Weather or Not

Despite advances in forecasting technology, predicting the weather is often a crapshoot.

As March 8 approached, local forecasters in Denver had a feeling the day wouldn't be right for sunbathing. The temperatures seemed likely to be on the brisk side, and there was even a chance of scattered snow showers. But neither the prognosticators at the National Weather Service nor the weather professionals at the city's local TV stations -- the folks whose predictions largely determine what clothes people put on before heading out the door each morning -- expected any big deal.

Wrong. Early that afternoon, a wind and precipitation blitzkrieg struck the metro area, producing what Channel 9 meteorologist Mike Nelson calls "two hours of hell on the highways -- a snow squall that was almost like a summertime thunderstorm."

"It looked like a blizzard for a couple of hours," says Bob Goosmann, the chief predictor for Channel 31. "I was at the mall with my wife, and I just kept mumbling, 'I didn't think we'd see this much snow...' I thought we'd drop into the thirties, and we dropped into the low teens. I was dumbfounded by the whole thing."

Marty Coniglio, the A-list weatherman at Channel 7, was also caught off guard. "I worked that whole damn day, and at one point, I went into the weather office and thought, 'I got hosed. I just got screwed by two computer models.'"

So did Denver drivers. The Colorado Department of Transportation, which relies on much the same weather information as the citizenry at large, was totally unprepared for a major weather event; for that reason, Nelson notes, "they didn't have time to put down any mag chloride," a chemical that helps prevent the pavement from freezing. Playing catch-up proved difficult: Kieran Nicholson, writing for the March 9 Denver Post, reported that "about 50 CDOT plows were sent across the metro area as the storm rolled in, but they soon got caught up in typically heavy Friday afternoon traffic."

The traffic wasn't typical for long. The highway system was paralyzed for the entire Friday rush hour, doubling or tripling commute times in most locations and turning the T-Rex construction zone into a nightmare on ice. But by far the worst place to be was Interstate 76 near East 74th Avenue, where a pileup of around forty vehicles closed the route in both directions and led to numerous injuries and one death.

"That's the tough part of the business," Goosmann allows. "We'll predict a little bit of snow and say driving could be tricky, but then all of a sudden, you'll get a big storm and a huge pileup, and someone dies. You can't blame yourself for something like that, but it's always in the back of your head. You wonder, 'Was that person watching me last night?'"

Quite possibly. Late-night news roundups garner more regular viewers than just about any other locally produced TV program, and internal surveys and focus groups staged by outlets regularly confirm that a sizable percentage of their audience, and often a majority, watch primarily to find out what the next day will bring.

But how often are forecasters right? Back in 1992, Westword tried to find out by tracking the performance of Denver's top talents over a period of more than two weeks -- and the final count showed nearly as many misses as hits. What's more, the scores weren't that much higher when the procedure was repeated ten years later (see Weather by Numbers).

Nonetheless, Denver's TV-weather gurus -- Nelson, Coniglio, Goosmann, Channel 4's Larry Green and Channel 2's Dave Fraser -- come across as sincere types who seem genuinely interested in getting things right. Furthermore, they believe they do so more often than not.

"The forecast 48 hours and closer is much more accurate than it's perceived," Fraser says. "I'm constantly surprised by how good it is. Even after thirteen years of doing this, it's still amazing to me that we can tell you that it'll be 71 degrees two days from now and be right on the nose."

At other times, they're right on the ear, or maybe the eyebrow: Take April 19, when a sloppy snowstorm that everyone saw coming the night before never materialized. But all five insist upon taking responsibility for botched forecasts.

"I've never met anyone who does this for a living who didn't believe deeply in what they're doing and didn't try to do their best," Coniglio says. "I've found that the most wicked interaction you get with people is via e-mail. Because it's anonymous, the things that are written to you and about you are sometimes quite disturbing. It really is eye-opening. But even then, the things they say after you've had a poor performance, we've already thought about ourselves."

Of course, TV predictors aren't always at fault when they fall. They're simply victims of a system that's noteworthy but far from perfect.

According to Green, the tools of forecasting have improved greatly over the past decade -- among them better and more useful Doppler radar, which he says works best "when you've got a storm right on you. It shows right where everything is and lets you put out more accurate bulletins, watches and warnings."

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