Weather Watch

A cautionary tale about weather forecasting

pgeweather@pge.comJune 1, 2013 

Over the years, I’ve received stories like this from readers. Here is my version of it.

It was summer; a new chief of a tribe in Alaska wondered how much firewood his people should have for the upcoming winter. He had just finished graduate school, but unfortunately he was never taught the old secrets on how to tell if it was going to be a mild or cold winter.

To be on the safe side, he instructed members of his tribe to collect a greater amount of wood than normal. After a few months of feverishly cutting, collecting and splitting, hundreds of cords of firewood resembled an enormous stone wall in the village.

To get a better idea of what the winter could bring, he decided to call the lead forecaster at the local weather office in Anchorage, Alaska. Just a few days before, the lead forecaster had seen the Climate Prediction Center’s long-range forecast for the United States. It indicated a 40 percent probability of below-normal temperatures for much of Alaska. The lead forecaster told the new chief that it’s probably going to be a cold winter.

At the next tribal meeting, he told his people that the winter was going to be colder than normal and instructed them to collect even more firewood. The wall of firewood in the village grew even wider and higher. He felt confident that his people would be ready for the brutal winter that awaited them. However, a few tribal members began to complain.

With the concerns of his people on his mind, he decided to call the weather office again.

“Are you still expecting below-normal temperatures this winter?” he asked.

The lead forecaster decided to consult with one of the more experienced meteorologists in his workplace who had lived in Alaska for many decades. He told his lead forecaster, “All the signs of a severe Alaska winter are currently present.”

Without hesitation he told the chief over the phone “Yes, it’s going to be a cold winter indeed.”

The chief again went back to his village and asked everyone to gather every bit of wood they could find, including digging out old tree stumps that could be safely burned for heat. A week later, he debated if he should purchase propane heaters. He called the weather office again.

“Are your still sure that is going to be an especially frigid winter?”

The forecaster replied, “We are confident that this winter could be one of the coldest on record; perhaps low temperatures not seen by anyone alive today.”

“How can you be so certain?” the chief asked.

The weatherman said, “Our office has been observing a local tribe for years. We have never seen them collect so much firewood. They are even pulling out old tree stumps!”

• • •

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John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. If you have a question, send him an email at pgeweather@pge.com.

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