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5 Facts About the Trickiness of Weather Forecasting

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Meteorologists get a bad rap. They’re right up there with doctors as the most visible scientists in society, but their work is routinely badmouthed and unappreciated by so many people who benefit from it every day. “They get paid for being wrong half the time!” is a common insult, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth. The vast majority of forecasts are very accurate these days—a three-day forecast today is as accurate as a one-day forecast was during the waning years of the Cold War—but some predictions can still go awry.

1. GETTING THE FORECAST WRONG IS CALLED A "BUST."

Some busts are bigger than others. If your local forecast called for a high of 85°F today and it only hit 79°F, that was a bust, but it’s not one many people are going to notice. If a forecast calls for flurries overnight and you wake up to find your car buried under a snow drift, that’s a huge bust.

The science of meteorology has advanced at breakneck speeds in recent years. Each new tool they create allows meteorologists to understand more about our atmosphere, and better anticipate its next moves. It wasn’t uncommon a few generations ago for people to go completely unwarned before a hurricane tore through town. Now we know if something is brewing days before the first cloud pops up.

2. THE MODELS CAN SCREW UP.

Hurricane Joaquin’s forecast track on September 30, 2015, compared to the actual track the hurricane took. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

Some of the worst forecast busts come from weather models giving us bad information. These advanced computer algorithms use what we know about the weather right now to predict what the weather will do in the near future.

A perfect example of this is Hurricane Joaquin, a powerful storm that developed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2015. Warm water and the late September heat allowed Joaquin to pack 155 mph winds at its strongest, and many weather models showed the storm making landfall near Washington D.C. a few days later. Few models showed it moving out to sea, so meteorologists were concerned that a major storm was about to hit a huge metropolitan area.

All of the models that showed Joaquin hitting the United States were wrong. Joaquin raced out to sea and hit Bermuda instead. The weather models had a hard time figuring out a complicated weather pattern north of the hurricane that affected its future path—and since they didn’t figure it out, they didn’t get the track of the storm right.

This is usually the story for most major, news-making forecast busts; when a hurricane doesn’t hit or a blizzard doesn’t materialize, it’s usually because the models screwed up.

3. YES, HUMAN ERROR CAN PLAY A ROLE.

Weather models are called “guidance” for a reason. They can give you an idea of what’s going to happen, but it’s up to you to interpret the data and use knowledge and experience to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. Since there’s a decent amount of instinct and judgment that goes into forecasting, it’s not unusual for a meteorologist to get one wrong. Maybe he or she misjudged the timing of a warm front, or mistakenly brushed off a pocket of cold air that allowed the rain to turn into ice. Humans are fallible, and as long as there’s some level of discretion involved in predicting the weather, there’s going to be occasional human error.

4. RANDOM CHANCE ALSO HAS AN IMPACT.

Sometimes what plays out in the sky escapes both weather models and the trained eye. A great example of this is “the cap,” which is an inversion layer (a layer of warm air above cooler air) that prevents air from rising through it. A capping inversion can stifle a day expected to see horrible thunderstorms: If the cap doesn’t erode, air won’t be able to rise, and thunderstorms won’t form. A day can have the perfect ingredients for severe weather, but sometimes nothing happens because the air just couldn’t rise.

5. WE ALL FEED THE MEDIA BEAST.

One way the internet has affected meteorology is how it makes us perceive the weather. The race for clicks and ratings causes some sources to exaggerate the effects of certain storms. The bigger and meaner a storm, the more play it gets. This can lead people to believe something worse is on its way than what’s forecast. If you read about a horrible tornado outbreak that was never forecast to be that bad, you might think the forecast was a bust if only a handful of tornadoes touched down. Not only do forecasters have to work through actual errors in the process, but the Facebookization of the weather means they have to play the expectations game as well.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

Person running in field with a dog.
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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

Woman cuddling her dog.
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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there is no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7-12 year olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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