Ignore This At Your Own Peril

In the Swedish film epic The Emigrants, a settler saves his young son from a Minnesota Territory blizzard by sheltering him in the disemboweled carcass of an ox. It’s a powerful scene

Fast forward to this morning, where tens of thousands of women and at least a few hundred men all across southern Wisconsin, many of whom descendants of such hearty stock, are busy making last minute care plans for their school-cancelled children or, failing that, are imagining the eye rolls of their bosses to yet another call-in with the white flu.

As they peek through the blinds to check the status of the ongoing WINTER STORM, they still see an inch of powdery snow whisking around the tires of their all wheel drive Subarus and ask themselves, some quite loudly, “Seriously, WTF?”

Oh, sure, we’re going to get an inch or two more of snow and it’s going to get windy later (gusts to 30, and not the 50 mph referenced in all the updates). The folks up in the Driftless Area are going to have to keep an eye out for drifts and snowmobilers will begin to collect at the roadhouses, grousing about their runners and the damned weathermen. “What happened to the 4 to 8 inches and all that talk about impossible travel conditions?” they’ll mutter, in agreement that someone, somewhere, probably in the Peoples Republic of Madison, is mistaken as usual.

They’ll be wrong. If you are a weather nut like I am, you don’t settle for the forecasts you see and hear in the media or on the more public facing parts of National Weather Service website. I’ve developed a rule of thumb over the years. Divide everything by half. When they say possible 4” to 8” of snow, think 2” to 4”.

This pattern is not about mistakes being made by professionals–it’s about professionals being professionals.

How’s that?

We talk about weather a lot. It’s a big variable in the otherwise routine pattern of our lives. Considering all the comforts of modern life that insulate us from the weather, we make a pretty damn big deal of it. And so weather sells. On the internet and in broadcast media, it’s a revenue and job producer. Public entities like the National Weather Service are not immune to the effects of this. For the principal gatherers of the data that feeds the weather entertainment machine there is plenty of motivation to keep it happy. 4” to 8” of snow with 50 mph winds attracts attention. 2” to 4” and 20 mph winds, not so much.

People have to answer for all this eventually, of course, and those people are the working stiffs at the National Weather Service—the front line forecasters. There is a feature called Forecast Discussion where these scientists explain their latest thinking, mostly to other meteorologists. Intended mostly for pros and geeks, there are acronyms flying all over the place, but it’s the most up to date forecast source available and I go to it a lot. There is less limitation to the company line here. You can see it in their language. Sometimes it fairly screams “but I’m not really buying it” while they find themselves doing what they have to do.

Twenty four hours into our WINTER STORM WARNING now (hey, I’ve been busy). Total snow: 3.9”, though most of Southern Wisconsin received 1” to 3”. The WINTER STORM WARNING is still up because of wind-driven, previously fallen snow—the NWS Facebook site predicts gusts up to 46 mph in Madison this morning. The 8:53 KMSN aviation report shows gusts to 24 mph. That seems about right.

The aftermath NWS tweet excuses themselves. They indicate that their thinking had shifted to 2″ to 5″ by midweek. I remember that, but damn if I can remember where I dug it up. Certainly not in the WINTER STORM WARNING.

I suspect this phenomenon might trigger a larger discussion than about the weather–a discussion of commericalization and connectivity and the collective anxiety we share while being WARNED TO DEATH. I’ll think about that, but this will do nicely for the time being.

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