Hungary’s top meteorologists fired after incorrect forecast on national holiday. From Telex.
The chiefs of the National Meteorological Service have been fired after – according to the government – they made the wrong weather forecast and the fireworks planned for Statehood Day had to be postponed. A day later, the 16 department heads of the service issued a statement about strong political pressure.
The Hungarian government had planned a four-day-long celebration with multiple concerts, various shows, and other events in Budapest to celebrate Hungarian Statehood Day on 20 August.
It was all supposed to culminate in the final event, which was announced as “Europe’s biggest fireworks display” in the evening on the 20th.
After the austerity measures due to the energy crisis affecting not just Hungary, but all of Europe, were announced, several Hungarian towns canceled their own, much smaller fireworks and vowed to spend the money on helping the needy in their communities in the coming months instead.
Civilians started an online petition against the Budapest fireworks being held this year (due to the economic situation), which was signed by more than 140,000 people. This did not deter the government, however, and it continued as planned, declaring the documents containing the cost of the celebration as classified for the next 10 years.
A Forecast of Rain
As the day neared, and the weather forecast projected rainy, stormy days ahead – including for the capital city on the 20th – the question of what would happen was on many people’s minds: including Hungary’s top weather expert, Kornelia Radics and her deputy, Gyula Horvath.
It was based on their prediction of rain and the high possibility (75-80%) of a storm that the government’s special task force decided to postpone the fireworks by a week – a mere seven hours before the planned event. In the end, there was no storm, and not even rain over Budapest on Saturday evening.
Not long after, on Monday evening, the sacking of Radics and Horvath was announced by the office of Laszlo Palkovics, minister of technology and industry.
The precedent for the decision was undoubtedly 20 August, but whether the decision was professionally sound is a big question, since, on 20 August, there was a chance of storms developing until the very last minute, but it remains to be investigated in detail why the rain forecasts did not come true in the end, Rita Nagy-Kurunczi, chief meteorologist of Idokep, a leading meteorological website, told Telex. According to her, “although most weather forecast models (including the best-performing European model, but also the U.S., German, and French models) predicted an extensive rainfall block in the evening hours for the central part of the country, the expected event did not occur.”
After the fireworks display on Saturday was canceled, and the rain didn’t come, the government media immediately found the culprit: the National Meteorological Service (OMSZ). According to them, the special task force in charge of the celebrations had received information from OMSZ in the morning that there was a 75-80% chance of rain or downpours around 9 p.m. Then, OMSZ warned of cloudbursts and thunderstorms in its posts before noon although they did add that the rainy weather “by its very nature, is subject to considerable uncertainty.”
In the end, the special task force headed by Zoltan Kovacs [secretary of state for public diplomacy and relations] decided to cancel the evening fireworks display in the interest of safety and reschedule it for the following Saturday. But the rain failed, and in response, if not immediately, there were a series of articles in the government media on the subject of weather forecasts “seriously wrong, thoroughly miscalculated by OMSZ.” OMSZ itself responded to all this by saying that on Saturday evening, “the least likely of all scenarios based on the data available by mid-morning happened. This uncertainty factor is unfortunately inherent in our profession, and we have tried to communicate that.”
Yet the top management of the OMSZ was fired on Monday. In response, on Tuesday, following the barrage of attacks from the entire government media because of the “false forecast,” and in reaction to the sacking of the two leaders of the institution, 16 department heads of the Hungarian Meteorological Service issued a statement, declaring, among other things:
“We made our forecasts for the time and location of the fireworks based on our best professional knowledge. (…) However, during the process of liaising with the Special Task Force, expectations and pressures emerged beginning from 19 August until the moment the fireworks were canceled, which had a major impact on the way we issued and communicated our forecasts and completely ignored the scientifically accepted uncertainty inherent in meteorological forecasts. It is our firm view that, despite considerable pressure from decision-makers, our colleagues at the OMSZ have performed to the best of their ability and are not responsible for any alleged or actual damage.”
Meteorologists Call for an Independent Investigation
The professionals consider the media campaign against them to be unjust, the dismissal of the chiefs unacceptable and unfounded, and this to be misplacement of the collective responsibility of the Special Task Force.
They write that the events surrounding the weather on the public holiday “collectively represent political pressure on the more than 150 years of work in the OMSZ” due to which “we can no longer, true to our oath as government officials, continue to perform to the best of our professional ability without outside influence.
“In order to restore the integrity and preserve the professional independence of the OMSZ, we consider the following steps to be essential:
A review of the activities, decision-making, and communication methods of the Special Task Force as of 20 August this year by an independent commission of inquiry. The results of this review should be made public, and the decision-making mechanisms improved on the basis of these results.
“A technical evaluation of the meteorological forecasts for 20 August by an independent panel of experts and making the evaluation public.
The withdrawal of the suspension of Dr. Kornelia Radics and Gyula Horvath pending the investigation.”
Several Hungarian intellectuals have been reacting to the news of the two experts’ sacking. In a social media post, writer Krisztian Nyari posted a story entitled “Stalin’s meteorologist” about Aleksey Feodosheivch Vangengheim, claiming the move is reminiscent of Stalinist times. The Russian expert was accused of and sentenced for “sabotaging the fight against drought” with the “wrong” weather forecast in 1934.
Judit Presinszky, Andrea Horvath Kavai, and Tamas Nemet are journalists at Telex, where this article was originally published. Translated by Istvan Dezsenyi. Transitions has slightly edited the text for style. Reprinted with permission. Telex is a news website started by journalists from Index.hu who quit en masse in July 2020, citing government pressure. Donations can be made via Telex’s site. Telex also publishes a newsletter with links to its English-language content.