Four Myths About the Weather
Mr. Mergen is the author of Weather Matters: An American Cultural History Since 1900 (University Press of Kansas).
- Americans are more obsessed by the weather than other people.
Untrue in two ways. Weather is a conversational gambit in every country I have visited or lived in. Residents of Britain are well-known for their weather fixations. Most expats have heard their hosts say, “Our weather must be very strange/hard/uncomfortable/dangerous for you.” People who make their living attracting tourists to their salubrious climates are even more focused on the weather. The slightest deviations from the expected norms, or occasional storms, can drive customers to a rival resort. Cruise ships provide their passengers with frequent weather updates.
The other side of this myth is to ask if Americans are more obsessed with the weather than they are with celebrities, sports, fashion, genealogy, or sex. Yes, there are millions who click on Internet weather sites every day and who watch The Weather Channel and other televised weather reports, but their numbers are small compared to fans of “American Idol.”
- Weather forecasts are getting worse.
This myth, too, needs subdividing. The National Weather Service (NWS) issues multiple forecasts for 1- through 7-day periods every day and in some cases every few hours. These updates are intended to increase the accuracy in each forecast area. These areas have become smaller over the years. Paradoxically, this increases the chance for error. When predictions were made a century ago, they were for areas hundreds of miles square and for 5 days at most. If rain were forecast, there was a good chance that a shower somewhere confirmed the prediction even if most residents of the region were unaware of it. Forecasting for 1- to 3-days has improved, so we have come to expect better 5- 7-day forecasts, but the longer periods remain difficult to forecast accurately and, accordingly, we are disappointed.
Another part of the puzzle is the question of what is being predicted—temperature, precipitation, or severe storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes. For example, the average time for a tornado warning has increased in the past 20 years from 5 to 13 minutes and the failure to warn a community has fallen from 74% to 31%. Also important is the source of the forecast. NWS meteorologists are more conservative than most television meteorologists, predicting 50% probability of precipitation (POP) only when they are sure it will rain. On-air weatherpersons are expected by station managers to make the weather dramatic to attract viewers, even though studies suggest that accuracy beyond the next day is not important to most viewers. Today, the weatherwise get their forecasts from the media or any number of private forecasters, all of whom tweak the NSW data and make predictions to suit their needs. When they are wrong, they blame the NWS; when they are right, they take credit, leading to the third myth.
- The government should get out of weather forecasting and leave it to private business.
Since its creation in 1891, the U.S. Weather Bureau (reorganized and renamed the National Weather Service in 1970), has been ridiculed as a waste of taxpayers’ money. In the early 20th century, weather forecasts cost each American about five cents a year; today, about $7.00. Private, “consulting,” meteorologists began to appear as early as 1920, but their number and importance increased dramatically after World War II. Today membership in the American Meteorological Society, the professional association of atmospheric scientists, is about evenly divided among government, private, and academic meteorologists. Republican lawmakers since the Reagan administration have sought to privatize parts of the NSW. In 2005, then Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced legislation that would have restricted NWS weather forecasts and shifted daily forecasting exclusively to private companies such as AccuWeather, whose headquarters are in Pennsylvania.
What neither Santorum nor any of the advocates of private meteorology publicly acknowledge is that all the private forecasting firms get their basic information on atmospheric conditions from the NWS. No private company could afford to maintain the satellites, radar systems, cooperative observer networks, and other data-gathering mechanisms developed and administered by the federal government over the past 118 years.
- We will soon be able to control the weather.
Call this the scam that will not die. For thousands of years humans have sought to control the weather. Mongols wove a bezoar into the tail of a black horse to bring rain and tourists flock to New Mexico to watch Zuni rain dances. Currently, ten western and Great Plains states spend millions of dollars seeding clouds to increase rainfall without convincing results. Sixty years of rain and snow enhancement efforts have culminated in the attitude expressed by a cloud physicist: “Even if it’s wrong, it’s like buying a lottery ticket where not much investment might pay off big.”
Weather modification for commercial and military benefit is a dream that fires the imaginations of geoengineers. In 1996, a report prepared for the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force argues for “Weather a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025,” and the president of the National Academy of Sciences and some Nobel laureates are supporting projects to fight global warming by launching small lenses into orbit where they would reflect solar radiation away from the oceans and building ships with tall towers to spray seawater into clouds to increase their reflectivity. In their audacity, such schemes remind me of Soviet era efforts to warm Siberia by damming the Ob River and irrigating the Aral Sea basin.
Weather is inherently chaotic. Anyone who has watched a super cell develop over the prairies senses the complexity of these energy systems. Although the atmospheric sciences have advanced considerably in the past century, a good meteorologist, like an historian, is humble in the face of a storm.
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Larry N Stout - 2/4/2009
We know that hurricanes are sent by God to wipe out New Orleans as punishment for gays in San Francisco. What else do you need to know?
Raul A Garcia - 2/4/2009
I am in hurricane country and I would have to give the forecasters and their "art", actually darn good science and the concomitant technology including satellites, a B+ or A-. I glean good info from local NOAA weather reports that helps me very much in fishing and hunting activities. The article does hold forth some airy postulates- I must agree in part with Mr. Loewen that I hardly hear or read of these myths in current society.
James W Loewen - 2/2/2009
In 40 years of teaching, writing, discussing in public arenas, etc., I have never heard ANY of these four myths aired by any significant number of people. Before a writer disabuses us of our erroneous views, shouldn't s/he determine if we hold them?