Thursday, January 11, 2018

Snowfall Forecast Communication: We Need to do Better

I've written variations of this post many times over the last 5 or so years and it bears repeating. I rarely post snowfall maps/computer model projections further out than 2-3 days on social media platforms. Why?  Look at these long range computer model projections starting Monday--4 days prior--for the snow event Friday and Saturday, January 12 and 13th.

Sunday Evening 1/7 (Model #1. I forgot to save Model #2 for comparison)

Monday Morning 1/8 (Model #1 vs #2)

Monday Evening 1/8 7PM (Model #1 vs #2)

Tuesday Evening 1/9 7PM (Model #1 vs #2)

Wednesday Evening 1/10 7PM (Model #1 vs #2)

Look at the HUGE difference between each model.

Many people posted these images online and even showed them on the air. In most instances these were shown to convey the fact that we had a long way to go before an official forecast could be made with a high degree of certainty. Uncertainty was being conveyed. It has the best of intentions. I get it. I've done it. Makes sense, right?

Except in the real world, most humans rarely interpret this type of information--data--through a rational filter. Data makes us feel conflicted. We, whether we like it or not, overly simplify complex ideas. Computer model projections are a prime example. That's how we're wired. It's well documented with behavioral scientists.

We look at the numbers, pick one out--say 20" of snowfall--react impulsively to it without historical perspective (by the way that's never happened in 24 hours from a general snow event since record keeping began) or context and before you know it, hysteria ensues. We see it on social media every time. Unfortunately social media reactions spread at an exponential rate devolving as the comment thread lengthens. Before you know it, the benign, educational intent of the snowfall uncertainty post is lost. It involuntarily morphs into a totally different story that spreads like wildfire changing with every re tweet and re post. The old game where you sit in a circle an say a sentence to the person to your right and that person to their right applies here. When the message comes back around to the beginning, it's changed entirely. Do you see the problem?

All of us meteorologists here at WJW FOX 8 always choose to wait until we have a high degree of certainty before we post any snowfall numbers usually in some sort of range. The aim is to eliminate what I just described in the paragraph above. This was my post Thursday morning, roughly 36 hours before the event begins. (Note: Andre Bernier, our evening meteorologist had a more basic snowfall map the night before not shown here)

How do we combat our hard wired human nature? The answer is simple:  We don't. WE QUALITY CONTROL OUR INFORMATION!

Psychology plays a huge role in weather forecasts. As a meteorologist who reaches hundreds of thousands of people each morning on the top rated morning show in Cleveland, Ohio, I owe it to each viewer to quality control what I say and what I create visually to accompany it. The psychological element--how the viewer perceives what we say--is a critical weather cast element that is often overlooked by on air meteorologists. The words/numbers that we say/post on the air and online can be more powerful than the weather itself.  In this age of posts solely created for clicks with the hopes of a long, viral lifespan, quality is too often sacrificed. That's fine for a cute picture or a clever, humorous meme but when a major weather event is eminent over a large population area, high quality information created for the masses is of the utmost importance.

Recently the National Weather Service has implemented a program in the works for several years that streamlines their winter season watches, advisories and warnings in an effort to simplify the forecast message for the general public. The great folks at the NWS Office in Cleveland recently hosted a seminar for media personnel highlighting these changes. The information was invaluable.

As meteorologist we always need to remember the psychology behind what we do. As communicators of science (data) need to put ourselves in the minds of the public and ask: "How is the viewer going to interpret what I say?" So when I create a snowfall forecast range map, I take into account how people react to EACH WORD knowing that many will perceive these range to fit their location.

We must remember:

*  Public perception is very powerful

*  We need to be better communicators of information

*  Choice of words is of the utmost importance in conveying severity of the weather

*  Mass media is for the masses. Risk is personal to the public. Yet people want personal forecasts. Huge conundrum.

* Human beings dislike uncertainty.

*  Too much emphasis on uncertainty breeds confusion, inaction and ultimately apathy when the next snow or weather event of importance happens.  Basic psychology here.  We need to find a delicate balance between voicing uncertainty and sticking to a forecast geared to the general public without causing social media unrest

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