Posts Tagged “meteorology”

Radar loop of WS StellaLast Tuesday’s winter storm (named “Stella” by the Weather Channel, but “Eugene” by WFSB-TV here in Connecticut) turned out to be a bust, in the mid-Atlantic and New York City regions. And there’s been a lot of grumbling about how it was forecast. Those places all ended up getting much less snow than had been predicted.

Lots of people wonder how meteorologists could have been as wrong as they were. Well, it turns out, they actually knew — as the storm approached — the storm wouldn’t live up to their stated projections. Yet, as the New York Post reports, they chose not to change their forecasts to match what they knew would fall (cached):

On the eve of Tuesday’s Winter Storm Stella, the National Weather Service got reports that its dire prediction of up to 2 feet of snow for New York City may have been exaggerated — but decided not to change its forecast.

Fears of a massive blizzard led officials to close city public schools and for above-ground train service to be stopped — but in the end, only about 7 inches fell in Central Park.

After announcing that snow could reach record levels in the city, NWS meteorologists in New York and other Northeast cities held a conference call Monday afternoon about computer models that dramatically cut predicted totals.

But they decided to continue forecasting deep snow, claiming that they didn’t change their forecast for fear people would mistakenly think the storm was no longer dangerous.

Their excuse? They wanted to make sure people were still “cautious”:

[Chief of forecast operations at the Weather Prediction Center in Maryland, Greg] Carbin said a last-minute change downgrading snowfall totals might have caused people to let their guard down because ice was still a potential danger for cities such as New York and Washington.

Full disclosure: It may have seemed to New Yorkers that this storm was a dud, but that’s not quite true. Where I live, in northwestern Connecticut, we’d been told we could get between 16 and 24 inches of snow, and that turned out to be accurate. So not all the predictions failed to pan out … just some of them.

In the northeast, and especially here in the Nutmeg State, folks often joke that our weathermen punch up their forecasts to make them seem more dire than they ought to be, in order to glue the public to their TV sets, radios, whatever. Perhaps this is just a perception error, as well as a function of the basic uncertainty of weather forecasting. Or, maybe it really is the play for ratings it seems to be. But in this case — and in the case of the January 2015 blizzard — it’s clear this actually happened, and that meteorologists do exaggerate; and moreover that they feel entitled to do so whenever they see it as necessary.

We’re used to politicians lying to us, and have come to expect it. And maybe we kid around about weathermen grubbing for ratings by predicting cataclysm when none is on its way. But clearly, they lie. And they know they lie. And they admit they lie!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Observed departure of temperature from average for the period Nov. 2004-Mar. 2005. Superimposed in bold text is the winter forecast made in the 2004 Old Farmer's Almanac for the same period. The Almanac got four regions correct and eight incorrect, with two too close to call. / NOAA-CIRES & Climate Diagnostic Center, via Weather UndergroundEvery year around this time the Old Farmer’s Almanac, and its similar rival the Farmers’ Almanac, trot out weather predictions for the coming winter. And every year we’re treated to media stories about it … as though any of it actually means anything. Yesterday the Associated Press published a story with a lede guaranteed to pique Americans’ interest (WebCite cached article):

Just when you thought you had gotten over last winter, be warned: The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts it will be super cold with a slew of snow for much of the country, even in places that don’t usually see too much of it, like the Pacific Northwest.

If you don’t want to read about those four-letter words, there’s plenty more to peruse in the folksy, annual book of household tips, trends, recipes and articles, such as animal jealousy, the history of shoes and anticipation for the biggest Supermoon in decades in November 2016.

That crap is all I can take, so I won’t quote any more of it. In spite of the AP story’s paean to a supposedly accurate prediction last year, in truth, the two Almanacs” weather predictions are, in a word, bullshit! A steaming load heaved right out the back of the barn. Claims of over 80% accuracy are not true at all. They’re lies. Real meteorologists who really study the weather, who base their conclusions on real measurements, and who have real credentials that show they know what they’re talking about, have determined the Almanacs actually have very poor track records (cached and cached). The Farmers’ Almanac was, quite famously, wrong about Super Bowl XLVIII being hit with snow.

It’s utterly irresponsible of mass media outlets — especially those as widely-read and respected as the Associated Press — to treat this rank bullshit as though it’s news. It’s not. The Almanacs’ predictions are nothing of the sort! Making everything much worse … because this was released by the AP, it will get propagated by virtually every other media outlet in the country, and internationally too. Which is far more publicity than this crap deserves.

It’s time for the mass media, especially the AP, to just fucking stop falling for bullshit like this. Yes, as I said, the lede of this story is compelling. It’ll draw eyeballs for sure … but it will still be uninformative and useless crap that no one should bother seeing. Both Almanacs sell well enough that they don’t need the AP shilling for them.

P.S. Mention of the Almanac‘s prediction of a “supermoon” in 2016 is superfluous. A supermoon, aka a “perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system,” is a very predictable phenomenon. Astronomers (as in, real scientists using real equipment) can predict them many years in advance, and have done so — without the specious help of the Old Farmer’s Almanac or their mysterious, undisclosed algorithms.

Photo credit: NOAA-CIRES & Climate Diagnostic Center, via Weather Underground.

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February 08-09, 2013 Blizzard Storm Total Snow Accumulation/ by Brandon Vincent (National Weather Service Raleigh, NC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsI’ve blogged a time or two about New England’s famous “farmer’s almanacs” (there are two: the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac) and their nonsense “predictions” of what the winter will be. The Farmers’ Almanac has just released its prediction, and as the AP reports via CBS News, it’s rather dire (locally-cached article):

The Farmers’ Almanac is using words like “piercing cold,” “bitterly cold” and “biting cold” to describe the upcoming winter. And if its predictions are right, the first outdoor Super Bowl in years will be a messy “Storm Bowl.”

The 197-year-old publication that hits newsstands Monday predicts a winter storm will hit the Northeast around the time the Super Bowl is played at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands in New Jersey. It also predicts a colder-than-normal winter for two-thirds of the country and heavy snowfall in the Midwest, Great Lakes and New England.

“We’re using a very strong four-letter word to describe this winter, which is C-O-L-D. It’s going to be very cold,” said Sandi Duncan, managing editor.

The AP quite thoughtfully explains how we’re to be sure this “prediction” is accurate:

Based on planetary positions, sunspots and lunar cycles, the almanac’s secret formula is largely unchanged since founder David Young published the first almanac in 1818.

Modern scientists don’t put much stock in sunspots or tidal action, but the almanac says its forecasts used by readers to plan weddings and plant gardens are correct about 80 percent of the time.

Gee, I just love how the AP tells us that the Farmers’ Almanac must be accurate because its publisher says it’s accurate — and that, in turn, they back up by asserting that people use it to plan weddings. I am just so fucking glad they could clear that up for me!

I also love how they totally dismiss modern meteorology, as though no one has learned any more about the weather since 1818. I’m well aware of meteorology’s deficiencies … I was born and currently live in rural Connecticut, after all! … but to assume a putative prediction method dreamed up back in 1818 can’t possibly have been improved upon over the last two centuries? Come on. What a fucking joke!

The AP devoted just one clause of one sentence to mentioning that the two almanacs have skeptics, but nearly a couple of years ago, Discovery News ran a story addressing the almanacs’ accuracy, and they revealed there’s actually science behind that skepticism (cached):

Many atmospheric scientists and meteorologists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas used by the digests to prognosticate the weather.…

For nigh on to two centuries, Americans have taken a gander at farmer’s almanacs for auguries about the weather. Millions of readers think they are the bee’s knees but atmospheric scientists scoff at the ability of olde-tyme formulas to prognosticate the weather.

“Based on my own analysis, and that of others, the monthly mean forecasts published by the ‘Old Farmer’s Almanac’ (OFA) lack value,” Nick Bond, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington’s State Climatologist, told Discovery News.

The “Farmers’ Almanac” and the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” are in competition with each other, but also face stiff competition from meteorologists with millions of dollars worth of satellites, radar dishes and other new-fangled contraptions.

The “Farmers’ Almanac” has weathered these scientific advances with stalwart faith in the founder’s formula.…

In 2003, Bond compared “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts to actual weather events in the Pacific Northwest, the results are summarized in the Washington’s State Climatologist’s newsletter.

“The forecasts are sometimes correct. In terms of getting the sense of the weather anomalies right, for example whether it will be colder or warmer than normal, the OFA is correct about 50 percent of the time,” said Bond.

“Of course this is no better than flipping a coin,” he added.

Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services has compared “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts to actual weather conditions across the United States for much of the 2000’s. His results corroborate those of Bond.

Back in 1981 another study, published in Weatherwise, looked at 60 monthly temperature and precipitation forecasts for 32 weather stations across the U.S. and compared them to “Old Farmer’s Almanac” forecasts. Once again, the accuracy of the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” was found to be no better than flipping a coin.

The almanacs’ claimed successes, it turns out, aren’t even true “successes”:

For example, the “Farmers’ Almanac” website notes they were “on the money,” when they forecast a hurricane threat for the Southeastern U.S. at the end of August, manifested in the form of Hurricane Irene.

“A forecast of a hurricane hitting the southeastern United States in August is probably a pretty good bet in any year,” said [U. of Missouri scientist Neil] Fox. “You tend to hear about these ‘remarkable’ predictions, but not, of course all the times they get it wrong! I certainly would not make my plans based on this.”

The bottom line is that the mass media have no viable excuse for reporting any of this bilge as though it were really “news.” They have even less excuse for reporting the almanacs’ claims about their own accuracy as though they were fact, when clearly they are merely raw assertions with no demonstrable basis. There’s no place for this kind of hypercredulity, at the AP or in any other newsroom. No one is served this insipid trash.

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One of the examples of “the media being the message” is the annual release of the Farmers’ Almanac predictions of the coming winter. The mass media treat this as a story worthy of being reported. This is in spite of the fact that the Almanac’s predictions are — in the words of magician-comedians Penn & Teller — bullshit. Yet like so many other outlets, the Hartford Courant dutifully and helpfully informs us:

People worried about the high cost of keeping warm this winter will draw little comfort from the Farmers’ Almanac, which predicts below-average temperatures for most of the U.S.

“Numb’s the word,” says the 192-year-old publication, which claims an accuracy rate of 80 to 85 percent for its forecasts that are prepared two years in advance.

The almanac’s 2009 edition, which goes on sale Tuesday, says at least two-thirds of the country can expect colder-than-average temperatures this winter, with only the Far West and Southeast in line for near-normal readings.

Unfortunately the people who publish the Almanac either cannot or will not divulge their prediction method. But fortunately, we can test their predictions’ accuracy … and they fail. Meteorologists have taken on the Farmers’ Almanac (and the similarly-named and similarly-themed Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is in the same business of spewing baseless weather predictions) and have found them to be — well — unimpressive might be the kindest assessment.

Some of their predictions are too vague to be testable … others have been shown to be downright wrong. The bottom line is that the Almanac’s claim of 80 to 85 percent accuracy is exactly and only that — a claim. They can claim to be able to flap their arms and fly to the moon, too, but that wouldn’t be any more correct.

Oh, and that the Almanac has been in print for so many years, also does not give it veracity. Lots of things are old but that doesn’t make them right.

The Courant article obligingly consults an NOAA meteorologist on the matter, who also obligingly

wouldn’t comment specifically on the almanac’s ability to forecast the weather two years from now, but said it’s generally impossible to come up with accurate forecasts more than a week in advance.

It would have been nice if the NOAA scientist had been a little more forceful and stated the truth more clearly and succinctly: “The Almanac is bullshit!” But I guess someone in government can’t afford to be undiplomatic. The Courant wraps up its advertisement for story on the Almanac by giving it a fashionable “green” endorsement:

If there’s a theme to this year’s almanac, it’s environmental awareness, frugality and living a sustainable life. There are articles on water conservation, gas-sipping motor scooters, natural cures and preventions for colds and other illnesses, and on growing food without a yard.

Sorry but I don’t buy bullshit, even if it meets the politically-correct standard of being “green.”

Update: A lot of folks have checked in on this post of late, but it’s not my only one on the subject of the Almanac‘s B.S. I’ve had more to say since, including citations of how and why meteorologists — i.e. people who’ve actually studied the science of weather, as opposed to whoever cranks out the two Almanacs — say these so-called “predictions” are B.S. I’m baffled by how the mass media still continue to take the Almanacs seriously, when in truth, they have no reason to do so.

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