Severe Weather Analysis: A Matter of Probabilities

Jul 14, 2017

It's probably happened to you. You heard the weatherman report severe thunderstorms with high wind, frequent lightning, large hail and heavy rain were due to roll through the area. So, you made sure the windows were closed and some of your sensitive electronics were unplugged before you went to bed. 

But when you woke up the next morning, the ground was dry and meteorologists were dissecting the storm that wasn’t.  Mike Westendorf is the operations manager for Innovative Weather at UW-Milwaukee, and he says there are many challenges when it comes to predicting severe weather and sharing details with the public.

Severe storm warning and advisories are developed by a government agency known as the National Weather Service. "The Weather Service's job, ultimately, is pretty simple: to protect lives and property, and to advance that ability through the research that they do," says Westendorf.

"When we're talking about the future, especially this time of year as a forecaster, there are a lot of different possibilities for our area, and sometimes there isn't a real probable outcome."

"We then, in the private sector, are partners in communicating that information," he explains. "Now we may differ in our opinions. [Also,] our audiences are different, so our styles of communication are going to be different."

But he says that while reporting is based in the science of evaluating both current conditions and numerical models, it's not an exact science. The way that information is interpreted and delivered can also vary greatly. 

"In our short attention span culture that we have, I can only tell you about the probable outcome," he says. "And the problem with that is that when we're talking about the future, especially this time of year as a forecaster, there are a lot of different possibilities for our area, and sometimes there isn't a real probable outcome."

"We're trying to help you understand both the possibility and the probability within a very small window of time, and that becomes the challenge," Westendorf explains.