Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Forget the Old Farmers' Almanac. Stick with the Meteorologist!

It never ceases to amaze me how people latch onto weather forecasts that attempt to nail down the exact temperature and condition for individual days months out!  There is a market for "predictions" like this.  Here we are a week before Labor Day and the Old farmers' Almanac is touting their prediction for a winter storm during the Superbowl in LATE JANUARY OF NEXT YEAR!  

Let’s call it like it is. The Old Farmers' Almanac is trying to sell books. And yes, I buy one each year because it is chalked full of great articles which I reference on occasion. 
Secondly, bad weather is big business.  When the weather gets rough (severe storms, blizzards, high winds, floods, hurricanes, etc) public interest goes through the roof! TV ratings skyrocket. !  Social Network traffic increases exponentially.  I'm not just talking about northern Ohio where I live and work as a television meteorologist but everywhere. The Old Farmers' Almanac is capitalizing on this by highlighting there Superbowl Winter Storm Forecast.  Can you say “Cha-ching”.

(Note: My station WJW FOX 8 does not over hype the weather. We are very conscious of this. We only break into programming during tornado warnings or extreme, large scale snowstorms.)

Weather affects everyone and everything; all aspects of our lives. Everything!  So it stands to reason that we might get revved up about the possibility of knowing the unknowable.  A weather forecast for the Superbowl?  I can hear it now, “Forget  those TV weather people, I’ll go with the Almanac. They are more accurate anyway!”  In truth, there accuracy is much lower than their claim. 

A few years ago, Dr. Jeff Master, Meteorologist over at the Weather Underground wrote this article on the Almanac’s accuracy. 

Here is the main paragraph: 

"...for the winter of 2004-2005 (Figure 1 is below), the November 2004 version of the Old Farmer's Almanac made a simple prediction of "cold" or "mild" for sixteen separate regions of the U.S. The original forecast map they presented only labels the U.S. in fourteen places, and I've overlaid these predictions on a temperature anomaly map showing what actually happened during the winter of 2004-2005. If we assume that "mild" refers to an above average temperature forecast and "cold" refers to a below average temperature forecast, then the Almanac got four regions correct, eight wrong, with two too close to call. Admittedly, I've "eyeballed" this, and it is a subjective verification. Still, I don't see any way that this forecast could approach even 50% (chance) accuracy. Their precipitation forecast fared better, with seven correct regions, five incorrect, and two too close to call. I also looked at the Farmer's Almanac forecasts for the winter of 2006-2007. They did much worse that winter, with only three of sixteen temperature forecasts verifying, and five out of twelve precipitation forecasts verifying (four were too close to call). For these two winters, the Old Farmer's Almanac made a successful forecast just 37% of the time."

Actual day to day weather forecasts are developed with analyzing current conditions, radar, satellite and other parameters to make a forecast for a short period of time in the future. 12 Hours, 24 hours, 36 hours, 48 hours. We utilize computer model projections as guidance. Yes, these projections are getting better as more data is utilized and plugged into faster and faster computers with more sophisticated equations.

Seasonal long range outlooks (winter weather forecast, etc) are created by looking at the ocean sea surface temperature patterns (El Nino, etc), pressure patterns over the Arctic and North Atlantic among some others. Some scientists use solar output and other variables. The elements just mentioned are matched up with other years of occurrence.  A best possible fit is created. Sometimes this works out well.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Again, this is a trend outlook not a specific forecast for a specific day. Individual storms cannot be forecasted this far out. But by looking at parameters that existed in the past during other storm events, we can say that the chance of say a hurricane making landfall is greater this year than in years past.  

For the lay person, all of these forecasts and trend outlooks are lumped into one group. Yet each are derived using entirely different information.  Its human nature to generalize and simplify complicated subjects like the science of weather prediction.  I've written about this in other posts.   I also write how the Recency Effect (in this case, a weather forecast that doesn't pan out) shapes our view. Sophisticated computer model simulations resulting from complex equations which describe the motions and other atmospheric behavior makes people uneasy and conflicted.  Most of us don’t want to learn about Vilhelm Bjerknes, a Norwegian physicist who has been called the father of modern meteorology.  We could care less about Lewis Richardson who developed the early equations in the battlefield during World War I with no modern day calculator. No one wants to hear that the super computer simulations used in predicting Hurricane Sandy and other monster storms are responsible for saving thousands of lives. To most, this is just an excuse for some other forecast error. 

So as a result, we formulate a concrete, black and white, overly scaled down version of the weather.  Whether its a long range winter outlook, a climate average for a wedding day or the thunderstorm chances for later this afternoon or a hurricane forecast track. Its all the same animal to most! We subconsciously eliminate the nebulous science, weird looking equations, fancy computer stuff in favor of a narrative that tells a better story.  In short, The Old Farmers’ Almanac fits with how our brains are wired.  Its simple. Its folksy with just enough science to make it credible.  Why do we continue believing the Old Farmers’ Almanac?  The simple answer is it makes us feel good!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the Almanac.  I love the articles. I love the astronomical charts.  I know my analysis will not sway people from believing the Almanac’s prognostications.  I am a fool to believe that I can counteract human nature.  But meteorology is science and its getting better and better!  If I had to choose between the computer model projections, live radar and satellite data and 20 years of experience to make a storm forecast versus the Almanac, I’m not choosing the latter… But I’ll still keep the Almanac handy....you know, for the articles.