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Why We Got It (Sort of) Wrong: Looking Back on The Blizzard of 2015

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The jokes were flying around social media on Tuesday morning.

“Wish I was a weatherman,” tweeted @DennyChesney on Tuesday. “You can be wrong 80% of the time and still have a job.”

“#SnowmaggedonNJ proof that as a weatherman you can do your job completely wrong and still drive home in a Bentley to a high-rise or a mansion,” said @alexm11992.

A partially busted forecast left millions from western Connecticut to Philadelphia up in arms about a “potentially historic” blizzard that turned out to be, in reality, mostly mediocre for those areas. New York City proper received about 8-12” of snow, Philadelphia barely got an inch and most of New Jersey received less than six inches of snow despite days of hype that warned of feet of the white stuff.

There’s little doubt that west of I-91 in Connecticut (including Hartford) and west of the Nassau-Suffolk County lines on Long Island the snowstorm was mostly underwhelming. Snow totals were overblown, and perhaps talk of breaking into top-5 all-time snowstorms in New York City was premature. But while it led to a rare shutdown of the “City that Never Sleeps”, the hype was mostly justified given the frankly limited capabilities of modern meteorology.

We knew with ample warning time that this snowstorm was going to cripple somebody. And considering the high population density of the Northeast urban corridor, we knew the storm was going to cripple lots of somebodies. New York City itself was spared, but down the road in Islip, New York, more than two feet of snow fell, and a foot and a half fell in parts of neighboring Nassau County (more on this shortly).

The reality is meteorology isn’t advanced enough yet to consistently and correctly give you exact snowfall totals on a city-by-city basis, especially when snowfall gradient margins are as thin as they were with this storm. Boston, less than 200 miles away from New York, received over two feet of snow. So did Groton, Connecticut, barely a hundred miles east of the Big Apple. If that had transpired in New York City – as computer models were insisting for days – it would have brought Manhattan the same crippling impacts that Boston saw. The worst-case scenario, at least from a meteorologist’s perspective, would’ve been for New York to unexpectedly wake up to feet of snow. It didn’t happen, but it was a strong and likely possibility.

The reality also is that while we continue to make huge strides in forecasting (think Hurricane Sandy, which was accurately predicted more than a week out), we’re still a long, long ways away from getting every storm right.

The reason people are screaming horrible things about their not-so-favorite weatherman in New York and Philadelphia is a simple track disagreement of less than a hundred miles. Model projections, specifically the European model, were showing a more westward track that would have put New York and Philadelphia in the bullseye, while other models disagreed.

It was a grown man’s educated guessing game, with millions of commutes and even lives on the line. Ninety miles made the difference between two urban areas with a combined population of more than 25 million people experiencing a crippling snowstorm and a rather mundane one.

In an age where paying for goods thousands of miles away can be done with the simple move of a finger on a five-by-three-inch quarter-pound object, our society is accustomed to precise answers and solutions to some of our seemingly most complicated problems. Need to cross the globe? Hop on a supersonic machine that traverses the skies at over 500 miles an hour. Need a forecast? Tap an app. Need a boyfriend or girlfriend? Swipe right. And on and on we go.

Meteorology, however, is an inexact science stuck in a world demanding exact and immediate answers. Oceanside, New York, located in Nassau County right near New York City’s eastern border, received 17 inches from this storm. Central Park, less than 25 miles northwest of Oceanside as the crow flies, ended up with less than 10 inches. That’s nearly doubling snow totals based on a short hop on the Long Island Railroad. As much as I want to say otherwise, figuring out snowfall gradients of that level probably isn’t in the cards over the course of my lifetime. And I’m 27.

Just like staring up at the endless abyss of stars on a clear and pensive night, meteorology is an incredibly humbling study. Sometimes, try as we might, Mother Nature is going to have tricks up her sleeve that we simply won’t be able to figure out, at least for some time. What might be right with one model, such as the European model famously predicting Hurricane Sandy’s landfall more than a week out, might be wrong with the next, such as the Euro flopping this specific forecast by inaccurately dumping feet of snow on New York City.

As fatalistic and maybe unflattering as that sounds, it’s reality – and despite certain events sometimes being whittled down to educated guesses, we do a pretty good job, although we undoubtedly and unquestionably need to improve.

And for every storm we get (partially) wrong, there will almost certainly be at least one we get right. And like everything else in life, we’ve got to simply take the lessons from the ones we get wrong and move forward.

Feel free to egg my sedan.

Meteorologist Chris Bianchi

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