How do you know when to trust someone when they say "a hurricane is coming?" Should you only trust the NWS? Television weatherpeople? Your favorite Gawker weather blogger? All too often, people don't care where they get their weather information, and that's a huge problem.
We are hypocrites. We preach to each other from our moral pedestals only to do exactly that against which we preach. Telling people not to trust everything they read or hear makes for a great moral lesson — especially in the age of daily celebrity death hoaxes on Twitter and cheap Onion ripoffs on Facebook — but for all of these enlightened people who are allegedly immune from the BS, there sure are a lot of folks who still get taken for a ride.
This goes for politics, entertainment, sports, and of course, the weather.
One of the most well-known sources of weather foolery is a California man named Kevin Martin, the infamous stony gallbladder of the weather community who sues and threatens and bullies people who challenge his particularly ugly form of internet bull. He made his name on writing fake weather stories in order to get them to spread virally on social media, and sadly he's pretty successful. His latest steaming pile of viral nonsense is seen above in a screenshot posted to famed meteorologist James Spann's page, where Martin urges people to share a post that a major hurricane threatens the Gulf of Mexico next week.
Something almost worse than a K-Mart wannabe is a person who has a large reach, good intentions, and knows just enough to convince a layperson but too little to grasp the nuance of the topic at hand. The stereotype weather enthusiasts frequently discuss is the weather geek who's still in high school, but they range from teenagers to the elderly. This is a person who has a limited understanding of meteorology and loves to pore over weather models looking for that next blizzard or hurricane. When they spot something, they'll take to social media and proudly post it in order to be the first one to alert people of the coming storm.
The thing is, they're usually wrong.
This week's major social weather screw-up revolves around the GFS (American global) model, which shows a potential tropical system entering the Gulf of Mexico late next week. Meteorology is an inexact science, and that's especially true for weather models. For as technologically advanced as they've become, models beyond five days aren't very reliable. Sometimes they get it right, but more often than not they get it really, really wrong. Forecasts beyond five days are often called "la la land" because they're so far off.
When talk exploded about a possible hurricane last night, the storm was still almost 200 hours out on the weather model runs — eight days away. Eight!
When a weather model forecasts a large and potentially disruptive hurricane in eight days — which is firmly in the model's "la la land" territory — how much should weather enthusiasts discuss it out in the open, so to speak? This is the largest point of contention that pops up when we have this debate every couple of weeks. In 24 hours the discussion went from "hey look at what the model is showing" to damage control because laymen and bomb-throwers are taking it out of context. If you think I'm exaggerating, just look at what Kevin Martin posted. On top of that, the wildly popular conservative website Drudge Report linked to a blog post yesterday afternoon titled "New Orleans Hurricane Exactly 9 Years After Katrina?" It offered no useful context, no cautions, nothing...just the aforementioned model image and the Cavuto Marked headline.
The kicker is that the system hasn't even developed yet! There is no system right now. There is just a small group of disorganized clouds where the "invest" center is located. Models are terrible at forecasting systems that literally do not exist, let alone ones that are forecast to exist more than a week from now.
How do we solve the problem of nuanced weather information falling into uninformed (or even malicious) hands? We really can't. Model data will always be freely available on the internet, and as the years go on the number of sources providing such data will continue to grow. The only thing we can do — writers, social media users, television meteorologists, teachers, anyone — is work like crazy to not only discount bad information but replace it with good, solid data. When someone says "the models are showing a blizzard next week!," don't just say "it's wrong," explain why it's wrong. Explain why the situation might not play out like the model is suggesting.
In this case, explain why it's ludicrous to put too much stock in a weather model showing a hurricane eight days from now. The forecast tracks for hurricanes in the Atlantic basin are more than 200 miles off at five days out, and that's a professional forecast. Forecasting is more than looking at the models; it takes skill and experience, knowing when to use and add value to some models and when to throw out others.
When someone says "a hurricane is coming," you need to know which sources you can trust. If something sounds too astounding to be true, it probably is. Check the source's Twitter bio or look for an "about me" page on their site. Television meteorologists are mostly trustworthy. National Weather Service meteorologists are (for the most part) the cream of the crop. You can trust well-known blogs like the Capital Weather Gang or the Facebook pages of well-respected meteorologists like James Spann or Dr. Greg Forbes.
Do some research into the person posting the doomsday forecast. Do they have experience in meteorology? What's their track record? Do other professionals vouch for their validity by linking to them or voicing their approval? Doing some research beyond what's in a headline and the first few sentences is hard work, I know!, but it's necessary in order to not look like a fool and potentially harm other people with bad information.
With regard to the potential, and I stress potential, storm next week, it's worth watching since we're quickly approaching the peak of hurricane season. The models are still keeping the storm more than seven days away from the United States, and that's forever in weather time. The model spread currently shows the potential storm ("potential" because it hasn't even developed yet!) tracking anywhere from Mexico to the open Atlantic Ocean. We can't completely rule it out yet, but when the weather model is showing something eight days away and people are talking it up, take that talk with a grain of salt. Wait until the storm enters the period when scientific forecasting can replace speculation.
It's far too early to say when, where, or even if a storm will happen. Coastal residents from Brownsville to Bar Harbor know the drill — we're coming up on the end of August. This is the prime time for hurricanes. Regardless of the threat, pay attention to the forecasts, and know which sources to trust when someone screams "a hurricane is coming!"
[Images: author / screenshot by James Spann]