by John Urban
Way back when, before the advent of super computers and data analytics, a three day weather forecast was pretty much guesswork. Thanks to the vast technology introduced by the Information Age, that’s no longer the case – now it’s all guess work. And you don’t need to grasp standard deviations or probability formulas to come to this conclusion. We’ve been living with inaccurate forecasts day in and day out.
Exactly what is going on here? Everything has gotten better, smarter, faster…except for meteorology? Has there been some kind of brain-drain over there at the National Weather Service, the NSA now grabbing all the good data wizards? Or maybe Discovery TV hired them all away to become reality TV storm chasers? Or is it that the entire NWS staff is now down at the beach standing in the surf with a Weather Channel mic in their hands?
Fortunately, the consequences of this predicament haven’t been dire in these parts. So far, the summer weather in Southern New England has been fabulous. We’ve dodged hurricanes and tornadoes and for that we are grateful. But as nice as it’s been, the forecasts have been miserably inaccurate and even worse when it comes to the coastal marine conditions.
If you listen to meteorologists and climatologists, they’ll tell you that the reason for this is that the weather has become unpredictable. Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it.
Yet, I have, in fact, seen some recent changes in weather patterns. For example, a summer time east wind along the shores of Buzzards Bay and Rhode Island Sound have almost always been a sign of bad weather. But not in recent years. Today, it’s not uncommon to enjoy a nice sunny easterly. And in years past, I’d have to wait until mid-August for a series of flat water days that gave me comfortable rides to Newport in our little Whaler. This year, they’ve come early. Add these local observations up with changes in other regions and maybe you end up with macro climate shifts are making weather forecasting more difficult.
If this is true, perhaps NOAA and the Weather Service should turn off the super computers, walk away from big data algorithms and head outside. We send weather airplanes out searching for hurricanes, why not put meteorologists into jeeps, open cockpit airplanes, and sailboats and scatter them across the country for real time reports? Better yet, we could all unplug from our weather apps, radio reports, and TV updates and adopt a Zen attitude toward the weather. We’ll leave sirens and warning systems on in case of emergencies, but otherwise take it as it comes.
Or maybe, we should give the super computer approach one last try, but this time we’ll put boaters in charge: “Okay, you entered Red Sky at Night, right? And what about Rainbow in the morning gives you fair warning? And what about the cicadas and the crickets?” That and a million other lines of salty proverbs might just get us the right answers.
In the meantime, I’m going to glance up at the sky, check out the wind, and go sailing.
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