I have been doing weather on television since the summer of 1978… and over these 36 years I can clearly say the level of outrageous hyperbole in the weather business has never been this extreme. It is coming from many sources, and there are days when it seems like it overpowers logic and conventional forecasts.
On some days, I will spend one to two hours answering questions from people who want to know if “what they saw on Facebook” is true (and I assure you, I don’t have one to two hours to do this). Friday’s idiotic post of the day was from none other than CBS News…
Seems like the national media has gone loco when it comes to weather. This is what you are going to hear all season long, apparently (graphic from Mike Rawlins)…
Yep, every weather system this season it seems will be a “polar vortex monster storm with millions in the path that is unprecedented and struck without warning”.
Add to the mix people posting medium range (7 to 15 day) computer model voodoo snow forecasts, and the confusion gets out of hand. On almost any cold season day, I can find at least one global model that paints a North Alabama snow in the 7 to 15 day time frame. And, of course, there is no skill in a specific forecast at that range, and they hardly ever happen. Just like the medium range voodoo model hurricane forecasts in summer that are bogus.
When it comes to snow hysteria, and I have written before part of this is OUR problem after the botched January 28 snow forecast earlier this year. I don’t blame people for not trusting us; they will run to the most terrifying forecast that can find and believe it since we have to rebuild our credibility. And, they share that outrageous forecast like wildfire on Facebook.
We call this “clickbait”… people are looking for likes and clicks, and a wild good snow/winter storm forecast is a way to get them, whether the forecast is true or not. Truth doesn’t matter in this game… it is all about the battle for your eyeballs.
I ask that you think before you share any weather content on social media.
WHAT YOU GET FROM US: When I say “us”… I mean the meteorologists at ABC 33/40 and The Weather Factory. You will get a forecast product that is accurate as the science allows. I have been going the “Weather Xtreme video” for over 12 years now… a twice daily video that clearly explains WHY we are forecasting what you read and see. Open for the world to see, and easy to use. We have spent many long hours writing these blog discussions and forecasts… we will be wrong from time to time, but we stand by our verification history, which is very strong.
WHAT YOU WON’T GET FROM US: Forecasts of “polar vortex monster storms with millions in the path that is unprecedented and struck without warning”. Wild medium range voodoo snow forecasts. Clickbait.
Maybe I am fighting a losing battle, and the clickbait guys will win. But, as long as I am here expect the same content, level of service, and professional weather products without the hype. Thanks for being part of our “blog family”… I sincerely appreciate it, and your interest in real weather products that, while never perfect, is done with much care and sound science.
A friendly reminder that Daylight Saving Time ends tonight. We fall back on Standard Time at 2AM in the morning. Don’t forget to set your clocks back before heading to bed, and gain that extra hour of sleep tonight.
With the time changing, that means more sun in the mornings, while evenings will be dark. It will be getting dark closer to 5PM as the amount of daylight hours continues to get shorter until we reach the Winter Solstice just before Christmas.
We will stay on Standard Time until March 8th, 2015.
No, I am not talking about a “long winter” due to excessive cold/snow/ice, etc… but due to the extra work that will be required of us putting down bad information that is spread around on social media. It has already started, and it isn’t even November.
PARTIALLY OUR FAULT: Let me say up front that the problem is partially ours. The weather community, as you well know, missed the forecast on January 28, when a “dusting” turned into two inches, and “no major travel issues” turned into a traffic nightmare.
I don’t blame people for not trusting winter forecasts for a while; it will take time to earn that trust. Who cares what James Spann or the National Weather Service says? They were wrong last year, so rogue posts on Facebook are in fair play. I understand the temptation to share wild “worst case” winter forecasts. But, the point of this post is asking you NOT to do that for reasons I will explain.
YESTERDAY: I was about to leave for live weather on ABC 33/40 from Disney on Ice at the BJCC yesterday afternoon, when social media was lightning up about “James Spann forecasting a big snow for Alabama”. After some quick investigation, turns out this was floating around Facebook, and spreading like wildfire…
This, of course, was a forecast from a snow event we had back in February, and has absolutely nothing to do with current weather.
I honestly don’t know who started it; one person reported Facebook was pushing it into people’s newsfeed as a “related story” after a current post from me. Seems like folks just couldn’t resist the share button, and I spent considerable time setting the record straight.
AND… to make matters worse, another blog posted some rogue computer model run yesterday morning that suggested snow could fall over parts of Northeast Alabama as the weekend begins. This somehow came back later in the day to me as “James Spann is forecasting a snow storm this weekend in Alabama”.
This is another topic for another day, to be discussed within the weather enterprise, but after the January 28 snow “bust”, you won’t see any outliers like that posted from me on social media. Generally speaking, when I show model data that seems like it won’t verify, it is on my daily Weather Xtreme video, which has been produced for over 10 years twice daily, and long time viewers understand that product goes deep into the weather forecast explanation and how to use the products I show. You can watch it anytime here, and it doesn’t take very long.
MY PLEA: Simply think before sharing extreme weather forecasts you see on social media. Many “click bait” forecasts are produced by people that have no weather training, and honestly could care less what happens. They just want the clicks, which they turn into revenue. Our team spends long, hard hours producing content for this blog; you can basically see our heart and soul here with the discussions and video products. If you see some extreme snow/ice forecast, I just ask you check the blog before sending it on to your friends.
Yep, we have been wrong before, and we will be wrong again. Our skill in handling winter weather events is not as high as severe weather forecasting, but you might be surprised at the winter weather accuracy. People will always remember the bad ones, however, which is just human nature.
Let’s all take a deep breath and get through the winter weather season with good, solid information. Think before you hit that “share button”…
The sun will look like this in the western sky late this afternoon…
Partial eclipses occur when the moon blocks part of the sun from view. This one begins around 5pm CT. Maximum eclipse comes at 5:57p CT as the sun is setting on the horizon. The sky should be clear.
Remember, never look at the sun with the naked eye… see this from NASA on ways of viewing this event…
The Internet is a great equalizer. Website and blogging platforms have given everyone a voice. Social media is a powerful megaphone that is accessible to anyone. But the explosion of information on the web has become a double edged sword. One recent example is the Boston Marathon bombing. Photos released on the Internet within hours of the bombing wrongly implicated innocent people and made the job of finding the real perpetrators difficult for investigators.
In no area has this double edged sword reared its ugly side more than in the dissemination of weather information. The general public now has access in real time to nearly every piece of weather information available to professional meteorologists. It has become readily apparent that the other side of the sword can be detrimental when weather information is shared irresponsibly. One of the most common forms this takes is when a single model solution is represented as an absolute forecast and shared and re-shared as such. With many different models and resolutions, you can find a solution for any solution you can imagine. When those model solutions are extreme, the social media universe can quickly catch fire with the information.
The result is that National Weather Service meteorologists and broadcasters find themselves increasingly spending their time to combat misleading or incorrectly interpreted or labeled information.
The National Weather Association, the leading organization for operational meteorologists, recognized the need o provide leadership in this area. Miles Muzio, the Chair of the Broadcast Meteorology Committee has championed the cause of a Seal of Approval for Digital Weathercasters.
The organization has a rich history of producing nearly one thousand Broadcaster Seals for TV Weathercasters. The NWA Broadcaster Seal of Approval is a trusted indicator of that the sealholder has passed a rigorous comprehensive examination and had his or her on air work evaluated by a group of experienced meteorologists.
The NWA approached the idea of a sister seal to the Broadcast Seal very deliberately, debating the merits, procedures, guidelines and ongoing monitoring of introducing such a program. All of the information received intense scrutiny from the National Weather Association Council.
This morning, at the 39th Annual Meeting of the National Weather Association, the Digital Seal program was laid out.
I am very thrilled and honored to be the holder of the very first National Weather Association Digital Weather Seal.
I am part of the “Pioneer 3″ as Miles calls the first three recipients, joining the heady company of Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang and Mike Mogil of How the WeatherWorks. We all three passed the same rigorous exam that Broadcast Seal recipients must pass and had our work evaluated according to the Qualifications and Procedures developed by the Broadcast Meteorology Committee. The comprehensive test includes general meteorology, radar meteorology, satellite meteorology, synoptic meteorology, severe weather, climatology and technology/terminology.
We all will be re-certified every three years and our work will be constantly monitored to make sure that it upholds the values of this important distinction.
I will proudly serve as the Digital Seal Manager.
It was a an incredible moment for me this morning. I look forward to proudly displaying the NWA Digital Seal on Alabama WX. Thank you for the opportunity to share weather information with you, the greatest weather savvy audience on the planet, on a regular basis!
FAQ (PDF Format)
This guest post was authored by Dr. John Knox, an associate professor in the Geography Department and the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia.
Why am I a meteorologist? Let me tell you a story that is mine, but others’ as well. A story that, in the end, touches on one of the biggest unsolved questions in higher education today: why, in this era of democratized education via sophisticated technology, we still need humans in the loop as teachers and mentors.
As my students know, I became fascinated by the weather at the ripe old age of four, at an Atlanta Braves exhibition game interrupted and ended by a severe thunderstorm. By the age of five, I was reading books about the weather. But such childhood fascinations can wane; my son became enthralled with trains when he was 2, but he’s not majoring in railroads here at UGA. Particularly if you don’t have an adult mentor in the specialty who ushers you to that next level.
That’s what I had in meteorology, courtesy of the U.S. government, starting when I was 11 years old. In the aftermath of the deadly 1974 Tornado Superoutbreak that killed hundreds and disrupted communications from Alabama to Michigan, the National Weather Service realized that it needed its own way to get the word out about tornado warnings. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) was born.
As national networks go, NWR was and is kind of a rinky-dink affair. The radio console looked like a glorified 8-track tape affair. Meteorologists at National Weather Service stations would record forecasts, weather summaries, hourly weather observations, and watches and warnings and plug them in. The tapes would play sequentially, over and over again, broadcast to the public on high-frequency stations.
It sounds deadly-dull, doesn’t it? Especially to a generation that has not been raised on the radio.
But for an 11-year-old weather nerd in the days before The Weather Channel, it was heaven. Now, instead of trying to learn about the weather from a three-minute TV weather broadcast, or the very, very occasional special on network TV back then, I had a 24/7/365 mentor on the weather radio that I begged my parents to buy.
And when I say “24/7/365,” that wasn’t not too far off the mark in terms of my NWR listening habits. My parents and brother marveled at my ability to listen for hours, absorbing weather information while doing homework, reading, or just lying around. It was my constant companion growing up.
Even better, the voices on NWR were real meteorologists at our local National Weather Service office. Some read the weather information without inflection. Others sounded almost comically Southern. But there was one, with a resonant tenor voice, who was the best of the best.
This sonorous meteorologist’s name, I learned eventually, was JB Elliott. A native of Hale County, Alabama, JB had, in post-WWII America, worked his way into the Weather Service without a college degree. Over time he became the widely known and beloved resident historian of all things Alabama weather. I eventually listened to NWR all over the country, but there was no one like JB for conveying both the history and the excitement of weather. He would get up out of bed and drive to the Weather Service office in the middle of the night just to do NWR broadcasts during severe weather. I told my family that the weather couldn’t be that severe until I heard JB’s voice on NWR.
Then there was April 4, 1977. An “F5” tornado—the worst—hit just a few miles away from us in Birmingham, killing 22 people. JB went on NWR live—no tape delay—broadcasting the warnings and making sure listeners knew of the gravity of the situation. When JB went live, you knew it wasn’t just bad weather, it was the worst. The damage was so horrendous, photographs of it ended up in training guides for meteorologists. Some of those photographs were taken by JB.
I didn’t meet JB face-to-face until much, much later, in the early 2000s. I had just published the first edition of an introductory college-level meteorology textbook. And in it, I dedicated the book to two meteorologists: the late chair of the meteorology department of my Ph.D. institution, and JB. It might be the first time that a college textbook has been dedicated to a government employee without a college degree. But I think you can tell why I dedicated the book to JB. Without his voice mentoring me in the weather during my childhood, all the way into college, I would likely have lost interest in the weather somewhere along the way.
Now, what does this have to do with higher education? Today we are grappling with the role and scope of online education at universities. Why keep costly humans in the loop at all? JB Elliott and NWR can speak to these questions.
And that’s because, after about 20 years of live meteorologists on NWR, the Weather Service automated the whole shebang in 1997. This was a time-saving, cost-saving move, designed with good intentions to have meteorologists spend more of their time on science and getting warnings out to the public.
And so JB’s tenor was replaced with Igor the Computer’s automated voice. That wasn’t the official name of the voice; the Weather Service tried to personalize things by calling them “Paul,” and “Donna,” and “Tom,” and “Javier.” They’re all Igor to me.
An important point here: the computerized voices ‘read’ the same type of information that the human meteorologists had for decades: hourly weather summaries, weather forecasts, etc. Most of the time, the only difference is that the words are automated vs. coming from a National Weather Service meteorologist.
But that makes all the difference to me. As Will Smith says in I, Robot: “Robots, [gesturing toward his heart], nothing here, just lights and clockwork. Go ahead, you trust ‘em if you want to.” I tried to listen to NWR’s automated broadcasts. I couldn’t. It wasn’t the same, and in fact it felt like a betrayal to me. I spent many thousands of hours listening to NWR in my youth. From the time of automation in 1997 until now, I have listened to NWR for a grand total of 15 minutes. Other “weather nerds” have said the same thing to me.
And I predict that no one, ever, will dedicate a meteorology textbook to Igor the Computer Voice.
Now, back to the ivory tower. I contend that my experience speaks to some of the deepest issues in higher education with regard to automation.
• The mentor/instructor must be present. That often means physically present. But JB was present for me in his voice, and in his getting out of bed and going on-air at 3 am during severe weather. I’ll write another time about the crucial nature of physical presence, but it isn’t absolutely necessary as long as you are truly present in other ways. And even though ‘he’ is always there, Igor the Computer is not in any human sense “present.”
• The mentor/instructor must be passionate. I do get strange looks from meteorologists of my generation when I talk about good ol’ NWR. They had NWR, too, in other parts of the country, but there it was just a radio that set off an alarm during severe weather. They didn’t have JB, and other Birmingham Weather Service meteorologists who invested time, energy and interest. And nobody had JB’s passion for the weather, clearly conveyed via the radio. It was the same kind of information, yes, but it lacked passion.
• In recent years there has been a big push to use technology to create massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Millions can be reached, but comparatively few students finish such courses, and the grades can be even worse than ‘normal’ classes. However, other instructors report good results with online courses on smaller scales. What’s going on here? Presence and passion. As I know from my own teaching experiences, even a large class can feel small and alive if the instructor is willing to be present in his or her students’ lives, passionate about the subject, and if the students are willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that a large science class can be a community, too. If MOOCs can create that environment on the scale of thousands or millions, then they will succeed. JB created it, on-air, for thousands in the Birmingham area. So it can be done outside of a face-to-face relationship. So the MOOC advocates are right in this sense. But it’s not about information dissemination. Most humans have to be motivated, emotionally, to learn. “Lights and clockwork” don’t do that.
Automation does have its advantages. Igor’s voice will drone on as long as the government keeps the transmitters working. JB retired from the Weather Service back in 1989. Recently, due to health, he has had to step back from participating in the Birmingham-based, world-renowned “Weatherbrains” podcasts. People get old, retire, and eventually die.
No one will shed a tear when Igor finally “signs off.” The same will not be said for JB Elliott, not among his thousands of friends in the flesh in Birmingham, and thousands more around the world online. And certainly not among the not-small contingent of those who became weather fanatics and even degreed meteorologists because of him.
And that is what real education is all about.
The hero in John’s story is our very own J.B. Elliott, who recently retired from his day to day forecasting duties, and someone that several of us called mentor. This photograph was from the Birmingham News article when J.B. retired. – Bill Murray