7:25 PM EST, December 3, 2013
You just survived one of the most tumultuous hurricane seasons in recent memory.
Or so we were told last April, anyway.
That was back when the nation's infamous "hurricane forecasters" were whipping up Category 5-level hype over the impending storm season.
"Batten down," warned the headlines.
"Scientists predict busy hurricane season."
"Hurricane season gets ready to heat up."
It was our annual, overhyped exercise in premature evacuation.
This year, we were told to brace ourselves for four — that's right, FOUR!!! — major storms.
Only, it turns out we had slightly fewer major storms … like zero.
We also had fewer than the nine hurricanes predicted. Try two. And anemic ones at that.
Faced with the reality that, once again, hurricane forecasting looked more like dart-throwing, the barristers of barometric pressure began explaining all the reasons they got things wrong.
There was dust in the Sahara. There was surprisingly dry air over the Atlantic. The moon was in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligned with Mars.
In hindsight, it all made perfect sense. The science was sound, they said. It was just everything else that went wrong.
I was reminded of the degenerate gambler who walks out the casino broke — but is still convinced he has a winning "system."
I used to wonder whether monkeys couldn't do just as good of a job predicting storm seasons.
So a few years ago, I got myself some monkeys and decided to see.
Spider monkeys at the Central Florida Zoo smacked random numbers on a page (in exchange for fruit cups). And we put their picks up against those of the famed forecaster Dr. William Gray.
At the end of the season, we had a close contest. In four prediction categories, the monkeys beat Gray once, tied him once and lost to him twice.
In other words, Gray eked out a 2-1 win ... over monkeys.
Now, Gray and the other hurricane forecasters — yes, there are more — have done better some years. Sometimes they even nailed it.
Even when they're way off the mark, they have found a splendidly creative way to amend that: the notorious midseason "update."
This is when they change their forecasts halfway through the season.
Um, that's not forecasting. That's watching. Let me watch the first half of a football game, and I guarantee I'll do better job predicting the winner.
Still, each and every year, the media go bonkers about the predictions. We love hyping things in general. And things that can kill you? Well, it doesn't get more tantalizing than that.
But here's the thing: Even when these preseason picks were generally accurate ... so what?
Telling me that 25 storms might hit somewhere between Nova Scotia and Nicaragua doesn't do me a lick of good.
We can have a super-light season with only one major storm — but if that major storm wipes my cul de sac off the grid, that's all that matters.
The lesson should be the same every year: Be prepared.
Gray and other forecasters say that has always been their goal, which is laudable. But wildly errant predictions actually undermine the cause.
Predict a few Armageddons that never come, and folks stop paying attention.
That may be why the end truly is nigh ... for the hurricane-predicting program anyway.
Just last week, The Associated Press reported that the funding was running out for Gray's Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University. (Yes, they watch the tropics from the Rockies.) One of the last big private donors — an insurance company — pulled out this past summer.
It looks like the end of an error.
To be fair, Gray and his counterparts made valuable contributions beyond these forecasts. They conducted pioneering research that helped us better understand how storms work, how they form and even their short-term predicted paths.
We need all of that.
What we don't need, though, are overhyped, far-out predictions that fall flat so frequently that people stop paying attention to the science altogether.
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