TW Viewpoint | Weather or Not

February 18, 2022 | Lorne Ketch

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By Lorne Ketch: Retired meteorologist, Environment Canada – Atlantic Region

How many weather forecasts will you hear today? A dozen? More? Your clock radio alarm may have come on this morning with a local radio personality reading the weather forecast for the day.

News and weather are standard products transmitted continually by radio and television. There are dedicated TV weather channels. One can find a myriad of weather sites on the internet. Your smartphone may well have your local weather observation displayed on your home page. Today, you are almost guaranteed to hear a weather forecast, whether or not you want it.

All major countries run their own government-supported weather services. Here in Canada, we have the Meteorological Service of Canada, a branch of Environment Canada. In the United States, it is the National Weather Service (NWS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the US Department of Commerce. These agencies have the primary responsibility for generating the basic forecasts for their country and for issuing weather warnings. In addition, they provide internet access to worded forecasts, stylized, graphical or pictorial forecasts and a wealth of other data. The underlying computer models that generate much of this information can be directly examined by anyone with internet access.

The wealth of weather-related information is astounding.

Canada is a land of weather extremes. In many ways, breaking weather records is normal. Why? One problem is a lack of long-running weather observations from any given location. Those observations allow statistics to be generated. When you hear the radio announcer say that the average high temperature for your location, for this date, is 20°C, what does that really mean? Many times, there may be only 50 or 100 years of data, that is, only 50 or 100 examples of a high or low temperature, for that location, for that date. But the earth is ancient and we are missing the vast majority of weather records. The average high temperature is generated from limited examples and the stats for individual days may vary wildly from the calculated average. For example, if we average two numbers, say 0 and 1,000—we get (0 + 1,000) / 2 = 500. But, does 500 really represent either number well? What about 500 and 500? The average is 1,000 / 2 = 500. Now that average exactly represents the individual numbers. Averages may represent the data well or poorly. Day-to-day weather can "normally" range far from the average. In fact, a parameter like temperature can sometimes exceed the highest or lowest number that generated the original average. The lower the number of past observations available, the easier it is to break a record.

Weather is highly variable over short and long periods of time and over short and long distances. A sunny, warm day can become cold and damp a few kilometres down the road when you run into a coastal fog bank. Heavy snow flurries generated by cold air moving over the Great Lakes can give zero visibility but 10 kilometres down the road, the sun may be shining. The Atlantic coast of Canada can see heavy rain and +10°C one January day and -10°C and snow flurries the next. It's the nature of weather. Canadians often say: "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes."

We are not unique in this regard. Weather affects every area of our world. Conditions vary across the globe, but weather never goes away.

Weather forecasting skill has steadily developed over the years. The better forecasts are largely driven by 1) the vast amount of initial weather data that can now be used, 2) highly sophisticated, computerized, weather prediction models. This area of weather forecasting is referred to as Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP). Not many decades back, input to these models was largely confined to land-based weather observing stations taking hourly observations and transmitting them around the world. There were far fewer "upper air stations" that sent up balloons to record temperature, pressure, winds, etc. at altitude—and only twice per day. Again, that information was transmitted internationally. There were ship reports, buoy reports, pilot reports and a few other sources of information. Today there are vastly more frequent and varied data sources. For example, we have satellites that can process immeasurable amounts of remotely-sensed atmospheric data which can then be ingested into weather models.

Those weather models require the biggest and most sophisticated super-computers. These machines are getting bigger and faster and can churn through the billions of calculations required to generate forecasts in "real time". Computerized communications systems gather the information and feed it to a central site. The data are processed to initialize a computer model, the model is run, and the output is sent to forecast offices—all in 3 or 5 hours.

As discussed, breaking weather averages is somewhat normal today. But are the extreme weather events, that we are currently seeing normal? In recent years, there have been ongoing news stories of exceptional droughts, epic rainfalls, record-breaking hurricanes, extreme heat waves or historical cold weather. Many scientists claim that this is associated with human induced (anthropogenic) climate change. A small group of scientists heartily disagree. Climatologists know that the earth has gone through several natural warming and cooling cycles. Are we now in a naturally warmer phase or are climate change advocates right?

It is hard to seriously look at this world—the myriads of life forms, the complexities and predictability of weather, the incredible interrelation between all systems—and not see the hand of a grand designer. The ancient scholar, writer and early Church leader named Paul taught that God was obvious to any honest observer.

… because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse… (Romans 1:19–20)

Nature contains complexity inside of complexity inside of complexity. Each step forward in the physical sciences leads to ever greater insight into that complexity. It is God's fingerprint.

Weather is complex—beyond imagination. It involves the movement of every molecule of air in the world. The weather features that God put in place keep the earth's temperature stabilized and bring us rain for our gardens and a nice fresh breeze on a hot summer day.

Our national weather services provide valuable services to our people. Nobody would want to go back to the days of no weather forecasts. We don't want a hurricane descending upon an exposed coastline unexpectedly.Western countries are greatly blessed in this area. We generally know what's coming.

We will have weather, whether we want it or not. It will be good or bad, according to the rules of physics, but also as God determines.

You may like the booklet written by Gerald Weston: Acts of God: "Why Natural Disasters?"

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