Ask Professor Puzzler
Do you have a question you would like to ask Professor Puzzler? Click here to ask your question!
Here's a fun question regarding an upcoming snowstorm:
"4 to 8 plus 4 to 8 equals 8 to 16, right?"
This is in reference to a prediction that tomorrow there will be 4 - 8 inches of snow, and then tomorrow night there will be 4 - 8 inches of snow. The questioner is suggesting that this means there will be a total of 8 - 16 inches of snow.
It seems reasonable, right? Except we're all pretty sure we're not going to see anywhere near 16 inches of snow in the next 48 hours. So why can't we just add these two ranges together?
Meterologists have a LOT of unknowns they have to deal with (and I'm not a meteorologist, so I'm not going to pretend I know even a tenth of the variables they deal with). But what I do know is that one of the broad uncertainties is when a storm will pass through. If you look at the chart here (taken from an actual hourly forecast on the National Weather Service website), you'll see that they don't actually know when the storm will start; the snowfall bars begin (with low probability) at 6:00 AM. It's not until noon that they're saying with confidence, "We'll have snowfall by now."
So hypothetically, if the snowstorm starts at 6:00 AM, and goes all day, maybe we'll get 8 inches of snow during the day. But if that happens, the storm will be mostly over by evening, and maybe we'll get 4 inches overnight.
On the other hand, if the storm doesn't start until noon, maybe we'll get 4 inches during the day. But then the storm will last longer into the night, and maybe we'll get 8 inches overnight.
What I've just described is a scenario in which we get a maximum total of 12 inches. But if we were to break it down by how much falls during the day and how much falls at night, we'd have to say "4 - 8 during the day" and "4 - 8 during the night" - even though we feel confident that the storm won't give us more than 12 inches total.
What we're seeing is that a portion of the snowfall could come during the day, and it could come at night. Since we don't know when, it gets listed in both time periods.
Watch the forecasts and see how they line up from storm to storm, and you'll see what I mean: if the daytime forecast is accurate, the overnight forecast will likely be overkill. And vice-versa. Of course, we don't always notice this, because as the storm gets closer, the meteorologists are able to refine their models better.
Then we just whine that the meteorologists have been "hyping up the storms." :D
As I mentioned before, there are undoubtedly many many more variables that I'm not considering, but my purpose here was to show wny you can't just sum the ranges to get a total.