I am a weather junkie. Well, more specifically, a winter weather junkie. I thrive and boil with swelling tumescence at the prognostications of epic atmospheric events. As I type this essay I am ardently staving off the urge to open up my browser and check the status of one of the largest Midwest winter storms in history, and even in doing that I would only satisfy a perfunctory impulse through vicarious experience. It would be something along the lines of meteo-masturbation.
My weather roots are deep, planted circa 1999, when my little nest of semi-bucolic life was walloped with a series of three March winter storms, an unheard of figure for Central Maryland. I was standing naked in my bathroom, the incipience of bathing halted by the sight of snowflakes the diameter of my nut-sack being illuminated by lightening crashing every few seconds; nothing like some thundersnow to set off a lifelong addiction to powder.
Since then tracking the weather has been both a gift and a curse. The good side has been marked by excessive snows, childhood sledding events, and ski trips to exotic locations, deep into the Rockies, where powder up to my knees worked in perfect synergism with the two weed brownies I had ingested for breakfast that morning. Nothing revs my engine like a 980 Low off the coast of Carolina, East of Hatteras, tracking North/Northeast towards the Del Marva with a monster 1038 High locked into Southeastern Canada, just feeding cold air down the East side of the Apps (gotta love that Cold Air Damming - always underdone by the models). Hell, let's complete the fantasy with an Upper Level Low bombing out on the tail end and pummeling just south of D.C. to throw in another six to twelve inches. No amount of snow is enough. The end of a frozen precipitating event is like the junk running out in a Heroin den. Fun over.
While most of my friends idolized sports stars and ridunkulously sexy women (not that I didn't to some degree), my heroes were obscured weather casters such as Paul Kocin, Jim Cantore, and even Bob Ryan (you'll get the "even" in a moment). Whenever Jim Cantore was in D.C. before a winter storm you knew it was on like Donkey Kong. I would already have my sled in hand, on the phone with my friend Dave, telling, not asking him, that I would be coming over shortly in order to utilize his perfectly shaped hill, for sledding. And when Paul Kocin hit the scene for his segment as the winter weather expert on The Weather Cannel I could have
used a tube of lube in order to facilitate the viewing process.
The bad side of weather obsession is marred with dull winters, ostracization by your friends for being a nerd (that's another essay in itself), and most importantly, whiffed forecasts. The dull winters are fairly easily assuaged, mainly by resolving dissonance. First of all you can rationalize that you would rather bask in a mild climate, not having to deal with bundling up and still freezing your ass off due to below zero wind chills on the bad mornings. But more importantly you know you won't have to subjugate yourself to the undying hope of a snowstorm, which even in the best winters in Maryland, are hard to come by. Being outcast by your friends is a little more difficult to deal with, but this is also enervated by the fact that this happens during the more active winters in which you probably won't care too much if your friends are around or not with all of the action going on up and down the eastern seaboard. Plus, as I've gotten older, the disdain towards my obsession in regards to anything meteo-related during severe events has been replaced with gratefulness for knowing someone who can actually give a timely, accurate forecast.
Which brings me to the final and most important con of weather obsession: whiffed forecasts. Nothing will grind a bone with the weather weenie like a whiffed forecast. What happens in Buffalo Bill's torture/rape hole pales in comparison to the grieving rituals of winter weather junkies who aren't served the fix they were promised. I've seen rants on weather blogs and forums that could have matched up to the diatribes thrown at FEMA and the Bush administration during the Katrina aftermath. You would have thought the lack of snow was killing off species by the thousands by the way these people react to a whiffed forecast.
The winter of 2009-2010 was an anomaly for my parts of the country, not only in the frequency and intensity of storms, but also in the accuracy of forecasting. Most of the storms were forecast with accuracy well in advance of their arrival, allowing the public to properly prepare for monster blizzards that would entrap families within their homes - often without power - for days, or even weeks at a time. The Snowmageddon blizzard was pegged many days out, with details of amounts and tracking fine tuned well before its arrival.
The problem with quality forecasting (unfortunately there has to be a problem with people doing their
jobs correctly) is that weather forecasting is such an inexact science, such a fluctuating pendulum of inconsistency, and people are too shortsighted to see past the whole "what have you done for me lately" deal. When the weathermen and women are on point, people forget the times they screwed up and really crapped the bed on certain forecasts. When the times are bad, people extrapolate these whiffs unto the professionals' entire careers, casting aside meteorology as a mythical practice that can never be perfected (and probably never will be).
To add insult to injury, there are certain whiffed forecasts that are overlooked by the public because the outcome better served the weather preferences of those more vocal throughout the meteo community. Take January 25th, 2000 for example. This was in the middle of a typical La Nina winter in which the warmer Pacific Ocean leads to an amplified northern Jet stream. These types of winters on the whole are warmer on the East Coast, and drier for that matter (an El Nino winter, like that of 2009-2010, leads to an amplified southern stream and dips in the arctic jet, leading to colder, more snowy winters in the East). However, patterns are patterns, and are meant to be broken. On January 24th, 2000, a strong Low Pressure system formed north of the Gulf of Mexico and tracked East/Northeast towards the Carolina Coast, dumping several inches of snow across the South (I'm literally drawing wood as I type this). Now, here is where things took a turn for the worse (pun intended) for the professionals. The models up to this point had consistently produced an OTS (Out to Sea) solution, in which the Low would continue its general progression, turning Northward too late and with not enough amplification to give the Northeast Coast a significant winter event. The forecast for my area ranged from a dusting to up to two inches if we were to get lucky (mainly based off of Bob Ryan's evening news forecast). I had gone to bed before the tables had turned, but by 00z that evening, the models took an unprecedented shift westward with the storm's track (though, another point worth mentioning is the lack of "nowcasting" done by the professionals, which was also evident in another storm I will cover, the Boxing Day event just after Christmas 2010. Nowcasting is essentially looking at current radar and satellite and judging progression of storms using intuition and prior knowledge of past events in a certain forecast area. I remember looking
at radar imagery during the evening news on Jan. 2000 and thinking to myself that the storm looked like it was taking an awful sharp turn to the North. Yet since I didn't exactly have a meteo degree I wrote off my observation as an uneducated wishful perception. More on this later). The storm became projected for a much more Northerly track, taking the Low right off of the coast, putting my area, along with the majority of the big cities along the coast, in line for a MECS/HECS (Major/Historical East Coast Storm).
In this situation the blown forecast was noted, but not cast under a negative spotlight by the entire weather community outside of the professional community (there was a great paper done by Paul Kocin which included this specific storm). However, had this been an opposing situation, one in which the models projected big snows and busted East, the public would have been outraged. Snow lovers would have rioted, plow crews enraged at the false alarms, millions of dollars wasted on salt crews, etc. But since the outcome favored the weather hobbyists and enthusiasts, who embrace surprise snowstorms, the public (relatively) shortly forgot this specific forecast whiff.
The reason I detail this specific storm is because it serves to indicate inconsistencies in the public view of weather forecasting. These inconsistencies set the precedent for a more central argument; that the public simply does not know where to get their information for weather forecasting, and therefore their views on the quality of forecasting are skewed towards whatever medium they choose to focus on.
Imagine you are back in college. Your best friend Rudolph passes you the joint as Maybelline kicks off on your eight track. The song, via associative linkage, reminds Rudolph that his friend Maybelline had mentioned that she was just newly single and looking to date, and Rudolph thinks you are just the right match. You ask Rudolph what she looks like, how hot she is. Rudolph says she's absolutely smashing and that you would be hard pressed to hold your load upon seeing her.
The problem with Rudolph's description of Maybelline is that it is the only opinion. Men enjoy a variety of flavors in women, as do women in men. One person's analysis of a female specimen's looks could be the antithesis of another's. In order to get a better estimation of how Maybelline looks you are going to want to get a larger sample of opinions in order to produce an average or mean estimation
- one that will be closer to your eventual opinion and will account for some chaos in you opinion.
This crude and possibly misogynistic analogy can easily be applied to weather forecasting. In fact, professional mets use this type of forecasting themselves. There are several operational forecasting models - or supercomputers (the Euro, the GFS, the GGEM to name a few) - and these models are called operational models. These models run forecasts and then are averaged out with the outcomes or solutions of each other in order to give another view of what the weather might be.
In terms of the public the same methodology should be applied. The public will often see one forecast and then assume that every other met is saying the same thing and that if the weather isn't congruent with that specific forecast, the forecast is a bust.
To complicate things further, the public often gets their forecast information from the wrong places. In fact, I would beg to say that the vast majority of the public relies on inaccurate weather forecast mediums. Just like a professional met who knows a certain model isn't very accurate in a certain situation (i.e. the NAM model tends to overdo precipitation amounts, or the models in general tend to underdo Cold Air Damming events), the public isn't well versed on where the best forecasts come from, and more importantly, how to interpret forecasts.
For starters, TV meteos are mainly garbage, simply put. The lot of them are a bunch of political wannabes who don't even have a degree in meteorology, much less a degree in any type of science for that matter. These people rely on the National Weather Service, leaning on them like a drunken hooker leans on a street lamp pole after getting railed in the ass by three NFL linemen. To make matters worse they use in-house forecasting technology that I could have reproduced with a box of crayons and a fucking stencil pad. Any TV met who even dares mention the word "Futurecast" should immediately be fired. It is basically a colorful array of precip data that doesn't mean much of anything unless you know how to interpret what it's doing and account for its primitive operating mechanisms.
So of course people are going to freak out when a forecast is wrong when most of the public is getting their forecasts from local TV mets who can't tell sleet from hail. Sure, there a couple diamonds in the rough (Bob Ryan, Doug Hill), but they are far offset by those who ride the coattails of
superior forecasts without being able to even interpret them properly.
Then there is The Weather Channel. Ah, The Weather Channel. But wait, you say. How can a channel devoted to the weather be an inferior medium by which to obtain accurate weather forecasts? Well, the answer is more complicated than a yes or no.
The Weather Channel is great for the common viewer, but at the same time can throw off the common viewer. Sounds like a paradox. Let me clear this up. The Weather Channel is great for a few reasons. One, it caters to the entire country. While it may focus on the most salient weather features, often ignoring calmer parts of the country, especially during major events such as blizzards or hurricanes, the Weather Channel does a good job of giving a general idea of what is going on around the country. Another positive about the Weather Channel is its... its... damn. I was hoping for more positives. Well, it seems like the only badge of honor I can attest to for TWC is its ability to make generalizations about current conditions across the country.
The Weather Channel is about as useful as a summary of Naked Lunch; it might provide some insight as to what is going on within the story, but no way can a general synopsis cover the detail and nuance of such a complicated and convoluted tale. And the weather is just like Naked Lunch. A forecast can call for mixed precipitation, but a forecast for mixed precipitation is about as helpful as saying it is not going to be sunny. TWC gives computer automated forecasts that don't even begin to scratch the surface of specifics for a certain area or region. Not only that, but since they deal with an entire country, their forecasts often lag far behind where they should be. On many occasion I've seen the Weather Channel calling for three to six inches of snow when the National Weather Service has already stripped the Winter Storm Warning or downgraded it to an
Advisory because the storm has whiffed or underperformed.
Then there is Accuweather. Accuweather is the hotspot for weather weenies, a place where the newly budding meteo enthusiast will turn for the next hyped storm, even though in the back of their mind they know that Accuweather has hyped ten storms before this that have all busted.
I will give credit where credit is due. Accuweather is a legitimate business (Accuweather is a privately owned company). Their meteorologists are real professionals and know what they are talking about.
That being said, they are privately owned, and being so it is in their best interests to bring in more viewers and site hits.
Accuweather is a hype machine. They advertise every storm as the next blockbuster despite the knowledge that the probabilities of these outcomes are much lower than the probabilities of more reasonable, docile outcomes of storms. For every snowstorm they purport, about a fifth of them come to fruition, and usually with less intensity than originally forecast. What I can attest to, however, is that when the models do begin to come into agreement and the storm track and intensity becomes apparent, Accuweather will fall in line with the other pros and provide quality, accurate forecasting.
Ok, so I've told you where not to get your weather information. I know what you are thinking. Typical Birnbaum pessimism. But that is not entirely true. While I still do hold my skepticism on the predictability of the weather from year to year depending on complexity of patterns and such, there are mediums in which forecasting is consistently at a high quality, or at least higher than most.
The National Weather Service should be the go-to weather medium. These are the real pros, the guys and gals who had the schooling and have had the experience to give reasonable forecasting time and time again. If you can, try and learn their lingo and get into their weather discussion (or should I say, wx?) for your local area. These discussions give some insight as to what they are really thinking about upcoming events. Through these discussions one can get a feel for really how difficult it is to make a forecast. But once again, be careful. Their extended forecasts with the little pictures for each day are automated as well (I think they are translations of the GFS model, one of the more pertinent weather models for the lower 48). Automated forecasts are fairly worthless outside of a day or two.
Outside of the NWS the next best place to get weather information is from online blogs run by real meteorologists, or weather forums in which hobbyists and meteorologists alike discuss forecasts. The best example of a quality blog is the Capital Weather Gang. This group is a serious bunch of mets who have revolutionized weather forecasting. Forecasting, ironically, has taken a pretty deterministic progression. When a winter storm comes, for example, forecasters are pressured to give specific amounts and precipitation types along with exact timing of events.
The Capital Weather Gang makes no attempt at such folly. Despite the strides taken in forecasting the CWG forecasts give probabilities of certain events unfolding, and more times than not, they're forecasts seem to be right on point. For example, if a snowstorm is predicted to impact the area within a few days, the CWG will divide the region into zones, and each zone will be given a range of accumulations and the probabilities of each accumulation range. These forecasts allow a reader to get an idea for what they can expect to see, and a reasonable margin of error that can be attributed to the mass amount of chaos woven into a weather event. And to go even further, the CWG updates forecasts very frequently, something that other "mets" shy away from because they don't want to give off the appearance that they are waffling or unsure of themselves. Well shit, if you are a met you should be unsure of yourself, because the weather is friggin' hard to predict.
In addition to blogs such as the CWG, weather forums are equally informative, if not more so depending on whether you can become accustomed to the lingo. Within these forums - such as the American Weather Forum - meteo junkies and professional meteorologists themselves gather to discuss pertinent weather happenings across the country and around the specific regions in which they reside. It is within these forums that you will actually find the most up to date information due to the fact that relevant discussion circulates so fast on these types of free flow forums. Weather model runs are not even finished outputting their solutions by the time a certain thread will begin to interpret and analyze their outcomes. It is truly a case of the apprentice bests the master, in which hobbyists and enthusiasts alike can hold and spread weather information in a more timely and accurate manner than the organized weather media at times. But beware of the passive aggressive culture on these forums. Some of these people have deep seeded issues that they project via their only perceived positions of power.
I'm hoping that from this segment the public can learn more about how truly difficult it is to predict the weather, but more importantly, where to receive those predictions. It is in my honest opinion that a huge upheaval in weather communications is required in order to restore the sanctity of forecasting. Sanctions on the credibility of local TV meteos need to be placed upon those news stations so that the public
can gain some trust in general forecasting.
An example of what can happen when the public turns to local TV stations for their weather is evident in a recent winter weather event that hit the east coast. On January 26th, 2011, a Low pressure system rode up the Eastern seaboard. Admittedly, the NWS dropped the ball on this one, while the weather forums and blogs really nailed it from the get go (the forums were up in a rage about NWS incompetency on this particular event).
The days leading up to the event were divided into two camps, generally speaking. The first camp, consisting mainly of local TV weather heads and in some respects, The Weather Channel, called for a mostly rainy event, with accumulations of anywhere between one to four inches. The second camp, consisting of the NWS and the weather blogs and forums, realized the potential of a significant weather event from about forty eight hours out, with the NWS being more prudent than the forums and blogs in terms of calling out the potential for an intense winter weather event.
By the morning of the 26th the initial coastal low tracked up the eastern seaboard and dropped a surprise few inches of snow from D.C. to Boston. The models, as usual, had underdone the Cold Air Damming against the East side of the Appalachians, and precipitation that was thought to be rain fell as snow. At this point, with a few inches already on the ground across Central Maryland and Northern Virginia, the local mets still called for one to three or four inches of snow for the day. And this was before the main event was even to hit.
As the coastal Low continued to track slowly North, an Upper Level Low, which is another Low pressure system that is often associated on the Western side of stronger storms, began to bomb out and pummel East/Northeast across Southern West Virginia and into Western Virginia. It was this Low Pressure bomb that was forecast to have significant impact up into the Washington/Baltimore area, with the potential to drop up to ten inches of snow in a very short time period.
Yet despite the major models showing QPF indices of .75-1.25 across much of the area, with the bulk of that precipitation falling while below freezing (QPF is inches of liquid precipitation, and with a general 10:1 ratio of snow to liquid rain, .75-1.25 taken verbatim would be about seven to thirteen inches of snow), the local "mets" couldn't take their eyes away from their inane "Futurecast" models long enough to make
a decent forecast. These in-house models showed the Upper Level disturbance sweep through with mainly rain before ending as a brief period of heavy snow well after rush hour. Yet even an amateur weather hobbyist could have seen on the legitimate models that with heavy precipitation and temperatures starting just above freezing, wet bulb cooling would quickly drop temperatures, and any precipitation would quickly change over to snow. This Upper Level Low was to track to the south of our area, and with a Northwesterly flow around the Low, this would also help keep temperatures down.
Again, these local mets just couldn't see it. Why? Because they aren't professionals. All they could do was recite meteo buzzwords as if the extended hand of weather lingo personified was shoved up their ass, leaving them as the prop dummies for distasteful ventriloquism. "No Arctic High to the North." "Eroding stale cold air." It was a broken record of tired phrases that didn't hold any relevance to the current situation. And the problem was that the public trusted these people, these false occupants of serious position. So by the time rush hour hit the only forecast they had seen was the one on TV that morning, calling for one to three inches with mainly rain during rush hour, while the NWS had already began posting Winter Storm Warnings (albeit far too late for my taste) across the area for upwards of an additional six to ten inches, with rates of one to three inches per hour and thunder and lightening. The results were devastating. People were stuck on the roads for over seven hours in many cases, not even able to make it home from a ten mile commute, having to pull off into hotels that were eventually booked due to straggling commuters. People got into accidents. People died. And what happened the next morning? Sue Palka of Fox5 Washington News got into the studio with her fucking ruler and measured three inches of snow just outside the station in an unbelievably embarrassing display of cowardice, attempting to downplay the situation that had unfurled the past evening, while everyone in their right mind knows that urban heating lowers accumulations in some parts of the D.C. area, and if you go just ten miles towards Northwest D.C. there was over half a foot that fell in a matter of five hours. I got a foot of snow that day, and the only station to call for anything remotely close to that was ABC7 News in Washington, where the Bob Ryan/Doug Hill duo called for 6+ region wide.
The lack of accountability is simply embarrassing. And even more so, weather forecasting is a microcosm within the noxious nature of politics that has overruled logic and sanity in our world today. Image and reputation has replaced credibility and accountability. I mentioned the Boxing Day storm earlier. With this storm every weather medium, including the best of them, called for upwards of six to ten inches in my area. I mentioned Nowcasting - the ability to use radar and satellite imagery to extrapolate the track and nascent intensities of storms. Amateur meteo hobbyists tracking this Boxing Day event cancelled the storm well before the NWS or any other weather medium. Yet because the weather folks were afraid of the damage to their reputations, holding out for hope of the storms coming to fruition, millions of dollars worth of salt was wasted on roadways, money that could have been used to better so many things.
Keywords: Rogue, Mets, Blame, weather, forecast
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