Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Achievements In Weather Forecasting

The Galveston hurricane of 1900 was one of the most devastating in North American history, and is frequently held up as a hallmark of poor forecasting. It should be noted, though, that in comparison to today, forecasting methods were prehistoric. Talking about Galveston has been done to death besides; therefore, by blog doctrine, I'm inclined to skip by it.

I have a more recent, and less forgivable meteorological blunder to bring up.

Meet Michael Fish. Those of you in the audience who happen to be British probably know where this is heading, but remember, I'm American. Michael Fish has been doing forecasts since 1962, many of them for the BBC. He would be regarded with the respect given anyone who's been plugging away at their job for that long... except for there was that one time he's never lived down in the slightest.

That one time was October 15, 1987. Here was his forecast for that day, and particularly pay attention to those first few seconds.

Don't worry, there won't be a hurricane. Technically, this was correct, but only in the sense that Europe rarely gets hurricanes. Europe is further north (let's put it this way: Monaco is further north than Toronto), with colder oceans nearby and colder winds hitting them from the Atlantic, and of course, hurricanes live on warm water.

However, Europe does get windstorms, windstorms that feed on cold water. They typically form on our side of the Atlantic as nor'easters. And really, when it's the worst storm to hit the area in some 300 years, it's semantics. It's time to play the thing up. After having made a remark like Fish did, telling people to 'batten down the hatches' isn't going to be taken seriously.

What was eventually called the Great Storm of 1987 happened mere hours after the forecast. After the 15 deaths and 2 billion pounds of damage in the UK alone, attention quickly turned to Fish, who has spent the following months and years attempting backtrack after backtrack. I was talking about Florida. No, nobody actually called. The call was actually a staffer. Did you not hear me tell you to batten down the hatches?

How much has Fish failed to live it down? The forecast found its way into the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. That's how much. The next year, when another major storm hit and happened to knock over a tree on Fish's lawn, there was no way he was going to stay out of the news.

Meanwhile, other British forecasters took note of what happened to Fish. Since 1987, the tendency among forecasters has been to assume the worst. Better to be wrong in a way that just wrecks people's day than to be wrong in a way that gets them killed. In Britain, this has been called the Fish Effect.

Being right? That's another story.

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