You Need To Start Using America’s Best Weather Forecast

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Feb. 22 2012 5:32 PM

America’s Best Weather Forecast

It’s on Weather Underground, and you should start using it now.

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The site has complied and now has 16,000 personal weather stations in its network in the United States and 8,000 more internationally. On top of that, it incorporates 26,000 extra weather stations from the Meteorological Assimilation Data Ingest System, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (NOAA is the parent agency of the National Weather Service, but the weather service doesn’t use every MADIS station in its forecasts.) John Celenza, Weather Underground’s meteorologist and lead developer, told me that the site has the largest network of weather stations in the world. In the Bay Area, for instance, the weather service has just 18 automated weather reporting stations. Weather Underground has those 18 plus 488 more personal stations and 269 MADIS stations. That means WU has an order of magnitude more data. What’s more, many of its stations provide data in real time—as a result, Weather Underground can update its readings and forecast every two seconds.

Over the past few years, Celenza’s team worked to incorporate all this data into a better weather-prediction machine. As they developed BestForecast, they constantly checked their predictions against reality—if yesterday’s Weather Underground forecast said that it would be 72 degrees near your house tomorrow, was it right? And did the National Weather Service’s forecast do better? The company’s decision to replace the weather service with BestForecast was precipitated by its own improving results. “We just saw that we were getting really good—there were so many positives, so many places where we were doing so much better,” Celenza says.

How much better? That’s hard to quantify. Because the weather varies so much from place to place, the quality of Weather Underground’s forecasts—and its relative performance compared to NWS—depends on where you’re talking about. “It’s probably 1 or 2 Fahrenheit degrees better overall,” Celenza says when I press him to give me a ballpark figure, but he notes that that’s just an average—in some places BestForecast could be significantly better than the weather service (and, in some places, it could be worse; the weather is unpredictable, after all). But Weather Underground is transparent about its performance. If you scroll down the page on any forecast, the site will tell you how well BestForecast has performed for your area over time, and how well the Weather Service has as well. Near my old house in the Sunset, BestForecast’s recent record is rated “Excellent” (meaning it predicted the high temperature to within 1.5 degrees Celsius) while the NWS is only “Good,” meaning it was up to 1 degree worse. Near my current address in Palo Alto, Calif., BestForecast is Good while the NWS is Fair, which means it is sometimes off by 3.5 degrees Celsius. If you like the NWS forecasts more than BestForecast’s, there’s a toggle switch to get that data instead.

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BestForecast has other advantages besides better accuracy, though. By incorporating so much data, Weather Undergroud can now provide longer-range forecasts—while the Weather Service only goes out to five days, Weather Underground now provides a 10-day forecast. As Weather Underground’s data network grows—they’ve added a few thousand stations in the past year alone—the site could do even better. “In 10 years, we might get to a place where we can get a pretty good 15-day forecast,” Celenza says.

Celenza—who is, naturally, a weather obsessive—says that switching over to BestForecast made him a little sad. For years, he’s considered the National Weather Service to be the world standard in forecasting. And, indeed, the Weather Service is still the nation’s preeminent forecaster of severe weather. According to a spokesman, the agency has significantly improved the lead warning time for tornadoes. In the 1980s, you might only get five minutes of warning before a tornado, but thanks to Doppler radar and storm watchers, the weather service can now warn residents 20 to 40 minutes before a storm.

For terrible weather, then, you’re still better off relying on the government. But in clear times, you’re better off trusting the crowd.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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