Is weather forecasting science or a best guess estimate? This is a question I’ve been wanting to get a professional viewpoint on for sometime now. The general public in most cases seem to feel that meteorologists just take a good guess at what the weather is going to do. I’m sure many of you have heard the comments about how a forecaster could provide a better forecast if they would actually look outside. It’s my opinion after watching a full season of the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers that these shows somewhat reinforce the notion of meteorologists making weather predictions. Granted this program and others definitely display the science involved in analyzing weather movement. Viewers also see that in some of these cases a decision has to be made that comes off looking like a guess. Although in reality this is data being analyzed and then processed by professionals who in many cases have been doing this work for years.
It’s these professionals opinion I went seeking recently. After seeing a few local online writers discussing the subject of weather forecasting. I thought it would make a good article to get the meteorologists viewpoint. This is a perspective that I feel doesn’t get presented very often. I’d venture to say that over the years many forecasters have heard many jokes and criticisms. With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to hear their side of the story. So after much procrastinating I sent an email off to Chris Sloop Senior Vice President, CTO for WeatherBug and asked if he would be interested in answering a few questions. He got back to me with a positive response and we went from there. I tried not to be to longwinded and asked some straightforward questions. The results in my opinion turned out very good. Of course you will see a bit of Weatherbug marketing in the answers. Some of my questions were designed to allow the company to present it’s products. This doesn’t take away from the solid answers given to the questions asked. I think many readers will find that the product placement actually adds to the discussion.
As a matter of full disclosure I would like to point a few things out. At no time was I asked by anyone to do a WeatherBug specific article. I have not received compensation in any way for what you are about to read. While Chris Sloop, myself and a few others have had dinner together twice. I think he and those others would tell you that topics related to his work never came up.
Do to the size of the question and answer session. I’m going to try my best to break everything up into a two part article. The replies I was given come from Chris Sloop and Mark Hoekzema, Chief Meteorologist for WeatherBug. I’d like to take the time to thank them and anyone else who may have been involved for taking part in this discussion. I’m going to do my best to leave the formatting of the Q & A as is. So you will see Mark Hoekzema’s replies in blue and those by Chris Sloop in red.
Although technology has improved weather forecasting over the years. I feel that many people still consider forecasting a best guess estimate instead of a science. Could you help to explain why things should be viewed differently?
Forecasting over the past 30 years has improved and in some cases dramatically. More powerful computers can process much more data, much quicker, allowing for model resolutions to be much higher. The atmosphere acts as a fluid and to approximate its movements there are many mathematical formulas that estimate this movement. The greater the number of data points that a model has means it can more closely resemble the actual movement of the atmospheric “fluid”.
Increased computer power also means that more and different computer models can be run. This gives forecasters much more information. A single model can be run more than a dozen times with slightly different initial conditions in the amount of time it used to take to run the model once. Having these many forecasts can give forecasters an idea for the uncertainty a forecast might contain. Conversely, it can also give them an idea of where more certainty is too. This allows forecasters to communicate the forecast information that has the highest probability of occurring and also communicating the uncertainty in the prediction.
Human input remains a significant part of forecasting. The human brain is still stronger than the most powerful computers. Forecasters can use meteorological knowledge and situational awareness to indentify the best forecast after considering a mountain of forecast data. Calling forecasting an art can give an image of waving a brush and magically producing a forecast. I prefer to call it a science that relies on human analysis and input.