A Quick Thought about the NWS Mt. Holly Apology for the Blizzard of 2015

The Blizzard of 2015 was a serious blizzard that dropped up to 3 feet of snow on portions of New England; closing roads, cancelling flights, and keeping millions of people stuck in their homes. That being said, the storm was not nearly as serious as expected for many people, including those in New York City. The track of the storm was further east than predicted by the typically-reliable-for-nor’easters European and NAM computer models. The track was correctly predicted by the American GFS model, a relative surprise for those in the meteorology field.

This did not pan out.

It was more than just the local NWS office that was forecasting around 18 inches of snow for the New York City area. These forecasts were in response to the predictions of the ECMWF (European) and NAM computer models.

The majority of forecasters went with the models with the better track records (who could blame them?) and snow predictions for the January 26-28, 2015 storm were around 18 inches. Reacting to these forecasts, particularly those from the National Weather Service office in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, Mayor Bill de Blasio, probably with Superstorm Sandy and the Blizzard of 2013 in mind, closed the roads in NYC for the duration of the storm. School children stayed home, the workforce stayed home, the city was shut down. What followed was unexpected by most: only about 9 inches of snow fell on Central Park: not a simple dusting by any stretch but a manageable amount for anyone who has lived in a region with frequent winter snow. And then, something even more surprising happened. Gary Szatkowski, forecaster at the My. Holly NWS office, apologized for the incorrect forecast. I believe this sets a precedent I am very uncomfortable with. Before I explain, I understand the Gary and his team deal with a level of consequences of their forecasts that I will most likely never know. Millions of people, billions of dollars, these are no small things. The most powerful city in America was shut down when it maybe didn’t have to. But Gary Gzatkowski didn’t close the roads. Gary Szatkowski works for the National Weather Service, an entity whose purpose is to warn and protect the American people. Meteorologists need to make the best forecast they can using the information they have. You have to forecast with only the goal of getting it right, not to avoid ridicule from the media, politicians, or the general public. It’s a thankless job sometimes, meteorology, but we do it for reasons other than public admiration. So unfortunately, you can’t apologize every time of forecast is wrong. You can explain why a forecast didn’t validate, but you can’t apologize. After all, what did you do wrong? You made the best forecast you could. My fear is that if forecasters are expected to make apologies, they may let this affect how they forecast. That potentially historic blizzard may be under-forecasted to order to avoid going “out on a limb”. The proper preparations might not be made, the proper warning not given, and suddenly lives are in danger. And what about all of the other forecasters, government or otherwise? Should the public expect them to make apologies whenever their forecasts are wrong? Will they look like snobbish, elitist scientists with no sense of accountability? It’s simply not fair. Carl Czatkowski is a great forecaster and I have great respect for him. He was dead-on with Sandy, he was wrong this time. It happens. We take the lessons from both our successes and our failures and we continue to improve. I just hope that this apology doesn’t ever get repeated. Enough of the opinion, let’s get back to the science. Good night everyone. ~Wildcard

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