Editorial | Should we be mad at the Met Office?
An advisory from the Meteorological Service of Jamaica earlier this week predicted a cold front entering the Caribbean region, bringing with it wind, showers, and cold weather. The winds came with vigour, temperatures dropped, but no showers to speak about.
Were this an examination, the Met Office would have been punished for getting only part of the answer correct and would, therefore, lose marks. Most of the time, the Met Office gets it right, but when weather predictions veer off mark, there are consequences for persons who tend to plan their daily lives around the weather conditions.
The quality and reliability of weather predictions are important for decision makers. A business person with valuable weather forecast at his fingertips has been handed a tool to improve his ability to manage risks. This applies to the small operator, like fishermen, as it does to the huge airline industry.
Transport operators need accurate weather information to anticipate how their passengers will be affected. The manager of a construction site may want to delay certain types of work such as pouring concrete or painting if he has good information that rain is in the offing.
A farmer who wants to rely on more than his venerable almanac will need accurate information to schedule planting and reaping and to address production issues on his farm. Therefore, when there are perceived wrong calls, it can put a crimp in the best-laid contingencies.
We live in an era of the 24/7 news cycle, and weather data is now seen to be as important as the news. It is no longer the purview of government broadcasters, and many private interests now provide specific weather updates tailored to customers’ requirements. When these predictions go awry, people blame the forecasters.
As we understand it, weather forecasts are produced by collecting data about the current state of the atmosphere, taking into consideration temperature, humidity, and wind. This data is fed into computer models, with additional information being gathered from weather balloons, satellites, ocean buoys, and the like.
Backing up this suite of technological data, there is also human knowledge that goes into the predictions. Though forecasts have improved since the earliest ones published in the United Kingdom in 1861 by a royal naval officer, and even with the introduction of supercomputers in the 1950s, meteorologists get it wrong sometimes. The discrepancy between what is predicted and what really happens is often explained by the mighty workings of Mother Nature.
Admittedly, the atmosphere is rather chaotic, especially with man-made climate change throwing some unexpected situations into the mix. There is no computing power or modelling that is able to simulate the atmosphere down to very small changes that can have huge effects over time.
This year has been an unusual year in various respects, and one wonders whether coronavirus has had anything to do with weather predictions. And it sure does. The grounding of hundreds of commercial flights has reduced the collection of valuable weather data. Indeed, meteorologists depend on commercial pilots to collect wind and temperature data as they fly at high altitudes, and the near-total grounding of the world’s commercial flights because of the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the accuracy of weather forecasts around the world. It is estimated that there was also a 42 percent global decline in such reports in March. Weather scientists have determined that temperature forecasts between March and May 2020 were less accurate than February 2020 by two degrees Centigrade.
History teaches an important lesson about the importance of weather predictions, for it was a break in the weather that provided the optimal time for the Allied Forces to land in northern France and pave the way for the historic defeat of Germany in 1944. General Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged that the Allied Forces had better meteorologists than the Germans, and that made the difference.
We believe that meteorologists want to be accurate, and they work towards that goal. Are they hampered by outmoded equipment? Lack of manpower? Training needs? If they do not have the tools for the job, can we hold them to a standard of perfection knowing that Mother Nature puts a limit on how accurate they can be?
For now, it seems like we have to be satisfied with educated guesses and understand that as far as the weather is concerned, forecasts are couched in probabilities and perfection is some way off.