What happens when forecasters come under a
By Jan Null
Ever had a bad hair day because of a poor weather forecast? Or canceled a
vacation when there was bad weather but it never occurred? Or maybe there
was a tragic accident as the result of some un-forecast bad weather. How
about suing the weather forecaster?
Lawsuits and even more extreme measures have been tried over the years. In
Brazil, Luis Carlos Austin, the head of the Rio de Janeiro weather bureau,
was charged with ``sounding a false alarm'' in January 2002 after a big
storm failed to materialize. He faced a six-month prison term.
Things were even worse for Peruvian meteorologist Francisco Arias Olivera.
In April 1996 the popular TV weatherman did not accurately predict the 19
inches of rain that resulted in a flash flood that killed 17 people in the
small town of Sicuani, Peru. He was lynched by an angry club-toting mob and
hanged from a tree outside the TV station.
Fortunately, in the United States our outrage is usually more channeled. We
just find a lawyer and head to court. And in the case of ``bad'' weather
forecasts our courts have generally held that if a reasonable amount of care
is put into a forecast, there is not an expectation of perfection.
Despite a number of tries, the U.S. government has never been successfully
sued over a bad forecast. Private and media weather forecasts are not
afforded the same protections. In a potential landmark case a family sued
the Weather Channel after a boating accident that they claimed resulted from
an erroneous forecast. However, the court found that the forecasts are only
``predictions'' and there is a public understanding that they are not
infallible and do not represent an ``exact science.''
And then there was the forecaster who got fired for making a correct
forecast! In April 1995, a radio meteorologist in the San Joaquin Valley
forecast that there would be a chance of rain for a large outdoor rally and
picnic that his station was co-sponsoring. He was pressured by management to
``fudge'' the forecast to indicate a greater possibility of more sunshine
and thus not scare people away. When he refused to change his forecast, he
was fired. And yes, it did rain on the picnic!
Q Do forecasters ever do
postmortems on their forecasts? I'm asking because recently the local
forecasters predicted a great whopping storm with heavy rain, but by 5 p.m.
there had only been drizzle in the South Bay. True, it rained when I drove
home that night and areas north of the Golden Gate got absolutely soaked.
Paul Cerra - Belmont
A There are seldom formal
reviews, but a good forecaster will learn from his mistakes. This is why,
despite all the computer simulations we meteorologists have at our
fingertips, it is years of experience and the ability to recognize patterns
that make the difference in forecasts and forecasters.
An exception is when there is a major weather-related disaster. In cases
like the California floods of January and March 1995 and the New Year's 1997
storm, the National Weather Service will send a survey team to look at what
was done right and wrong and how to improve in the future. However, the
focus of these surveys is more on the procedural aspects and not on the
meteorology and science.
The recent case you cite illustrates a problem with an area as large and
meteorologically diverse as the Bay Area. Just how does one quantify the
rightness or wrongness of a forecast when there are such huge variations in
the weather? Obviously there is no simple answer.
Q I heard a report that Blue
Canyon in the California Sierra has the highest snowfall in the United
States. This doesn't seem right. Also, why is it always mentioned on the
news? Don Collie - San Jose
A You are correct. The highest
annual average snowfall in the United States is 680 inches at Rainer
Paradise Ranger Station in Washington. In California, the highest average is
471 inches at Soda Springs. By comparison, Blue Canyon gets only 252 inches
Blue Canyon gets mentioned in the news for a number of reasons. As an
airport it is one of few spots in the Sierra with 24-hour-a-day weather
observations. Its location near Interstate 80 makes it easily accessible to
news crews, and it is one of the last spots that allows a direct microwave
signal to send live pictures back to Sacramento and the Bay Area.