5 Facts About the Trickiness of Weather Forecasting

iStock
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.

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

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