Weather Forecasters Have an Obligation to Report The Truth

E-mail Janice Dean

Hello FOX Fans! So far so good with our weather blog! I’ve gotten some great questions and suggestions over the last few weeks on what you want to know or hear about. I’m impressed with your vast weather knowledge, based on some of your responses!

A few questions popped up about the “evolution” of a tropical disturbance — and how sometimes us "weather people" don’t do a very good job of explaining what the various stages are in the process of storms and hurricanes, so here it goes … starting off from the very beginning, of what we call “a disturbance.”

• A tropical “disturbance” is usually the early stages or beginnings of a tropical cyclone. It’s an area of “convection,” or a cluster of thunderstorms that hangs around for a period of time and gets us a little more interested in its future behavior — and whether or not conditions are favorable for a little tropical activity!

• A tropical "depression" is the next step, and the National Hurricane Center will name a depression if there is winds near the surface less than 39-mph — and shows promise of more development. Depressions are labeled with a number and sometimes we have a handful of numbers percolating in the Atlantic (or Pacific)

• Then comes the tropical storm. A storm is given an official name once there is an indication of sustained winds of 39 to 74-mph. Obviously, the storm is now getting stronger and forming a core of winds.

• The hurricane is the final formation; for this to happen, you need sustained winds of at least 74-mph. There are five categories of hurricanes on the Saffir Simpson Scale that help classify the strength of the hurricane based on the surface pressures and wind speeds.

By the way, as I'm writing this, we just had our eighth storm named, which intensified into a hurricane in less than 24 hours! Humberto went from a tropical depression with 35-mph winds to a hurricane with 85-mph winds in just 18 hours, according to senior hurricane specialist James Franklin at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

And how’s this for amazing — no tropical cyclone in the historical record has ever reached this intensity at a faster rate near landfall! Shocking!

This just goes to show you we have a long way to go when it comes to forecasting exact track and intensity of these amazing forces of nature (which I am about to give you an example of … so keep reading!)

So, Humberto is almost history — we have another depression out in the Atlantic that could soon become Ingrid … remember Gabrielle from last weekend, that brushed the North Carolina coast? Well, I’ve got a little beef with some of the local weather folks here in the city I live in — I hope you don’t mind me “opining” as Mr. O’Reilly likes to refer to!

I recall early on in Gaby’s formation one of the local channels here in New York (that shall remain un-named even though I’d love to call them out!) went crazy on the potential for Gaby to “BECOME A HURRICANE AND HIT THE JERSEY SHORE!” This was being said even before the storm was categorized as even a depression out in the Atlantic! Early computer models were all over the place in trying to figure out where the storm was going. There was only one model early on that brought the storm up close to the New York City vicinity and most of the other weather models were aping for more of a “Carolinas” storm.

I found it very interesting that this station was moving quickly on the possibility that this storm could come up and slam the New York City area. Is this for ratings? Scare tactics? Getting your name in lights as being the only station predicting the storm “COULD MOST DEFINITELY (!) hit the tri-state area?” Now, I can understand if the National Hurricane Center had come out with a forecast that made their track a little more northeast centered, I might be a little forgiving … but that was not the case. I found myself getting really angry with this local station blatantly going to air and trying to scare people that, “The big one could be coming!"

Maybe because I do national weather, I’m a little more immune to these local games, but come on! What happened to being responsible weather forecasters? What happened to saying “the eastern seaboard needs to monitor this storm system?” I found myself flipping through all the local channels to see who was being fair and who was being out of line and irresponsible. I will give a shout out to our local FOX station, FOX 5 and their forecasting team, led by Nick Gregory, who were very conscious of their viewing audience. There was zero fear forecasting from Mr. Gregory whom I think is the best in the business here in town. (OK, I’m a little biased … but I think most New Yorkers would agree with me here!)

I guess my bottom line is this that tropical storms and hurricanes have the potential to be very serious and often deadly weather systems. They can pop up out of seemingly nowhere and wreak havoc on someone’s home and neighborhood, destroying lives and livelihoods. Warning the public is one of our most important jobs in forecasting. However, being over the top and using scare tactics to drum up ratings is not acceptable. We are getting better at forecasting, but as I mentioned before on this blog — we can’t even get the five-day forecast right, let alone be able to predict the exact location of a tropical storm making landfall! I’m all for trying to be the best forecaster you can be, but when it comes to “embellishing the truth,” just a little to be different, or get a little “buzz” about your forecasting skills, it’s more likely you’ll get hung out to dry from your viewing audience the next time the storm really is in your own backyard!

That’s the latest from the Machine. Back to you FOX Fans!

Janice Dean is a meteorologist for FNC. To read more of her bio, please click here.