The Myth of Weather Forecasting

by Howard Melamed

I remember reading a long time ago a little passage in a community newspaper that said: “Unfortunately, the Weather Forecasters annual picnic was cancelled due to unexpected weather”.

This to me was an absolute statement of the art of weather forecasting.  We have come a long way since the dark ages and instead of relying upon the Farmer’s Almanac, we can rely on the Channel 7 weatherman, or the Weather Channel. At least for the most part. But don’t you get the feeling that many of the so called weather experts are not experts at all? When they are wrong it makes me wonder if they really know what they are doing or is it all guessing? From what I have researched, I am inclined to believe that guessing is part of what makes forecasting unpredictable. Especially when it comes to hurricanes and how many will occur in any given year.

Hurricane Forecasting Made Easy
At the end of November, the news media bombards us with the  Hurricane Prediction from Dr. Bill Gray, Hurricane Guru. His prediction for 2002 was a total of 8 hurricanes. The problem is we only had 4. He was off the mark 50%.  This year, he is predicting 8 hurricanes as well. For those people counting on his prediction: Don’t.

They call him an ‘Expert’ and we are expected to rely on his predictions. The fact is, his predictions are not accurate enough for anyone to make any sort of decisions based on them. I checked to see how accurate Dr. Gray really is. Since 1992 he has been off on average by  46.6%. 1992 was the only year that he got it right.

Year Dr. Gray Actual % Error
1992 4 4 0%
1993 6 4 33%
1994 6 3 50%
1995 8 11 38%
1996 5 9 80%
1997 7 3 57%
1998 5 10 100%
1999 9 8 11%
2000 7 8 14%
2001 5 9 80%
2002 8 4 50%
2003 8 ? ?
Average 6.5 6.36 46.63%

So you say he isn’t so bad. Well if you were to predict 7 hurricanes in any season your prediction would as good as his. The fact is there is nothing spectacular about Gray’s prediction. He is not accountable to anyone, and no one holds him to what he predicts. In fact, they let him revise his forecast in mid season. Can you imagine betting on a horse, with the ability that you can revise your bet half way into the race? That is not fair!

We should care about what Dr. Gray is saying because  based on his predictions, insurance rates could climb, public money is allocated for disaster relief. This year the professor made a statement that the project of hurricane predications is in trouble because his government money is running dry.  It is about time. The predictions that he has given us so far are worthless and this whole program has been one waste of money.  Ask yourself if you accept this boloney from any other scientist. I mean, can you imagine if your doctor was off the same percentages this guy gives? “The baby will be arriving in 9 months plus or minus 3.6 months. ”

So who is this guy ‘Gray’ and where in South Florida does he live? He doesn’t. In fact his home is in Colorado. His ‘team’ operates out of the Colorado State University. So far in the history of the world, no hurricane has ever hit Colorado. I mean, does the University of Miami predict snow fall in the mountains of Colorado? Who would take any such prediction seriously anyway. Same with Colorado predicting hurricanes. If he wanted to be involved in the Hurricane Forecasting business, then he should be right here with all of us on the front line. is here in South Florida, right where the hurricane action is. Our prediction last year was as good as his (actually better. We predicted 7 and 4 came in. He predicted 8.) hereby predicts that there will be 7 hurricanes in 2003. plus or minus 46%. Perhaps if I am as right as he is, I can also obtain the government grant money to continue the research into predicting hurricanes.

Here are some other pet peeves of mine regarding weather forecasters:

Doppler Radar
Do you really care what kind of Radar that any of our TV stations have? Do you know the difference? The answer to most of us is: No. I don’t care. Just tell me if it is going to rain. Why don’t we just call it ‘Dope’ radar for short and save us a lot of nonsense. Rain heading your way. No rain heading your way. Maybe Rain heading your way. Look outside. If it’s raining and you don’t need me!

Chance of Rain
I am very confused about this one. When they say there is a 50% chance of rain, does that mean that there is a 50% chance it is not going to rain? Then, why does it always rain when the chance of rain is 50%?  So, maybe the 50% chance means that it will rain on only 50% of the land while the other 50% rains on the water. Why even tell us a number. Why not just say slight chance of rain or it will rain? I don’t want to rain on their parade but once again they give us information that we can’t digest or that is not properly explained.

Partly Cloudy vs. Partly Sunny
Now, if you are like me, you only listen to those stations that tell you that it is going to be partly sunny today. That is the more positive outlook. The pessimists say ‘Partly Cloudy’. I want to know that the sun will be shinning come rain or shine.

Relative Humidity
If you ask the average person what it means when they say 50% humidity they don’t exactly know. The exact definition states that Relative Humidity is the percentage of saturation of the air with water vapor relative to a certain temperature. Get that? All we really have to know is whether or not it will be dry, comfortable or humid.

I have no complaints on this one. Normally this is what the weather forecasters do very well. They forecast the high and the low. They are quite accurate. They should stick to this one and say they don’t really know what the other weather is going to be like. They should also stay away from the ‘Heat Index’. Who cares what temperature it feels like, I care if it’s hot and sticky or cool and comfortable.

I am sure there are other terms and pet peeves that you may have about weather forecasting. Perhaps forecasting the weather is best described by Father Sarducci of the famed early Saturday Night Live show where he would give the weather forecast for the next day as :

“Maybe ittsa gonna rain. Maybe itssa gonna snow. Dat depends on da weather”.

Research link: Weather Site   Click here

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Before you slam a research scientist with a Ph.D. in a certain field, I simply suggest that you know more than him; from all of your mean-spirited commentary, what positive has resulted?  The weather channel continues to report Dr. Gray’s predictions, NOT based on absolute hurricane amounts, but because HE was the first to be able to report AHEAD of time, whether or not the hurricane season would be active or inactive.  Check his accuracy with total tropical storm numbers..  There is proven science behind Dr. Gray’s predictions..  You are just another rude-blowhard all too common to South Florida..  I wish YOU lived in Colorado!  Sincerely, Kris Foster   B.S. Meteorology, PSU-1996 (and Coral Springs resident).

Kris  Thanks for your email.If it was simply a prediction between Active or Inactive Hurricane season then I would have no quarrel.  Dr. Gray predicts the quantity of Hurricanes, and makes no disclaimer that he can be off in some years as much as 100%.  I suggest that Hurricane prediction is impossible, and Dr. Gray lowers himself to the levels of Sooth Sayers by doing so.  If you claim that there is proven science behind Dr. Grays’ predictions than tell me what other examples can you give  that proven science is off on average 46% and we deem it to be acceptable as a prediction? I actually wouldn’t mind living in Colorado. It’s a nice place.


Author: HelpMeHoward