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weather communication

Are meteorologists forecasting ice too much?

Summary:

Over Christmas break, my brother (who lives near Boston) asked me a very interesting question that I don’t have a definitive answer for. His question was about ice forecasts, and why it seems like meteorologists forecast it way too often compared to what actually happens.

Opinion:

I’m torn on this one. Being in the Boston area, my brother does not get many “good” ice events compared to areas further inland in the Northeast. Inferring that my brother was basing his question mainly on storms that have a quick transition from snow/sleet to freezing rain to rain, I want to attempt to answer this as logically as possible.

I think the answer varies based on perspective. Whether you’re a meteorologist, Joe Q. Public, an emergency manager, a utility company, etc., ice accumulation and its potential impacts can be a huge problem for some, and a minor nuisance for others.

Meteorologists try to verify a forecast to the best of their abilities. If it looks like even a couple hundredths of an inch of ice is possible before a changeover to rain, it will likely end up in the forecast. Then the ice happens and the meteorologists pat themselves on the back for a job well done. But is it a job well done?

Verification aside, what did including ice in the forecast actually accomplish? Assuming the storm quickly changed over to rain after the brief period of freezing rain, did that minor, short-lived ice accumulation actually do anything? Was it even noticed?

And this is the point where my opinion becomes split. As a meteorologist, not only do I want the forecast to verify, but I also want to build in a contingency to my forecast in case something goes awry. What if the freezing rain lasts an hour or more longer than I expected, and it becomes much more of a problem than I had anticipated? What looks more foolish, mentioning ice with little to no impact, or not mentioning ice and then having some scale of disaster happen due to a more prolonged ice event?

For me, the answer depends on the storm evolution as well as the forecast confidence. Unless it’s a high confidence forecast with a very short transition period from snow/sleet to rain, it’s probably better to include ice accumulation in the forecast. Given how little ice it can take for things to go from okay to really, really bad, I think most people will forgive meteorologists for being a little overcautious.

Change how you battle bad weather information

Summary:

Yet another Facebook post containing bad weather forecast information is being shared by people who don’t realize that it’s bad information. You know, the same thing that happens with every notable or potentially-notable weather event.

Opinion:

Getting a screen grab of the Facebook post and sharing it to your social network saying “THIS IS BAD! DO NOT SHARE!” won’t get you anywhere in the battle to suppress/end the creation and proliferation of bad weather information. There is no stopping it. There will always be someone out there posting bad weather information. Calling them out to your own followers time and time again will not yield much in terms of stemming the flow of bad information.

Instead, try something different. Be more direct. Go to the post in question and call out the person who made the post. Tell the people sharing the post that it’s bad information. But PLEASE don’t just mock/insult them. Many times it’s some gung-ho weather enthusiast or a kid who’s trying to learn and be like the people they look up to. Provide constructive criticism and explain your reasoning. If they insult you, block you, or reject you, then leave it at that. Or maybe at that point just flat out shame them, it’s your call.

What most people are doing now to battle bad weather information isn’t working. Change it up.

What’s in a name? Winter Storm Watch/Warning/Advisory

Summary:

The map is showing purple! And pink! And blue! Winter weather is on the way! Here are the areas under a Winter Storm Watch, a Winter Weather Warning, and a Winter Weather Advisory.

Opinion:

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?! I’m just a person who looks up their forecast on the phone and sees snow and gets concerned. What is a Winter Storm Watch? How is it different from an Advisory? That’s great that there’s a difference, but I’ll be damned if I know what that difference is.

Stop posting those stupid multi-colored maps thinking what you’re doing is making any bit of difference. Make a snow accumulation map. Inform people on timing and intensity. Will there be ice, too? How much? When? How bad will the roads be?

Maps like the one above are mostly useless to the general public. Add information that people can actually understand and use to plan.

Of course, this is all part of the “we have too many ways to say it will snow” conversation, which I am all for consolidating all these Watches/Warnings/Advisories into something that’s much easier to ingest. But that’s another topic for another day.

The polar vortex: just roll with it

http://glossary.ametsoc.org/wiki/Polar_vortex

Summary:

Every winter since “polar vortex” has become a mainstream term, there have been many debates on social media as to what exactly the polar vortex is, how to classify “pieces” of it that break off and surge into the lower latitudes, and where exactly the polar vortex “lives” in the different levels of the atmosphere. Ask several meteorologists what it is, and more often than not you will get different answers.

Opinion:

Just as “derecho” is now misused during summer convection, “polar vortex” has been taken over by mainstream media to mean “really cold air be coming”. But hey now, that’s not what the polar vortex is! Like derecho, we need to let go of the more strict, by-the-books definition for the polar vortex. It’s a catchy term that the public and weather community alike can instantly associate to strong cold. If anything, that helps weather communication.

I used to be a stickler for following the strict definitions. Then I learned that once a certain meaning of a term has gone mainstream, there is no going back. We can’t correct how “polar vortex” is used, and it might be for the better. No layman cares about what’s happening at 500mb, and even fewer care about what’s happening at 50mb.

(Image SOURCE)

Temperature anomaly maps on social media

Note: The tweets used are just examples of what many are posting on social media. This post is not intended to single out these tweets specifically; they were just the ones that caught my eye this morning since they were back-to-back.

Summary:

From your weather enthusiast Facebook page to nationally-renowned meteorologists, everyone is starting to talk about the upcoming cold shot that will impact much of the United States next week. COLD. IS. COMING.

Opinion:

But what audience are these images and comments trying to reach? Does this audience understand how these anomaly maps translate into sensible weather? Sure, it looks pretty and it’s eye-grabbing when blues and purples take over the country, but how does it prepare me for the weather beyond “it will be colder than normal”? Are we talking lows in the 20s, 10s, etc.? Does someone in Mobile or Atlanta need to get their winter coat out?

I’m probably being nitpicky with this one, but I think posting actual forecast lows/highs would be more productive because it would be easier for most people to understand. Maybe I’m just looking at it from the wrong angle? To me it’s part of the bigger argument that meteorologists face with reforming weather communication, which is generally steering more toward focusing on the weather’s impact. You can tell me “it will be cold,” or you can tell me “it will be cold, with lows in the 10s and 20s.” I have no way of telling what “it will be cold” means without more context, but letting me know what the actual temperatures will be is much more useful.

One could say that it’s too far out into the future to provide actual numbers, and I could understand that. But it would be better to say “temperatures could get as cold as [range]” than the more vague things that are being communicated.