STILL TALKS ABOUT THE WEATHER
by Whit Gibbons
February 13, 2005
an environmental column needs to address mundane issues as well as the
exciting new findings in ecological research or the latest polarizing
issues that the public doesn't agree about. The weather qualifies. I have
written about the weather before, indicating my distrust and suspicions
about what the local weather forecast has to offer. Things have not changed
in the last 16 years, when I first published a version of the following
One thing that ecologists and real people have in common is a fascination
with weather. How plants and animals respond to rainfall and temperature
dominate many environmental studies conducted by research ecologists.
Indeed the concern for these particular environmental variables seems
to be the most exciting part of the life of many individuals who are not
learn a lot from animals about a variety of subjects, and weather prediction
is one area where we can really take a lesson. The lesson is that day
to day variation in the weather cannot be predicted by plants and animals.
I know of no species of the millions of different kinds of plants and
animals that bases its behavior, physiology, or other biological plans
on the basis of a five-day weather forecast.
between wild animals and humans is that animals that based their survival
on being able to predict the weather eventually left no descendants. That
kind of thinking no longer exists in the animal kingdom, except for humans.
One of the impressions we sometimes have of animals is that they are predicting
the weather, whereas actually they are only responding to meteorological
conditions at the time. For example, frogs sometimes begin calling before
a rain, but conditions of high humidity, barometric pressure changes,
and dark clouds are detectable. The frogs are merely making a short-range
prediction of a few minutes or hours. You can do that just as well. And
sometimes both frogs and people are wrong about predicting rain within
the next hour.
Birds that migrate north in the spring and south in the fall are not making
long-range weather predictions either. Birds, like any of us, can safely
predict with 100% assurance that winter will be colder than summer. In
the North Temperate Zone, birds, other animals, and even trees have evolved
to prepare for the change in the seasons. Predicting seasonal changes
is something that all surviving species of plants and animals can and
must do. Yet none is able to predict the weather of next week, or even
Why do we continue to pay any attention to a weather forecast that is
more than a few hours away? Meteorological studies have shown that the
prediction that the weather tomorrow will be exactly like it was today
is more likely to be right than any other predictions that are made. An
example of long-range weather reporting being a hazy exercise was the
result of a science fair project by my youngest daughter when she was
in high school. Each day she kept a record of the five-day weather forecast
in regard to whether it would rain or not. Then, on the day itself she
recorded what the weather was. I was impressed. The weather forecast was
right almost as many times as it was wrong.
In other words, you could flip a coin and your chances would be just as
good at predicting whether it would rain or not rain five days later.
I am not so naive as to think that each weather station that provides
these five-day reports keeps a special coin for such occasions. Instead,
I think they probably have a pair of dice so that more possibilities are
available. After all, they do like to provide us with the exact high and
low temperatures that we can expect five days later.
Despite the weekly confirmation that a long-range weather forecast is
absolutely meaningless, we still routinely check to see what the weather
prognosticators say is in store for us. After you finish reading this
column, I feel confident you will do just what I intend to do, if you
have not done so already. That is, check the weather report in the paper
so you can plan for the rest of the week.
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