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Don Paul: How to share rotten weekend weather forecasts

Rotten weekend forecasts have gotten a little easier for me, now that I’m working weekends instead of weekdays.

How’s that again? For one thing, by the time you see me at 6 p.m. Saturday on WKBW, the weekend is already partially over. All those decades I was the Chief! (pause for effect) Meteorologist, I sometime had to give you bad news about the next weekend for five nights. Now, when I show up on a Saturday, some of the damage may already be done. The buildup to it has usually been laid out by my weekday colleagues. And if Saturday turned out to be rotten, even unexpectedly, I was off Friday. I’m not off the hook, but I’m not hanging from it all by myself.

As with any weather forecast, there are low confidence forecasts and higher confidence forecasts. There are simple washouts and there are more common instances in which only spotty, intermittent showers may turn up for just some parts of the viewing area for just some part of the day. Right away, the latter makes use of language a very big deal … or, as someone we all know says, “a very, very big deal. A tremendous deal.” If I simply spit out “scattered showers” the people who live where the showers show up will take for granted the forecast was accurate, if they heard the forecast. But if those showers don’t show up at YOUR house – we all know, even I know, the weather begins and ends at MY house – the forecast was a bust and was needlessly pessimistic … for YOUR house.

I’m aware people are often pretty busy when I’m flapping my lips, half listening due to the complexities of home life. You could be yelling at your dog for chewing on something that should be vile and disgusting even to a dog. You could be juggling not spilling your drink while carrying a drippy burrito. Or, you could be caught off guard looking up to see the likes of me where you expected someone else. Upon me these days, the reaction can be: “Hey, Snooki! I thought this dude with the moustache retired! Crikeys!” I realize at such a point the shock and awe of my presence make forecast retention as likely as a tsunami in Gasport.

Assuming you stick with me, I’ve learned inflection, emphasis and a certain amount of repetition still serve you and me well. I have a shot of getting a distracted viewer to get the gist of what I’m saying.

However, there are others I can’t or didn’t reach. For example, I just worked a gorgeous Saturday that was to be followed by a disappointing Sunday. Much to my surprise last Saturday, that still matched up with my forecast from the previous week’s Sunday night. During the daytime at home on Saturday, while downloading data, I was certain we weren’t going to get an all-day rain on Sunday but it still wasn’t looking good. I stated as much on social media. By the time I got to WKBW and downloaded some new data, I began talking about Sunday being wet in the AM with some sunny breaks in the afternoon. But by that time, at 6 and 11, quite a number of viewers were already assuming the worst for Sunday. I tried to inject a little scientifically based optimism for Sunday afternoon on the air.

When I got home late at night, I learned on Facebook my efforts had failed with a very angry guy. This guy posted in the style of someone who was in his cups. They must have been huge cups. I’m pretty certain his typed comments were slurred. This rageaholic launched into a rant against all professional meteorologists. He longed for the good old days of non-meteorologists doing the weathercasting. We could take all that education and put it where there is no UV index. Such was the crux of his harangue. Since I was sober, I made a sober decision. I blocked him.

Sidebar: Blocking can be very therapeutic in conflict avoidance. I don’t know about you folks, but I’ve been doing lots of blocking on Facebook this past year. Feels good every single time. I suspect some people have gotten the same sense of satisfaction blocking me. I like knowing that.

Back to forecasts: Not all forecasts are created equal when it comes to confidence. There are certain patterns that help make a forecast a “lock,” sometimes for days to come. A big fat ridge of high pressure sitting nearby has sinking air that squishes the clouds. That makes for an easy call. I would actually have to go out of my way to blow that forecast. But then there is summertime convection induced by weak, disorganized systems. That generally results in scattered coverage for any showers or thunderstorms, and sometimes only isolated cells develop over a small minority of the viewing area. Isolated means less than scattered and probably the majority of the public won’t see such a shower. So, I have to deal with coverage, very risky attempts at location, and timing of those isolated showers. Humility pays off. On days like that, I have to remember I am incapable of forecasting whether it’s going to rain on the east side of Ebenezer at a quarter after three.

That begs the question: Is Ebenezer big enough to have an east side?

Back to the original topic: The majority of you live for weekends and that makes bad news in the weekend forecast unpleasant to give and unpleasant to receive. Sometimes we get accused of purposely forecasting gloom and doom because it supposedly ups the ratings numbers. Other times, we’re accused of false optimism because we’re in cahoots with the proverbial chamber of commerce and want to make sure we get folks out there to spend big bucks.

The one concession I’ll make to the latter is I will sometimes search for something that takes the edge off a bad forecast: “Well, gang … at least I’m confident there won’t be an EF-5 tornado in Sloan!” If I strike an optimistic note, it has to be based on data, experience, and pattern recognition. It can’t be a matter of fabricating optimism. I may not be right, but it won’t be because I wanted to do better in an audience focus group. On the other hand, if I’m convinced we’re in for a soaking, all-day rain, (rare in summer) I’ll lay it out for you. There’s not much to be gained by sounding optimistic when no optimism is warranted. There is something to be gained by communicating uncertainty where it exists. In the majority of cases, though, the picture will be much fuzzier.

So please bear with my “spotty showers” or “isolated thunderstorms over the hilly terrain.” I’m giving it my best shot which, sometimes owing to the inexact nature of the science turns out to be none too good. When I’m wrong, it won’t be due to a lack of effort to be right. My motto is: “I sometimes lie, but only by accident.” Accidental lies do make me cringe and, yes, there is guilt, remorse, and the urge to lay low. Accidental lies for the weekend are the worst. And the worst of all are accidental lies uttered by another meteorologist while I was at home, minding my own business. The only salve for that wound is for another meteorologist who was minding his own business taking the blame for my mistake while I’m off on a Monday, minding my own business.

That’s what we call even-steven.

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