As everyone knows by now, the storm of the century, Bombogenesis, Snowpocalypse, whatever you want to call it, was a bit of a dud. We in Manhattan got between 6 & 9 inches, although not far to the east they got 20" or more, & Boston is having a real blizzard. Sure it's disappointing for those of us who feel the more the better. I feel like my date with Derek Jeter turned into a date with a Derek Jeter impersonator.
What's been interesting has been tracking the mayor & governor's moves (& how they've been second-guessed
by everyone for their strict measures in closing the roads & subways, no doubt the same people who would shriek that the government didn't care about their safety if they hadn't acted quickly & thoroughly).
Even more, the mea culpas of many of the meteorologists. It's an inexact science (or art) & if they owe an apology—which I don't think they do—it's for not making it clear that there is a lot of wiggle room in any forecast. What the experts are talking about, as my old friend Eve Gruntfest said, is how difficult it is to communicate the uncertainty in precision of place for extreme events. She also said that the extremes we can now expect don't allow us to extrapolate from the past as we used to be able to do better.
I asked if she thought that the weather professionals let their excitement enter into their predictions. No, she said, they want people to be prepared—to stay off the roads. The thing is, there is no good way to credit reduced losses in terms of people stranded or injured, ambulances not able to get through, that sort of thing.
Through her, I've joined a Facebook group of professionals who are interested in integrating the study of weather and society. Here are some excerpts from a long post by Mike Smith, who describes himself as having been a paid forecaster for 45 years:
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.
I can tell you story after story [from the 1970s through mid-80s] of confidently forecasting “four to eight inches” and waking up the next day to absolutely dry streets and clear skies. 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.
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.