The weather around here seemed to have settled into a typical mid-summer routine this week, with sunny, hot, humid days, muggy nights, line-ups at frozen treat stands and the ever-present hum of air conditioners providing the outdoor soundtrack. The forecast early yesterday gave us a 0% chance of rain until early next week.
You guessed it, didn’t you? As the afternoon wore on, clouds built and darkened and by about 7 PM, the house was shaking from the thunder and rain was being blown nearly horizontally. Oops! Local meteorologists were a bit red-faced about that one I imagine. But the thing that struck me was, despite that being a total miss, forecast-wise, these days that type of occurrence is a rarity. So this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for the vast improvements in forecasting that have taken place even in the past three decades or so.
When I was a kid, jokes abounded about how inaccurate the “weatherman” was. It sometimes seemed your best bet to know what to wear would be sticking your head out the door in the morning and using your own “gut feeling”; planning outdoor weekend activities based on the forecast on a Wednesday was essentially as reliable as throwing darts at a board blind-folded. When I was a kid, I was very much a nerd and by age 12 or so had a little weather station at home, looked at weather maps and kept some records. For months I made up my own forecasts for the following day and found my accuracy was at least as good as the official government-produced ones. A lot has changed since then.
While satellite pictures were available back then, they have been greatly improved upon. Old ones were merely photos which showed where clouds were; now they can also collect info on the amount of moisture in the clouds, temperatures and all sorts of other things. When we began going to Florida on holiday, I became familiar with weather radars, shown endlessly on TV news there. Back then, the radar showed where it was raining… and that was it. If the area of the map was white, it was raining. If it was dark, it wasn’t. That was the extent of the data. Fast forward about 40 years and as most people who watch news, let alone specialty weather channels know, Doppler radars with their multi-colored displays can tell you just about everything except what type of bird is flying over your house. They’re likely working on that upgrade as we speak. The radar can show not only if there’s precipitation, but how hard it is falling and whether it’s rain, snow, sleet or a combination thereof. Other settings on them can show wind speed and direction, or if there’s debris at a certain altitude. Needless to say, that kind of information can make picking up a tornado before it starts a trail of destruction much easier than it ever has been. All the data is put into powerful computers which do what computers do, analyze billions of bits of information from decades of study and spin out surprisingly accurate forecasts days in advance.
Weather forecasting. It’s an area where science has made huge strides to improve our lives in a matter of a few decades. But, as last night shows, sometimes still nothing beats using your eyes and ears and a bit of common sense. Which is not bad advice when it comes to just about anything in life really.