10 Things Weather Gang Forecasters Will Tell You
The August issue of Smart Money features the article "10 Things Weather Forecasters Won't Say." The author, Jim Rendon, takes a candid look at the weather profession and draws 10 conclusions. In our opinion, some are fine, others are flawed, the rest somewhere in-between. Let's walk through them, one by one...
1) Smart Money: "Long-term forecast? Your guess is as good as ours."
CWG revision: "Long-term forecast? The forest, not the trees."
Smart Money reports short-term forecasts are fairly accurate, but equates forecasts at and beyond seven days to flipping a coin. He mentions that Ray Ban, consultant to The Weather Channel, confesses the best we can do in long-range forecasting is communicate uncertainty.
We agree that communicating the uncertainty is a must in long-range forecasting (and short-range, too). But we dispute the notion that a forecast beyond 7 days is anyone's guess. Forecasters who are skilled in analyzing weather patterns can, in many cases, provide a sense about weather generalities (i.e. how temperatures and precipitation will compare to average) two weeks or so in advance. This information can be quite useful to users such as farmers and utility companies. What they can't do is provide daily details about the exact highs and lows and timing of precipitation, which is of course what the average weather consumer cares about most.
2) Smart Money: "We're pretty accurate--as long as the sun is shining."
CWG revision: "We're pretty accurate--with some notable exceptions."
According to Smart Money: "Unfortunately, [forecasters are] not very good at predicting rain. That's especially true in summer, when most rainfall comes from thunderstorms, which are small, unpredictable and hard to track."
We disagree with the generalization of the first sentence, but are on-board with the second. With bigger weather systems (larger-scale areas of rain), we feel we do a pretty good job inside of 24-48 hours accurately describing rainfall likelihood, approximate timing and amounts, and how confident we are in the forecast. How many times have you read a CWG forecast and then been caught completely offguard by rain (Sunday night being a notable exception)? On the other hand, Smart Money's characterization of the challenges in predicting smaller-scale summertime showers and thunderstorm details is spot-on . And snow forecasts are a whole different ballgame.
3) Smart Money: "We're often more show biz than science."
CWG revision: "Weather reporting is a mix of science and show biz."
We recognize Smart Money's statement above is directed at the TV weather profession (as opposed to internet weather reporting, CWG-style) but we don't think it's a fair characterization. Smart Money carries on about how you don't need a degree in meteorology to do weather on TV, that TV weather people make a ton of money, don't do their own forecasts, and that style is often more important than substance. There is some truth in all of this but the reverse is also true: many TV weather forecasters have at least some training in meteorology, spend a lot of time producing their own forecasts, earn much less than 100K/year, and provide scientifically rich content. By placing its emphasis on the TV weather fluff factor, Smart Money perpetuates the unfortunate misconception that TV weather is mostly a business of weather bunnies and clowns.
4) Smart Money: "Our high-tech gizmos do everything but predict weather."
CWG revision: "High-tech gizmos only provide value if they help tell the weather story."
We agree with Smart Money's overall point which is that the doppler radar wars between competing TV stations are silly. A better doppler radar does not equal a better forecast. On the other hand, a skilled weather communicator can use technology to their advantage. If, for example, a forecaster can use interactive street-level mapping and storm tracking tools to clearly demonstrate where and when a destructive thunderstorm will hit, that's useful.
5) Smart Money: "Want the temperature? Don't ask the National Weather Service."
CWG revision: "Computer-generated temperature forecasts won't vary much."
Smart Money cites a study by ForecastAdvisor, a forecast rating service, that finds the NWS temperature forecasts were less accurate than Weather.com and Intellicast.com. That may well be true, but how much less accurate are we talking about? We queried a number of zipcodes in the D.C. area (on the ForecastAdvisor Web site) and found that, while NWS accuracy often lagged some of these private sector forecasts, the difference was generally no more than 3-6% last year and 1-2% last month. By-and-large, these different forecasts are all relying on similar (or in some cases, the same) computer models. Some outlets may have tweaked the models to improve results, but the difference won't be apparent on a daily basis for most users.
See also our FAQs on this subject.
6) Smart Money: "Weather is big business."
CWG revision: None
"There is a booming business in providing detailed forecasts to utility and insurance companies and any number of businesses that find their bottom line affected by the weather," according to the author, who goes on to say that weather models operated by private forecast companies and tailored to the needs of such clients produce "more detailed forecasts than you might find on local TV."
Nothing to quibble with here. Everyone from power companies to baseball teams pay for specialized forecasts that allow them to maximize efficiency and reduce risk. As the story accurately points out, though, even private companies with proprietary weather models still largely depend on government agencies for the raw data that gets fed into the models.
7) Smart Money: "Bad weather means big ratings..."
CWG revision: "Bad weather means big ratings, often for good reason..."
"Every time a severe storm hits your town, the local news stations put their resources to work to dramatize every angle of it," according to Smart Money. So why does the local news focus so much on big storms and bad weather? The author put that question to Paul Karpowicz, president of the Meredith Broadcasting Group, whose answer was simple: Because "ratings skyrocket."
While the overall spirit of this conclusion is true, there are some important nuances to note.
The implication here is that news outlets hype weather to get better ratings. It's hard to argue otherwise when the forecast calls for only a dusting of snow and the local TV news has gone into "storm mode" with flashy winter storm graphics and reporters staged at multiple outdoor locations (often with dry pavement in the background). It's worth mentioning, though, that the meteorologist is often the member of the news crew displaying the least amount of hype.
In contrast, we'd say that thorough coverage of severe thunderstorms, a tornado, significant winter storm or the like qualifies as a public service more so than hype. At CWG, we're careful to only hype the weather when warranted, an approach that we've found only helps our credibility when we do warn of significant or severe weather.
8) Smart Money: "...and it's always bad during sweeps week."
CWG revision: "...and if it seems particularly bad during sweeps week, blame the news director, not the meteorologist."
The author claims that "television insiders have learned to become skeptical of TV weather reports during sweeps weeks" and writes that "no one makes up weather forecasts, but the threat of anything unusual often can be hyped."
We don't doubt that TV stations, from time to time, have overhyped weather (and other kinds of news) during sweeps weeks, which according to Smart Money are the ratings periods in February, May, July and November that determine in most media markets how much advertisers will pay. But we've seen little evidence, at least here in the D.C. area, of the meteorologists themselves tweaking their forecasts or presentation styles during these periods.
9) Smart Money: "Accuracy? Who cares"
CWG revision: "Accuracy? Who cares. Actually, we care. And so do a lot of people."
Smart Money smartly points out that "botched weather predictions have real consequences. People make and cancel plans based on forecasts" and that "stations rarely track accuracy."
The latter is something we've always strived to address here at CWG with self-assessments of our forecasts after winter storms and other significant events, and more recently with our Weather Checker feature, an outsider's assessment of CWG's forecast accuracy. And, unlike most outlets, our past forecasts don't disappear into thin air. They're archived for all to see.
As for Karpowicz's statement that "I've never seen a study that says people are turned off by mistakes in forecasting"... Well, maybe there's no study to that effect, but anecdotally we've found that accuracy matters to a lot of people, and that people do notice over the long term how accurate a forecast outlet is. We'd also change one word in this quote from Karpowicz: "Performance and storytelling ability are often more important" than accuracy. We'd argue these traits are "as" important as accuracy rather than "more."
10) Smart Money: "Weather is recessionproof."
CWG revision: "Weather is recessionproof, but meteorologists aren't."
With advertising and revenue down during these hard economic times, the author writes that "experienced and expensive anchors are being dropped for younger, cheaper ones. Reporters and producers are on the chopping block. But in the midst of all the cost-cutting, it seems the television weatherman isn't going anywhere."
Weather is indeed recessionproof in that people will always need and use the weather forecast no matter how poor the economy is. But the author's notion that "top meteorologists may find their salaries getting cut, but .... they're unlikely to be sent packing" does not stand the test of reality. When you look at the veteran meteorologists who have been fired or not had their contract renewed in the past couple of years -- including at the Weather Channel and at TV stations in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas and Boise -- weather forecasters seem as vulnerable to a bad economy as any other on-air talent.
Capital Weather Gang
| September 8, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories: Capital Weather Gang, Science
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