The Park record Editorial, Nov. 27, 2010 |

The Park record Editorial, Nov. 27, 2010

Weather Service gets unfair blowback on storm warnings

The National Weather Service blitzed Northern Utah with blizzard warnings on Tuesday that some now say were overblown. But given the alternative not knowing that a sizeable wind-driven storm was lurking just over the ridgeline we’d rather be informed.

For those who live in volatile climates, today’s sophisticated weather forecasting tools are a godsend. Here in the Wasatch Mountains, knowing that a snowstorm is on the approach can save lives. But, admittedly, learning how to interpret that information and how to present it to the public is still an inexact science.

Depending on whether you were already at your Thanksgiving destination on Tuesday night or were on the road getting buffeted by horizontal ice crystals, the high alerts issued by just about every agency on both sides of the Wasatch Mountains were either sensational or sensible. In some areas, the blizzard lived up to its hype, but in other places the much-ballyhooed dump of fresh powder was barely a dusting.

However, blaming the messenger, in this case the Weather Service is not the answer. Local forecasters probably feel as though they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t warn the public about impending weather emergencies. If they minimize the danger and people are caught unprepared, they could be held responsible. And, of course, if the storm fizzles or changes direction, their credibility could be diminished for the next storm.

Last week’s weather alert was a good test of of both new and established communication tools and in our view it was impressive. Between the flashing billboards on the Interstate, reverse 911 telephone calls regarding school closures, Twitter links to updated satellite images of the storm front and the outreach to print, TV and radio outlets, the vast majority of citizens and travelers were aware of the storm’s projected timeline.

Many books have been written about weather disasters and the forecasting failures that led to the deaths of unknowing victims. Read "The Children’s Blizzard" for a chilling account of the blizzard of 1888 that killed 500 people including many children who were walking home from school in Nebraska’s Great Plains. After the storm, the nascent Weather Service was blamed for being too timid about warning the populace.

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With that in mind, we applaud the Salt Lake office of the National Weather Service for using every tool available to notify us about the storm. If our reaction was overzealous, that’s something we need to work on, but we’ll refrain from blaming the messenger.