If you woke up this fine Tuesday morning to find much less snow than forecasters predicted, you're likely one of the thousands of angry people sprinting to the computer to voice your outrage—outrage!!!—that those lowlife, idiotic, goodfernothin' meteorologists can't get anything right. Here's why you're wrong.
Regular readers of The Vane (and anyone who read the blog's two big posts on the blizzard) were well aware of the potential for the storm to produce much less snow than was forecast in and west of New York City. Each of my posts on the topic included the following disclaimer about the potential track of the nor'easter:
The Bust Potential
The scary thing about a potentially huge storm like this is the potential for a huge bust. Nor'easters are a tricky balancing act between track, cold air, and moisture. This system will have no trouble with moisture or cold air; the precipitation will be all snow. The problem lies in the track—if the storm scoots just a little farther east than the models are showing, snow totals could drop dramatically and the forecast will be a huge, embarrassing bust.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that this could be a "blockbuster" storm (as many are calling it), and forecasts reflect this fact. Weather forecast[ing] is an inexact science, however, so keep in mind that just the smallest shift in the storm's track off of what's forecast will result in far lower snowfall accumulations.
As it turns out, the storm did form a little farther to the east, keeping the deformation zone (shield of heavy, persistent snow bands) closer to the coast. This prevented the catastrophic, crippling snows from pushing farther west than central Long Island, shafting cities like New York and Philadelphia out of the heaviest snows—hell, Philly barely saw more than a dusting.
Here's what the radar looked like during at 11:00 PM on Monday:
And here's what it looks like as I write this post around 10:00 AM on Tuesday:
Meteorologists write forecasts to warn the public about what they think will happen based on the evidence before them. Forecasters look at all available data—surface observations, atmospheric observations, weather models, radar, satellite, climatology, analogous storms, and experience—to make their best prediction as to what the weather will do in the near future.
The models showed and forecasts called for a blockbuster snowstorm forming from the Delmarva Peninsula through northern New England last night and today, with the (admittedly not-very-well-advertised) caveat that any eastward shift in the storm's track would cause the deformation zone to shift east as well, keeping heavier snows confined to Long Island and eastern New England.
The storm wasn't "false advertising" or "hype" or "a bunch of bullshit" like so many people are angrily asserting this morning. Parts of Long Island just a few miles east of New York City are buried under two feet of snow, and it's still actively blizzarding (I declare that a word) in much of New England. The Big Apple missed the heaviest snows by literally just a few miles.
Meteorologists had to warn the public that New York City had the potential to see two or more feet of snow. Imagine that absolute disaster that would have unfolded if forecasters only predicted eight to twelve inches of snow in the Big Apple, and the deformation zone had formed 20 miles to the west. The city would have gotten slammed by an extra foot or more of snow, and those very people complaining about the relative lack of snow this morning would be equally outraged—outraged!!!—that forecasters underestimated the power of the Blizzard of 2015.
As of the writing of this post, La Guardia Airport has received a foot of snow, Central Park is closing in on double-digits, and parts of Long Island have seen more than two feet of snow. The blizzard wasn't a bust, especially up north towards Hartford, Providence, Boston, and Portland, where the snow is still coming down quite heavily. The deterministic forecasts—"New York will see 24 to 36 inches of snow"—were wrong, but there was and still is a nuance involved that many people don't wish to understand, and frankly, many forecasters aren't equipped to communicate.
Meteorologists and weather outlets need to do a better job communicating all possibilities and not just the worst case scenario. Out of all the coverage I heard and read about this storm, I think only The Weather Channel regularly mentioned that the models were disagreeing on track, and that an eastward track would result in less snow. Early on in the forecast cycle for this blizzard, The Weather Channel's snowfall forecasts were always on the conservative side, and people made fun of them for it. They discounted them for it. And now those same people bashing forecasters for overestimating the storm. Go figure.
— Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) January 27, 2015
New York City's Great Blizzard simply wasn't, and people in the city (as well as New Jersey and Philly) will lose trust in weather forecasts for months because of this painful bust. If the snow had formed 20 miles to the west (which was a very real possibility!), people would be heralding weather forecasters for their accurate predictions, just like those in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine are doing this morning.
— Jake Troy (@jake_troy) January 27, 2015
Weather forecasting is an inexact science, and it requires more nuance than a simple range of numbers and a three-sentence summary on your favorite weather site. New York City still saw a freaking foot of snow, two feet just a few miles away, and they're closing in on three feet up in Massachusetts. The city's "CRIPPLING AND POTENTIALLY HISTORIC BLIZZARD" ultimately failed to come to fruition, but just by a couple of miles.
[Images: AP, Intellicast]