Thursday, May 25, 2017

What Small Town USA Can Teach Us

Last week I did a spotter talk up in the far NE corner of our CWA...a rural town of just over 1200 people and located just south of the US/Canadian border (Chinook, MT). 1% of the population showed up. I would say most of our CWA is rural, with a handful of urban areas mixed in. Leaving that meeting, I started thinking about the needs of small town USA and, of all the things we do in the NWS, what is the most helpful for them.

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about picking your battles. Talking to the people in Chinook, I began to realize that I may be missing the point, or not focusing on the right things, with some of the battles I've picked. When you work in an office that is in a more urban setting, it can be easy to focus on the needs of the urban areas and forget the "little guys". I realize we can't hit every single need of every single person we serve. But, going out on outreach trips can sure be eye-opening.

For me, it was eye-opening in several respects. First off, small town USA doesn't necessarily mean the land of no cell phone signal and no WI-FI anymore. The sheriff had a fancy smartphone AND a cool-colored cover. The nearby fire chief also had a smartphone AND uses the mobile version of NWS' EDD. I gotta be honest, I didn't even know we had a mobile version of that site.

Then there's our products/services. The nearby airport manager said our DSS/partner emails we send out are the most helpful thing to him, not the TAFs. I thought it was cool that this small town airport even reads those emails. I mentioned to the sheriff that he could call us anytime for any weather-related help. He replied that after my spotter talk, he may have enough education to not have to call when the next storm approaches the town's summer fair. Does this represent all small towns? Probably not, but I'll bet it's repeated many times over. And, by the way, this is not meant to be seen as negatives about smaller towns, but as the reality of what's actually going on and what is used in smaller towns.

I guess the point is, we can fight all we want for what we THINK small-town USA needs, but after getting out and talking to the people, we may find we are fighting for the wrong things, at least as far as they are concerned. That's not to say that fighting for the needs of big city USA is wrong if it doesn't mesh with small-town USA. For me, small-town USA has simply helped keep things in perspective.

At the same time, this trip also helped me to see that there are things we fight for that I have always assumed were more helpful for larger cities (like the mobile EDD site). Who knew that working on that site, or something similar, may actually help big and small towns. And, while being available to provide support over the phone is great, maybe it's just not for some small towns. I believe our forecasts, warnings, DSS, etc is incredibly important to the mission of the NWS. But, what struck me that day is that all of that MAY not be what is most helpful for some small towns. Maybe outreach and education is our best service to them. Teaching the sheriff how to spot signs of rotation with an incoming storm might just be what helps him best serve his people even more than an email or phone call. When the sheriff said to me that he may not need to call us, it made me think of my kids. One day they will go to college and not have Mom or Dad right there next to them to help make a decision. That's when common sense and parental education comes in. Hopefully we will have taught them enough to make an informed decision. I hope my talk provided the sheriff enough info to make an informed decision whether he is able to reach out to our office or not.

Going forward, it will likely still be tricky trying to decide which battles to pick and which ones to let go of, but this recent interaction with the people we serve really gave me something to chew on. All of these ideas I've held dear may need a dose of ruralness (yes, I think I made up a word) to keep me in check!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Picking Your Battles

Being a husband, a father, and someone who does shift work, I tend to do most of my writing/thinking at night. Perhaps I should change the name of my blog to Roger’s midnight ramblings. Of course, many of the people who probably read this blog (after publishing their grids, of course!) also do shift work. Tonight’s ramblings revolve around navigating through the various passions in our field.

Being passionate is great and, in my opinion, an integral part of what we do. While we probably all share some common passions, there is also diversity in what drives us and that is ok. If everyone in an office/company/TV station is passionate about severe weather, what happens when the next snowstorm comes around? If everyone in research only cared about winter weather, what good is that for severe weather? Diversity in passions is healthy.

Lately, though, I’ve come to see that, if unchecked, passions can be unhealthy at times. See, out of our passions come strong opinions/beliefs. Diversity in passions is a beautiful thing, but it means we don’t all agree on everything. Someone who isn’t as passionate about severe weather may not feel as strongly about certain severe weather-related things as someone who is passionate in that area. Or, maybe you have a case of two people who are passionate about severe weather, but hold very strong and opposing opinions within that passion. It’s these opposing, strong viewpoints that I’ve wrestled with more recently.

I don’t know if this is a part of my personality or not, but I have always struggled with seeing the good in any opposing viewpoint. Not a good place to be! The last two years in the NWS have taught me, more than any other time in my life, that I simply cannot live this way. Realizing this has been an important step for me personally, but putting it into action? Now that’s a whole other ballgame. Keeping an open mind is tough and requires some painstaking effort at times (or, at least, it does for me anyway). Even with this new mindset, there are still certain things that for the life of me I cannot understand how someone could see it differently. In a church, a pastor might ask for an “amen” here, but since this is a blog, can I get a “write on!”?

But here’s the thing. In my experience, some of the things I have felt very strongly about turned out not to be as big of a deal as I made them out to be, or simply misplaced, after actually listening to the opposing side. Man, some of those times I really didn’t want to change my mind. Now, before people start questioning every opinion they hold dear, let me be clear. I do think there are things worth fighting for. Countless people throughout history stood up for what they believed in and positive change came about from it. What the past two years have taught me, though, is that I have to pick my battles.

I’m not saying we need to put all of our opinions under a microscope, but I do think it is worth taking some time to think through those strongly-held opinions to see what our motives might be, what facts support (or disprove) our beliefs, etc. This is a big reason why I blog. Even if no one else reads these, writing helps me to think through issues. Maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps sharing things with co-workers or posting your opinion in 160 characters or less works. Maybe it’s thinking on the car ride home. It won’t always be easy, but in my experience it has helped me to figure out which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t. It has also helped me to figure out what things I am probably way off on and which things I might be on to something.

You can probably all think of that person who seems to always pick every…single…little…battle. Perhaps you have been that person. I know I have before! Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. When we pick every battle, we run the risk of becoming white noise…a clanging cymbal that people don’t want to hear or don’t take a seriously. In our field, there are a lot of things worth fighting for in my opinion. But, there is a time and place for everything and, in some cases, it just might be that a battle simply isn’t worth fighting at all. I struggle with the idea of letting go of some battles. And, gosh, where do you even start on deciding which to let go of? Perhaps letting go of one or two here and there will help bring about change in those things that are even more important. I can’t tell you what battles you should fight and which you shouldn’t. That is just a part of the sportiness of this whole process. Heck, some things worth fighting for in one company or office may not be worth it in another.

On a quick side not here, in this whole process of picking my battles, I’ve been reminded to show a little grace when others pick every battle. I’ve done it before and maybe many of you have as well. Perhaps you’ve got the picking your battles thing all figured out, but that’s not the case for all of us. It may be annoying when others do this, but try to cut them some slack. You might even be able to help them work through what is important and what isn’t. Several in my office have helped me work through some battles and I am better for it. Whatever you do or wherever you work, there’s a good chance you are part of a team. If we work together through our weaknesses and show a little grace, we are probably all better off for it.

In this struggle of picking our battles, it may be easy to lose a little passion in the process. Don’t let that happen! About 6 months into my career with the NWS, I let this happen and, boy, do I regret it. Just because you may have to back off on some things, doesn’t mean the passion for the job should as well. I think the key is to find that balance of when to stand up and when to back off a bit. Plus, think of it this way. If on the flipside you do pick every battle, you’re probably going to get burnt out. What good does that do you or anyone else? I love seeing people find their niche/their passion. I equally hate seeing people lose their passion. If I can stress anything, please don’t lose that passion! Keep it in check and healthy, but don’t lose it. In the words of Leslie Nielsen, “We’re all counting on you”.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Messaging Significant Events

Over the past few days, a part of our CWA  (NWS Great Falls) has been pounded with heavy snow (here's a PDF from our office with some of the impressive snowfall amounts, records, and pictures). And, when I say pounded, I mean 30-50+" of snow, avalanches, roads nearly impassable or closed, roofs/buildings endanger of collapsing, emergency declarations, people stranded and/or unable to travel, etc. Perhaps pounded isn't a strong enough word, which brings me to the challenge of the day. How do we approach events like these from a forecasting and messaging standpoint?

I am a firm believer that a good message starts with a good forecast and good forecast starts with sound science. For me personally, my approach to forecasting (and this is by no means the only way to do it) has been to pour over the data, then build a forecast that best represents what I am seeing from model data, current observations, input from other forecasters, experience, etc. From there, I step back, look at the finished product, and then try to determine what, if anything, needs messaging. This is all well and good, but what happens when the finished product shows the potential, or even likelihood, of an anomalous event?

Perhaps more experienced forecasters than I don't struggle with this as much, but while working this recent event, stepping back and looking at the forecast prior to the event got me wondering if the ridiculous snowfall amounts I was coming up with were valid. So much so, as soon as I calculated my snowfall amounts, me and the other forecaster I was working with immediately picked up the phone and called a neighboring office that would also be impacted. When they answered, their response was the same. They also were, somewhat dumbfoundedly, looking at the amounts they were coming up with. In fact, in their words, they said, "We [the two forecasters at the other office] have been staring at our computers trying to figure out if these amounts are real."

Turns out, those amounts were real. But, hindsight is always 20/20 and, for many of us in the moment, I think there can be a hesitation to put out such a forecast. For me (and I assume I'm not alone in this), there is that concern of, well what happens if this doesn't actually pan out? This points to a larger question. What is more helpful/harmful? To see the potential and not put the forecast out, or to put it out? If you forecast the high-end event and it happens...awesome! If you forecast the high-end event and it doesn't happen...not so good. But, what if you don't forecast the high-end event and it does happen? Which is worse...forecasting the event and it not happening or not forecasting the event and it happening? Both have negative consequences and this is where the challenge comes in.

Sometimes, I think there is a tendency to back off from higher-end events. Let's face it, oftentimes at least one or two models show a worst-case scenario, only to back off as the event draws near. Or, maybe they never back off, only to be way off in the end. This isn't always the case, but it does happen. And, then, there is the issue of over-hyping an event or the boy who cried wolf syndrome.

But, at the same time, when even one model indicates the potential for a higher-end event, it probably isn't prudent to immediately write it off (outliers do verify at times). And, while never 100% perfect, I think this is where sound science, experience, and collaboration comes in. If after all of this, there is above average, or maybe even average, confidence, perhaps it is time to go ahead and pull the trigger on messaging the event as a higher-end event. Afterall, that is part of our job as Meteorologists. To inform people of the weather. If the weather is going to be really bad, people need to know so they can prepare. We can't make people prepare, but we can at least stress the expected magnitude of an event.

If there was a Messaging Hall of Fame, two statements/events come to mind to be included (and, of course, this is in now way an exhaustive list!) 1) The statement issued by NWS New Orleans prior to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. That's not a statement any NWS office issues on a regular basis. 2) The higher-end wording by SPC, NWS offices, and the media during the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak. Both of these events fell outside of the norm, in my opinion, and forecasters had to make the not-always-easy go/no go call on these higher-end watches, warnings, and statements. Should all events be messaged just as hard or do higher-end events need stronger wording?

At the moment, I would tend to lean towards higher-end events need to be messaged harder. A 40" snowfall in a non-mountainous area probably deserves higher-end wording/statements than a 10" snowfall. Winter Storm Warnings, for example, would likely be issued for both, but 40" has the potential to cause more significant impacts/disruptions to everyday life than a 10" snowfall. Both are significant, but again, the challenge is how to approach these higher-end events.

In our case, wind wasn't much of a concern for much of the hardest hit areas, so we felt that a Blizzard Watch/Warning wasn't warranted. Granted, it would certainly grab people's attention. I would imagine, and this is purely speculation, that a Tornado Watch also grabs a lot of attention and probably even more so than a Severe T-storm Watch. But, do you put out a Tornado Watch if you are not expecting any tornadoes? I hadn't thought of this before, but could it be that we approach winter storms like convective events and have PDS Winter Storm Warnings in addition to regular Winter Storm Warnings? For our CWA, I think this event would have justified such a warning. 10" of snow in a snow-prone area is definitely warning-worthy and causes significant issues. But, even here, 40" basically shuts everything down. The local DOT here mentioned in a statement that they are going to have to bring in heavy equipment to remove all the snow and that it would take multiple days to get through. Cars are buried, roads impassable, roofs are struggling to hold the amazing weight of the newly fallen snow. That's not your average winter storm. One of the shifts after mine added wording into the original warning, stating this is a dangerous situation. I thought this was a great idea and reminded me of the kind of enhanced wording SPC uses in PDS Tornado/Severe T-storm Watches.

I think it is always important to look back at an event as an office and as individuals to see how things played out and what, if anything, could be improved on. For me, I put out the higher-end forecast, but wasn't bold enough to go all in with the messaging, even after collaboration with national centers and a neighboring office. Basically, I used the process I mentioned above, but didn't fully apply it, unfortunately. I think the fear of being wrong and the fear of over-hyping or messaging too strongly got the best of me. It's important to make sure you're not missing something, but at the same time, if after a careful scientific/collaborative process, confidence is still above average, I think at a certain point you just have to pull the trigger. I think the lesser of two evils is people preparing for an event that doesn't happen as opposed to not being told of an event and it happening. The latter case, using a snow example, has the potential to leave people stranded with no food, water, power, etc, because who is going to prepare for an event they don't know is coming? Having extra food, water, candles, etc doesn't hurt anyone, but NOT having those things and then NOT having a way to get those things is much worse in my opinion. Perhaps these types of events only happen a few times in any of our careers, but when they do, don't fall into the trap I did of letting fear prevent a stronger-worded message from going out.

On a quick side-note, this event has reminded me that, no matter how good the models become in the future, I still hold firmly to the idea that an understanding of the science behind what the models spit out is vitally important to our messaging. Knowing WHY a model is showing something can help us explain HOW an event is going to play out and even know what to stress that even the best models might be missing out on.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Spaghetti Plots, Outliers, and Opinions

I've been an operational Meteorologist for almost 7 years now, working in both the private sector and the public sector (ie. NWS). Both sides have presented interesting challenges that I'm sure many can relate to, regardless of what sector you find yourself in. As for the NWS, though, that tenure has been a shorter one as I just started on this side almost exactly 2 years ago.

I absolutely love my job and have a hard time seeing myself doing anything else. But, loving your job doesn't mean it is always easy. Here in Montana, where I currently work, it has been a very active winter season thus far. Personally, this has offered some great experience for me as I still consider myself a newbie with the NWS. Lately, it has really hit home just how challenging the role of an operational Meteorologist can be (and, of course, this is not limited to NWS folks).

Take the upcoming week, for example. For much of the western US, this will likely be a very active week in what has already been an active winter so far. For our office, this might be the most active week we've had yet. Lately, our biggest concerns have been 'will it snow' and 'how much will fall'. This week, though, we've got a clash of Arctic and Pacific air and where that boundary will be, p-type issues, multiple (and I mean, multiple) shortwaves of varying strength, timing issues, and all on top of the normal will it snow and how much snow issues. Add to that issues surrounding blowing snow, wet vs dry snow, basically 6 straight days of accumulating snow and how to message that without confusing people, etc. I'd say we've got our hands full this week. While every week or season isn't like this, it highlights how quickly things can become sporty for the operational MET.

I must re-iterate, though, that while the above may seem like a negative, I see it as a unique, and even fun at times, challenge. Maybe that sentiment isn't shared among all METs, but fun or not, it is a challenge just the same.

I've watched as our office has wrestled through recent and upcoming events and I imagine this regularly plays out at most, if not all, offices (NWS, private, media, etc). Several months ago, my son and I were having our almost daily tackle time and, unfortunately, we wrastled a bit too hard and he ended up getting hurt. Fortunately, it was a mostly minor issue, but since then we have changed our wrestling time just a bit. The point is, wrestling is sometimes accompanied by painful / difficult moments and this also goes with wrestling through the challenges faced in each weather event.

But, wrestling isn't bad. For my 2-year old son and I, it is a bonding time. For METs, I truly believe it is a good thing as opportunity for growth and a chance to improve the service for our customers. But, growth isn't always easy. The weather community is filled with some incredibly smart folks, but putting a bunch of smart people together doesn't mean they will all agree.

Our office usually has a map discussion in the mornings (M-F) where we mostly talk about the current and expected weather issues, if any. But, on many occasions it has turned into an open forum for ideas on all things operations, usually with the current weather issue of the day the centerpiece around which the discussion flows. I love when the briefings become forums. Another good example is #wxtwitter (for those not on Twitter, "weather twitter" is basically on ongoing and unofficial open forum that brings together METs from all sectors). Just like our map briefings, "weather Twitter" isn't always the most subdued experience, but I think both are great and necessary.

I am learning that each person's opinion is important, no matter what your background. Now, that doesn't mean each opinion is a good one. Looking back, I have had (and still have) my share of opinions that, in hindsight, were not that good, or were too biased towards one idea or another, and so on. In the book, "Crucial Conversations" (Switzler, Grenny, Patterson, McMillan), the authors talk about a "shared pool of meaning". To me, each office, and the weather community as a whole, has a shared pool of meaning...a place where thoughts, ideas, and suggestions come together to help shape the way we operate. As they point out, though, the key is to keep this pool of meaning open and safe. In other words, EVERYONE is important enough to add an opinion, idea, etc into that "pool". An intern's ideas shouldn't be dismissed simply because he/she doesn't have as much experience as Forecaster A who has been working for 30 years. Neither should someone who tends to favor "old-school" ways of doing things be prevented from sharing ideas because his/hers tend to be seen as "anti-progressive".

But, as the authors of "Crucial Conversations" point out, it's not just about not dismissing ideas, it's also about making it an open pool and encouraging others to join in. We probably all know that guy / gal who has an opinion, but never or rarely shares it. As important as not dismissing ideas is, it is equally important to welcome others' opinions. If someone gives an opinion and they get their head bitten off by those who already have ideas in the pool, what good is that? There could be more great ideas out there that just aren't coming to the surface simply out of fear. Wx Twitter and map discussion forums are great, but I believe it is important to be careful not to scare people off. We ALL have had at least one bad idea or two (afterall, no one is perfect), so someone else giving a potentially bad idea doesn't mean they should be shunted for their opinion. I feel like this "safe pool" as the authors call it, is fostered by keeping dialogue open, sharing ideas, but being careful not to alienate people. If someone has a bad idea, it's fine to tell them, but I think it has to be done in a respectful manner in order to keep the ideas flowing.

For me, one of my personal challenges has been this idea of a shared pool of meaning. There are some people I tend to dismiss before they even open their mouth because of my view of them. I'm basically saying, 'Well, your opinion doesn't really count in my mind because of [and fill in the blank]'. This is wrong and by doing this I may actually be slowing progress, not the other way around. I came into the NWS with all these ideas and passions and, honestly, for some of these I just couldn't see how someone could see things any differently. And, if they did, well then I would just write them off as less passionate, old-school, less caring, etc. That is NOT a way to start a new job nor is it anyway to operate in any job and I have had to work really hard on this lately.

Going back to our weather pattern, it lends itself to many different opinions on how to handle the situation. As I mentioned before, it is likely that part, if not all, of our CWA will see some degree of accumulating snow each day for the next 4-5 days, but not from the same system. So, do you go with a 5-day warning, separate warnings for each event, or some combination of the two? Is one way more confusing than the other? What about your customer's needs? Each system will likely have some breaks/lulls in precip, but if they are only 6-12 hour breaks, will the public / customers even notice and/or see it as multiple events instead of one event? How do you handle this on social media or other communications methods without information overload? Will one shortwave be more impactful than another? Do you only message that one and not the others? What about antecedent conditions? It's winter, shouldn't people just expect snow / cold weather? This is a lot to process and I'm probably forgetting something. Ok, let the forum begin!

And this is where it gets about as messy as a 500mb spaghetti plot. Multiple members with multiple ideas, including those outliers. There may be decent agreement on one event (aka. topic), but not on others. And, just because there is decent agreement on a topic, doesn't mean the consensus is right. Sometimes those outliers nail it!

 In the operational setting, sometimes there is adequate time to mull over all these different solutions, but other times you simply have to go with your gut and pull the trigger on some product, message, weather story, graphic, email, etc, knowing that others might disagree and/or that it might not be the best answer. You can't mull over a Tornado Warning / alert for an hour...people's houses will be gone by then. The challenge of our job is that there isn't always a right answer. Even in the cases where there is probably a "best" answer, it may be tough to find. But, better when possible, that you try to find that best/better option as a team than as an individual. Pull from that shared pool of meaning (ie. that spaghetti plot) and don't be like me and ignore the "outliers" (ie. those folks I have struggled to not dismiss their ideas) or those "models" that always seem to have a bias. Sometimes the outliers / biased models are dead-on.

I'm not a big New Year's resolution kind a guy, but a goal of mine for this new year is to work harder to listen to all opinions even if I strongly disagree with some. Agreeing to disagree is fine, but I can't agree to disagree with an opinion that I haven't even listened to. That's like choosing to not even looking at a certain model's output because it is usually an outlier or biased. And, heck, turns out my opinions are not always right nor am I the only one with good opinions (whatever the criteria even is on that). Who knew?!? Will you join me in this goal? I hope weather twitter and map discussions keep going strong this year and that everyone, myself included, will keep an open mind to all the various opinions with the goal of trying to find that best way to serve our customers.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

That Warning Was Stupid

For as long as I've been forecasting, I will often check my work after the fact. Not a daily ritual of checking highs and lows, but more of a QC of the general idea of my forecast. If I forecast widespread severe weather and it didn't even rain, then I probably missed the general idea. On the flip side, if I forecast a widespread 1" of snow and every county in my CWA, except one, sees around 1", then I would say I got the general idea right (even if that one county got 3-6"). The job isn't a perfect one and neither are any of my forecasts. But, I'd like to get the general idea down as much as possible.

I know missing a forecast isn't the end of the world, but when you blow a forecast to the point that most of the general public realizes it, that can be a tough pill to swallow. Perhaps I worry about this too much, but part of me feels like I let down the people I serve. People count on us as Meteorologists to help them understand, plan on, and predict the weather. I think most have a good understanding that we aren't perfect, but still...

Recently I had what appears to be one of my bigger misses of late. An impactful snow that I had been forecasting for days basically fell apart before my eyes. Some areas still had impacts, but it wasn't nearly to the scale I expected. And, one of the areas that was supposed to get hit and didn't was our biggest population center. No forecast of mine has ever been perfect, but this one definitely missed the cut. One caller to our office referenced my Winter Storm Warning as being stupid. I don't take those comments to heart, but again, people notice missed forecasts. So, what do you do with those blown forecasts?

Well, there are a lot of ways to handle such a forecast and my mind was all over the place. Am I a good forecaster? Have I forgotten the science? Was I wish-casting? Will my neighbors drag me out onto the NOT-snow-covered street? Ok, so maybe I wasn't worried about that last one there. The point is, I wrestled through many things about myself as a Meteorologist.

But, at the end of the day, I was reminded of several things that I think could apply to others who may find themselves in a similar busted forecast boat. First off, I'm not the first forecaster to blow a forecast, even though it felt that way, and neither are you! Although, I suppose somewhere back in the beginning of forecasting weather, someone actually did make the first missed forecast. I'm sure that was good times...

I can't help but wondering if a blown forecast here or there is actually a good thing. Some people just seem to exude humility, but for the rest of us, it seems that it has to be learned...and learned through experience. Missed forecasts are humbling. I once heard a guy give a speech on humility. He mentioned 4 marks of a humble person:

1. Being Self Aware
2. Being Teachable
3. Concern for Others
4. Gratitude

Putting these into practice for a missed forecast might look something like this:

1. Be aware of and honest about your weaknesses as a forecaster and work on improving in those areas. Or, if the blown forecast was made in an area you are strong in, be honest about what was missed. The key is to not dwell on these weaknesses or misses to the point of putting yourself down. Me wallowing around in thoughts of whether I am a good forecaster or not doesn't do anyone any good. It's good to know my weaknesses, weaknesses of models, and simply the parts of weather that are very difficult to forecast at times. Know them, be aware of them, but don't wallow in them...

2. Pretty much self-explanatory. Missed forecasts can serve as a teaching opportunity...and not just for yourself. I've looked back and can see at least part of where I missed the boat on this recent flop. Instead of swimming in self-doubt, though, I can use this as an opportunity to improve as a forecaster, and perhaps it can even be used to teach another down the road ('oh man, when the models show that, be wary of this...').

3. For Meteorologists, I think this could be seen as caring enough about the people we serve to take our mistakes and learn from them. The speaker stressed that it is important to think about how things impact others...and not just ourselves. It's easy to think about how bad a missed forecast makes me look or feel, but at the end of the day, how did it impact those I serve? I can never serve them perfectly, but I can sure do what I can to best serve them going forward!

4. This one is tougher to nail down, but I am grateful that I'm not alone in missing forecasts. I'm grateful for technology/research that, I imagine, helps us to miss less forecasts than in generations past. Dare I say, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be that it will hopefully make me a better forecaster at the end of the day.

We will never be perfect and striving for perfection will leave you frustrated time and time again. But, we can always strive to do/be our best. In the process of shooting for our best, we will make mistakes. But, perhaps those mistakes are really just a part of the process of becoming a better Meteorologist.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hazards...Is Simpler Better?

The office I work for as of this writing (NWS Great Falls) has, in recent years, taken steps to get feedback from partners and the public about how they feel we did with various winter weather events and what steps, if any, they took after various products were issued. A lot of responses were expected, but something that caught my attention was how some viewed Winter Weather Advisories compared to Winter Storm Warnings. Surprisingly, some thought an advisory was worse than a warning. Speaking as someone who knows the difference, I did not expect that confusion. But, at the same time, I still have a hard time with people getting Tornado Watches and warnings confused. I know our products (as I should), but maybe the confusion is a sign of a bigger problem.

I love the idea of simplifying our hazards. When I look at the difference between Canada’s “WWA” map and the US’ (see maps below), I feel like simpler is probably better. The legends, alone, speak to the different approach.

But then again, part of me likes the array of colors. Maybe I’m just used to it, but I do like how I can quickly look at the map and know roughly what each hazard is without even having to click on it. That takes us back to my perception, not only as a Meteorologist, but as a NWS employee who has been used to this map and colors for years. The real question is, what does my wife think of the colorful array of filled in counties? I guarantee she can’t look at the map and say (without reading the legend), ‘Oohh…look at the expansive fog advisory in Arkansas!’. I can, but I bet most of the public can’t. The WWA map isn’t for me, it’s for the people I serve. Granted, the legend clears things up some, but maybe multiple colors isn’t the best.

Then I go back to the products, themselves. Recently, while contemplating with some colleagues on the best way to handle an incoming winter system, I came to the realization that for me, personally, I couldn’t say with complete confidence that one way to message the event was better than another. Various products had their pros and cons, but initially it was hard to say one product was the overwhelming favorite.

In this case, 1-3” of snow was expected for the southern third of our CWA, but on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. 1-3” of snow in this part of Montana is not earth-shattering, but not only did it fall after a relatively mild and snow-free period, it also came during the middle of a very busy holiday travel day and this presented an interesting messaging dilemma. It was discussed whether an SPS or advisory was warranted (a warning seemed too much given widespread, significant impacts were not expected). As mentioned earlier, though, some consider an advisory worse than a warning, but maybe this and the watch vs warning dilemma is an education/outreach issue??

While this wasn’t expected to be a significant event, it seemed worth it to get people’s attention, especially given the usually higher volume of traffic through the area. In the past, I would have leaned towards an SPS, but then I got to thinking about reach. Which product is the most visible (which seemed to be a motivating factor in this decision)? As far as I know, TWC still crawls SPS’ in addition to advisories and watches/warnings (I haven’t had cable in several years, though, so please correct me on this if I’m wrong). On social media, we could post either (or just make a general post that doesn’t reference any specific product), so that didn't seem to change the decision. But, what about the local TV media? Here, at least, I have never seen a station show SPS’ on any of their watch/warning maps, but they will show advisories. At the end of the day, I felt like an advisory had the best chance of being the most visible between the two options. That is what our office ended up doing. But, I’m not saying this is a right/wrong issue, it just re-invigorated the messaging discussion in my mind.

But, what about a case where the decision is advisory vs warning? Using the above arguments, both may get the same amount of visibility and, frankly, it appears not everyone even understands the difference. So, we might say warning over advisory in a more widespread, higher-impact event, but would the correct message even be conveyed? In the wording, sure, but just getting the alert on a phone without seeing text...would people know the significance of a warning vs. advisory? I'm sure some would, but based on feedback here, not all would. Some have proposed we get rid of one, namely the advisory. Honestly, I can’t argue against that. But, do we keep the SPS? I know that this product will still go to many phones via apps, even if it never shows up on TV stations. Plus, as it stands now, it covers quite the array of hazards that fall in the potentially-less-impactful-than-a-warning category.

And, of course, what would a good discussion be without a little outside of the box thinking?! As much as I believe a simpler hazards approach is best, is the risk of confusion worth it? We’ve had certain products for so long and people, whether they understand them or not, have heard of these products for many years. Is wiping out products and going with simply Statement, Watch, Warning (ie. like Canada) the right approach? I’m not saying it isn’t, I’m just asking the question. Do we keep the current system and work harder at outreach/education or is the risk of further confusion worth what is probably the best long-term solution? My gut says simplification is worth the risk.

I feel like there isn’t a perfect solution that adequately meets the needs of every single user, but I believe there is a solution that is the most ideal. Personally, I’m still not sure what that is, but it seems some form of simpler is probably better. I’m hoping through user feedback, we can come up with a best solution. I do believe that the best solution cannot be figured out without user feedback. To this point, it’s great to see the effort to get that feedback! I hope we get some beneficial feedback along the way.

As I said before, I believe simplifying is the best option, but I also believe there will be some growing pains along the way. I think if we work together along with feedback from those we serve, we can come up with a more ideal solution. It’s going to take patience and a concerted effort, two tasks that aren’t always easy, but perhaps it will lead to a more user-friendly product suite and maybe even an improved response to hazardous weather.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Over the last few years, I have talked quite a bit with a good friend of mine, a fellow NWS Meteorologist, about the ideology behind AFD (or equivalent) writing (or in his words, AFDology). Until I got into the NWS, I didn’t realize just how many opinions there were on the subject. In light of the various ideas, I thought I would take a stab at some thoughts of my own on the subject. Of note, if you’d rather not read through my thoughts at length, skip on down to the bottom where I do a quick summary of the points discussed below.

I suppose with any product, it’s good to start at the source. For NWSers, that would be the directives. Now, for those in the private sector, the start would, of course, be your company’s guidelines. But, given I can’t cover every rule of every private company, I’ll use the NWS directives as a start. Directive 10-5 (sec. 2.1) states, “The AFD is a semi-technical product primarily used as a means to explain the scientific rationale behind a forecast”. And I would imagine many private companies have some similar wording.

Overall, there is not a lot of ambiguity in that statement. However, the use of the term, ‘semi-technical’ brings up an interesting point. So, strictly-speaking, the AFD is used to express the scientific rationale behind a forecast, but in a semi- (or half) technical way. Ok, well what constitutes half? Maybe one technical sentence followed by a non-technical one? Boy, I don’t think so, Bob. Or how about this? If one is planning to use 30 technical words, maybe they should just get rid of 15 of those. Ok, now we are just losing people.

To me, semi-technical falls somewhere between a thesis or scientific write-up and a brief summary you give your sister before her wedding day. But, there’s a lot of room in between those two extremes and it seems this is where the varied opinions generally live. My personal caveat here is that I don’t know the right answer and I’m not entirely sure that a perfect answer/solution even exists.

For folks in the NWS, and possibly some private companies as well, our products are unique. And by unique, I don’t mean they have some special flare to them that no one else has. What makes them unique are the customers they serve. Some private companies have the advantage of writing to a specific audience while the NWS does not enjoy this luxury with every product. The AFD is one of these products. You have everyone from average Sally to emergency managers reading these things and there is a wide variety of backgrounds in weather knowledge. And, frankly, within those varied backgrounds are varied motivations for reading AFDs.

Perhaps this is what the semi-technical wording stems from…because of the varied readership. So, where does this leave us as writers of these products? Outside of partner/customer-specific products, I feel like the AFD falls into the category that many of our other products fall into…you just can’t meet every need of every person who reads/uses them. The directive states that the AFD is primarily intended for “federal agencies, weather sensitive officials, and the media”. Even in that group, though, the weather knowledge varies. However, I still think we can try to come up with something that meets as many needs as possible. For some of us, that might mean throwing in a bit more science, while for others it could mean just the opposite.

And on that note, I wonder if AFD writing should vary by region/office based on locally known knowledge/use? When I first entered into the NWS, hands down I would have said no. But, I can understand those who argue that point. Readers in Alaska probably don’t have the same grasp of convection as those in Alabama. Terms like convection, CAPE, shear, etc are frequently used in Alabama, and not just by the NWS, but by the media as well. Now, maybe people watching TV in Alabama don’t understand everything the local Met is saying, but they probably hear it enough to know that high CAPE/shear isn’t usually a good thing. People in Alaska probably do not hear these terms as often. So, while Mets in Alaska and Alabama may have the same understanding of convection, their readers probably don’t. So, perhaps throwing out a bunch of convective parameters in Alaska isn’t as helpful.

But, then again, we often talk about the importance of education. This probably more specifically applies to education regarding weather safety, but I think there is a place for Meteorological education within the NWS and/or private companies and I believe that the AFD can be one of the means to educate. In fact, the directive goes on to say, “The forecast insight provided in the AFD is beyond that which can be found in other NWS products”. I “grew up” on AFDs from many different offices, including Upton (NY), Boston, and Huntsville (AL). Prior to entering college, I read countless AFDs from these offices (all of which did not shy away from the science aspect) and I truly believe I am better off for it.

Granted, I was a motivated learner and not everyone reading our AFDs will fall into that category. In fact, outside of those aspiring to become a Meteorologist, I wonder how many people actually read AFDs with some educational motivation. That said, I have met non-Meteorologists who have expressed a genuine interest in learning more about weather than just what a cold front is, and who like the science part. One forecaster I asked about this said he likes to put in some additional info sometimes as a way to teach, or at least as a way to clarify what a certain term is. Of course, if someone reads an AFD on an NWS site, they will likely get some pop-ups to describe often-used terms. But, not everyone reads AFDs on an NWS site, so I can see the benefit of this as well. Whether a person puts a lot or only a little science in, it would make sense that the original intent of the AFD, at least from a NWS standpoint, was to provide insight not provided anywhere else.

All the talk so far has been about serving the customer, which is very important in my opinion. But, there is another aspect of AFDology that I’ve wrestled with lately, namely the advantages it offers to each AFD writer. This is something that is not expressly covered in the directive, but one that I personally find important. As Meteorologists, we all think/process things differently. How I compose a forecast may differ from that of another forecaster. For me, the AFD serves as a way to think through my forecast reasoning. Some people can just do all that in their heads, but for me writing it out helps. Heck, that’s one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place…to help myself (and maybe others) think through the challenges faced in this field.

The AFD is almost like a means of accountability for me. It keeps me sharp on the science and can even help point out issues in my forecast. There have been times where, as I wrote out my reasoning for something, I realized my reasoning was flawed or that I had missed something that actually required me to go back and change a part of the forecast itself (and hopefully make it better). Also, it continually forces me to know what I know (if you know what I mean). In other words, if I’m going to make some claim that supercells with violent tornadoes are likely, and I plan to back that claim up in the AFD, I had better know what I am talking about, otherwise I risk sending out a widely read product with the wrong scientific reasoning. It forces me to only say what I know, which in turn can be motivation for finding out what I don’t know. Granted, I know this won’t be the case for everyone, but just throwing out one idea not specifically covered in the directive.

Some might say that AFDs are not meant to be science checks and I get that. However, if it helps the forecaster put out a better forecast and/or keeps them sharp for continued good forecasts down the road, then it’s hard to ignore that it’s at least something worth considering.

On the other hand, some have expressed concern that AFDs have trended away from the science and are becoming less and less technical. Some of this may stem from an individual’s AFDology. At this point, though, I feel like we have so many non-technical public products (ie. weather stories, regional weather synopses, etc), that it is a good idea to keep the AFD more technical. I have no problem with the wide array of non-technical products, but I just think that it is good to keep at least one technical product going.

Summary Points

1.      I don’t believe there is one right answer and, in fact, the AFD that best serves our customers may vary by office/location.
2.      For NWSers, the “semi-technical” wording in the directive is a bit vague and is likely interpreted differently by person/office.
3.      AFDs have the potential to educate our readers, especially aspiring Meteorologists or those really into learning more about weather. But, it can also provide some background on terms that our partners might hear us mention from time to time in briefings, etc.
4.      Even with the DSS push, we already have several non-technical products and I believe there are advantages to still keeping technical products (like the AFD) around. Plus, as stated by the directive, “The forecast insight provided in the AFD is beyond that which can be found in other NWS products”.
5.      AFDs have the potential to keep us accountable to what we put into our discussions and may provide motivation to learn what we don’t know.

So, for me, I feel more comfortable than I originally did as far as the AFD varying some by office / location if the motivation is to do what is best for the respective readers. But, I don’t think it is necessarily beneficial to turn the AFD into a public summary with little to no science, especially considering the other non-technical products, summaries, and discussions that many offices already use. At a private weather company I used to work for, we had a public discussion and a more technical discussion. If people wanted to read the more technical one, they could. Otherwise, they could just read the non-technical one and get the basic gist of the upcoming with only a hint of science thrown in. To me, it seems the AFD should be treated a similar way. Who knows, maybe one day we will have a shorter, non-technical discussion that goes out, with a more technical discussion available for those who want to find out more.

Meteorology is a science, but there also seems to be a science to serving our customers. I think the best AFD writers find a way to balance science with effective communication, all with the motivation of best serving the end-user.