Wx Casters: We're Not As Smart As We Think We Are
By Steve MacLaughlin on January 21, 2013, 9:45pm Last modified: January 22, 2013, 10:25pm
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I originally wrote this article last February after a snowstorm that almost every weathercaster in Connecticut misjudged beyond belief. This is my boss' favorite article that I wrote last year and I have been waiting for the perfect time to re-post it. Today feels right. As a significant snow storm may nail us on Friday, I already see people talking about a foot or more and it's only Monday. The words I wrote last winter are as appropriate now as then - I hope you enjoy - and apologies for the length...I had a lot to say that day....
Television weather is an art more than it is a science. If we could get the science right every time with pinpoint precision we'd be getting paid a lot more. But we can't. And admitting that we can't is something many of us can't seem to do. The "art" is trying to use all the science available to us to make rational, responsible, patient, humble decisions about what to talk about on television. It's about creating a narrative and storyline over the course of a week, not reacting to one set of computer models one day and then completely changing the forecast the next day because a new set of models shows something different. It's about finding a balance between what we know for sure and what is still unclear and allowing the viewer to be part of the journey of discovery. It's about sometimes saying "I don't know," verus telling people what will happen, only to be wrong. We are television people...we love attention and need inflated egos to do what we do, but sometimes the cockiness that makes us so sharp turns into an arrogance that makes us really, really bad at what we do.
On a Monday evening, as our computer models began to show a late-week storm, I chose to not discuss that on the air, but to focus only on the bitterly cold temps until more models came out. By Tuesday and Wednesday, I decided I should at least explain to viewers there was a possibility of snow while being completely honest that I had no idea just yet what would happen and that I needed to look at more data over the next couple of days. I woke up on Thursday and did what I normally do in the morning when weather is looming...I had a cup of coffee while I looked at the latest models. I was thrilled that I saw something only a weather geek could appreciate...an explosion in the models while I was sleeping the night before. We could really get that snow I had hinted at for the last couple of days. But I also told myself to relax. It's one run of computer models. Let me go into work, see what other members of my team are thinking, see if the National Weather Service is putting out any advisories, get with my boss and see if we want to start talking about snow in a responsible way that prepares viewers for the real possibility of a tough weekend while also explaining the science of computer models and how we really need to be smart and not panic; take the viewers into our world and share with them all the variables we weigh and how complicated a forecast like this is.
I was, quite honestly, shocked when I starting receiving messages from friends and reading tweets that said television stations in Connecticut are forecasting over six inches; some as high as ten. What happened? How could this be? I saw the models too and yes, if the "one" run of models was correct, six inches was certainly a possibility but still not likely. And even if six to ten inches were possible, it's only Thursday and yesterday we were not predicting anything at all and the storm is not until Saturday. Again...art versus science. The science is saying we might get six inches, but the art is to be patient; investigate more; wait for more data; share the new information with viewers but clearly present all possible scenarios and alternatives.
Of course, some meteorologists wanted to be first to tell the world we were gonna be plowing and shoveling that weekend in spite of just as much evidence that the storm could miss us or mix with rain. In the next forty-eight hours, to be clear, the National Weather Service never went that high. Even their winter weather advisory was issued with temperence. Television stations in New York City and Boston never went that high. Why did we? Why did some forecasters in Connecticut so foolishly go out on a limb with something so far away (no, forty-eight hours may not be long in real life, but in the weather world it's an eternity with an event like this) and with low confidence based on one set of computer models.
Forecasters will say it's their bosses pushing them to sell snow during the February ratings book. I can't speak for other station but I can tell you my boss never, ever asked me to do that. In fact, when I went into his office in a snippy mood on Thursday and said I do not want to talk about snowfall totals yet even though the rest of the market is doing it because it's too soon on an event like this, he said, "Then don't do it. Do what you are comfortable with. Talk about the chance for snow but don't show totals until you are ready."
So at 5 and 6pm, I stuck to my guns and did a good job, I think, breaking down a complicated forecast. And then I committed the cardinal sin at 10 and 11pm. I gave in. Not because anyone made me, but because I felt the pressure of the market. Because I was weak. I was building this beautiful poem all week and was going to use Thursday night to tell this wonderful story to viewers about the chance for snow and how the computer models exploded and what that means if they are right and why we need to wait another day to see because the storm could still, literally, go either way. Instead, because the rest of the market started talking about snowfall totals, this silly map that we labor over, getting it just right, then using it as gospel before tweaking and re-tweaking and shifting and re-shfting, I had to do the same thing.
I hate that I did this, but sadly, I did. I am happy that I was rational and reasonable, relatively speaking. I called for a general two to four inch event explaining if the storm was strong enough we could see a strip of up to six inches but that it was just as likely the storm goes so far away we see less that two to four inches. Two to four is a great range in a storm like this because it can easily be adjusted up or down a notch the next day without having to apologize or say we were wrong or create panic. But I did not want to talk about any snowfall totals until Friday. Having to do it Thursday boxed me and every other forecaster into a hole that we had to weasle out of on Friday when the models kept pulling lower and lower.
For me, the adjustment was easy - I never forecast too much and always left wiggle room because I did not want to ever commit on a storm that could just as easily miss us. But wiggling is still something I could have avoided altogether if others hadn't been so reckless the day before.
Well...we all know what happened...not much. And what did we expect? The computer models were all over the place. They nailed the arctic front but could never resolve the coastal low. They did a great job forming the low, but didn't know where it was gonna go. By Friday, the models were starting to show a much lower event, but as with never using one set of models to 'raise' my snowfall totals, I didn't want to use one set of models to 'lower' them either. So I took my two to four inches from Thursday and lowered it to one to three for most of the state and held on to the two to four in the advisory area. I wish I had gone even lower. I knew these totals were probably too high, but I also knew, as a responsible meteorologist, that if the storm goes just a touch farther west or strengthens a tad more than the latest models suggest, we get the heavier amounts. This subtle one inch change, barely noticeable to most, was just enough to account for the new models but not so much that I would be wrong if the storm was indeed stronger.
Balance! Balance is what made me wake up on Saturday morning feeling okay. But I was still disappointed. I wish I had never showed any snowfall totals on Thursday. And I wish I was smart enough to have predicted zero snow on Friday night, but I couldn't do that because the fact is, we just didn't know until the snow started falling if we were gonna get 'something' or 'nothing.' What I did know was that this storm was not gonna be big and that the cold air would be the bigger story. What I tried to do was use the 'art' of television weather more than the 'science' of meteorology because the science on Friday night was still unclear and making a bold prediciton in either direction could have been disasterous. But I learned years ago that when the 'science' itself is unclear, the 'art' of science becomes crystal clear.
For those of you who are weatherpeople-to-be, I leave you with this thought: Be the tortoise, not the hare. Approach every forecast with the same patience as the day before. Never let your excitement over the possibility of a single event allow you to put a forecast on television that is irrational or risky. You may not always be the first to "break" the big weather news and you may not be able to claim you were the only one to get "the big one" right while others were timid and conservative. You will also get a few wrong, but over time, you will end up being more accurate and balanced and trusted than others and if you're lucky, viewers will actually notice and turn to you when it really matters, turning away from those who keep taking big risks and end up being wrong so often.
With snow, it's much easier and more credible to start with lower amounts and responsibly work up as more information comes in than to bust out some astronomical numbers only to pull back the next day, sealing your reputation among viewers.
And remember this if you ever get to be on tv...everything you do on the air affects every other weather person in the market. Being bold and confident is great, but repeatedly taking uncalculated or foolish risks are unhealthy for every other weatherperson in the market.
And finally, on television, don't be sure until you are sure and if you aren't sure don't act sure. Viewers appreciate someone who is honest and doesn't know everything all the time versus someone who is wrong, cause I'll tell you what...viewers are not stupid. You think they don't notice...but they do! They see and remember everything.
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