Primal Numbers – How’s the Weather?

Besides checking the headlines and traffic updates, there’s one daily ritual almost everybody follows. We check the weather forecast. Rain or shine, we can’t help tuning in to see what the weather report has in store for us. But meteorology is far from an exact science, and a lot of times it’s just plain wrong. So why do we keep believing the weatherman’s predictions?

Weather reports are nothing new, of course. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has been around since 1792?back when George Washington was still a newly elected president. The Almanac was so popular that it tripled its circulation after the first year, and it seems like we’ve been hooked on weather forecasts ever since.

As the Globe and Mail noted in 2012, Environment Canada estimated that “93 per cent of Canadians [were] checking the forecast every day.” One of the most popular websites and TV channels around is The Weather Network, complete with its own app and more than 358,000 fans on its Facebook page.

But for all that weather love, there’s no denying that forecasters often get it wrong. In one famous case, weatherman Michael Fish assured BBC viewers that they didn’t have to worry about rumours of a possible hurricane. Hours later, the Great Storm of 1987 hit the UK. Winds reached close to 120 miles per hour and 18 people died in the storm.

Even today, meteorologists admit that there’s a lot of guesswork mixed in with the science of forecasting. In an article on the Weather Network site, one of their own meteorologists explained just how tough it can be, even with all the technology at their disposal. That’s because so many variables go into a single forecast?everything from the accuracy of computer models to what season it is.

So why do we have such devotion to a science that doesn’t seem terribly scientific? Because in spite of all the unpredictability, meteorologists do get it right more often than not. And they’re getting better, with today’s five-day forecasts being “about as accurate as two-day forecasts were 30 years ago.”

Then there’s the fact that, in some cases, we have to trust the experts. Just as most of us tend to trust our mechanics because we don’t know what goes on inside our car’s transmission, we don’t have much choice if we want a peek at next weekend’s weather. It’s either tune in to the weather report or wait until the day of the marathon or picnic to see whether it’s going to rain.

Even if the report turns out wrong, hope springs eternal and we tune in again the next day. In some ways it’s a bit like checking your horoscope. Sooner or later, it’s bound to be right. And you can always bring your umbrella just in case.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.[ei