Looking to the skies
-Gail Hartfield, NWA President, August 2017
By the time you read this, our nation will have experienced a once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse. The buzz surrounding this event has been astounding. It began well over a year ago when hotels along the path of totality began selling out, and plans for comprehensive decision support services were already being devised. Web pages dedicated to this eclipse were launched long before many knew the event was on the calendar.
Upon learning of the eclipse some time ago, my first thought was, “Wow, we had better get that cloud and rain forecast 100% correct!” This may end up as one of the most anticipated—and scrutinized—cloud forecasts this nation’s weather enterprise has ever seen. Akin to sweating a forecast for one’s outdoor wedding, unfulfilled promises of clear skies and dry conditions can result in much anger and disappointment under such circumstances.
While an eclipse is not technically a meteorological phenomenon, the public nonetheless looked to trusted weather entities— including broadcasters, private companies, and the National Weather Service— to augment the details about the eclipse provided by NASA and other supporting groups, and to help with viewing plans. I was struck by the extensive preparations that took place to ensure that those traveling to and from the path of totality were safe and prepared for the expected weather conditions. This included staging weather monitoring and forecast operations in numerous locations to support local governments and businesses. In many cases, this weather support occurred in rural areas that expected to see an unprecedented surge of people seeking the perfect place to experience the eclipse. It was recognized early on that dangerous weather happening in areas not accustomed to dealing with thousands of visitors (or more) and potential traffic gridlock could be devastating.
Numerous forecasting companies and media outlets set up along the path of totality to broadcast the eclipse via social media and traditional channels to keep everyone informed and engaged—especially those who were not able to experience totality in person. They augmented this with lots of “what-to-expect” information and visualizations, both on websites and in helpful social media posts. While not every meteorologist has a deep knowledge of non-meteorological sciences, the fact that the public looked to our community for such information bolsters the concept of meteorologists as a trusted source for scientific information covering a variety of disciplines.
While the eclipse viewing will end up as a breathtaking and positive experience for most (which we hope is the case), there will undoubtedly still be lessons we can learn as scientists and as public safety and outreach specialists. Could we have made better sky cover forecasts? Could we have communicated our forecasts better, or provided improved visualizations? Could we have done a better job to prepare eclipse viewers for the expected weather and travel conditions, both during and in the days prior to and after the eclipse? For meteorologists, this post-event assessment is necessary and should mimic those conducted after major weather events—an essential part of the continuous effort by us meteorologists to self-evaluate and get better at what we do.