Weather, God, predictability and uncertainty

September 18th, 2019

The meteorologist is getting better

The old adage “You can’t trust the weatherman” was once an accurate statement. In the past, forecasts more than a day or so out were mostly guesses based on seasonal averages. But according to research cited in a 2019 article in the journal Science, “A modern five-day forecast is as accurate as a one-day forecast was in 1980. Useful forecasts now reach nine to 10 days into the future.” Today, meteorologists are more equipped to offer us useful and accurate information about the future effects of atmospheric patterns on temperatures, rainfall and extreme weather events.

These improvements in forecasts have come about due to technological improvements and the hard work of meteorologists, mathematicians and modelers. Satellites offer more and better data about the current conditions of the atmosphere than ever before, and modern computers now have enormous capacity to take in all of this data, run it through extremely complex models, and synthesize the two for more accuracy and sophistication. Today, meteorologists can even tell us whether their forecasts are more or less certain by running multiple models of a particular weather system to see whether the different models agree or diverge in their predictions.

As weather forecasts become more accurate, they also become more valuable to society — from your own decision about what shoes to wear to a corporation’s decision about whether to invest in energy or agriculture. Access to weather data and predictions has traditionally been publicly available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States but could become a valuable commodity if it were privatized or restricted as some have lobbied for.

Despite these improvements in technology and modeling, weather remains an incredibly complex and chaotic phenomenon. It depends on the interactions between thousands of variables in many interlocking systems. Despite our best efforts, our weather-related future will always remain somewhat uncertain.

What’s a 40% chance of rain?

As forecasts become more reliable, it may be even more important to recognize the limitations of scientific predictions — and the average person’s ability to understand them — to avoid a false sense of security or control. For instance, what exactly does it mean to say there’s a “40% chance of rain”? The answer’s a little bit more complex than you might think. In this instance, it’s a measure of the likelihood that rain will occur somewhere in a given area multiplied by the percentage of the area expected to receive rain. Our ability to understand and process this abstract information determines how we respond.

For a more significant example, consider tornadoes. After a series of well-predicted but still-deadly tornadoes, the National Weather Service began working with psychologists and sociologists to improve its communication with the public. By interviewing disaster survivors, they learned that the accuracy of the forecast was a less important factor in people’s decisions about how to act in an emergency than their preconceived ideas about how weather in their area behaved or their individual responses to a traumatic situation. For instance, learning that a tornado was bearing down upon their house might cause an overconfident person — even one who’s been told that tornadoes can travel at incredible speeds — to go outside to see the tornado. Likewise, people often assume that certain phenomena cannot occur in certain places simply because it hasn’t happened before. At a certain point, it didn’t matter if the forecast was right; it mattered whether the people who got the information believed a disaster could happen to them.

Additionally, while short-term predictions have grown more accurate, long-term predictions about climate and weather patterns are becoming more uncertain due to the effects of climate change. Established patterns are being disrupted, making the behavior of these variables more uncertain. For example, scientists know a lot about hurricanes but still have been surprised by many of the large, powerful hurricanes that have formed in recent years.

Who’s in control?

Weather has always been a source of awe for people. As Christians, we recognize the intricate systems of our planet as God’s handiwork and give thanks for beautiful snowy mornings and perfect summer days. But does the ability to predict the weather take away from our sense of wonder at it?

In a world where technology allows us to control so much in our lives, it can be easy to forget that the ability to predict the weather is far from the ability to control the weather. From farming to planning a day at the beach, all that humans can ultimately do about a forecast is try to be prepared for whatever comes our way.

Whether or not we believe that God acts directly to affect the weather, we can still recognize that the planetary systems resulting in our weather are far bigger and more complex than our sophisticated technology will ever be. We will always depend on God’s love and presence to carry us through the uncertainty of our day-to-day lives and the immensity of the forces that can affect us.

We’ll also depend on God’s care and guidance as we learn to deal wisely with the many kinds of information we take in every day. As the reactions to severe weather information show, we need clear communication, wisdom and the discernment of a community to decide how scientific knowledge pertains to our actions. In the end, we’re all doing the best we can with limited resources, including knowledge. Seeking to understand what science can tell us and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit are two actions that go hand-in-hand as we learn to face the future of a rapidly changing world while resting in the peace of Christ.

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