Tom Clyde: The science of weather forecasting
I have a relative who is a meteorologist. He works for a big shipping company and spends his days charting storms on the Pacific Ocean so that giant container ships full of crap from China are able to safely get to the West Coast ports without encountering dangerous storms. It’s important to the safety of the cargo and crews for the ships to detour around big storms.
He does this from an office in Oklahoma, a state with a rich seafaring tradition. When he took this decidedly nautical job and announced that he was moving to Oklahoma, I was skeptical. I mean what kind of ocean shipping company is based in Oklahoma?
He pointed out that when he makes weather forecasts for the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he’s not doing it by looking out the window. He’s using satellite data coming in from all over, and big computers that grind up the data to come up with forecasts. He could do the job from anywhere with an internet connection.
Which was another reason to question moving to Oklahoma.
It turns out that Oklahoma is where the National Weather Service stuff is located. I guess because it gets flattened by tornados every year, they stuck the weather research center there — back in the days when they actually did the forecasting by looking out the window, or in the case of Oklahoma, peeking out of the cracks in the storm cellar door as cows fly overhead. So I guess it makes sense.
But it’s still Oklahoma.
Anyway, weather forecasting is supposed to be a real science. It’s important stuff, and being aware of impending storms can save a lot of travel difficulties or worse. We spend a lot of money on it. The first thing that comes up on my computer screen every day is a localized forecast for the area around my house. There’s a map you can scroll over, and click your mouse right on your neighborhood, and there’s your local forecast. It’s really cool.
It’s also generally wrong. Tuesday we were supposed to get between 5 and 7 inches. It snowed enough in Salt Lake to make a mess of already messy traffic, and there were a few flakes at Parleys Summit. I got an inch at best.
The storm was a dud. Then, for later in the week, the forecast showed a 100% chance of snow for Wednesday, and lots of it. It continued Wednesday night, Thursday, Thursday night, and Friday. The accumulations were generally estimated to be 3 to 7 inches in each of the 12-hour periods.
You don’t need to be a meteorologist to see that five periods of 7-inch accumulations add up to a whole lot of snow. Batten down the hatches.
I had already mounted the snowblower on the back of the tractor. That’s a job for a warm day. But then I stuck it in the garage and never looked back as the weather turned warmer and winter seemed unlikely. But in light of forecasts of very heavy snow, it was time to get serious.
One of the TV weather guys was talking about a potential for 50 inches of snow at 10,000 feet in elevation, and close to 3 feet of snow around here.
So I fueled the tractor up, made sure I had a bag of replacement sheer pins because the first plow of the season always picks up some gravel and things jam up. I got the block heater connected, and reworked the way it connects. It’s on a remote control so I can push a button in the house and turn the block heater on to pre-heat the tractor engine without interrupting breakfast.
Because I have the attention span of a squirrel, I rigged up a red light that comes on in the garage window that I can see from the house to remind me to turn the block heater off. I got that all set up.
When I went to bed Tuesday night, the storm wasn’t on the local radar, but looked juicy on the coast. And then on Wednesday, the 100% chance of 3 to 7 inches was down to an 80% chance of 2 to 4 inches. And each 12-hour period had been downgraded to a lower probability and less accumulation. Nothing to plow here.
I think what happens is the Weather Service says, “It looks like it might snow a little.”
Then the TV weather guy dons his white coat and announces that “the storm of the century will hit at the peak of holiday travel. We’re all gonna die!”
The guys in the UDOT shop look at it and say, “if it snows on Thanksgiving, I’ll have to work, and completely miss dinner with the in-laws. Darn.”
Apparently, nobody bothered to call my cousin in Winnemucca and ask him to look out the window to see what the weather’s doing. Science.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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