My dad died in 1983, and every September I play a round of golf at the Summit Inn in his memory. I play two balls, one for him and one for me. My father loved golf and he loved the weather. About golf, he taught me to keep my eye on the ball and about the weather he taught me to keep my eye on the sky.
I inherited my passion for the weather from him. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, keeping your eye on the sky was important since radar, satellite and computers were just being invented. We did have a good thermometer and a barometer and we could tell the direction of the wind from the Beaufort scale using the flag, smoke or trees for guidance. He also taught me all the different cloud formations and we became somewhat proficient at forecasting the weather.
When I was 10 years old, I received the daily weather map from the U.S. Weather Bureau in the mail each day. The information was already 2 or 3 days old, but it allowed me to study weather patterns and how they moved across the country. Today with a computer or phone, I can get the weather from just about anywhere on the planet in a matter of seconds.
In those days, weather forecasting was mostly done using a system called “persistence” or the assumption that a weather systems past would dictate its future behavior. If a storm is in Nebraska one day and Indiana the next, then by persistence it will be over Southwestern Pennsylvania the next. While this method gave us clues about the weather, it did not allow for the constant changing of a weather system. Sometimes they dissipate, change direction, slow down, stall, speed up or rapidly intensify. This method of forecasting was very unreliable and anything beyond a day was a big challenge.
Today’s weather forecast is made by machines. Radar, satellites, computers and constant weather observations from across the planet are put together and called models. Watching Hurricane Dorian last month, we were constantly being shown the latest models on where the hurricane might be headed and how strong it would get. When the models are all in agreement there is strong confidence in the forecast and when the models disagree, as was the case with Dorian, the track and the forecast is a bit more difficult. Time also plays a role and the further out on the time line, the greater the uncertainty, especially when we are looking out 5-7 days in advance.
Just like dad taught me, before we can predict the weather, we have to understand where it comes from and to do that we must look to the sky. Our earth is enveloped in an atmosphere of air that like liquid water behaves as a fluid. As air flows from place to place, it takes with it properties of temperature, humidity and wind. All of our weather is simply a by-product of our atmosphere moving heat from one place to another. When you look at the weather to see if tomorrow will be a good golf day that little Icon on your phone is the result of supercomputers and trillions of calculations.
NOAA claims that today’s five-day forecast is accurate about 90% of the time; the seven-day forecast is at 80% and the 10-day at only 50%. Computers and the models have brought us a long way from the 50s and 60s and the daily weather map when we were lucky to get it right for tomorrow let alone 5 to 7 days out.
Dad beat me by two strokes today since I took my eye off the ball, however the weather was perfect and I keep looking up at the sky to see if any changes are coming.