4 Predictive Technologies That Are Making Punxsutawney Phil Obsolete
Here in New England, it’s been an unseasonably warm winter thusfar. Is it a case of climate change or just a natural weather pattern that will pass without any incident? I’m not a meteorologist, but neither is Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog whose shadow apparently tells us if spring is around the corner.
The tradition began as a Pennsylvania German custom way back in roughly 1841, in Punxsutawney, of course. Back then, they didn’t have all the fancy technology we have these days, and relying on a groundhog to predict the weather was actually a sort of religious/scientific compromise between the pagan festival Imbolc (February 2) and the Vernal Equinox (March 21st), both of which have to do with the arrival of spring.
Unfortunately for Phil, records that have been kept from 1887 onwards indicate that he’s only right about 37% of the time, which is not the greatest track record. Fortunately for us, meteorology has advanced to the point where we don’t need a groundhog to tell us what the weather is going to be like.
So is Phil out of a job? These four technologies seem to think so.
While the exact process for determining whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow remains a closely guarded trade secret, many people agree that it has something to do with the clouds. After all, he can’t cast a shadow if the sun isn’t shining. Personally, I think this is crux of why Phil is so darn inaccurate; clouds clearly indicate more snow, while sunny weather means warmer temperatures! So he’s not really wrong, he’s just got it backwards!*
This also turns out to be a short-sighted approach, especially here in New England. Just this week, Tuesday morning started out beautifully clear and sunny, but by 11 o’clock, clouds started rolling in. Punxsutawney Phil could not predict this, but the Weather Channel could, and did. But they had a secret weapon on their side: radar.
This is a doppler radar station. Personally, I feel like it must be some kind of alien summoning device.
NEXRAD, or Next Generation Radar, measures both precipitation and wind by firing pulses of energy into the sky. These pulses hit skyborne objects like clouds, birds, and bugs, then bounce back to listening devices to determine the distance, shape, and frequency shift of the pulse. During rain, the sensitivity level of the radar pulses is turned way down, since there’s plenty of feedback occurring; however, during clear skies the sensitivity is cranked up all the way.
It’s not perfect, since birds and bugs do tend to get in the way, and snowflakes don’t reflect the energy pulses very well, but it’s a lot more accurate than a groundhog, and can give us a fairly good picture of the clouds in the air, as well as how they’re moving.
To cover all the spots that radar tends to miss – like high altitude weather, mountain ranges, and open ocean – we have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s eyes in the sky. Geostationary satellites orbit the Earth at a very high altitude (around 22,500 miles), and travel at the same velocity that the Earth rotates. This means that they accurately and consistently monitor the same section of the Earth’s hemisphere at all times.
In fact, just last year, NOAA just launched a new geostationary satellite named GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R). It includes revolutionary technology such as the first ever lightning mapper, which will enable meteorologists to hone in on storms that pose the greatest threat.
It will also contain an instrument called the Advanced Baseline Imager, which will take pictures of Earth’s weather, oceans, and environment on 16 different spectral bands which comprise two visible channels, four near-infrared channels, and 10 infrared channels. Punxsutawney Phil may be able to see his own shadow in clear weather, but I don’t think he can see on 10 different infrared channels.
The full list of equipment GOES-R is running is available on GOES-R.gov, and it includes a large list of planned future products, like improved rainfall probability and cloud type detectors.
3. Deep Thunder
We wouldn’t be Deep Core Data if we didn’t touch on Big Data every couple of blog posts. And make no mistake; between satellites and radar technology, meteorologists are generating huge, heaping piles of data by the hour. IBM has its hand in this pie with Deep Thunder, a hyper-local, short term forecaster that predicts phenomena like where flooding and downed power lines are most likely occur, or when winds will be too high for parade balloons, up to 84 hours in advance.
Deep Thunder works by measuring weather patterns in a 0.2 to 1.2 mile square, taking into account local vegetation and soil composition as well as things like barometric pressure, precipitation, and wind speeds. It does this by recording each aspect of the nearby environmental qualities and turning them into physics equations. The reason it works so well is that it does them at a scale and speed that humans aren’t capable of doing unassisted.
Currently, Deep Thunder takes in 100 terabytes of data from more than 195,000 weather stations daily, making it one of the largest treasure troves of location data available today. So far, it’s customized for business clients only, but IBM intends to eventually take their project global.
4. Mobile Applications
A list of weather apps from the Google Play Store. We reference most of these companies in our blog post, so you know they’re pretty good.
Okay, so mobile apps don’t actually predict the weather; they just report it. However, disseminating information is just as important to weather forecasting as tracking storms and measuring pressure changes. Unfortunately for the local weather man, cable viewership is down while mobile use is at an all time high.
For example, the once omnipresent Weather Channel has seen a huge loss of viewers over the past few years, but their mobile app is doing extremely well. In fact, it’s the first weather related app listed in the Google Play Store. Is it the best app in the store? It depends on how thorough of a weather report you’re looking for.
According to OutsideOnline.com, the best weather apps include radar and show the weather for an entire region, not just the local area. They recommend apps like Weather Underground and RainAware, which are great for people planning camping or hiking trips, but tend to have a lot of extra features that the average user might not be interested in.
If you’re simply wondering if you should take an umbrella into work today, or if it’s a good time to walk the dog, try out Google Now, an app pre-installed in many Android phones. WeatherBug is also a long time favorite, and it includes widgets that can be applied to your home screen, giving you weather at a glance.
So, with all this new technology, can we tell if we’re in for a warm February, or should we keep ourselves bundled up until March?
The Weather Channel’s February Temperature Outlook suggests that for those of us in the northern states, it’s going to keep being chilly for a little while longer, but the South is on its way up. Weather Underground seems to agree.
At the time of writing, 1:30 on Wednesday afternoon, my prediction is that Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow, and we’ll have six more weeks of winter. Before posting, let’s check and see how well I did!
*Did I mention I’m not a meteorologist?
I was right! Although when Phil has seen his shadow more times than not, and with the weather forecast looking to be as chilly as it was, I think the odds were in my favor. Although, not everyone agrees with the prediction…