Being a meteorologist in New England is no easy task. Even with advances in forecasting technology, it can be difficult to accurately predict where and when weather will hit, and with what intensity. That inherent uncertainty can leave professional weather watchers open to gripes from their loyal viewers.
We reached out to three of Boston’s chief meteorologists to hear about some of the most frequent complaints they receive from viewers, and to let them explain some of the challenges of their job so that you might think twice before sending that snarky email.
“What happened to the storm that you predicted yesterday?”
“I can be on at 6 p.m. and forecasting 6 to 12 inches of snow. Then I might be on at 11 p.m., and it looks like this will track just a bit farther south, so I lower the estimates to 4 to 8. Then the next day, we get 5 inches of snow, but a lot of people didn’t see the 11 p.m. news, and the criticism is being based on that forecast, not the updated forecast. That’s why we’re on the air with all of those newscasts; things change.” — Harvey Leonard, Chief Meteorologist, WCVB-TV Channel 5
“One of the other things that I’ve noticed is that people will dip in for a forecast two days out. Look, we all lead busy lives, so I get that people can find it hard to keep checking in to find out if things have changed. But if you get your forecast two days out, and formulate your plans and your thoughts about what’s going to happen, the weather is dynamic enough that it’s important to check back in for updates. We often hear from people who get caught by surprise when something has changed, even 48 hours out from the storm.” — Matt Noyes, Chief Meteorologist, NBC10 Boston and NECN
“What happened to the storm you predicted a week ago?”
“Here’s one of the biggest challenges right now: We’re really good at looking at a pattern up to 10, 14 days out. And we know what’s coming down the line for a couple of weeks. ‘This is a cold pattern. This is a stormy pattern. This is a warm pattern.’ But the fine details of a snowstorm that people depend on to make plans are still not very clear until two or three days out, at the most. So that puts us in a frustrating spot, where we have to talk about something a week in advance, because it’s out there, but we can’t really give actionable information until the last couple of days.” — Eric Fisher, Chief Meteorologist, WBZ-TV
“Something that happens now that didn’t happen decades ago is that many times a potential storm may be talked about a week out. Think about things like rain, snow lines, details like that? There’s no prayer of knowing anything like that a week out. You can put out there that there is the potential of a winter storm in about a week, and once that’s out there, if one outlet has mentioned it, for competitive reasons everyone else is going to be mentioning it. Or it might be on social media already because a 10-year-old kid who’s a weather nut posted the long-range model. Once it starts, you have to address it, but you can only talk in general terms about the potential of what may happen. If, in the end, nothing happens, because three days or two days out, it looks like it’s tracking south, you get the criticism, ‘Oh, for four or five days I heard about this storm, and now we’re not even getting a storm.’ But that’s not what we said! We talked about the potential of a storm that is obviously very far out, and we’ll monitor day by day. But some people never let go of the original news about the mere possibility of the storm. Instead they go, ‘Oh, we’re getting a storm next Sunday,’ seven days out. To them, anything other than that seems like a wrong forecast, which is a crazy thing for us to be judged on.” — Leonard
“What happened to [thing you didn’t forecast]?”
“Folks will watch one forecast or get their information from one outlet — could be a phone app, could be a radio, could be the TV, a website. But you’re getting one forecast and assuming everyone is forecasting the same thing. ‘Oh, those guys are all the same.’ Almost every winter storm, someone will quote a forecast at me that we never made and say we got it wrong. That’s one of the most common things. I think folks still haven’t realized that there can be a really big difference between forecasts from one source to another.” — Noyes
“That storm wasn’t so bad, you said we were getting 12 inches.”
“Let’s say that we have a snow forecast, and that the actual occurrence was less than what was forecast. One of the problems we run into is that if we predict anywhere from 6 to 12 inches of snow, a lot of people are going to latch onto the 12. If you wind up with 6, the forecast was correct, but it’s perceived to be not as bad as they said it was going to be. You have that perception even if you’re technically correct. Now, if you wind up with 3 inches of snow when you predicted 6 to 12, that’s a more justifiable complaint. But if I can’t be precise, given the choice, I certainly would rather have somebody over-prepare than under-prepare. Something that’s a little bit less than what was forecast I think is easier to deal with for most folks than a surprise storm that they weren’t anticipating at all.” — Leonard
“Forecasters predict big storms for big ratings.”
“One complaint that I’ll often get if we get less snow than what was forecast is, ‘Oh, you people just forecast more to get ratings.’ My response to that is I know of no professional meteorologist that would intentionally over-forecast something, because if you’re doing something that gives you a greater chance of being wrong, you’re undermining your credibility. If you have no credibility, what do you have? Why would a meteorologist ever intentionally hurt his or her own credibility? The forecasts are made in good faith.” — Leonard
“Credibility is our lifeblood. For meteorologists, credibility is everything. If you jeopardize your credibility, you’ve eroded the trust folks have in you. One thing I ask viewers is to really listen to what we’re saying. A televised weather forecast can have whatever bright colors, or graphics, or dramatic music, or crazy animation, or fast-paced presentation that a station puts with it. At the end of the day, the most important part is what the meteorologist is actually saying.” — Noyes
“The weather app on my phone says there’s snow coming, why aren’t you talking about it?”
“One issue that comes for me most frequently nowadays is that we have no quality control for where people are getting forecasts from. Back in the good ol’ days, when there were 3 or 4 TV stations and maybe the newspaper, that was about it for sources for your forecast. Now it’s everywhere, and especially on smartphones. I try to explain to people that a human being likely never looked at the information you’re seeing on your smartphone. Even if it’s an app from a TV station, that info is not directly from the station, and it’s not quality controlled. Using an app is simple, it’s easy, and we understand why people are flocking to it. But apps that give you a snow forecast seven days in advance? That’s literally impossible. We’re not there yet, but they’ll sell it, because people want to see it.” — Fisher
“We’re in an interesting time, where you can pull up your phone and get a straight answer off of any app. You can get a yes or no, it’s going to snow. You can get the single-digit number of how much it’s going to be. I think that it feels good to get these deterministic answers, but that’s just not the way that the natural world is built. It’s built with inherent uncertainty. For a lot of things in the world right now, we want to have a determination made, but there are certain things we have to accept that there will be uncertainty, and one of those is the weather. On TV, we’re still able to offer an explanation of how things are coming together. I think different folks assign different values to that. Some like to see the explanation, and some like to see the bottom-line answer.” — Noyes
“Why can’t you tell me exactly how much it’s going to rain/snow?”
“We use computer models like a contractor uses a saw: It’s one tool in our toolbox. Our job is to take those models and then whittle them down to what we think is most likely, to give you a broad picture of how it’s most likely to play out. An app will not do that for you. An app will give you, ‘Model says X.’ That’s our biggest challenge right now, to provide quality control in the form of a good forecast when people are getting information from tons of resources that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. It does say something really positive about how far forecasts have come. In the same breath that someone will send me an email saying, ‘You can’t do your job,’ the same person might send me an email saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a wedding in three weeks, how’s it look?’ And I’ll say, ‘I have no idea, but I’m flattered you think we can tell the forecast three weeks to a month in advance.’ Viewers expect high-level precision, and we’re getting there, but it’s not all the way there.” — Fisher
“Two or three days out, we won’t have graphics saying, ‘There’s rain for the Pats game, it’s going to be soaking wet!’ We try not to commit to any forecast details that are beyond our capabilities. We’ll say something like, ‘It looks like there may be some rain that comes in during the Patriots game in three days, but we’ll have to see how that times out.’ But generally speaking, there’s a desire for a yes or no answer: Rain or no rain? The field still isn’t that good, to the hour, two or three days out.” — Noyes
“We missed school/work for this?”
“One of the great examples of this complaint from quite a while ago was way back in 1985, when we had Hurricane Gloria come up the East Coast. At one time, it was a Category 5 hurricane, out over the Atlantic. Then it was a Category 3 off the Carolina coast. By the time it hit Long Island it was Category 2, and when it got to New England, it was Category 1. But it was still a hurricane, right? The state shut down for the day in anticipation of the storm. The storm hit at low tide, so we didn’t have a big storm surge. Also we were on the windy side of the storm, not the rainy side, so we didn’t have any freshwater flooding. We did have strong winds, and it took down an incredible number of trees. But there was not a lot of structural damage to homes or things like that.
“So the perception was, ‘Gee, this wasn’t as bad as it was forecast to be.’ And there was a lot of criticism about that. And I’m saying to myself, ‘This is unbelievable. This is one of the rare cases where the system worked, and yet there’s criticism about it.’ All the trees that were snapping and coming down like crazy were mostly between 1 and 4 p.m. on that Friday, Sept. 27, 1985. If schools had been open, so many kids would have been coming out of school at that time. There very possibly could have been some injuries or deaths from trees falling on kids, God forbid, and crushing them. But there was virtually nobody out in the street because everything was shut down. The point is, heaven forbid, if there had been any injuries or deaths, then the storm would have been described as a worse storm than it was described as. But the reason there weren’t any injuries was because of the warnings in place, and people stayed in safe places and schools were closed. But that message was never out there. All it was, perception-wise, was that this wasn’t as bad as it was supposed to be.” — Leonard