A Botched Forecast/Dose Of Humility

| January 29, 2014 @ 7:22 am

In terms of human impact, yesterday’s forecast “bust” was the most significant for me since Janaury 1982, when we had a timing error of about six hours on the arrival of freezing rain and snow. Instead of starting at 5:00 p.m… it started around 11:00 a.m. People were caught off guard, schools and businesses closed, and the result was traffic gridlock, abandoned cars, separated families, and human suffering. Very much like yesterday, so I have been down this road before. The main difference is that I was a young man of 26 years old in 1982. With the experience and maturity that should come with a long tenure in my position, you would think that kind of error would not happen again, But, it did.

PLACEMENT PROBLEM: As is sometimes the case, the forecast was actually good on the synoptic scale, but the mesoscale placement was bad. By about 100-125 miles. The band of heavier snow that was to have set up over South Alabama (they did get good snow later in the day) initiated over the I-20/59 corridor. Birmingham’s official snow total was 2.0 inches; Anniston’s official total was 1.5″, and Tuscaloosa had 0.3″ (at the Airport… some there had more).

Temperatures were also colder than forecast. Instead of reaching the low 30s, with the falling snow the high was only around 20 degrees, which pretty much turned roads into a skating rink within minutes.

We had forecast a “dusting” for these places, and the 0.3 to 2.0 inch snow accumulation was a clear “bust”. For most parts of the northern U.S… this kind of forecast error isn’t even noticeable. And, with a dry, powdery snow, even as it came down I sure didn’t expect the kind of issues we were going to have until I started the fish tail thing in my vehicle as I was driving back from Tuscaloosa County (where I was going to do a school program on meteorology).

I am convinced the fact that this was the third in a series of brutally cold air masses to move down into Alabama was a big role in the travel issues (making for a cold infrastructure), despite only 1-2 inches of “dry” snow. And, the 20 degree temperature was a huge factor as well. I will say I have never seen this kind of impact on roads with 1 to 2 inches of snow in Alabama in my 35 years as a professional meteorologist. But, now we know it can happen. It usually takes freezing rain (rain that falls with temperatures below 32 degrees) for this kind of mess.

CIVIL EMERGENCY: The Alabama EMA issued a CEM (Civil Emergency Message) late in the morning when it was clear the forecast for the bigger cities was wrong, and this was a true emergency. Families separated, motorists stranded, and a state of chaos. But, by the time the CEM was issued, and by the time the NWS issued a winter storm warning, it was too late and the damage was done.

There was clear human suffering as a result of my bad forecast.


I took that picture while sitting in gridlock on Riverchase Parkway trying to get to ABC 33/40. Wound up ditching my car, like so many, and walking to work.

TWITTER ERA: Yep, over the last 12 hours lots of social media vitriol has been directed at me, and it is deserved. People who are tired, hungry, in strange places trying to sleep away from their families and children, need to vent. Do NOT vent at school officials or your boss. They make decisions on weather forecasts, and what they got was bad information. I am the one to blame. I guess I know how Cade Foster feels (the University of Alabama place kicker who took heat after the Auburn game).

This is an example of what I am seeing in the “email inbox” this morning…

“Looks like you got it wrong yesterday with your prediction of a light
dusting and no accumulation. How can you guys be so badly off as 100’s
still sit in their schools and 100’s remain in their cars on highways
and mo telling how many have had to leave their cars stranded and
knock on strangers doors for shelter while others have paid the
ultimate price trying to drive? How can you be so wrong? Has
everything with your career over the past years gone to your head? You
are still expected to be vigilant and not complacent. What a shame as
I think of the people still out there and the ones who are dead…”

I won’t share the person’s name that wrote this, but it was signed. The criticism is valid, and one I will take to heart. I appreciate her taking the time to write, and I mean that.

I also believe there was loss of life on April 27, 2011 as a direct result of communication failure on my watch. Despite our knowledge of all 62 tornadoes that day well in advance (lead time was 20-30 minutes generally), 252 people in my state died, which is totally unacceptable.

LIKE A FOOTBALL COACH: Days like yesterday, unfortunately, are part of my job. There have been bad forecasts in the past, and there will be bad ones in the future. Football coaches don’t win every game, and we don’t get every forecast right. But, when you lose, you do deep study into what went wrong, and work to be sure it doesn’t happen again.

Conventional forecast methods failed; NWP (numerical weather prediction… or computer model output), using the few analogs we have, and experience. I assure you I will do long hours of review on this one.

CARRY ON: My many years in this chair have given me a pretty thick skin, so the social media hate doesn’t bother me; the human suffering is what bothers me. I take my job seriously, and I will carry on. If i just decide to quit, then the next person who comes in behind me will have the same problems. The occasional missed forecast that leads to a sentinel event.

I have said this to both professional meteorology societies in speeches over the last two years. Humility is missing in our science. There are many things we don’t know, and many things we can’t do. Just about the time you think you are infallible, you will be brought to your knees. For the ones in meteorology and climate that say “I could be wrong”, I will listen and respect their opinion. But, for those that claim no error, we all know their time is coming.

So, an apology from me for a botched forecast. Won’t be the last bad forecast I write, but I will keep working to get better and stronger daily. And, no, for this kind of thing doesn’t “get me down”, it energizes me. Thanks for your support and for those that did write an encouraging note over the last 12 hours. Let’s warm up, get back with our families, and enjoy some low 60s this weekend. Scroll down for the morning forecast discussion.


Category: Alabama's Weather

About the Author ()

James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.

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