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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 02/04/2009

Backlash Hits AccuWeather After Lackluster Storm

* Cold for Now, Warm-up for the Weekend: Full Forecast *

One of the strongest winter storms in recent memory lashed the east coast yesterday with strong winds, heavy rain, and paralyzing snow.

Did you miss it?

I suppose you could be forgiven for not noticing it, since what may have turned out to be the blizzard of 2009 ultimately existed solely in computer model simulations of the weather. Despite their best efforts, the models with impersonal acronyms like "GFS" and "ECMWF" could not force the storm scenario they had predicted to come to fruition. A dusting of snow fell around Washington, and a few inches in New York and Boston, but that was far from the one to two feet that was projected at one point.

Keep reading for more on AccuWeather's hype-filled forecast, and the fallout...

The non-storm event provided an interesting case study in how communicators of weather information should balance the need to attract eyeballs, in the form of viewers and readers, with the uncertainties inherent in forecasting that can make even the best forecast go bust. Remarkably, despite an early consensus of the computer models that a major storm was likely on Groundhog Day (that consensus had crumbled by last weekend), most media outlets -- including the Capital Weather Gang -- limited their hype to a Category 2 situation rather than a Cat 5 "hype-cane."

Although there were probably others who leaned too heavily towards hyping the storm, the most notable example of a media organization that balanced the ratings/uncertainty equation in favor of hyping the storm beyond what was meteorologically justified was AccuWeather Inc., the Pennsylvania-based private forecasting company that has a reputation in the weather forecasting industry as frequently being bullish on predicted snowfall amounts.

On its Web site and in press releases, AccuWeather featured blaring headlines of a major storm that left little wiggle room for the company's forecasters to back away from their predictions as it became clear that the storm was not going to materialize as expected. For example, on Jan. 30, AccuWeather distributed a press release that warned of the likelihood of not just one "monster storm," but a string of them in the next few weeks.

Regarding the Groundhog Day event, the press release stated: "The storm coming Monday and Tuesday next week will track from the Gulf of Mexico to a position near Baltimore by Tuesday morning. The storm will take shape on Sunday, spreading rain over Louisiana and neighboring states. The storm will then race through the South on Monday (Groundhog Day) to reach the Northeast by Tuesday."

The use of the word "will," rather than "could" or "may," erroneously conveyed the message that the forecast was a sure bet. In that press release, AccuWeather did mention that there was uncertainty in the track of the storm, but it did not highlight the possibility that the storm would fail to get its act together until it was too far offshore to have much of an impact on the coastline.

Not surprisingly, viewers of AccuWeather's video blogs and visitors to its Web site felt cheated when the monster storm was a no-show. Sadly, these disappointed snow lovers took their anger out on individual forecasters, leaving one prominent forecaster at the company reeling from the backlash.

Henry Margusity, the colorful host of the "MeteoMadness" video blog for AccuWeather.com, declared that he would cease "vlogging" due to the emotions that it seemed to incite (welcome to the club, Mr. Margusity!). He quickly recanted that declaration after it generated a flood of supportive emails and comments, as well as a request from company management to continue such work.

"Look, we all get frustrated over the weather. I get frustrated. I probably have not slept in 3 days over this storm. The models were horrible, for reasons I cannot explain. It happens. But what I would prefer are people who look at the weather offer their opinions in a professional manner," Margusity wrote on Monday.

The fallout was so ugly that Margusity's wife had to urge readers/viewers to calm down in a special guest blog post:

...anger, disgust, and threatening statements were made, and by more than just a few. You don't have to agree with all of Henry's ideas; certainly I do not! Folks, express your disagreement politely, or let it go...

Before prospects of an epic storm fizzled, Margusity had been referring to it as a "Big Daddy" storm, but unfortunately for him and for snow lovers up and down the eastern seaboard, it turned out to be more of a delinquent daddy who left a few bucks on the kitchen table, ran out the back door and never looked back.

The swift and nasty backlash against AccuWeather for its several days of excessive hype illustrates the perils when forecasters don't clearly communicate the uncertainties of their forecasts. In Margusity's case, angry viewers felt he oversold the storm.

Despite AccuWeather's hyped storm coverage, this was an extremely difficult storm to forecast. Everyone made mistakes, including those of us at Capital Weather Gang. In the next few days we'll feature a post explaining why the computer models had such a hard time handling this storm in particular, which may be the subject of several meteorology Ph.D. dissertations in the next few years.

In the meantime, we're interested to hear your views on what you'd like to see forecasters do to more effectively convey the degree of uncertainty involved in a given prediction.

By  |  10:45 AM ET, 02/04/2009

Categories:  Winter Storms, Winter Storms

 
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