Useful Weather Forecasting
February 12, 2011

I’ve written before about our reliance upon weather forecasting here, and living the weather, and the implications if we’re not ready for storms. That forecasting is a crucial part of our planning, and sometimes I wonder what we’d do without it. Meteorology has made incredible advances over the last 10 years in radar imagery, advanced-warning storm detection and predictions, and even seasonal trends for temperature and rainfall. Where once we would have been limited to watching the skies and guessing at what that wind change would bring, now we typically have at least several days’ warning for whatever weather is headed our way. My daily schedule is built around that information.

Yet I still hear people talk about how flaky the weather forecasts can be. Ironically, they rely on them far less than we do, yet they complain about them more. When I ask what sources of information they use for those forecasts, many of them refer to the standard local news channel’s weathercasters. To be fair, many television news programs do not employ forecasters with even moderate meteorological training. They merely inherit the forecasts made by others and then provide that information for their viewing audience. They also cover typically large geographical viewing areas, spanning an entire region. For example, our local forecasts run from the oceanside communities of Washington state, all the way to the mountain passes the Cascades. That spans an area roughly 200 miles wide by 400 miles long, with a 5,000’ change in elevation. Network television forecasters have to provide very generalized information for such a large area. As a result, their forecasts are commonly lacking in the detail and accuracy that people want.

A better forecasting method has come courtesy of the Internet, with a range of websites that cater to a person’s particular locale. Public websites such as , and NOAA’s National Weather Service website at all provide a wide range of weather forecast services, along with real-time weather advisories and numerous graphics capacity for things like precipitation, wind, fog, and storm activity. Those sites sometimes carry advertising that can bog down a screen’s loading time, but they also provide valuable information on whatever scale we need, whether that be within a one mile or 1000 mile radius. Websites like these have been our servants for a number of years now, and are amongst the most frequently consulted websites I use on a daily basis. Had our forecasting ability stayed at this level, I would have already been quite pleased with those advances.

Yet forecasting has already taken another several steps beyond even the above websites. We are very fortunate in this region to have the University of Washington’s Atmospheric Sciences department. One of the professors there, Cliff Mass, has a blog which provides a very in-depth look at current and upcoming weather events, plus the forces that shape them and the science that predicts them. His blog entries are therefore one part forecast, one part meteorology class, and one part science ethics and technical communications project. It’s clear from his writing that he doesn’t merely live and teach the weather, he loves it. And he shares his love, and expertise, freely with his blog readers. He has also created an experimental forecasting service called the probcast, which is short for probability forecasting. In that service, the forecast provides not only the predicted high and low temps and likelihood of precipitation, but also the range of conditions possible for any given ZIP code, along with access to the computer modeling maps that generated those numbers. Cliff’s blog is here and his probcast website is here.

Another weather service for our area is the WeatherCafe, hosted by Rufus La Lone, an entomologist-turned-meteorologist who provides twice-weekly long-term forecasts for the Pacific Northwest, with an agricultural focus. While he does not provide the graphics offered by Cliff Mass’ blog, he offers an in-depth look at the coming weather trends, and how those weather patterns will impact agricultural activities. He helps demystify the weather in a very agreeable conversational tone. His twice-weekly forecasts are available here.

For those whose interest in the weather is simply a matter of curiosity, the forecasts provided by network news is perhaps enough. But for those of us whose jobs are determined by, and occur in, the weather, a lot more information is both desirable and available. While these two regional sources of detailed weather information are not suitable for someone in, say, the Midwest, there are undoubtedly similar sources of information available in those areas as well. Weather forecasting is one of the rare disciplines which simultaneously is changing very quickly, and whose changes impact many, if not most of the population at any given time. Whether your interests are professional or merely curiosity, check out these more advanced forecasting services sometime. It might put a bit more sunshine in your day.