National Press Club

Cantore says better forecasts, planning ease pain of year’s terrible weather

December 15, 2011 | By Jack Williams | jwilliams@weatherjackwilliams.com

Jim Cantore, Weather Channel on-camera meteorologist.

Jim Cantore, Weather Channel on-camera meteorologist.

Photo/Image: Terry Hill

In his a quarter century of covering weather, Jim Cantore's 2011 storm chasing stands out.

He has “never seen a year like the one we’ve just had. Everywhere you looked there were [weather] extremes,” Cantore, on-camera meteorologist for the Weather Channel, told a National Press Club luncheon on Dec. 14.

Twelve “billion dollar” weather disasters have hit the U.S. this year, topping the previous high of nine in 2008.

“Every possible ingredient came together” to generate tornadoes, floods, heat waves, droughts and Hurricane Irene, which caused record flooding in New England, Cantore said. Six of the disasters were tornadoes.

Fortunately, better forecasting and emergency planning are keeping the year from being even worse, according to Cantore.

Since the 2005 emergency management failures in Hurricane Katrina ”we’ve gotten a lot better at preparing for disasters," he said.

As an example of better forecasts, Cantore said most tornado deaths this year were in areas where the National Weather Service had issued warnings.

Nevertheless, people remember forecasts that go wrong better than those that are correct.

“I’ve never gotten a thank you letter for nailing a forecast,” Cantore said.

He said Hurricane Irene, which hit the New York City area on Aug. 28, illustrated both improvements and shortcomings in storm predictions.

The forecast of where Irene would hit was close to perfect, but it was weaker than forecast when it hit. The science of forecasting changes in strength is more complex than forecasting a storm’s path, according to Cantore.

Even with intensity forecasts being more likely mistaken, New York City officials were wise to evacuate large areas of Lower Manhattan and shut down public transportation, Cantore said. Not doing so would have put thousands of people at risk if Irene had been stronger.

In a similar way, he said, officials in large cities, such as Washington, could be quicker to send people home as a big snow storm approaches.

“You can see it on radar,” Cantore said. Sometimes it’s best to tell people to stay where they are until roads are cleared.

In answer to a question about global warming as a cause of weather extremes, Cantore answered: “We are seeing a warming world. I know there are going to be more extreme weather events.”

In fact, he said as someone who’s spent a lot of time in storms, “It’s raining harder.”

While some places are wetter, others are drier, such as Texas, which is suffering its worst drought since the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s.

Cantore didn’t want to speculate on the role of human activities in causing warming because he’s a meteorologist “who focuses on the next 10 days,” not a climate scientist who studies longer time periods.

He wrapped up his Club appearance with advice for anyone who sees him reporting from the scene of a nearby weather event: “If you don’t see me in my 'Doctor Doom' black tee shirt, you know it’s not going to be too bad.”