Saturday, February 24

Cabañuelas are back: how virality and 14-day predictions are breaking the weather

“I’m so sure [de que va a llover] otherwise I’ll shave my mustache tomorrow”. 55 years ago Eugenio Martin Rubio, TVE’s ‘weather man’, put on his famous mustache before the audience throughout Spain. And he lost it. Not a drop fell in Madrid and, honestly, it is not surprising: according to NOAA, in the last 40 years, we have improved 30% weather forecasts. If even today, with the amazing technology at hand, it is difficult to know what will happen in 14 daysI don’t even want to imagine how devilishly difficult it must have been to make predictions in 1967.

“Today we can issue a prediction for the weather that is going to be in the next 5 days with the same probability of success that the 24-hour forecasts had in the 80s,” he told us. Juan Jesus Gonzalez Aleman, postdoctoral researcher at the Complutense University. This is thanks to the fact that we have more and more sources to obtain data, but also because we have more and more capacity to process them. That is why it is surprising that in the “golden age” of weather forecasting, “traditional” methods such as cabañuelas are coming back into fashion.

The reason, I’m afraid, has little to do with the accuracy of the predictions.

The Luminous Decade of Meteorology Those better data and higher processing power are noticeable. And a lot. To get an idea, if just 15 years ago “a computer needed 5 to 6 hours to process a weather model for just the next few hours”, now it can do it, for the same level of detail, in a few minutes. This translates into the fact that, “although it can always fail”, we have many possibilities of getting it right in a 72-hour horizon.

The negative side is that from that 72-hour line and, despite the fact that the data is increasingly reliable, the predictions are blurred and we should not trust them so much. In roman paladino: the models improve at a dizzying speed and, in fact, we have advanced more in the last five years than in the entire history of this science; but the 14-day predictions are still pretty flimsy.

A huge (and little known) business. For most of us, weather services are newspaper pages, apps or TV shows that help us make decisions about vacations, weekend plans or what to wear before work. But nevertheless, that hasn’t been like that for a long time. The weather affects a myriad of things, from the price of energy to the number of cars on a particular highway. Thanks to this improvement in meteorological models, in recent decades this information has begun to be “usable” for the general public.

And that has allowed more and more sectors to integrate meteorological models into their normal operation. It is not only something typical of agriculture (where the weather is a decisive factor in choosing the dates of all the operations that are carried out), but also the logistics chains, the production flows in the factories and maritime transport are activities that today they can be seen greatly favored by good meteorological models (and companies capable of providing these services).

Beyond the ‘weather man’. Behind many of the meteorology websites and services are hidden divisions that are dedicated to these business services. The North American WSI (now part of IBM), the japonesa WNI or the dutch MeteoGroup (now owned by DTN) are some of the international giants in this sector, but “digital disruption” (and access to high-quality public data) has also meant that many small companies are able to offer their own services.

To a troubled river… The result is an ecosystem of small businesses and independent experts that live off credibility, but need virality to make themselves known. And the virality by giving priority to outlandish statements, spectacle and constant presence does not get along with the rigor of the predictions and the credibility of the experts. This breeding ground is fantastic for things like squiggles and other pseudo-scientific methods of atmospheric prediction. The damage this may do to the reputation of all of meteorological science remains to be assessed.

Imagen: Brian Mcgowan