By David Rosenfeld
11:32 AM EDT, September 12, 2011
Those of us who love studying the weather are often caught in an unfortunate bind. We wait and hope for big weather events in our backyards — snowstorms, hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, extreme heat or cold — all the while knowing that none of these things are particularly good for us or for our neighbors. We're part of the small group of adults who root for the storm to hit us instead of going harmlessly out to sea, who wake up in the middle of the night to check the radar, who keep looking outside, waiting for the show to start.
Everyone else comes to the party too late. It's not their fault; they simply aren't interested in knowing what might happen two weeks from now. We weather geeks knew far ahead of time not only that Hurricane Irene would form but that the weather pattern suggested that it would make landfall on the East Coast. We knew in mid-January 2010 that the atmospheric setup would be ripe for the kind of large snowstorms that hit several weeks later. Some of us even pay monthly fees to look at computer models that try to predict the weather (at least generally) months in advance and to hear experts interpret those predictions and make their own educated guesses.
For that, you'd think the world would pat us on the back, or at least show an appreciation for our interest. Instead, it seems to work the other way around. Inevitably, we are blamed for the "hype" (either too much or not enough of it). The man who experiences only minor annoyances conveniently forgets the footage of collapsing bridges and towns that have been shut off from the outside world. The woman on her fifth day without electricity isn't just fed up with the utility company; she's also wondering why nobody could predict the seriousness of the weather that led to her situation.
Television meteorologists and bloggers from websites like AccuWeather are the most public of weather geeks, and with that comes the most public flogging. It's undeserved criticism, because all of them are working with the same information and have the same charge: to use their expertise in the field to best interpret that information. A local television meteorologist once told me that he would never predict 22 inches of snow because of the criticism his station would receive if that number was too high. He would rather be conservative and then revise his prediction later on. While you can understand his reticence and appreciate his sense of accountability, it's a shame that he doesn't feel like it's OK to be wrong.
Weather seems to be the only topic these days where "wrong" predictions are so ridiculed. A gaggle of talking heads spends all week analyzing every NFL game on Sunday, but most of the experts have a hard time predicting the correct results more than half the time. I listen to a national radio host who consistently makes fun of weathermen, yet he is the same person who picked the San Francisco 49ers to play in the Super Bowl last season. You can argue that the daily weather is more important than who wins a football game, but that would be circular logic. If the weather isn't important enough to hype with so much TV time, then why does it really matter that the forecast wasn't 100 percent correct?
Unfortunately, meteorology and weather prediction take a back seat during local and national coverage of these events. We're bombarded with reporters, politicians and public servants in the interest of "public safety." We're entertained by men and women who brave the elements in the interest of ratings, while at the same time telling the viewing public that they should stay away. We're given a show, and we forget what we came to see in the first place.
All of us can be the voices of reason when it comes to the weather. The weatherman can tell us what he thinks, while also reminding us that what might happen tomorrow has probably happened before. The public can become more informed and know where to find the wide variety of current and constantly updated weather information. Nobody needs to be more, or less, worried than they should be. At that point, the only thing we won't be able to control is the weather itself.
David Rosenfeld is public relations officer at the Gilman School. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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