Our sister paper in Fredericksburg gave some space to a guy who feels betrayed by those of us in the weather business. Even though his essay evokes memories of Dana Carvey’s grumpy-old-man persona on Saturday Night Live, you might be surprised to hear that he has some valid points.
He appears to be somewhere between Culpeper and Fredericksburg, which is actually the genesis of the problem. He has not found anyone that is looking at his weather locally.
But the weathermen, both the D.C. folks and the experts from The Weather Channel, predicted storms for the afternoon. Many people adjusted their plans accordingly.
The Washington folks have far more people to serve within a 25 miles radius of the capital. The harsh reality is that he is not worth their personal attention.
And The Weather Channel is in Atlanta.
About 11 a.m., I got a Weather Channel alert on my phone saying that storms would begin about 1 p.m. A few minutes later, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch.
The phone alert is automated. A computer algorithm. Yes, it is based on actual data, but there is no human oversight of most weather apps. We could go on and on about the marketing and the folly of some weather apps, but that’s an essay for another time.
A Severe Thunderstorm Watch means conditions are favorable for damaging thunderstorms in the coming hours. It doesn’t mean they are on the way.
Similarly, we don’t have the time here to go down the whole watch vs. warning rabbit hole. I’ve known the difference since I was 9 years old, but I will admit, the wording could be better.
Forecasters do okay when they make general predictions but too often they mess up when they try to pinpoint times.
There is a grain of truth here, at least in the summer. In July and August, when the processes that initiate thunderstorm development are so small, forecasting the precise location and timing of them is still not something that is done well, by a human or by a computer simulation.
It is unquestionably better than 30 years ago, but it still has a ways to go. It’s like figuring out where the bubbles will form in a pot of water when you turn on the stove. That’s not to say there is no skill, but that level of precision is exceedingly limited during July and August. Other times of year, forecasting arrival times of precipitation is easier, as the processes involved are larger in scale and easier to simulate mathematically.
I’ve seen TV weathermen declare that it is raining over my house when the sun is shining.
Everyone taking in weather information on a screen needs to understand something. The radar will not tell you precisely what is going on at your house.
The radar that serves Fredericksburg is on the grounds of Dulles Airport. Because Earth is curved, the radar beam is about 3000 feet above the ground by the time it reaches Fredericksburg. It is not uncommon, especially in the winter, for the radar to pick up water drops and ice crystals at that height, even though they evaporate before ever reaching the ground.
…lines of storms seem to split in my area with the rain going north and south while my fields stay dry.
I can pull out my own grumpy old man voice here: If I had a dime for every time I heard someone complain about storms magically splitting and missing them, I could have retired 15 years ago.
Storms follow the Rappahannock and the Rapidan rivers, which is why places like Orange and Fredericksburg get soaked while Culpeper remains dry.
Look, I really want to be tactful and polite, but that’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.
Storms follow the average wind speed and direction through the middle part of the atmosphere. We have decades of actual data to prove it. Do conditions on the ground affect storms? Absolutely. Do they magically follow a river? No.
By coincidence, several rivers generally flow west to east in Virginia, which is also a common direction of a thunderstorm’s steering winds.
Over the last 30 years, I’ve been continuously amazed at how important it is for some people to be emotionally involved in owning their weather. How they feel that their weather is different and more special than everyone else’s, defying the rules of physics and thermodynamics.
This happens frequently when a 100-mph microburst causes wind damage. If you tell someone it was a microburst rather than a tornado, they get offended, as if you’ve taken something away from them.
I suppose “I survived a microburst” isn’t as good of a story as “I survived a tornado.”
I have conceded that some people will never believe me, because I committed the mortal sin of studying the weather as a vocation for the last 30 years in the hopes of saving lives and property.
Saturday the Weather Channel predicted that the sky would fall so many times that by nightfall nobody believed the alerts that kept coming.
I have friends at the Weather Channel, so let’s just say that marketing the weather is very different from communicating the weather. There are several places to get good local weather information. And several that are questionable.