Thursday, November 01, 2012

Thank a meteorologist

Where I live, or rather in several of the places where I have lived, meteorology often seems to have about as much predictive accuracy as astrology. The German weather website predicts rain for Rostock all afternoon and evening, starting 2 hours from now, while predicts no precipitation at all today. It is currently raining.

Because this kind of obvious failure of retail meteorology is so common, bashing ‘the weatherman’ is a popular and easy past time, and I think this shapes the views of many people on meteorology generally. But when things like Hurricane Sandy do things like this to a densely populated portion of a continent and kill only dozens of people, rather than tens of thousands, that is because of the very healthy state of meteorological science.
Imagine, if you will, the impact of Sandy on the U.S. if meteorology hadn’t progressed in the last hundred years. We would have gotten reports of a hurricane hitting Jamaica, Hispaniola and then Cuba. Folks in New Orleans, hit by Katrina a few years earlier, with even less warning than in the real world, would start evacuating, along with much of Florida and the Gulf Coast. No telling where this thing might hit. New Jersey and New York would scarcely take notice. When Sandy clobbered the Bahamas, people in the Carolinas would need to evacuate fast. Who knows who the monster is coming for? Two days later when the surf in New Jersey started getting really rough, and the wind really strong, the idea that New Jersey and New York could get hit would occur to a lot of people. But what does it mean to get hit? Lots of rain and wind? Flash floods? Would anyone have guessed that there would be a nearly 14 foot storm surge in New York City, flooding houses, lobbies and subway tunnels with seawater? Would lower Manhattan have been evacuated at all? Would there have been time to get out? I doubt it.

My guess is the East Coast would have been far less prepared than New Orleans was for Katrina, because people in real world New Orleans, even if their government let them down, could turn on the TV and know what was coming. In a meteorology-free New York, the idea of large parts of the city being underwater would have seemed ridiculous until walls of water were ripping through tunnels still full of people.
We have come to take for granted that we should be warned, accurately, of major weather events days in advance, and we grumble about the uncertainties and inaccuracies. There is certainly still room for improvement. But the fact that New Jersey was named as one likely landfall while the center of the storm was not yet to Cuba is absolutely amazing. That requires a level of understanding and predictive computing that I find hard to fathom. It frankly seems a bit like magic. The National Hurricane Center nailed this one, and in so doing prevented tens of billions of dollars in damages and tens of thousands of lives. Somebody deserves a medal. Thank you meteorology.


GreenEngineer said...

Yeah, no doubt.

There was an editorial by Roger Pielke Jr. (notorious climate change denialist, and one of the very few who is an actual atmospheric scientist) basically saying "Sandy wasn't really that bad by historical standards, because many previous hurricanes have done far more damage, if you adjust for inflation." Somehow he totally missed the fact that hurricane forecasting has improved a bit since 1926, and that that should get some of the credit.

I don't know if it's mendacity or stupidity (obviously he's not generally stupid, but maybe he's specifically stupid) but it's epic, either way.

dan levitis said...

Brent, you are certainly right. It would be much more apparent that hurricanes are getting fiercer if we weren't getting better at defending ourselves against them. I suppose this raises the question whether we can continue to improve our defenses as fast as, or faster than, they continue to get fiercer. Unfortunately, I doubt it.