By John J. Cox
A Resident of Woodside
Maybe it's me, but has anyone else noted in recent years that the more advanced and technical weather forecasting has become, the worse the forecasts themselves have been? Weather has become big business. It occupies more and more time on news telecasts. The National Weather Service has the ability to interrupt cable television programming so that we can be advised of an impending storm and to track its approach minute by minute. Forecasts are available twenty-four hours on radio and television cable services, and the Weather Channel, which is available on local cable outlets, has become increasingly popular, not only with its national and local forecasting but with regular features that document the most deadly storms and how storms have changed history, to cite just a couple.
And you cannot watch a local news program anymore that doesn't boast of the millions of dollars invested in its weather forecasting capabilities. Radar, satellite, Doppler, and so on. Yet it seems that despite all these boasts, all the money and all the technology, weather forecasting has gotten worse.
Perhaps it is the result of being overly cautious. How many times have we been warned days ahead of time that a major snow storm is on its way only to see it fizzle out? Are the weather authorities simply employing the strategy of 'better safe than sorry?' Or is something more sinister at work, such as news outlets using the prospect of a storm to increase its viewership and its ratings? Here in New York, every time snow is predicted it becomes the lead story on local news telecasts. The friendly weatherman, who is usually relegated to a minute or two deep into the telecast, is suddenly propelled to the lead story. Viewers with bated breath sit anxiously on the edge of their sofas, taking in each word as if their very lives depend on it. Reporters are sent to the far reaches of the viewing area to provide updates of local conditions and roadways. Governmental officials, from mayor to sanitation commissioner to transit chief to airport administrators, are interviewed on the gravity of the situation and their anticipated response. Other news-- like war, famine, economic disaster and the like-- is cast aside as a minor diversion.
Yet for all this, it is uncanny how frequently they get it wrong. And the consequences go unnoticed. How much money did the City spend in readying its forces and equipment for an ordeal that never materialized? How many people, confronted with the possibility of being trapped in their homes for a day, dropped whatever they were doing to line up in supermarkets to stock up on such necessities as bread and milk and beer and potato chips? How many people changed their travel plans for no reason? How many failed to go to work (or more precisely, used it as an excuse not to go to work)? How many backs were thrown out in the course of buying and lifting 50 pound bags of salt or digging the snow blower out of the back of a cluttered garage? The list goes on and on. Yet all of it was for nothing.
Of course, once in a while the forecasters do get it right and we get dumped on as predicted. But by the next day and the next news cycle it is all pretty much forgotten. By then the story is as attractive as the dirty ice and slush the snow has become. And who is to say if the forecasters got it right this time out of skill or sheer luck. My guess is luck. As my wife likes to say, "They can't predict nightfall."
Anyway, I have to interrupt this meditation on weather forecasting. I hear from the radio above my desk that we're about to be hit with another snow storm. Time to stock up on beer and chips.