to know which way the wind blows

The weather outside is… oh, what’s the word?

Snow. Slush. Freezing rain. The Apocalypse.

Where, oh where, can we find a good, reliable weatherman to show us the way? Here in Capital City, we essentially have two contenders from which to choose. CBC’s Ian Black “knows weather,” we’re told. Ah, but Ottawa knows J.J. Clarke, a longtime fixture over at CTV. True, climatologist Ian is “the only CMOS-endorsed weather forecaster in Ottawa,” it says here. (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what CMOS is.) But J.J. is, according to CTV Ottawa, a “weathercaster.” So while Ian can tell you what sort of summer we’re likely to have next year, or how global-warming is progressing, J.J. is here to tell you whether to bundle up for your journey to work tomorrow morning. Not that Ian isn’t willing to have a go at that, too.

Hence, it all comes down to a simple question: Ottawans, whom do you trust? You kind of hate to question the ever-amiable J.J.’s word. Yet, something about Ian’s willingness to openly challenge and even mock Environment Canada’s forecasts (“They’re saying rain or freezing rain tomorrow; well, there’s a whole lot of difference between the two!”) gives the young upstart –he’s been dictating to us for a mere 20 years — a genuine air of authority. Where, one wonders, does Ian get his information if not from Environment Canada? And if he’s so smart, why aren’t they turning to him for tomorrow’s forecast?ian-black-gallery-thumb-638xauto-242833

I attempted to contact both men to obtain the answer to that and other questions, but received no response. After all, this is a busy time for climaweathercasterologists. I did make an effort to befriend J.J. via Facebook (I refuse to use the word “friend” as a verb; sorry), only to have my advance spurned by the powers that be. That Facebook user, I was told, had reached the maximum number of friends. That’s right, there is a maximum number of friends we mortals are allowed to have in this life. Evidently, it is not possible to juggle more than 5,170 friends at a time. And while it’s not clear how Facebook arrived at this number, presumably it’s one fewer than the number of friends Mark Zuckerberg has. Ian Black? At last count: 268 friends. Hey, if you’re going to be a climatologist, you have to take some of the blame for climate change.

On a given day, chances are experts J.J. and Ian will offer slightly different outlooks, the projected highs and lows rarely matching, with the optimistic CTV Ottawa veteran often calling for sunshine where gloomy CBC Ottawa guy sees cloud. So, if our go-to two offer differing daily predictions, it raises the question as to which gentleman truly has the answers. To that end, dear reader, I took note of 12 consecutive weekday forecasts, from Nov. 15 through to Nov. 30 — a period of prognostication that encompassed the season’s first snowfall as well as a record-breaking 18-degree December day.

How did our two weather heroes fare? It’s complicated. But one thing that quickly became clear is that, as we’ve all suspected, the fifth day of a five-day forecast is pretty much a wild guess. So we’ll count both men out on that one.

Looking four days ahead, Ian managed to hit the high on the nose only twice; Clarke, but once. (Both men nailed the -2 for Nov. 24.) Otherwise, temperature calls were generally within three degrees plus or minus; though, Black erred by as much nine degrees. Clarke, meanwhile, was a whopping 12 degrees over the -6 of Nov. 31. (As for that 18 degree day, four days earlier both men were calling for a high of 10.) Add the errors over the 12 days forecast, and Ian comes out on top, missing the mark by five degrees to J.J.’s 13. Advantage: Black.

Three days hence, we discover that while the highs were pretty close (though, again, Ian was on one occasion off by nine degrees, and J.J. as much as six degrees), the lows were at times wildly wide of the mark, Clarke bottoming out with a call for a Nov. 31 low of three degrees — a full 15 above the eventual temperature. (Ian, to his credit, had missed that one by a mere two degrees.) Overall, though, Ian was off by a total of three degrees on highs over the period, and J.J. only two. The lows, though, tell a different story: 32 degrees over for Ian; 43 for J.J. Advantage: Well, J.J. was closer on the highs, and neither deserves to take a bow for the lows, so let’s make it interesting and call it for J.J.

The two-day forecast, meanwhile, found both men to be in the ballpark, with Ian missing the mark by six degrees on one occasion, but J.J. never erring by more than four. That’s the highs, of course. The lows were less reliable, with Ian off by as much as seven degrees and J.J. as much as 10. In the end, we’ll call it even, the overall difference being minor.

Which brings us to tomorrow’s forecast. Surely, that’s something a meteorologist and a weathercaster can call to the exact degree at least nine times out of 10, right? I mean, if you’re going to stand in front of us and tell us with a straight face you know what the weather will be like in four days, you’d damn well better know what it will be like in one. And in this, Ian proved his worth. Still plus or minus as many as four degrees on the high, y’understand, and on-the-money only four times. But add them up, and he’s off by but one degree over the 12 days forecast. J.J., alas, totaled 12 degrees under the actual highs; though, he never missed by more than three degrees at a time So, J.J.’s closer on a day-to-day basis, but not overall. Kind of like, oh I don’t know, the difference between weather and climate. As for the lows, again Ian triumphed, nailing the temperature five times while J.J. missed the mark each time, on one occasion going a full 13 degrees over the top. Indeed, he was less than three degrees off on a mere three occasions during the period of this study.

imageSo OK, if you’re looking for tomorrow’s high, either man can help you, give or take a few degrees. But what of conditions beyond the temperature? Did either expert miss the mark by, say, calling for sunshine on what turned out to be a rainy or snowy day? Occasionally. We all make mistakes. For the most part, cloudy days and sunny days were about right, even four days ahead. J.J. was often right about his calls for sunshine to Ian’s cloudy day. (And, it should be noted, a smart forecaster can cover a multitude of sins by calling for “a mix of sun and cloud.”) Still, neither man saw the snow of Nov. 29 coming, and only J.J. called it correctly for Nov. 31. As of Nov. 20, meanwhile, neither forecaster had predicted snow for any of the following four days. It snowed on three of them. Not, you know, blizzard conditions. But snow is snow. Indeed, add the forecasts up and Ian neglected to warn us of snowy conditions a total of 16 times, including two next-day misses. J.J.? Fifteen. Not stellar, gentlemen. Thank god no one died.

All of which goes to show predicting the weather is part art and part crapshoot. Again, as many of us had suspected all along. Still, I had hoped that monitoring the forecasts during a transition period such as late-November would produce some sort of definitive answer as to whom we can trust. That didn’t happen, but I did come to a conclusion.

My advice? Look out your window.

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