Forecasting Weather In A Changing Climate

As of this writing and as per The Buffalo News, the death toll in Buffalo due to their holiday blizzard is at least 40.

This was not due to a blown forecast. The forecast for a historic weather event was there for nearly a week. More than four feet of snow fell on the metro area, and it is now clear that this is the worst snowstorm this city has ever seen, eclipsing the infamous Blizzard of 1977, which killed 29 people.

Why the city’s response was not great will be something that I do not feel comfortable commenting on, as that will be a battle that will play out over the next weeks and months. It might be that this storm was just too powerful. Sometimes no matter what, humans are still at the mercy of nature. Wealth did not shield the residents of Sanibel Island, Florida from the worst of Hurricane Ian. There are, of course, better ways to both communicate the risk and better prepare for future events.

These future events are likely to be as or more extreme than Hurricane Ian and Buffalo’s blizzard. Another jury that is still out is what influence did climate change have in making this blizzard so extreme. Meteorologists know that the winds were intense due to a powerful low pressure tracking through the Great Lakes, and the direction of these winds brought ultra-cold air over the relatively warm waters of Lake Erie. This wind direction was perfectly aligned to aim a firehose of heavy snow at Buffalo.

The usual suspects in the GOP and their supporters no doubt are snickering at the idea that climate change can make a snowstorm worse. However, without delving too much into atmospheric science, warmer air can hold more water vapor. Open water is necessary to provide the energy for the big lake effect events, so the later they freeze and the warmer they are heading into winter, the worst these events will be.

The same idea as to why warmer water temperatures in the places where hurricanes form are making them worse as well.

So, with this in mind, it is becoming fairly obvious that new approaches are needed. Many in the public are not aware of this, but meteorologists talk constantly about how to improve forecast communications. Often they are frustrated at some of the myths that are still believed, how some in the media can distort their forecast, and how some government officials blame them for disasters like Buffalo.

Based on what I saw on social media and elsewhere as far as the forecast, the communication of the forecast, and the response, here are my own thoughts:

Bad information is very hard to pry out of people’s heads: Myths can become sacred canon in the public mind, and once bad information gets lodged in our societal brain, it’s challenging to combat that. This makes weather communication very difficult at times. For example, the belief that people who live near rivers or on hills are completely safe from tornadoes. Forecasters and government communicators would do well to remember this when communicating risk.

Old ideas about local climate no longer apply: You may have heard this leading up to the blizzard or thought it yourself: meh, this is Buffalo, they can handle snow. Being able to deal with an 8-12″ snowstorm is one thing, but extreme events are bad even for people who are supposedly “used” to that particular type of weather. Communicating that a huge storm is not an ordinary event is vital, as we will see more extraordinary events in the coming years. “Oh, we’ve had hurricanes before” ain’t gonna cut it anymore.

Vulnerable people need better protection: Low-income people are at higher risk in extreme weather events due to access to resources. They do not have the spare money to go to a hotel for several days, nor can they afford to have a week or two of supplies in their home. So, people lose their lives drowning in flood waters or driving for food during a blizzard. Our society has to do better for these people. I often feel Hurricane Katrina was not the wake-up call it should have been as far as improving disaster response in low-income areas.

Some of the solutions to these three issues can be found in better information. I have often argued that weather should be a much larger part of American science education, as meteorology is one of the more commonly encountered sciences that people experience. It has profound effects on our lives, from the overall economy to endangering our property and our very lives. So, why is the public’s understanding of weather so poor that meteorologists have to fight it just to communicate a forecast?

Some of the solutions are political and governmental. Politics are definitely not immune to the weather. Mayors have gone down over poorly plowed streets, and one could argue that Hurricane Katrina was the beginning of the end for Dubya Bush. Unfortunately, instead of trying to come up with solutions for the problem, we have to first fight with people who refuse to see there is a problem (Republicans). Who are not just delusional, but are also driven in life by funding cuts, so finding money for solutions can be a long, drawn-out, and not always successful struggle.

The problem within the problem is, none of this is going away anytime soon.

The last word goes to Bob Dylan.