Experts: Take weather app’s snow prediction with grain of salt

This iPhone weather app. File

If you checked the weather app on your smart phone this weekend you likely saw a snowflake or two in the forecast.

Well, don’t shut down the Ravenel Bridge just yet.

Weather apps - convenient because they come preinstalled on your smart phone (in fact, you can’t even remove them) - should be taken with enough salt to de-ice your driveway.

For instance, after predicting snow for Friday and next Tuesday, the app on my iPhone changed its tune a few hours later, instead calling for sun on Friday and rain next Tuesday.

Weather experts say the problems with the computer-generated apps are that they don’t provide a lot of context to complicated weather patterns and that they often try to predict the weather several days before anyone can know with any real certainty.

“Most all of us accept a 7-day forecast,” Alabama meteorologist James Spann said. “Beyond 7 days the skill level drops off so greatly. To me, it’s unethical to even try.”

Spann, who coined the term “crap apps,” compared anything beyond that to ‘throwing a dart at a dart board.’

“People are planning weddings and important life events with it,” he said of the apps. “It’s just not good.”

Spann said weather models used to be only accessible to trained meteorologists but now everyone has access to them, which makes it easy to find unreliable forecasts not only on apps but on social media, blogs and websites. Most people mean well, he said, but some benefit from scaring the bejeezus out of you.

“The more outrageous weather they can show, the more clicks, pageviews and eyeballs they can track and they can monetize that,” Spann said. “We know it’s not going to go away but it’s a big distraction for us.”

Spann said the apps are not usually vetted by a human, much less a meteorologist who can interpret weather patterns in detail and understand the local geography and culture.

Down South, where we get a little excitable at the thought of snow, it’s especially helpful to have someone who can explain what to expect in detail, said Jared Smith, founder and operator of the @Chswx Twitter and Facebook account. “So far out you need a little more nuance, especially for something that’s unusual and riles us up so much here,” Smith said. “At the end of the day the call to action should be, ‘We need to learn more about this as opposed to #SNOMG’ or ‘We need to go get bread and milk!’”

And that’s the other problem with the apps. They don’t provide much context beyond an icon of a sun or cloud.

“They’ll fit the bill a lot of the time,” Smith said of weather apps. “A stretch of sunny days, sure. But for a lot of this stuff, that’s when you need some extra oomph.”

It can get much more complicated in the winter.

“When you open up that app, you scroll down and see that snow flake and you’re almost like ‘Oh my God! It’s going to snow! But it says nothing about the probability or confidence,” Smith said. “There are no details about how much, or how little. It’s just this little snowflake.”

Last year about this same time many apps were calling for snow days in advance, when in reality we were about to get a blanket of ice, which not everyone was prepared for.

“When you do have winter you need more than just a snowflake,” Smith said.

We’re lucky here in the Lowcountry to have a lot of trained meteorologists, including the National Weather Service in Charleston, to help guide us through the winters. And they’ve become very good at reaching out to the public and answering questions on Twitter and Facebook.

So next time you see a little snowflake on your weather app, make sure you do a little digging before rushing to the store.

Reach Andy Paras at 937-5589.