Forecasters weather storms of criticism

March 16, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

Meteorologists are not polarizing people.

“Polarizing” means dividing into opposing factions, and that applies to U.S. presidents and Steelers quarterbacks not named Ben or Terry. The public, it seems, is unified in its distaste for weather forecasters, creating but one faction.

These men and women of Doppler radar are professionals with an array of equipment, most of it intricate and state of the art, that enable them to accurately predict weather for about a week. Yet they incur widespread wrath when they forecast a bad storm, then are ridiculed if it doesn’t materialize, as happened Tuesday in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Even though meteorologists at the National Weather Service station in Moon Township scaled back their forecasts of snow accumulations each day heading into Tuesday, people had initially heard six to eight inches and figured that was their fate. The area that day was essentially snow-free, although the East Coast was hit.

Weather forecasting is a science, based on a snow plow-load of data. But, because of the nature of nature, it is an inexact science, variable to last-minute change. Winter Storm Stella’s quicker-than-anticipated acceleration up the coast prevented it from clashing with a cold front from Canada that would have dealt a mightier blow to this corner of the commonwealth.

Despite all of their perceived faux pas, meteorologists are a credible lot, accurate in their forecasts more often than many people believe – or want to admit. In fact, consumer confidence in them apparently is pretty high. When we are told it will be 12 degrees with a wind chill of minus-2 the next morning, we pull on the heavy coat, boots, scarf and knitted cap before leaving our cozy home, and are thankful we responded appropriately to their alert.

We trust their word without realizing it.

The negative view of meteorologists, at least in this region, may be skewed by those employed at local TV stations. Their responses to expected “weather events” is dramatic bordering on the melodramatic. A forecast of four to five inches of snow is presented as a pending catastrophe, sending thousands out to buy bread, milk, Oreos and toilet paper.

Actually, it’s unfair to blame these forecasters entirely for their overzealous presentations. Some station poohbahs promote their weather coverage, and want their meteorologists to do their Chicken Little thing when adverse conditions appear to be ahead. The voiceover for promos goes something like, “Turn to our Armageddon weather team for the latest.”

At times, though, the slings and arrows launched at meteorologists are deserved. The Washington Post upbraided the National Weather Service in the aftermath of Tuesday’s storm, when New York City didn’t get the blizzard that had been forecast. The service admitted it knew the snowfall would likely be lighter than originally predicted, but stayed with the initial accumulation figures so as to not “confuse” the public.

Inexact reasoning within an inexact science.

Overall, though, meteorologists do their job well – despite incessant criticism.

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