Friday, April 13, 2012

Burying The Hatchet On The Fail of Last Winter

It's been a rough winter for the majority of forecasters, not to mention those who make a living off of snow. Lawncare guys who pass the winters doing snow removal have probably muttered a few obscenities while getting tans in this winter's warmth while snow resort owners probably want to point their snow making equipment at long range forecasters throughout the East.

Here in Philadelphia, last winter's forecasts were a collective "ugh" from everyone, including us.   Granted, some calls weren't bad...our mild February wasn't mild enough nor was NBC 10's prediction of a slightly above average  January, but many others...especially on the snowfall side, were full of more fail than the Eagles running a two minute offense.

Winter forecasts were awful for a number of reasons outlined in March -- a lack of blocking on our side of the globe, a dominant Pacific jet that blasted Alaska with snow but torched the lower 48.  The result being a winter that was either warmest or as "cool" as 5th warmest on modern record in Philly and surrounding communities, as well as one that brought the least amount of snow we've seen around here since the winter of 2001-2002.

I think the two biggest factors for more aggressive snowfall predictions from the locals, including myself, was past precedent (we had 78.7" in 2009-2010, 44.0" in 2010-2011 in sharply -NAO winters) and for us, what looked like last Fall would feature a -NAO type winter...albeit not as sharply as other past winters.  The -NAO did not result and the forecast fell on its face...and forecasters were caught with egg on their face.

As the snow season "officially" closes up shop (it was closed in my mind for quite some time) and we look back at our snowfall forecast prediction contest from last November, Sy from Philadelphia came in with a prediction of 6.9" for the winter...and came closest to reality.  Congrats...someone can claim victory in a winter where few forecasters were really able to when they made their calls back in the Fall!  Pat from Havertown had a call of 9.8" (another good call as well).

Does this mean that long range forecasts are worthless?  From an specific and deterministic perspective, where we're issuing numbers and "how much" calls, long range forecasts still have a long, long, long ways to go.   From a "big picture" idea (will it be colder, snowier in general), there is value...they won't be right (obviously) but there's merit and value in having long range predictions...or at least the awareness of trends that can shape the coming winter.    For me, these type of forecasts are fun to issue...and we can hit home runs...and strike out...just like everyone else.  This is part of the learning process in the field of science and as forecasters and meteorologists learn from their mistakes, hopefully better forecasts will result in the future.  However, at this point long range forecasting needs to be considered the equivalent of jacking up a fall away long range three pointer as the shot clock is just about to go has a chance of verifying but odds aren't great because you're shooting from afar...some years, it's Reggie Miller jacking the three...and in others, it's Shawn Bradley (no offense to fans of 7'6" ballers).  This year, Bradley got to take the shot for most of us.