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?

STORM:CON, Naming Winter Storms, and Other Media Hype

A few months ago, The Weather Channel announced it would begin naming winter storms.  Today, it released a new winter storm severity index named STORM:CON.  The idea is similar to its summer TOR:CON, identifying tornado potential risk, although the latter is little more than an interpretation of the Storm Prediction Center’s severe weather outlook.

The idea of assigning unique identifiers to significant weather events is not a new one.  Most people are familiar with the naming of tropical storms; the World Meteorological Organization is responsible for the naming of the Atlantic events, and eastern hemispheric scientists take responsibility for their regions.  Personifying the storms with familiar names has allowed scientists and the media to make the general public aware of a specific storm and its expected human and ecological impacts.  Even the naming of winter storms is not uncommon; newscasters and reporters have been known to sensationalize blizzards under the headline “Snowmageddon” and Twitter hashtags like “#snOwMG.”  In the scientific community, local National Weather Service offices have assigned event names to significant lake effect snow storms and even tornadoes after the events.

What makes The Weather Channel’s approach to both names and numbers controversial?  The television network is promoting the idea as a way to raise public awareness of potentially hazardous snow events, a goal that most of the media and scientific community seem to encourage.  The primary concern of the community about this new approach is the unilateral power given to a private organization (The Weather Channel) in deciding which storms are named and ranked, and doing so with a very loose set of criteria.  Unlike the naming of tropical storms, which have very specific criteria to meet before being named, the channel has announced that storms will be named based on subjective measures like the population of a region being hit and the time of day that the storm affects an area.  Accordingly, a foot of snow dropped in the rural Appalachian mountains may not result in a named storm, but two inches of snow in a major metropolitan area occurring at rush hour may garner an identification.

From a scientific standpoint, both ideas are essentially useless without specific criteria based on a consensus from the community at large; from a media standpoint, there is no obligation for individual news outlets to use The Weather Channel’s naming or ranking conventions.  Many scientists consider the general idea of naming winter storms to be sound, but are concerned with the methods being employed here.  As was shown following the landfall of Hurricane Sandy (which evolved into a significant winter storm event of its own) very few in the media opted to utilize The Weather Channel’s naming convention for Winter Storm Athena, which followed two weeks later.

STORM:CON appears even less likely to be applied across various media outlets than the storm names, as is evidenced by the lack of universal usage of TOR:CON, which was released a few years ago.  The same problems that plague the haphazard naming of winter storms also plague this new index, as some level of subjectivity will be incorporated into the 1-10 ratings, which read as follows:

STORM:CON 1 to 3
Snow or ice occurs but does not produce significant impacts.

STORM:CON 4 to 5
Impacts would disrupt commerce or travel but not force closures.  You might see NWS advisories at this level.

STORM:CON 6 to 7
Impacts would close down commerce or travel for a day or less. Metro areas with active NWS Winter Storm Warnings might fit into this category. Recently named winter storms such as AthenaBrutusand Caesar would likely be in this category.

STORM:CON 8 to 9
Impacts would close down commerce/travel for multiple days, typically reserved for biggest storms which might occur 3 to 4 times a year.

STORM:CON 10

Reserved for anticipation of debilitating storms which might occur once or twice a year.  Complete shutdown of travel and commerce possibly for several days.  Examples would include storms such as Snowtober, Snowmageddon etc.

If The Weather Channel were to reach out to other meteorological organizations to achieve a consensus on naming and ranking storms, I (and others) would be less likely to label this as another example of media hype.  From my professional view, however, this comes off more as a quest for ratings than a quest for public awareness.