It never fails. I can be at a school event for my kids or visiting family in my hometown. Inevitably, the weather is going to come up because I am a meteorologist. I have loved the weather since 6th grade so it’s not a problem. However, there are a few things that I have noticed during my career as a scientist at NASA, professor at the University of Georgia, and former president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). People tend to ask the same questions, and they are often steeped in misperceptions. I suspect that other meteorologists will be familiar with them. We love the questions, but I thought that it would be useful to deconstruct those questions and then offer better alternatives.
1. Why are meteorologists wrong all of the time?
Honestly, this is the question that often forces me to adjust my face. It’s such an inaccurate assumption, and one that often illustrates that the person asking the question may not understand things like % chance of rain, cones of uncertainties, hurricane track spaghetti plots, and the limits of forecasting. Numerous articles have been written on the impressive accuracy of this generation of weather forecasts.
In a previous Forbes piece, I documented how accurate meteorologists are compared to other professions that predict the future. I closed that article with this statement: “Meteorologists are able to predict, with up to 90% or more accuracy within 2 to 5 days, how a complex fluid on a rotating planet with oceans, mountains, and varying heat distributions changes.” My observation has been that people misinterpret or misunderstand things like “20% chance of rain” or the limits of weather forecasting for a spot in their backyard at a specific time. I also think people tend to have a “memory bias” towards isolated cases in which the forecast was a “miss” or it negatively impacted them. They conveniently forget the more numerous days that forecasts were “spot on.” As people often say, “nobody notices a good sound engineer at a concert, but if the sound is bad, it is definitely noticed.”
Alternative Question(s): How much has weather forecasting improved over the years? What areas are still challenging? What does 20% chance of rain actually mean?
2. What channel are you on?
This question really illustrates how much television shapes certain generations. Many people honestly believe that meteorologists only work on TV. During my tenure as president of the AMS, I learned that only 8-10% of meteorologists work on TV, and candidly I often wonder if that number is shrinking. Younger generations are increasingly less inclined to watch television news or weather. For emerging generations of meteorology students, that part of our field may not be as appealing.
As Director of an Atmospheric Sciences (a broader framing that includes meteorology) program at a major university, I can confirm that students now have broader interests within the field than when I was a student at Florida State University thirty years ago. In the social media era, demands on TV meteorologists have also increased significantly, which has made it less appealing for some colleagues. However, it is still a viable and potentially awesome career for those that are passionate about it.
Alternative Question: Oh, you’re a meteorologist, what type are you and where do you work?
3. Is it going to rain in 2 months in _____, I have to go to a ______?
Ummmm, I don’t know. That’s honestly the answer that I give if asked such a question. I then explain that weather models have limitations beyond about 2 weeks due to the nature of how forecasts are made. In fact, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences finds that 10 days is about the limit of useful predictability in the current computer model area. I know, I know. There are a lot of almanacs, groundhogs, and long-term weather forecasts out there. It is important to understand the intent of those efforts or those tendering them.
At the end of the day, physics wins out on limiting our ability to deterministically say anything about the exact state of the atmospheric fluid 65 days from now. However, there is increasing skill with seasonal-to-subseasonal scale prediction based on our understand of things like El Nino and other aspects of climate variability. What this means is that I may not be able to tell you if it is going to rain at your daughter’s reception in 3 months, but I can give you some information on the climatological probabilities related to warm/cold or wet/dry. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center website is a good place to go for seasonal and other types of outlooks.
Alternative Question(s): How far out are forecasts reliable and why are there limitations? What type of information is in seasonal outlooks?
4. Do you believe in climate change?
This one is the relative “newbie” question. Science is not a belief system like the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Once I establish that with the person asking the question, I proceed to explain the consensus science and assure them that scientists know that climate changes naturally and always has (we know that statement is coming). I then explain the concept of anthropogenic climate change on top of the naturally-varying climate system. It is not “either/or,” it is “and.” I also have to swat down myths or “zombie theories” summarized in one of my previous Forbes articles.
For example, some people will use the answer to the question above about 10-day limits of predictability on a weather forecast to question climate models. When I hear that narrative (and it even comes from people that should know better), it is an opportunity to explain that weather modeling and climate prediction, though rooted in some of the same physics and math, are an “apples vs oranges” conversation. I highly recommend the website at this link for clarification on that topic.
Alternative Question: What is the current thinking on climate change based on actual published studies not opinions or ideological biases?
5. Why is the American model so bad?
Ok, I admit it. This question somewhat annoys me, but I also use it as an opportunity to teach. Yes, the European model has been shown, on average, to be better than the American GFS model. However, there are several flaws to detangle. First, I mostly receive this question from people that don’t follow the weather closely but have seen things in social media. They honestly think the American GFS is terrible and orders of magnitude worse than the “Euro” model. It’s not. Both models are world class models used daily by weather forecasters in all parts of the world.
There are also plenty of situations when the “Euro” struggles or even does worse than the American GFS. The “Euro” model, for example, was one of the models initially trending towards Hurricane Dorian heading to South Florida in 2019. My key message concerning the two models is that we are not talking about “paper airplane vs supersonic fighter jet” as some people perceive. The hyperventilation and allegiance banter that I see in social media is “breathtaking.” (See what I did there?) Additionally, those are just a few of the models that weather forecasters utilized.
Alternative question(s): Why has the GFS, on average, lagged behind the European model? What is needed to improve both models? What are some of the other models used by forecasters?
6. My son or daughter loves clouds, storm chasing, and hurricanes. Do you think he/she is going to be a meteorologist one day?
This question makes me smile because I love that kids and adults are so fascinated by the weather. As mentioned earlier, I was bitten by the weather bug in 6th grade and have been “weather geeking out” ever since. My only caution when asked that question is to relay that being a meteorologist is more than about naming clouds or chasing a tornado. The AMS has very strict requirements for meteorology or atmospheric sciences curricula at universities (see this link). Many students are often caught off guard by the heavy physics, math, chemistry, and computational coursework. Meteorology or Atmospheric Sciences is often considered one of the most rigorous majors on a college campus. I sat in the same physics and math classes that engineers too. I also tell parent that there are certainly other ways for students to activate their weather passion in related majors, volunteer spotter programs, and so forth.
Alternative Question(s): What is the typical meteorology curriculum? What things can my child do now if they want to prepare to be a meteorologist?