Weather forecasters can spy on storms from space, and they have some of the cleverest computer models at their disposal, but the atmosphere still throws them an occasional curveball.
Or curving hurricane, to be more precise.
The saga of Hurricane Dorian exemplifies the fickle nature of, well, nature even in our era of weather satellites and Doppler radar.
It also highlights the immense complexity of trying to figure out how multiple discrete factors spread over thousands of miles — air and water temperatures, jet stream wind speeds, air pressure — will combine to determine where a hurricane will hit and how strong it will be.
(And who knows, perhaps the flutter of a single butterfly’s wings will influence the course of events as well.)
I have immense respect for the science of meteorology.
Indeed I’d rather be a forecaster than almost any other profession, except I can’t do the math.
(Frankly I can’t do much of any math. But the equations that meteorology mandates will forever remain so far beyond my intellectual reach that they might as well be fictitious. I am in fact incapable even of describing them coherently.)
In common with field goal kickers and pest control experts, weather forecasters tend to get more attention when they screw up than when they succeed.
This is unfortunate.
Meteorologists are in fact quite reliable, it seems to me, in answering the questions most of us have.
We just want to know whether it’s likely to be rainy or fair over the next few days, balmy or frigid, and generally forecasts fall within spitting distance of reality.
I’d wager that most people who habitually belittle forecasters’ skills, if they ever tracked in detail the difference between what was predicted and what happened, would be surprised at how minor the difference actually was.
(And those who endured a downpour without an umbrella will continue to disparage the supposed experts who let them down.)
I’m not writing a dissertation or anything but I’m confident in asserting, based on my rather obsessive interest in the subject, that major forecast blunders — utterly failing to identify an approaching snowstorm, for instance, or calling for a high temperature of 75 when it only gets to 55 — are exceedingly rare.
But the accuracy of a forecast, as I suspect even most nonscientists understand, usually diminishes in proportion to how far in advance it’s made.
And the uncertainty is greater still when it comes to a particularly complex phenomenon — the track of a hurricane being a proximate example.
Meteorologists most generally concede this is so. But it seems to me that journalists sometimes fail to understand this crucial fact, which leads to reporting that, though not grossly irresponsible, underestimates the range of possible outcomes that, from a forecaster’s viewpoint, are basically equally plausible.
Which of course is another way of saying that sometimes even the degree-laden experts don’t really know what’s going to happen, an admission that doesn’t often get into the newspapers.
I perused news stories from a variety of sources, dating back to the last week of August when Dorian was beginning to brew in the Atlantic.
Even then, when the hurricane was hundreds of miles from America’s East Coast, forecasters, though they emphasized the considerable danger the storm posed for Florida, were also acknowledging the evidence — primarily from certain of the computer models that are integral to weather forecasting — that hinted Dorian might veer away before pummeling the Sunshine State.
Floridians certainly were justified in feeling frightened. Dorian was an unusually powerful storm when it struck the Bahamas. And for many people the memories of Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Matthew in 2016, both of which caused damage in Florida, were no doubt vivid.
What struck me, at least based on my admittedly limited sample size, is that references which tilted toward predicting disaster were in many cases paraphrases from journalists rather than direct quotes from meteorologists.
By contrast, the scientists, when actually quoted at length, frequently noted that Dorian, though a scary storm, was not quite an inevitable disaster for the U.S.
An Aug. 29 story from The Associated Press, for instance, pointed out that “some of the more reliable computer models predicted a late turn northward that would have Dorian hug the coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
(Which is pretty much what happened.)
The story quoted Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground, who said “There is hope.”
Yet the next paragraph describes this as a “faint hope,” without saying whether Masters added the critical qualifying adjective, or indeed whether he believed it was appropriate.
Later, after describing the clash between low and high pressure that ended up stalling Dorian over the Bahamas and, eventually, keeping it off the Florida coast, the story concludes, again without any quotes from an expert, that “whichever one of those forces wins — the blocking high or the pulling low — Florida is likely to lose.”
A story published Aug. 31 in the New York Times gave readers a much more thorough sense — which is to say, a more accurate picture — of the uncertainties.
The Times did so by eschewing the predictive paraphrasing that I think muddied the message in the AP story, and potentially misled readers about what the experts truly believed about Dorian.
Of course the Times reporters had the advantage of, well, time — their story ran two days later than the AP’s, and the Times’ sources had the benefit of computer models that strengthened the case for predicting that Dorian would strike Florida at worst a glancing blow.
But I also appreciate that the Times story included quotes from scientists that, to me, underscore why phrases from the AP article such as “faint hope” and “Florida is likely to lose” were inappropriate.
Mike Brennan, who leads the Hurricane Specialist Unit at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told the Times, in response to a question about whether forecasters can responsibly give precise answers to questions about a hurricane’s track or severity, that “The limitations of the science run up against the demands of society.”
The Times story also quoted Lauren Rautenkranz, a meteorologist at First Coast News in Jacksonville, Florida, who addressed the limitations of computer models.
“It’s just, we don’t want people to latch onto one specific computer model and think that’s a forecast,” Rautenkranz said. “It’s guidance.”
I welcome the humility.
I understand people want confident proclamations, devoid of ambivalence — particularly when a hurricane is involved, quite possibly a matter of life and death.
But when such certainty isn’t warranted, to imply otherwise, when the more measured opinions of experts are readily available, is unfortunate.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.