Saturday, February 8, 2014

Here's How To Cut Through The Hype And Get Real Weather Forecasts.

New York City might get a dusting to an inch of snow Sunday night, February 8.     
One of the maps that set of a panic
about a 30" blizzard in NYC
that actually was not going, and didn't happen.  

I'm sharing this totally unremarkable weather news because the New York City area is still recovering from a giant snowball of ugly hype last week that left New Yawkers scared out of their minds that they would get buried beneath a blizzard with three feet of snow.

The cause of those fears was a comedy of errors involving people on the Internet hyping an unreliable forecast computer model that indicated a big storm, a website mistakenly running a year old story about a snowstorm forecast, and other weather bloggers and online types misinterpreting what was going on.

A National Weather Service office in New Jersey actually had to put out a special statement to the public telling everyone to just chill, that they weren't all going to die in Blizzard To End All Blizzards.

So, going forward, as you (hopefully!) keep reading my weather blog, and all those other weather blogs, weather web sites and other weather media, here are some tips to help you sort out fact from fiction as you try to sort out the forecasts.

1. Hype A Week In Advance Is Probably Wrong: Ever since some, but not all computer models in 2012 accurately forecast the extreme destruction from Hurricane Sandy a week in advance, people have been hanging their hats on long range computer generated forecasts.

The truth is, those long range forecasts, though they can give a rough idea of what MIGHT happen several days in advance, usually don't reflect what actually ends up happening. So people like me might show you a long range forecast, just for kicks,  and I'll remember to tell you to take it with a grain of salt. Use long range forecasts as vague information, and nothing to bank on.

2. Some Bloggers Hype More Than Others: The dirty little secret is that weather geeks like me and most of those other weather gurus out there get a rush out of big, huge nasty storms. Actually, a lot of non weather geeks do, too. That explains the popularity of "weather porn" all those videos on the Internet showing extreme weather events.

So, as you look around for your sources of weather information, watch for patterns. If a weather forecaster seems to repeatedly yell and scream the Big One is coming, and time and time again the storm doesn't end up amounting to much, it's time to look for a better forecaster.

On the other hand, if a forecaster who usually doesn't get too overly excited about upcoming storms starts yelling and screaming and pulling his or her hair out over a forecast, pay attention. Things could actually really get bad.

3. Beware the Lingo: For whatever reason, certain weather terms or nicknames get seized by social media these days and become overused, or worse, wrongly used.  The best recent example is the so-called polar vortex in January.
Not every cold snap is a polar vortex  

As you might remember, the polar vortex is a spinning pool of very cold air that pretty much always sits up there by the North Pole. Sometimes, the polar vortex heads south and ends up close to or even in the northern United States.  That's a fairly normal and well known phenomenon among meteorologists.

But the polar vortex got hyped so that it looked to some people as if it were a very rare, extreme thing. Worse, the term "polar vortex" gets used as shorthand for any spell of chilly, wintry weather that hits anywhere.

The other morning, when it was snowing in New York City, I heard a host on one of those network morning shows refer to the snow as the "polar vortex."  It wasn't.

So, if you hear an unfamiliar term, absolutely seek out reputable sites for explanations of what they mean if you are curious. But don't necessarily pay attention to the first reference you see. And if you're not all that curious, just tune out those fancy schmancy words and just listen to the parts of the forecast that tell you how hot, cold, rainy or snowy it's going to get.

4. Results May Vary:   Even the best forecasts by the most responsible, most accurate, most knowledgable weather bloggers, geeks and outlets will have some minor glitches.

But believe it or not, the forecasts often aren't wrong at all.  While a forecast might prove accurate for the vast majority of the area the prediction covered, local effects will cause some towns to be outliers.

A classic example: Last week, the National Weather Service in South Burlington, Vermont said most of Vermont would get a snowstorm amounting to 4 to 12 inches. I passed along that information in my blog.

It turns out the forecast was remarkably accurate, except for in a teeny, tiny portion of northwestern Vermont. That part of the state was only supposed to get 2 to 5 inches of snow, but got 6 to 10 inches instead. Local variations aren't always picked up in forecasts.

5. "Wrong" Forecasts Aren't Always Wrong: Weather is imprecise, so the level of detail a lot of people want in forecasts are just not possible. Here's an example: Say the forecast for your area was for a 60 percent chance of showers, and it didn't end up raining. Was the forecast wrong? Probably not.

Showers are inherently hit and miss, and the forecaster might have believed that 60 percent of the forecast area would get hit by showers. You just happened to be in the 40 percent of the area that stayed dry.

Also, a forecaster often can't tell you the precise moment the thunderstorm will arrive, the exact second the sky will clear, or the intensity of the snowfall at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. They can give you a general idea, within a few hours,  and you'll just have to live with that. Sorry.

6. We Don't Know Exactly How To Formulate Weather Warnings.  When people are surprised by the level of destruction and danger in a storm, you sometimes hear. "We had no idea it was going to be that bad."

That might be because storms are often warned about repeatedly and most of the time, they don't turn out to be that horrible. Dangerous, yes, but not apocalyptic. So people tune out the warnings to some extent. Then when a truly horrific storm comes, people are surprised.

It's hard to gauge the psychology of the general public and how they react to warnings. That's not an insult. It's just an example of human nature.  Some forecasters are experimenting with enhanced wording in some warnings, rather than using the same boilerplate for every storm.

For instance, weather forecasters will often detect a spinning thunderstorm and issue a tornado warning, even if a tornado has not quite formed yet. There's a strong potential, but no guarantee one will form, and people need to be informed.

But if the forecasters know a tornado is on the ground, and it's really super big and strong, they'll start throwing around words like "extremely dangerous and life threatening" and "TAKE SHELTER IN A BASEMENT IMMEDIATELY"

The bottom line: Always heed the instructions in severe weather warnings, even if the weather doesn't seem at first to be that bad. If it turns out to be a false alarm, what's the harm? You heard a tornado warning and you went to your basement and there was no tornado.

Is your life ruined because you wasted 20 minutes hiding in the basement? Of course not. But if there was a tornado, the life you saved might have been your own.

7: Feedback is Excellent, and Vote With Your Feet: If you don't like the way I or any other weather geek presents weather news tell us! Most of us are not just SEO junkies trying to get web hits at any cost. Almost all of us want to do a good job. If you think of ways we can do better, offer suggestions.

Also, if one particular weather blogger, forecaster or outlet seems irresponsible to you, don't reward them. Don't view them. Don't click on their sites. Move on, and find a competent weather geek.

Believe it or not, there's a lot of us out there.

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