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Our reckless forecast: winter as usual

If we have it straight - and we probably haven't - 1982-83 was threatened as a colder-than-normal winter. That was back in September. We don't know if those false prophets were thrown out, kicking and screaming, along with their errant anemometers, cloudy-to-partly-cloudy crystal balls, and other misleading equipment. Maybe as punishment they were shipped - mink earmuffs and Arctic suits and all - to a Caribbean island. Meteorologists hate nice weather. They don't ever call it weather. ''Weather'' is ice and snow and slush and lots and lots of wind-chill factor. The rule goes like this: Whatever turns your nose blue will bring a smile to a weatherman's lips.

Well, two months went by, and then it was November, and a whole new team of weathermen was sticking wet fingers out the window. How else explain the suddenly revised forecast, promising a warmer-than-usual winter?

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We're not complaining, but the switch in signals did make things hard for the editors at the Old Farmer's Almanac. There they were, as the temperatures soared to 70, frozen, so to speak, into their prediction for New England: ''November will be colder and drier than usual.''

We sympathize with the staff of the Old Farmer's Almanac. It's tough to go on record in print, even if you are privy to ''a secret weather forecasting formula'' invented by the founder of the almanac in 1792.

We feel reasonably magnanimous toward TV forecasters too, though we're on to their little tricks. They start with storm tracks in the Gulf of Mexico and ominous highs in the Rockies, not to mention this cold front in the Maritimes. Then they give you the dipsy-doodle graphics and the revolving panels that appear and disappear, like the library wall in a Hollywood haunted house. By the time the local forecast is actually laid on the line, everybody's lost concentration. It just whips right past, and you're left trying to reconstruct a prediction from the banter of the news anchor team: ''Could be worse, eh Herb? But why does this always have to happen on the weekends?''

A man from the National Weather Service weighed in pretty early with the warmer-than-usual-winter forecast. Maybe he'd been there all along. We liked the fellow's style, especially when he said that long-range forecasting was no better than 60 percent accurate. But he had a theory. He was going by a large pocket of water, south of the Aleutians. The surface temperature this year was five degrees warmer than usual.

The truly advanced long-range forecasters, we are told, build mathematical models of the climate and feed the abstract through their computers. Your really , really long-range forecast appears to indicate that the earth will slip back into an ice age in 10,000 to 20,000 years, so don't plan on that picnic you keep postponing. Or else squeeze it into the next few hundred years, when a warming trend is predicted, based on the so-called greenhouse effect. But don't hold us to that either.

What we conclude from all this is that there may be a temptation to forecast, but there's an even stronger temptation to be forecast to. Whether it's weather or the economy or a dark man in somebody's future, we the public are at least partly accountable for goading prophets into prophecy.

In almost every case we want to know - and we don't want to know. Part of us longs to resolve all mysteries, past, present, and future. Part of us chooses to leave a bit of any mystery uncovered. Would we really wish our weatherman to be 100 percent right?

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Of course, if an oracle is wrong, an oracle has to pay, as any weatherman or stockbroker will tell you.

Science 82 reported the following incident at a climatology workshop. One persistent participant kept asking: ''How far can we go in observing a climatic trend before we stake our reputations on it and announce what we've found?'' Finally a voice from the back of the room answered: ''It depends on whether it's your reputation or mine.''

That about says it all.

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