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Why weather reporting is worth getting hot about

August 17, 2003|DAVID SHAW

Newcomers to Los Angeles often grumble that we have no seasons. They're wrong. We do have seasons. They're just subtle. They don't generally include the snow, slush, freezing cold and life-sapping humidity that many folks in the East and Midwest seem to require as proof that Mother Nature actually exists.

But the weather in Los Angeles is consistent -- at times, monotonously so. Indeed, I can remember one summer early in my newspaper career when the managing editor grew so weary of publishing virtually the same weather forecast every day that he decided to write the daily weather story himself for the next day's paper.

That story said, in its entirety:

"Hebrews 13:8."

I scurried to my Bible to look up the verse. It says: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever."

But if Los Angeles weather is so consistent, why are the predictions provided by the news media so often so wrong -- and at such wild variances from each other?

On July 1, for example, USA Today said the high in Los Angeles would be 78 degrees. The Los Angeles Times said 81. said 95. So did

The actual downtown high? 88.

A couple of weeks later, the forecast published in The Times said the downtown high would be 85. It was 78. Hmm. Out of curiosity, I decided to chart the entire month of July.

Since Los Angeles is so sprawling and climatologically diverse that it has many microclimates, I focused on downtown Los Angeles, which is where I work and near where I live.

Only once that month -- on July 3 -- was the forecast downtown high exactly right. But on 11 of the 31 days -- more than 35% of the time -- the forecast was off by 5 degrees or more. On the day I started this column, it was off by 9 degrees.

My monthlong spot check confirmed what I've been muttering to my wife for years -- "We can't rely on weather forecasts in The Times."

In love with the weather

This is especially puzzling given The Times' historic -- some would say histrionic -- preoccupation with weather.

In its early years, The Times trumpeted the great weather here as part of a conscious boosterism -- a determined effort by its then owners to lure people and businesses to the salubrious clime of Southern California. But even after The Times became more professional and dispassionate, under Publisher Otis Chandler, the paper consistently paid more attention to weather than one would have thought necessary in the land of perpetual sunshine.

In 1977, I studied newspaper front pages around the country for the first five months of the year and found that The Times published more Page 1 stories on weather than any other major paper -- even though the survey was conducted during and after one of the most severe East Coast winters in the 20th century.

Chandler, you see, loved to surf, and weather reports are to a surfer what radar reports are to a bomber pilot. He repeatedly pushed his editors to expand The Times' weather coverage, and in Bill Thomas -- the top editor from 1971 through 1988 -- he found a kindred spirit, an avid golfer who also paid special attention to weather forecasts.

Both men insisted it wasn't their individual sports that prompted their interest in what I came to think of as journo-thermo-mania.

"Weather is ... the only story every single person who reads the paper has in common," Thomas once told me.

Subsequent Times editors (and publishers) haven't necessarily shared that view, either for journalistic reasons or because they don't surf or golf or because -- unlike Chandler and Thomas -- they've been recent transplants to Los Angeles, not longtime residents. A computer search of Times front pages from the first five months of this year found only five weather-related stories -- none involving Southern California.

"I don't see any point in putting weather stories on Page 1 unless there's an unusual weather pattern that will affect people's lives," says John Carroll, the editor of The Times for the past three years. "There will be weather every day, and we pretty much know what it will be. On most days, the weather just isn't news."

But why aren't the forecasts themselves more accurate? Carroll was surprised to learn that they aren't. "If we contract with a service," he said, "we ought to get accurate information."

With all the computers and satellites and other technology now available, isn't weather forecasting an exact science?

"Forecasters use computer models that produce all kinds of maps and charts, but it's ultimately guesswork ... a combination of historic patterns and the forecaster's hunches," says Richard O'Reilly, director of computer analysis for The Times, who supervised the paper's daily weather page from 1986 to 2001.

Like most news organizations, The Times doesn't do its own forecasting. The paper contracts with private forecasting firms, and O'Reilly said there had been accuracy problems with the last such firm. He suggested I check with Weather Central in Madison, Wis., the service that now provides the forecasts The Times publishes.

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