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.

No Venom, No Problem: This Spider Uses a Slingshot to Catch Prey

Courtesy of Sarah Han
Courtesy of Sarah Han

There are thousands of ways nature can kill, and spider species often come up with the most creative methods of execution. Hyptiotes cavatus, otherwise known as the triangle weaver spider, is one such example. Lacking venom, the spider manages to weaponize its silk, using it to hurl itself forward like a terrifying slingshot to trap its prey.

This unusual method was studied up close for a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio. They say it's the only known instance of an animal using an external device—its web—for power amplification.

Hyptiotes cavatus's technique is simple. After constructing a web, the spider takes one of the main strands and breaks it in half, pulling it taut by moving backwards. Then, it anchors itself to a spot with more webbing in the rear. When the spider releases that webbing, it surges forward, propelled by the sudden release of stored energy. In the slingshot analogy, the webbing is the strap and the spider is the projectile.

This jerking motion causes the web to oscillate, tangling the spider's prey further in silk. The spider can repeat this until the web has completely immobilized its prey, a low-risk entrapment that doesn’t require the spider to get too close and risk injury from larger victims.

The triangle weaver spider doesn’t have venom, and it needs to be proactive in attacking and stifling prey. Once a potential meal lands in its web, it’s able to clear distances much more quickly using this slingshot technique than if it crawled over. In the lab, scientists clocked the spider’s acceleration at 2535 feet per second squared.

Spiders are notoriously nimble and devious. Cebrennus rechenbergi, or the flic-flac spider, can do cartwheels to spin out of danger; Myrmarachne resemble ants and even wiggle their front legs like ant antennae. It helps them avoid predators, but if they see a meal, they’ll drop the act and pounce. With H. cavatus, it now appears they’re learning to use tools, too.

[h/t Live Science]

Bad News: The Best Time of the Day to Drink Coffee Isn’t as Soon as You Wake Up

iStock.com/ThomasVogel
iStock.com/ThomasVogel

If you depend on coffee to help get you through the day, you can rest assured that you’re not the world's only caffeine fiend. Far from it. According to a 2018 survey, 64 percent of Americans said they had consumed coffee the previous day—the highest percentage seen since 2012.

While we’re collectively grinding more beans, brewing more pots, and patronizing our local coffee shops with increased frequency, we might not be maximizing the health and energy-boosting benefits of our daily cup of joe. According to Inc., an analysis of 127 scientific studies highlighted the many benefits of drinking coffee, from a longer average life span to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Sounds great, right? The only problem is that the benefits of coffee might be diminished depending on the time of day that you drink it. Essentially, science tells us that it’s best to drink coffee when your body’s cortisol levels are low. That’s because both caffeine and cortisol cause a stress response in your body, and too much stress is bad for your health for obvious reasons. In addition, it might end up making you more tired in the long run.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released in accordance with your circadian rhythms. This varies from person to person, but in general, someone who wakes up at 6:30 a.m. would see their cortisol levels peak in different windows, including 8 to 9 a.m., noon to 1 p.m., and 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Someone who rises at 10 a.m. would experience cortisol spikes roughly three hours later, and ultra-early risers can expect to push this schedule three hours forward.

However, these cortisol levels start to rise as soon as you start moving in the morning, so it isn’t an ideal time to drink coffee. Neither is the afternoon, because doing so could make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. This means that people who wake up at 6:30 a.m. should drink coffee after that first cortisol window closes—roughly between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.—if they want to benefit for a little caffeine jolt.

To put it simply: "I would say that mid-morning or early afternoon is probably the best time," certified dietitian-nutritionist Lisa Lisiewski told CNBC. "That's when your cortisol levels are at their lowest and you actually benefit from the stimulant itself."

[h/t Inc.]

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