Forecasting, it’s harder than it looks.

2009-06-08 21:44:36.000 – Ryan Knapp,  Staff Meteorologist

Forecast nailed, but I did not see this coming.

Our interns are a much needed and much appreciated group of people that, in general, work very well with us and work very hard at any task we provide them. One such task is their intern projects. These projects run the spectrum of topics depending on what their backgrounds are prior to arriving here. Some recent projects that come to mind are computer programs they have written for our instruments, data input, El Nino/La Nina impact studies on east coast weather, or forecast verifications. This last one, forecast verifications, has been done as an intern project that at least three interns have tackled in my time here. I always find the results interesting in that it lets us know what we need to improve on more or find where we are doing our best at.

But I am not going to spew out statistics in this comment; I can do that another time. I am not going to say one observer in recent years is better than another, mainly because when we do these studies, we look at overall patterns and not an individual’s pattern. I know my stats but it isn’t fair to others mainly because nights on the opposite shift has had so many people doing them that is would be comparing four years worth of data to only four months of data for some. But for me personally, I do verification daily and at times it eats me alive internally.

I am very meticulous (which also makes me a “neat freak”) so when I do a forecast, that is what I truly believe the weather is going to be for the next 36 hours. I fill in our forecast application and hit submit and for me that is like signing the “Declaration and Signature” oath on the bottom of any tax form. In my mind, the imaginary line just above “submit forecast” usually reads: “Under pains and penalties of perjury, I declare that I have reviewed the information on my forecast with the information I have provided on my electronic forecast form and that the information above agrees with the information being declared by neighboring forecasting locations and international forecasting models. To the best of my knowledge and belief, this information is true, correct and complete. I understand that if this forecast is not fulfilled, I will remain liable for the forecasts liability and all applicable penalties and interest.”

Now, I know that meteorology is not an exact science, if it were it wouldn’t be a forecast but a weather declaration. And I know to be human is to expect a certain degree of error in anything I do. But when I know others are depending on what I put out for decision making it eats at me a bit. There are days when I go to bed and my forecast is looking valid then 6-8 hours later I awake only to find it doing the opposite of what I expected. I then have to go back and look at where I may have gone wrong or see what may have changed or what the model output may have missed and keep that in mind for future use. If the weather is better than I forecast, that is still an error although less people grumble about that. It is when weather is worst than expected that I get concerned.

I always hope that no one got hurt because of unexpected winds, snow, rain, thunderstorms, etc. And even though we put the following statement on all our online and printed outlooks: “Mountain weather is subject to rapid changes and extreme conditions. Always be prepared to make your own assessment of travel and weather conditions. This outlook is one tool to help you plan a safe trip. Always travel with adequate clothing, shelter, food and water.” I still can’t toss aside the feeling that someone out there has not read this warning and focused just on my outlook language and based their outing on that. It is not a great feeling to say the least.

What makes it worst is when we get emails telling me when I am wrong. I know I was wrong but does it really warrant an email? But I think that is more related to the digital era we are in. When I was a kid and an outdoor event was postponed or ruined due to unforeseen weather, I never got to a point where I would sit down, hand write a letter blaming my local weather man, put post on it and walk it to the post office. There were better things to do or worry about. But today, with a few clicks of a mouse, people can sound off on just about anything on various outlets. But luckily the negative emails and comments I see and hear are few and far between. For the thousands if not millions that hike the Whites every year, most have a good experience, most take the outlook we provide with a grain of salt and use it as a tool, and if they get in minor trouble, attribute it to poor planning on their behalf and work towards a better outing their next time.

But, even when I receive a negative email or comment in general in my forecasting career, I keep two quotes from college in the back of my mind. And maybe these parting words can help in your career or day to day life. The first is from John Lydgate and later adapted by President Lincoln: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all the time.” And the second is: “When writing a forecast, even if you are correct 99.99% of the time, it is the other 0.01% that people will remind you of. Because when you are right, no one remembers. But when you are wrong, no one forgets.”

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Ryan Knapp,  Staff Meteorologist

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