No Apology Necessary For Meteorologists

January 30, 2015

us-snow-blizzardAs rare weather events go, a meteorologist publicly apologizing for an inaccurate forecast is on par with hell freezing over. One of those things actually happened this week, however, and it didn’t involve Beelzebub in a bomber.

Super Major Ominous Winter Blizzard Deathstorm Juno was supposed to be The Big One for much of the upper East Coast, with forecast snowfalls so threatening, the Metropolitan Transit Authority shut down New York City’s subway system before a solitary flake hit the ground. State and local governments throughout the region essentially stopped and canceled all of the things. The shelves of grocery and convenience stores were left completely bare, as if the zombie apocalypse was upon us. And 24-hour cable news networks — per usual — had a heyday.

Juno struck with great ferocity in some areas (see: Boston), but turned out to be a dud in others (see: New York City). The furor turned to outrage Tuesday as many East Coasters – seemingly disappointed — let out a collective WTF? when Juno didn’t quite live up to its hype. Meteorologists became popular targets, because all Americans are good at the sciences, maths and critical reasonings. Enter: Gary Szatkowski, chief of the National Weather Service office that serves Mount Holly, N.J., and Philadelphia. 

Szatkowski’s tweets went viral in what can only be considered a really tragic moment for meteorology. In my opinion, no apology from an honest, educated meteorologist is, was or ever will be necessary unless he/she muffs a forecast either intentionally, maliciously or through sheer ignorance.

Predicting weather is incredibly difficult, because judgements are made based on a volatile, ever-changing set of data. In 2012, Nate Silver explained this gargantuan challenge in the New York Times Magazine:

The holy grail of meteorology, scientists realized, was dynamic weather prediction — programs that simulate the physical systems that produce clouds and cold fronts, windy days in Chicago and the morning fog over San Francisco as they occur. Theoretically, the laws that govern the physics of the weather are fairly simple. In 1814, the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace postulated that the movement of every particle in the universe should be predictable as long as meteorologists could know the position of all those particles and how fast they are moving. Unfortunately, the number of molecules in the earth’s atmosphere is perhaps on the order of 100 tredecillion, which is a 1 followed by 44 zeros. To make perfect weather predictions, we would not only have to account for all of those molecules, but we would also need to solve equations for all 100 tredecillion of them at once…

Later on:

Weather also has two additional properties that make forecasting even more difficult. First, weather is nonlinear, meaning that it abides by exponential rather than by arithmetic relationships. Second, it’s dynamic — its behavior at one point in time influences its behavior in the future. Imagine that we’re supposed to be taking the sum of 5 and 5, but we keyed in the second number as 6 by mistake. That will give us an answer of 11 instead of 10. We’ll be wrong, but not by much; addition, as a linear operation, is pretty forgiving. Exponential operations, however, extract a lot more punishment when there are inaccuracies in our data. If instead of taking 55 — which should be 3,125 — we instead take 56, we wind up with an answer of 15,625. This problem quickly compounds when the process is dynamic, because outputs at one stage of the process become our inputs in the next.

With a few days now passed, I wonder if Szatkowski wishes he had a do-over. If I were him, I would double-back with a message that goes a little like this:

Earlier this week, I apologized for what proved to be an inaccurate forecast. Now that a few days have passed, I recant my earlier statement. Meteorologists cannot begin the practice of apologizing when our forecasts are anything short of precise, because frankly, no meteorologist has ever predicted the weather perfectly correct. The function of meteorology in modern society is to alert the citizenry of potential threats and arm them with information they need to make safe decisions. That — more so than accurately predicting snowfall totals to an inch — is why I take my job very seriously, and will continue to strive to be a little better each day.