Saturday, May 22, 2010

Those Butterflies are Screwing with the Weather Again

I want to write another one of my meaningless rants today, just because doing so makes me feel better somehow. This one concerns the weatherman. Yes, I know. The weatherman always gets blamed for bad weather. But that’s not really what I’m going to blame him for. (Oh, and by “weatherman” I’m actually referring to any of the television weather broadcasters, regardless of their gender.)

Like I said, I’m not trying to blame the weatherman for bad weather. That would be silly. He has no control over the weather. He doesn’t order up severe storms, tornadoes, or long droughts. The weatherman simply reports the weather. What are the current temperature, sky conditions, and wind speed?

The weatherman’s job is also to forecast future weather. Some of them, probably most of the primary broadcast meteorologists at major television stations, produce their own forecast. They don’t simply parrot what the National Weather Service meteorologists said in their latest four-times-a-day update.

And like the NWS meteorologists, the TV weathermen sometimes (often?) get the forecast wrong. But getting the forecast wrong isn’t really what has raised my ire either. Not really. I understand that weather forecasting is not an exact science and that sometimes weather forecasters are going to get it wrong. It has something to do with the chaos factor, otherwise known as the butterfly effect. Technically, it’s known as sensitive dependence to initial conditions. It means that, in order to produce a spot-on forecast more than just a few hours in advance, you would have to know much more about the current condition of the atmosphere, all over the world, than is possible to know. It’s not simply a matter of data, though. It’s a matter of knowing the precise conditions for every square foot of atmosphere and at every altitude worldwide. An unknown disturbance in just one square foot of atmosphere might be enough to throw off the forecast significantly at some point in the future, hence, the butterfly effect.

Anyway, getting back to what is really bugging me, it’s not that I’m miffed at the fact the forecast is so often wrong. It’s more about the arrogance with which the forecasters deliver their drivel. Ok, in all fairness, they are right more often than they are wrong, at least with short-term forecasts. But the way they deliver the message sounds like a sure thing. We all know that it isn’t a sure thing, but at the same time, given that the weatherman is right much of the time, it’s hard not to trust him when he sounds so convincing.

My thoughts go back several years when I was planning a short vacation. Do I want to go to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or do I want to go to Tennessee. It’s June, so if I go north (from Indiana) I take a chance that the weather will turn cold. If I got south, it might get sultry. So, naturally, I consulted the weatherman.

According to his long-range forecast, he seemed fairly certain that it was going to rain in Tennessee but it would be fair and pleasant in Upper Michigan. I chose Michigan.

We got to Mackinac Island and disembarked on our first day of sightseeing and fudge buying. But by late in the afternoon, clouds were starting to roll in. A couple of hours later, it was drizzling. It had also gotten colder.

I thought, “This isn’t supposed to happen.” So back at the hotel, I turned on the tube and found a weatherman. The forecast had changed. In fact, it was 180-degrees out of whack with the former forecast. It was now supposed to rain for several days with temperatures in the 40s. It was a miserable vacation. Oh, and Tennessee was warm and sunny.

A week ago, on Monday, the weatherman came on with his five-day forecast, which showed that it would rain through Wednesday, but Thursday was supposed to be warm and sunny. The guy didn’t hedge his bets. He normally puts a percentage chance for rain on each day of the extended forecast if, indeed, he thinks there is any chance of rain at all. There was no percentage on Thursday. There was just a big smiling sun.

Thursday morning arrived; I was getting ready for work and turned on the set to hear the morning report. The same guy was now claiming that there was a really good chance of showers and even thunderstorms beginning around three o’clock. He didn’t apologize for his earlier error. It was just a matter-of-fact forecast that now included rain after work. I was pissed.

If he had given a disclaimer on his Monday’s forecast that it might, indeed, rain on Thursday afternoon even if he didn’t at the moment think it would, I would have felt a little better about it. Well, not about the rain, but I would have had more respect for the weatherman. But no, he arrogantly told me on Monday that there would be no rain on Thursday, and then on Thursday is said, “rain this afternoon folks.”

If he had been just a little contrite; if he had said something like, “Sorry folks, I realize I told you earlier in the week that it would not rain today. And I apologize for my error. Shit happens.” But he didn’t. He just arrogantly went on and gave his new forecast with the same degree of assurance. No looking back on old mistakes for this guy, or for any of the broadcast meteorologists, really.

The Thursday forecast called for rain on Thursday night and Friday, but fair on Saturday. Should I trust him this time? Turns out, he was right. But I still can’t forgive him for his method of delivery, as though no mistakes are possible. Yes, we all know the nature of forecasts. And we should all take the long-range predictions with a grain of salt. But when they are delivered professionally and with great assurance, at the very least the weatherman should acknowledge his error when he gets it wrong.

There’s an old weather saying that goes like this:

And in the dying embers these are my main regrets:
When I’m right no one remembers; when I’m wrong no one forgets.

How true. But maybe if they would forecast with less certainty and a little more humility, perhaps we would forgive them when they screw it up.

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