Unless you’re coming from the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the weather will probably be one of the biggest adjustments you’ll have to make when you move to Belfast. Eventually we’ll cover how to dress for varying conditions and other practical considerations, but first, you’ll need to be able to decode the weather forecast.
Weather forecasting is a very different art in the United Kingdom. Americans are accustomed to statements like: “It will rain today.” “Tomorrow will be sunny.” “The high will be 80 and the low will be 60.” In the UK, you are much more likely to hear a big jumble of weather words that will leave you unsure what to expect. E.g., “Today will be brighter, with spells of sun, freshening winds, gales in the north, spotty showers, downpours in many areas, some lingering mist in houses whose addresses have a ‘2’ in them, and touches of snow in the Pennines and in London’s West End. Highs will be 7 or 8 in some areas but 2 or 3 in others, with lows between -1 and 10. So, on the whole, a perfect day for that Bank Holiday picnic,” etc.
The main thing you as an American need to understand is that what you’re hearing is usually the most positive possible interpretation of what the weatherperson knows. “Brighter,” for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean “bright.” It just means that it may not be as soul-crushingly dismal as it was yesterday. It could still be fairly “not bright.”
“Spells of sun” means you may see the sun at some point in the day, depending on where you are. Only two people on the coast of Cornwall may see it that day, but that counts.
You may want to start a log book of what the various terms mean. A “freshening wind” sounds like a nice thing, but it’s not. “Freshening” means “kind of damp, wickedly fast, brutally cold, but not stagnant.” A “shower” similarly sounds pleasant, but the forecaster is probably thinking of torrential but relatively brief periods of heavy rain that may or may not be preceded and/or followed by prolonged lighter rains. In practice, this means you’ll never dry out if you’re outside. (More on this later when we discuss how to dress.)
“Gales” are generally the worst thing that hit the UK weatherwise. They are not exaggerating. You’re talking 50 mph or more. And since all wind in the UK is cold wind, gales are biting. The fact that they’re “in the north” means nothing; the north is always bad. Scotland in particular always gets the worst of the weather; the forecast for Scotland is largely an exercise in making sure Scottish people don’t feel left out. It is always cold and windy there.
Northern Ireland falls somewhere in the middle, a bit more likely to be like Scotland than like England weatherwise. If Scotland is having gales, Northern Ireland is probably having something fairly close to it, although Belfast is usually slightly nicer than the rest of Northern Ireland (the mountains seem to shelter it). Watch Scotland’s weather, imagine feeling as bad as its picture paints things to be, and you’ll probably get a good sense of how you as an American will feel in Belfast.
One final piece of advice: No matter what, do not believe a day will have no rain in it. If you listen carefully, terms like “sunny” are usually hedged somehow, e.g., “largely, mainly, generally,” etc. Do not believe it. There are days without rain in certain locations, but no one really believes the entire country ever misses rain entirely. The weatherperson will never tell you not to do something outside, as someone would in the States. The worst day you can imagine will be just fine for a picnic in the weatherperson’s world.
You’ll work out your own system. It requires practice, diligence, and good humor. Hopefully this gets you started. Good luck.