Every year on the second day of February, the country checks in with a dorky and lovable northeastern weather forecaster to see what he has to say about the fate of the remainder of winter. It’s not Al Roker, of course, but a pampered groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, a mythological staple of American childhoods for generations. Rooted in European folklore and brought to the U.S. in the 1800s, the tradition holds that there will be six more weeks of winter if Phil comes out of his burrow and sees his shadow. If he doesn’t see his shadow, it means we’ll have an early spring that year.
If he’s wrong—analysts can’t quite agree on his accuracy rate—authorities in Punxsutawney insist the clairvoyant groundhog prophesied the weather correctly and his interpreter simply misheard him. If only that excuse worked for meteorologists! Nobody seriously expects an accurate weather forecast from a woodchuck whispering to a guy in a tuxedo and top hat, but everybody expects accurate forecasts from the professional men and women who issue predictions every couple of hours the whole year round. Despite the annual show in rural Pennsylvania, weather forecasting is still one of those professions that’s cool to hate. That disdain is undeserved. Here are four reasons why.
1. FORECASTERS AREN'T IN CAHOOTS WITH STORES TO SELL SHOVELS AND UMBRELLAS.
It’s common for small talk to begin with the assertion that your friendly neighborhood meteorologist is a liar and a guesser, taking wild swings at a map all while stuffing their pockets with bribes from hardware stores to falsely forecast bouts of doom and gloom. Yet despite all of that supposed misinformation, most people still reliably check the weather forecast at least once a day.
The bad rap that weather forecasters get is the result of confirmation bias on the part of people repeating these myths in the first place. You’re more likely to remember an inaccurate forecast—called a “bust”—than you are to remember a forecast that was dead-on, and all those memories add up after a while, making you think that forecasts are more inaccurate than they really are.
2. WEATHER FORECASTING IS ACTUALLY PRETTY ACCURATE THESE DAYS.
The hard data backs up the fact that most weather forecasts are issued on solid footing. Some areas are harder to forecast than others. Miami’s weather is reliably monotonous, while Atlanta, just a few hundred miles away, can experience several dramatic swings in weather conditions in just one day.
Nationwide, Forecast Advisor calculates that the average accuracy rate for weather forecasts generally rests somewhere between 70 and 80 percent. This figure includes most major public and private weather outlets, including the National Weather Service (NWS), The Weather Channel, and AccuWeather. This statistic reflects the fact that meteorologists are equipped with better technology and better knowledge than ever before, allowing them to more confidently issue predictions with greater accuracy for a longer stretch of time. And forecasting is only going to get more accurate, thanks to the newest GOES satellite and a group of suitcase-sized satellites that track hurricanes, all of which launched in late 2016.
Getting three-quarters of your predictions right isn’t perfect, but weather forecasting is one of the only careers where it’s your duty to predict the future every day. There’s always going to be some unpredictability in a vast, fluid atmosphere, but our ability to anticipate its movements is slowly getting better with time.
3. TEMPERATURE FORECASTING HAS IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY IN RECENT DECADES.
The National Weather Service’s temperature forecast errors between 1968 and 2015. Image Credit: NOAA/NWS
The NWS is the official branch of the United States government that issues weather forecasts and monitors the skies to issue alerts to help the public steer clear of hazardous conditions. Like all good forecasters, the NWS keeps track of all their forecasts [PDF] and compares them to actual weather conditions through a process called verification. This data helps them figure out what they did right and improve on the forecasts that they got wrong.
One of the most interesting aspects of their forecast verification is how far we’ve come in telling temperature over the past couple of decades. According to their findings, a two-day temperature forecast in 2015 was just as accurate as a one-day forecast back in 1995. Even more astounding is that a five-day temperature forecast issued in 2015 had the same accuracy as a two-day forecast issued in 1985. That means that a high-temperature prediction issued on Monday for Friday of the same week was just as accurate in 2015 as a forecast high issued on Monday for Wednesday just 30 years ago. That’s pretty good—and it’s getting a little better each year.
4. TORNADOES ARE STILL TOUGH TO PREDICT, BUT SPOTTING THEM IS GETTING EASIER.
A radar image of a thunderstorm producing a tornado near Birmingham, Alabama, on April 27, 2011. Image Credit: Gibson Ridge
The United States sees more than a thousand tornadoes in an average year. Many of those tornadoes can occur in big outbreaks, but the vast majority of tornadoes occur without much fanfare. Unfortunately, tornadoes are the last thing you want to happen without fanfare.
Tornado warnings are common to a fault. In 2016, the NWS issued 2049 tornado warnings across the country, yet there were only about 1060 tornadoes reported through the end of the year. Assuming that about 60 percent of tornadoes received warnings—the average for the past couple of years—that means that roughly 70 percent of all tornado warnings issued last year were false alarms.
False alarms are a big deal. They have a huge impact on how people react in a dangerous situation. The official false alarm rate reported by the NWS hovers between 70 and 75 percent each year, and the “probability of detection”—whether they issued a warning for a tornado at all—has been around 60 percent for the past few years. That means that tornadoes only form in about 25 to 30 percent of all tornado warnings, and almost 40 percent of tornadoes occur outside of a warning.
Meteorologists have a long way to go on warning us about tornadoes, but they’re getting better. Weather radar is more advanced today than it was five years ago, and much better than it was through the early 1990s. Modern weather radar can detect wind speeds and foreign objects in a thunderstorm—two things that are tremendously useful in trying to spot a tornado buried in heavy rain. New advances coming out in the next decade or two will give us an even better look at tornadic thunderstorms.