In an earlier post, I mentioned a bad weather call a couple weeks ago in the DC area where the forecasters and their media counterparts suggested that a morning-commute snowfall would not be a problem and the resulting morning was a complete mess due to a dry snow falling on cold and untreated surfaces that might as well have been coated in ice. It was unfair that everyone criticized the city and the school officials for being unprepared. I recalled the forecast even the night before that seemed to laugh of this minor event. Given that all of DC’s roads are near capacity during normal rush hour traffic, road conditions can deteriorate quickly especially if everyone is encouraged to treat the commute as any typical winter day. The result was a complete mess.
Today, there is news of another forecast going wrong, this time involving New Jersey and New York with predictions of a historic and likely record-breaking snowfall. The city planners in NYC responded appropriately by shutting down roads and even the metro to keep people home and out of the way of this major event. Forecasters continued to predict a huge event even a few hours away but the result was that the bulk of the storm passed to the east.
I understand what it is like to see computer models predict an extraordinary event. It is hard not to get excited and to raise all of the alarms to draw attention to this once in a lifetime opportunity to show the value of the simulation. This is a chance to save the day and get credit for it. On the other hand, the alternative of being skeptical of the computer model is very scary because the model might just be right. Not giving the model enough credibility and having the city caught unprepared will be devastating to the career and perhaps even the profession as a whole. It is humanly natural to go all in on the forecast even if it predicted a magnitude of event that never happened before. I understand that.
Modern weather technology with exotic data visualization with real-time satellite and radar imagery can be overwhelmingly convincing. It is reasonable to trust all this technology to offer a dire prediction and encourage the city to prepare to the maximum extent possible.
Ultimately the forecast was wrong and we are supposed to just brush if off as a minor error. Even the governor of NY refuses to criticize the weather service for a bad call. These are just people doing their job and their job just happened to cause entire cities to be shut down for the better part of a day. Everyone needs to accept their losses that were a consequence of the bad decision, but the weather forecaster jobs were not inconvenienced at all and will continue to work uninterrupted.
My observation is that criticizing the weather service for making a bad prediction is fully justified. I accept the arguments that weather is hard to predict, that the models are imperfect, and that the input data is incomplete and also imperfect due to insufficient funds. However, the reason we invest in a weather service is to provide actionable weather intelligence so that city and emergency planners can apply resources where they will be needed but only when they will be needed. The benefit of the investment in weather service is to improve the operation of the city to avoid expenses of false alarms or the costs of being unprepared.
A bad forecast that causes excessive expenses or fails to prepare a city should have consequences. At a minimum, the failure deserves abundant criticism without apology for making that criticism.
I don’t see what would be so bad for firing senior forecasters in each of the meteorological centers supporting the predictions. Getting a forecast wrong is a good reason to invoke an early retirement or abrupt termination from the senior managers who are expected to have experience to recognize that the predictions were unlikely (too much concern in the case of NYC, and too little concern in our local earlier example).
Accountability involves acknowledging errors that were made. A reasonable remedy for errors by accountable decision makers is to remove them from their jobs.
In the case of senior weather forecasters, much of their jobs are highly automated. The skill of their task is mostly in the area of being skeptical about models and learning what models to trust and when to trust them. The models themselves run without a need for the senior forecasters to be present. Also, the field of forecasting has a deep pool of junior talent who could do the senior job as well as the current incumbent. In each of the organizations, a forced departure of a senior forecaster will provide a probably long-awaited opportunity of promotion for the next in line, and that in turn will cascade for lower level promotions as well.
A failed forecast is an ideal time to give advancement opportunities to the people who have been waiting for the opportunities. In my last post, I described my skepticism that the more senior professional will be any better than the next in line. For a healthy stable society, we need to take advantage of opportunities to make vacancies for younger people so that they can have their chance to contribute. I don’t doubt that there is a deep pool of very qualified weather professionals who are ready and eager to fill the vacancies of resulting from dismissing the senior-most positions when bad forecasts cause significant harm by causing the consumer urban and emergency planners to over- or under-react.