Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Loneliness of the Long-Range Forecaster

It all seemed so right. For Dave Phillips, coming off his masterful success in accurately forecasting the cold and snowy winter of 2007/08, everything was coming up roses in springtime. Now to extend the winning streak! And betting on David Phillips to nail the prediction for the summer of 2008 seemed a pretty good wager. Come September, I imagined that Canadians would be (metaphorically) carrying Mr. Phillips on their shoulders in triumph. The weather gods had other ideas.

In early June, posted the Canadian Press story by Kristine Owram under the banner "Hot summer ahead, Environment Canada predicts":

After an exceptionally cold and snowy winter, Canadians from coast to coast can expect yet another hot, sweaty summer, a new long-range forecast from Environment Canada suggests.

If the forecast for the month of June, July and August turns out to be correct, it would be the 19th summer of the last 25 to feature higher than average temperatures, Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips said Wednesday.

"Whether it's climate change, whether it's cyclical, whatever it is, it's a reality that our summers are warmer than our ancestors put up with," Phillips said.

Not surprisingly, the mantra of "global warming" dominated the comments section.

The Red Deer Advocate, posting the same Canadian Press wire, trumpeted in its headline "Hot summer could bode well for farmers," but dampened the party with the caveat that it could also "spell disaster for conservation." Reprinting the same wire, the Lethbridge Herald chimed in simply: "Hot summer forecast," and CNews ( proclaimed "Hot summer on tap, coast to coast."

To the average Canadian -- the kind who enjoys warm sunny days, the kind who looks forward to beaches and camping trips, the kind who longs for relaxing under the umbrellas of patio cafes, or cycling along riverside bike trails -- this forecast was music to the ears. After four and a half months of almost relentless snow shovelling, we were owed a great summer, dammit. Right?

Well, no. Unfortunately wrong. While the Maritimes and B.C. appear to have done alright weatherwise (at least according to statistical averages), from Quebec to Alberta the summer has seemed a lot less bright. In most places, temperatures for June and July have been in the range of average (which means not great, but not horrible either), but precipitation has been well above average in many places. Some places -- Toronto and southern Ontario come to mind --seem to have played host to a relentless parade of thunderstorm bands (and not the kind that play cool music). Quebeckers could be forgiven for thinking that their 400th anniversary parade was rained on. It was. And folks in the prairie provinces, particularly Saskatchewan, have seen their promised hot and dry summer morph into cool and damp.

Of course, the weather is not actually David Phillips' fault. And perhaps we should all know better by now than to give too much weight to long-range weather predictions. If we take a five-day forecast with a grain of salt (and rightly so), a full salt crystal should be taken for a seasonal forecast. After all, given the numbers of variables that plug into meteorological models, plus a pinch of uncertainty and a dash of Act of God, long-range forecasting is going to be a bit of a crap shoot. You're a hero if you get it mostly right; you're a goat if you get it mostly wrong. And you can go from hero to goat in just two dice rolls.

And so, Canada's grand poohbah of meteorologists has been hearing about it from Canadians who are either frustrated or disappointed with the way this wet, wet, wet, and all too often cool summer has developed to date. Somehow it's not the warm, warm, warm, and often dry summer that they had been promised. It's not the kind of summer they felt they were entitled to (and there's nothing like a sense of entitlement to get people whining).

But while Dave Phillips offers a qualified mea culpa, he is not prepared to abandon his prediction just yet. Phil Couvrette, of CanWest News service, writes:

Canada's top meteorologist says he's not afraid to start his car every day, but David Phillips admits he's been getting nasty e-mails and has been accosted by critics in public about his predictions for the summer of 2008.

Philips, a 40-year veteran at Environment Canada, says he understands Canadians are upset that the "warm and dry" weather he predicted may have sounded like a lot of hot air in some parts. And he says a good month of August could still prove his
predictions true.

While letters, emails, and smart ass remarks from weather whiners are likely standard fare for Phillips, the most bizarrely comical episode from Couvrette's article has to be this:

But the frustration Canadians have felt this summer really hit home when Phillips visited a supermarket on Saturday.

There, he said, a woman blocked his cart and charged: " 'You said it was going to be a warm and dry summer. What happened?' "

Phillips' mea culpa is essentially reserved for the prairies. Otherwise, he is holding firm until the numbers are plugged in for August.

Phillips said that after collecting praise for his winter predictions, criticism about summer's forecast has been pouring like Quebec City rain. But the predictions weren't wrong, he added.

"What bothered me is our forecast for temperatures has been correct," he said. "We said precipitations were going to be near normal."

"We still have a month to go."

Well, so far in the GTA and southern Ontario, August has been one damn thunderstorm after another. But there are still three weeks to go, right? That's just the way it's been this year. Ray Spiteri, in The Niagara Falls Review, reports that the Hamilton-Niagara region in June and July has had about 50 percent higher than normal precipitation, with (according to David Phillips) 44 hours of thunderstorms, up from 8 hours for the same period last year. As for Toronto, David Phillips says

... we have now broken the 28-year-old record for the most rainfall in June and July.

So far, Toronto has seen 271 millimetres or 11 inches of rain, which is three times the amount of rain the city saw in the same period last year.

Then there's the June-July 2008 rainfall for a few other beleaguered Canadian cities (the average is in brackets):

  • Calgary 190mm (148mm)
  • Regina 191mm (140mm)
  • Saskatoon 165mm (121mm)
  • Quebec City 392mm (242mm)

And then there's Ottawa:

We were robbed.


After surviving a near record 432cm of snow between November and March, people living in eastern Ontario have since had to endure more than 30 days of rainy weather in June and July.

And for the best advice of all:

Phillips said the best thing people can do to avoid the negative emotional side effects of darker days is to take advantage of those that are bright and sunny.

"Play hooky. Call in sick. Get out there," he said. "Ignore the weather. It will be different tomorrow."

I pray, sir, that your forecast for tomorrow is indeed correct.

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