Why National Weather Service forecasts aren’t more descriptive

imagesWords mean everything.

I don’t know whether I’m particularly picky or not, but for years I’ve wondered why the National Weather Service (NWS), in its narrative weather forecasts, has omitted the really important descriptive terminology, particularly when sharp weather changes are imminent or have already occurred.

For example, on both Dec. 21 and 22, 2013, the high temperature at Reagan National Airport (DCA) was 72 degrees, around 25 degrees above average. As colder air moved in on the 23rd, and especially on the 24th and the 25th, the NWS forecasts certainly reflected these changes, but only in terms of high and low temperatures and cloud conditions*. There were no descriptive terms such as “cooler,” “colder,” or “much colder,” terms that, as a boy, I always remembered hearing and seeing. To me, even before I saw the temperature forecast, these terms meant a major change was coming.**

On Dec. 23, as temperatures were falling throughout the day here, a term like “turning colder” although warranted, was not used by the NWS. On the 24th, when high temperatures were expected to be 20 degrees colder than that of the 23rd, I would have expected “much colder.” Again, the NWS rarely uses such terms today, at least in its public forecasts.

Why would that be the case, I wondered? Some time ago, I asked a spokesman at the NWS Forecast Office in Sterling, VA. His answer surprised me and I never forgot it: “Here in the DC area, we have people from all over the country and the world. The terms ‘cooler,’ ‘colder,’ ‘much colder,’ etc. mean different things to different people, so we rarely use them in our official forecasts.”

Personally, I thought that was a strange response, but even if true, it would mean that in other, more isolated, parts of the country the NWS would phrase its forecasts differently, at least when significant changes are coming. But as far as I could tell, this was not the case.

The other day, I got my first real clue. Andy Woodcock, a forecaster at the NWS, had a different explanation for the lack of descriptive terminology in public forecasts, one that most of my CWG colleagues probably know about: since around the year 2000, official forecasts (the ones that appear on the internet and in other media using NWS output) are generated directly from a digital data base, largely evading “the human touch.” (I thought the descriptive adjectives disappeared earlier than 2000.) Apparently, computers don’t understand what “cooler,” ‘colder,” and “much colder” mean. Andy promised that he would try to explore this disconnect with his forecasting group.

Bob Ryan, chief meteorologist at NBC4 from 1980-2010 and lead meteorologist at ABC7 from 2010-2013, apparently feels the same way. On the 2013 Veterans Day holiday, Bob wrote a guest article entitled, Chance of snow: Or, a likely possibility of snow or rain expected Tuesday; when weather communication goes bad.

Bob discussed the great technological strides that we’ve made in weather forecasting capabilities, but lamented the fact that technology has not been translated into more useful public information.

What’s interesting (to me) is that Bob rightfully believes and advocates that our forecasts can and should be more precise due to the above advances, whereas the theme of this post is, “why not bring back that which already had great meaning to the public-at-large.”

All in all, it seems only fitting that we should try to incorporate some of these ideas, as there was a time—hopefully never again–when current and expected weather conditions were barred from print media and airwaves altogether. It was because the U.S. military was extremely fearful—some would say paranoid–about the wartime release of any weather information. See my post of September 22, 2010, Into the fog: when the weather was a secret.

On the night of Aug. 28, 1942, an annual charity game between the Chicago Bears, defending NFL champions, and the College All-Stars, was interrupted by a dense fog shrouding Chicago’s Soldier Field. The announcer couldn’t even say why the game was delayed (although everyone knew)–the Navy believed it was possible that enemy subs in the Atlantic might somehow benefit from this weather knowledge.

Turning to the weather for the next few days, “colder” is definitely in the cards but so far, at least, I see no mention of that word in the official NWS forecasts.

. . .

*Admittedly, the agency’s publicly available technical discussion described the onset of much colder conditions quite clearly, but the average person doesn’t read, doesn’t care to read, or doesn’t even know where to access that discussion.

**A good example, I believe, is the weather forecast of Dec. 8, 1960, long before the era of digitally-produced narrative weather forecasts. After a number of days in the DC area of much above normal temperatures (approaching 70 degrees), colder weather had arrived. The forecast read: “Today: Windy and much colder, with variable cloudiness, high about 42 degrees. Tonight: Fair and colder…….

For the weather historians, 3 days later, the weather turned even colder and a surprise early-season snowstorm buffeted the area —about 8 inches in D.C. and 14 in Baltimore. As arctic air had already infiltrated the East Coast, it was a cold storm, with a lot of blowing and drifting and temperatures falling into the teens and 20’s. To the northeast, the whole system intensified even more, making it one of the most severe East Coast blizzards of the 20th Century, despite the early date.

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