Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Imagine if you will, a day at the track.
You go up to the counter and place your bet on a major longshot -- let's say a horse that carries 50 to 1 odds. You get your ticket and take your seat and wait for the race to begin; maybe you order yourself a mint julip or whatever the hell else it is that people do at horse tracks (for all I know they're not even called "horse tracks;" for all I know they could be called "racing parks," or "gardens of earthly delight" or whatever. I've never been to one in my life).
So you lean forward -- ticket in hand -- and ready yourself for the sound of the bell. You know full well that if by some miracle of God your horse crosses that finish line first, you're in the money.
Finally, the horses are in the gate and then -- suddenly -- they're off. At first your horse performs as expected -- lagging far behind the pack. The favorite is out in front, and seems to remain there for an eternity.
Then without warning, old Fleabiscuit gets an astounding shot of adrenaline and begins surging forward as the horses push through the back stretch; he begins overtaking horse after horse -- moving switfly and assuredly toward the front of the pack. Meanwhile, you begin jumping with a joy you haven't known since childhood -- your big payday in sight.
But that's when you realize something: as your horse moves closer and closer toward the lead horse and a possible victory, the odds posted on the board for him begin dropping. The closer he gets to finishing first, the more the oddsmakers adjust his chances of winning. By the time he crosses the finish line -- well ahead of the rest of the pack -- his odds are even, and you're screwed.
Does this seem a little unfair to you? Like the oddsmakers should have no right to change the game in midplay to cover their asses?
Well, that's exactly what they did today -- only instead of horses, substitute hurricanes.
Today, the National Hurricane Center altered its predictions for the 2006 hurricane season; it now says that there will likely be fewer hurricanes this year than originally predicted. It's a pretty easy statement to make now that we're almost three full months into the season and for the most part the tropics have been quieter than Carson Kressley at a Hell's Angels bar.*
It's kind of a no-brainer, which is especially bothersome because it comes from a group of people with such big brains.
As it turns out though, the Hurricane Center is only following the same protocol it does every year at this time -- which means that it's following the lead of a team of forecasters at Colorado State University (certainly the first place I think of when I think of folks with a vested interest in the tropics). This team is led by a man most Americans have never heard of, yet he's arguably the most powerful and influential meteorological researcher in the Western Hemisphere.
His name is Dr. William Gray.
Dr. Gray, is the Mr. Blackwell of hurricane forecasting; those who disseminate information about tropical storms hang on his every word as if it were gospel. They treat his predictions with reverent awe and welcome his weather wisdom with the kind of fanfare given to that ridiculous groundhog by the strange little people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. When Dr. Gray speaks, everyone along the Southeast Coast is expected to listen.
Here's the thing though: the guy cheats.
In the same way that changing the odds in the middle of a horse race would give bookmakers a somewhat unfair advantage, Dr. Gray makes regular adjustments to his "Hurricane Season Forecast" during the season itself; he does it several times in fact. His initial prediction at the beginning of the season typically designates an arbitrary number of named storms, as well as their chances of making landfall; then as the months progress, that number almost certainly rises or falls as circumstances and weather patterns change -- as the storms form or don't form.
Needless to say, Dr. Gray's forecast record is excellent. No wonder everyone listens to him; technically, he's never wrong.
Now I'm not a meteorologist. I certainly wouldn't want to in any way disparage those whose job it is to keep millions of people safe from monstrous and deadly storms; in fact, it's worth mentioning that once one of these things forms out in open water, it's astonishing how accurately the National Hurricane Center can predict its likely path. But as for divining the actual number of hurricanes and their potential targets months in advance? Call me Ian Malcolm, but it would just seem like common sense that there are far too many variables to make any kind of accurate assessment.
And that's what it comes down to; if Dr. Gray wants to continue issuing his forecasts -- adjusted for context or otherwise -- then there's certainly nothing wrong with that. They should however be taken as more of a novelty than the rock on which to build your hurricane preparedness plan. You know, like those commercials that say, "For entertainment purposes only."
Like I said, I'm no meteorologist, but hell, even I could pick a random number and still be right by the end of hurricane season -- as long as you let me change my mind a few times while the race is still on.
(*Having grown up in South Florida, I'm well aware that a lack of any major storm is actually par for the course at this stage of hurricane season. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew didn't hit the United States until August 24th; obviously, that was the first named storm of that season. Last year's busiest season on record was an anomaly, and one that even Dr. Gray couldn't have predicted in his wildest meth-fueled fantasies; but don't think for a second that it didn't affect his initial forecast for this year. The guy almost certainly hedged his bet and aimed high -- hence why pulling back now seems especially fraudulent.)