7 Unreasonable Expectations About Weather Forecasts

This article was originally posted on Forbes.com on April 16, 2019.

Weather has been quite active in recent weeks and affected high-profile events like the Boston Marathon and Masters golf tournament. Over the course of the past weekend alone, I saw breathtakingly ridiculous things said about forecasts or messaging of critical weather information. I started to reflect on my 25 years as a research meteorologist and atmospheric sciences professor. During my career, here are the 7 most unreasonable expectations that I often hear about weather forecasts.

1. Stop breaking into my TV show. This one is at the forefront of my mind because a meteorologist in Atlanta received death threats for interrupting the Masters golf tournament to warn about tornadoes. Noted ESPN journalist Mike Wilbon also tweeted his displeasure for the CBS affiliate in Washington D.C. interrupting a replay of one of Tiger Woods’ moments. However, the Washington Post Capital Weather Gang summed it up perfectly,

“Since 2000, 1,451 people have been killed by tornadoes in the United States. During the same time period, there have been zero fatalities resulting from being unable to watch a replay of golf.”

By the way, those that complain all of the time about such interruptions should review this statement on the FCC website,

FCC rules require broadcasters and cable operators to make local emergency information accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, and to persons who are blind or have visual disabilities. This rule means that emergency information must be provided in both audio and visual formats.

2. The expectation of “exactness.” I often get questions like “Is it going to rain on my daughter’s reception at location X around 5 pm?” This is not inherently an unreasonable question. Within the time frame of 0-12 hours, hyper-local forecasts from high-resolution models and weather radar can provide this information albeit with some uncertainty. However, I often have people ask questions like that 5 days out. While 3 to 5 day forecasts are fairly accurate in a broad sense, it is important for people to understand that precipitation forecasts require probabilistic approaches. For this reason, you often see specific forecasts of air temperature (The high today will be 75° F) and a probability for rainfall (40% chance). If you still struggle with what percent chance of rain means, review my previous Forbes piece at this linkUncertainty is inherently a part of predicting the future. The expectation of “exactness” by the public is particularly strange since other professions like investors, medical doctors, sports analysts, and other prognosticators seem to be held to a different standard. Forecasting the evolution of a dynamic fluid on a rotating body with all types of variables is hard, and we actually do it pretty well. I think steady improvements in weather prediction skill over time have actually elevated public expectations, and they may not realize there are still limitations.

3. “It came without warning.” This is a tough one because there are times that people just don’t get the warnings about a tornado or a damaging wind event. There are many reasons for this: They may not have received the warning and ignored it. They may have misunderstood the geographic region under threat. They could have even overestimated the time frame for the storm to evolve. However, I often notice the “it came without warning” statement for regions that clearly had severe weather warnings for days to several hours in advance. For example, I previously argued there was ample weather information to make different decisions in the Missouri Duckboat tragedy. While it is not often possible to pinpoint the direct moment a tornado or severe wind gust will happen, meteorologists can provide ample information to make proactive decisions as the Masters tournament did this weekend.

Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

4. The apps. This one bugs me because I am amazed at how over-reliant people have become on weather apps. I saw many frustrated golf fans say “we don’t need the TV meteorologists anymore just look at the apps.” By the way, the Masters was on an app too, but I digress. As I mentioned earlier, the FCC requires stations to provide such information, and there are numerous people that are not comfortable with apps or technology. They are not a part of the “app-mospheric scientist” or “social media-rologist” culture. As I have stated previously,

“Don’t get me wrong, there is very useful information that help plan your week or perhaps day….all apps are not created equal and should not be painted with the same broad stroke….However, it is important to understand the limitations of apps in rapidly evolving severe weather, snow, or hazardous weather. Too many times in my own personal circle, I hear people make statements based on apps that just aren’t true.”

5. Weather isn’t orderly. As a scientist, I know that weather has many non-linearities. In other words, “a” doesn’t necessarily lead to “b” and then “c.” Weather doesn’t always unfold in an orderly and predictable sequence. For example, a recent “bomb cyclone” event that caused tremendous flooding in the Great Plains and was pretty well-forecasted. If you look closely, predicted rainfall amounts may not have raised concerns about flooding. So why was the flooding so bad? It was a “perfect” convergence of rainfall, a rapid warm-up, snowmelt, and a frozen surface.

6. Anomalies are just that, anomalies. By definition, an anomaly is something that deviates from normal. How many times have you heard someone say, “I am not leaving, we get hurricanes or flooding all of the time.” With Hurricane Harvey, residents in Houston are quite familiar with flooding. It happens all of the time. However, 50 inches of rainfall over the span of a few days is an anomaly event. Normal experiences and reference points don’t prepare us for anomalies.

Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

7. Folklore doesn’t trump science. There are all types of folklore and traditions tied to weather including almanacs, groundhogs, and cute sayings. By the way, there is a credibility in some of these things based on long-term observations or correlations so I am not dismissing lore like “red sky in the morning sailors take warning.” This weblink explains what this means. However, it is important to understand that modern weather forecasting uses advanced physics, calculus, computers, technology, art, and intuition. Human tendency often anchors perspective in familiarity. For many people, an almanac, folklore and stories from a relative are more familiar and accessible than the Navier-Stokes equations. However, those Navier-Stokes equations are much more helpful for weather forecasts these days.

There you have it, the top 7 most unreasonable expectations for weather forecasts.

Join the Discussion


  1. ha! priceless! all of them! we are but mere humans, do not expect perfection, and for goodness sake if there are tornadoes nearby I think they are a tad more important than what you are watching. put in a dvd if you really do not care, and then do NOT blame the weather channel if your butt gets hit with a twister and you did not know about the danger.

  2. Love the weather channel. However, most of the time there is way too much info on the screen at the same time. At least 5 different blurbs with one or more being changed all the time. On ATT-Uverse there is almost no weather available during the evening and overnight hours unless a storm is tearing the roof off your house. I think everyone is sick of wreckers pulling over turned semis back on the road.

  3. Anomalies are definitely as described in the article, but when people say hurricanes happen all the time or other weather events, it’s true because there are areas that are prone to hurricanes, just as snow and ice storms in the northeast, and springtime tornadoes in the plains. Certain storms in certain areas are expected and flooding, power outages, and destruction are experienced by all types.

  4. Mostly agree, except for the expectation of exactness complaint. Local news weather folks pretty much use exactness as a marketing tool, issuing “First Alert” bad weather notices sometimes five days in advance, and making the future radar maps a key part of their updates. Hard to fault the weather consumer because they fall for such bait.

  5. Interesting article! I always enjoy watching a live on air weather forecaster!

  6. Well, then some meteorologists should stop acting like they know it all just because they have a meteorology degree and us lay people would not even know if it were going to rain without checking with weather channel or our apps.

  7. Right on!!!! As a Skywarn and CoCoRHS volunteer, I not only love weather I love to collect data and observe weather. That’s part of the problem. Folks are not paying attention, they don’t observe, they want it all fed to them perhaps via apps. Let’s have more science on the WX Channel and less heavy rescues even if they use the laws of physics and mechanics quite deftly.

  8. While agree with the content of this article, the tone is a bit condescending and perhaps accusatory. Most of us in this forum have a strong interest in weather and many of us are, at the least, amateur or armchair meteorologists. We’re pretty reasonable people 🙂

  9. A very enlightening discussion for those … unlike myself … who raise these issues. I for one, appreciate the notice and warnings that I receive from NWS and the Weather Channel. There is still the need for people to better understand weather and risk.


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