An unofficial, web-based weather forecaster has been criticised for its alarmist warnings of potentially historic floods in outback Queensland that never eventuated.
Higgins Storm Chasing shared a post on social media in early March warning of rainfall and flooding across western Queensland at a level not seen in 40 years.
The forecast said: “It could rival anything during the past 44 years (since the 1974 flood). It may also be so significant that nothing has ever been experienced like it in this state.”
“We thought we were going to get it, with that rainfall event last weekend … and Higgins Storm Chasing had a great forecast but they don’t even know what they are talking about apparently,” farmer Randal Newsham said.
Mr Newsham, of Bundoona station, 40 kilometres north-west of Eulo in south-west Queensland, said it had been heartbreaking being promised heavy rainfall and only getting 7 millimetres.
“They can’t pick it out here. They would be better off if they said it was fine all the time. They’d be right much more often,” he said.
Higgins defends forecasts
Higgins Storm Chasing’s Thomas Hinterdorfer has defended the forecasting.
“It’s not our intention to build up false hope, but at the same time these systems are always changing,” he said.
“For people to twist our words and say that the drought’s broken because we’ve said this, unless we’ve said these words I don’t think we should be held accountable for that.”
Mr Hinterdorfer said the site did not have an obligation to the public in the way forecasts were presented.
“We try to present the forecasts as is. We need to show what forecasts are showing,” he said.
“We can’t just say ‘There’s 600 millimetres on the model but you’re just going to get a shower’.
“At the same time, we would get slammed for saying we are way too conservative.”
Unofficial forecasters ‘don’t have same responsibility’
Emergency services tasked with managing severe weather events are cautious about putting any weight on commercial forecasters.
“People who want to be forecasters on social media don’t have to abide by the same moral responsibility,” Queensland Fire and Emergency Services emergency management co-ordinator Elliot Dunn, of Mount Isa, said.
“They can pretty much put up whatever they like and hence we don’t rely on any of that information.
“We have a point of truth, which is the Bureau of Meteorology.”
There’s water over the road on the Landsborough Highway between Cloncurry and McKinlay. Catherine Seaton shared this photo and said the water was rising quickly. @abcbrisbane pic.twitter.com/HAqL7vCNvM
— Harriet Tatham (@HarrietTatham) March 3, 2018
For the same rain event, the bureau was predicting a maximum of 100–200mm in isolated areas and a maximum of 50mm in the central-west.
Longreach recorded about 70mm at the airport, while Winton recorded about 260mm at the airport over the five days of wet.
When accused of generating clickbait forecasts, Mr Hinterdorfer said, “We’re not going to beef up everything and have it as this massive, hyped, scaremongering tactic”.
“If the title is a little bit, I guess, if people want to say clickbait, then it’s not. By far.
“I guess that’s just what social media is now. We don’t intend to have clickbait.
“Of course you want people to click on your articles, but I guess some people can take it as clickbait.”
Mr Newsham said he often took the predictions with a grain of salt.
“My daughter-in-law showed me the forecast they had, where it could be bigger than 1974 and one of the biggest rainfall events ever. He must have dreamt it,” he said.
Hopes dashed for rain
The predicted rain missed large parts outback Queensland, meaning stock will still have to be hand-fed.
“People don’t realise there is a great area that hasn’t been rained on and we are still drought-stricken,” Mr Newsham said.
Mr Dunn said unofficial forecasts lurching from one extreme to another were difficult for graziers to prepare for.
“A lot of these properties are still in drought five years on, and not only were they thinking they were going to get extraordinary rain, some of those rain predictions were nearly catastrophic,” he said.
“So you’re going from drought to widespread animal loss, if we had believed some of the stuff that was being touted on social media.”
The widespread prediction of high rainfall across the west had some emergency services worried about the mental health of farmers.
“There is a responsibility that goes with being a weather predictor,” Longreach district disaster coordinator Mark Henderson said.
“It’s different promising a community that hasn’t seen rain for three weeks some rain and it not occurring. It’s probably not such a big deal.
“But when you go promising widespread, soaking rain to a community that hasn’t seen rain in six years, you are running the risk of really endangering the mental health of some members of the community.”