Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Forecasters: Finland versus the US

As I learn more about forecasting and meteorological education in Finland, I am increasingly surprised at the differences between forecasters between the two countries.

If you talk to meteorology undergraduates in the US, you will run into a significant fraction of them who are dying to get jobs in the US National Weather Service (NWS). That is their career goal: they just want to forecast for the NWS.

These types of students don't seem to exist in Finland. Instead, forecasters enter the weather service in FMI mostly as student helpers during the summertime when the regular forecasters go on summer vacation. After a few years of being on the forecast shifts, Finnish forecasters tire of working shifts and get other jobs within FMI: research or administration. In fact, several of the administrative and secretarial staff were meteorological observers in college, leaving the profession later to work in administration. Some of the best and most dedicated forecasters I know have part-time research careers and/or are working towards their masters or doctorate degrees. The result is that you see few forecasters older than 40 years old on the forecast floor. This observation is particularly apparent now, during summer, when the office is mostly new, younger forecasters.

Given that much of forecasting is having experience with a wide variety of circumstances, I feel this difference in attitudes towards a life-long career in forecasting has serious ramifications for the quality of forecasts that FMI produces. The only way to build up these experiences, especially with relative uncommon and potentially hazardous weather events such as big snow storms and thunderstorms that produce severe weather (strong winds, heavy rain, hail, and tornadoes), is by having a workforce that is committed to a career in forecasting. If people view the FMI weather service as a stepping stone into a comfortable government position, then weather forecasting will never be viewed as a task to be done by talented and hardworking professionals.


At 4:34 PM, Blogger Kummitäti said...

So many things to comment in this... still not sure if this is the right medium for such a discussion.

Firstly: Your view of FMI is the building next to campus. Longer careers as forecasters are seen in the other offices.

Secondly: History. In 1980's, Finland wanted local services, and FMI offices were opened in many smaller towns. Lots of recruitment of people whose main interest was perhaps in research. Then, mid-1990's the big re-organization, ceasure of many activities and yet nobody was sacked. Many of those people who started as forecaster's assistants drawing weather maps and managing the telex, became then admin and IT staff, and learned a new job !

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Elena said...

Sorry, the signature of the previous post was missing. No doubt everyone will know it is me,

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Timo said...

As an operational forecaster I was very interested and delighted about your opinions. Here are some late comments on your essay, from an aviation forecaster's point of view.

It is an excellent reminder to all of us that to be a forecaster is a challenging and demanding profession. That operational forecasters themselves appreciate their job and usually consider it as life-long career is a must. One thing occurred to me: to be experienced in the job inevitably means you aren’t quite young. On the other hand, physically and physiologically, a young employee would be an ideal shift worker. So we have a slight, built-in paradox here...what is the secret with those dedicated forecasters with life-long carees in the NWS? One interesting alternative we should think twice is a "combined career": a forecaster- part-time researcher.

Future development may somewhat reduce the number of those working 24/7 in FMI, but that kind of preparedness (particularly warnings and aviation nowcasting as a whole) will always need human labor, forecasters and technical staff. For those professionals it’s especially important that we take care of activities improving working ability. And not only the human contribution is important, but the tools, ergonomics and cognitive features in forecasting environment as well. I’m pleased to note that also those things are at the present to a certain extent considered in FMI.

When the future vision of our forecasting work is discussed, I personally feel that some hasty conclusions are sometimes made. For instance: improvements in the model world "automatically" lead to better forecasts. Or forecasting is like an industrial process: model solutions are the "fundamental flow" and the forecaster’s (only) job is to add value to the model fields if she/he is able to.

In reality the forecasting challenge, i.e. to make a valuable useful forecast, is much more complicated and continuous effort is needed on this field. In some extreme cases, although a forecast is meteorologically correct, it may be worthless to the user if it isn’t understandable or the user doesn’t know how to react. So, the forecaster does need communicative skill and some understanding of the user’s operational environment.

Especially the intensive 0-6 hr nowcasting-forecasting is best described as a complex puzzle to my mind. The ingredients of a useful real time forecast are numerous: monitoring of observations and short extrapolations have to be merged together with sometimes contradictory model suggestions. It is reasoning, dealing with uncertainty, leaving out unessential points. After that the forecaster has to make the decision on the content of the aviation or warning product. This is especially challenging in severe weather warnings and in very short range ceiling and visibility forecasting in wintertime stable BL conditions. Putting together the final product takes some time as well as the distribution. In this very short-range aviation forecasting world, you may sometimes feel you are successful, but in practice you never feel you have done a "perfect" job.

Timo Erkkilä
FMI, Tampere Office


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