AIN Blog: Weathering the Hype

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North Sea weather isn’t always stormy, but it’s usually windy. (Photo by thin
North Sea weather isn’t always stormy, but it’s usually windy. (Photo by think4photop/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
September 2, 2011 - 2:30pm

Weather was not my best subject in flight school, though I readily accepted its importance for pilots. On the FAA written exam for my ATP, six of the eight questions I got wrong were about weather.

The questions I found particularly confusing concerned forecasts for cities along a planned route of flight–say St. Louis to Indianapolis to Columbus to Pittsburgh, with a few other cities’ forecasts thrown in. “Given these forecasts,” the question might read, “you can expect: a) a cold front to pass through Chicago at 2230Z; b) a warm air mass to stagnate over Virginia for the next 36 hours; c) clear skies over the North Slope of Alaska; d) the threat of tornadoes in Alabama between 0630Z and 0915Z; e) all of the above.”

I guessed a lot and considered myself lucky that I answered any of the weather questions correctly. About a year later I moved to Norway, where I flew helicopters to North Sea oil platforms for 12 years. There I really learned about weather.

The North Sea is a weather machine. On surface-weather maps, I frequently saw three, four and even five fronts pin-wheeling around a low-pressure system. I saw sea fog down to the surface with winds as high as 40 knots, despite what all the weather books say about it lifting to low stratus clouds above 15 knots. I also saw blankets of fog as white and fluffy as a down comforter, topping out at 100 feet and covering hundreds of miles in all directions, with no wind and blue skies above. It was not unusual for us to fly in hurricane-force winds at 500 feet above the water to avoid icing at 1,000 feet.

I quickly found myself regretting my previous disinterest in weather and subsequent lack of weather knowledge. I decided to learn more.

One fact I had discovered earlier (sort of) was re-emphasized for me in a book by a well-known British meteorologist. He claimed that “micro-climates” and weather exist just a few inches above the ground, that even during a typical English summer the temperature and humidity of the air at grass level is not unlike that of an equatorial jungle.

His point was that weather can often be quite local and, at first, I thought he’d taken this concept to an absurd level. But he was serious and continued to explain why anyone evaluating weather forecasts should always consider local topography. Pilots, for example, need to know whether an airport is near a lake or other large body of water, where fog may form even though the surrounding area is clear. Will wind coming off hills or mountains affect the route? Will the afternoon heating of a road on the approach end of the runway cause an updraft/downdraft on final?

I thought about the local aspects of weather last week while watching the forecasts about the track and intensity of Hurricane Irene. I also recalled that, notwithstanding all the improvements in weather forecasting–the Cray computers, the computer models, the thousands of observations, the oceans of data, the automatic reports sent from aircraft, the in-flight pilot reports, the twice-daily weather balloons released all over the world, Nexrad and so on–meteorologists still deal in predictions. And forecasts and observations are available now in so many forms and formats and from so many sources that weather reporting has reached the level of entertainment.

I find it particularly unprofessional that so many television weathermen and women deliver the worst parts of every forecast with such intensity while barely hiding their glee. As Irene approached, my 86-year-old mother became scared out of her wits from watching the nonstop coverage of the storm on TV. I’m sure many other people did, too.

Frantic, my mother called my home and cell phones. I reminded her that most TV weather reporters are not meteorologists; that stations need to jack up the hype to get ratings; and that even real meteorologists get excited about adverse weather. In fact, I told her, I suspect that most people who study meteorology do so not because they’re interested in clear, sunny, windless days, but because they get turned on by snowstorms, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and the like.

This is not to belittle the lives that Hurricane Irene took, the billions of dollars of devastation it wrought or the storm warnings that we all need to hear. It just seems unfortunate to me that nowadays one has to have a really good baloney meter when watching television weather forecasts and reports.

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