Communicating Winter Weather Uncertainty

Dr. Shepherd, former president of the American Meteorological Society, tweeted this as a catastrophic winter storm, slated to impact most of the Gulf and East coasts, began coming together in the forecast:

Most of us have struggled to explain model uncertainty and weather prediction to our friends outside of the science. I have blogged on this topic before. This time, I’ve noticed a few different viewpoints coming from professionals across the forecasting spectrum:

NWS Forecasters

Understandably, NWS forecasters seem to be struggling with sounding the alarm prematurely (as the Sterling office did not issue a winter storm warning for the D.C. metro area until late last night, 24 hours before the storm was forecasted to begin) versus not sounding the alarm loudly enough (the Atlanta forecast office began discussing the storm last weekend, likely in an attempt to make the government take notice).

Non-NWS Forecasters/Academics

People in the private sector and academia seem to be playing up the uncertainty most unapologetically. I think this is understandable, as their audience/clients may be more interested in a big picture of the event. Rather than needing to issue a public weather advisory/watch/warning or tell an entire community to buy bread and water, they can be more liberal in adjusting forecasts as new information comes in without confusing the general public.

TV Meteorologists

Many of my friends and social media followees (not a typo!) are TV meteorologists. While I think they are also doing a good job of communicating uncertainty, they are doing it at a price. Their name and face goes with their forecasts, and, often, they alone will receive the brunt of a blown forecast. While the other two groups tend to work in teams and are often anonymous (forecast discussion names and meteorology journalists notwithstanding), an on-air meteorologist is often held responsible for his or her forecast by the community. Being more in the public eye than the other groups, their forecasts cannot change drastically from day-to-day (or hour-to-hour!) without raising red flags with the audience.

Other

Some of us are not working as forecasters or otherwise involved with meteorology in an official capacity right now. Nonetheless, friends, family, and coworkers still turn to us as the “resident meteorologist.” While I try to keep up with the data as much as possible, I, personally, find myself parroting others’ forecasts when caught off-guard and behind on the updates. Other than my personal reputation, however, I have little at stake than some after-the-fact ribbing for a busted forecast.

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Of course, these are generalities, and your mileage may vary.

I’ve appreciated that the local D.C. TV meteorologists have, overall, done a decent job introducing the storm at an early enough date ahead of time and explained that different models have shown different data. The Capital Weather Gang is always under fire during the winter in D.C., as they live-blog model runs and give regular updates on how they are adjusting their forecasts. Many mets in all categories have taken to social media, either through professional or personal pages, to show and explain model data to their friends, family, and followers.

How much is sticking?

You would think that if we were properly communicating this uncertainty to the public that we wouldn’t hear the same tired complaints about forecast accuracy every week. Where is the disconnect? I see the updates throughout the event from tons of people, but, in the end, the public remembers what went wrong.

Is this a case of people wanting to complain, or are we really not reaching laymen the way we need to?

With current technology, we can reach more people than ever, so why is this an ongoing problem?

1 thought on “Communicating Winter Weather Uncertainty”

  1. You chose an interesting phrase when you said: “People in the private sector and academia seem to be playing up the uncertainty most unapologetically.”

    I interpret it one of two ways:
    1) As the weather enterprise transitions from a deterministic to probabilistic forecast model, those who aren’t necessarily bound by some of the (literal and implied) restrictions that come with traditional communications methods have more freedom to explore, evaluate, and explain the best case and potential alternative scenarios that might evolve with the forecast.

    or 2) Because they’re not bound by the restrictions that come with traditional communications methods, digital forecasters/meteorologists can contribute more effectively to the greater public conversation* than they may have been able to prior to the advent of digital media.

    If I had to guess, I’d suspect you were leaning more toward 2), but I think both interpretations have some merit; as you said, others’ mileage may vary.

    Since you wrote this, I think we can also add another question to your list: if we’re properly communicating forecasts and uncertainty, then why are we seeing a repeat of what happened in Atlanta two weeks ago unfold in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, especially when this is a forecast that has had both greater confidence from forecasters and a greater lead time?

    The list of potential psychological or sociological contributing factors is long. I’ve also seen other professional meteorologists express criticism about moves toward better integrating effective communication into the forecast process and making meteorologists better communicators. I’m paraphrasing, but some of the arguments I’ve heard have expressed doubt about whether we need every forecaster to worry about being a good communicator on top of being a good forecaster and whether the former might distract from the latter, and/or whether its really our problem to solve if we keep innovating and doing new and different things and observe little or no change in the overall public response.

    One of the things that has stuck with me from my past professional career was a lesson about communication: if you have something that’s worth communicating to others and what they hear doesn’t match up with what you’re saying, then the responsibility lies with you to correct the message.

    We may not need every meteorologist to be a Toastmaster, but I can’t help but feel like we’re still operating in a world where things are created and then thrown into an audiovisual aether – one that has many more voices than it did during my first decade on earth, by several orders of magnitude. These additional voices mean people can shop around until they find what they want,** whether or not it is actually what they need.

    How much is sticking? Between my observations of responses over the last few weeks and my other hazards and disasters coursework, I’d think that amount would be pretty low. But I also realize that it’s as easy to focus on the people that don’t hear our message as it is for publics to only remember the busted forecasts.

    In a profession where we have a shared mission – in some cases explicitly, in others implicitly – to protect life and property and operate in service of the public good, if people aren’t hearing what we need them to hear, then it’s ultimately on us to continue to find ways to make sure our message is heard.

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    *Also known as a 4-letter word that begins with “h” and rhymes with “snipe.”

    **I’ve said it before: I wouldn’t be surprised to wake up one day and discover that the Internet has been nothing but the world’s largest experiment testing cognitive dissonance.

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