The New Pollution

It is not going away.

Social media and weather forecasting. There is good. There is bad. There is ugly.

Weather forecasting blogs and Facebook pages continue to grow. And as I have alluded to in a previous post, they have radically changed the game for those in my profession – broadcast meteorology.  We continue to lose control of the weather message. As the old SportsCenter cliché goes, we can’t stop it, we can only hope to contain it.

The underground fight is heating up and starting to become more visible between professional meteorologists, hobbyists, and quacks.  Many of my colleagues, like Don Paul, Chief Meteorologist at WIVB in Buffalo, have shared…

When you see sensational storm predictions on Facebook or other social media, and you don’t know the source…BEWARE. There are many unschooled, uncredentialed phony weather peddlers out there trying to stir up fear (some actually make money at it, and one literally threatens other legit meteorologists who call him out for his “false prophecies” and absolutely crazed and unauthorized tornado watches). if you don’t recognize the source, take it with a barrel of salt…if you can find any. Weather Frauds abound on social media.

Dave Williams at WCIV in Charleston, South Carolina…

There is an epidemic of fear-mongering, baseless forecasts on social media. Those of us in the private sector, especially broadcast meteorology, are trying to fight back against these inflammatory keyboard sociopaths. The National Weather Service can’t comment on these controversies (although their HQ did send out an advisory about one of the worst abusers, who has been issuing phony tornado and blizzard warnings, distancing themselves from his fraud), but we in the private sector can. 

Then I thought, why has this become a problem?

It would seem obvious to many of us that local broadcast meteorologists, other private-sector meteorologists, and the National Weather Service would all have the best handle on the weather story, and over time, be the most reliable and dependable forecasters.  Yet it is not the case.  I’m guessing two reasons:

We are The Establishment

And there is an intrinsic public mistrust of The Establishment.  As broadcast meteorologists, we had been fortunate enough to have control of the public weather message since the middle 20th Century. No more. Social media has taken a wrecking ball to that idea.

Worse, we have seen how public trust in the media has tanked in the last 30 years. No matter how hard we (most of us, anyway) attempt to present a coherent, professional, and levelheaded message, we are still part of the (gasp!) mainstream media.

Consequently, I am not surprised when the public takes swipes at us on social media. It has happened to all of us.  Unfortunately, I do not expect the public’s opinion of our profession to change any time soon.  While I will leave the deeper reasons for that to social scientists, know that it leads to frustrations like this, from my Penn State meteorology classmate Joe Murgo (WTAJ in Altoona, PA)…

You know I love the way people twist my words and make themselves feel better about themselves by saying cruel things on their own pages. The previous post was not a forecast for your location and was not a hedge. It was a statement of honesty about the complexity of this storm for our state. I would say you should be ashamed of yourselves but then again, I can tell the person you are already by the way you read and act. Why read the posts and subscribe here if you won’t actually pay attention and don’t like the information?

Bad history

Fourteen years after a poor forecast by a predecessor, I still hear about the “dusting” of snow forecast which ended up being several inches here in Lynchburg.  As most veterans of this business realize, our reputations are built on how we perform in the high-impact weather events: hurricanes, squall lines, tornadoes, ice storms, snowstorms.

And despite the remarkable progress that the science has made in the last decade, we still find ourselves the butt of jokes about our accuracy.  We have all heard, “It must be nice to have a job where you can be wrong all the time.”

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Going elsewhere

Given those two ideas, it follows that the public will seek out further information. The public craves information about weather that will affect them.  There are millions of individuals wanting a forecast just for them… for free (see also: James Spann’s fabulous crap app blog).

I would also guess that many believe we are holding back information.  

To some extent, they are correct.  Each one of us in this line of work has to make a decision about what to say and what not to say about the weather situation.  The point is not to hide information, but to communicate expectations and risks about the upcoming weather situation without inciting unnecessary panic.

But, because thousands of individuals are each interpreting what we say through his/her own filter, the message gets skewed. Every meteorologist who has done this job has had his/her words twisted, spun, or taken out of context.  Bizarre falsehoods about what I have forecast have been fired at me more times than I can count.

The data spill

If someone else promises to give the public information it wants, even if it isn’t necessarily good information, the public will consume. The internet is underground. It is edgy. It promises the real story or what they’re not telling you.  Don’t even get me started with the whole chemtrails nonsense.

There are many parts of the forecast that I do not discuss because we are focused on delivering a weather message upon which the public can make decisions. Most of the time, the public is not interested in the process of creating the message.  Similarly, I’m sure many people enjoy a good pork barbecue, but they don’t have a lot of interest in raising and slaughtering a pig.

Pay no attention to the man (or woman) behind the curtain

With the 21st Century democratization of weather data, it is now easy for anyone with rudimentary computer skills and access to weather simulations (most are free) to start a weather page.

As a result, numerous sites and pages are popping up. I cannot follow them all, much less vouch for their credibility. But there are good ones out there.  There are strong weather hobbyists and private meteorologists running pages.  I’m just not sure if the general public knows the difference, or for that matter, if they even care… given the performance of operational meteorology in the past.

Personally, I try to be conservative in my forecasting, batting for average rather than swinging for the fences.  I look at the same data as everyone else, but invariably, I am bombarded with questions about a possible storm that is 8-10 days down the road.  Pick your favorite catastrophic event: blizzard, derecho, tornado outbreak, ice storm.  Lots of weather fear out there.

While we can often glean useful information and probabilities about these events from computer simulations (especially ensembles) from that distance, the specifics and precision most people are looking for are not available that many days in advance.

Misunderstanding

But does the public know that?  This is the same public that badmouths a 24-hour forecast, but moments later wants to know if some computer simulation 192 hours in the future “is true.”

These exchanges have exposed something that meteorologists have known and dealt with for a long time. Most of the public has no idea how the country’s weather infrastructure is organized. Thanks to a corporate decision in Atlanta, I routinely get asked, “When did we start naming winter storms?”

Short answer: We haven’t.

Spotting the difference

Getting different opinions on the forecast is a good idea.  My analysis may be different than that of a colleague.  As a general rule, if there are wildly differing opinions about a forecast, the data is not conclusive.  Look at what many have to say and take an average, or blend it together to give yourself an idea of what is going to happen.  Consensus is normally the best forecast.

If you go that route and play internet weather roulette, find out who is really writing the analysis.  If the author is not willing to provide his/her name or background, you are probably better off going somewhere else.

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Revised October 11.

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About seansublette

Meteorologist at Climate Central. Broadcast meteorologist in Virginia from 1995 to 2015. Born and raised in Richmond, VA. Penn State alumnus. Loves baseball and the rock band Rush. Views are independent of my employer. Past performance does not guarantee future results.
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