Depending On the Weather Report

It was sunny yesterday morning at our home in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. I knew it would rain for the next several days, though, so I got out and did a good bit of yard work that Amanda needed me to finish before a gathering this weekend. I knew it would start raining today, and so did everyone else. We had read (or watched or listened to) the forecast. Let’s stop and reflect on how accurate the forecast has become.

Our children do not and cannot relate to this, because they’ve grown up knowing the weather is going to be pretty close to what the forecast said it would be. Sure, everybody can remember the summer thunderstorm that ruined the picnic on that day with a 20% chance of rain, and most can remember at least one day with 80% chance of rain when everything stayed dry. But 20% is not 0% and 80% is not 100%.

By and large the forecast provided by the U.S. National Weather Service (which is the source for nearly all the forecasts from newspapers, radio, and television) is remarkably accurate for the weather a day or two in the future. And the forecast for the next 10 days that we read online is remarkably accurate in projecting trends, even if it may be a day or so off about when those trends will arrive.

This is a recent development. I can remember growing up in Montgomery, where we listened intently to the weather forecast but had almost no confidence in it, sort of like a dutiful reader of the daily horoscope. A forecast of weather for later that day might be dramatically wrong, and we expected it to be so. We didn’t hold weather forecasting to a higher standard. How could we, when so few tools were available? Weather forecasting may not have amounted to licking one’s finger and holding it in the air, but it was close.

The online research I have conducted hurriedly in preparation for this post indicates that weather forecasting has become dramatically more accurate for three primary reasons: (a) higher levels of knowledge possessed by meteorologists about the interaction of global air and sea patterns and the way they influence weather, (b) much more reliable and complete communication of weather observation data, not just from nearby but from all over the world, and, most importantly, (c) bigger, meaner, faster computers to organize all that data and apply to it increasingly sophisticated modeling techniques to make sense of it.

As subsistence farmers, we know we will depend on the accuracy of the weather forecast. Knowing when to plant the okra, when to harvest the muscadines, and even when to get the stew ready to cook in the Sun Oven are all dependent on knowing the weather for tomorrow and the next several days.

Let’s look at those three “legs” of accurate weather forecasting from above and see how they are likely to survive the economic decline/collapse we believe is already under way. My guess is that (b), constant global weather data communication, will be the first to go, dependent as it is on 24/7 servers. If the data is not reliable, even the best and most accurate of models hits a “garbage in, garbage out” wall and becomes less accurate. Then I expect we are likely to see the failure of (c), because those amazing computers the National Weather Service uses are not like my Dell laptop. They need clean rooms with controlled humidity and temperature and a steady supply of chilled fluid flowing through them. Read that, they need connection to a robust and reliable electrical grid. With inaccurate and incomplete data and ill-maintained computers that keep shutting down in the middle of their processing runs, weather forecasters will struggle to keep their knowledge up to date. And although it will be the last to go, in time even the higher knowledge levels of professional weather forecasters will become less relevant and will decline.

Amanda and I will struggle to farm successfully with less access to accurate weather forecasts, but we will need to learn to do it. Our ancestors learned to cope with unexpected weather, of course, and we will too. So I plan to savor and be grateful for accurate weather reporting as long is it continues. While I do, though, I’m learning to lick my finger. Hmm, I think it may rain tonight. My rheumatis’ is acting up again.

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