Thursday, March 07, 2013

On Hype and Models/Meteorologists/Media

Editor's Note: Matt Lanza is a part of the team but was not in on the forecast process for this storm. It is his thoughts on the storm.

While it's difficult to necessarily call our latest winter storm "hype," because if you lived in parts of Virginia or on the Jersey Shore, this storm meant business, since the epicenter of the world (aka Washington DC) saw it bust, it will go down as a hyped storm. But there's been a discouraging trend in the last few years, primarily since the advent of social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Hype has reached preposterous levels. The media is obviously primarily responsible, but so are we as a meteorological community. Here's my off the cuff rant on this.

First, the abyss between meteorologists and the media is about as wide as that of Congress. With a small handful of exceptions that exist in the world of meteorology, the predominant number of meteorologists in the media and in social media do not like hype. They hate it, but they do as they're told. And they tell everyone what they know. The news anchors and producers are the ones that twist and blow the message up into something outrageous. Ratings are big money still, and with so many platforms through which to deliver their message now and get page views, the hype will be outrageous going forward. Unfortunately this is ultimately a dangerous practice. This discredits meteorologists and may very well eventually lead to people becoming complacent about all severe weather events. Then, "that storm" will hit, and people will be caught "off-guard" because they chose to tune out the warnings. Will that be partially their fault? Of course, but the media will be ultimately culpable for that eventuality. I'd really like to see more interplay between meteorologists and producers in television: Meteorologists should be scrutinizing scripts, writing teases and leads, etc. Ultimately, it's the meteorologist in the media that should have the final say on what airs...because they are the experts. News directors probably won't hear it, but I wish this would be a topic at a major convention or meeting for meteorologists. Because this needs to be fixed.

Social media is another beast. I think it's wonderful that so many "liked" pages on Facebook exist that allow for every weather weenie in history to publish forecasts and attempt to improve their skills and lay it all out there. Unfortunately a lot of folks are using these pages as gospel...and when one of them hypes something up, people go to their favorite local meteorologist to demand answers. It's up to the general public to scrutinize what you see on Facebook and Twitter. Have a list of trustworthy and reputable sources of weather information and use that, so that when 16 year old Future Meteorologist John Doe publishes his 1-2' snowfall forecast, you can check the validity of it. Too many budding meteorologists and weather enthusiasts are looking at models and picking one that shows the favored outcome...and using that...and throwing that out there. It perpetuates the hype and discredits those that are actual experts. And it's frustrating. We need to learn how to use and interpret social media better. It has incredible power and usefulness. Unfortunately a lot of time is wasted on nonsense and further hype, and I hope people gradually tune that out.

Second, the models and winter storms. This is the bottom line: We are simply not THAT good as a science at hitting every winter storm. Especially those with varying precipitation types and borderline surface temperatures. Too many times, we as meteorologists try to be heroes. We draw pretty snowfall maps because "they" tell us to. We force ourselves to come up with a range of snowfall to make everyone happy. I did when I worked in the media. I do it for friends, family, and occasionally work now. I did not make one during this storm. Any meteorologist who put out a snowfall map forecast for this storm deserves a medal for bravery. The Euro takes multiple runs in a row keeping the storm south and generally burying DC. The GFS is all over the map, but eventually says...wait, this will come north. The NAM goes ballistic and says this will come north and destroy everyone in the Northeast. The Canadian and UKMET models have their own solutions. Never have I seen complete and utter disagreement among the models, and thus among meteorologists.

Modeling has not reached the point it needs to...and it's costing us. Kudos to Professor Cliff Mass in Washington State for hitting on this constantly. That said, the Euro huggers and the media firestorm over the fact that the "Euro is vastly superior to the GFS" is way overstated. Let's come back down to Earth...the Euro is not the be all and end fact it ultimately may end up getting a large chunk of this storm in New England wrong in the timeframe it was supposed to have forecasted at its best. The entire weather modeling process is in great shape, relative to 15-20+ years ago. But we have plateaued. We're not getting THAT much better in any time scale..despite what you may read about successes from super hi-res models like the HRRR and predicting down to tornado scale in thunderstorms from similar models. In a time where federal resources are extremely tight, weather prediction runs the risk, globally, of remaining on a plateau. We need partners in the private sector to step up and we need Congress to understand that unless they want the "same old" weather forecast, funding for the NWS and specifically for WEATHER modeling (not climate change modeling) needs to be maintained and expanded. And given the potential that we are indeed heading into a more volatile timeframe in our planet's climatological history, weather forecasting is going to be vital, both to save lives, prevent false alarms that make people complacent, and save the economy millions, if not billions of dollars by being prepared. As an aside, I encourage you to make this point to members of Congress...just so they understand that there are consequences to keeping the status quo.

Hype is in the eye of the beholder. To someone in Delaware, Sandy may have been hype. To someone in Jersey, it wasn't. To the person without power in Virginia with 18" of snow outside, the storm wasn't hyped. For the majority of Washington, DC...yeah, it probably was. It should be the goal of meteorologists to reform the overhype in the media. And to do so, we need improved forecasts and thus, better computer all levels and time scales.