For Release February 2, 1999

Don’t Blame the Weatherman!

by Chuck Otte, County Extension Agent

Last Friday morning the weather forecast took a major change from the day before. Before the morning was over I had listened to a couple of our local radio personalities and no less than a half dozen other people around town call the weathermen, the National Weather Service and the weather forecasts all sorts of nasty names. Well, I decided it was time that somebody stood up for the weather forecasters!

These people do not have an easy job. First of all they are studying a very dynamic natural force. The weather is in a constant state of flux. Especially here in the plains states we have so many factors that can influence the weather at any hour. We have the gulf stream, a couple three Pacific storm tracks, a couple of Canadian storm tracks and then just the instability of the air masses coming out of the mountains and settling on to the plains. You interact any or all of these factors with the normal weather factors such as time of year, temperature of the ground, solar radiation, etc. and you have an enormous amount of inherent variability. Add on top of that the dozen or two factors that affect the weather that we don’t even know about. Is it any wonder that the weather can change so much in just a few hours?

Last week we had a big low pressure system coming up out of Arizona and New Mexico. Our most severe winter storms usually come from lows moving out of this area, what we often refer to as the four corners area. These lows head in an easterly direction and as they move into the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and southwest Kansas they start grabbing lot’s of moisture and energy out of the Gulf of Mexico. Then, if a cold front starts to move in from the north you wind up with a powerful low moving lots of gulf moisture into a cold front resulting in a huge snow storm.

The trouble in forecasting arises from the simple fact that as little as a 50 mile shift north or south of this low can result in a change from clear and pleasant winter weather to a devastating snow storm, or vica versa or anything in between. When the week started the low appeared to be poised to move far enough south that it wouldn’t impact any of Kansas except the extreme southern border. But then, at the last minute, it started drifting north, hence all the clouds and rain. If there would have been a stronger cold front moving into the area we could have easily had ten to twelve inches of snow. Back in the middle of last week I heard one forecaster on the Weather Channel talking about all these possibilities by the way.

To complicate matters worse we have the general public that wants everything in black and white. They don’t want to hear what the possibilities are, they want absolutes. The problem with this is, that in the natural world there are very few absolutes. There’s a little black, a little white and a whole lot of gray. A weather forecast is simply a projection of what is most likely to happen with the given set of circumstances. But the minute after the forecast is made, these circumstances are apt to change and every small change in the circumstances will impact the forecast 6, 12 or 24 hours on down the road.

So lighten up on the poor weather forecasters. They are doing the best they can with the information they have available and we the public have force them into the types of forecasts they give. We too often forget the days and days that they hit the forecast right on the money. We seldom forget the times that quick changes shift the pattern 180 degrees. We always joke that this is Kansas and if you don’t like the weather wait an hour. So next time a fast change occurs, just remember that and don’t blame the weatherman!


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