Life’s Moving Pretty Fast

President’s Message
Gail Hartfield

We are (hopefully) heading over the hump of the 2016-2017 winter weather season with the heart of severe weather season rapidly approaching. That famously astute philosopher Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” One could make a similar case for our atmosphere: Weather events move pretty fast; if we don’t pause to evaluate the season and events that have just passed, we may miss something important. I enjoy looking back at recent weather events, even the mundane ones, to determine why and how they unfolded as they did. But, too often, I don’t have enough time to fully analyze an event before the next one is waiting in the wings needing my attention. At the very least, I find value in reviewing the recently passed season in a general sense, looking for trends, themes or issues that have dominated the weather picture over the last several months. While innovations and the inevitable changes in weather forecasting and services are constant and many in number, three issues have stood out to me this winter.

  • Accuracy vs. precision. There is no doubt that forecast accuracy continues to improve. Yet there remains demand among those we serve to strain the boundaries of what we are currently able to achieve in our science. It is no longer enough to say, “We are expecting a significant snowstorm this weekend.” People want to know exactly how much snow will fall in their backyard and exactly when it will fall. So, operational meteorologists are being asked to state specific numbers and timing in a deterministic sense, even down to the tenth of an inch and to the hour or minute. Mixed wintry precipitation complicates the picture further, necessitating detailed predictions of ice accrual along with sleet and snow depths, and high temporal precision of start/end/changeover times. While the NWS, broadcasters, and private companies strive to convey scientifically sound snowfall ranges and probabilities (e.g., the NWS’s Probabilistic Snowfall Experiment), the decision-makers and the general public still want —and, in many cases, need—specific numbers for their locations. This forces forecasters to focus on precision with a high risk of being incorrect rather than on the more scientifically appropriate practice of providing ranges of snowfall and timing, which encapsulates the inherent uncertainty of winter precipitation accumulations. Steady model improvement will ameliorate this issue; however the battle of precision vs. accuracy will continue as our users push us to stretch the limits of these models and of the science in general.
  • Importance of conveying impacts. While forecasting remains the heart of what we do, our focus is gradually evolving to include specifications of impacts from weather conditions on different groups and individuals. Going beyond wind chills and ice accumulation predictions, we’re now telling folks if they need to wear heavy jackets and gloves, if power outages will be widespread, if the afternoon commute will be treacherous. This isn’t anything new, of course—broadcasters have been highlighting varieties of a “bus stop forecast” and the like for years—but it’s an important and necessary aspect of our service that is expanding across the weather enterprise, driving development of user-focused weather consulting companies, not to mention the NWS’s Weather-Ready Nation efforts. I’ve seen some wonderful impact-focused graphics from broadcasters and others on social media this winter that provide abundant, high-quality weather impact information in a clear and succinct manner. Which brings me to…
  • Social media as a blessing and a curse. This topic could easily fill an entire newsletter. We’ve all seen the weather enthusiast who finds the model run (among hundreds) that cranks out the greatest snowfall and posts its output on social media. It then spreads rampantly and, frequently, is misinterpreted by many as an official forecast. This is not just annoying, it’s dangerous. Real harm, both physically and fiscally, can befall people and organizations that make decisions based on this bad information. (Here’s a good time to put in a plug for the NWA Digital Seal!) But, on the positive side, the weather enterprise is now reaching more people than ever before with quality, scientifically-based, helpful weather information thanks to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and others. A former coworker of mine once quipped, “A thousand words are worth a picture.” In fact, many of the wordy forecast products of the past are much more effective at eliciting the proper response when communicated via well-constructed graphics. Whether it’s a weather threat timeline, ensemble mean snowfall projections, or a graphical representation of sleet formation processes, each of us can quickly and easily inform and educate hundreds (thousands? millions?) and assist them in their decision-making with just a few clicks. While we may not completely drown out the irresponsible “media-rologists,” we can be content in knowing we do our best to be the loudest voice in the room, to communicate the most well-reasoned and accurate information and forecasts we can, and to let our scientific integrity help build our users’ trust in us. Let’s keep fighting the good fight!

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