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Historical snowstorm yes, blizzard no

Posted by David Epstein  February 11, 2013 08:08 AM

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As you settle back into work, I am sure one of the more popular subjects around the water cooler will be last weekend’s snowstorm. I had an interesting email exchange over the weekend with one of my fellow meteorologists concerning whether or not we should have called this storm a blizzard. snowstorm February 8 and 9 2013.pngThis is what meteorologists do. We love to talk about the details of what the models are showing before a storm and then recount what actually happened when it's over. I am incredibly fortunate to be able to chat with some of the best forecasters in the business and what's more, this region is lucky, because we have some of those forecasters working both in front of and behind the scenes of both the public and private sector.

It doesn't matter really if we gave it a name. The storm happened. It was windy, snowy, power went out, and some damage occurred along the coast. Nature doesn't care what we humans call the events she dishes up. The National Weather Service (NWS) is responsible for putting out warnings and watches to the general public; private originations don't take on that role. We, in the media, then disseminate the information from the NWS via radio, newspaper, TV, blogs, tweets etc. When the blizzard warning went out Thursday afternoon from the NWS, it meant blizzard conditions were likely to occur. By definition, a blizzard occurs when the following happens: winds reach a sustained speed or frequent gusts of 35 miles per hour at the same time the visibility is at or less than one-quarter mile due to snow or blowing snow. A blizzard could occur with 4 inches of snow or 40 inches, the amount of snow has nothing to do with the criteria. Here's where it gets interesting. Throughout the storm, virtually no official reporting station recorded a blizzard. There is conflicting information that a blizzard occurred in Falmouth, Massachusetts late in the evening Friday. That is the only official station that had close to blizzard conditions.

The reason what happened in Falmouth isn't clear is that weather information at the various stations comes from an Automated Surface Observing Station or ASOS. The ASOS in Falmouth showed the wind and the visibility fit the criteria for a blizzard, but the problem is it also said there was rain for one hour. ASOS is not perfect, so it may have been very wet snow and thus an official blizzard between 10:30 PM on Friday and 1:30 AM on Saturday.

So, let's assume a blizzard did occur in Falmouth. Based on the other ASOS from around the state we do know Boston, Worcester, Framingham, Fitchburg, Norwood, Marshfield and Lawrence did not have a blizzard. Based on meteorology, areas around those stations also did not have a blizzard. There is no ambiguity here, there was not a blizzard during this storm at any other official weather station besides possibly Falmouth, MA.

Many cities and towns along the coast of Maine and New Hampshire did have a blizzard. Since nature doesn't recognize state lines it's safe to assume parts of the north shore of Massachusetts, that do not have official observing stations, also met blizzard conditions. This was the exception, not the rule in our state. (the ASOS in Beverly also had reporting issues during the storm) While this is semantics, criteria and definitions matter. When you get a degree from an institution of higher education, there are certain criteria you must meet. If you don't satisfy all of the requirements, you don't get your degree. (although, some argue students should if they are close, but I digress to another discussion for another day) Degrees mean something and everyone has agreed on the criteria to earn such an honor. If we just use terms without any construct, we have no reference points to look back on history and there is no meaning behind our words.

What we did have, was a snowstorm . A snowstorm which came from a low pressure area moving up the coast. The track of this storm creates northeasterly winds and thus is also called a nor'easter. A name rightly attributed by mariners who certainly would rather not be caught in such a storm.

There are many weather phenomena we name and categorize. For example, the meteorological community decided a long time to define a heat wave in the northeast as three days in a row of 90 degrees or more. You might be miserable after three days of 87°F and high humidity, but according to the definition, it wasn't a heat wave. A hurricane is defined as a tropical system with wind speeds of 74 miles per hour or greater and so on. There is general agreement on these matters.

In addition to whether this was or was not a blizzard this weekend, another naming issue came up. This particular snowstorm was given a name by The Weather Channel (TWC), a private company, owned by NBC Universal, who this year decided, unilaterally, to name winter storms. TWC came up with their own set of criteria which were not part of any board, discussion, vetting process, or official research. While a private company has lots of leeway in how they operate, many of my colleagues and I are against such a move by TWC. While TWC will argue they did this is the name of informing the public, I argue it's a marketing ploy to create more hype around weather events and that is not something we need to increase. There are many of the top forecasters in the country at TWC and certainly they do an enormous service for the public, but naming winter storms without soliciting feedback from others in the meteorological community doesn't give those names any credibility.

There are names on which there is almost universal agreement. Since 1953, hurricanes have been given official names and today the World Meteorological Organization keeps a running list of names for each year's hurricanes. Even with decades of naming conventions, there is still an occasional controversy within in the industry. There are meteorologists who believe some storms are now named which wouldn't have been 20 years ago and therefore the statistics on named storms is skewed.

As complicated as a tropical system like a hurricane is, winter storms are exponentially more difficult to categorize. The impact from a winter storm is not only difficulty to define, it's much more subjective. I have seen more car accidents from a squall line of snow on a weekday afternoon, than an overnight snowstorm of 10 inches. According to TWC criteria, the former likely wouldn't get a name, but the latter would. As far as the name Nemo for our snowstorm, let’s keep it as the name of the captain of the Nautilus or a whimsical Disney character.

It would be an accomplishment if those responsible for informing the public at the various media outlets would agree on following the same rules. This would allow us to then report the weather without commentary or using words like blizzard gratuitously. Lastly, while blizzard warnings were certainly issued and you did indeed shovel a lot of snow, for most of you, an actual blizzard never happened.

I'd love to hear from you. Please find me on Twitter at @growingwisdom and send me a question.

Gardening this week
This week I have a video on one of the easiest plants you can grow. The jade plant is one of those houseplants that is almost foolproof. Spend a few minutes learning more about this minimal care plant.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

David Epstein has been a professional meteorologist and horticulturalist for three decades. David spent 16 years at WCVB in Boston and currently freelances for WGME in Portland, ME. In 2006, More »
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