November 28, 2009 in Washington Voices

Tools for forecasting weather improving long-range accuracy

Michelle Boss
 

Were weather forecasts really more accurate back in the “good ole days” before the advent of Doppler radar and future trackers?

I sometimes get that sentiment from people when I tell them I’m a meteorologist. In the 14 years I have been in this business, I have seen forecast products evolve from the very simplistic, to the very detailed.

When I took my first TV job in the mid-’90s, we had a five-day forecast. By the time I moved to my second TV job, we were told we had to compete with the other station that was putting out a seven-day forecast.

These days, I reluctantly go on the air with a 10-day outlook. Realistically, unless you are living in Los Angeles, where there is no snow, no days below 32 degrees, an average of only one day of thunderstorms per year, and an average of 332 dry days per year, you are not going to get reliable detailed information in a 10-day forecast.

Every once in a while, a major storm will show its face in the weather charts that far in advance. Most of the time, however, the computer models that project atmospheric conditions that many days out will flip-flop (like a politician), from one model run to another.

Despite having to stretch our knowledge of weather to provide the 10-day forecast viewers clamor for, there have been some real advancements in the field of weather forecasting over the last several decades that have served to greatly improve the accuracy of the forecasts given.

From 1986 to 2004, the lead time between when a tornado warning was issued to when the tornado actually occurred, increased from an average of five minutes to more than 13 minutes. Short-term forecasts are given in much greater detail these days, to the point where meteorologists can guide firefighters by providing crucial hourly humidity and wind information.

Until the mid-1990s, when Spokane became a forecast office, it was Boise’s responsibility to put out the forecast for North Idaho. And the office did – one forecast good for the entire Panhandle from Sandpoint to the Palouse. Today, North Idaho is the responsibility of multiple forecast offices including Spokane, Missoula and Boise, which put out numerous forecasts for the 11 different “zones” of the Panhandle.

As technology has increased, so have people’s expectations. People want to know at what hour, exactly how much, and depending on elevation, what type of precipitation will fall – right in their backyard. While today’s meteorologist might not be able to pinpoint the weather in your backyard (even with so-called street level mapping), I think we have the resources to give folks across the region a pretty good idea of what Mother Nature has in store, so they can plan accordingly.

Michelle Boss can be reached at weatherboss@comcast.net.


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