Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Our Forecasts are So Much Better than They Were and We Never Get Any Credit..."

...said a NOAA meteorologist this afternoon at the Weather Ready Nation meeting.

I immediately replied that is because we never tell anyone about our successes!

Panel discussion at the Weather Ready Nation meeting this afternoon
There were 17 speakers in the morning session and only one -- a social scientist -- said "things went pretty well" with this year's violent tornadoes. The rest were versions of "woe is us" -- too many people in the U.S. died. "We failed," the thinking went. I strongly disagree.

Now, so I am clear: Too many people did die in tornadoes this year! But, it is now confirmed, more than 99% of the people killed by tornadoes this year were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning when the storm arrived. That is an absolutely amazing scientific accomplishment.

But, until I tweeted it from the meeting (@usweatherexpert), no one outside of the meteorological profession knew it.

So, given better than 99% warning accuracy, the cause of the unusually high death toll likely lies elsewhere.

Take a look at the graph below, it is the tornado death rate (logarithmic scale -- this was a meeting of scientists after all) since the late 1800's:
From Dr. Harold Brooks, NOAA; click to enlarge
Fifty years ago, most everyone lived in a permanent home or apartment building. In recent decades, mobile and manufactured home use has exploded. The different in death rates is illustrated on the graph. The open squares are the death rate in permanent buildings. In those building types, the tornado death rate has plummeted and continues to do so.

However, the black squares are the year death rates in mobile homes. Keeping mind that only a few states require shelters in mobile home parks and that death rates in mobile homes are 15-20 times that of permanent buildings, you get giant death tolls like the U.S. experienced this year when tornadoes hit areas highly populated with mobile homes. Combine strong tornadoes in densely populated cities (Joplin, Minneapolis, Birmingham, etc.) and you get high number of deaths regardless of warning accuracy, especially when most of the cities happen to be ones where basement construction is not the norm.

Meteorologists, in general, do a terrible job of promoting ourselves and our work. So, people too often think of meteorologists as "people who get to keep their job when they are wrong all the time" rather than scientists who provide a tremendously valuable service to America at a very low cost to our society.


  1. Well said! And three cheers for meteorologists!! I have given one "Warnings" as a Christmas gift this year and plan to give a few more before the holiday season is over. Merry Christmas!

  2. Thanks so much, Lynne. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Mike

  3. Cross-posted from FB...

    Great post, Mike. The hard part will be solving the problem. For a long time, I held firm to the notion that excellence is self-evident and needs no advertisement. A part of me still believes that. However, as my career gets deeper into its third decade, that ideal is taking a serious hit, as I see 1) outstanding forecasts go unnoticed on a daily basis (save for fellow forecasters' occasional verbal kudos), and 2) those who are *consistently* excellent shafted for recognition and career rewards in favor of those who manage to CYA-hit one big event or kiss the right butt at the right time (thereby further perpetuating the Peter Principle). The answer to this question goes a long way to solving the problem you raised: How does true excellence in forecasting (including warnings) get the recognition it deserves without resorting to smarmy self-promotion?

  4. Early in the days of WeatherData, one of my meteorologists told me that it drove him crazy the way I "sat back in my office all day calling companies to see if they wanted to take our service. If we are any good, people should call us."

    That is what most scientists think and, like you, early in my career I thought the same way. Now, I realize people do not magically discover excellence.

    I try to publicize outstanding forecasts (AccuWeather's or NWS's) on this blog. As you know, I've written an entire book on the subject.

    For the meteorologists with the NWS in Norman, I suggest talking strategy with Keli Tarp (who is excellent) and -- when a great watch is issued (for example) -- a press release may be appropriate.

    I readily admit I do not have all of the answers. But, as I said during my presentation this afternoon, if we do not tell the world about the tremendous increase in warning accuracy, who will??!!

  5. Hey Mike, great post! I absolutely agree with you what you said. Meteorologists rarely get credit when they nail a forecast ...but folks are quick to point the finger when they're wrong!

    Part of the problem is I think public expectations are so high. Many feel we get paid to "forecast the weather"...whether we are right or wrong. So they expect us to always be right and never be wrong.

    I only wish the public was better educated how much computing power and analysis it takes just to make a single forecast.

    I definitely agree that we should do a better job as a 'weather industry' in highlighting the successes and "excellence" of many forecasters in meteorology...

    Maybe the NWA or AMS can highlight this "excellence" in their blog and hopefully it gets picked up by the media.


  6. I made it very clear this year in our region that the biggest story of 2011 (for the KPAH forecast office and those who partnered with them) was the lack of fatalities. To go through a flood that was equal to or surpassed the 1937 flood with no deaths is INCREDIBLE and noteworthy in itself. We have a STRONG emergency management, media, social media, general public, NWS, first responder and other agency partnerships. The excellent warning process by our local NWS Office and other offices should absolutely be highlighted through letters to the editor in local papers, news agencies, and other forms of communication. It is not the job of the NWS to toot their own horn - let's do that job for them through awards and whatever other means possible. They deserve our praise.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.