Meteorologists sometimes get a bad rap. We are the butt of many jokes such as “I wish I could be wrong __% of the time and still keep my job” or how about Bill Murray’s tweet from 2013 “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me 350,000 times, you are a weatherman.” However, we are correct way more often then you might think! There is one saying that has stuck with me throughout my career. I read it in the book Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith and it is originally from In: The Thunderer, Volume II, Num 10, March 1946. P. 9.
And now among the fading embers, These in the main are my regrets, When I am right no one remembers, When I am wrong no one forgets.
3 Reasons Why We Aren’t Always Wrong
1.When most people complain about the meteorologist, it usually has to do with rain, snow, thunderstorms, and type of precip. “Mr. So and So on the TV said we had a 60% chance of rain and it was sunny! I’d lose my job if I were wrong as often as him”. So what did the broadcast meteorologist actually mean by 60%? Well probability of precipitation is more complex than just “there’s a 50% chance of rain”. Forecasters use a formula which multiplies the forecaster confidence by areal coverage. For example, if the forecaster is 80% certain that rain will develop and will cover 60% of the service area, the PoP= .8 x .6= 50% chance of rain. For more on this, check out this article I wrote in September 2013 for the National Weather Service Explanation of “Probability of Precipitation”. Below is a map of forecast verifications for PoP in a 24 hour period from when the forecast was issued for January 2016. It is calculated with a Brier score, so basically the closer to 0 the better the forecast was.
2.Earlier this year, February 2 to be exact, there were several tornadoes across Alabama and Mississippi. There was a nightly news segment about the tornadoes and the intro said the tornadoes hit “without warning”. This really bothered me for a lot of reasons, mainly because of how inaccurate the statement was. The potential for severe weather on that day had been forecasted several days ahead of time and according to this article, many schools dismissed early in preparation for the storms.
Tornado lead times have increased significantly since the 1940’s. Actually, up until the 1940’s, weather forecasters were not even allowed to use the word “tornado” in forecasts or warnings because the Weather Bureau was afraid it would panic the public. According to this article from CNN, the first tornado forecast didn’t go out until 1948. The first hook echo (an indicator of a tornadic storm on radar) wasn’t made until 1953. Up until the 1980’s the lead time on a tornado was only around 5 minutes and according to NOAA, the average lead time now is 10-15 minutes. So what has changed to improve those lead times? Technology. An upgrade to radars occurred during the 80’s along with improvements in model data, communication, and general weather forecaster knowledge.There have also been more improvements on seasonal tornado outlook forecasting after the 2011 outbreaks. Looking at the bigger picture can give us a better idea of what to expect in the upcoming severe season and areas to watch, but because tornadoes happen on such a small scale, it is hard to forecast them down to the exact location ahead of time.
3.Lastly, the advancement of technology has allowed fast distribution of weather content. The internet in general has allowed weather models and data to be reachable by just about anyone. Every TV meteorologist, private company, and enthusiast seems to have their own input. The problem here is that there are so many people out there who are not professionals giving their opinions and making the rest of us look bad. On that note too, not all TV stations employ degreed meteorologists, some only have communications or journalism degrees, so before you blame the meteorologist, make sure he is one! For example, Al Roker has won the title “America’s Best Weatherman” in the past, keyword here, weatherman, he is not a meteorologist. Al Roker does not have a formal degree in meteorology so although he has been in the field for quite some time and does know a thing or two, he does not have formal training about the science behind certain weather processes. So when it comes down to a significant weather event make sure you get your weather information from a source that has a good track record.