A Forecaster's Problem - WSPA.com

A Forecaster's Problem

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Spartanburg, SC -

     From the "thankful that wasn't us, this time" department:

     A relatively big snow event was forecast this week for the Baltimore/Washington D.C. corridor.  Temperatures warmed up just enough to turn snow to rain in many areas, and warm enough to keep snow from sticking in areas where it was falling. 

     Yes, heavy snow was correctly predicted in areas to their west.  And this storm would cause more heavy snow in New England, along with coastal flooding issues.  It was not a minor storm.

     But what will many people in Baltimore and Washington remember?  They'll remember that half a foot of snow was forecast to hit…and a lot of people never saw it.

     As you might guess, weather people up there have been hearing about it.  Some good-natured ribbing, others not as much.

     Despite what some nay-sayers think, the overall accuracy of forecasts has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, thanks to a better understanding of weather processes and to amazing leaps in technology.  We can see weather in ways we couldn't before; we can make better forecasts as a result.

     This tech boom has had another affect.  There's so much more information we can get to you.  As recently as ten years ago, how often were you able to find hour-by hour looks at what the weather will do?  Today, you're just a click away at wspa.com.  Many people now expect that pinpoint detail.

    Winter weather is one thing that really messes up pinpoint detail.

    Here's an example.  If we forecast rain and 51…and it ends up raining with a high of 53…to all of us either result will look and feel the same.  Generally, a degree or two either way isn't noticeable.

    But what if we forecast snow or ice with a high of 31, and instead we hold at 33 through the day…the roads never freeze, and snow or ice turns to rain?  Again, a very small temperature difference, but as it straddles the freezing mark, it becomes the difference between an awful winter day and an annoying one.  The difference between nailing the forecast and hearing nasty things said about our personal lives.

    Pinpointing where that freezing line will set up can be tough.  The line may even wobble around during a storm.  If that occurs over a rural area, we don't hear much about it.  If it happens over a city, it's the difference between a great forecast and a complete bust.

    That's just a simple example…other things can change with storms that could throw off a forecast.  All good meteorologists know this. 

    Perhaps meteorologists should be admitting the limitations more than we are, and doing a better job of indicating uncertainty if it exists.

    There, I said it. 

   I don't see this as a cop-out; I see this as properly raising your awareness of what the weather is capable of doing.

    I believe Storm Team 7 is doing this already.  I use the "big" February snow as an example…we knew it was coming, we knew some would see it and others weren't, and we knew that isolated higher amounts would occur.  What was not certain a day in advance was where those higher amounts would track as snow showers developed in the afternoon.  I think as a team, we did a good job of letting you know the possibilities…and at least prepared everyone for the general outcome.

    The trouble occurs…and I won't name any names here…when some people oversell what they can do, rather than admit the limitations. 

    The main goal should be to raise awareness and make sure you are prepared for the possibilities.  Obviously, we would rather nail the forecast than be off.  More importantly, we would prefer to keep you aware in case the worst happens, rather than leave you unprepared.

    All meteorologists I know will err on the side safety, given the choice.  I hope we continue to do the same.

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