25 November 2013
My friend Greg Fishel (the long time Chief meteorologist at WRDU in Raleigh, NC) brought up something the other day that’s really stuck in my mind. It’s actually been bugging me for awhile, and it has to do with posting raw model data on the internet (and showing it on air). You may not even realize you are seeing it, and that itself is part of the problem. It’s NOT a forecast, it’s just a model based on initial data manipulated with math and physics.
This is closely related to the guest post of Nate Johnson (earlier this week) about warnings and social media, but this is more about forecasting high impact weather events online, and why I think we meteorologists may be confusing the public. Below are some examples of raw model posts on Google Plus and Facebook. I’ve done this as well, and I’m NOT criticizing anyone here, I’m just asking if there is a better way of serving the public’s need to know. The goal should be to communicate our best forecast, along with an understanding of the uncertainty in that forecast, and both should be easy to interpret.
I could post some model data online tonight that shows snowfall in TN (and even parts of Alabama) in a few days but having forecasted in that part of the world for quite a few years, I’m very certain there will be very little or none. Posting that raw model guidance might tend to confuse people, even IF I say the odds are very slim. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and showing an image that says one thing and then saying another is the perfect recipe for confusion.
There are times when I think posting the model guidance is fine, and that is when you are quite certain that what you are seeing is quite likely to be basically correct. I believe for example tonight that the ensemble average of the European (ECMWF) model from London is likely fairly correct on the track and timing of this week’s coastal storm. This storm will really throw a wrench in the weather on the busiest travel day of the year, and showing this data along with a forecast of what it will do and what folks can expect seems OK to me.
You the consumer have a responsibility here as well, and that is to look closely at where your forecast is coming from. If it’s from someone online that you’ve never heard of, I’d be careful. There are a lot of folks posting online forecasts these days who can read model data, but have no background in the science. Look for someone you trust and who is doing more than showing you data (and saying something might happen). Almost anyone can do that, but making a forecast in a tough situation requires a bit more gravitas.
Dr. Jeff Kimpel (my adviser at Okla. University) gave me some advice many years ago that I’ve never forgotten, and it’s very apropos here-
“Tell them what you know, and don’t tell them what you don’t know.”