Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Forecast frustrations

Yesterday's events in the southeastern US have revealed, yet another time, how frustrating it can be to be a forecaster.  Forecasting the weather well is not easy, and there is always the inevitable uncertainty in our forecasts.  Most of the angst forecasters feel when doing their job is derived directly from that uncertainty, and yet that very aspect of forecasting is inescapable.  Although not all forecasters are thoroughly committed to their work, most of those I know are indeed very much absorbed in trying to do their absolute best, all the time.  Forecasting is the most challenging task a meteorologist can tackle and anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to have a go and see how it works out!

Therefore, it's extremely frustrating when forecasters provide good forecasts and people are still caught in bad weather situations, occasionally becoming casualties of that weather.  In 1987, the Midland, TX forecast office did a superb job with a tornado warning, but the small town of Saragosa was blasted by a violent tornado.  About 10 percent of the town population was killed, including several children!  The forecaster who issued the warning knew some of those killed, and he was devastated by what happened.  It was no consolation to him that he had done his part and done it well.  I was deeply moved by seeing his emotional state - years later, he was still racking his brain trying to think of what else he could have done to prevent the tragedy.  Most forecasters care very much about their job performance, because they know they can make a difference.

What does it take for a forecast to be effective?  Assume that the forecast is perfect (which is impossible).  Then, for that forecast to be effective, the users of that forecast must
  1. receive the forecast information
  2. understand the forecast information
  3. know what to do with the information
  4. believe the information
  5. be able to take effective action based on that information
  6. make the decision to take action when necessary
Every link in this chain is important for the final result.

The winter storm that hit the southeast yesterday affected people who aren't accustomed to such events.  Some were hit very hard with the weather, despite good forecasts well in advance.  Since I've been a professional meteorologist, it's always been frustrating to me that people who experience hazardous weather events that are relatively rare in their region often do little or nothing to prepare for them.  This is no laughing matter - the consequences can be dire.  If such weather events only occur once every 20 years or so, it seems easier and cheaper to do nothing to address their preparedness.  And many people ignore the forecasts, seeking to go about their ordinary business despite the extraordinary weather conditions.  It's as if they want things to be normal and somehow believe they can force the situation to be normal by behaving normally - in abnormal circumstances.  Users surely must believe the forecasts if they are to help themselves make the right decisions.  Was a lack of belief in the forecasts why so many were caught in life-threatening situations by yesterday's winter storm?  It might be helpful to do a serious survey to investigate the reasons.

If a particular form of hazardous weather is rare in your location, that doesn't mean it can never happen - only that it will be infrequent.  And yes, it can happen to you, in particular!  It's not just about hype and scare tactics - hazardous weather is serious business - definitely not a joke.  Sure, sometimes it turns out to be a false alarm, and forecasters try very hard not to have that happen - but uncertainty means it happens occasionally.  That doesn't mean you can dismiss the forecasts as hyperbole all the time!

It's always better to have something you might need in a hazardous weather event and it turn out that you didn't actually need it, than for you to need it desperately and not have it.  If you expect the best in a situation (e.g., "A tornado won't actually hit my house!"), nevertheless, it's prudent to prepare for the worst, right?  After all, your life and well-being, and those of your loved ones are potentially at stake.  That seems so obvious to me, it's just difficult to imagine why many people behave in ways potentially detrimental to their own self-interest.

I can't pretend to understand why some people refuse to recognize the value and importance of weather forecast.  Yes, the forecasts aren't perfect, but many times, those forecasts offer critically important information for the decision-making process.  A friend of mine told me years ago that "Where you stand on some issue depends on where you sit!"  From where I sit, it's silly and dangerous to ignore the information in a forecast of hazardous weather.  But evidently, from where some people sit, it's quite all right.

It's the job of the forecaster to make as accurate a forecast as possible, but forecasters have little or no control over what must happen to make that forecast effective!  Their primary responsibility is the production of an accurate forecast.  That's what they're educated and trained to do.  Forecasters are basically helpless when any link in the chain breaks - preventing those links from being broken isn't what they're educated and trained for.  It's likely that efforts to educate users about how to understand and use the information would be helpful.  Even if a serious public education campaign were to be done, it likely wouldn't be a perfect solution.
There are many agencies that offer information that can be life-saving regarding hazardous weather, including the National Weather Service, but users must accept the responsibility for their own safety - to learn and put into action the available recommendations.  We can lead the horses to water, but it's up to them to drink.


Chuck Doswell said...

A supplemental comment: Uncertainty means, among other things, that the details of what weather will happen in any specific location and time cannot be exactly accurate. If it seems that a bad event could come close to you, is it reasonable to assume that a forecast that has it passing nearby means it won't happen to you? I don't think so. We forecasters need to be able to express uncertainty about all elements of our forecast. To not have such information in the forecast is to withhold information from our users!

Anonymous said...

I agree with this post entirely. It's situations like this where you wish as a forecaster you could shake some heads. Especially since this situation in Dixie, in one form or another, was warned about. I and other forecasters didn't go through timing out forecasts potentially to the hour over the years using painstaking analysis and experience just to have someone blame us for screwing up their end.
It is ironic though that this happened a few days before the AMS Annual Meeting down there in the ATL. Could make for an interesting meeting, especially if GA government officials show up.

James Marusak

Unknown said...

I commented on your other blog post entitled, "What Information Does a Forecast Contain?", but some of my comments are equally relevant here. I will post a portion:

I started thinking a lot about the societal implications of forecast wording after the recent “snow jam” fiasco in Atlanta. In the days leading up to that event, I was providing forecasts to some of my clients and I, like the National Weather Service, was forecasting 1 to 2 inches of snow in the Atlanta metro, with the greatest accumulations occurring south of Atlanta. This turned out to be quite accurate, as a swath of heavier snow fell from Columbus to Macon.

Despite being as specific as possible in relaying the forecasts, many people in the Atlanta area interpreted the forecast as “the worst is going south of us.” They were overly focused on the path of the storm and where the “heaviest” snow would be rather than the amounts predicted for the metro. I kept fielding questions like, “are you still expecting the snow to stay south of Atlanta?” My response was consistently, “no, I expect snow to fall in Atlanta… don’t focus on the heavier amounts south of you… focus on the accumulations predicted for your area.” I would see people posting on social media things like, “it’s supposed to go south of us,” because that was how their brains were processing the forecasts.

I feel like we, as forecasters, need to encourage people to focus on what is being predicted for their town and how those amounts will impact THEIR respective communities. This approach would be very similar to how the NHC relays tropical cyclone forecasts, which reminds people to not focus on the exact path of the eye/center of circulation. Obviously, this approach would be helpful for all significant weather events, not just snow.

Great post, Chuck.