How Good, or Bad, Were the Blizzard Forecasts? The Response, Part 2.

Satellite image of snow cover taken at 9:30am.
Light gray is snow except in eastern Oklahoma where it is low clouds.
In Part 1 of the forecast review (below), I discussed the forecasts of the blizzard that began on this blog Friday until the snow began falling in the area of interest Sunday evening.

Now, I'd like to discuss the reaction to the forecast.

Saturday afternoon, I was very confident this was going to be a major storm that would seriously affect holiday travel. So, in addition to posting the forecasts on my blog, I cross-posted that forecast on a railroading blog where I have several friends I knew would be interested. One reader posted a reaction immediately below my forecast:

While it is nice to wish for such storms, I doubt that this is anything more than wishful thinking by the author. 

I have seen nothing on any NWS sites that indicate that anything of this sort is forecast for the areas mentions. And, I live there!

This is a problem that was discussed at last week's Weather Ready Nation Conference in Norman, OK, that people too often hear/see the warning and fail to appropriately respond. The question is "why"?

The rest of this posting refers to the forecasts of the storm in general via the media, internet, radio, etc., not just the forecasts on this blog (which, according to the traffic counter, reached about 5,000 people).

We learn more on the response from USA Today:

 In Hays [Kansas], drivers who managed to get ahead of the closing still left the interstate earlier than planned, booking three dozen rooms at the Fairfield Inn in a mere 20 minutes Monday night. Greg Boughton, a hydrologist from Cheyenne, Wyo., and his family quit traveling in the afternoon after their SUV nearly slid into a ditch...

Heather Haltli, 29, and her husband were traveling from their home at Hill Air Force Base in Utah to attend a family funeral in Abilene, Texas, but the storm slowed them down so badly that they had to take refuge at the Comfort Inn in Garden City, Kan.
"We've been traveling about 20 miles per hour all the way from Denver," Haltli said Tuesday. She said they had passed up to 15 wrecks including rollovers, upside down cars and jackknifed trucks as they drove through Colorado.
"I don't think we'll be able to make the funeral, but we'll keep going," she said.
The storm was blamed for at least six deaths Monday, authorities said. Four people were killed when their vehicle collided with a pickup truck in part of eastern New Mexico where blizzard-like conditions are rare, and a prison guard and inmate died when a prison van crashed on an icy road in eastern Colorado...
In northern New Mexico, snow and ice closed all the roads from Raton to the Texas and Oklahoma borders about 90 miles away. Hotels in Clayton, N.M., just east of where the three states touch, filled up. Multiple highways remained closed early Tuesday.
Bill Cook, who works at the Best Western in Clayton, said he hadn't seen such a storm since the 1970s, when cattle had to be airlifted with helicopters and the National Guard was called in to help out...

The storm Mr. Cook was referring to was in February, 1971.

[second article, same source]

At least 40 people were stranded at the Longhorn Motel in Boise City, Okla., where manager Pedro Segovia said blowing snow had created drifts 2- and 3-feet high and closed the main road.
The Colorado Army National Guard said it rescued two stranded motorists early Tuesday in eastern Las Animas County, in the state's southeast corner, using a special vehicle designed to move on snow. Smaller highways in that area remained closed.

By putting the numbers in various articles together, the order of magnitude of people stranded was well into the hundreds or low thousands.

Is this too high? Low? We don't know because this type of research has not been done in meteorology to the extent I, and many other meteorologists, would like. I suspect the number of people stranded was higher than it needed to be.

I guess I'm perplexed as to the apparent "wistful thinking" response and the fact that thousands of people drove into a well-forecast blizzard putting themselves -- and rescuers -- in peril. Why? It can't be because they believe their cars can handle the measured 7 to 10 ft. car or truck can. Is it because they don't believe the forecast? Is it they are not aware of the geography (i.e., their route of travel was right through the center of the blizzard forecast)? They don't think to check the weather for a road hundreds of miles away if the sky is fair at home when they depart? What?

Is it because television weathercasters are hurting, rather than helping, our image? This incident occurred in Los Angeles this morning:

I also suspect an element of the problem is too many are unaware of the amazing progress that has been made in storm warnings during the last decade (like the forecast skeptic cited at the top of this posting). Because people are unaware of how accurate the warnings have become, they are disinclined to act on them.

Breakthroughs in medicine are routine news. And, just yesterday, we learned that astronomers have found two new planets. It was worldwide news. Yet, great progress in meteorology rarely makes news. So, we are still viewed by many as the people "who can keep our jobs while being wrong half the time."

I certainly welcome the introduction of social science into the field of forecast and warning response. The sooner we get some answers to these questions, the sooner we can save more lives.

If you have any thoughts, please feel free to post them in the Comments.

Another meteorologist chimes in here.


  1. This happened in 2008 in southern Wisconsin. I think the problem is that "people" think they are skilled enough at driving that they think (wish, hope) they can make it through. All it takes is one person who can't, however, and a cascade of failures strands people.

  2. Here is an observation that may or may not be useful. It seems that meteorology has gotten pretty good at predicting storms. I have been following your blog for a while now, and read your book, and clearly your industry has made great strides in the area of storm predictions. I think though that a lot of the negative perception comes more from the day to day forecasting. I can't remember the day, but just recently the forecasts were for mostly sunny and temps in the upper 40s or 50s, but it was cloudy most of the day and didn't get much above the upper 30s or lower 40s. I ended up not doing a few things that I would probably have done had the weather been what was forecasted. I have a hobby that is greatly dependent on wind conditions. Many times there have been forecasts for 5-10 mph wind and it is actually more like 10-15 or 15-20, which makes a difference in my case. Things like this happen quite a bit. Now, I am interested in the weather and I understand some of the basics of how it works and what kinds of variables are involved and I can understand and forgive these relatively small mistakes in forecasting. But, for the average, uniformed, citizen, these minor variations reinforce the notion that you guys don't know what you are talking about most of the time. That may be one of the reasons that people don't take storm predictions very seriously.

    Perhaps in forecasting there should be less emphasis on exactly what the result is going to be in terms of exactly what the temperature, wind speed, rainfall, snowfall, etc will be. And more of a generalized approach. The more pinpoint to try to be in a forecast, the more likely that you won't be quite right and then the more likely that you will build negative perceptions of forecasting in general.


  3. @Steve, "I think though that a lot of the negative perception comes more from the day to day forecasting. "

    Steve, I believe you are on to something. Little work the last 20 years has gone into improving day-to-day forecasts because -- correctly or not -- the perception in weather science is we needed to get the blizzards, tornadoes, and flash floods right. Perhaps that taints our warnings.

    Thank you for sharing.

  4. I think people hear so many weather warnings that they don't draw a distinction between a so-so storm and a dangerous one. Many of the blizzard travelers probably thought it was just another winter storm and didn't pay attention to the language in the warnings forecasting closed roads, immense drifts, etc.

    Here where I live in Vermont, a lot of people got caught in flooding, and four people died, during Hurricane Irene. Flood warnings in advance of the storm were the upteenth time this year we had flood warnings. It's been a very wet year.

    NWS had enhanced wording in the Irene warnings, talking about fast moving, immediate, life threatening situations, But I think some people skimmed over the warnings, thinking the water would just hit the usual low spots, or water wouldn't rise that fast, despite the fact there were FLASH flood warnings. Just my two cents

  5. Hi Matt, yes I'm sure what you say is a factor. For more on the Vermont warnings, please take a look at this:

    At last week's Weather Ready Nation Conference there was a lot of controversy as to whether false alarms and "warning fatigue" dampens response. To me, the answer is clearly "yes."

    I did many postings about the conference, including one that announced an amazing statistic: 99+% of the critical tornado warnings were correct.

    I do believe we post too many "headlines" (watch/warning/advisory) for low end events. The NWS had a "winter weather advisory" for one inch of snow in Wichita, which turned out incorrect. I just rained with a temperature of 33°. These likely contribute to warning fatigue.

  6. I love the weather. I love watching weather forecasts and reading weather blogs. I do think that the TV weather channels build everything up because they need something to entertain their audience. I know there is something serious though when local channels cancel regular programming to follow storms. My husband laughed at me when I told him to take cover because of a tornado warning. The next day there was a roof taken off a house nearby. Now he listens to me. I do think there is warning fatigue, and also an element of people thinking they can cope with anything, especially when they have never experienced the reality of a storm.

  7. Mike,
    I read your forecast on Fri. nigh TOs and was aware that a major change was coming on CH3 in Wichita but they wouldn't give any amounts till like Sun. or so, where you did. I thought you did a great job and was accurate also. Read my response to your forecast to the guy who said it was a bunch of hooy and came back on TO and is eating CROW. upkpfan

  8. I think it's really coming down to a social sciences issue and not a meteorological one as much. It is beyond frustrating when I put out a forecast for freezing rain with significant travel issues and there ends up being numerous accidents with cars & SNOWPLOWS off the road (just happened last night). Why do our clients do the complete opposite than what we advise them to do (stay off the roads) given the forecast weather conditions. It's almost like a child rebelling against a parent. How do we get our clients to understand that the weather forecast is for very poor conditions and to stay off the roads (a connection between the forecast and a verification that its actually happening)?

    Someone told me several months ago that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. I think that's an easy way out (here's the forecast, do what you want with it) and I'm not willing to give up on trying new approaches.

  9. A somewhat different view: I am sure that the predicting has gotten better, but I have come to expect here (MD county slightly west of Baltimore) that the exact prediction of how many inches of snow will fall can have a considerable variation. It may be our particular location causes a larger uncertainty, but I have got to take the snow predictions, especially for anything over 24 hours, with a grain of salt. That being said, I would certainly pay attention to a blizzard condition. The predictions have *sometimes* been exactly right here.

  10. Hi Jim, Thanks for your comment. I have no doubt that there are times when they forecast 2" and you get 5" and I'm sure that is frustrating.

    That said, tremendous amounts of work have gone into forecasting major storms and we are getting those right to an extent that often amazes even me. Here is one from your part of the country a year ago today:

    A blizzard was explicitly forecast for NYC 72 hours before it began! That is great progress.



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