There’s a common saying that meteorology is the only job where you can be wrong most of the time and not get fired. It’s a statement that makes many a meteorologist’s blood boil because it’s inherently untrue. There’s a lack of understanding by the public as to why the weather can be so unpredictable.
Weather forecasts as a whole improved dramatically over the last half of the 20th century, especially following the advent of weather radar and satellites. Computer-based weather modeling improved accuracy further, as it could run complex simulations of our Earth’s atmosphere much faster than any human could.
The issue with weather prediction is the chaotic nature of the atmosphere itself. If you’re familiar with chaos theory – a branch of science that deals with inherently complex systems that are extremely sensitive to initial conditions – meteorology fits nicely into that description.
Small differences in initial conditions can lead to big differences in the end result: this is the so-called butterfly effect. All is not lost, however: even in chaotic systems like the weather there are still patterns that can be detected, and previous history to make better educated guesses.
These studies, along with better monitoring tools for the atmosphere, have allowed weather prediction to achieve a surprisingly high percentage of accuracy, considering the circumstances.
Forecasts up to five days out are about 90% accurate most of the time, and about 50% accurate out about ten days, according to studies on forecasting accuracy. This is up from just thirty or so years ago, when forecasts even out to five days had only a 50/50 shot of being right. So that old adage about the weatherman being wrong all the time really isn’t true anymore – but people always remember what you do wrong, rather than what you do right.
As an amateur weather watcher, you lack the scientific training to be able to fully understand the Earth’s complex atmospheric system. However, there are a few tried and true methods to develop a base understanding of how to predict the weather, which we will cover in this chapter.
I like to think of weather forecasting like learning how to play the piano: it’s easy to learn the basics, but only with practice and additional instruction will you be able to master the techniques. This chapter is designed to give you a solid base.