When it comes to weather forecasting, people I talked to seemed to be more bullish than not about its accuracy.
“If I had to give you a very rough estimate, I think they’re probably right 65-70 percent of the time,” said one man on the street in Brighton. “I think it’s definitely easy in summer, so I would say 65 percent in winter. Summer’s definitely higher than that, I think. I think it’s easier for them.”
“Uh, it’s about 50-50,” said another. “I think it’s a computer-animated thing, you know what I mean.”
“Sometimes, they’re wrong, but they’re very close with what’s going on,” said one woman. “You know, that’s what I think. We better believe, you know. I think we better believe. Better if nothing shows up, but you gotta think first and make sure about your safety, you know.”
So just how wrong or how right are forecasters? To find out I hopped in the car and drove more than 40 miles south of Boston to Taunton, home of the National Weather Service center for Southern New England.
The center can be a little easy to miss. It’s located in an industrial campus, surrounded by such neighbors as Verizon, the state Department of Revenue and Pepsi.
I prepared myself for the hustle and bustle of an office considered ground zero for an approaching winter storm. But instead, it was just another day at office.
“Good morning folks, from a coastal flood dimension, we have two high-tide cycles of concern: the Friday evening and the Saturday morning one, with the Saturday one potentially being the more significant one,” said Bob Thompson. “The entire state of Massachusetts is going to be impacted very signifanctly by the storm.”
Thompson, the meteorologist in charge, briefed as many as 400 to 500 cities and towns across Massachusetts.
But to know just how those forecasts came to be, I had my own briefing with Glenn Field, whose job is aptly called warning coordination meteorologist.
“How we arrive at the forecast is first of all we look at the numerical model information in great detail,” Field said. “And we have a very sophisticated system called AWIPS, the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, that allows us to display various fields and colorized and overlay current data, satellite pictures, lightening strikes, all kinds of things that we can do to assess whether the models are accurately performing to begin with.”
But before the numerical model information is crunched, there are mega computers in Washington that has to assimilate all of this data. They earn their mega status by running 3 trillion calculations per second.
Even Glenn admitted that pictures are worth a thousand words, so he took me to the main floor where the scientific and analytical magic happens.
On first glance, it’s like any office space, full of PC’s and dim lighting, but then you notice something out of the ordinary. Desk after desk equipped with not one -- or even two -- but at least three or four computer monitors.
They’re filled with a colorful assortment of maps and graphics -- far beyond what you find in the weather section of your local newspaper.
Meteorologist William Babcock, who mans the long-term forecasting station, is surrounded by six monitors.
Being on the long-term desk, his job looks at what’s to come after the storm hits. But I wanted him to go back to about week ago and tell me what he saw days before the storm hit the front pages.
“One of the models was showing the potential for a snowstorm,” Babcock said. “I’m not sure if you could say that it was suggesting a blizzard. But it was certainly suggesting a decent storm. Out at that distance these things can come and go with each run of the computer, so you take it with a grain of salt, but it does catch your attention. Over the span of the next several days, the models started to come together in general agreement.”
Babcock said what typically used to be sifting through 100 to 150 maps a day has grown to as many as a thousand on the busiest day. The enormity of now having so much data available has made editing and filtering them an even bigger part of his job.
“What we have today is almost beyond description,” Babcock said. “It almost forces us into triage mode – medical folks would be familiar with that. You have to focus on the information that is the most important, and focus on that and let the other details sort of slide to the side in order to get the forecast done and out the door, in order to be of use to everyone.”
In a field with such sophisticated data and computer systems, I couldn’t help but ask about a current threat hitting many organizations: hackers. While the center’s IT guru wouldn’t divulge specifics about how they’re prepping, he did admit such a hypothetical is, as they say, closely being monitored.