The forecast is always bad

Posted: May 22, 2003 12:00 AM

 Batten down the hatches. It’s going to be another year of major storms on the East Coast. How can we be sure? Well, the experts say so.

“Federal forecasters marked Monday’s start of Hurricane Awareness Week by predicting a busier-than-usual season,” The Miami Herald reported on May 20, “with 11 to 15 named tropical storms that grow into six to nine hurricanes.”

Michael Brown, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tried to boil down the threat: “Let me put it in layman’s terms. It could be really bad.”

Should we be worried? Maybe not.

William Gray is a professor and hurricane specialist at Colorado State University. He also predicts Atlantic basin hurricane activity will be “well above average” in 2003.

 Let’s consider Gray’s record. From the safety of Fort Collins, Co. -- which, luckily, has never taken a direct hit from a hurricane -- he and his team issue annual predictions about upcoming storm seasons. In December 2002, the team forecast: “12 named tropical storms will form in the Atlantic basin between June 1 and Nov. 30. Of these, eight will become hurricanes and three are anticipated to evolve into intense hurricanes.” That would represent the “well above average” number of storms.

 Sounds frightening. And it could happen. But it closely mirrors an announcement exactly one year earlier: “Gray and his colleagues predict 13 named tropical storms will form in the Atlantic Basin between June 1 and November 30, 2002. Of these, eight will become hurricanes and four are anticipated to evolve into intense major hurricanes.” That didn’t quite pan out. 2002 was a quiet season, with 12 named storms, but only 4 hurricanes and 2 intense hurricanes.

 Gray’s team has also missed in the other direction. For the 2001 storm season, they predicted five named storms and two major hurricanes. That year brought us nine named storms, four of them major.

 This is not an attempt to pick on Gray or his hurricane forecasting team. Obviously it’s difficult to make a prediction about what the weather will be outside my door tomorrow, so it’s next to impossible to make a prediction about what the weather will be half a world away six months from now.

 The question is, since forecasting is such an inexact science, why does the media report every long-term pronouncement as if it’s certain to come true? Journalists tend to be the most skeptical people around, except when it comes to weather stories. Reporters treat the forecasters’ predictions as gospel truth, but never give us some background by mentioning how far off those forecasters have been in the past.

 There’s a similar suspension of disbelief in the media about another controversial topic: Global Warming. Whatever the weather, you can always find a story blaming global warming.

For example, here’s columnist Bob Herbert in the New York Times last June: “Mosquitoes in northernmost Alaska. Much of the West and Southwest ablaze. Extended droughts. Extreme heat waves. Can you say global warming?”

Fast forward to this spring, when a Tom Toles political cartoon in the Washington Post declared, “These superpowerful tornadoes [across the Midwest] are the kind of storm we’re likely to see more of with global climate change.”

But in most of the country, this spring has been unusually cool and wet, not hot and dry. It’s really the opposite of last year. So, are we to believe that global warming caused both these opposite events, just one year apart?

It seems more likely that these journalists are simply fitting their pre-conceived ideas into today’s weather. Whatever’s happening outside, Herbert and Toles -- and plenty of other journalists -- will always know the cause: Global Warming.

Herbert went on in his Times piece, “The year 2001 was, globally, the second hottest on record. The hottest was 1998.” Well, that “record” only goes back a hundred years or so. Depending on who you ask, the earth is somewhere between 300,000 and 4.5 billion years old. For most of that time, our ancestors were too busy with other things to bother recording surface temperatures. So let’s be humble enough to admit what we don’t know about global temperature change far outweighs what we do know.

So what should East Coast residents do? Well, it makes sense to prepare for a big storm. Hurricane Awareness Week is a good idea. And if the three-day forecast shows a hurricane heading your way, by all means evacuate.

But let’s not be too afraid. There’s no need to panic over hurricanes, or global warming.
Remember that, even if the media believes them completely, the “experts” are usually wrong. And that’s one prediction you can count on coming true.