BIG READ: The rise of the social media weather forecaster

THE days of leaning over the fence to have a chat with a neighbour about the weather are being replaced with a conversation that's much more social, and fast-paced.

Independent weather forecasters are increasing in their popularity; they say they're filling a demand not offered by the Bureau of Meteorology --- and it includes conversation.

As the bureau chiefs explain, its public services are improving all the time, and the independent forecasters rely on its data for accurate forecasting.

The rise of the new frontier

Queensland's biggest weather Facebook page, Higgins Storm Chasing, was set up in late 2010.

By 2013 it had about 125,000 followers. Since then it has continued to grow, with half a million followers by 2016. Now it has more than 600,000.

Other Facebook pages like Mackay & District Weather Updates (M&DWU), L & K Mackay Severe Weather (L&KMSW) and OZ Cyclone Chasers have seen stellar growth in recent years.

Starting out as a Facebook page in 2012, OZ Cyclone Chasers now has 170,000 followers and several thousand paying subscribers.

It has 12 staff across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Founder Chris Nitso said the company's clients varied from normal people, who wanted the information as simply as possible, to insurers that he claimed used it to make financial decisions.

The founder of M&DWU, who did not want to be identified, said his Facebook page, that started in 2012, had more than 27,000 followers.

"I started a page in Rockhampton last year (Rockhampton & CQ District Weather Updates) and it had 3000 followers. In the past few weeks it has grown to 7000," he said.

 

The Bureau of Meteorology predicted heatwave-like conditions for parts of the state in January.
The Bureau of Meteorology predicted heatwave-like conditions for parts of the state in January. Contributed

Why do they get an audience?

RDWU was one of the first of the independent pages in that region to predict the recent heatwave, which contributed to its sudden growth in popularity.

Mr Nitso, who works out of Townsville, explained these sorts of weather forecasting services and websites were attracting audiences as the Bureau of Meteorology moved further towards automation.

"There is confidence issues in the (BOM) automatic forecasting through MetEye," he said.

MetEye is the new interface providing real time weather observations, and seven-day forecasts for regional centres.  

But BOM acting Queensland regional director, Bruce Gunn, said it was incorrect to suggest these duties were fully automated.

"The bureau's skilled meteorologists draw on a range of forecast data, survey a number of models and observations, often adding knowledge of local weather effects (eg sea breezes, gully winds and topography) and making adjustments where necessary to produce the best possible forecast," Mr Gunn said.

 

The BoM weather radar.
The BoM weather radar. Contributed

"While our services benefit from improvements in technology, it is incorrect to suggest these duties are fully automated.

"Meteorologists are on duty 24 hours a day in the Queensland Regional Office and write warnings, a range of worded forecasts and use Twitter to communicate directly with social media audiences.

"We also undertake approximately 200 scheduled radio interviews each week in Queensland, essential in communicating directly with the public during severe weather and other natural disasters."

But people are flocking to Facebook sites because they wanted a "human element" and real discussion about weather, Mr Nitso said.

 

Generic photo.
Generic photo. Contributed

M&DWU's founder agreed and said the bureau relied too much on its computer modelling.

"They (BOM) are relying much more on computerised systems and everything is really broad," he said.

"There is someone in Brisbane who is updating forecasts in Brisbane, but there is no one updating regional forecasts.

"It's only when there is a major event, will a person look at it."

He claims accuracy has declined.

"For example, the BOM is terrible at predicting cold weather in the Mackay region. They will say it will get down to nine, but it ends up being four degrees," he said.

M&DWU's founder says the errors are usually repeated.

 

Joke Meyer at her Kerrisdale Gardens unit, she keeps cool mainly using small table top fans; they're quieter than an air-conditioning unit. And, she has a nice breeze blowing through her home.
Joke Meyer at her Kerrisdale Gardens unit, she keeps cool mainly using small table top fans; they're quieter than an air-conditioning unit. And, she has a nice breeze blowing through her home. Tony Martin

How do they forecast?

The independent weather Facebook pages don't rely on the bureau for their own forecasting; however, L & K Mackay Severe Weather founder Liam Leonard said the bureau models were considered as part of their overall outlooks.

Mr Leonard also networks with other independent forecasters and uses local historical data to create forecasts for Mackay.

M&DWU's founder has developed his own software to create forecasts.

The system relies heavily on European computer models but includes analysing historical inaccuracies in computer models to generate a unique Mackay forecast.

Oz Cyclone Chasers compile and compare computer models from around the world.

"We do a lot of comparing of models and are quite willing to discard a model if it doesn't match the prevailing conditions," Mr Nitso said.

Each uses Mackay's historical data and topography to generate forecasts, something they claim the BOM cannot do under its model.

 

Liam Brighton hanging out at the Pioneer Pool, keeping cool during the Mackay summer heat.
Liam Brighton hanging out at the Pioneer Pool, keeping cool during the Mackay summer heat. Tony Martin

Careful but not conservative

While the managers of the independent Facebook pages agree that there is a surge in popularity with the 'sensational' weather forecast, they say they take more pride in getting forecasts right.

Weather forecasting is not an exact science but Mr Nitso said his group had built up trust with its followers.

"It's something we have to be very accountable for, and we have to be very careful of how we pitch things," he said.

"(With cyclones) we are dealing with systems that kill people, and cause multi-millions of dollars in damage."

Mr Nitso says he had spent thousands of hours studying tropical cyclones and quickly dismisses any claims he is unqualified.

"We have been following weather for years, since I was 13 or 14 years old. I have completed two years of a meteorology degree, but I guarantee I have spent more time studying cyclones than a lot of other experts," he said.

M&DWU's founder said recently, when a low pressure system dumped more than 400mm of rain on Mackay region, his modelling reflected that; however, he said at the time BOM was forecasting 100mm.

He was unsure about releasing his forecast after reading a BOM prediction, but decided to go ahead after double checking his model.

He said BOM was too cautious.

 

Harvey Savige and his carer Eva Martinez have fun at the Pioneer Swimming Pool in Mackay over summer.
Harvey Savige and his carer Eva Martinez have fun at the Pioneer Swimming Pool in Mackay over summer. Tony Martin

"The more time that people have time to prepare for something the better," he said.

Mr Gunn said the presence of weather social media pages reflected the great interest the Australian community had in weather.

"Much of the information they share comes from the bureau, and we welcome the sharing of our warnings as far and wide as possible," he said.

The use of social media had provided amazing opportunities to share information quickly, he said, and it clearly had a strong role in emergency situations.

"Concerns arise when information is posted that puts community safety at risk through misinformation or inaccurate interpretations of an evolving event," he said. "We encourage social media users to continue to post official bureau forecasts and warnings and heed the advice of local emergency service agencies."

Mr Gunn said while there was some concern that misinformation could put people at risk, the bureau had only requested Facebook remove sites that used the BOM name and/or branding without permission.

But like anyone discussing weather, for these independents to remain reputable they need to be reliable.



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