January 27, 2012
Recently South Africa passed a law that local weathermen could go to jail if they get a forecast wrong. Okay, technically it is more complicated than that: anyone who reports severe weather or air pollution without getting written permission from the South African Weather Service first could face a fine of up to five million rand or up to five years in jail. I thought it sounded goofy even before I knew the details, but with the details it sounds even worse. In spite of all the advances in communications technology I don’t think in a crisis some weather reporter is going to have time to call the central weather service and say, "Hey, could you fax me something that says it’s okay to tell people in my community there’s a flash flood coming right now?" And in spite of all the advances in weather forecasting I think it’s going to be even less likely that some weather reporter is going to be able to call them up and say, "Hey, could you fax me something that says it’s okay to tell people in my community there will be a flash flood next Thursday at 10:15am?"
I would think predicting the weather in South Africa is hard enough already, especially since January down there falls right in the middle of summer. And the craziest thing is I know some people who think this law is a good idea. I know people who are positively ecstatic over it, saying, "It’s about time weather forecasters were held responsible. After all, what other job lets you get away with being wrong eighty percent of the time?" Hey, if you work in accounting, package delivery, a pharmacy, a restaurant, as a fireman, or most other professions and you’re wrong eighty percent of the time you should be fired, but even with satellites and radar and magic 8-balls predicting the weather is still tricky, and there’s a lot of room for error. When I was in college a local news station started giving a local grade school fifty dollars every time their weather guy’s prediction of the next day’s temperature was off by more than five degrees. I think they finally stopped it when the school built a whole new wing named after the weather guy.
The other night my wife and I and all four dogs were awakened at two a.m. by a tornado alert and went to the basement to sit on cold concrete for half an hour. And I’d already gone to bed late. Lucky for us we didn’t get hit by a tornado, but I’m not blaming the weather service for getting it wrong. Sure, if they’d been able to come up with an accurate forecast well in advance I would have thought to take some comfortable chairs, or at least some blankets, downstairs, but there are worse things than sitting on cold concrete in the middle of the night-like getting carried away by a tornado, for instance. I think people are impatient with weather forecasters because most of us have grown up with science fiction television shows and movies in which the weather isn’t just accurately predicted, it’s somehow controlled by a magical, futuristic system involving satellites and, I don’t know, mirrors or something. Predictions of controlled weather have been made in everything from Star Trek to Back To The Future, and every time it comes up I always wonder if it’s really a good idea. Haven’t we screwed up the environment enough already without trying to impose artificial controls on the weather? And while severe weather can be horrible and destructive from a human perspective it’s also part of the natural process. A tornado is nature’s way of taking out that old rug in the hallway and shaking all the dust out of it. A forest fire is nature’s way of getting rid of a lot of old furniture and replacing it with beanbag chairs. I’m not saying I want to get caught in a tornado or forest fire, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else either, but even earthquakes can create oases in the desert.
On the other hand I do live in Tennessee, where forecasts of snow can cause panic, especially since most people around here think the way to drive with snow on the roads is to floor the accelerator and spin the steering wheel wildly. And everyone has to run to the store to stock up on eggs, bread, and milk. Why everyone goes for three of the most perishable things they can find is beyond me, but there’s apparently there’s something about snow that makes everyone crave what around here we call French toast, what the French call pan perdu, and what the English call poor knights of Windsor even though it’s neither French nor lost, and doesn’t taste anything like a knight, but that’s another story. It’s even been suggested that local weather forecasters are in cahoots with the grocery stores, and when the stores are overstocked on bread or have a bunch of milk that’s about to pass its expiration date suddenly the forecast calls for snow. I don’t buy this theory myself, although it would explain why we once had a forecast of snow in the middle of July. Even with that, though, the worst punishment I think the weather forecaster got was being made to get up in the middle of the night and sit in the basement.