example of backwards thinking by our elected leaders. His car obviously has no outside temperature sensor then! Or do these people convert it to Fahrenheit so ‘everyone’ can understand it?
    Off topic but relevent to luddite thinking, roads surfaced with stone chippings on bitumen, shades of the 1960′s?
    Its back to cleaning the car with parrafin and replacing the windscreen every few years then. Do they ever wonder why we stop doing things the old way?

  3. BrianAC says:

    Never mind the weather, degrees Fahrenheit has come to Formula One motor racing on BBC TV!
    Suzie Perry today gave the track temperature as 50 deg C and thats 121 Fahrenheit …
    I guess she must have been listening to BBC R4 on 19th July and thought ‘that sounds like good fun, I will try that myself next week.
    Suzie Perry has gone from a breath of fresh air this year to nothing. Hero to zero in one move.
    I did note later that David Coulthard slipped up giving out a distance in inches then very quickly corrected himself to cm, at least the effort is being made.

  4. Ray says:

    Brian,

    We are assuming that the schools are teaching metric. But in reality what they are teaching is how to instantly convert. When you see the train speedometer and it distinctly says 200 km/h, that is when your education kicks in. Instead of seeing 200 km/h, you see something like 125 mph. Your training tells you instantly convert to imperial and shout out the imperial so the whole world can hear you.

    When you see a pavement temperature on a thermometer of 50°C, your school training tells you to blurt out the Fahrenheit. Of course you can be off a degree of two, but with Fahrenheit or any other imperial unit who cares is accuracy suffers as long as the unit name is shouted out for all to hear.

    While the rest of the world is growing and technically advancing using metric, the people of the UK and the US will have their roles to play as official back converters. See it in metric, say it in metric, then say it in USC or imperial. Doesn’t that make everyone happy now?

  5. Rand says:

    If only my backwards country, the USA, would finally use metric, which is its “official” system, after all.

  6. Alicia Adams says:

    US Citizen here. Please keep the old systems in play, it makes it way easier for me to understand you.

  7. John Steele says:

    @Alicia,
    Our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico already report weather in metric. In fact, the METARs the National Weather Service issues to pilots already use Celsius for temperatures. You probably need to get used to metric as 95% of the world uses it as their primary measurement system including, as I already said, our immediate neighbors.

    The US National Weather Service has a very good metric converter on their “point forecast” pages so you can switch back and forth and develop a feel for weather in metric.

  8. BrianAC says:

    Interestingly confusing weather reports from USA / Canada east coast this weekend with the low temperatures. At everyday temperatures the C and F are fairly obvious and I prefer they are taken for granted as degrees C, for industrial processes the temperatures (like 400 or 1000 degrees) are totally meaningless without qualification.
    However, on Friday the temperature (East coast US), was broadcast as “minus 20 degrees”, no mention of C nor F, confusing as it was a UK report on USA (or Canada) so could justifiably be either. Saturday they went one better, it was “30 degrees below freezing”, again that could be minus 20 (C) or around 2 (F). Sunday, bless them they got it right and gave it in degrees Celsius as “minus 40 degrees Celsius”, just the temperature where the two cross over and it makes no difference at all.
    Do they have to work at this stupidity, or does it come naturally with a degree?
    Now, @ Alicia Adams, in USA you can use whatever you like, but elsewhere the Fahrenheit scale is all but dead, even in UK. This is why it sounds so stupid when (UK) weather reporters use it, it is meaningless (except in USA context), and they should be educated to a higher standard. Otherwise the luddites are few and far between, just natural slips into the past. What really gets me going is the younger reporters (under 50 or so), who seem to think they are being clever by translating into “old money” or “English units” so us old folk can “understand” what they are saying, very patronising in my view. The understanding bit is quite easy, but with lack of use, the familiarity is the hard bit, that is what is being undermined.

  9. M. Kienzle says:

    Our neighbors north and south use a much easier system that even the British accepted as the official one way back in 1962! Why in the world are we so backward???
    I grew up with Celsius in Germany and have lived here, in Australia, Russia, Thailand, Denmark and Israel before retiring back to the USA. Can you imagine what following recipes from a Fahrenheit country in a Celsius country oven is like? Add the problem of translating ounces into grams or grams back into ounces, depending where we were, made for many disappointing cake outcomes. Seems to me the time has come to join the modern interconnected world!!

  10. Ezra Steinberg says:

    I opened the news story on the extreme cold in the eastern USA on the BBC news web site hoping to see instance after instance of temperatures given only in degrees Celsius.

    Much to my chagrin each and every mention of a temperature (and there were quite a few) was followed by the equivalent temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

    This is nothing short of scandalous. How does one explain the BBC’s stubborn persistence in perpetuating this obsolete unit of measure?

  11. Grant Newsham says:

    What is said is the people who want to enforce everyday use on others.

    I know of no person in the UK who lists their height in feet and inches or weights in stones and pounds.

    I still use Fahrenheit colloquially – as do many people I know. This is no crime – please get off your high horses. As a physicist I could equally well tell you to stop using stupid Celsius and use the absolute Kelvin scale which makes more sense.

  12. Grant Newsham says:

    Edit:

    I meant no one states their heights and weights in metric.

  13. John Steele says:

    @Grant Newsham

    An interesting point on weight and height. However, it points out the relative uselessness of both Customary and Imperial in an international context. Height would work out, but VERY few Americans would understand your weight in stones. I would guess more Americans would understand your weight in kilograms, although the score on neither unit would be good. We have less fear of large numbers and express our weights (and even our car’s weight) in pounds. We would eventually uses tons (short tons) for commercial vehicles). The lack of a stone is why our hundredweight is a logical 100 lb.

    As all other major British Commonwealth nations have gone metric, for all practical purposes, Imperial has only lingering usage only in the UK, and Customary has usage only in the US. The two have a number of differences so we mostly confuse each other with the similarities.

    (I’ve been on the board long enough to know a stone is 14 lb, but not many Americans would.)

  14. michduncg says:

    Hi Grant

    Thanks for your comments, I am not sure anyone on here is on their high horse as such (particularly not one measured in hands!) but this is a pro-metrication website so we are quite positive in our promotion of the National Measurement System, which is metric.

    I must admit, deg F just stumps me these days, I have American friends who have been telling me of their bad weather with the temperature in the 20s and its just so wrong! I do measure my height in cm and kg. Makes everything so much easier. Especially when I talk to my doctor, whose database records everything in metric. OK, I am 46 so my weight varies more than my height these days. We are holding a battle of the bellies at work, and I have convinced several of the guys there how much easier kg are for working out weight loss.

    Personally, I am not promoting the metric system because I think it is the better system. I promote it because it is the international system. It is the system used in most businesses. But most of all I can understand it. I challenge people on a daily basis to convert their height into inches only, or their weight into pounds only, and most people can’t do it. What is the point of using measurements if you don’t understand them!

  15. Martin Vlietstra says:

    In response to Grant Newsham, an increasing number of people in the UK use kilograms rather than stones and pounds to weigh themselves.

    Weights in the gym are usually calibrated in kilograms as are soldier’s backpacks. Gym-users and soldiers need to know the weight that they are carrying as a fraction of their own body-weight, so those groups of people tend top use kilograms. Likewise, if you go to a doctor’s surgery, you will be weighed on a kilogram-only set of scales. You might find a set of dual-scale weights in the waiting room – those are the scales that were thrown out when it became mandatory for all NHS doctors to have kilogram-only scales.

    The real problem of course is that journalists insist on converting back to stones and pounds for the benefit of their readers.

  16. William Franklin says:

    Metric might be easier to compute, but there’s no evidence that I’ve ever seen that shows that a country’s use of Fahrenheit hurts it in any way. It’s a harmless tradition, and so long as people understand Celsius, I see nothing wrong with using imperial measures.

    I would like to point out that I too learned the metric system in UK schools and lived for an extended period of time in both Sweden and Germany, and through those experiences, I can say that I understand the metric system as well as anyone. In fact, I’m temporarily residing in the United States, a country that functions quite well without the metric system.

    In fact, while German friends of mine find imperial measures archaic, they consider their holidays in the UK richer and therefore more rewarding for all its cultural idiosyncrasies such as ordering beer in pints, following imperial road signs, driving on the left side of the road, and separate hot and cold water taps in the bathrooms of the B & Bs they frequent. Imperial makes us unique, not stupid.

    Teach everyone to use Celsius, but don’t disparage them for using the traditional measures of the land.

  17. BrianAC says:

    @William Franklin,

    The point is, what is the point?
    Why use two systems instead of the one that everyone else uses? (Except USA, where it seems you are quite at home).
    True the USA may function ‘quite well’ (but could do a lot better) without the metric system, however, the problem we have in UK is the metric system totally mixed up with a stupid mix of out dated measurements.
    Now, just what part of me does it enrich to hear the weather given in Celsius 98% of the time, with the odd F word thrown in every now and again? Sorry I just can’t be bothered to C&P yet again that F word that I never could spell.
    Please let it be that we all start talking the same measurement language, one language for all people all the time. That being SI.

  18. The Glob says:

    Agree with Brian, it doesn’t enrich anything to have two systems, no point at all. We should remove Fahrenheit and all remaining imperial units asap.

    Indeed, if all we had to offer “culturally” was to use a “system” (which it isn’t) that isn’t even British and that nobody else really understands, that is like saying that we have nothing to offer so must prove that we are British by keeping outdated units among other things.

    This is of course false. Culture has nothing to do with how you measure (or indeed what side of the road you drive but that has nothing to do with metrication), – those are not culture. Measurement is just a tool to get things done properly.

    No, culture is much deeper that – this concerns things like: Our ways of life which means our food – traditional and modern cuisines, our museums, our art, our films, our music, our sport, our ceremonies, our social etiquette and habit: those are things that are part of our culture and thus way of life and which enrich them.

    I have met people from around the world – including from Germany and France. We rarely ever even discuss measurement units, we have more interesting things to talk about than imperial units or why Britain should finish going metric.

    The very few times we do discuss it, all complain that they don’t understand imperial and almost nobody has claimed that Imperial units are part of the British experience, and all agree that it is stupid to keep Imperial whilst largely only teaching metric in school.

    Actually a few months ago, in the chilly month of December here in Lyon, I was walking to work with a colleague, naturally we were speaking in French (my third language). As we entered our building I told her what I thought the temperature was in Celsius, she gave what she thought the measure was, also in Celsius, except that she then asked me if it’s Fahrenheit I used. I simply replied “Don’t understand Fahrenheit, don’t understand miles, feet, or any imperial units. I only use metric.”.

    She was surprised, I mentioned that only Americans use Fahrenheit and then when I explained the situation in Britain she thought the “British Measurement Mess” was stupid too.

    The measurement mess in Britain, actually affects others’ perception of us, even when we are abroad. I’m surprised though that my colleague thought we used Fahrenheit, the only time this has ever happened. Usually it’s only kilometres and kilometres-per-hour that several abroad assumed we don’t use (understandably due to our out-of-date road signs).

  19. Zach Fahrenfight says:

    I really don’t know what you people are talking about. Celsius for weather is utterly stupid. Only the UK and the US seem to get that (though apparently nobody on this website does).

    Celsius is based on the range between freezing and boiling of water. That makes sense in a laboratory. It is however an utterly ill fit for normal human beings going about normal human lives.

    Fahrenheit is humanistic. It is based on the range typically encountered by human beings on planet earth–the range that our bodies can generally tolerate and that we naturally understand. We easily grasp that 100 degrees Fahrenheit is a really hot day right up at the maximum of what we are ever likely to encounter, and that zero is just as uncomfortable in the other direction.

    Why anyone would ever recommend or accept Celsius as an appropriate way to talk about the weather is beyond me. You people claiming that Fahrenheit users are “backwards” are the real suckers. You’re just accepting what some group of academics in white lab coats decided for you, without knowing why or really thinking it through.

    Fahrenheit forever!

  20. WJG says:

    @Zach Fahrenfight.

    You write.
    “Fahrenheit is humanistic. It is based on the range typically encountered by human beings on planet earth–the range that our bodies can generally tolerate and that we naturally understand. We easily grasp that 100 degrees Fahrenheit is a really hot day right up at the maximum of what we are ever likely to encounter, and that zero is just as uncomfortable in the other direction.”

    Yes. In temperate latitudes, temperatures from 38 degrees Celsius (approx 100 degrees Fahrenheit) to 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) can be considered tolerable and comfortable.

    However using your words..and replacing Fahrenheit with Celsius.
    Celsius is humanistic. It is based on the range typically encountered by human beings on planet earth–the range that our bodies can generally tolerate and that we naturally understand.

    “Encountered by humans on planet earth”..

    It’s not uncommon for the air temperature, at McMurdo Station, the largest base in the Antarctica, to record -50 degrees Celsius.
    At the other extreme it’s not uncommon for the air temperature in central Australia to be recorded at 50 degrees Celsius.

    This 50 degree Celsius swing either side of 0 degree Celsius (-50C to 50C) totalling 100 degrees Celsius are the temperatures encountered by humans on the whole of planet earth. Not just temperatures in cool or temperate latitudes of our planet.

  21. John Frewen-Lord says:

    @Zach Fahrenfight says:

    “I really don’t know what you people are talking about.”

    This is a wind-up, isn’t it? I think you need to get out more.

  22. Zach Fahrenfight says:

    @WJG

    I appreciate your taking the time to respond, but use of McMurdo and central Australia as examples only reinforce my point, in that hardly any humans live there!

    So the Eskimos have 50 words for snow—so what? For them that makes sense. Now let’s force the entire world to adopt a unified snow language. No thanks.

    By all means, our researcher friends at McMurdo Station are welcome to use Celsius. I am not calling for its abolishment, as Celsius makes plenty of sense in science. That doesn’t mean that their needs should dictate the language of the rest of the world for every use case every day.

    Fahrenheit puts weather for most of us on a sensible scale of 0 to 100. Replacing that in with -18 to 38C for that use case is pinko socialist ass-backward foolish.

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