Friday, July 22, 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.

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