The Storm that Wasn’t, And The Storm That Might Have Been

So Philadelphia and New York City are whining that they were denied the ‘historic blizzard that the weather establishment was promising, and that they were denied the adrenaline rush enjoyed by Stonington, CT and Scituate, MA and many other communities north of there.  All that prior prep.  For Nothing!

The big story was the historic storm that didn’t happen.  But the bigger story is of the storm that might have happened, and that is a story of future relevance.

When I’m not writing blogs or harassing my local officials for one reason or another, I devote some time to amateur radio, and specifically areas of the hobby known  as Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and Skywarn.  Skywarn is a group of trained volunteers, many of them hams, who assist the National Weather Service by reporting ground conditions during and after major storms.  We provide ‘ground truths’ that radar and satellite imagery cannot provide, and fill out the picture of a weather event.

As such, I pay a little more attention to the weather than many, and when a ‘historic storm’ is about to visit the neighborhood,  I pay a lot more.  On Saturday night, Jan.24, I began monitoring the GOES satellite images to gain a sense of how the storm might develop.  incidentally, for any of you who are mildly interested in the weather, I would encourage you to make the GOES satellite images one of your favorite sites.  I like the infrared image on loop, which gives a fascinating insight into how globally driven our local weather patterns are.

The storm did not look that impressive Saturday night, but I was mindful that, 36 hours away from the main show, conditions  that have little prior evidence on imagery can explode quite dramatically.  This is where the models, with different information and predictive capacities augment what radar and satellite can tell us about the past and present, and allow us to reasonably extrapolate about the future.

When I awoke Sunday morning,  the event morphed in projections from a major snow event to a blizzard of historic proportions.  Still the imagery had not changed that much, although it showed potential that could not be dismissed.

As I continued to watch the GOES images through the day and take screen shots of the development for future reference, the main body of the storm from the northwest over Canada continued to develop, and was impressive in mass.  But this was to be a Nor’easter, which suggested that something significant needed to be developing in the Gulf and Caribbean to feed the cold northern air.  This had been a recurring pattern since 2010 in which strong Lows combined cold northern air and supersaturated southern air, drawing from a great geographical expanse  into a weather witch’s brew.

As late as 9:30 Sunday night, I didn’t see what I was expecting.  I didn’t see a tightly wound, powerful Low pressure cell that was in a position or powerful enough to pull in Gulf Stream moisture.  I did see a high in position over the Carolinas that could push an evolving northerly flow of moist air out into the Atlantic.  But I’m just an amateur, speculating with minimal information and without a model or a degree in meteorology.

But there was one interesting feature that caught my eye by Monday around 4:30 p.m..  The evolving blob of  moisture that I first saw off the Florida coast at 5:30 am appeared to be breaking into two distinct masses of moisture out in the Atlantic, as if something was cutting the source with a knife. The western blob would become our weather.  But the eastern mass which was much larger and more powerful, would bypass us for Nova Scotia and New Foundland.  That eastern mass, if it had wrapped into New England, would have developed the historic storm that was predicted.

*   *    *

The day after the storm, with incriminations of the National Weather Service   flying as fierce as the snow flakes the day before.  NWS acknowledged its failure to effectively communicate the sensitivity of its forecast to variance as well as the potential severity of the storm.  This is the point that bears emphasis with future relevance.  We have been, are now, and will continue to deal with conditions that will be highly variable.  Even as the technology of forecasting advances, it is likely to struggle to keep up with and comprehend a continually morphing weather system.   Weather communicators must present their forecasts with that in mind, but we the public must also be prepared to receive that with an understanding that this is our current reality, and quite likely our future.

*  *  *

On the eve of the historic storm Five Thirty Eight published an article listing the ten most severe snow events for New York City, Philadelphia and Boston going back as far as 1869.  It was interesting to note that each decade from the 1870s forward averaged one or two major storms among the three cities, with the exception of the 1940s with 3.  but the  1990s had four Top Ten: the ’00s six; and this first half of the Teens, six, with half a decade to go.  Do you see a trend? Does this refute Global Warming? No. Counter-intuitively and ironically, it confirms it.   Our polar regions, once outposts of frozen stability, are careening through cycles of seasonal variability,  The equator isn’t getting any cooler; but is sending more super moist air north. The two regions are shaking hands in the middle, and squeezing the atmospheric sponge above us.

*    *    *

Today I noticed an experimental site on the National Weather Service that seems to address the complaints with last week’s forecast.  Labeled Experimental Probabilistic Snowfall Graphics, it slices and dices the possibilities for snowfall as finely as one could reasonably ask.  Just in time for this week’s major storm.

*   *   *

Coming Attractions:  Science, God and James Inhofe




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