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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Hidden Weather Secrets, Literally

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In the modern world, we take the miracle of weather forecasting for granted. While the TV weather forecaster is the popular butt of jokes about the quality of their predictions, nowadays they're right way more often than they're wrong.

They've even gotten better at being wrong. Today, instead of the weather turning out to be gorgeous on a day that was supposed to be rainy or vice versa, forecasts in recent years tend to be wrong about the amount of rain or clouds or what time it will start. This is an underappreciated improvement over being flat-out wrong.

There is a team of thousands of people using cutting-edge computers, sensors, and research (mixed with a dose of "poke your head out the window and look up") that make analyses such as this one routine:

Just another day at the weather office.

Thanks to the pile of technology and knowledge churned together at government weather offices every hour of every day, pilots, sailors, farmers, picnic goers, and dog walkers can hop on the internet, go to their favorite weather source, and know within minutes whether it's a good day to fly, if the crops will need watered today, or if Fluffy would fly away if you took her to the park for her walk.

Nothing in life comes free, and although we may not have paid a fee for the website we went to in order to get this information, millions of dollars of tax money goes to places like the NWS, NOAA, etc. to produce these forecasts. Considering that these forecasts save lives by keeping planes and ships out of weather they can't handle and save millions of dollars in crops and other products by warning of conditions that will affect them, we actually get a pretty good return on that money.

In fact, as an interesting historical note, the very first successful, specific forecast of a tornado occurred in 1948 at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Because the base had a few hours of warning that there would probably be tornadoes that afternoon, they took steps to move aircraft into hangars and other shelters. The predicted tornado did happen, and because of the precautions taken, approximately $4 million ($40 million in 2013 dollars) of taxpayer-paid-for planes and equipment was saved.

Unfortunately, in October 2013, the gamesmanship of the U.S. government sequester turned into a EF-5 tornado of political windbaggery, leading to a government shutdown. Politicians and bureaucrats recognized the importance of maintaining forecasters on the job looking out for weather that might affect us. Throughout the shutdown, they were deemed essential personnel and went to work every day.

However, the dysfunction led to many departments without the funding to actually pay the people they deemed "essential". This led to the forecast above, which, while technically accurate, also contained a hidden message. Read the first letter of each line to find it. To help you out, I've highlighted the message in red below:

Click image to embiggen.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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