John Phipps: Are Weather Forecasts Becoming More Accurate?

John's World 7/6/19
Today’s 5-day forecast is as accurate as a ONE DAY forecast in 1980. John Phipps explains in John's World. ( Farm Journal )

Some technological advances are immediate and obvious. For example, about 20 minutes after I began using my first auto-guidance device on a tractor I knew it was a game changer. Other tools for our profession are improved gradually, almost undetected. One of these is weather forecasts.

The older you are the more your memory can help you realize this, but we can also use historical data to back up the considerable advances in weather forecasting accuracy. Today’s 5-day forecast is as accurate as a ONE DAY forecast in 1980 – which was only a few years ago to some of us.

John forecast

That is a stunning improvement and it goes virtually unremarked. As you can see from this graphic, accuracy tails off after a week. One of the reasons people and especially farmers think otherwise is our brains edit our own recollections to sort out the surprise misses and ignore the vast bulk of correct predictions.

Our actions, however say otherwise. Even while grumping about fake forecasts, I think one reason Facebook and Twitter were filled with those ghastly stuck tractor photos and videos is we quickly learned to take the 5-7 day precipitation forecasts seriously.

John phipps weather

This spring when it seemed they were always hideous shades of purple for our farm, we pushed the envelope on field conditions because those predictions had been proven right too many times. It turned out that many who looked at those forecasts and decided to settle for good enough, or even possible did not regret it. Those nearly unbelievable forecasts were taken seriously as the weeks dripped by.

Perhaps part of our overlooking the increased accuracy of weather forecasts is the gnawing suspicion that climatological changes are slowly coming true, and we’ve been ignoring one of the bigger problems that could occur.  While many of us latched onto the possibility of longer and more frequent droughts as a result of rising global temperatures, here in the Midwest, the increasing odds of larger and more frequent rain events may have as much if not more impact. Regardless of your opinion on what will happen long term, the debate about weather next week has become nearly pointless. You can take that forecast to the bank.