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Chief Meteorologist: Seasonal outlooks push the envelope

A national look at what to expect this summer season.

A national look at what to expect this summer season.

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    Chris Scott
    Chief Meteorologist

    Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 2:10 PM -

    I have a confession to make. I’m not the biggest fan of seasonal outlooks. Now, before you get the wrong idea, I want to emphasize there is definitely a place for seasonal forecasts and our seasonal outlook forecast team is the best anywhere. My reservations have more to do about how these types of forecasts are often communicated and how they can be misunderstood.

    Pretty much everyone understands that the farther you look into the future, the more difficult it is to predict – that goes for life and for weather. The funny thing is, the most common questions I get from friends and family are, "How does summer look?" and "Is it going to be a bad winter?"  I often joke, “Well, it’s going to warm-up and the days will be longer!” or “We’ll probably see some snow and the days will be shorter!”
    The reality is seasonal outlooks are at best a sketch of what is to come over the next three months. Beyond two weeks, our science can only tell us what general trends look to occur. The rhythm of ups and downs in the weather pattern that sets the tempo for our outdoor plans is actually quite predictable in the short term. Beyond two weeks however, the computer forecast models we use can’t find the beat of these critical day to day changes in our weather – the type of changes which spark that conversation with a stranger at the coffee shop and make Canadian weather so engaging.

    All of us, weather weenies included, crave certainty. Unfortunately, meteorology is one of those sciences where yes/no answers are in short supply. But I do appreciate the need to just give an answer, our ‘best shot’ so to speak, and I’ve come to appreciate this more over the years working with sophisticated users of weather information in the road maintenance and energy sectors.

    I’ve found there are two distinct ways to interpret weather forecasts. First is to look at the weather in terms of points, and thus in one dimension. Second is to think spatially in two dimensions. The first category is the hardest to please when it comes to weather information because if the prediction doesn’t come true, then it’s perceived as dead wrong. The second category is more forgiving and allows slight shifts in where a storm tracks that can dramatically change the outcome at a given location.

    WATCH: Chris Scott goes behind the scenes on the making of the Season Outlook:

    Predictably, meteorologists fall into the second group.  I can personally accept a busted short-term forecast because often the weather that was predicted to occur in one location did in fact occur nearby.  However, there is just something about a busted seasonal outlook that gives me a queasy feeling.  After all, if the perception is that you blew the whole season, all the valuable short-term forecasts that were made can be overshadowed.

    This is why communication is so critical. The UK Met Office learned this lesson the hard way when its media friendly prediction of a 'barbecue summer' in 2009 turned out to be an epic bust – so much so that it stopped publicizing these seasonal outlooks.

    So as you look at our seasonal forecast, it’s important to remember that this type of prediction is on the leading (if not sometimes bleeding) edge of the science. This is why I am a control-freak when it comes to the communication of our seasonal outlooks and insist that we use nuanced language. My preference would be to communicate these forecasts in probabilities – but can you imagine hearing a forecast that says there is a 30 per cent chance temperatures will be above normal, 40 per cent chance temperatures will be normal, and 30 per cent chance temperatures will be below normal? While a forecast like that may be most true to the science, I don’t know many people who could hold back from laughing after hearing that.

    At the end of the day, any chance to explain how weather works and provide a touch of insight into how our forecasts are created is a great opportunity and a privilege. The more we push the envelope of weather prediction, and the more skillful computer models become, the more accurate seasonal outlooks will be.  To some degree though, they will always remain on the frontier of the science - the wild west of meteorology – certainly not for the faint of heart.  

    The article above is the first in a weekly feature where one of The Weather Network's meteorologists will write to our readers on weather-related topics from the forecast desk. Check back for the latest & tune in to The Weather Network on TV for more of their insights and analysis.

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