I have a cousin that lives in Florida who shared this meme with me today as Hurricane Joaquin makes headlines all across the country. While my initial reaction was to laugh at both at the picture itself and the obvious misspelling, it really got me thinking about how I communicate the weather.
The above picture, while clearly exaggerated, highlights that uncertainty that meteorologists see every single day when they look at forecast models. Here is a perfect example of that uncertainty with Wednesday’s forecast models showing their projected Joaquin track.
And now today’s (Thursday’s) models showing the projected Joaquin track.
In just 24 hours there is a BIG difference in the two pictures with the latter showing a much greater potential for a track out to sea and hopefully away from the United States. The forecast will continue to become more accurate in the days to come as the storm moves further north and closer to the U.S.
Now back to my original picture.
I want to share a couple of thoughts that go through my head every day and especially when there is the potential for something to have a big impact like a winter storm, severe weather outbreak or even in this case a hurricane.
1) Before social media I’m willing to bet the majority of the public didn’t know plots like this even existed. Social media makes it SO easy to share information and I think that’s a great thing. But how much information can we really digest in any given day? I can’t help but think that your average Joe is perusing through his or her Facebook feed thinking this. “Oh, that’s a cute (insert animal here), looks like so and so had a great vacation! I can’t believe how big their kid is getting! Oh my goodness, what the heck is this?”
“Don’t those meteorologists have ANY idea on where that dang hurricane is headed, how dumb can they be?”
I LOVE sharing information on how the weather process works, how it develops and how it is forecasted. But I think it’s an honest question to ask when I say “Is this information overload on a platform like Facebook or Twitter? Or is this something that people genuinely want to see and learn more about?”
2) Are meteorologists shooting themselves in the foot when they share images like this? I have been a meteorologist for nearly 10 years professionally. I have seen the climate both before and AFTER the social media boom. There is immense pressure to be the first to post, the first to give a forecast even when it’s 7 or 8 days out and the overall expectation to make sure whatever it is you post on social media gets attention, likes and shares. This inherently creates a “what if” climate in the weather world (which I myself am guilty of too!) What essentially is happening is that meteorologists are taking the uncertainty in forecasts that has ALWAYS existed and sharing it publicly exposing that uncertainty to the public. A running joke that I always hear time and time again is, “I wish I had your job, I wish I could be right half the time and still keep my job!” I know that 95% of the people who tell me this are joking, but there is truth to a joke sometimes. The fact of the matter is that most meteorologists are right the vast majority of the time, unfortunately it’s just human nature to remember the few busted forecasts rather than the successes. I constantly wonder if we are only perpetuating that notion by sharing these “what if” scenarios even if we make it abundantly clear that they are not forecasts.
I’ve seen meteorologists in the camp that says limit your sharing to social media and I have seen meteorologists who share everything they can. Who am I to say what’s right? All I know is that I’m pretty lucky to be in such a changing industry, and it’s a challenge everyday to try to figure out the best ways to communicate across all these new and exciting platforms.