3 lessons learned from the 2015 ‘Blizzard That Wasn’t’
My infamous forecast of 0 to 25 inches of snow for New Jersey this weekend? That honest prediction is directly linked to last year's epic forecast fail.
Late on Jan. 26, 2015, I went to sleep on the floor of an empty office at the radio station... fully confident in my forecast of blizzard conditions and 24-inch snow totals for part of New Jersey.
Early on Jan. 27, 2015, I woke up to find the highest overnight snow totals in the state were only in the 6-to 9-inch range. "Swing and a miss... By about 50 miles to the east."
It was not a happy ending for my first major winter storm as New Jersey 101.5's chief meteorologist. I probably only got to keep my job because every single meteorologist from New York to Philadelphia completely bombed the forecast for this "historic not-historic" storm. My ego and self-esteem still haven't recovered fully. However, in an effort to learn from every life experience, I took a long hard look at my forecasting and communicating techniques leading up to the "Blizzard That Wasn't."
You know, the forecast for this weekend's potential winter storm feels eerily similar to last year's bust. If you've been following my weather blog this week, you've read all about my turmoil... Will New Jersey experience those significant "double-digit" snowfall totals? Or will heavy rain or nothingness win for all or part of the state.
I thought it would be helpful for you to understand my "Forecast Philosophy" by sharing three of the most important lessons I learned from last winter's "Blizzard That Wasn't," and how they have specifically applied to my ongoing forecast of this weekend's storm.
The Hype Train is Dangerous
As you may know, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of sources of weather forecast information... Yes, you can always rely on your friendly neighborhood radio meteorology (wink, wink) and traditional television meteorologists too. But now, all someone needs is a web site or social media page and some followers, and they can call themselves a weather expert. Now, don't get me wrong, some of these digital meteorologists are incredibly professional and meteorologically savvy. But some? I call them "social media-rologists"... And they excel in spreading hype and inciting panic whenever a significant storm shows up in the models (even if it's three weeks away...)
My solemn vow to you... I never have and never will hop aboard the "hype train." Sure, it's tempting to blurt out a forecast of two feet of snow as soon as it becomes a slight possibility. But exercising restraint is so much more scientific, appropriate and rewarding.
I am so lucky to work with managers and on-air personalities who are supportive and understanding of my need to be patient and let a forecast "evolve" before communicating it publicly. Over the past year, I've taken on a more active role in "owning" the forecast. That involves being extra careful in crafting my daily weather story (i.e. strategically choosing words, phrases, etc.). And it also means I exercise control over the overall tone and message that our radio news anchors, hosts, DJs, and digital editors help me communicate to you.
Ultimately, I think (I hope) my anti-hype forecast will always stand out among the masses who yell "MASSIVE BLIZZARD" at the slightest hint of a few snowflakes.
No Model Will Ever "Nail" the Forecast
And no meteorologist is going to get a snow forecast exactly right, either.
My job in crafting a forecast can be broken down into three critical pieces: 1) Research and synthesize every piece of data and information I can find... 2) Utilize my atmospheric science education and my decade of experience in broadcast meteorology... 3) Present the most coherent and accurate forecast possible.
One of the most popular questions I get when I'm talking to school and community groups... Which computer model do I prefer to use in my day-to-day forecasting? (After all, the European nailed Sandy and Joaquin... But the GFS is all-American - USA, USA, USA!) For the answer, refer back to point #1 - I look at all of them, and decide every day which model or models I believe to be the most correct for the given forecast situation. It's a puzzle, and each piece from each model has its place within the overall forecast.
The lesson here from last year's busted snowstorm? Even King Euro misses the forecast occasionally.
Top Priority: Honesty
In the past year, I have added three important little words to a few of my forecasts... "I don't know." The truth is that meteorology is an inexact science: I live in a world of probabilities, possibilities and maybes.
My biggest failure from the Fizzle Blizzard of 2015, by far, was not expressing my honest degree of confidence in the forecast. Confidence reflects a meteorologist's certainty or level of comfort in a forecast. Sometimes this is expressed as a numerical range of potential high temperatures (such as on our 5-Day Forecast). Some forecasters express confidence and uncertainty in precipitation chances by using a POP, or percentage of probability (i.e. a 40 percent chance of rain). More often than not, I express forecast confidence in plan English right here in my weather blog - very low, low, medium, high, etc. Frankly, no weather forecast is complete without some measure of confidence.
And that's why I have not been able to put numbers and details on this week's winter storm. We just don't have enough resolution on the forecast to accurately and honestly predict what's going to happen.
I have no motivation whatsoever to pull the trigger early and present a forecast that does not carry my full confidence. That's why my forecast thus far has served as a "heads-up" to the possibilities of some nasty, wintry weather. Quite honestly, it's the best we can do for now.
What lessons will be learned from what could be our first major winter storm of 2016? Ask me on Sunday...