The Problem with Predictions Home > The Problem with Predictions
Our "storm meister" is Cruise Critic senior contributor Steve Faber, who, like many of our members, also happens to live in the "zone." Steve came to the study of meteorology out of necessity, learning the skills out of an aversion to death and dismemberment -- his own! For years he was a private pilot with ratings in single engine, instruments and gliders, and for those endeavors understanding weather is a basic survival skill.... More
Having lived in both earthquake and hurricane zones I can tell you that residents of each have very different issues to content with. For the former, it is the inability to forecast earthquakes; for the latter, it is the media's near obsession with hashing and rehashing every wrinkle and change in hurricane predictions.
Richter's "Believe It or Not"
So, do Californians lament not knowing when the next temblor will strike? Ask a few with business interests that would be harmed by earthquakes how they feel about developing a prediction system, and a sizeable number would opine that being able to predict such occurrences would be detrimental to California. How can that be? Well, there are two criticisms: First, nobody is really sure what the appropriate response to a predicted quake should be. After all, the affected area for a major earthquake can vastly exceed the size of a hurricane evacuation zone, creating major logistical problems, not to mention the impact on the state's economy with businesses and customers both on hiatus.
Secondly, since earthquake predictions are likely to be in the "general time frame" variety, the disruption would extend far longer than those of us in the hurricane zones generally experience. And realtors shudder at the thought of the dampening effect for potential buyers of knowing that a home was located in a region expected to suffer a major quake in the near future.
A similar effect has blighted South Florida tourism this summer, based to a great extent on the dire predictions of tropical meteorological experts that a repeat of the catastrophic 2005 season was in the offing. Here in the Florida Keys, we have seen the worst tourist season in memory -- even though the closest call we have seen was wimpy Tropical Storm Ernesto.
The bottom line is that as far as predicting the path of individual hurricanes the track record is admirable (though an actual percentage is too complex to quantify). But the springtime predictions of entire hurricane seasons for the upcoming summer and fall have been about as dependable as reading tea leaves. The problem is that many travelers don't differentiate between the two types of prediction, treating the pre-season "guesstimates" with the same expectations that they grant to the projection of where an existing storm will be three days in advance, and act on those expectations.
Reading the Tea Leaves After the Fact
Along come Dr. William Gray (head of the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University) and his team of forecasters demonstrating why they get the big bucks. On October 3, a bit more than three weeks after the statistical peak of the hurricane season, they are once again downsizing their expectations, now predicting only two more named storms remaining, of which merely one is anticipated to reach hurricane strength.
My sense is that any seventh-grade math whiz could have come up with the same statistical projection without a whit of meteorological training. To be fair, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, the late appearance of an El Nino condition, which caught everyone by surprise, is responsible for the mildness of this year's season, but the lesson to be learned is not to take long-term advance projections so seriously as to change your travel plans.
Take them with a grain of salt. Buy trip interruption insurance. And remember what tea leaves are best for -- making tea.
(Oh, by the way, there are no active tropical disturbances in either the tropical Atlantic or Eastern Pacific hurricane zones.)