Sympathy for the weatherman

jason goughAfter we snarked on Twitter yesterday about the shifting forecasts for today's Icy, Snowy Apocalypse, Jason Gough -- a meteorologist at WNYT -- responded that we were being a bit, you know, cold.

He wasn't wrong! So we bounced a few questions Jason's way about forecasting snow storms, the feedback forecasters get when they're wrong, and whether meteorologists talk smack...

So, what happened to the Icy, Snowy Apocalypse that we were promised today?

We promise one thing from the NewsChannel 13 First Warning Weather Center every day: we will pull our hair out, pour over models and their respective runs, talk to each other on the phone/via email several times a day, look at past storm situations, take coffee intravenously... whatever it takes to put the best forecast out there. If that sounds corny, I apologize, but it is true.

Look at it from another angle... masochists aside, nobody wants or intends to be wrong. Why in the world would anyone put an 'off' forecast out there in front of tens of thousands of people? Short answer is they wouldn't.

The words "Icy, Snowy Apocalypse" were never uttered from 715 North Pearl Street. We did, however, forecast a sizeable early spring snowstorm that did not materialize for us. At the 11th hour (and to our forecasting horror), the storm took a jog to the east. Forecasters in northern and eastern New England are on the receiving end of that, so they're getting blistered as well I'm sure.

nws radar 2011-04-01These types of coastal storms always seem to be causing surprises. How difficult are they to forecast -- and if they are difficult, why?

Not that this is any kind of excuse but they are difficult to forecast, more so than any other weather feature our area sees. A little shift in one direction or another makes a huge difference most times with these storms, especially this time of year when cold air is harder to come by.

This last episode is a perfect example: we look for consistency in each model from run to run (models update 2-4 or more times per day, depending on the model) and more importantly, we look for consistency between the models. The more consistency, the more confident we are in that facet of our forecast. Wednesday night, there was harmony with the models with respect to storm track and liquid amounts for snow. That held for Paul's forecast yesterday morning, as well.

Then... yesterday afternoon, it was like the models in their new runs all said, "Oh, yeah, I forgot to account for X in the atmosphere. Let's move this SOB farther east."

All we can do at that point is change our forecast and let everyone know about the changes as best as we can, then wait for the darts to start flying. That's what we did. The darts are still flying by the way, more on that below.

Do weather people get excited for big storms? Because you guys always seem a little more stoked when big snowfall numbers are in the forecast.

Not just yes, but hell yes. As a viewer, that's what you want to see for sure. We are not in the hype business here but when things get going, we're ready to roll.

Do forecasters keep track of their "batting averages"? You know, formally or informally -- if only so they can talk smack to each other ("Did you see how George totally whiffed on that coastal low!?!")

Everybody has their own way of tracking forecasts. That helps to mitigate future forecasting mishaps, among other things. The forecasters at Weather Service offices get evaluated (graded) on their performance.

No smack talking here (only when it comes to forecasting... we talk smack about other stuff), as our big forecasting events from severe weather to winter storms are a group effort.

We don't pay attention to "the other guys" and they probably don't care what we have to say either. That's not personal or a bad thing; it exudes confidence all the way around.

You had mentioned on Twitter that you've heard some pretty harsh stuff from people when a forecast is wrong -- what's some of the worst (and/or funniest) things you've heard?

I am writing a book on this, as a matter of fact. I compiled stories and email exchanges from meteorologists and forecasters/weather anchors from the top 50 television markets around the country, along with many of my own. I am curious to see if it will be of interest to the public (let me know, folks!).

I think most people would be absolutely shocked at some of the stuff we get thrown our way. The most common thing is that we're "always wrong", which is just goofy. Fact is, people are only remembering when forecasts go awry. We had a lot more good forecasts this winter than bad. It's all good, though. You have to have thick skin or you'll not make it in this business.

We also get a lot of emails and calls when we run those severe weather crawls along the bottom of TV screens. People only want to be warned for their areas, which I understand, but technology does not allow us to pick and choose whose televisions receive crawls. As a station, it is our moral and ethical obligation to warn our viewers of dangerous weather and the FCC demands we do as well.

Does the public have unrealistic expectations for weather forecasts?

I wouldn't say it's unrealistic to expect a spot-on weather forecast. As a viewer and as a meteorologist, I expect it. Sometimes though (again, a lot less than some folks think) it just doesn't work out that way. It doesn't mean we're stupid or incompetent or not trying, it means that there is more research to be done to improve forecasting. That research will continue for a long, long time to come.

This interview was conducted via email. It's been lightly edited.

Gough photo via WNYT | radar image: NWS

Comments

It seems as if all the meteorologists in the Albany area have been waaaaayy off numerous times this year. It's not as if this is a one time mistake. Also, contrary to what he says, they ARE in the hype business. I'd like to see the viewer ratings for all these crappy local news stations when there's a "big storm" coming compared to when the story is "this is going to miss us."

You should ask him why any of them have jobs since they're pretty much giving the same forecast as the national weather service 95% of the time.

Weather, wind, moisture...it's all so fickle you'd think we'd know better than to shoot the messengers, but...

Nice interview! You can tell that the weathermen at channel 13 are passionate about what they do for a living.

I wouldn't get so annoyed with the weathermen if they didn't have such a rolicking good time slavering over the horrible weather that's heading our way. No matter if it's a blizzard or a heat spell they are perfectly delighted that it's happening and as eager as puppies to roll in it.

Luckily, I didn't have much angst about the forecast for today because no matter what Jason says, they have been dead wrong about all but one storm this season. So if they predict 10-12 inches you can be pretty confident that we'll get 1-2 or nothing.

I wonder if they do the initial predictions of doom just so they can go on camera and gloat??

I'll tell you this: I've seen how passionate Jason and other meteorologists are about their jobs. No joke, these guys live and breathe the weather and take it very seriously.

However, I think TV stations do build unreasonable expectations by promising absolute accuracy in their marketing. I know this because I wrote weather promos for more than twenty years.

A commercial for a TV station's weather team will never say, "We're as accurate as possible given the information we have at the time, and barring any change in the weather patterns." Instead, it says, "We're the most accurate all the time."

I really believe that these messages contribute to the public's view of meteorology. So blame me, not them.

Nice, interesting interview.

I've always thought that meteorologists really had to earn their pay here in the Northeast, as our weather is a fickle master with its unpredictability. Unlike Los Angeles, where I imagine they do one forecast and re-use every day for several weeks.

I dont resent the mistakes weathermen make, its the confidence, the bravado that they are sure of this information We have doppler 2011 .Prepare folks we are getting 3 to 5 inches by morning OOPs wrong again

Wrong or right, I just want to say that I love Jason's forecasts every weekday morning on WAMC. I plan my drive to work around it so I can hear what the temperature is in Nunavut!

Of all the weathermen, Jason by far is the best. The fact that he would step up and do an interview like this is fantastic. They do their best based on the rapidly changing information they have. [The Weather].

The sympathy is a nice gesture at this difficult time. Of course, unless I am mistaken, you may have also implied that the weathermen are, you know, not among the good angels.


I have never met a weather forecaster who was not passionate about the job. It's an incredibly complex science with many variables and interdependencies.

Just an FYI - even NOAA got this forecast wrong. It just wasn't the local weather folks.

NOAA did indeed get it wrong, and even made somewhat of an apology for it on Friday morning's area forecast discussion!! This is the best part of the NOAA site, btw, if you're a true weather hound...just reading the competing, albeit highly technical theories from the various NWS offices in the region of what might happen is quite amusing; consensus is rare. You'll see that meteorologists love abbreviations and acronyms, and have more computer models at their disposal than maybe they should.

It is a tough job though...one somewhat akin to scientifically-aided soothsaying...Oh crystal ball (or Farmer's Almanac) what might the weather be today???

It really bugs me when people rag on the weatherman. If you want to talk smack about meter maids, though, I'm in.

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