Monday, January 4, 2016

Commentary: On long-range "hype-casts" and YOUR responsibility

Winter has arrived and with it the appearance of long-range winter storm or snow maps that go viral on Facebook and Twitter. This post puts me "on the record" on these social media sensations, which I call "hype-casts."

The perceived need by many to try and reach the masses (whether with good intent or just as part of a game to try to go viral) has resulted in click-bait headlines (those intended only to get the reader to "click") and slick/catchy graphics, even if the part that catches the eye (or even the embedded content) is partially true, misleading, or just plain false.

A typical long-range hype-cast with vague wording and a broad-brushed impact zone, requesting an "immediate share." 

This applies in the weather realm as well. Sharing of weather graphics - whether created by professionals or novices or simply shared from computer model websites - has grown more common as access to weather model data becomes easier and social media has matured to the point that anything can go viral (and for some, that is the sole goal). Though there probably aren't a lot of "offenders" that spread misleading (to be kind) graphics and headlines, it doesn't take but a few to cause mass confusion, or in some cases, chaos. Professional meteorologists that are ethical end up spending as much time debunking, or at least attempting to explain, these misleading posts as they do creating their own forecasts!

Millions in the path!

The graphics and/or headlines tend to be of two varieties - severe weather outbreaks or major winter storms. Neither of these are impermissible to share and inform the public of, per se. However, the offending posts are generally shared many days to weeks in advance of the so-called event, when the first long-range computer model "sniffs out" a major storm (or even a pattern that could support such a storm). Typically, the proposed outcome is not shared by other computer models and that same model has a completely different solution on its next run (these models produce a completely new set of forecast data 2-4 times each day, called a model run).

An excellent graphic from 2014 by NWS-Memphis on why "exact" long-range snowfall forecasts should be treated with skepticism. The further out from the time of the event (day 0 to the right) the wider the range of possibilities that exists. For a more detailed explanation, see the complete Facebook post that accompanies this graphic.

Dealing with the problem

There is increasing debate in the meteorological community about how to handle both the problem and the offenders. I will not wade into that topic too far at this point, other than to say that it isn't just "backyard meteorologists" or "kids" that are at fault for creating the mess. (Most of us meteorologists started as one of those kids that was eager to learn and practice our new love, we just didn't have the vault of available model data and social sharing platforms that are available today.) Some professionals are simply too eager to be the first on the scene, just in case it becomes breaking news a few days down the road.

There are ways to deal with each of these groups. Professional organizations are one means of doing so, by certifying meteorologists and issuing seals of approval for those who meet certain standards. However, I feel that most of the population would not look for, or even care, whether their source is certified. So the best way to deal with the situation for now is to educate you, the public.

What should I do?

So, what should the average Joe or Suzy Q. Public do when presented with a weather graphic or story with click-bait headline that they are uncertain of?

  1. Beware the share! If you aren't sure whether it's valid, stop the bleeding and quit sharing. 
  2. Know your trusted sources. Trusted sources are the qualified individuals that have told it to their audience straight before, admitted when they were wrong, and don't hype for hype's sake. 
  3. Ask that source. They should take the time, either in direct response or through a general post on the topic, to address the issue. 
  4. Be skeptical. If it's more than 5-7 days out and it's extreme weather for your area, trust me, it isn't "likely." It may be possible, plausible, or conditional, but it isn't a guarantee. If the graphic doesn't have a logo or source clearly labelled, paints a very general picture with wording that is "extreme," or has an explanation that seems far-fetched or just mixes in lots of big words and acronyms that don't make sense, skepticism is the best way to view it. 

Our goal at MWN

Our goal at is to become, and remain, your trusted source for Memphis and Mid-South weather information. We do that with a stated mission of "protecting, informing, and educating" you, the consumers, on impactful weather scenarios. This includes letting you know when there is a decent chance of a particular event occurring, within a reasonable timeframe, but only when we have enough confidence in a plausible solution that it can be shared without hype. Typically this means the solution is proposed by multiple models and/or is fairly consistent over a series of model runs.

We also will clearly identify anything that is strictly model data as such, so that you know that there is inherent uncertainty in the final outcome. In essence, we strive to follow the guidelines in #2 above. We hope that you trust us to do as we state and will question us if we stray. At the very least, we'll be responsive, as long as you're not a troll. :-)

Erik Proseus
MWN Meteorologist

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