Talking about the weather in Atlanta — and maybe fixing it

The time has come to admit that, perhaps, we don’t understand what our favorite weather personalities are really saying. And that our favorite weather personalities may not understand what we really need to know.

The annual convention of the American Meteorological Society abandoned Atlanta on Wednesday. It was an ironic, five-day event, coming only days after the Snowjam ’14 debacle. Rather like Denver opening its arms to the National Brotherhood of Monday Morning Quarterbacks.

Yes, there were a few snickers and rolled eyes. But in the vastness of the Georgia World Congress Center, it was also possible to find thoughtful, reflective and even conservative thoughts on what went wrong in metro Atlanta.

I was directed to David Titley, a retired rear admiral who now runs Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. Titley was also the chief operating officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when Hurricane Sandy struck the Jersey shore in 2012. So while he is not a fan of after-action reports, he understands their necessity.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who has shouldered much of the blame for last week’s paralysis, has appointed a task force filled with weather men, state bureaucrats and trucking specialists to peel apart the problem we have with minute amounts of frozen precip.

But in a session at the convention center’s Starbucks, Titley said findings are likely to point to systemic problems rather than personalities. “It’s almost always a chain, which could have been broken in a number of places – a school superintendent. A county supervisor. Maybe a different or a more urgent warning from a weather provider,” he said.

What Atlanta lacked, he said, was anyone – high, low or middling — willing to step out of his box, shake the metro area by its lapels, and point out the obvious: That afternoon snowfall on warm but rapidly cooling roads was a recipe for disaster.

The key may be to rethink how weather information is packaged, said the retired admiral, who knows about such things. During his Navy years, he helped develop a system for “pirate forecasts” off the coast of Somalia. Cloudy with a chance of cutlasses and such.

Titley said weather forecasters need to start taking their cues from physicians in the way they characterize risk. For instance, the storm that hit Atlanta last week was a shifting target. "It was not a slam dunk that this was going to happen. Atlanta was on the edge," he said.

Yet a 20 percent chance of snow can easily be misunderstood. To most civilians, it means an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather. But let’s also say that on an average day, the chances of ice and snow bringing down metro Atlanta is one in a thousand. Titley did a quick calculation in his head.

“I would have said, ‘Hey, boss, today there is a 200-times greater likelihood of us having a really, really bad shutdown,” Titley said.

Somebody might have listened to that.

By this time, we had been joined by a harried Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia professor and president of the AMS. Most people, he admitted, don’t know the difference between a watch and a warning.

“And even if they did, how does that translate to ‘Your roads are going to lock up at lunch time’?” Titley interjected.

Before he hurried off, Shepherd expressed what had to be, at the AMS convention, the worst implication of Atlanta’s Snowjam: “Sometimes I think people don’t hear us. Sometimes I think people hear us but don’t understand, and sometimes I don’t think they want to hear us.”

About that last point. The public sparring over global warming has politicized meteorology in a way that was once limited to anthropology and objections to Darwinism. One result is distrust.

In his first crack at explaining Snowjam, Gov. Nathan Deal felt entirely comfortable heaping blame on the National Weather Service, which issued the proper bulletin at 3:38 a.m. that Tuesday, while praising local weather voices who “got it right.”

That reveals a basic understanding of where and how weather data originates, Titley said. “Everybody is using billions of dollars of federal weather infrastructure. The Weather Channel is, every TV station is,” he said. “Whether we admit it or not, the weather enterprise floats on the backbone of the federal government.”

And yet trust is, in fact, a crucial ingredient. Titley liked Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s recent announcement that the city would collaborate with The Weather Channel in the future.

“You can hire a private forecaster. And if you don’t like what he or she is telling you, you can always fire them,” Titley said. But if such a partnership is to work, weather forecasters need to be more in tune with government’s needs – school transportation schedules, traffic patterns, road temperatures and such.

In such partnerships, obligations need to extend far beyond dropping a storm warning in the next guy’s lap. Lapels need to be grabbed.

Titley recounted an appearance by billionaire H. Ross Perot at last year’s AMS gathering.

At one point, the feisty former presidential candidate needled his meteorological audience. ”I know more about the weather business than you know about mine. And that ain’t the way it’s supposed to be,” Perot said.

That’s something every weather personality should consider.