Published Tuesday, February 24, 2004 in the San Jose Mercury News

What happens when forecasters come under a cloud

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 per year.

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.

Jan Null, founder of Golden Gate Weather Services, is a retired lead forecaster with the National Weather Service. Send questions to him c/o WeatherCorner, San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190. You also can telephone questions at (510) 657-2246, fax them to (510) 315-3015 or e-mail, or fill out a form online at Please indicate in your e-mail what city you live in.