Weatherman Is Not a Moron.[ 11] “Silver paints
the picture with loads of figures, including the
fact that high temperature forecasts made three
days in advance by the National Weather Service
missed their targets about 6 degrees Fahrenheit in
1972, but missed by an average of only 3 degrees
in 2012. Other items of note include hurricane
mapping that now predicts landfall within 100
miles on average compared to a miss of 350 miles
just two decades ago.
When you consider the general complexity
of weather and then add in the variability such
as time or geography that can affect even local
forecasts, this kind of precision is about as close
to predicting the future as you’ll find in any
This is not all forecasting in the abstract, either.
The improvements over the last few decades have
undeniably saved lives.
According to NOAA, U.S. deaths attributed
to lightning strikes haven’t topped 50 in a single
year since 2002. But in the 1940s, an average of
329 Americans died annually. A similar trend can
be seen in tornado-related deaths, which have
declined from an annual average of 179 from
1940 to 1949 to a mere 18 deaths in calendar
2016—a 30-year low.[ 12]
And keep in mind, those are raw numbers.
Even as weather-related deaths have declined,
the U.S. population has soared from 130 million
or so in 1940 to over 320 million at present day.
More accurate and timely forecasts, along
with effective distribution of that information
through improved communications channels,
has assuredly caused the steady decline in weather-related fatalities over the long term. But is it
realistic to ever expect perfect forecasting, both
to protect life and property?
Believe it or not, the answer is a firm “maybe.”
And to meteorologist Dan Satterfield, that’s
a crucial point to acknowledge.
“Since we do not know the state of the atmosphere at every location in the world, we
have to work to give the computer a good first
guess,” he said.
But what if we didn’t have to guess?
Satterfield, who has spent 33 years in the
profession and is currently chief meteorologist
for the CBS affiliate WBOC-TV in Salisbury,
Md., said that weather modeling now depends
on knowing the weather in locations we deem
important instead of knowing the weather
anywhere and everywhere. But the climate is
complex, and often our best guesses leave out
“When I was in college in 1979, I asked a
professor if we could ever make accurate five-day weather forecasts. He said that would take
computers running hundreds of times faster
than was then available,” he says.
Some people may have thought that level
of precision and volume of data was simply
impossible. But the professor’s answer shows
the barrier to better forecasts was technology
and precision in data—not the limits of our
understanding of weather patterns and climate.
But therein lies the difference between U.S.
forecasts and the objectively better forecasts
of the European Union.
“European models have finer grid scales,
and faster computers allow for more accurate
equations,” Satterfield said.
Grid scales refer to the intervals in which
weather data is captured. And right now one-and two-week forecasts in the United States run
on a 70-kilometer grid just a few kilometers
vertically into the atmosphere,[ 13] while Europe
is running a 36-kilometer grid.[ 14]
In other words, in about 500 square kilometers—roughly the area of Chicago—the
European model would use roughly 196 data
points on the surface to create its forecast
while the U. S. model would use only about 49.
And each year, Satterfield said, Europe’s
grid scale only gets smaller. And as a result,
“It has a better starting point” in creating its
short- and long-term forecasts.
So even if something close to perfection is
attainable in theory as models and computing
power improve, everyone seems to agree that
near-perfect system will be somewhere else.
“NOAA’s global model needs a complete
rebuild, as it is almost always less accurate
than the European long-range global model,”
Satterfield said. “While Europe is about to go to
an even better model, we get farther behind.”
Clearly, a higher level of accuracy is very
attainable for the United States and its forecasting community.
It is an open question, however, how