Snow Recap: What happened?

A look back at the snow storm that (almost) wasn’t, along with analysis of where things went wrong, and some thoughts for the future.

Let’s start with some snow totals. Here’s a map of reports from central and portions of western Virginia as compiled by the National Weather Service offices in Wakefield and Blacksburg.

030607 snow

Snowfall reports from the National Weather Service office in Sterling, VA (responsible for the northern portion of the state) were not provided in a format that could be consumed by this map. You can find their snowfall totals here.
Note that the snow cutoff paralleled US 301 and I-95 fairly well for the eastern part of the state.

Also, the gradient between the “haves” (those with a significant snow) and the “have-nots” (like those east of Richmond) was incredibly tight. From a photo posted on the Wakefield National Weather Service Office Facebook page:

(By the way, 21 nautical miles is a little more than 24 statute miles.)

As far as the forecast goes, I’ve heard from some of you already, and I’d like to hear from more. What were you using for forecast information and how did you think it compared to where you live?

For me, this was a frustrating storm to try to forecast. Outside of the highest-confidence areas in northwestern Virginia, it was difficult to get a read on the exact track of the storm among the various models. I initially went with the 3-6” forecast, partially in response to the fact that I’ve tended to underforecast some events as of late. Despite having high confidence in the snow totals that came with the next rounds of model guidance (which were virtually all lower than my 3-6” forecast), I was still concerned that Richmond may not see any snow at all. I had also expected the heavier snow to fall farther west, but I saw at least one report of 8” near the Chesterfield/Powhatan border.

Several other regional meteorologists have written some in-depth posts about the forecast this week, many of them on the same general subject: model use and interpretation (or “the democratization of weather data”), how to express confidence and uncertainty in a weather forecast, and media hype in general. They’ve all made some very strong points and I urge you to take a look at some other perspectives.

Some of these topics are items I touched on some at a talk I gave last November at TEDxVirginiaTech. This conversation can go way beyond snow in Richmond. Many times, science tries to take a “deficit model” approach–there’s something scientists know that the lay public doesn’t, and it’s very easy to want to foist that knowledge upon everyone. But especially now, the forecast process is a two-way street. It’s not a lecture, it’s a conversation, and it would be irresponsible as forecasters not to consider both what the public knows and what the public wants to know.

I’ll end by asking this: what do you want out of a weather forecast?

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Weather Dan

Dan Goff is now a two-time former Richmonder, having departed the River City yet again in favor of southwest Virginia, where he is working on degrees in geography and meteorology at Virginia Tech. Have a question about the weather or weather-related phenomena?

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Scott on said:

    Since my yard ended up with about 5 inches (River’s Edge @ Wyndham Forest/near Nuckols & Twin Hickory), I think the forecast was pretty accurate. The only glitch I saw was that it started snowing first thing in the morning rather than midday which was I had last heard Tues evening. I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that there is always a +/- with time as well as amount. Keep up the good work Dan!

  2. Scott Burger on said:

    I had a stranger in an elevator ask me the day before the storm how much snow I thought we would get in Richmond and I guessed 2 inches.

    Once the storm was underway, it was hard to tell what we would wind up with, given the mixture of rain and snow.

    As far as what I want out of a weather forecast, beyond the usual stuff, how about correlating weather conditions to traffic accidents on a local basis? How much more dangerous it is to be driving in Richmond while it is snowing? Nationally I have read figures of around 24 percent more, but what about local figures?

  3. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. It seemed like the models indicated that Richmond would fall somewhere on a Rain/Snow mix line midday Tuesday. Sometimes the models are a little wrong because as accurate as they are, snowfall seems really fickle because it is dependent on so many factors.

    Where I leave near Patterson/Three Chopt I woke up at 7:30 to rain, by 8:30 there was at least 1.5 inches stuck to Patterson making it a total mess. I was surprised at how fast it changed over to full-on snow but I was warned by forecasts all week that the time it changed over would be the biggest factor. I tend to listen to those parts of the forecast moreso than the snowfall totals. I like forecasts that are more of an “if this happens then this will likely be the result” versus “this will take place because I know ALL the weathers.”

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