High Anxiety: 2011 another stressful year for meteorologists

Here’s a great piece from the Wall Street Journal about the success and perils of weather forecasting, and the stress that goes along with the job.

With 10 billion dollar weather disasters in 2011, this has been a difficult year for forecasters nationwide. That’s on top of 2010, which by some measures was the most extreme weather year since 1816!

5th biggest snowstorm in Twin Cities history takes down the Metrodome roof in December 2010.

With all the record weather in Minnesota, I must admit to feeling my share of “forecaster fatigue” and stress in the past 16 months. I can even pinpoint the date in Minnesota when it all began. Jun 17. 2010.

Here’s the story from WSJ.

“Weatherman Jay Trobec has been giving the forecast to 90,000 viewers of his Sioux Falls, S.D., TV station for 14 years, and he is usually right. But “if I blow a forecast, I hear about it,” he says.

When he predicted six inches of snow in Sioux Falls that never arrived, “people were coming up to me in the coffee shop and berating me,” says Dr. Trobec, chief meteorologist at KELO-TV. “People who lay concrete for a living, people who put roofs on houses, don’t like it when the forecast isn’t correct.”

This year has already seen 10 weather disasters each costing more than $1 billion in damage, making it the most costly since the government started keeping records in 1980. And it has been one of the toughest years in memory for meteorologists. The technology used for forecasting has improved, and forecasts are more accurate compared with the past. But the job of the meteorologist is still both an art and a science.

A lot of decisions hinge on forecasters’ words. When Scott Nogueira, a meteorologist who specializes in aviation, told airline managers from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia that a massive blizzard was expected to dump up to 27 inches of snow on airports in the region, “they gasped,” he said.

In turn, the airlines began planning to cancel hundreds of flights, inconveniencing thousands of people.

Later at home, Mr. Nogueira, who works for WSI, a forecasting unit of the Weather Channel Cos., stayed up until 1:30 a.m. tracking computer-forecasting models online. “Geez,” he told his wife Alison, “I hope that forecast pans out.”

It did. Two days later, the Feb. 5-6, 2010, storm dubbed “Snowmageddon” began.

But when Mr. Nogueira failed to foresee the duration of a line of severe thunderstorms that forced numerous flight diversions, “we heard about it that day,” he says. “That caused big problems for Miami.” After making a mistake, “you sort of tuck your tail between your legs and think, ‘Oh, geez, I wish I had made a better call.’ ” Then he studied the storm, to help him foresee similar patterns in the future.

“Every day meteorologists are sticking their necks out, sometimes into the guillotine,” says Peter Neilley, vice president of global forecasting services for Weather Channel Cos. in Atlanta. “With a volatile weather year like we’ve had in 2011, it leads to a higher level of stress overall.”

Working alone or in teams, some meteorologists specialize in certain industries, others in specific locales. All base their forecasts on computer models; radar and satellite images; and wind, temperature and precipitation data collected from hundreds of sources on land and sea and in the atmosphere.

Improved data gathering, computer modeling and scientific analysis have made seven-day forecasts of broad weather patterns as accurate as five-day forecasts were 20 to 25 years ago, and five-day forecasts as accurate as three-day forecasts were then, says David B. Parsons, director of the school of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Forecasts of precipitation and temperature also have become slightly more accurate in recent years, says Eric Floehr, founder and owner of ForecastWatch, a Marysville, Ohio, company that tracks the accuracy of weather forecasts, based on an analysis he conducted for this column. A one-day forecast comes within three degrees of hitting the mark, on average; a three-day forecast is usually accurate within four degrees.”

5 landicane.PNG

Landicane 2010: Visible satellite image of the October 26, 2010 superstorm taken at 5:32pm EDT. At the time, Bigfork, Minnesota was reporting the lowest pressure ever recorded in a U.S. non-coastal storm, 955 mb. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

Good Calls, Bad Calls: a Recent History

Some recent meteorological high points and low points, based on input from weather experts:

GOOD CALLS

Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Isabel (2003): Thanks to computer modeling and on-target analysis, government advisories days in advance predicted the storms’ likely courses with unusual accuracy.

Super outbreak (2011): In April, residents in the Southeast were alerted several days before hundreds of tornados devastated parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and other states.

Snowmageddon (2010): Forecasters started raising warning flags nearly a week before record snowfall hit Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington, D.C., enabling officials to order emergency preparations and retailers to stock up with storm merchandise.

Super Tuesday storm (2008): As long as six days in advance, residents of several states heard predictions of a severe weather outbreak that unleashed dozens of deadly tornados on Primary Election day.

BAD CALLS

Wayward hurricane (2004): Roaring toward Florida at a sharp angle, Hurricane Charley veered unexpectedly and caught many people off-guard by plowing into the coastline 70 miles south of where it was expected.

Snowy surprise (2000): Computer models failed to predict a January blizzard in the Carolinas and mid-Atlantic states until a few hours before it brought entire regions to a standstill.

No-show snow (2000): Forecasters predicted a heavy December snow in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore a week in advance, but the blizzard never materialized.

Our recent stretch of tranquil Minnesota weather has been a blessing and a welcome break after more than a year of record weather in Minnesota. In Minnesota you never know when the weather machine will spin out of control again!

PH