Why are the storm forecasts so wrong?

There’s a big snowstorm headed our way. Maybe 8 to 12 inches of snow. You’d better get to the store right now and stock up before there’s no more food left. The TV says it’ll be the worst storm in 40 years.

At least five times so far this winter, the local TV stations have broadcast similar dire warnings of terrible blizzards headed toward our fair city, only to see almost nothing happen except a few stray snowflakes or a brief period of sleet.

And, of course, they accompany those forecasts with pictures of people flocking to grocery stores and buying enormous quantities of bread, milk, hamburger and booze. They show drivers lined up at gas stations to fill up their tanks. They even travel to the city garage and show the mountains of salt being loaded onto trucks in preparation for the snow.

We’ve actually had a pretty mild winter, relatively speaking. But we’ve had the worst year in recent history for weather forecasts. Every time that local TV predicts a level 10 killstorm, they’ve been dead wrong.

It’s happened so much that the conspiracy theorist in me, a part of my character never too far from the surface, takes notice.

The technology that goes into weather forecasting has never been more impressive. The radar and satellites have never been more adept at peering into weather systems. News media have invested millions upon millions of dollars into upgrading their meteorological teams. They invest even more money in image advertising designed to make their on-air forecasters seem trustworthy and full of integrity.

But the forecasts themselves seem to be more inaccurate than ever. What’s going on?

I’ve long been fascinated in observing the phenomenon of panic shopping, when weather-fearing citizens take to the stores and strip the shelves of everything. I’ve taken pleasure in spreading false rumors about the intensity of predicted storms for the sheer delight of watching a mom with two kids buy four gallons of milk at once.

It tells me that if a real emergency ever happened, there’d be so much chaos and panic that nobody would have a chance of surviving. On Sept. 11, the lines at gas stations in Indianapolis were around the block, fueled by rumors of $5 gas. A few despicable local businesses used that terrible day to gouge consumers. All this happened over a tragedy more than 700 miles away.

There’s a certain level of mass hysteria that seems to be always bubbling just under the surface in the minds of many people. A TV station says we might get 8 inches of snow and thousands go on spending sprees.

Nobody wants to be stranded at home with no food, but why do people go so crazy? Before the last predicted storm, I stopped at a local grocery store to get a few items we needed. It took me over an hour to buy 10 things.

One possible explanation is that the big grocery companies, the oil industry and the television stations have entered into some sort of conspiracy to drum up business during the slow winter months. TV stations drive people into a state of panic over some non-existent blizzard and the grocery stores and gas stations clean up.

There are probably six or seven huge grocery stores within a 2-mile square radius from my home. Probably most people, except those in the inner city or in rural suburban areas, could say the same thing. The longest period of time that a winter storm kept me from being able to go to one of those stores has been a day.

Even at my most poverty-stricken, I’ve always had at least a few days of food on hand. Granted, I might not want to eat a 2-year-old can of pumpkin pie filling for dinner, but it beats starvation. So I’m guessing that more affluent people have at least a week of food in their pantries at any given time.

Our Department of Public Works has historically done a very good job at keeping the main arteries of traffic clear of snow. So why do people freak out so much when some overpaid weatherperson tells them there might be snow?

One answer, of course, might be that many people are just plain stupid and easily frightened. That would explain the initial acceptance of George W. Bush’s adventures in Iraq. But I think it goes deeper than that.

I think the ultimate conclusion is that our news media make great profits in scaring the shit out of people. It’s to their benefit to paint the worst possible scenario on every event. Severe weather events are just the most noticeable examples.

Given that, the most rational response is to take everything the media say with a grain of salt. Be prepared for the worst — but bear in mind there could well be more sinister reasons why the TV news is telling you that a foot of snow is coming. 

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