MetService meteorologist Lewis Ferris has fronted endless media requests and live crosses this week. Is he getting it right?
Lewis Ferris is trying to find his weather map. “This week’s been so insane” he mutters as he closes multiple tabs on the three screens across his Wellington desk. He’s just been asked to predict this week’s weather and Ferris is clearly frustrated at not having that information quickly at hand. “I had to restart my computer. Everything is everywhere. I’m losing my mind.”
Right now, the MetService meteorologist is in hot demand. As record-breaking rain drenches Auckland and causes widespread flooding, slips and road closures, media outlets need someone to explain what’s happening. More often than not, they turn to Ferris, who, with his frizzy blonde bop of a hair-do and surfer-boy demeanour, has become a go-to spokesperson for the weather.
He’s appeared on RNZ, Stuff, Newshub and TVNZ repeatedly, but reporters have needed to form a line. When The Spinoff calls at our designated interview time of 9am, he asks if he can have half an hour. Nearly two hours later, he sends an email. “When it rains, it pours,” he writes. “How’s 1pm?” When we finally talk, it’s rushed because Ferris is due to appear on live TV again. He normally does just a couple of interviews a week, but this week he’s done more than 20. “We’ve had a few 6am starts,” he says. “I was live on [Australian breakfast news show] ABC yesterday.”
Reading the weather is one part of Ferris’ job, but communicating it is the other. He considers the two equally important. “There’s no point in having a forecast if no one cares,” he says. He looks at weather patterns as if they’re a story, and he’s the storyteller. “Trying to get that story right is one of my biggest roles.” Right now, he’s trying to find ways to explain how more rain in Auckland would be disastrous, yet other parts of the country desperately need it. “The South Island needs the rain. It’s incredibly dry.”
The Spinoff first met Ferris in December at a time when Auckland seemed to be already getting all of the rain. He calmly and politely told us it wasn’t. “It’s about normal, even on the drier side,” he said. Yes, it was raining most days, hence the humidity, but it just wasn’t raining that much. He was calm, patient and considerate, gently breaking the bad news that this summer was likely to be messy. Tellingly, Ferris also said this: “What we’ve been seeing the last couple weeks is kind of what will happen potentially through December and into January.”
He was, sadly, 100% correct on that one. Yet moments like that put Ferris in a no-win situation. Weather patterns are unpredictable. If he gets his story wrong, he has to wear it. Yet, if the weather’s bad and he predicts it correctly, he gets blamed for the rain. During Auckland’s recent drenching, one Twitter user took a screengrab of Ferris standing next to a weather map while fronting a news bulletin and wrote: “I’m not certain how, but somehow, it’s all this guy’s fault.”
Ferris saw that and it made him laugh. “That’s part and parcel of the industry we work in,” he says. “It’s an incredibly hard thing to forecast the weather, but it’s also hard to communicate it appropriately.” He likens his job to a wizard gazing into a crystal ball – with a bit more data involved. “There is so much inherent uncertainty in predicting the future. We do a pretty good job for the vast majority of the time. But there will be times where maybe our forecasts fall short or we over-forecast.”
When it comes to the summer that turned Auckland into a swimming pool, did he get it right? Ferris believes the MetService did. “On Thursday morning we had a heavy rain watch enforced for Auckland,” he says. He’s using his calm, measured TV voice now. “New information came out to upgrade that to an orange warning. We also issued a severe thunderstorm watch.”
Again, he’s patient, choosing his words carefully so he doesn’t use language that’s confusing. The lingering effects of La Niña weather patterns, combined with a low coming from the north, excess moisture and a thunderstorm, combined to cause all that carnage. “It was on the extreme end,” says Ferris. “It wasn’t normal by any stretch of the word.”
Yet, as the rain poured, life went on as usual in Auckland. More than 40,000 fans began trekking out to Mt Smart for an Elton John concert. Stages for Auckland Domain’s Fatboy Slim show and Western Springs’ Laneway festival were being built. People left work at 5pm and organised their evenings like every other Friday. No one seemed to know what what was about to hit them. Soon, people would be swimming away from their homes, and four people would die.
Why didn’t we take this seriously? Here, Ferris defers. It’s his role to predict the weather, not to alert the masses. “That’s beyond my knowledge or my ability to explain,” he says. “I can talk about weather forecasts and what we say. I’m not responsible for speaking [on behalf of] those agencies that are up the chain and and what their response was.” In other words, don’t ask him about Mayor Wayne Brown and his ongoing antics. That’s none of his business.
One thing’s for certain: it was a deluge of biblical proportions. If anyone in Auckland had an ark (shout out Jason Kerrison), it would have come in handy. From Wellington, the MetService team watched on with a mix of trepidation, concern and anxiety. Then the adrenaline kicked in, says Ferris. “It was like, ‘OK, that has happened, what do we do now? We need to tell people what is happening. We need to update our forecast to talk about that risk.'” Despite the novelty of the event, it was not something any meteorologist would celebrate. “You just want to get information out to people ASAP.”
Humble, empathetic, smart and funny, it’s no wonder Ferris has become a media darling. Yet he’s got some surprising news: his own weather story is coming to an end. At the start of March, Ferris is changing careers and becoming a full-time photographer. He’s been doing it on the side for years, taking moody, arty snaps – sometimes of bad weather. “Goodbye financial security,” he deadpans.
But before Ferris departs, there’s time for one more prediction. He’s finally found his weather map containing next week’s data. The news, against all the odds, is surprising: Auckland looks like it’s about to see some sun. “I’m not saying it’s going to be dry,” he says, “but it’s looking pretty good.” He talks about “southwesterly winds” and “a big area of high pressure” then, as he’s done time and again across all those interviews, Ferris chooses words everyone can understand. “You know what? It might feel summery for you guys in Auckland.”