Four important takeaways from the winter storm of January 23 & 24, 2017

finger lakes weather forecast winter storm meteorology
The winter storm that impacted the Finger Lakes on January 23 and 24, 2017 was difficult to forecast and offers a number of valuable lessons.

What can the public, and meteorologists, learn from this difficult to predict winter storm? Here are 4 lessons I would like to share.

Meteorology is the Scientific Method

Take a trip in your mind back to your high school science class. Remember the Scientific Method? The process by which scientists do science?

Observe. Predict. Test. Analyze.

Meteorology is, at its core, the scientific method. Every time a forecast is made, the meteorologist is observing data, making a prediction, testing the prediction against what happens, and analyzing the results of the prediction.

Only, too often, the process stops at the prediction. In a world full of deadlines and fast paced media, many meteorologists, myself included, do not often have the time to properly complete the scientific method.

However, it is vitally important to do so, especially when the forecast does not quite work out. So, here are four observations I have from this winter storm. Some are generalizations while others are on a more personal level for myself. All are worthwhile, though.

1) Communication of Uncertainties is Extremely Important

For most of my forecasting career, I have been very bullish on sharing my forecast confidence.

Over the years, however, I have learned that just stating the confidence is not enough. To properly communicate uncertainty, the different possible scenarios must be stated and stressed.

With this storm, there were two primary scenarios. A mostly snow event, or more mixed precipitation and smaller amounts of snow. With such a fine line between the two scenarios, I made it a point to continually point out how easily each scenario could come to pass.

While still coming down on one side with a clear-cut forecast, by communicating the other possibilities no one should have been caught off guard by the lower snow totals.

I got a number of comments like the one Paul left on my post this morning:

No one who regularly reads your postings should have been surprised by what happened. Your straightforward, no-hype forecast and discussions are really helpful…

Fellow meteorologists, please continue to communicate uncertainties by clearly stating the different likely scenarios.

For the public, seek to understand the difference possibilities in significant weather events and share that with your family and friends.

2) Meteorology over Computer Models

There is no doubt about it. The advances in the computer models that simulate future weather conditions over the last couple of decades have moved meteorology ahead by leaps and bounds. Forecasts that were nearly laughable 15 years ago are now commonplace and routine and the overall accuracy of the science has never been better.

That being said, the computers are still not, and in my opinion, never will be a substitute for solid meteorology and forecaster experience.

While the computer models were showing a variety of solutions early on, eventually most major models came to a singular conclusion for this storm: heavy, wet snow for the Finger Lakes and a lot of it.

The European model, which I constantly praise as the best model in the world (which it is!) was completely on board with this solution. Over 90% of its 51 ensemble members showed snow amount well in excess of six inches in the Finger Lakes.

And they were all wrong.

In my post Monday morning, I said the following.

I cannot completely trust the forecast models with such a razor thin cutoff, especially since I have seen a number of similar storms end up warmer than expected.

Ultimately, I followed the model guidance, as I believed the strong high pressure would be enough to bring in the cold air. However, having a healthy skepticism of the models rooted in human experience allowed me to communicate my forecasts in a way consistent with my first point, which resulted in a more useful product.

3) Weather Forecasts Remain Imperfect

As I stated above, meteorology has come a long way during the last 15-30 years.

Just like the computer models, though, weather forecasts are not always perfect. Nor should they be expected to be.

Forecasting, whether it is the weather, political races, or sports scores, is man’s best guess at telling the future. There is simply no way to be right all of the time.

For meteorologists, it is important to realize that forecasts will go wrong from time to time. Take these as a learning opportunity to improve your skill. Every busted forecast becomes a benchmark for the next time a similar event unfolds. There is a wealth of information available in a missed forecast- go out and get it!

For the public, my advice here is this. Change the way you look at weather forecasts. In the race to be the best (and get the advertising revenue), the media has drilled the idea of a perfect forecast into the public’s mind. This impossible standard in turn erodes public trust, even when the forecast turns out fairly accurate.

Abandon that notion. Embrace the imperfection by understanding the limitations of the science and demanding meteorologists take the more sensible approach of communicating uncertainties.

4) Finger Lakes Weather is Important

This final one is a personal lesson for myself that I would like to share.

Finger Lakes Weather grew out of my passion for the weather. I began online weather forecasting because I enjoyed doing it.

As my life evolved from that of a high school and college student to that of a father supporting a young family, time and money became significant obstacles to my forecasting services. There have been a number of times I have questioned the worth of all the time and money I have invested in Finger Lakes Weather.

During this winter storm, I have been overwhelmed in a number of ways. The number of page views on FLXweather, the reach on Facebook, and the dozens upon dozens of new followers I have gained are wonderful and encouraging.

However, it is the comments that have really meant the world to me. Here are just a couple.

– Your straightforward, no-hype forecast and discussions are really helpful and always my first go to when I need weather information. You provide a great service to this area and your work is much appreciated.

 

– I watch your forecast to see when and what [will happen]. Thanks! I shopped and stocked up once I saw the non hype and, as a senior, I have all in order. Thanks for all you do, Drew.

 

– A great resource if you live in the Finger Lakes region! Great, accurate, up-to-the-minute information in an accessible format!

 

– Thank you for such a comprehensive forecast. Makes our planning better for the next two days.

 

– From start to finish Drew you’re doing an excellent and reputable job. Thank you!

I am truly very pleased and honored to be able to provide such a useful service to the Finger Lakes region. So often, our area is ignored by the news stations, even as close as Rochester or Syracuse. Even the governor completely ignored us when he spoke yesterday with concern for those downstate while neglecting the Winter Storm Warnings issued for our area.

Finger Lakes Weather has grown to become an important resource for the region. My promise to you is that I will continue to work to grow and improve while keeping my focus here, in my own backyard of the Finger Lakes. Thank you all for your support and for using Finger Lakes Weather!

 

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Meteorologist Drew Montreuil
Follow Meteorologist Drew Montreuil:

Meteorologist Drew Montreuil has been forecasting the weather in the Finger Lakes region since 2006 and has degrees in meteorology from SUNY Oswego (B.S. with Honors) and Cornell (M.S.) When not forecasting, he can be found working at the local library, making soap, or playing with his two young boys.

4 Responses

  1. Irene
    |

    Yours is the only forecast I pay attention to! They are well explained, straightforward and easy to read and understand. Thank you!

  2. Tom Ames
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    Drew:
    I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (near Washington’s Crossing) but I own property in Ithaca and have learned to value your forecasts and posts. My daughter has a degree in meteorology from Penn State and now lives in Texas (employed but not in the field). I have forwarded some of your posts on models, etc to her; I think they are extremely well thought out and honest. I have encouraged my tenants that live at my place in Ithaca to use your forecasts. Keep up the great work.

    Tom Ames

    • Meteorologist Drew Montreuil
      Meteorologist Drew Montreuil
      |

      Thank you for that, Tom!

  3. John
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    Good job on this Drew!