If you read my essays in Forbes regularly, thank you. You probably have noticed that I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. Weather has been quite active in recent weeks and affected high-profile events like the Boston Marathon and Masters golf tournament. Over the course of the past weekend along, I saw breathtakingly ridiculous things said about forecasts or messaging of critical weather information. I started to reflect on my 25 years as a research meteorologist and atmospheric sciences professor. During my career, here are the 7 most unreasonable expectations that I often hear about weather forecasts.
1. Stop breaking into my TV show. This one is at the forefront of my mind because a meteorologist in Atlanta received death threats for interrupting the Masters golf tournament to warn about tornadoes. Noted ESPN journalist Mike Wilson also tweeted his displeasure for the CBS affiliate in Washington D.C. interrupting a replay of one of Tiger Woods’ moments. However, the Washington Post Capital Weather Gang summed it up perfectly,
Since 2000, 1,451 people have been killed by tornadoes in the United States. During the same time period, there have been zero fatalities resulting from being unable to watch a replay of golf.”
By the way, those that complain all of the time about such interruptions should review this statement on the FCC website,
FCC rules require broadcasters and cable operators to make local emergency information accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, and to persons who are blind or have visual disabilities. This rule means that emergency information must be provided in both audio and visual formats.
2. The expectation of “exactness.” I often get questions like “Is it going to rain on my daughter’s reception at location X around 5 pm?” This is not inherently an unreasonable question. Within the time frame of 0-12 hours, hyper-local forecasts from high-resolution models and weather radar can provide this information albeit with some uncertainty. However, I often have people ask questions like that 5 days out. While 3 to 5 day forecasts are fairly accurate in a broad sense, it is important for people to understand that precipitation forecasts require probabilistic approaches. For this reason, you often see specific forecasts of air temperature (The high today will be 75 degrees F) and a probability for rainfall (40% chance). If you still struggle with what percent chance of rain means, review my previous Forbes piece at this link. Uncertainty is inherently a part of predicting the future. The expectation of “exactness” by the public is particularly strange since other professions like investors, medical doctors, sports analysts, and other prognosticators seem to be held to a different standard. Forecasting the evolution of a dynamic fluid on a rotating body with all types of variables is hard, and we actually do it pretty well. I think steady improvements in weather prediction skill over time (ignore the wise crack jokes they are wrong) have actually elevated public expectations, and they may not realize there are still limitations.
3. “It came without warning.” This is a tough one because there are times that people just don’t get the warnings about a tornado or a damaging wind event. There are many reasons for this: They may not have received the warning, ignored it. They may have misunderstood the geographic region under threat. They could have even overestimated the time frame for the storm to evolve. However, I often notice the “it came without warning” statement for regions that clearly had severe weather warnings for days to several hours in advance. For example, I previously argued there was ample weather information to make different decisions in the Missouri Duckboat tragedy. While it is not often possible to pinpoint the direct moment a tornado or severe wind gust will happen, meteorologists can provide ample information to make proactive decisions as the Masters tournament did this weekend.
4. The Apps. This one bugs me because I am amazed at how over-reliant people have become on weather apps. I saw many frustrated golf fans say “we don’t need the TV meteorologists anymore just look at the Apps.” By the way, the Masters was on an App too, but I digress. As I mentioned earlier, the FCC requires stations to provide such information, and there are numerous people that are not comfortable with Apps or technology. They are not a part of the “App-mospheric scientist” or “social media-rologist” culture. As I have stated previously,
Don’t get me wrong, there is very useful information that help plan your week or perhaps day….all Apps are not created equal and should not be painted with the same broad stroke….However, it is important to understand the limitations of Apps in rapidly evolving severe weather, snow, or hazardous weather. Too many times in my own personal circle, I hear people make statements based on Apps that just aren’t true.
5. Weather isn’t orderly. As a scientist, I know that weather has many non-linearities. In other words, “a” doesn’t necessarily lead to “b” and then “c.” Weather doesn’t always unfold in an orderly and predictable sequence. For example, a recent “bomb cyclone” event that caused tremendous flooding in the Great Plains and was pretty well-forecasted. If you look closely, predicted rainfall amounts may not have raised concerns about flooding. So why was the flooding so bad? It was a “perfect” convergence of rainfall, a rapid warm-up, snowmelt, and a frozen surface.
6. Anomalies are just that, anomalies. By definition, an anomaly is something that deviates from normal. How many times have you heard someone say, “I am not leaving, we get hurricanes or flooding all of the time.” With Hurricane Harvey, residents in Houston are quite familiar with flooding. It happens all of the time. However, 50 inches of rainfall over the span of a few days is an anomaly event. Normal experiences and reference points don’t prepare us for anomalies.
7. Folklore doesn’t trump science. There are all types of folklore and traditions tied to weather including almanacs, groundhogs, and cute sayings. By the way, there is a credibility in some of these things based on long-term observations or correlations so I am not dismissing lore like “red sky in the morning sailors take warning.” This weblink explains why this means. However, it is important to understand that modern weather forecasting uses advanced physics, calculus, computers, technology, art, and intuition. Human tendency often anchors perspective in familiarity. For many people, an almanac, folklore and stories from a relative are more familiar and accessible than the Navier-Stokes equations. However, those Navier-Stokes equations are much more helpful for weather forecasts these days.