6 Tips for Being Smart About Snow Forecasts
Winter weather forecasts can be as daunting as the icy mess itself. Watching snow creep into the forecast is as delightful for some as it is stressful for others. But whether you’re rooting for it or wishing it’d go away, trying to read a snow or ice forecast isn’t always straightforward unless you’re a diehard weather enthusiast. Thankfully, it’s easy to cut through the noise and become a savvy consumer of snow predictions with a little bit of knowledge—and a healthy dose of skepticism.
1. WEATHER MODELS ARE NOT INFALLIBLE.
Weather models are an incredibly useful tool that help us predict the weather better than ever before, but these advanced computer simulations are not immune to making huge mistakes every once in a while. We run into this issue before every major weather event, but the problem of people treating weather models like the ultimate truth is even more pronounced before a big snowstorm.
Meteorologists usually call these weather models “guidance” for good reason. Each model has its own biases and flaws that only trained meteorologists know to spot and account for when making their forecasts. Some weather models have a hard time figuring out how much snow or ice will fall over certain areas. Even worse, if a model starts with bad data, it will push out a bad forecast.
Despite these flaws, snowfall accumulation maps posted to social media can go viral and collect millions of views before meteorologists have a chance to refute them. You should take maps produced by weather models with a grain of rock salt unless they’re accompanied by some sort of explanation from someone who knows their stuff.
2. NEVER TRUST AND ALWAYS VERIFY.
It’s easy to sound authoritative on the Internet. One of the big debates after the recent presidential election involved the influence that fake news websites had on voters’ beliefs. Unfortunately, that's nothing new in the world of weather. Meteorologists have dealt with this problem for years. Anyone can create a social media account or a blog and talk about the weather with some cool maps and an official-sounding tone, but that doesn’t mean that the information they’re publishing is accurate.
You should always double- and triple-check your sources before believing or sharing weather information you find online, especially if the forecast calls for a significant storm. Do a little research into the author—it doesn’t take much more than one or two clicks to sniff out a phony forecaster. A general rule of thumb is that the less-reputable sources go to great lengths to tell you that they’re an “expert” rather than proving it to you with a record of accurate, dependable information.
3. BE SKEPTICAL OF OVERLY PRECISE FORECASTS.
It’s not always the fake news sources that tend to mislead you. Some television news stations have a nasty habit of making their products sound more advanced than they really are in order to draw in viewers. Every once in a while, some broadcast meteorologists like to show snowfall forecast maps with predictions down to one-tenth of an inch using values produced by their in-house weather models.
A snowfall forecast with precision down to the length of the nail on your pinky toe is good for show, but it isn’t good science. There are too many factors at play in most snowstorms to predict snowfall totals down to the exact inch, let alone throwing decimal points into the mix.
4. EXACT ACCUMULATIONS DON’T MATTER.
A desire for precision is understandable. We’d love to know exactly how much snow will fall during a storm, but the honest answer is that it really doesn’t matter. The best forecasts use a range of totals rather than exact numbers.
Snow only affects your life once it reaches certain depths. It only takes a dusting of snow to turn a road into an icy mess. A couple of inches of snow usually give you enough traction to slowly proceed with your daily life, but once depths exceed half a foot, it gets increasingly harder for pedestrians to walk and for vehicles to drive. In other words, there’s not much practical difference between 2 inches and 3 inches of snow—but there’s a big difference between 3 inches and 7 inches.
5. PAY ATTENTION TO UNCERTAINTY.
Meteorology is not an exact science. Since we have no way of knowing for certain what’s going to happen in the future, just about every weather forecast conveys some degree of uncertainty. Some weather events are more uncertain than others, and most high-impact snowstorms are usually on the extreme end of the uncertainty scale. Pay attention if your friendly neighborhood weatherperson tells you that things are looking iffy. There’s always a chance you could wind up with a lot less—or a lot more—snow or ice than you were expecting.
6. MANY FACTORS CAN AFFECT SNOW TOTALS.
Meteorologists talk about uncertainty for a reason. Predicting the future is hard work, and despite all our advanced technology, missing one subtle change in a storm can make a huge difference in the outcome. There are lots of reasons a snow forecast could go awry. Two of the most common causes of a broken snow forecast are dry air, which evaporates snow before it can reach the ground, and warm air, which can turn the snow into rain or ice. Even worse than finding less snow than you expected is getting slammed with a lot of it when you were expecting a light coating. Surprise snowstorms are less common today than they were just two decades ago, but they can happen if a storm veers off its expected course or a storm ingests more cold or moist air than expected.