One goal of weather and climate forecasting is to inform decision making. Effective communication of forecasts to various sectors of the public is essential for meeting that goal, yet studies repeatedly show that forecasts are not well understood by lay people. Using a case study from northeast Brazil, this article discusses some of the communication difficulties faced by forecasters and outlines an approach for adapting forecast language to users' needs and expectations. Analysis is based on data collected during 14 months of fieldwork, including interviews, a survey, and observations of meteorologists and local “rain prophets,” whose predictions are derived from empirical observations. The anthropological approach emphasizes the importance of language. For example, findings indicate that forecast communicators should look for multiple definitions of key terms that have common as well as technical meanings. Distinctions salient to meteorologists may be meaningless to the public, even when terms are clearly defined. In some cases, it maybe more helpful to work with lay concepts when communicating forecasts rather than dismissing such understandings as “incorrect.” Meteorologists should also recognize that scientific concepts are not accepted by everyone as the only correct way to think. This is especially relevant where scientific forecasts are competing with alternatives, such as those based on traditional knowledge. Finally, forecast communicators should develop the format and content of the forecast within each application. It is important to learn what people expect from forecasts and which communication styles are preferred.
The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
CURRENT AFFILIATION: University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada