Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Why Is He So Excited?" Does He Want Bad Things to Happen?

Note: Similar questions came up today, so I am reposting this from Saturday. 


Original posting:

This was posted on my employer AccuWeather's Facebook page yesterday pertaining to our Isaac coverage:

Why is he so excited? It is like he wants it to be a hurricane and destroy everything. NOT ONCE does he say " I hope it does not get stronger, hopefully things could happen so it may weaken." Why so negative? Oh that's right he wants bad things to happen so we want to watch him.

I empathize with the young lady who posted this. Let me see if I can explain what meteorologists are thinking.

Chapter Three of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather is titled, "Nice People, But Odd." In it, I talk about some of the idiosyncrasies of meteorologists.

I was once at a firehouse when an alarm went off. The excitement/anticipation as they were donning their gear was palpable. Adrenaline was flowing as they zoomed off in their trucks. The firemen wanted to make sure they were able to do the job for which they were trained. Even though they were excited, I had no sense they were "looking forward" to the fire.

The same is true of the AccuWeather meteorologist yesterday. There is the possibility that Isaac could turn into a major hurricane -- something that has not occurred in the U.S. in nearly seven years. There is concern that people, especially new residents in coastal areas, might not know how to prepare. So, there was urgency in his delivery to help convey the threat.

We are trying (probably futilely) to counter nonsense like this posted on a blog this morning:

Actually, we at the end of the Keys would hope that all the weather channels hype will be the strongest part of the storm; all we may get is some rain and wind. Right now, the main issue is having enough ice and libations on hand in case a party were to break out. Should be an interesting couple of days coming up!

That said, there is a unique aspect of meteorologists' language when storms occur. Our language "inverts." For example:
  • "I had a great storm chase." = "I saw tornadoes." [note: doesn't mean damage]
  • "What a lousy day." = I forecast storms and none occurred. 
Before you get indignant and say, "How dare they 'wish' for storms!" give me a moment to explain. The photo below is a 100% tornado. It was over western Kansas rangeland and did zero damage of any kind.

Jaime and I could not have been more thrilled. We tracked down the tornadoes (we targeted the only tornado-producing thunderstorm of the day more than two hours before the first touchdown) and outsmarted mother nature. We did the traditional DQ celebration.

There would have been no celebration if there had been damage. We would have shifted into rescue mode calling in the authorities and helping where we could. I keep work gloves in my trunk for that reason and always wear heavy shoes when chasing -- just in case.

Finally, there is a second reason for calling it a "lousy" day if your (for example) blizzard forecast doesn't materialize and that is the ridicule you will receive. Another unique aspect of meteorology is that no one cheers for us.

Think about it: When Captain Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson River he was treated as a hero. When a flanker catches the winning pass in the end zone the crowd goes wild.

Who cheers for meteorologists when they get a hurricane forecast right and save lives? No one. If anything, we get blamed (see Nagin, Ray) even though we do an outstanding job. To take Katrina as an example, yes 2,000 died -- largely due to people not evacuating even though warnings were accurate and out in plenty of time. But, without the warnings, the deaths would have been into the tens of thousands! That is not my opinion, the government studied it. An unwarned major hurricane in New Orleans would kill between 40,000 and 60,000!

So, meteorologists save tens of thousands of lives and we get the sound of crickets.

A "good" forecast is one that is correct regardless of what is being forecast. We just hope the storms we forecast hit unpopulated areas and little or no damage occurs.

2 comments:

  1. I have zero issues with meteorologists in terms of their reactions to weather phenomena and their reactions to the accuracy of their forecasts. I've done some minor forecasting for coworkers and friends and I know how hard it can be!

    The only pleasure I get from it is the knowledge that I've been able to understand what will happen. I don't take any pleasure from the actual events that occur (they're going to occur whether I predict them or not).

    The only issues that I have are with the tourist-type chasers. With the exception of their assistance in providing warning, their entire reason for being there is to see tornadoes... and if they don't see a tornado, then the day is a failure.

    When forecasters chase, it was as you did... you're using your own methods to observe and predict where tornadoes will occur. Frankly, you all deserve to be able to get something out of your labors... and there certainly IS an adrenaline rush from seeing a tornado. Nature is unleashing its full power, complete with all of its weird, horrific beauty. It shows drama on the real stage.

    I've heard of innumerable forecasters who have been first responders, as you were. I remember watching the aftermath of Joplin and seeing how even news crews were lending a hand to search for survivors.

    The fact of the matter is that these weather events are going to happen whether they are predicted or not. As with your story from Warnings where you correctly predicted a tornado, this would have happened whether you predicted it or not. Your personal reaction of exhilaration of having predicted correctly is absolutely understandable, especially because it potentially saved lives.

    The quote above from the Florida Keys is a nice (yet clearly naive) sentiment. I'm absolutely sure that the forecasters have no desire for a massive hurricane to slam into the Gulf Coast again, causing billions of dollars of damage and costing an as-yet-untold number of lives.

    You all are not cheering Isaac on. I'm sure that your hopes and prayers are that somehow, Isaac would miraculously fizzle out and cause no damage and especially taking no lives.

    But you're scientists. The weather does not hinge on your desires. Nature will do what it will do whether we want it to or not. You are just carrying out the scientific method, observing what the storms have done in the past, understanding what external stimuli are affecting the storm, and making hypotheses based on the data collected.

    Thank you for your hard work. Thank you especially for not jumping to conclusions a week ago, when Isaac was just a TD (or a pre-TD) like so many others did.

    I think that making predictions without the proper data will just spawn incorrect predictions that cause the public to ignore the correct predictions and potentially cost people their lives.

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  2. Thank you so much for the wonderful comment.

    Now, back to the latest blog post on Isaac.

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