Science Fails to Predict the Weather

“If you don’t like the weather…” well, you probably know the rest of this oft quoted quip. If you don’t, then “…wait a minute.” It is used in practically every region of the country to explain what the weather is going to do next, when any other method of weather prediction might likely be just as accurate.

For as long as man has looked up to the sky and scratched his head, consulted his wall-mounted barometer, or used his aching big toe, back pain, animal signs, cloud formations, or even complex computerized modeling to forecast the weather, he has rarely ever been right.

“Predicting the weather” actually might not be the correct term to use. It conjures visions of a meteorologist wearing a fez, sitting in a haze filled, dark room peering into a crystal ball trying to determine the future course of weather. Although one does not see a meteorologist’s weather expectations referred to in newspapers, on television, or the Internet as “Weather Predictions.” They are usually called “forecasts.” Forecasts reflect short-term guesses, while predictions are reserved for more long-term possibilities, like what the climate might do. The definitions of the two words, prediction and forecast, might nearly be the same, and they are synonymous, but the latter word implies more of an uncertainty as used in our lexicon.

And that is what weather forecasting is-uncertainty. Since time immemorial, man has never been able to predict, or forecast weather with 100 percent accuracy. The only time that could happen is if a meteorologist is broadcast live, soaking wet, in front of a television camera announcing that it is raining after just standing out in a downpour. Beyond that, the accuracy of any weather forecast, or percentage of likelihood that the forecast is going to be correct, drops significantly with time from when the forecast is made.

Even with the aid of sophisticated computers and statistical and numerical models to run upon them, the variables that affect weather patterns anywhere on this planet are numerous. They include traditional methods such as observation of atmospheric phenomena and processing of data. What they do not yet include are the dynamics of the Earth’s geologic processes, variability of oceanic water temperatures and salinity, how much radiation is received from the Sun at any given time, precession of the Earth’s axis wobble, or the Earth’s proximity to the Sun at any point in its revolution around it. When the meteorologists can understand how all of these processes affect the weather patterns on our planet, perhaps they will then be able to actually predict what the weather will be.

In 1982, Bob Ryan, writing on the difficulties a weather forecaster faces, stated it best in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, when he said, “Imagine a rotating sphere that is 12,800 kilometers (8000 miles) in diameter, has a bumpy surface, is surrounded by a 40-kilometer-deep mixture of different gases whose concentrations vary both spatially and over time, and is heated, along with its surrounding gases, by a nuclear reactor 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) away. Imagine also that this sphere is revolving around the nuclear reactor and that some locations are heated more during one part of the revolution and other locations are heated during another part of the revolution. And imagine that this mixture of gases continually receives inputs from the surface below, generally calmly but sometimes through violent and highly localized injections. Then, imagine that after watching the gaseous mixture, you are expected to predict its state at one location on the sphere one, two, or more days into the future. This is essentially the task encountered day by day by a weather forecaster.”1

Everyone fantasizes about having a job as a weather forecaster, claiming that you can be wrong without losing your job. And while everyone likes to blame the weather forecaster when his forecasts are wrong, consider how difficult their job truly is. Many meteorologists admit that they still prefer to hand-plot their own barometric isobars on maps, or when all of the numerical and statistical number crunching is done, they rely on walking up on the roof of their weather center and looking at the sky.

Even if they are only right part of the time, a lot of the blame might lie with us when we forget to grab an umbrella or jacket as we head out the door. After all, much of our ability to survive adverse weather conditions is the result of our ability to be prepared for what might happen.

We become lured into believing that our technology is so sophisticated that weather forecasting should be much more of a science than it currently seems to be. And if you don’t wish to believe the forecasts of professionals who use whatever methods they do for forecasting, then do your own observations, collect your own data, wait until your big toe starts throbbing, or watch the animals for signs of what the weather will do.

Finally, if that is still not good enough, “…wait a minute.”

1 Wikipedia,
“Modern Day Weather Forecasting,”
Retrieved on 2008-01-05