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Taken for Granted: Let's talk about the weather

January 05, 2011

Our recent drenching, the East Coast blizzard and the latest cruise ship fiasco set me to thinking about weather prediction.

The 30-foot storm waves that broadsided a ship in the Mediterranean, causing it to roll precariously and terrify all on board, elicited a very predictable response from the ship's captain. Onboard satellite imaging, radar and global positioning satellite navigation were not enough for this veteran of 35 years at sea to plot a course around the brunt of the storm, so he did what we all do when surprised by bad weather — blame the poor weatherman.

It brought to mind the tribulations of those hardy and unheralded souls who practice the thankless science of meteorology and must tolerate cynics who taunt them with claims that weather forecasting is still a few hours behind arthritis in predicting the weather.

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In the interest of full disclosure, my brother Tom, now retired, served 35 years as a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in New York City, keeping the metropolitan area on its toes as nor'easters or blizzards approached.

Meteorologists, stockbrokers and Vegas odds makers are all subject to the same abuse. But if these other prognosticators could come anywhere near the 95% predictive accuracy of weather forecasters, they would be worshiped as superstars.

One "busted" forecast and these dedicated public servants are subjected to the barbs of local media and the dumb jokes of standup comics. The Big Apple has a particularly brutal history of bashing weathermen and "unelecting" politicians due to the whims of Mother Nature.

Mayor John Lindsay lost his job and his shot at the presidency as a result of too much snow and too few snowplows, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg is experiencing déjà vu again. So in addition to the talking heads and comics, weather forecasters sometimes must take the fall for the incompetency of local politicians.

Consider the demands of a profession tasked with telling people how physically uncomfortable they are going to be, employing such terms as the misery/discomfiture index, the wind-chill factor, the UV and smog levels, i.e. cancer threats.

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