9 June 2016

Forecasts are getting Better, But The Public is Being Given Lousy Forecasts

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Accuweather's 45 day weather forecasts are not only wrong, but they take advantage of a nation full of people with the science literacy of a third grader.

Accuweather’s 45 day weather forecasts, are no more accurate than a guess. They are making money on the average American’s lack of basic science literacy.

Weather forecasts are much better than even a decade ago, and the change over the last 20 years has been remarkable, but in many cases, the weather forecast the average Joe gets has gotten worse. The good news is that it’s fairly easy to get the best forecast possible, but getting that message out will not be easy.

Here is the problem:

I’ve heard my fellow meteorologists call them “crap apps,” and it’s not far off. I’m talking about smart-phone weather apps from places like AccuWeather, that basically give forecasts based on raw numerical model guidance, with little or no human involvement. AccuWeather is the worst of these, touting ridiculous 45 day forecasts that are so bad that guessing would be more correct. These forecasts prey on the large number of Americans whose science literacy is abysmal (If you read your horoscope each day, I guess it’s not to far of a stretch to believe a forecast 45 days in the future).

It’s not just the long-range forecasts that are junk, these apps produce automated forecasts, based on weather models that have little or no human oversight. Numerical models make mistakes, and they often make the same ones over and over, but a decent meteorologist will adjust a forecast for these biases. That’s the reason we call it “guidance”!

The popularity of these smart-phone apps (using mostly automated forecasts) has led to a situation where most Americans are getting forecasts that are worse than what they received 15 years ago!

I know how popular these weather apps are, because I very frequently get emails and messages asking “why is your forecast different from xxxx?.” This is most frequent during severe weather episodes, and snow storms, when an accurate forecast is most critical. I’ve seen social media discussions where people say that they “average all the different snowfall forecasts, and go with that”! If only they knew that they are relying on something that meteorologists already know is wrong!

What You Should Do

1.Get a weather app that is based on the forecast from a local meteorologist who has a CBM Seal from the AMS. Most TV stations have their own app, and IF the station has a CBM meteorologist, they will likely have a decent app. Save the space on your smart-phone, and dump the national apps like Accuweather/Weather.com.

2. Beware of weather by icon! Icons with a word or two are not enough when the forecast is critical. Set a link for your iPhone or iPad to the text-based, or video based forecast from your trusted weather source. If they do not have that available for your local area, they probably should NOT be your trusted weather source. I am the Chief Meteorologist for WBOC-TV and you can see how we do our main web page here. This takes quite a bit of time to produce everyday, and keep updated 365 days per year, but this is what you should expect. NOAA does a text forecast as well, and you can rely on them anywhere you go in America.

3. IGNORE any forecast beyond 7 days, unless you have hired a meteorologist who specializes in long-range forecasts. You will not get this for free, and it will cover a period of time much longer than one day.

The abysmal understanding of science, by so many Americans has wide-ranging consequences, and this is just one of them.

Note: One popular app, that is actually quite good, is the WeatherUnderground app. I would not rely on the forecasts, but they give you hyper-local current conditions and have excellent science journalism about weather and climate.