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Posted at 7:00 PM ET, 01/12/2009

Inauguration Weather: Stop the Scaremongering

By Dan Stillman

Sure it may snow, but no need to sensationalize yet

* Full Forecast Through Inauguration Weekend | InaugurationCast *

Capital Weather Gang received in its inbox this afternoon a release from AccuWeather.com with the following headline:

Snow Possible in D.C. on Inauguration Day
Cold Will Ease but Snow May be on the Way for Inauguration Day

Let me be crystal clear in calling this what it is: A sensationalized headline for the sake of attracting attention. And at least one news organization wasted no time in buying into the hype.

Keep reading for more on the AccuWeather.com release...

Only in the past day or so has the scientific data led to a building (but still relatively low) confidence that temperatures will be near to below normal for Inauguration Day in D.C. But predictions of precipitation a week ahead of time have very little skill, if any.

The release -- much of which is repeated here, but without the sensationalized headline -- goes on to say:

There are indications that a storm will come out of the South and develop just off the Virginia coast the day prior to the Inauguration. The official AccuWeather.com forecast shows light snow for Monday into Monday evening. If the storm were to develop even more, it's possible that heavier snow could affect the area Monday night.

AccuWeather.com's forecast is most likely based on a run early this morning of a forecast model called the GFS, which shows a storm system off the mid-Atlantic coast the night before Inauguration Day. Could it happen? Of course it could. Almost anything could happen this far out.

But weather models are notorious for showing storms in the long range that never actually materialize, and likewise often fail to show storms that do materialize. Certainly the meteorologists at AccuWeather.com know this, and in fact the rest of the release's write-up does a decent job of tempering expectations:

Given that virtually little snow has fallen across the area, it's probably a very low probability of a major snowfall in Washington, D.C., but the players are there and we will continue to monitor the snowfall potential.

But the hedging in the release text doesn't change the fact that the headline is misleading and, in my opinion, irresponsible. Sure, the headline is technically correct -- snow is possible in D.C. on Inauguration Day. But the data currently available doesn't yet suggest the chance of snow is any greater on Inauguration Day or the night before than it is for any other day between Inauguration Day and the end of winter. (Now, give the models a couple more days and that could definitely change.)

Catchy headlines are an important part of the weather biz, and certainly we here at Capital Weather Gang try to make our headlines as catchy as we can. There is, however, a line between catchy and misleading, and in this case I'd say AccuWeather.com has crossed it. A change as simple as putting a question mark at the end of the headline -- "Snow Possible in D.C. on Inauguration Day?" -- would have gone a long way toward taking the edge off of my reaction at least.

On the other hand, we at CWG have made every effort in our Inauguration forecasts thus far, both in our headlines and in our narratives, to not oversell the science of long-range forecasts.

By Dan Stillman  | January 12, 2009; 7:00 PM ET
Categories:  Inauguration, Inauguration Features  | Tags:  dc weather, dc weather inauguration, inaugural forecast, inauguration forecast, inauguration weather, inauguration weather forecast, obama weather, washington inauguration weather  
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Next: InaugurationCast: The Cold Should Hold

Comments

Hear hear....

Posted by: Snowlover2 | January 12, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

If I were to say what the best thing about your blog is, both pre and post WP, is the fact that you do not hype the weather. You take a realistic and scientific approach and I for one appreciate that!

Posted by: novajeffc | January 12, 2009 7:35 PM | Report abuse

This is probably the best write up there is about Accuweather! As a fairly consistant viewer of Accuweather, I can say they do have headlines such as this one on daily basis, Just to bring the viewers in. IMO the only person that is any sort of good is JB but even he is not that good with is overhyping and unreasonable discussions.

Posted by: clintonportis17 | January 12, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Hype is pretending to make a specific forecast 18 days in advance of the event, as was done here.

Posted by: CapitalClmate | January 12, 2009 9:24 PM | Report abuse

ME-OW! (Hahaha)

I place very little faith in Accuweather forecasts, even though they're fun to look at. I've found that they are very often flat out wrong -- either by under-forecasting or over-forecasting by a wide margin. 1 or 2 degrees and a slight screwup in the weather condition is okay, but when you call for 11 degrees and a blizzard 3 days from now, when it's really going to be 50 and sunny, that's just crappy forecasting IMO.

I'm glad you called them out on this. That is pretty sensationalistic, even though it's fun to think about. (It would be a perfect day for it to snow...PWC has Inauguration Day off. HAHA! It would figure for students, eh?)

Posted by: weatherdudeVA | January 12, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

@CapitalClmate (spelling error?)

I think the staff of CWG has been abundantly clear that they were doing the long-range Inauguration Day forecasts as an experiment to discuss the validity of long-range forecasting, as well as being a fun way to lead up to one of the most impactful days in recent DC history. I think they've also been VERY clear that those long-range forecasts have been low-confidence at best.

If you think that doing something so clearly marked as experimental/low-confidence is hype, then you can of course choose not to read those entries or this blog. I'd like to see CWG to a post-mortem of how the forecasting trends (both Jason's and Dan's and the forthcoming team forecasts) lined up with the actuals that we see on the 20th.

Posted by: joshnva | January 12, 2009 10:55 PM | Report abuse

I am SO glad you CWG guys made light of SemiAccuWeather.com's penchant for wishcasting. I grew up in northern PA listening to some of their senior forecasters and they used to call a good weather game - but no more. Now it's all about how many visitors they can suck into their premium site with sensational wx headlines. AW.com's Henry Margusity is especially guilty of winter hypecasting -- and he, of course, is all a-quiver over the models showing the possibility of a storm next Monday/Tuesday.

Posted by: VAStateOfMind | January 12, 2009 10:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it is really that bad once you read the full text. They needed something to grab people attention and technically they are correct in what the models are showing. Will the forecast pan out? Probably not, but how many forecast actually do.

Posted by: CarolinaMike | January 12, 2009 11:52 PM | Report abuse

@joshnva

You've perfectly characterized what we've been trying to do. Thanks for the comment.

Your suggestion to do a post mortem is a good one, and something we actually planned from the beginning.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | January 13, 2009 3:31 AM | Report abuse

See, the reason I like this weather blog is because you all shoot straight. If there's uncertaintly in the forecast, you say so - same with if the weather doesn't come out as planned. I think you guys realize that a forecast is actually (gasp!) a prediction. :)

Posted by: MKoehl | January 13, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Agree with the comments above in that CWG has not engaged in hype here. Looking forward to helping out with the post-mortem :)

My hope is no snow on the 20th, as I am traveling out of town that night (to of all places Detroit).

Jamie Y (Potomac) aka the Weather Checker

Posted by: JamieYPotomac | January 13, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Ha! now they have a "?" on their front page that goes with the story. Nice.. Thanks for calling them out.

"Could snow threaten Inauguration Day?"

Posted by: jrodfoo | January 13, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

This is just tooooooooooooooooooooo rich!

Predicting snow in a weather forecast is scaremongering - "Inauguration Weather: Stop the Scaremongering" - but predicting man made global warming in 100 years is not?

Talk about a disconnect!

And then, to make the disconnect even greater, if that is possible, you include this gem "... to not oversell the science of long-range forecasts." Unless of course that long-range forecast is for a temperature increase of 2 degrees in 100 years!

I sit in awe!

And don't give me the counter-argument about the difference between weather forecasting and climate. The climate modeling engines were built on top of the weather forecasting engine! We are supposed to believe that engine can't predict weather accurately in two weeks, but it can accurately predict temperature in 100 years. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | January 13, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Dan has hit exactly the right note and tone in response to AccuWeather's "scaremongering".

As others have commented, AccuWeather is notorious in sensationalizing weather headlines, especially when tied to eyeball grabbing events, such as the Inauguration, East Coast snowstorms, and hurricanes

But what can one expect from a private run weather business that prides itself in issuing specific value forecasts to 15 days, hour by hour for just about any weather variable you can think of. Of course the folks at AccuWeather know it's bunk - reaching well beyond the scientific bounds of reliable and useful predictability. Just ask them to provide verification scores - I have time and time again and they adamantly refuse

Moreover, some supposed professional meteorologists at AccuWeather will privately admit to this hokum and concede they are effectively not much more than snake oil salesman. Unfortunately, there is apparently sufficient clientele out there - for reasons I can't comprehend - willing to buy snake oil.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | January 13, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang said, "Unfortunately, there is apparently sufficient clientele out there - for reasons I can't comprehend - willing to buy snake oil."

On this point, I agree with you completely.

I suspect where we would disagree would be on what qualifies as snake oil.

Would the snake oil be a weather forecast 9 days out? Or would the snake oil be a temperature forecast 100 years out? Or perhaps both?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | January 13, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Accuweather often acts improperly in sensationalizing minor weather risks, but I seen no problem with their rather tame "snow possible" headline. Scaremongering would be "east coast blizzard possible on inauguration day" or "major snowstorm could affect inauguration." As Dan's post begrudgingly concedes, "snow is possible in D.C. on inauguration day," and at least one long-range model supports Accuweather's suggestion.

(Note also that the NWS now forecasts a 30% chance of snow next Tuesday. Is that irresponsible, coming but 24 hours after Accuweather's "irresponsible" e-mail?)

Posted by: Storm9 | January 13, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the comments folks ... Storm9, let me put it this way: Given the data available at the time, if we (Capital Weather Gang) put up that same headline yesterday afternoon, we would be skewered by anyone who knows anything about the science of forecasting -- and rightly so.

Posted by: Dan-CapitalWeatherGang | January 13, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Storm9

The 30% chance of snow from the NWS is the default ("no skill") forecast of climatology. That is, the climatological probability of precipitation this time of year is close to 30% (actually 33%),and it appears very likely now that it will be cold enough that any precipitation would be in the form of snow.

That's the responsible forecast. What's irresponsible is AccuWeather's categorical forecast that there will be light snow Monday through Monday evening. Their chance (not quantified, 1%, 99%??) of heavier snow Monday night is nothing more than the game of let's see if we can win a really long shot. Sure it's possible - but then too there is a non-zero chance that a meteor will crash into the DC on Inauguration day. If it does snow, AccuWeather will rave about their prowess at long range predictions. If it does not, they will justifiably assume that no body will remember what will then be a week old forecast.


issued years ago

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | January 13, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

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