Hurricane Joaquin is headed right at us! Or, wait: Maybe it’s not. It could be, though — so stay vigilant! But don’t panic.
What’s with all the mixed messages?
It seems incredible that we can send a robot to Mars and somehow still not have any clear idea of what’s going on in our own atmosphere. But predicting weather is complicated; even our best forecast models can be interpreted differently by two different people:
“Hurricane Joaquin is proving to be an excellent example of the challenges of trying to predict the behaviour of a nonlinear system days in advance,” Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist, writes for Slate. “Sometimes, that’s just a really, really hard thing to do.”
The problem is not that we’re terrible at understanding what various atmospheric data points mean. It’s that there are so very many data points, and they’re all changing every single second. Our tools for understanding the limited information we have to go on are actually pretty advanced.
Holthaus explains this problem well: “To accurately understand what the weather will do days in advance, you have to observe it perfectly — and perfectly understand the underlying physics. We actually do the second part better than the first — there is just no way to launch enough weather balloons or satellites to monitor the entire Earth system, down to the millimetre.”
Our forecast models — and there are different ones that come to different conclusions about the data coming in — have gotten much better since the 1970s, when MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz noticed how tiny, tiny changes in a simulated weather model had drastic effects. He published his famous paper — “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” — in 1972. (That’s where the term “the butterfly effect” comes from.)
But while our technology and analysis skills have improved, especially during the last 10 years, Lorenz’s conclusion, summarized nicely by Peter Dizikes in The Boston Globe, holds up: “When small imprecisions matter greatly, the world is radically unpredictable.”
That means, unfortunately, that — based on everything we know now — our weather predictions will never be perfect.
Still, even with the general complexities of weather forecasting, Hurricane Joaquin is what Columbia researcher Adam Sobel calls “an unusually uncertain situation, with the forecasts changing more rapidly than usual.”
Given this uncertainty, it’s really hard to know which track the hurricane may take. This chart showing Joaquin’s possible paths is one of the simpler ones we found, and it’s still pretty complicated:
The most confounding part of trying to wrap your mind around a hurricane’s future behaviour is that it’s all even more uncertain than you think. Sobel explains: “If anything, the public forecasts from the National Weather Service (and many other sources, including the Weather Channel, etc.) understate the uncertainties — stating some parts of the forecasts as precise numbers rather than ranges of possibilities — because they are not sure the public can understand probabilities well enough.”
It may be frustrating, but measured uncertainty is far better than false confidence.
“There’s a reason,” Holthaus writes, “chaos theory was invented by a meteorologist.”
NOW WATCH: An exercise scientist told us 4 big things people get wrong about working out and weight loss
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.