At the risk of starting another blog brushfire, I need to correct the record about something that keeps coming up in the debate about hurricanes and (ugh) global warming.
There is a perception, repeated numerous times here and elsewhere, that meteorologists and climatologists have developed a habit of “crying wolf” about the number of storms that they expect to form in the Atlantic each year. This perception is understandable, for reasons that I’ll explain after the jump, but it’s also entirely incorrect. And I mean flatly, facially false.
The perception is based on one data point, namely the 2006 season, which is obviously not enough to demonstrate a trend or pattern. Between 2000 and 2005, the preseason forecasts actually underestimated the number of named storms every single year. And of course, as I’ve pointed out before, it’s laughably early in the 2007 season to be asking, “Where are all the hurricanes?”; the vast majority of the season still lies ahead, in terms of expected activity. It’s impossible to accurately assess the seasonal forecasts until mid-October at the earliest. So the only season the “cry wolf” crowd is really talking about is 2006.
The most widely respected of the annual forecasters is Dr. William Gray, and his predictions have generally been fairly representative of the range of predictions issued by various meteorological and climatological institutions, so I’ll use his numbers as our sample, for simplicity’s sake. Since 2000, Dr. Gray’s final preseason forecast (the one that’s issued in June) has only overestimated the number of named storms once: last year, when he predicted 17 storms, and only 10 formed. That’s a pretty big error, but what all the “cry wolf” taunters seem to forget is that 2006’s mistake followed on the heels of an even bigger mistake in the opposite direction in 2005, when Dr. Gray predicted just 15 storms, and 28 formed!
Dr. Gray, and everyone else, vastly underestimated 2005 and significantly overestimated 2006. How that adds up to a pattern of “crying wolf,” I have no idea, especially considering that in the five preceding years (2000-2004), Dr. Gray underestimated, by between 1 and 3 storms, each year’s storm total. (I haven’t looked at the pre-2000 forecasts, but I think a record of overestimating the number of storms in 6 of the last 7 years is enough to dispel the notion of a recent “cry wolf” pattern.)
So why does this demonstrably false “crying wolf” perception exist? I think I know why: the media. News outlets never used to pay much attention to these annual forecasts, and with good reason — they’re not terribly precise, they tell the general public nothing particularly useful (like where individual storms might go, or when), and they’re just as likely to create a false sense of security, or of danger, as to give anyone valuable information. So the forecasts were traditionally chewed on by weather nerds, but generally ignored by the masses. Then came the freakish hurricane season of 2005, followed by the cinematic/political phenomenon known as An Inconvenient Truth, and all of a sudden, these predictions were big news — bigger than they deserve to be, I’d argue. And of course, the media failed to provide any sort of valuable context, so people who had never before paid attention to these annual predictions were fooled into believing that they are some sort of gospel truth.
The resulting letdown was predictable. When the 2006 season failed to meet expectations (due a variety of understandably unforeseen, but thoroughly explainable, meteorological factors, none of which involve conspiratorial fear-mongering by Al Gore and his army of zombie-like scientists), some members of the public became disillusioned and concluded that the whole exercise was worthless, or worse, rigged. So naturally, when the 2007 predictions were again trumpeted in the media without any sort of context or analysis, just like the 2006 numbers had been, people were cynical, and thus have been all too eager to prematurely declare that the scientists are up to their old tricks again, trying to scare us into submission at the altar of ManBearPig — when in reality, the scientists are simply doing what they’ve always done, and it just so happens that people started paying attention in a year when they screwed up badly.
It doesn’t help that there has been a sudden proliferation of these long-range predictions, as every meteorologist and his brother jumped on the long-range hurricane forecast gravy train in hopes of getting some free publicity. At its core, though, this misunderstanding between the scientists and the public is largely a creation of the MSM beast. It must be enormously frustrating for serious scientists to see their work absolutely butchered like this. But frankly, I wonder if the whole exercise isn’t futile or even counterproductive at this point. What is gained by giving people a rough estimate (or rather, multiple rough estimates) of the number of storms that might form each year? Hypothetically, a big number might encourage them to prepare — but shouldn’t they be prepared regardless of the number (considering Hurricane Andrew hit in a season that saw just 7 storms)? And isn’t the preparedness advantage more than offset by the danger of complacency caused by this “crying wolf” perception? When I see people asking questions like, “Where are all the hurricanes the NHC had forecast for the last 2 years? just curious as to why we should panic over predictions that have little or no accuracy,” I worry that the credibility of hurricane forecasters is being undermined — even as their ability to predict individual storms continues to improve by leaps and bounds — because of misunderstandings and misperceptions about long-term forecasts that aren’t all that useful anyway.
UPDATE: And another thing…