An “Open” Thank You Letter to Atlanta Meteorology Community”
As I watch the fallout from the Snow Fiasco in the Atlanta area, one thing is clear to me: “The buses had a tough time getting kids home, but meteorologists should not be thrown under the bus.”
Meteorologists from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Atlanta issued Watches and Warnings BEFORE the event and provided ample time for decisions to be made. Yet, as soon as I saw what was unfolding with kids being stranded in schools, 6+ hour commutes, and other horror stories, I knew it was coming, I knew it.
Some in the public, social medial or decision-making positions would “blame” the meteorologists. I began to hear things like “this was not expected in Atlanta” or “they said this was going to all be South of Atlanta” or “there were no Watches or Warnings until snow started falling or “weather is just unpredictable”. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, and Wrong!
I heard something very familiar within these statements with other recent high impact events.
The weather models produced a great track forecast for Hurricane Katrina days out (2005) yet meteorologists heard whispers that “we didn’t know where it was going.” In recent and deadly 2013 El Reno/Moore/Oklahoma City area tornado outbreaks, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center warned, days to multiple hours in advance, of the threat of tornadoes, yet I still saw media sources and people say, “those tornadoes came without warning." Some models predicted 6 to 9 days out that Superstorm Sandy was going to oddly visit the Jersey Shore, yet people still said "oh no big deal, not a Category 3 hurricane" or worse, didn't evacuate.
Herein, I discuss why our National Weather Service, Television, Academic and Private Sector Meteorologists should be praised not condemned for handling of the Atlanta snow event of 2014. I also conclude with some lessons learned, from my perspective.
1. Watches and Warnings were issued in advance of the snow event and with plenty of time for decisions to be made. Here is text directly from the National Weather Service website on MONDAY at 4:55 am:
SOUTH FULTON- INCLUDING THE CITIES OF...ATLANTA...CONYERS...DECATUR...
455 AM EST MON JAN 27 2014
...WINTER STORM WATCH IN EFFECT FROM TUESDAY MORNING THROUGH
Early on Tuesday morning well before the crack of dawn (3:39 am to be exact), the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning with expectations of 1-2 inches of snow. Even for the mountain counties of Georgia, Winter Weather Advisories were issued.
One observation that has become apparent to me is that the public and perhaps some policy officials may not fully understand that a Watch, Warning, or Advisory has very specific meanings. They are not just generic “hey, be on alert” or “hey, get ready” warnings. Here (below) are criteria that I believe NWS Atlanta uses since I found it on their website http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/ffc/pdf/snow_measurement_guidelines.pdf (criteria can vary for different states or different regions of a state).
"Winter Storm Watch – Issued when the potential exists for 2 inches or more of snow in 12 hours, or 4 inches or more of snow in 24 hours. Also issued for potential of a quarter inch or more of freezing rain, or half an inch of sleet. In the North Georgia Mountains, the criteria are 3 inches in 12 hours or 4 inches in 24 hours.
Winter Storm Warning – Issued when a combination of snow, blowing snow, sleet, and/or freezing rain is likely to exceed warning criteria. Warning criteria are those detailed in the Winter Storm Watch.
Winter Weather Advisory – Issued when a combination of snow, sleet, and/or freezing rain is likely to have an impact, but is not expected to reach warning criteria."
2. Another observation is that the public and decision-makers must pay attention to the “evolving forecast.” Yes, early in the week, projections were for the most significant snow and ice to be south of Atlanta. HOWEVER, the weather models consistently trended the snow totals more and more toward the Metro Atlanta area with almost each run. Clearly, the National Weather Service and our television colleagues picked up on that. Additionally, the heaviest snows indeed were south of Atlanta (as forecasted), but the forecasters (based on the Watches, Warnings, and Advisories issued) 12-36 hours out clearly saw the potential for significant (by Atlanta standards) snow in Metro Atlanta and mountain counties. Do you need more proof? Take a look at this Snow Map issued PRIOR to the snow event by AthensGeorgiaWeather.com, a group of well-trained meteorologists out of Athens, Georgia. They basically nailed it (http://www.athensgaweather.com/weather-blog/). My advice in these events is to watch the evolution of the forecast rather than a “snap shot” of it on a given day. Often, high-impact weather events are dynamic and rapidly-evolving.
3. Overall, the Atlanta event was a well-forecasted and well-warned event but public perception can be misleading. The Weather service did just fine with this event, and I think the majority of our TV colleagues and other dissemination sources did a good job of providing new information as it was coming in. I still get annoyed when a person says a “meteorologist” is a job where you can be wrong most of the time and still get paid. In reality, weather forecasting is quite good these days. However, as humans, we tend to remember past forecasts that were wrong or personally affected us in some way. In other words, we just don’t remember all the “right” days and zero in like a laser on the random “wrong” day. As I often say, a kicker in the Super Bowl could have made every field goal all year, but if he misses one in the Super Bowl, some will vilify him as a “bad kicker”.
However, in this case, the Atlanta forecast was very good. Yes, there were some challenges with the progression of the northern side of the snow potential and where the cut-off line would be, but NWS still handled in a credible manner based on what the models were giving us. Our modeling and observational technology is some of the best in the world and if you don’t believe it, reflect on Sandy, Moore Tornadoes, or even this event (if you actually step back and look at it objectively).
I am still amazed that people ridicule a meteorologist, then with a straight face, ask me what I think about the Groundhog’s prediction or whether the Almanac’s prediction for a Super Bowl Blizzard (Not going to happen) is accurate. Really? But, I digress.
Lessons learned from the this Atlanta Snow event from, my perspective:
1. The public needs to clearly understand what Watch, Warning, and Advisory mean rather than what they “think” they mean. Also, they must understand that a Watch for a winter event has nuanced differences than tornado, hurricane, or other warnings.
2. Should we develop “warnings” that are more clearly meaningful to the public like a number or index? Research and scholarly discussion will be required, but increasingly, social science research is revealing that how people consume information is as critical as giving them the right information.
3. The public must watch the evolving forecast not a snapshot they saw 2 or so days ago. The forecasts change.
4. A friend (not a meteorologist but an intelligent, attentive citizen) noted that a few media outlets, at times, showed 4 different model scenarios at times. She noted that this is confusing to the public. I agree. We, as meteorologists, use an array of model tools, diagnostics, or data. Does the public need to see “the sausage making” or the scenarios we weigh out? When these scenarios are shown on TV or a website, we, as professionals, know how to consume them, but the public may be confused or misinterpret the message.
5. Forecasting capacity in the 1-5 day window is quite good, but as we get to local-to-regional scales and 1-24 hour time frame (“the mesoscale”), the processes are not as well-represented in the models. We know where improvements are needed. Budget cuts, travel restrictions, and other policy decisions hinder research and development that lead to improvements for citizens.
6. We still have challenges in how weather information is consumed, interpreted, or viewed by policymakers and decision-makers. This is ultimately the root of the Atlanta mess from Tuesday, in my view. I don't believe "anyone" is necessarily to blame. The situation simply points out that we still have challenges in communicating across the science-decisionmaker-public "gap."
My friends in northern states make fun of our response, but there is a reason we live in the great state of Georgia, we don't like snow or don't really want to deal with it :). We are not equipped to deal with it, so enough, enough already with the jokes :). Our decision-makers have a tough job given these circumstances, and I know they try to make the best decisions with the information they have.
Accuweather Senior Vice President Mike Smith has some thoughts on this at http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2014/01/this-book-should-be-required-reading.html. He has even written a book on the topic. Along with Mike, there are other scholarly and practical discussions on this matter. Ironically, the world’s largest meteorology/stakeholder meeting, American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting is being held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta Sunday through Thursday of this coming week. We invite the public, policymakers, and other interested parties to come be a part of the process and solutions (http://annual.ametsoc.org/2014/). As the sitting President of AMS, I am happy to invite any decision maker to the plenary Presidential Forum on Monday morning (3 February at 9 am). The theme is "Extreme Weather-Climate and the Built Environment: New Perspectives, Opportunities, and Tools." The participants on Monday include top stakeholders, the FEMA director, and other high level corporate, media, and public officials. The Atlanta "snow" event is a poster child for this theme.
Colleagues at National Weather Service and in the media. Thank you!