Sunday, September 11, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Amazing, and Under-Appreciated, Science of Meteorology

The past ten days have been meteorologically turbulent in many ways. 

The weather has been extremely active (the remains of Hurricane Hermine, flooding in the Midwest, record heat, etc., etc.) the last ten days which has kept me very busy at AccuWeather. Our entire team did an incredible job handling all of this. The Wichita office, which is the severe weather center of the company, accurately handled a tornado and superbly warned of a flash flood that closed Interstate 35.
An extremely rare sight: Interstate 35/Kansas Turnpike closed due to flooding. AccuWeather meteorologists gave officials more than two hours notice so the road could be closed and traffic rerouted in a safe manner.
When the weather is this active, we don't just make forecasts; there is an amazing amount of customer service work to do. Client questions, conference calls, special products to create and send, etc., etc. I, happily (its my job, after all!),  put in 26.5 hours of work in just two days Wednesday and Thursday. The entire AccuWeather team deserves praise for its extra efforts.

So, the complaints about meteorology this week came as a bit of a surprise. 

It began with a Facebook posting I saw at midweek. A meteorologist friend of mine posted an item that was a complaint. A commenter then posted about "the irony of a meteorologist complaining of inaccuracy."

That was the original impulse for this essay. Then, yesterday, at lunch, I was reading the Wall Street Journal and was surprised they published this nonsense.

"How fallible meteorologists are"? "How frequently they revise their forecasts of the short-term future of such inanimate things as raindrops"?  How stupid!

I frequently talk about meteorology as the "Rodney Dangerfield of Sciences" -- we get no respect even though "short term forecasts" (a/k/a "storm warnings") are highly accurate.

As regular readers know, I have a personal crusade to help meteorology and weather science gain the respect our science so richly deserves. So, when I hear about how allegedly bad our forecasts are, I often say, "compared to what?"

Yesterday morning I read a stock market forecast posted by Liz Ann Sonders, one of the best known forecasters on Wall Street. Here is what she wrote:
"...we wouldn't be surprised to see markets continue to experience volatile swings when news or economic data suggests the Fed may, or may not, raise interest rates." Useful? Actionable? Skillful? Yet, these forecasts are highly valued and I can emphatically report that senior Wall Street forecasters and commentators are far more highly compensated than meteorologists. Why?

If you scroll down one posting you find that heavy rains and flooding occurred in the Great Plains this past week. If you scroll down further, you will see multiple postings about the specific flash flood threat. Here are some quick snapshots of some of the postings:


Forecast correct? Pretty much. Actionable? Sure. I certainly would not have wanted to drive from Wichita to the Lake of the Ozarks either night this 1:100 year (in some places) event occurred.
BNSF Railway rushes hundreds of brand new automobiles cross country.
Every major U.S. railroad and auto manufacturer is a client of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions.
A business could have, with this information, dispatched a shipment from St. Louis to, say, Dallas to an alternate route to avoid the flooding rains.

Associated Press
Friday night, there were damaging tornadoes in Illinois. Deaths, zero! That is likely not a happy coincidence: There was a tornado watch and tornado warnings out before the tornadoes occurred. Weather science likely saved lives yet again. In the tornado warning era, weather science has cut deaths by an astonishing 97%!

Since it had been more than a decade since a hurricane came ashore in Florida, you might think we were out of practice. Yet, the forecasts for Hurricane Hermine which struck the Florida Big Bend ten days ago were right on the money.

Time and time again, weather science helps people live safer, better lives and helps businesses operate more safely and effectively. It is long past time for society to properly value our efforts.

4 comments:

  1. Plaudits all around for the work you and your meteorological colleagues perform ... saving lives before the storm!

    (It is worth noting, I believe, though, that the seemingly offensive quote which provoked your comments was from an emotionally charged column about (and against) "negative interest" rates, and read in context the comment favorable compares meteorologists to economic policy makers (PhD economists) who, the writer asserts, "don't have a clue!)

    Keep up the ("better than economists") work!

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  2. You are correct that he was giving us a left-handed compliment but we, in my opinion, deserved better.

    You are right about economists. However, even though they "don't have a clue" (agree completely) they make more, and generate more prestige, than meteorologists.

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    Replies
    1. "he was giving us a left-handed compliment" LOL!

      I'm reminded of the notorious economist dodge, "On the other hand ..."

      I enjoy your blog and appreciate your work.

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  3. The only 'profession' less valued and certainly less appreciated than meteorologists are referees (or umpires if you prefer). The sh*t we put up with between parents/fans, players, and coaches - you've got it easy Mike. :)

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