Sunday, June 1, 2014

Start of Hurricane Season Brings Bogus Social Media Forecasts

I just don't get it.  Is there an internet trophy for being the first to post or tweet 2-3 weeks out that a hurricane is coming?

There is a disturbing trend in the social media era. It has been written about recently concerning the same trend in Winter Storms as well.

This is June 1st, the start of the Atlantic Basin Hurricane season. And as expected, you already have tweets like this appearing: "GFS hinting at a hurricane in the Gulf in 2 weeks, waiting to see if ECMWF comes into line in the next run."

"Oh, calm down Dr. Shepherd, it is only a few enthusiasts or kids doing this...."  Look, I am the first to encourage students and enthusiasts because I started weather watching in 6th grade. However, in an era in which social media reaches so many people, I believe there is a public safety issue and "responsible weather enthusiasm" is required.

Some of the sites talking about "illusive 2 week out hurricanes" have 5 and 6 digit followers or likes while the local Weather Service Office or TV meteorologists has less.

The public generally doesn't understand that every tropical "blob" (and there will be many) that appears in a long-range model run will not become a tropical storm. However, as many of us know, posts about such "mystery" storms can go viral very quickly. We saw this many times this winter. In a good meteorology program, the nuances of models, non-linearity, and parameterizations are taught.

If I were in high school, I would have likely had a weather page in this era too. However, I certainly wouldn't have the expected to have to breadth and depth of knowledge to issue a warning or challenge the experts at the Hurricane Center. There is actually a reason for the degrees or training meteorologists receive.

"Well, what about Sandy, the Euro Model saw that 8-9 days out right?"....Yes, and there will be some storms that the GFS and Euro get right at long range, but let's not confuse a highly anomalous situation for the "norm."

I actually took 10 minutes to write this blog because increasingly I am seeing that fatalities or disruption is emerging more from communications/perceptions of weather hazards than the actual accuracy of the weather forecast. Reflect on the controversy on whether Superstorm Sandy should have been warned as a hurricane or not! Reflect on the conflicting messages on what to do in the Moore/El Reno tornado events! Reflect on the messaging and timing of school/work release during the Atlanta Ice Jam. Messaging.

As weather experts, we understand (well some do anyhow) the nuances of model capabilities and limitations. We understand things like credentials and certifications. However, to a random person on social media that sees a shared post/Retweet about a hurricane or snowstorm coming, it may be legitimate to them. They don't stop to consider sources. However, over time, a "cry wolf" malaise may develop and when a threatening situation really emerges, it can be a problem.

As AMS President, I floated an idea for digital "certifications" or "seals" on sites to give the public some degree of evaluation. This emerged from the guys on WeatherBrains during one of my appearances. It is being discussed, but frankly, doesn't have much traction. And even I recognize the challenges associated with doing this.

In no way am I advocating anything that stifles a person's freedom of speech or zeal to learn. However, it must be acknowledged that over-exposed weather information, multiple threads of messaging, and "cry-wolf" can pose problems and threaten to lives.

Various sites that I will rely on (and there are other good ones too) for hurricane info include:

National Hurricane Center
Weather Channel and its tropical experts
NASA Hurricane Resource Page
Capital Weather Gang
Naval Research Lab Tropical Page
CNN Weather
UWM Hurricane Model Page
College of Dupage
Climate Central http://www.climatecentral.orgcn
FSU Experimental TC Genesis
My local Atlanta area NWS office and TV colleagues