Miss the Forecast, Pay the Price! - 03/07/13
Did you see Thursday's story about the morning meteorologist for the Washington, D.C. FOX television affiliate being given a "time out" for missing the a forecast? Let me set the stage: the winter storm that slapped the Midwest (including Berrien County right here in West Michigan) with double-digit snow accumulations arrived at the mid-Atlantic coast Wednesday. Forecast models projected a possibility of heavy snow for the D.C. area.
Accordingly, television meteorologists took to the airwaves to warn of the possible consequences. Even Congress took note, speeding several pieces of legislation along so members could get out of town before the "Snowquester" came to town. (Side note: isn't it funny how lawmakers were suddenly in a "let's get some work done" mood when it looked like the airport might be shut down soon due to the storm?)
As it turned out, the storm didn't live up to some of the dire forecasts, leaving some local forecasters with egg on their face. At the top of that list was Tucker Barnes, the morning meteorologist for the local FOX affiliate, WTTG-TV, who announced Wednesday morning that the city would soon be blanketed in a snow so heavy that it would create whiteout conditions. Oops! Turns out, that didn't happen. So yesterday, Mr. Barnes was given a "time out" by his morning show cohorts, sent to sit in the corner of a room to atone for his sin; all in fun, of course (I think)!
The story reminded me of the Mayor of Moscow who in January 2005, angry that forecasters missed predicting an historic blizzard which crippled the city for days, proposed fining meteorologists when they're wrong. Hahaha! Something like that would never happen -- at least, not in a civilized society, right? Not so fast! A quick Google search on the subject of punishing weather forecasters for inaccurate predictions yielded more results than I expected. Yikes!
For example, last year in South Africa, the government's ruling party proposed a law that would fine anyone providing inaccurate weather information (with an exception for government-employed forecasters) more than half a million dollars for the first offense, and more than a million dollars for a second offense. Last summer in the Netherlands, in response to forecasts for weekend showers/thunderstorms which didn't materialize, lawmakers considered a law that would fine meteorologists for such mistakes on the premise that it damages tourism and commerce in seaside/beach communities. I've read that Japan has a system of fines that can be levied on those who provide inaccurate and/or "unprofessional" forecasts.
Perhaps we sometimes forget that in spite of incredible advances in technology and scientific knowledge over the past two decades, the weather forecast remains a prediction of things to come. The fact that it is a prediction -- as opposed to a statement of fact -- means that there is a degree of uncertainty; a possibility that the event may not happen. Fortunately, the consternation faced by meteorologists in the U.S. for missed forecasts haven't resulted in threats of fines or jail time. The worst you might get is the (good-natured) humiliation of having your "time out" aired on television. For my sake, I hope things don't change for the worse! (I think it important to note a related story -- one much more serious -- of six Italian geologists who were sentenced to six years in prison last fall for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake. Ridiculous!)