Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Meteorologist's Thoughts on The Blizzard


I have been a paid forecaster since I was 19-years old (WKY TV, OKC). I turned 63 earlier this month. While I will not claim that 45-years of being a practicing meteorologist has given me any special wisdom, it has certainly given me lots of experience. So, I want to share some thoughts with you.

When I awakened this morning and began looking at the storm and the meteorology discussion boards (for snowfall amounts) I was shocked by the amount of self-flagellation going on with regard to the NYC forecast. Over and over, meteorologists were criticizing themselves and their colleagues for getting the Manhattan (only one of the five NYC boroughs) wrong. 

Let’s hold it a minute!

While our forecasts were far from perfect, two facts stand out, at least to me:
  • ·       The reports from Manhattan that I have seen indicate 8-9 inches accumulated.
  • ·       Far east Queens had 15+inches (still snowing) and Islip, last I saw, had 23” with moderate snow still falling.

The forecast for Boston, Providence, Worcester, and other areas was nearly perfect. This is the scene at Boston U about 11:30am. A fierce blizzard is in progress. 

I can tell you story after story of using the barotropic,  baroclinic, and LFM models along with “rules of thumb” (Goree and Yonkin, BJ Cooks’, etc.) in the 1970’s through the mid-80s and confidently forecasting “four to eight inches” and waking up the next day to absolutely dry streets and clear skies. We had no idea what a “dry slot” was. There were also heavy snow storms that went unforecast. What progress we have made!

Assume for a moment that Manhattan received 9” of snow that was unforecast. Absolute gridlock would have resulted. With our forecast, sand and salt trucks were loaded, plows were put on dump trucks, etc. School was called in many areas but most districts would have called it for 9” as well as 20” – beyond the threshold for calling school, it didn’t matter. The same can be said from the people who were allowed to work from home. Airlines cancelled flights (perhaps too many) appropriately. Railroads moved snow plows into position and they were needed. They just had to move them a little farther east than originally planned.

View from JFK International's tower. Via Twitter. Think they would
have been able to conduct operations normally?
In other words: Our NYC forecast, while hardly perfect, was useful.

There is a wonderful book called The Children’s Blizzard. It tells the story of an unforecast ferocious blizzard that struck as children in Minnesota and the Dakotas were walking home from school. At least 213 died (total fatalities around 500). There is no reason to believe that would not happen again today if a similar storm occurred without any warning. Don’t believe me? Think back to the Joplin tornado. When the NWS warning system failed, society went right back to triple-digit tornado fatalities.

There is little doubt in my mind that this forecast for Boston, Providence and so many other areas will, in the end, have saved lives. Yes, we want to learn from this storm. But let’s take a moment to congratulate our fellow meteorologists and be proud we get to work in a profession that saves so many lives and does so much good for our nation and the world.

4 comments:

  1. As a fellow meteorologist with friends and family in central MA (Worcester Co.), the Cape, and Nantucket, thank you for the blog post. The media often focuses too much on Manhattan...

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  2. My pleasure JayTee. I am so proud of my fellow meteorologists and our team at AccuWeather in particular.

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  3. Oh man, I was in the Joplin tornado. I didn't know the warning failed. That sucks.

    Either way, good perspective on the benefit of useful warnings for preparation.

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  4. Joshua, see: http://www.amazon.com/Sirens-Silent-Warning-System-Community-ebook/dp/B0084I8PI4 The print version sold out long ago. The book is available for $2.99 in ebook format. You don't need a Nook or Kindle to read it.

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