Thursday, April 27, 2017

Karl du Fresne: The mayhem predicted by breathless forecasters never happened

An expat friend emailed me from Brisbane. He had read about Cyclone Cook hitting New Zealand and wondered whether, after all the scary warnings, it had turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax.

I had to confirm that his impression was correct. Sure, trees were brought down, some houses were evacuated, farms were flooded and there were road closures, power outages and a few landslides.

The impact on those affected shouldn’t be understated. But there was nothing like the mayhem that breathless weather forecasters (and I mean almost literally breathless, in some instances) had warned us to brace ourselves for.

MetService should be conducting a rigorous self-appraisal this week, because it greatly overplayed its hand. In doing so, it put its credibility at risk. Some of the official predictions came perilously close to scaremongering.

We were told there was a real risk the intensity of the storm would match that of April 1968, when the Wahine foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour with the loss of 51 lives. But the conditions then were dissimilar in one vital respect.

It’s true that in 1968 a tropical cyclone, Giselle, passed down the country, just as happened with Cyclone Cook. The crucial difference was that it collided head-on over Cook Strait with a powerful front heading in the other direction.

It wasn’t Giselle on its own that caused catastrophe, but the violent clash of two opposing weather systems.  Meteorologists must know this, so why create the misleading impression that Cyclone Cook on its own was capable of replicating Wahine conditions? It was wrong and it was irresponsible.

This isn’t to say MetService was wrong to issue warnings. Clearly it would have been negligent not to advise the public to be prepared for an extreme weather event. There would have been hell to pay if Cyclone Cook had arrived without prior notice.

What’s at issue is the sensationalist tone of the warnings. One over-excited forecaster pronounced that it would be a “national event” – no ifs, buts or maybes – and said not many people would be spared.

This wasn’t a media beat-up. These were the exact words of professional meteorologists.

In fact the impact turned out to be largely localised, and not necessarily in the places predicted. Some of the predicted consequences, such as damaging storm surges and coastal inundation, appear not to have eventuated – or if they did, had little impact.

The Auckland Harbour Bridge stayed open and the Cook Strait ferries continued running, contradicting expert predictions.

What’s also troubling is that the meteorologists showed no inclination to moderate their forecasts even when it became apparent that they might have over-egged the pudding. They seemed to be enjoying their moment in the spotlight.

When Cyclone Cook deviated from its expected path, one forecaster pronounced that Auckland had “very luckily” been spared, but that the worst was still to come. Well, we’re still waiting.

The Central Plateau and the Wairarapa were supposed to cop it, but neither region did. I live in the Wairarapa and all that happened was that we got a night of moderately heavy rain from an unusual direction.

Once the cyclone had passed over the country and drifted off to wherever it is that ex-cyclones go, MetService went into damage control mode. By that time it was getting some stick on social media; one joker posted a photo on Facebook showing a plastic chair overturned by the wind on someone’s back lawn as an example of the devastation wreaked.

A MetService spokesman, defending the forecasters, explained that tropical cyclones were “fickle beasts which are hard to pin down”.Fair enough; we can all accept that forecasting is an inexact science. But if cyclones are unpredictable, why so much certainty before the event?

In fact I wonder if the whole business of meteorology and forecasting is becoming a bit overheated, if you’ll excuse the pun. Fears of global warming (real or otherwise), 24-hour weather channels, celebrity weather presenters and constant warnings of extreme climatic events (hardly a week passes without one) all feed into this phenomenon. But violent weather events have always been with us.

What should concern MetService is that its credibility took a hit last week, not so much because of the accuracy of its forecasts but due to the hyped-up, anxiety-inducing tone of its warnings.

It added to a deepening public scepticism toward “experts”. People take note when weather forecasters give them a bum steer, just as they take note when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-proof buildings – designed by experts – have to be abandoned after a moderate shake while decades-old structures are undamaged.

People notice, too, that there’s a striking absence of accountability for the harm done when experts get things wrong. But that’s a subject for another day. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at First published in the Dominion Post.


Nick R said...

I think meteorologists generally remain scarred by the folk memory (if scientists can have such a thing) of Michael Fish and the Great Storm of 1987 in the UK - where he famously and wrongly dismissed the risk of a powerful and destructive storm hitting the UK. Forecasters appear to have concluded that over-stating the risk of a severe storm is the lesser of two evils. I think we see the same approach with tsunamis. I can understand this. People get killed in cyclones and tsunamis and nobody wants to be the person who says "she'll be right, nothing to worry about" when they know there is a risk.

Brian said...

Media Mayhem inflames issues, but fills the coffers.
The real issue highlighted by Karl’s blog is the fact that weather itself can never be predicted with any certainty, and to our media anxious to be first with any news of a possible catastrophe; this is manna from heaven. Especially so, when it arrives upon our doorstep and the costs of investigation and publishing do not entail payments to overseas news organisations!
Weather forecasts like budgets tend to end up rather shallow images of what was expected, all the more so as Karl states, when “experts” come into the picture. Let’s face it, for a small country we abound in “experts” all wanting to tell us this and that; and how to live with everything from crime to health, and mainly how wrong we all are.
If it is not a cyclone these “experts” get on to it is earthquakes, here volcanoes take a back seat but they are around just in case. It is a winning ticket, for by the time something did not happen along comes another event to occupy us all.
The reality of this latest cyclone weather phenomenon should make it clear to us all, that if our weather people cannot predict what will happen in such a small compass as New Zealand. How the hell can the Greens with all the certainty in the world, predict the demise of civilisation by global warming, or whatever is in vogue at the time in one or two hundred years hence? Answer “Experts?!!!!
Seems that their ideology has been out in the wet so long its turning rather soggy; perhaps some of the Green supporters might start to question, instead of accepting with blind obedience this flawed ideology. That after all, is the hallmark of a democratic society. Or it should be.

Michael Brafy said...

From my perspective the Met office folks put the weather warnings out there....highlighting the worst case scenario (as they're bound to do). It was then the mass media outlets...particularly Radio and TV....that added the extra spin and hype to make the story more sensational. Its now common practice for TVNZ, NZME and Mediaworks to sensational-ise the news. The Eagles drummer Don Henley got it right years ago with his song 'Dirty Laundry.'

Anonymous said...

While not wanting to divert attention from Karl's article, I would like to ask a question about tsunami risk. In NZ's recorded history, how many people have been killed by tsunamis? Is it possible to meaningfully calculate the risk of waking up dead from a passing tsunami? We seem to be turning into a nation of people who sleep under the bed wrapped in a survival blanket.

PJ said...

Thank you Karl, but the issue goes way beyond some over hyped reporting of these two weather events.

Our TV news – and media analysis/debate in general – is infested by feminine emotion and virtue signalling. An endless parade of (what the TV insiders call “noddys” - nodding heads) pretty little girls flapping their nails in front of us and earnestly imploring us of the importance and seriousness of their narrative - they can even make a hard hat and hi-vis vest look pretty good to my old eyes! They are supported by edited camera work showing close ups and cutaways of, what is to the viewer, meaningless “stuff”. Then we are whisked back to Wendy and Simon in the studio with the next “story”.

Back to the weather – Renee starts us off, before the heraldic news intro and teaser, promising us more details “later in the program”. Then we have the simpering and gesticulating Dan with more anthropomorphic weather comment. If it is serious enough we may get to see Dan in the weather room telling us even more. The recent weather bombs were a godsend to the media – endless clickbait ably supported by Facebook and the other social media. Forgotten about as soon as the last noddy flies back to Auckland.

For me, one of the best ever reports, was presented by Richard Novak of the Bay Of plenty Times in the NZ Herald during the gang shoot-up of Whakatane. One camera angle on Senior Sergeant Richard Miller, explaining in his own words, the background leading up to the incident. Miller went on to assure that public that this was not an escalation nor were the public in any danger. Four minutes of no interruptions, one or two short questions, no noddy and no $800K/annum news readers!

Sigh ….

PJ said...

My bad - it is Scott Novak (not Richard Novak) of the BOP Times ... apologies to Scott.

Dave said...

The way weather forecasting is now presented is the same as whats happened to our news, mainly television news. Its all designed to grab attention and ratings in a format becoming all to common. News as an entertainment segment, 30 second bites with as much sensationalism and entertainment as possible ... hence the references to "breaking news" "latest developments" "whats happening right now" often presented by breathless, loud news presenters trying to engage the public that something sensational is happening or about to happen, right now. Fact is its usually pretty ordinary, but that doesn't get ratings right?. Weather has now morphed into the same trashy presentation style, beat it up make it as sensational as possible .. boy does that grab attention, better than being rational and calm.
We are now seeing a big growth in so called "fake news" by blatantly biased news presenters and journalists.
News used to be about presenting the facts in an un biased professional educational manner, now its all about ratings, money and egos or individuals pushing their own political agendas.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this new trend in exaggeration and hype could be called Trumpism. It has all the characteristics that grab attention, build great interest and anticipation, then falls flat on its face because of non performance.

Karl du Fresne said...

I should repeat a point I made in my column: the scaremongering over Cyclone Cook can't conveniently be blamed on media exaggeration. The two most blatant examples came straight from the mouths of MetService meteorologists, unmediated.

Owen said...

All of the above is underpinned by the loss of 'objective' truth. The commitment to integrity, correctness and truthfulness is on a long and slippery slope.

Auntie Podes said...

In general perhaps the forecasters do overheat the warnings. However, I do not think this was the case with Cook. It was very fortunate that much of its power was disipated off-shore to the east. A different path would have been a totally different story. Better safe than sorry!

lee said...

Yes well the only comment I can make from the Edgecumbe area is = Nice to have these instruments to tell us a non event was coming. A pity we didn't have these instruments a week earlier.