5 Facts About the Trickiness of Weather Forecasting

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iStock

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.

For the First Time Ever, a Woman Has Won the Abel Prize—Math's Version of the Nobel Prize

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iStock.com/perfectlab

Every year since 2003, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has bestowed the Abel Prize for excellence and contributions in the field of mathematics. Every year, the recipient has been a man. In 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck crushed that dubious tradition and became the first woman to win the Abel Prize and its $700,000 award.

An emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Uhlenbeck’s work is focused on gauge theory and geometric analysis—the latter a field she pioneered. Gauge theory supports theoretical physics and is involved in the research of particle physics and string theory. Uhlenbeck is also credited with work that led to greater comprehension of the unification of forces, a primary objective in physics that attempts to link electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force with strong nuclear force in a single theory, which would help us understand the universe.

Mathematician and Abel Prize winner Karen Uhlenbeck is seen in a portrait
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Uhlenbeck arrived at UT Austin in 1987 and stayed after her retirement in 2014. During that time, she co-founded several programs, including the Saturday Morning Math Group and Distinguished Women in Mathematics lecture series, both in Texas, as well as the Park City Mathematics Institute and the Woman and Mathematics program at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

She achieved another milestone in her field in 1990, when she became the second woman (and the first since 1932) to host a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians.

The Abel Prize, which is modeled after the Nobel Prize, is named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Hendrik Abel. Uhlenbeck will receive the prize in Oslo on May 21.

[h/t New Scientist]

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

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