So often the story is the same: Meteorologist predicts foot of snow. Audience plans for snow day. Last-minute change to storm track means only two inches falls. Public bitterly complains.
“A massive WELL DONE,” one man declared to AccuWeather, where I work as a meteorologist and blogger, “for your incredibly BAD forecast for today’s weather.”
“Isn’t Accuweather located in State College? How is it possible they got the forecast wrong? #3inchesmyass #blizzard,” read a tweet from one Pennsylvania man.
And of course there are the calls for meteorologists to be fired for incorrect forecasts, including “every meteorologist” in Portland, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Alabama, the New York Metro area, Houston, Orlando, Augusta, Seattle, Knoxville, Spokane, El Paso and Baltimore, to name a few.
I’m always amazed at the vitriolic comments aimed at forecasters when a storm underperforms. (I know there are a lot of snow lovers out there, and I’m one of them. But you wanted a storm to dump a ton of snow on your city, shutting it down, making roads impassable and potentially killing or hurting people?) Even before the storm happens, people seem to have made up their minds that we are going to be wrong. “I’m beginning to think it isn’t going to snow at all, since they are so sure,” one reader commented on a forecast on our site. Wrote another: “Maybe 3-6 inches. 99% of the time they are always wrong. This only helps the supermarkets and hardware stores.”
The accusation that we meteorologists have some kind of agenda, whether it’s increasing sales of shovels or something more political, when forecasting high-impact storms happens more than you might think. “They’re beginning to use their hyperbolic terminology, so it’ll probably be a wimp storm,” one reader wrote. “I think the more fear they can ‘wolf’ up the more money they can get in their budget next year to hype ‘Global Warming’ and/or ‘Climate Change,’ which conjures up more fear and more money.”
Lest you think that our critics are all anonymous crazies online, consider New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s comments on meteorologists in 2014: “If I did my job the way they do theirs, I’d be here about a week. Based on the forecasts we’ve gotten so far this year, none of them have been close to what game conditions were. There was 100 percent chance of rain last week, and the only water I saw was on the Gatorade table. . . . They’re almost always wrong.” Even William Shatner wasn’t above dumping on a local meteorologist during a Twitter exchange last week, responding to him with, “So says the weather guy, whose predictions on what I would say are as wrong as his forecast…”
These negative comments from the public aren’t something we have much time to dwell on. When a big storm is predicted, we eat, drink and breathe data. We wait on pins and needles until the next computer model run comes out. We anxiously pour over ensemble model data that will provide us with fresh forecast guidance to fine tune our predictions. We have heated debates about the right call for various cities. We take call after call and question after question on social media, trying to give the public the best knowledge we have at the time.
The key words there are “at the time.” What we always try to stress is that things change in the field of weather prediction. The weather doesn’t always behave in expected ways. Even with all of the data and knowledge we have at our fingertips, Mother Nature always gets the final word. The atmosphere is still an untamed beast, and meteorologists do the best job they can — just not a perfect one yet.
When we get something wrong, we have to answer to our superiors, who of course want an explanation of what happened. (Also, no, no one gets fired, and that is a ridiculous thing to suggest. We are, after all, trying to predict the future here.) Most of all, we want to know what happened. Was something missed? Was something misinterpreted? Could we have communicated the uncertainty in a different way? Oftentimes we have family or friends in the paths of the storms we forecast, so on top of pressure from the public, there’s personal pressure to get it right. We are held to a nearly impossible standard of perfection to forecast something we ultimately have no control over. It takes an extremely driven and passionate personality to succeed under the pressure we feel day after day, from everyone around us.
And we are getting better. The best weather forecasts in the world are made here in the United States, and we’re proud of the high quality and accuracy we’ve achieved, accuracy that was only dreamed of 20 years ago. According to data from the National Weather Service, one-day temperature forecasts are now generally accurate within just a few degrees.
The next time your local meteorologist calls for blue skies and you wake up to thunderclouds, please think twice before posting your irritation online. Try to remember that as much as you might be upset with us, we are one thousand times more upset with ourselves.