Reaping The Whirlwind

March 19, 2001 • Commentary

The lessons of the great forecast bust of March, 2001 should not be lost on any student of global climate change: Once a disaster is predicted, a hurricane of hype follows. In the ensuing firestorm, there’s a substantial risk in disagreement, and no amount of reason or fact can stop the public’s panicked response.

I am referring, of course, to the blizzard predicted for the East Coast Megalopolis for March 3–6, in which a highly speculative and unusual weather situation became a metropolitan blizzard that did not happen. In central Virginia every loaf of bread vanished from the stores, despite temperatures in the 60s, and the fact that there was never even an inch of snow.

The ultimate storm did dump around two feet, mainly in upland Connecticut, the Berkshires and the Green Mountains of Vermont, which is what early March snowstorms often do in upper New England.

Much more was predicted than this pretty pedestrian storm. The technical forecast discussion from the National Weather Service at 2:27 p.m. on Friday, March 2, contained unusually strong and florid language. It began with this: “We now have higher certainty that there will indeed be the development of a major storm along the East Coast…maybe even a blizzard.” Two sentences later, “possibly even a snowstorm of historical proportions for the mid‐​Atlantic states and southern New England.” Later, this “could generate a very powerful storm Sun night into Tue for the Mid Atlantic and Southern New England Areas. We feel that the [model] scenario is basically correct. East Coast…watch out!”

Most forecasters are taught not to predict all‐​time record events 72 hours in advance. There’s a reason that records are rare—and the likelihood that some three days ahead of time all the atmospheric parameters required to produce one can be accurately predicted to properly conspire is very low indeed.

Most people in the business agreed that there was going to be a big cyclone. But there was also a strong argument, even on Friday, that along the southern portion of its track—from central Virginia to New York City—it was simply too warm to produce a major snowstorm. By midday on Saturday most computer models indicated that the temperature at both 5,000 feet and at the surface was going to be above freezing for much of the precipitation, which rarely results in heavy snow for the mid‐​Atlantic.

I’ll bet there wasn’t one major‐​station meteorologist in the region who didn ’t see the warm temperatures, especially by Saturday. But by then the media hurricane was at Category 5. Weather Channel ratings went astronomical. CNN spoke of the “biggest snowstorm in decades,” somehow forgetting about the misnamed 1993 “storm of the century” in the same region (whose snow totals looked a lot like a storm in February, 1983), or the 1996 snow which exceeded that of 1993 over much of the same urban corridor. In this overheated environment, the cost of publicly disagreeing—and being wrong—is a certain blackballing from further high‐​visibility employment.

In addition, there’s an ethical question that can perhaps more easily be appreciated using a severe hurricane as an example. There’s often plenty of private debate about hurricane forecasts, but the potential damage and loss of life is so great that there is an unwritten compact to not dispute any watch or warning statement from the National Hurricane Center. The logic is that people will choose the forecast that best fits their needs, which might include staying at the beach when they should evacuate.

So what happens when a northeaster as dire as a major hurricane is predicted by our most prestigious forecast office? It’s hard not to imagine the same dynamic when the government speaks of “a storm of historic proportions”. When disaster is predicted by highest authorities, we defer to authority. In fact, we choose neither to broadcast nor to heed anything otherwise.

Fast‐​forward now to global warming. For decades we have been subject to a constant drumbeat of dire forecasts. Record events are predicted, not three days ahead, but three decades. And just as was the case in Virginia last weekend, the weather’s pretty much opposite to what has been predicted. Most scientists will readily admit that, given the forecast, they are troubled by the lack of warming in the middle atmosphere in recent decades.

But, instead of people denuding stores of bread, the United Nations proposes taxing people so they won’t have enough money to spend on energy. Are things any different if the forecast disaster unfolds over 100 years instead of 100 hours? I think not, and I’ll bet there is an equivalent reluctance to speak out, or to listen to those who might argue otherwise.

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