Hyping Weather... Not Good for America

Polar Vortex

Don Berchoff, MetraWeather's VP Americas and Transport, talks about how the over hyping of the 'polar vortex' hysteria is not good for America.

Written: 8th November 2014

Next week, a mid-winter rush of cold, blustery weather will move into the Nation’s mid-section and northeast bringing low temperatures in the teens; sub-freezing high temperatures and snow from the plains to the Great Lakes; wind chills below zero; and significant lake effect snows. Is this unseasonable for mid-November, yes; but is rare, no. Rest assured, it will be cold, and we need to dress and prepare accordingly, but no colder than what we see in an average January weather pattern.

Waking up this morning and listening to the morning news and 'experts' from the scientific community, I envision a scenario from the movie 'The Day After Tomorrow' playing out next week. It appears some (please note the word “some”) in the media and scientific community are picking up where we left off last winter, a continuation of the 'polar vortex' hysteria—with a new twist, “Bombogenesis.” I believe I know what is meant by “Bombogenesis”, but I will not speculate. I do know this is not a term for describing the method bomb makers use to develop such devices to terrorize Americans. Although I wonder if the term is trying to incite the same reaction for television ratings. All this unsettles me as a meteorologist.

Forty years ago, growing up on Long Island, I kept very detailed diaries of the weather…I was 12 years old. In my short time on Earth, granted a short existence compared to the age of Earth itself, I have noticed some strange changes in winter weather patterns. As a scientist, this 'polar vortex' stuff interests me, because anecdotally, the jet stream is going through a period of odd patterns that seems out of character. I won’t pretend to claim I know why this is the case. I am simply sharing an observation.

This morning I turned on the news and the next 'polar vortex' episode was enthusiastically communicated by an on-air physics professor on a national news network. I am sure this gentleman is very intelligent and probably understands the physics and dynamics of weather systems. My analysis of the weather situation next week is it will be cold and snowy. Typical mid-January weather and something Northerners are well accustomed and equipped to handle. If this is the case, the hype this week may erode the credibility of the science a bit and could impact how people will react to future weather predictions. And this is too bad, because we really are getting better at prediction, and with the right investments in weather models, computers and atmospheric measurements, the positive impact on how people live their lives and the Nation’s economy are enormous.

Weather impacts one-third of the US GNP. In some weather sensitive industries, up to 40 percent of costs incurred due to weather are avoidable with accurate forecasts, harnessed processes and decisive action. The aviation community understands this and is proactively addressing weather threats, before they occur, to prevent keeping passengers on the tarmac or burning fuel unnecessarily circling airports waiting for the weather to improve. Ground logistics operators also understand this and are beginning to incorporate weather feeds into trucks and decision-making systems. After all, why have a trucker sit in traffic during a snow event, burning fuel and wasting precious road hours?

Meteorologists will never be 100 percent accurate. We will get it wrong from time to time and we know this. We also know that even though we miss some, lives are saved, and businesses operate safer and save money because of what we do. How can this be? Because the act of changing plans to prepare for significant weather event generally costs a great deal less than not preparing for an event when it occurs. In some industries, being right 80 percent of the time provides enormous cost savings, and to the surprise of some, we are generally better than 80 percent accurate.

So why do we often hear, “meteorologists are no better than 50/50” when the statistics prove meteorologists are better than 80 percent accurate? There could be many reasons, but some of the misperception stems from those in the media and scientific community that hype events. The public is smart enough to know the difference between what is real and what is hype. It insults their intelligence and causes a backlash. But more importantly, it may cause them not to act when they should act, and this is what unsettles me.

Many of us in the community work very hard, in a tough business, to get it right and provide valuable information to the public and businesses to make life a bit less stressful and businesses more profitable. The science and the statistics clearly show we are getting better and having a greater impact on how people make decisions, and it will only get better in the future. But most meteorologists understand the limitations, which is why most of us try to stick with the facts. Many of us try to find new ways to articulate what we believe is going to happen, without emotion, to elicit the type of responses that are appropriate for the conditions expected.

Hyping the weather does all of us a disservice. A disservice to the science, but more importantly, a disservice to the public and weather sensitive industries that are trying to reduce the impact of weather on their businesses and keep our economy and Nation operating, even when the weather is at its harshest.

Are there times to beat the drums about life threatening and economic impacting weather events, most definitely. Will Meteorologists get some of these wrong….absolutely. Is the benefit of acting generally better than inaction…yes. Will it be cold and snowy next week, definitely. So get out the rock salt, shovels, snowplows, parkers and gloves. But I promise, there will be a day after tomorrow. 

Don Berchoff Profile

Don Berchoff is VP Americas and Transport at MetraWeather. 

Don’s experience includes:

  • Director, Science and Technology for the United States National Weather Service (NWS)
  • co-authored the FAA Weather Concept of Operations for the Next Generation Air Traffic System (NexGen) being implemented in the United States
  • dedicated aviation meteorologist for Air Force One, President H.W. Bush’s aircraft from 1988–1990.
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