[Viewpoint]The weather bureau who cried ‘wolf’I got soaked in rain and sleet last weekend because I went out without an umbrella, ignoring the weather forecast. In the morning, while it was still sunny and warm, I grinned with satisfaction, but dark clouds started to gather around noon and then cold rain started to fall. By the time I had lunch after my wet clothes dried, the rain drops had changed to snowflakes. The forecast that it would be rainy or snowy in the afternoon and then become cold afterward turned out to be true.
Although the Weather Bureau was right that time, I prefer not to carry an umbrella as long as it isn’t raining when I go out. British scientist Robert Matthew gave the same advice. His theory was, “It doesn’t rain on the days we bring our umbrella.”
In Korea, there are about 100 rainy days each year; the number of days without rain is more than 70 percent. The rainfall probability can be calculated from this.
If the rainfall probability of a certain province is 30 percent, it means that there will be about 30 days when it receives more than 1 millimeter rainfall out of 100 forecasts.
It also means that there will be no rain or only a little bit of rain during 70 percent of the year. That is, the number of days when we feel it burdensome to carry an umbrella is far greater.
Why do the weathermen, then, make wrong forecasts so often? Even if they say that there is no rain, they can predict the weather at least 70 percent accurately. The accuracy of South Korea’s weather forecast is above 86 percent. It doesn’t lag behind much, compared to the standards of advanced countries. However, the level of accuracy people feel is far below.
According to Robert Matthew’s calculation, it should be high enough. However, it is frustrating to find that the meteorological observatory makes mistakes more often than it did in the past. In practice, the rate of mistakes in forecasting rain went down to 12.5 percent in 2004, but climbed to 13.2 percent in 2005, when the supercomputer was brought in, and 13.8 percent last year. A few critical errors in forecasting fuel the flame. Citizens who went outside and believed the forecast calling for clear skies got covered with yellow dust. When people cancelled all of their outdoor activities because of a warning of a snowstorm, it turned out to be a fine, sunny day. These incidents made people upset.
The Weather Bureau complains that it is difficult to get observational data because the Korean Peninsula is surrounded by the sea on three sides, and it is difficult to get cooperation from North Korea. The unusual change of climate taking place globally also makes it difficult to predict the weather accurately. Even if we accept such excuses, however, the recent mistakes in forecasting caused serious problems.
In modern society, the effects of incorrect weather forecasts do not stop with a few people getting soaked by rain. They can bring enormous loss to the nation by damaging all of the fields in our society, including the various industries.
A lot of countermeasures have been presented already. We must increase the budget and seek cooperation with neighboring countries. We should also consider energizing private sector businesses in the field of meteorological technology. What matters the most, however, is the people.
There is a joke about weather forecasting. A weatherman in a city became a laughing stock because he used to make incorrect forecasts. One day, he asked to be transferred to another city. When his boss asked him the reason, he said, “The weather of this area does not suit me physically.”
This is not a laughing matter. Even if there is a supercomputer, human beings make the final conclusion.
The reason the rate of wrong forecasts has increased recently can be found in the tendency of forecasters to rely too much on mechanical figures, with the improvement in efficiency of forecasting equipment.
We must bring up top-level experts who can analyze meteorological data with a supercomputer.
The average period of service in one branch of the weather bureau is only 2.7 years, and there are only five employees who have served more than five years in the bureau, so it is difficult to expect accurate weather forecasting even if we have a supercomputer far superior to the one we have now. We should make it possible for weather forecasters to stay in their position with the pride and expertise they have accumulated during their careers.
It is apparently too downgrading to call the weather bureau a “shepherd.” But the bureau can literally be considered a shepherd who cries wolf if things keep going wrong. It is even more blood-curdling because a global climate disaster is far more serious than the appearance of a wolf.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom