Shifty storm difficult to track

Tossed forecasters, drivers a curveball

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By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / December 22, 2010

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For a region that relishes its ability to weather the winter, the nightmarish commute caused by Monday’s snowfall has prompted a flurry of head-scratching in Greater Boston.

Was the hours-long crawl made worse by poor forecasting, wacky weather, or simply bad timing? If a sampling of motorists, meteorologists, and highway honchos is an indication, the answer includes all of the above.

But don’t leave out the finger-pointing.

“That inch or two wouldn’t be an issue if the roads were treated,’’ said Bill Simpson, a National Weather Service spokesman who slogged for two hours in heavier-than-expected snow from Taunton to Barnstable.

“I would have loved to have had better forecasting so I could have gotten out ahead of it,’’ said Joanne Massaro, the Boston public works commissioner.

“This was by and large a pronounced failure of the guidance that we’ve come to rely on,’’ said Matt Noyes, chief meteorologist at New England Cable News.

The consensus from interested as well as incensed parties is that the nor’easter behaved so badly that nearly everyone was surprised by a storm that dumped snow ranging from 13 inches in South Dennis to 2.6 inches at Logan International Airport.

“We knew the storm would stall, but we didn’t anticipate this band of moisture setting up over Eastern Massachusetts,’’ said Todd Gutner, an evening meteorologist for WBZ-TV. “That stayed over us for hours and hours and hours.’’

Technically, those commuters blindsided by the weather during the evening rush hour were the unwitting victims of an “inverted trough,’’ Simpson said.

Part of the problem, Noyes explained, is that a massive swath of warm, fair weather stretching from Greenland to the North Pole is keeping colder air south in a rare phenomenon that the models are not dissecting properly. When the computers fail, Gutner said, “you try to deviate from the models and . . . go more to play-by-play or ‘now-casting.’ ’’

For many drivers, the updates came too late. As a result, many commuters who expected only a dusting of snow in Greater Boston endured hours-long drives that provided plenty of time for amateur “now-casting.’’

Brian Embry, a cook at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said he spent two extra, anxious hours in Roxbury at a bus stop where he waited for his 10-year-old son to be delivered from school in Newton.

“He usually gets there at 4:30, but he wasn’t dropped off until 6:45,’’ Embry said. “Was I worried? Oh, definitely.’’

Other motorists said they did not see the number of sanders that they would have expected for the first snowstorm of the season. But Frank Tramontozzi, chief engineer of the state Department of Transportation, insisted that his fleet reacted appropriately in a rolling response that began on harder-hit Cape Cod and tracked the snow north toward Boston and its suburbs.

Tramontozzi provided this snow-fighting tally: 4:13 p.m. Monday, 653 pieces of state equipment on the roads; 8:32 p.m., 826 pieces; 10:18 p.m., 1,124; and 4:31 a.m. yesterday, 428. “We couldn’t have done it any differently,’’ he said.

Massaro echoed that assessment for the road work in Boston. “I don’t know if we could have done anything differently given the unpredictability of the forecast,’’ the public works commissioner said. “As we were starting, the forecasts had said between one-quarter to a half-inch. Clearly, it started to pile up and be a little bit more.’’

Meteorologists who delivered those forecasts expect to take the brunt of the blame for weather gone wrong.

“It just doesn’t roll off your back. It hits home,’’ Gutner said of the criticism. “I don’t know, it comes with the territory.’’

Instead of shooting the messenger, however, maybe the region will conclude that part of Monday’s problem lies with its own supposedly weather-resistant commuters.

“You’re asking a question I ask myself every time it snows or rains around here. I’d think people would be better able to drive in inclement weather,’’ said Marshall Hook, regional operations director for Metro Networks, which provides traffic reports for television, radio, and the Internet. “But that’s the beauty of being a traffic reporter. You know the alternate routes.’’

Alternate routes will come in handy this winter, possibly even tonight. The same storm that ruined Monday for commuters appears to have a parting gift.

Gutner’s prediction: maybe a couple of inches of snow.

MacQuarrie can be reached at