“Predicting the weather is like predicting your health”
BY PHILIP DUNCAN, Head Weather Analyst
It’s not an easy job being a weather forecaster. Even with the overwhelming amount of technology out there forecasters still rely heavily on gut instinct. It sounds so untrustworthy when you first hear that…but it’s a common theme in a lot of jobs. Police officers use it to gauge how safe a situation is, pilots use it when landing, and I’m sure economists gather all the best data then make an instinct based on their gut.
This past Summer started off perfectly. More blue sky than you could ever hope for. For a while I started to feel quite cocky. When people asked me what the forecast was going to be like this weekend because “I’m going camping” or “I’m getting married” or “I have family arriving from England”, I could say “It’s going to be hot and sunny, not a cloud in sight”…and they’d love me. But this happiness was short lived and was quickly replaced by fear. I was having my weekly radio interview with Jamie MacKay on the Farming Show (Radio Sport) and he suddenly said to me “This isn’t looking good, farmers desperately need rain”. Suddenly I found myself cringing every time I heard an announcer or weather presenter say “And another fantastic day tomorrow, blue skies and no cloud”. Don’t use the word “fantastic”…there are so many people struggling out there.
One thing about being a forecaster – you will never please everyone. It’s either too wet for holidaymakers, too cold for grape growers, too dry for farmers. You get the first hot week of the Summer and within a day or two I hear “It’s too hot outside!”.
So getting the forecast right often upsets certain people in the community who desperately want you to be wrong for whatever reason. But what about when we get it wrong? See this is where I differ with a lot of other forecasters. Predicting the weather is like predicting your health. I know that eating certain foods will help me live longer…but it’s not a guarantee…and will be totally irrelevant if that 747 I’m in decides to crash. All sorts of factors will change my life…and while I can predict a lot about my life – I can’t predict it all. And weather forecasting is very similar. And when we get it wrong, we should be open about it and explain why…that is vital when it comes to maintaining credibility.
Weather is a living, breathing, entity. It is constantly evolving. And while we can predict what is most likely to happen, just like we can with the next 24 hours of our life, I know that something could suddenly change all that…and we need to be prepared to quickly react to this. I’ve seen huge rain bands slowly moving in from the Tasman…then disappear minutes before landfall – despite warnings about torrential rain or severe thunderstorms. There’s still a lot about weather forecasting that we don’t completely understand.
We had a large high over Auckland a month or so ago. MetService, Weather.Com and our own Weather Watch Centre were all predicting “Sunny skies and light winds”. Instead, a tiny (and I mean tiny) area of low pressure formed…and cloud and showers hung over Auckland all day. Clear blue skies in Hamilton and Whangarei…but cloudy and showery in Auckland. Something so small in size affected 1.2 million people.
So if we can’t always get it right, why pay attention? Well in that case I mentioned above, TRN’s Weather Watch Centre was the first to update our forecast. Being in radio gives us the ability to update the second we need to. It’s our job to monitor the weather, give you our best expectation of the forecast and then – most importantly – relate that back to you. In fact with every thing we do we ask this important question – “what’s in it for you?”. It’s not about predicting “Showers for Wellington” it’s about predicting “a shower that will be so light you’ll hardly notice it”…breaking down the weather forecast to help make it more accurate. Not ‘copy and paste’ generic forecasts that sometimes feel meaningless. So yes – we’re not perfect, but we are honest. We want to educate you when we get it wrong…why was it wrong? What changed? Or were we just lucky that rain storm missed us? Well, we’ll give you those details.
In light of the tragic events last month in Central Plateau and Northland it highlights that we, as New Zealanders, need to take more notice of the weather. In America and Canada they’ve been making a big deal about the weather for decades…celebrating it’s beauty, but also accurately warning of it’s violence. The public sits up and listens when severe weather is on the way… but I think we have some work to do in that area here in New Zealand. I hope that by educating and getting the public more interested, then that’s a good first step.