collage || perspective
Cloudy With a Chance of Chaos Think enduring Minnesota weather is tough? Try forecasting it. | BY MIKE AUGUSTYNIAK
he conversation always begins the same way. I’m in line behind you at the grocery store (with ice cream in my cart, of course), and you’re talking to your trusty shopping companion. “They say it’s supposed to rain/snow/storm/be sunny later.” “Yeah, right. They always get it wrong.” Look, we meteorologists get it — criticism comes with the job. Whether the weather affects your livelihood or your cookout, a blown forecast is an enormous inconvenience. Go ahead — let us have it! (Please, though, have the courtesy to not blame me for an incorrect forecast someone else made. The moment you say that all forecasters are alike is the moment I tune you out and start thinking about that ice cream melting in my cart.) “Why can’t you guys just get it right?” you’ve probably wondered. Here’s why. Think of the atmosphere as a swimming pool. Whether you cannonball, wade or dip your toe into the water, the ripples eventually travel throughout the entire pool. Weather systems send ripples through the atmosphere, and all systems affect one another. The atmosphere is so complex that, in theory, the small vibrations caused by a butterfly flapping its wings in the Serengeti can cause a
76 Artful Living
| Autumn 2014
hurricane to form somewhere across the world several weeks later. This idea — coined “the butterfly effect” in 1969 by MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz — is a cartoonish (but nevertheless possible) example of chaos theory, how wild outcomes are born of tiny variations. An accurate forecast begins with knowing what’s happening now, and we get a pretty good view of that using radar, satellites and ground-based reports. Some of the most important information comes from weather balloons, which are launched from some 800 worldwide locations twice a day and transmit temperature, moisture and wind measurements along their routes to the edge of space. Still, all of that data doesn’t give us a 100-percent accurate view of the present; there are gaps in coverage, especially over the oceans. Computers model how the atmosphere and storms behave, but to be accurate, they need to be fed high-quality, up-to-the-minute information — more than science can provide. That means that today’s forecasts are better than they were a decade ago but are far from perfect. We meteorologists interpret the models and use our forecasting experience to figure out what’s going to happen. But when chaos rules, you still might get rained on. At least now you’ll know why.
Published on Oct 20, 2014
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