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Weather Wars

Do any forecasters get it right?

They've got color-coded charts. They've got three-dimensional graphics. They've got slick brand names attached to their forecasts like "SkyMax," "Accuweather," and "Microclimate." The way they hype their forecasts, you'd think that they alone have the only High-tech Double-Doppler AccuClimate StormTracker machine in town parked in their newsrooms. Yet despite all the gizmos, the five weather sources Creative Loafing analyzed for this story predicted the weather with 100 percent accuracy just six times in the course of one month. That's not six times each. That's six times total.

Each of these media outlets would like you to believe that their weather is the best, that if you miss their forecast, you'll be left out in the rain -- or worse. But to those who've canceled cookouts that were supposed to be rained out but weren't, who dressed wrong because they believed a weather report, or who left their umbrellas at home and got soaked, it probably seems like a lot of the time, they just don't get it right. So why all the fuss?

The truth is that weather forecasting is one part science, three parts hype. For newspapers like the Charlotte Observer, which presents its forecast in an elaborate half-page spread with premier ad space below, weather is a necessity. For TV news stations like WBTV, WCNC and WSOC, weather can make or break a station's ratings.

Some of these media outlets had a better track record than others during the period we analyzed, and we purposely picked one of the toughest periods to forecast for each year -- from mid-February to mid-March -- when, as it turned out, anything from a blizzard to 80-degree temperatures is possible. With the exception of the Observer, we used the forecasts they display on the web to nail them down to a written prediction. Under these conditions, the television stations averaged a total of six to nine degrees off on the temperature per day and got the conditions -- rain, snow or cloudiness -- right about 67 percent of the time on average in their five-day forecasts. The Observer's forecast, prepared the day before, lagged behind at 56 percent.

Where do they get this stuff?
Before we tell you more about how they did, it's important to tell you a bigger story -- how they did it.

Most Americans probably think the forecasts they read or see on the local news or on The Weather Channel are free, but they're not. They cost every American citizen about $4 a year. The federal government is the main player in the weather forecasting business in this country, and if it suddenly stopped cranking out detailed forecasts every day, the weather would pretty much immediately disappear from local news and The Weather Channel would dry up.

Every day, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its sub-agencies send up hundreds of weather balloons from fixed locations across the country and gather atmospheric data from satellites, radar and airplanes. It's a complex process, but the result is essentially reams of data that is then compiled into various computer models predicting the weather for most major areas.

Anyone who wants it can download it, and weather forecasters use those models, which often make similar predictions for the same day, to make their own forecasts. Usually what this means is that local forecasters pick the model they think is most accurate, or fiddle with the predictions of a few others. According to the NOAA website, the law allows them to use the National Weather Service's forecast verbatim and attach their own graphics to it if they choose without crediting the NWS.

One station, WSOC, buys its forecast from a private company called AccuWeather, which builds its forecasts off National Weather Service models as well, and prepares our local forecast in Pennsylvania. AccuWeather President Dr. Joel Myers says the company's meteorologists consult with local forecasters here in Charlotte on the forecasts. Everyone we talked to for this article said they put their own work into their forecasts, which is probably true. But when we lined up the forecasts by all five media outlets side-by-side and looked at who predicted what and when, an odd pattern began to emerge. Over 80 percent of the time, near-identical mistakes were made by at least four of the media outlets on the same days in their five-day forecasts. At the same time, they all got the precipitation or cloudiness correct or close to correct on the same days in their five-day forecasts over 70 percent of the time.

"They're putting out this perception that is really not true that they have this technology that differentiates them from the others," said Dr. Judah Cohen, a staff scientist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. in Boston. "It's marketing. No one really has anything really different. It's just the packaging of it. All the information is the same and it's mostly coming from the government. If you have a person who has knowledge of the local area, he may have a feel that under this situation this model may do better, but really there is no one who has a technological edge over the other one."

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