Reaping The Whirlwind

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The lessons of the great forecast bust of March, 2001 should not be lost onany student of global climate change: Once a disaster is predicted, ahurricane of hype follows. In the ensuing firestorm, there’s a substantialrisk in disagreement, and no amount of reason or fact can stop the public’spanicked response.

I am referring, of course, to the blizzard predicted for the East CoastMegalopolis for March 3-6, in which a highly speculative and unusual weathersituation became a metropolitan blizzard that did not happen. In centralVirginia every loaf of bread vanished from the stores, despite temperaturesin the 60s, and the fact that there was never even an inch of snow.

The ultimate storm did dump around two feet, mainly in upland Connecticut,the Berkshires and the Green Mountains of Vermont, which is what early Marchsnowstorms often do in upper New England.

Much more was predicted than this pretty pedestrian storm. The technicalforecast discussion from the National Weather Service at 2:27 p.m. onFriday, March 2, contained unusually strong and florid language. It beganwith this: “We now have higher certainty that there will indeed be thedevelopment of a major storm along the East Coast…maybe even a blizzard.”Two sentences later, “possibly even a snowstorm of historical proportionsfor the mid-Atlantic states and southern New England.” Later, this “couldgenerate a very powerful storm Sun night into Tue for the Mid Atlantic andSouthern New England Areas. We feel that the [model] scenario is basicallycorrect. East Coast…watch out!”

Most forecasters are taught not to predict all-time record events 72 hoursin advance. There’s a reason that records are rare—and the likelihood thatsome three days ahead of time all the atmospheric parameters required toproduce one can be accurately predicted to properly conspire is very lowindeed.

Most people in the business agreed that there was going to be a big cyclone.But there was also a strong argument, even on Friday, that along thesouthern portion of its track—from central Virginia to New York City—it wassimply too warm to produce a major snowstorm. By midday on Saturday mostcomputer models indicated that the temperature at both 5,000 feet and at thesurface was going to be above freezing for much of the precipitation, whichrarely results in heavy snow for the mid-Atlantic.

I’ll bet there wasn’t one major-station meteorologist in the region who didn’t see the warm temperatures, especially by Saturday. But by then themedia hurricane was at Category 5. Weather Channel ratings wentastronomical. CNN spoke of the “biggest snowstorm in decades,” somehowforgetting about the misnamed 1993 “storm of the century” in the same region(whose snow totals looked a lot like a storm in February, 1983), or the 1996snow which exceeded that of 1993 over much of the same urban corridor. Inthis overheated environment, the cost of publicly disagreeing—and beingwrong—is a certain blackballing from further high-visibility employment.

In addition, there’s an ethical question that can perhaps more easily beappreciated using a severe hurricane as an example. There’s often plenty ofprivate debate about hurricane forecasts, but the potential damage and lossof life is so great that there is an unwritten compact to not dispute anywatch or warning statement from the National Hurricane Center. The logic isthat people will choose the forecast that best fits their needs, which mightinclude staying at the beach when they should evacuate.

So what happens when a northeaster as dire as a major hurricane is predictedby our most prestigious forecast office? It’s hard not to imagine the samedynamic when the government speaks of “a storm of historic proportions”.When disaster is predicted by highest authorities, we defer to authority.In fact, we choose neither to broadcast nor to heed anything otherwise.

Fast-forward now to global warming. For decades we have been subject to aconstant drumbeat of dire forecasts. Record events are predicted, not threedays ahead, but three decades. And just as was the case in Virginia lastweekend, the weather’s pretty much opposite to what has been predicted.Most scientists will readily admit that, given the forecast, they aretroubled by the lack of warming in the middle atmosphere in recent decades.

But, instead of people denuding stores of bread, the United Nations proposestaxing people so they won’t have enough money to spend on energy. Arethings any different if the forecast disaster unfolds over 100 years insteadof 100 hours? I think not, and I’ll bet there is an equivalent reluctanceto speak out, or to listen to those who might argue otherwise.