Weather… Or Not

Don’t blame the weatherman for last week’s non-storm

The snowstorm that just breezed through Boston has served to remind many people of last week’s storm that wasn’t. Most Harvardians breathed a sigh of relief when the widely predicted blizzard—supposed to dump over a foot of snow on the city—failed to materialize; some students (i.e., those without a car) even felt cheated when all the hype amounted to was less than one inch of the white stuff.

The result, however, was that dining-hall-tray sledding enthusiasts turned to their second-favorite pastime: complaining about the dead-wrong forecast and the seemingly know-nothing weathermen. In fact, last week, the grumbling reached such a high pitch that we feel compelled to respond—in defense of meteorology.

It is certainly understandable to be frustrated with last week’s inaccurate prediction, and it was certainly the most notable meteorological screw-up in recent memory. However, to claim that the weatherman is “always wrong”—as we have heard it said—is simply unfair and untrue. Meteorologists make accurate predictions on a daily basis about things less exciting or salient than a major snowstorm (but no less influential to our daily lives): temperature, wind speed, humidity, and more. Even with major weather events such as blizzards or hurricanes, they are more often right than they are wrong. It is easy to forget this, exactly because we have come to take weathermen for granted.

What’s more, meteorology is necessarily an imperfect science. If it were possible to know the current conditions in every cubic centimeter of the atmosphere at any given time, meteorologists would be able to predict the weather months in advance with perfect accuracy. However, that wealth of data is just not realistic, and so, like the rest of us, weathermen do the best they can with what they have. Considering that a microscopic shift in wind direction—in the right context—can drastically change the conditions we experience on the ground, we should instead be impressed with how often they get it right.

Complaining about inaccurate forecasts may seem harmless and not worth writing about. However, such behavior can have real consequences, since pressure from the public sometimes takes scientists out of the vacuum in which they should be working. Knowing that they will be harshly criticized if a storm is worse than expected, for example, meteorologists often hedge their bets and forecast the direst possible scenario—absolving themselves of blame at the cost of knowingly withholding their real best guesses.

The direst possible scenario also tends to be the most sensationalistic one—and, again, sometimes this is a purposeful manipulation of the data. The commercialization of weather-forecasting agencies may be leading some meteorologists to intentionally gussy up their forecasts to be more exciting—therefore driving more traffic to their website. These trends are deplorable, and we blame both the weather companies and the overeager public for taking the neutrality out of yet another science.

Whether this exaggeration was at play in last week’s forecasts is impossible to prove. However, if only from the snowfall totals in nearby cities to the south, it is probably safe to conclude that there was no indication last week that Boston was not going to be walloped. In light of this, we support both the meteorologists in their predictions and everyone else who listened to them. Schools and businesses around the area did the right thing in closing for the day, even if it turned out to be unnecessary; we are all better off safe than sorry. Similarly, we are pleased that the government honored the terms of the technical snow emergency, even if there was no emergency in practice: Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino should be commended for his understanding in waiving 3,353 parking tickets and agreeing to reimburse 229 citizens whose cars were towed during the “storm.”

Precautions such as these remind us why meteorologists are valuable. It may be easy to knock them, but they deserve our gratitude as well. When tornadoes are forming in Kansas or a blizzard is dropping down across Canada, they rarely miss it, and their expertise often spares lives. Hopefully, as yesterday’s widely predicted storm blankets the memories of last week, we can spare the meteorologists, too.

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