Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Grounded forecasts

For many years, Maine residents listening to the National Public Radio program "Morning Edition" with local host Irwin Gratz have had their weather forecasts from meteorologist Lou McNally, a friendly and knowledgeable fellow with a delivery that empathizes with us when the weather is going to be bad and celebrates when it will be good. He wishes us well in our weekend activities in fair weather, and commiserates with the summer tourists when it appears that their hard-earned vacations are going to be plagued with a week of foul weather. 

Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I heard the rumor that our friendly weatherman lived out of state. How could that be so, when his forecasts were so empathetic? I had envisioned him inside the Portland, Maine radio studio, poking his head out the window to give his forecasts a reality check. For some years I dismissed this rumor out of hand, thinking that it must be sour grapes planted by rival meteorologists to oust this genial fellow from his well-deserved post at Maine Public Radio. 

But gradually my suspicion got the better of me. For one thing, his forecasts seemed to lose their specificity. Even when he said things like "we're going to have to put up with a new weather pattern for a while," or "we're going to experience a back-door cold front with some rain," his knowledge of the state's geography seemed to become more vague. "Cold with up to three inches of precipitation in the North," he would say, without telling us just what line demarcated the North from the South. Was it a line from Bar Harbor to Rangeley? Calais to Skowhegan? "Rain will linger this evening downeast," but where did the mid-coast end and downeast begin? Was it Camden? Deer Isle? Mt. Desert Island? Inquiring minds began to get restless. Besides, I'd noticed that his reports were coming in on a remote connection, probably a cell phone--the signal was not very clear, and sometimes was unreliable--and this was consistent with those rumors.

And so the other day I gave in. I emailed the radio station and asked them where was the north/south demarcation, where was the mid-coast/downeast line, and oh by the way, I'd heard that Lou McNally didn't give his weather forecasts from the state of Maine; was that really true? The next day I got an email reply from a very nice person at the station. He would research the boundary lines with the weather forecasters, and yes, it was true that Lou McNally was out of state. Here is what he wrote: "Lou McNally is indeed based in Florida where he teaches meteorology. Many listeners over the years have enjoyed Lou's presentations when he was living here in Maine, and have asked that he continue with MPBN on a consultant basis. Although his forecasts are presented remotely, we have found that his accuracy rivals local forecasters."

Indeed, it probably does. Forecasts are done by computers these days, not by poking one's head out the window and looking at cloud formations. (You who are reading this will immediately think of those times when the weather forecaster should have looked out the window to see that it was raining despite the report of sunny conditions.) And so I asked myself why did I find myself resisting those rumors, and why am I disappointed that our kindly weatherman broadcasts our Maine forecasts from Florida?

I think it's because he's no longer one of us, and not experiencing the weather he forecasts. He pretends to be among the "We" when telling us "we're" going to have to face that back-door cold front as it spins in from the ocean, but he is not--he is in (mostly) sunny Florida when the nor'easters blow in their gale winds and rain or snowstorms into the state of Maine. Not that I envy him his location; I'd rather be in Maine. But that's the point: he's not. There's something about "being there," that in-person witnessing, that convinces through  grounded experience. We usually call this "authenticity." When NPR does a story about the state of Maine, they send a reporter here or they rely on one of the in-state public radio reporters who are attached to the prize-winning, public radio state news show, Maine Things Considered, broadcast daily in the half-hour starting at 5:30 p.m. In this age of virtuality, where communities are formed over the Internet, where people become rock musicians by playing virtual instruments on their computers (Rock Band) and even experience (virtually) what it is like to be a rock star, there is something about the news and weather that imposes a need for the real and the authentic, despite the skepticism of an age that scarcely believes in the possibility of these concepts anymore. 

As a postscript, this morning I had a very kind email from Irwin Gratz, who as I wrote above is the local host of Morning Edition. He didn't have to write, but he did, noting that in the forecast updates that he gives, he's got a certain geography in mind. Here is what he wrote: "Generally, when I'm doing a forecast I use Midcoast for locations from Brunswick to Camden, Downeast to refer to roughly Bar Harbor eastward.  But, when I can I'll try to use town names to draw a clearer map (talking about heavy snow on a line from Brunswick to Augusta headed east, or rain falling south of Portland).  I know Lou [McNally] often uses major roadways as markers, which can be useful."

All well and good, except that there's quite a lot of territory between the end of Irwin Gratz's Midcoast (Camden) and the start of his Downeast (Bar Harbor) -- I make it a two hour drive along federal Route 1 and then state route 3, to be precise, although by boat the distance (if not the time) is considerably less. (I should put a map here, but anyone can google around and find these places easily enough if they want to visualize them.) And it is from this region that my "apples from the island" originate. I am here, both literally and virtually. I can (and did) assure him that we have real weather here as well. My coastal region is usually termed East Penobscot Bay, but that's quite a mouthful for a weather forecaster. Hmm. It will be interesting to monitor future developments. It's possible I will get an email from Lou McNally. And I can't wait to hear tomorrow morning's forecast!


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