Sunday, March 15, 2009


It is flood season in Fargo/Moorhead. The politicians showed up last weekend to lead a pep-fest, get their faces on television, promise money for permanent flood protection (again), and extolled the virtues of our citizens. Who really listens to them?

The National Weather Service, criticized in 1997 for their constantly changing forecasts of the Red’s crest, bombard us with predictions and probabilities: There’s a 50% chance the river will crest at 38 feet, 1 in 3 chances that it will crest higher than the 39.5 feet recorded in 1997, a 90% chance of major flooding in Wahpeton, there might be a snow/rain storm in 10 days (it is March after all), and on and on. A week ago all those predictions and probabilities were different. As they cover their behinds, citizens are confused and unduly upset.

Recently WDAY weatherman John Wheeler said “Tomorrow will be cloudy all day.” The next day was cloudless all day. Last summer Wheeler said at a 5:00PM weather report: “Those of you going to the Red Hawks game will have a dry night.” The downpour began early and didn’t stop all night—his colleagues on other networks are no better at prediction. These folks are good at telling us what happened not what will happen.

The experts have a credibility problem.

One thing I can predict with almost 100% certainty: The Red River will crest in April, and we don’t know today what the crest will be.

Weather is a dynamic system virtually unpredictable with certainty until it happens.

As we enter flood season, the river approaches the extremes of its normal chaos (order without predictability). The combinations of the weather, snow melt, and the river (along with many other variables) make conditions incomprehensibly complex.

We are familiar with the “butterfly effect” meaning a small change at the beginning of a process can have a large impact at the end of that process. In the weather this dynamic is called sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Many butterfly effects are happening every day in the life of the spring floods. Some we are aware of; others we are blind to. All can impact the eventual outcome, some for good and others for bad. These dynamics are so complex and interconnected that it is beyond the human minds ability to process them. While computers are a tremendous help, they can only model the data people put in. Accurate prediction is impossible, and we can only speak in probabilities that become more accurate as the anticipated dynamics gets closer in time and place.

The weather folks should quit trying to create the illusion that they can get it perfectly right. They know they cannot. People need to understand this and learn to live with uncertainty until the weather happens. The National Weather Service should give their best guess of crest levels daily always pointing out that it is an educated guess. They might give a range of the crest levels that they are 75% certain that the eventual crest will fall within. After a few core measures, more become meaningless.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker has universal credibility. I’d like to see him give a daily news conference at 4:00PM with his thoughts and best predictions. The community can then hear what he has to say at the 5:00PM and 6:00PM newscasts.

We live on the river in south Moorhead. My wife watched neighbors lose their homes in 1997. We are concerned. I trust the judgment of my wife and neighbors who are experienced with floods. Right now many are skeptical of what they are hearing from the experts. We will watch as Mother Nature runs her course and will adapt our plans as the days pass. We will listen to those who have demonstrated their credibility under fire. Our community will come together as it always has.


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