Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hypeology Or Meteorology

Admittedly, this storm that is sliding just south of us was a tough storm to forecast.  There were plenty of moving parts and everything had to come together just right in order to yield significant snowfall in our part of the world. That's not going to happen, obviously!

This post isn't meant to armchair quarterback the past week of discussion of weather and this post is solely my thoughts and my opinion.  I didn't run this by anyone else on our team so, in the words of Andy Reid, I take responsibility for this post.   What has been infuriating over the past week has been the false advertising, poor analysis, and simply excessive hype over a storm that (a) wasn't easy to forecast, (b) would have been a tough storm to be all snow based on a number of factors, and (c) was hardly a "lock" in any way, shape, or form.

To me, there's always been a difference between accurate (or as accurate as possible) analysis and awareness of potential weather and misleading the public with either bad or blatantly misleading analysis.   Unfortunately, the trend has been to hype more and analyze poorly analyze or even wishcast to get a desired outcome more, to simply "report the facts" less. 

That trend isn't on television but online.

Hats off to the local television broadcasters, who by and large handled this missed storm well.  They displayed the potential scenarios and didn't overly alarm to the potential of snowfall.   For a difficult forecast like this was, playing the scenario and percentage game was wise...and a safe move.

However, suggesting that computer modeling was showing this storm was a blizzard, as one individual proclaimed or stubbornly holding to a forecast that wasn't going to verify when that became rather clear on Friday afternoon and evening simply out of inflexibility is unwise.  To the latter's credit, his forecast wasn't unreasonable at its initial issuance, nor did he drop the b word, but the issue was simply that of stubbornness and using a computer model that had not been "first" in getting a storm right since February 2006 to back up those thoughts.   Granted, these individuals don't have the same reach that television does in terms of mass market but in the weather world they are followed rather closely by hardcore hobbyists and those who just want a snow day.  More importantly, the online realm is becoming more and more a part of the mass market with regards to media consumption.

You might remember the gentleman in Berks County who predicted a forty inch storm in March 2010 that got a number of folks talking locally...and the resulting weather that day was pretty sunny.  Thanks to the "power" of the internet, one crazy dude's snowstorm prediction had to even get rebuffed by Hurricane Schwartz as so many rumors were going around of the forty inch storm.

Is the goal of forecasting weather to simply end up getting it right....or is it to draw in eyeballs and subscribers?  Lately, it seems the lines of this, at least online, are blurring between the two.

Will we talk about potential storms?  Absolutely.  Will we talk about what is needed to get a "desired" or (for those who love snow) not-so-desired outcome as part of the process?  Sure!  While doing that, I may make some jokes, some snark and sass into the writing, but I do know there is a difference between awareness and headline grabs and do the darnedest I can to avoid jumping into the headline realm.   When you mention the "b" word, even if you believe a computer model showed it (which it did did show snow but there's quite a difference between blizzard and a run-of-the-mill storm), to me that's getting into the hype realm.   That's how rumors all get started...and I heard them a few times via email over the past week about a potential blizzard on Sunday because another individual headlined it.

You saw the blizzard...of clouds mixed with sun.

The business of weather is a business.  There's an obvious need or desire to rake in eyeballs, page views, and ad revenue.  For those with a subscriber base, there's a need to reel in new subscribers.  Accuracy should be the driver of those numbers, not catchy headlines that are borderline misleading, not true, or patently false.  It would be akin to predicting a Category 5 hurricane to New York City because one run of the GFS showed a hurricane hitting the city a week from now.  That's hype.

I've been running this site for six and a half years.  In terms of the weather online world, it's not an eternity but I have been around the block a bit and have issued a lot of forecasts, made a lot of analysis, and have been right and wrong a fair amount on both sides.  I also have always pledged to myself and anyone that would listen that we wouldn't froth with hype.   You won't see blizzard uttered from me unless multiple computer models actually showed it and that the potential for a blizzard was relatively high, for instance.   I take that seriously and ask the guys who help on this site to do the same.

There are sites who are great at awareness and low on hype.  Washington has the Capital Weather Gang, now a part of the Washington Post family.  One of their meteorologists had an excellent write up on Friday afternoon on the potential for snow and how hard of a forecast it was for DC.

Obviously, we're not perfect...our forecast for Delaware and South Jersey on a Friday night was a miss for the most part but was based on the consensus of information available at the time.  Again, this was not an easy forecast and the point of this article isn't necessarily the forecasting's the run-up and how these weather events are analyzed.   With online increasing its market share in the media, the online community should probably hold itself to higher and better standards regarding stating what the potential outcomes of a storm are and then providing the best and most accurate forecast possible.  It shouldn't be about getting eyeballs to read your site but providing good, accurate information on what the possible outcomes are.

Unfortunately, I don't think the trend is our friend on this...and I think we'll see more rumors, speculation, and potential misleading headlines in the future across media platforms.