Right Hooks

About That 'Busted' Blizzard Forecast...

Both the public and meteorologists could use some fresh air on this issue.

Jordan Candler · Mar. 17, 2017

Despite the absurd snowfall totals in some areas of the Northeast (more than 40" in areas of New York and Vermont), this week’s powerful cyclone ended up being a slush storm that ultimately underperformed along the major coastal cities. But a new report has raised an alarming question: Did forecasters purposefully ignore last-minute warning signs that threatened their high-end snowfall predictions? According to the Associated Press, “Before the first snow fell, U.S. meteorologists realized there was a good chance the late-winter storm wasn’t going to produce giant snow totals in big Northeast cities as predicted. But they didn’t change their forecasts because they said they didn’t want to confuse the public.”

In short, hours before the system fully evolved, computer guidance began hinting at a more inland track — not a favorable one for coastal cities. But forecasters, leery of the “the windshield wiper effect” (a knee-jerk reaction to new, shifting data), stood their ground. The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang called it a “poor decision” that, though “well-intentioned,” “has the potential to damage public trust in weather forecasts.” Still others, like meteorologist Marshall Shepherd, responded: “The perception of ‘bust’ is that it didn’t materialize for New York in the manner expected. Much of the expected snow fell as sleet. To me, ice is a far greater hazard. If a pitcher throws a strike down the center of the plate or just off the outside corner, it’s still a strike.”

There is much truth to this. If you talk to folks who live hundreds of miles inland and who experienced nearly four feet of snow, “bust” isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind. For them, the NWS warnings were spot on. Yet for cities along the coast, where most of the population resides, they were left asking: “We shut down for this?” Yet ice (in this case sleet) causes far more dangers than snow does.

Our view is that meteorology is a deeply complex science. And in places like the East Coast, a 20-mile difference in storm track can make all the difference between snow/mix/rain due to the presence of warm Atlantic air. And the difficulty in getting it right is something only a forecaster or weather hobbyist can truly understand. The problem is that most of the public doesn’t care about the intricacies. They just want the forecast to verify. That’s not necessarily always fair, but it’s human nature.

That said, as Weatherbell.com meteorologist Ryan Maue has stated, there’s no shame in revising the forecast, even if it means snow totals will be drastically lowered. Perhaps the best solution, as Shepherd and others have pointed out, is to place more emphasis on impacts and not accumulation. When it comes right down to it, it’s a communication problem. Both the public and meteorologists could use some fresh air on this issue.

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