The “W” Word
It was Tuesday. The day the blizzard was supposed to descend on the Philadelphia area. The TV weather people warned that it was going to be snow for most of the country, but something “much more dangerous” for us — ICE — freezing, pelting, car-wrecking, hip-crunching, power-line-snapping, tree-falling ICE. It was going to be a weather event so bad that the meteorologists forecast it as if they were reading a disaster movie trailer. I expected this huge ice storm to appear in the west with giant, rolling dark clouds and its own Hans Zimmer music.
[SIGNUP]As I sat amid the grocery bags looking out my kitchen window, rock salt at the ready, waiting for the ice pellets or hail or sleet or snow or freezing rain or actual ice cubes that never showed up, I remembered having countless conversations with TV weather people about the one word they hate to say, the same word that Fonzie used to have a problem with on Happy Days, the same word that George Bush couldn’t say at White House news conferences. It starts with a “w” and ends with a “g.” Fonzie, Bush and meteorologists stammer and stutter as they try and sound it out: w-r-Rah-o-o-n-n-g-a. Wrong.
The TV weather people have had to actively avoid saying that word a lot this winter. Remember the Saturday it was supposed to rain all day and instead it snowed all day? That ended up being over a foot of snow that the weather gurus missed completely. But did you hear one say the “W” word? Nope. Instead they employ forecast aversion tactics that they must have learned in weather school.
My favorite is when they actually blame the weather for changing. It’s not their fault. It’s the front that stalled or weakened or moved to the north. When they blame the storm’s movement, I love when they throw in the word “suddenly” to give themselves more cover. As if it happened within seconds, so fast that even their expert eyes couldn’t catch it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if a weather pattern really changed “suddenly,” couldn’t that cause cataclysmic winds? Here is the real problem with this excuse: The job of a forecaster is to track storms and their movement. To blame the very thing you are supposed to know means you were w-r-ah- … that word.
Another tactic is to make certain that you outline every single possible scenario so that you are never wrong. This is why winter storm forecasts seem to go on forever. The time isn’t necessary to cover the weather but to cover their butts. The flow charts and the maps and the patterns are the meteorological equivalent of fine print. This way, when even the most bizarre thing happens, the weather people can say, “I specifically remember saying that a plague of locusts was a distinct possibility.”
And finally, the most common tactic is just to pretend you got it right eventually. It is the silly audience who watched the forecast at 10 p.m. and didn’t hear the update the next day at noon. Hey Nostradamus, we all could have gotten it right the next day at noon by looking out the window.
One of these days we are going to have a weather event so humongous that it will make weather history and the weathercaster involved will immediately be put on a pedestal and heralded as a shining exception of mass weather denial. It will happen when one meteorologist says: “I’m w-r-r-o.’
We’re working on it. One day I forecast it will happen. And if not, just remember I also said there was a distinct possibility that it would not happen.