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Weather been less than co-operative this summer? Don't blame your meteorologist

MONTREAL - Bone-dry temperatures in British Columbia that have led to hundreds of wild fires. Home-ravaging tornadoes in western Quebec. A violent wind storm in Alberta that left a woman dead at a country music jamboree.

MONTREAL - Bone-dry temperatures in British Columbia that have led to hundreds of wild fires. Home-ravaging tornadoes in western Quebec. A violent wind storm in Alberta that left a woman dead at a country music jamboree.

In a country where temperatures can range from -40 C to 40 C and where precipitation comes in the form of snow, sleet, hail and rain, talking about the weather has undoubtedly become a favourite pastime.

So too has meteorologist-bashing.

David Phillips, Environment Canada's senior climatologist, recalls a confrontation with a woman in a grocery store about a year ago.

"(She) just blocked my food cart and just reamed me out about being so wrong about the forecast and how it spoiled her summer holidays," he said.

In the last few weeks alone, his former barber told a colleague that Phillips "just tells lies," while a taxi driver described his forecasts as "lousy."

One irate Canadian wrote an email to his employer that said "I don't believe anything that comes out of his mouth. Another read: "I might as well just flip a coin. (It's) more accurate than he is."

Despite much criticism, particularly for this summer's outlook, Phillips maintains he wasn't totally off. June was in fact colder and wetter than normal in the East.

The West has certainly been hot and dry and while predictions that the East would warm up by late summer have yet to materialize, he cautioned it's still early August.

But while he admits he's "been beat up a lot this summer," Phillips believes Canadians are generally forgiving.

The same can't be said for other parts of the world.

In a speech several years ago to a group of meteorologists and weather personalities, Phillips recounted some grim tales:

-Until the 1960s, British law decreed that someone found guilty of trying to predict the weather could be burned at the stake as a heretic.

-In the 1990s, the Taliban banned weather forecasting in Afghanistan, calling it sorcery.

-Thailand's chief meteorologist was fired for failing to predict the 2004 tsunami. Ironically, the country's previous top weatherman was fired six years earlier for warning that the southwest coast could face a deadly tsunami.

-In 1996, Peruvian meteorologist Francisco Arias Olivera was hanged from a tree by an angry mob outside a TV station after a flash flood killed 17 people. He had predicted 50 millimetres of rain in 24 hours but the town was bombarded with 480 in 12 hours.

"Canadians like to ridicule weather forecasters but fortunately not like they do elsewhere," Phillips said.

Meteorologists argue weather forecasts are actually far more accurate today than ever before.

Environment Canada, which has long tracked the accuracy of its forecasts, says five-day forecasts now are as good as two-day forecasts were some 25 years ago.

Rene Heroux, a Montreal-based Environment Canada meteorologist, says predicting severe weather is trickier.

He said residents of Mont-Laurier, Que., had an hour's notice last week that a tornado was headed their way. That's about as good as it gets, he said, adding Oklahoma residents got just 20 minutes notice before some of the deadliest tornadoes struck in May 1999.

Ian Rutherford, executive director of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, said Canada is a difficult place to be a meteorologist.

"We have oceans on three sides, we have mountains in the middle and plains," he said, adding the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, the Ottawa River valley and the fact Canada lies in the middle of the East Coast storm track make weather all the more difficult to predict.

And while radar, satellite and supercomputer technology that can process millions of equations simultaneously have dramatically improved weather forecasts since the 1960s, Rutherford said Canada still has a poor observation system that makes it tough to track weather from a distance and predict where it's going.

"We have a very sparse population and it's very expensive to put weather observing sites in place where there aren't people," he said, noting the weather observation network in Canada is actually sparser now than it was 40 years ago.

Phillips, however, thinks Canadians need to better understand how to interpret forecasts.

Some believe a 30 per cent probability of rain means it will rain for 30 per cent of the day or that 30 per cent of the region will get wet.

Noting many Canadians also accuse forecasters of trying to "cover their asses" with catch-all weather reports that include everything from sun to thunderstorms, Phillips said that's just the nature of the last few summers.

Still, some say forecasters should do a better job of explaining it.

Jeff Calderwood, chief executive of Canada's National Golf Course Owners Association, said business is down between 10 and 15 per cent in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Inclement weather is a big part of it but so too are bad forecasts, he believes.

"The way weather is reported tends to put too much emphasis on the chance of rain," he said. "The standard forecast such as 40 per cent chance of showers actually means that golfers will probably have fine weather.

"But that's not how it is perceived. If the same data were reported as 60 per cent sunshine, the effect on golfers' psychology would be much more positive."

 
 
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