Wednesday, February 04, 2009

When the weather is wrong

Count me and Stephen Fybish as the two readers who delight in NYT stories about weather. Jack Shafer and Timothy Noah disdains the weather feature as filler--which it is, no doubt--but I have to admit that every time I see a story about "ho-HO, how cold is it going to get?!", I rub my hands together with glee and say, "ho-HO, how cold is it going to get?!" (This is less the case when it's hot, although I still appreciate the stories.)

So I literally chuckled at this narrative of how the weather was reported wrong for Monday, February 2. It's very well done! If someone had a good time writing it, I had a great time reading it. The zippy lede:
Zip! Zip!

Zip!

The nut graf which tells you that although you were not previously interested, you might have entertained a thought about it.
It was the anthem of the city on Monday, the sound of a million hands unzipping a million puffy coats, the bodies inside them breaking into a surprising sweat as temperatures crept well past the forecast high of 43 degrees, all the way to 52.

Clearly, the man on the street was not the only one asking what was going on. The warm day had meteorologists struggling to explain how, even with the help of sophisticated computer models, they got it so wrong.

So a problem has been constructed, and here's commentary on it:
Jay Searles, a meteorologist at Penn State University, took the time-honored route of blaming the computer.

“Every single model had cold air that’s over Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Canada,” he said. “You’re not supposed to have as much sun, either. You were supposed to have more cloud cover.”

He said the meteorologists “score” their forecasts, with penalty points for degrees of error. “When you blow it, you blow it big,” he said. “If we’re within a few degrees, that’s a good forecast. Two degrees, either side.”

So who was going to take the hit for the flubbed Monday forecast, off by 9 degrees? Not a computer program.

THE MAGIC MOMENT: THIS IS PURE GENIUS IN A WEATHER REPORT STORY:
“That would be Andrew,” Mr. Searles said, and transferred the call.

The young meteorologist plays along and gives good quotes not-quite-castigating himself:
Andrew Ansorge, 24, a meteorologist for about one year at Penn State, was perhaps the person most disappointed with the sunny day.

“It looked like there’d be a lot more clouds,” he said on Monday afternoon. “I did have in the forecast ‘any early sunshine,’ but this is a little later than ‘early.’ ”

He looked back at the forecast he was so sure of on Sunday. “I went 43, so obviously that’s not something to be proud about,” he said. “It is a shock to me you are in the 50s.”

Was Mr. Ansorge facing a reprimand?

“Nothing like whip lashing or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just more of a learning experience. What went wrong?”

The rest of the story is pretty conventional: quotes from other meteorologists, someone remarking on the warmth, etc.
He was certainly not alone among his peers. His error is somewhat more permanent, in that his office’s forecasts are printed in newspapers, including The New York Times, every day. The National Weather Service got it wrong, too, but it updates its forecast all day and night.

As of 9:52 p.m. on Sunday, the National Weather Service forecast called for highs in the low 40s on Monday, and as late as 4:34 a.m. Monday, with a warm sunny dawn soon upon us, the forecast read, “Mid-40s.” It wasn’t until 11:38 a.m. that a forecaster, perhaps after stepping away from the computer and sticking his head outside, changed the forecast to “lower 50s.”

Ross Dickman, a meteorologist for the service, said a low pressure pattern in the Southeast stalled the arrival of cold air from the north. He said that it led to a margin of error that was higher than normal.

Outside, an overdressed New York citizenry toiled on. “I’m working with my jacket open because it’s too hot,” said Miguel Gonzales, a 60-year-old street sweeper on Park Avenue. “I thought it was definitely going to be colder today. I have two sweaters on.”

Deepa Das, 25, an analyst for a pharmaceutical company who was walking on 86th Street, skipped her usual cup of cocoa in lieu of a nice cold bottle of water. “I thought it was going to be like yesterday,” she said. “But I like this weather a lot.”

Mr. Dickman warned that the party was going to end soon, and that the cold front would, in fact, materialize on Tuesday. He was reminded that he was wrong before, so why should anyone listen to him now?

“Believe me, it’s going to be a lot colder tomorrow,” he said. “The pattern tomorrow is definitely different than the pattern today.”

Back to the star of the story:
Back at Penn State, Mr. Ansorge worried about his credibility with his audience.

“They’re trusting for an accurate forecast, and they didn’t get one today,” he said. “The repercussion for me is it’s kind of demoralizing. And humbling, too.”

Still, it could have been worse, with the 9-degree error in the other direction.

“I guess it’s better to be warm,” he said.

Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.

(Really, this story took two people to report? Well, I loved it.)

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