Upstart forecasters build social media followings
When Bill Kirk started his Bethlehem-based weather analytics company about 26 years ago, he was following the advice of a now famous U.S. Army general.
"('Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf) made a comment to me, 'Don't change your mind once you make a forecast,'" recalled the former Air Force captain, who promised he had no relation to the head of Star Trek Enterprise.
Kirk, co-founder of Weather Trends International, used that guidance and experience as a weather officer in the military to help launch his company, which predicts weather up to a year ahead of time.
Made up of mathematicians, statisticians, meteorologists and business advisers, Weather Trends works with Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch, to use weather to their advantage.
"The correlation between temperature and sales, especially of drinks, statistics show it's extremely significant," Kirk said.
But whereas he has found long-range success using math and historical data to project weather far in advance, other local weather forecasting organizations are using social media and constant updates to build a following.
Brad Sweitzer Sr. co-founded Red Lion-based S&S Storm Chasing and Forecasting Team with Phil Schussler in 2013.
The two met each other through an online weather forum after Sweitzer posted a picture outside his home and Schussler pointed out that the two lived about 10 houses apart, Sweitzer said.
S&S Storm Chasers, which currently has more than 155,000 likes on Facebook, is composed entirely of volunteers, only one of whom actually has a degree in meteorology. Sweitzer, 39, said he's currently in school trying to earn his meteorology degree. The group is currently being filmed for a documentary television series, but Sweitzer said he couldn't release any details.
Sweitzer said the company's following really took off after they correctly predicted a large snowstorm in February 2014 that major outlets were saying wouldn't amount to more than a few inches.
S&S Storm Chasers are now in a similar situation, with their models consistently showing 1 to 2 feet of snow in the York area this weekend, while major outlets, including National Weather Service and AccuWeather, are predicting less or holding off on releasing any accumulation predictions.
Another company that was able to capitalize on a correct prediction of a major weather event is Allentown-based Eastern PA Weather Authority,which has more than 230,000 Facebook likes.
Managing partner Mike Defino, who has a degree in meteorology, said the company started out just covering Lehigh Valley but has grown to make in-depth forecasts for all of eastern Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey.
The authority built some of its following after correctly predicting Hurricane Sandy in 2012 eight days in advance, Defino said.
While both S&S Storm Chasers and Eastern PA Weather Authority have had their successes in predicting major weather events, Sweitzer and Defino acknowledged that they've made major miscalls as well. Both predicted a major blizzard last January that ended up shifting east at the last minute, they said.
"Those are really hard hits to take 'cause you put in a solid week really watching all the models," said Sweitzer, who added that he only gets a couple hours of sleep each night when there's potential for major storms, such as this weekend. "Snow, for some people, is like a drug, and if they don't have it (and we predicted it), we feel like we let people down."
Still, Sweitzer said he'd rather put out a warning earlier and be wrong then the other way around.
"(If we're wrong), people will just buy a few extra batteries or some food that they'll end up using and eating eventually anyway," he said. "We put it in writing that things can change, but people usually just see a picture and title on social media and don't read details."
Kirk said there's a certain danger with mixing social media and meteorology.
"The general public gets their info from Facebook, and it can cause a mass hysteria," he said. "Meanwhile, the guy ... doesn't even have a meteorology degree."
Kirk said the problem is just related to human nature: Every storm tracker thinks they'll get the big one.
A similar model watcher in Bethlehem had predicted 40 inches in the area a few days ago, and by Tuesday night, that number had dropped all the way down to zero inches, Kirk said.
"If I did that in the military, Schwarzkopf would've shot me, and that's a direct quote, he really told me that," Kirk said.
-- Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org.