I’m one of a small subset of people who makes crucial decisions based on weather forecasts. Among pilots, the weather is one of the most important and oft-discussed components of aviation. After all, weather mistakes can be fatal: an encounter with a building thunderstorm, a run-in with icing conditions, a chance meeting with wind shear at low altitudes. Pilots pay careful attention to the weather because their lives depend upon it. So naturally, I pay close attention to forecasts at all times of the year.
That’s why I was so dismayed when the National Weather Service and other forecasters got it so wrong in their forecast of heavy snows in the Washington, DC area last week. Not because I felt that we should get 12 to 14 inches of snow, but because people’s trust in weather forecasters is only as good as their last forecast.
Accurate forecasts are hard to come by for things like snow and thunderstorms. Yet they are incredibly important forecasts for people to hear and understand. A forecast for severe snow or strong storms that can produce hail/tornadoes are dire warnings that must be heeded. Yet as weather forecasters are wrong, people begin to ignore the forecasters’ dire predictions and assume, “they were wrong last time, they’re wrong now.”
As a result, people can die.
The irony is that weather forecasting in the US is as good as it has been ever. But it could be better. Europe has far better forecasting than the United States does. And with the sequester cuts doing serious damage to the satellite network and forecaster salaries, good forecasts will be even harder to come by. This will cost lives. A run of projections, made as a test to see what would have happened without certain critical satellites, showed that forecasters would have thought Hurricane Sandy would have headed out to sea. Instead, their forecast was fairly accurate – and as a result, they were able to issue warnings to state and local officials for evacuations and preparations to be made.
Forecasting is an imperfect science. But for those of us who depend upon the good people at the weather services and in forecast centers, doing their best to get it right is the most improtant thing we need. We can’t afford to have people ignore the forecast. And we can’t afford cuts to the forecasters’ budget.