Lightning flashes across the sky

Lightning flashes across the sky over the columns on Francis Quadrangle on the night of June 1.

Living in the Midwest, everyone has those days where it seems as if the weather is never accurately predicted. Instead of sunshine, it literally rains on your parade.

But how is the weather even forecasted? And why does it seem like the weather is an unpredictable entity?

People receive most of their weather information from a weather forecaster, also known as a meteorologist. The process of predicting the weather, says Patrick Market, a professor and interim director of the School of Natural Resources at MU, is much like the process of going to the doctor’s office.

“You don’t just walk into the doctor’s office and that individual throws you a bottle of pills,” Market says. “I mean there has to be a lengthy question and answer period.”

This “question and answer period” consists of observations gathered from different types of sources. According to Market, these sources include reporting stations, weather balloons, airport stations, radars and satellites. He also says the five main elements a meteorologist observes are temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and direction.

Anthony Lupo, another professor of atmospheric science at MU, adds that part of forecasting is looking at current and past weather conditions to help predict the future.

Despite the increasing accuracy of these methods, Lupo says there’s still an element of the unknown in the weather forecasts made by meteorologists.

“There are cycles within the weather that make things easily predictable, such as day times are generally warmer than nights, winters are usually colder than summers,” Lupo says. “But after that, there’s a lot of what we call dynamic variability. And that is just natural variability within the system.”

Some of these variables include cloud formation, precipitation, and how the land, atmosphere and ocean interact.

The predictions made by meteorologists have been developing and improving along with technology. But there’s another well-known weather forecasting source that has been used since 1818: the Farmer’s Almanac.

According to Peter Geiger, one of the two editors of the Farmer’s Almanac, the main difference between their job and the meteorologists is that the almanac forecasts weather two years in advance using a specific mathematical formula created over 200 years ago. This, in turn, creates a different vocabulary and timeline for their forecasts that they have to use.

“I can’t say [it’ll] start raining at two in the afternoon and stop at midnight, so what we’re going to say is it can be heavy rain, or it can be clear,” Geiger says. “And that’s what I think is good for people who are trying to plan vacations, plan a wedding, plan something outdoors.”

With all these different sources for weather predictions, it’s hard to choose just one. According to Market, this is one of the biggest struggles people face today. He calls it “forecast shopping.”

“The real problem that we have here, in terms of the public’s perception of accuracy, is the public hasn’t decided on a single outlet,” Market says. “Forecast shopping is the worst thing you can do. It might work for cars and shoes, but it doesn’t work for your forecast.”

With the meteorological method everchanging and the Farmer’s Almanac’s method a secret, it seems like the weather will never be 100% accurately predicted. So you might as well keep an umbrella with you at all times, just in case.  

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