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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/12/2013

Confessions of a winter weather expert


I’m a weather weenie. A weather weenie is someone who obsesses about some aspect of weather and, at times, that obsession rules their life. My friend, Bob Hill, describes it as a disease.

CWG contributors Ian Livington and Matt Ross share the affliction, and probably others. During winter, we follow every model run hoping for a forecast of a potential snowstorm. Most enthusiasts catch the disease at a young age. My first exposure was in 1954 with Hurricane Hazel: winds roaring, trees toppling, my mother yelling to me get away from that window. Boy was it exciting, but that first exposure didn’t give me the disease.

My descent into weather madness started in February of 1958 with the snowstorm that dropped 18 inches of snow on the Bowie racetrack and stranded thousands of people at the track. In my Annandale neighborhood, a house burned down because the snow delayed the fire truck so long that the water in the truck froze. I was too young to recognize that as a tragedy, to me it was excitement. The icing on the cake was that the storm forced school closing which allowed me time to play in the snow.

Later in March of the same year, one of the areas most underrated snowstorms stoked the fever of my incipient weather disease. The storm was forecast to only produce rain but that evening changed to heavy wet snow with some of the biggest flakes I had ever seen. To a 10 year-old, some looked liked the size of baseballs.

Think of a Snowquester storm that actually produced snow. The storm only gave National Airport 4.8 inches but produced 14 to 16 inches in my backyard stranding my parents around 3 miles from home. They made it home through popping transformers and downed wires. We lost our power for about a week. Mom was forced to cook dinner over our fireplace. That’s what Roy Rogers and Dale Evans did. We were living like cowboys! Plus we got out of school for another week. The infection was rapidly growing.

I was still too young to realize during the two storms that it adversely impacted thousands of people. To me. the excitement was pure adrenaline. To the people who lost their house during the fire or to my parents who had to bail water out of the basement round the clock, it was a nightmare.

The eleven year period between the winter of 1957-1958 and 1967-1968 was an amazing stretch that totally warped my impression what a normal winter was in the D.C. area and cemented my fate. More snow than normal was recorded during nine of the eleven years with 20 inches or more recorded in 8 of them. Less than 15 inches fell in only one of those eleven years.

The highlight of those years was the 1966 blizzard, a storm with temperatures in the teens and blowing and drifting snow leading to zero visibility. Most of the storms during those years meant school being cancelled or delayed, snow forts, snowball fights, sledding and snow ice cream. I was one of Pavlov’s dogs being conditioned to love winter weather, and I fell so hard.

I started watching and imitating Louis Allen, the first serious TV meteorologist in the Washington area. He taught me how the winds circulated around high and low pressure systems. I would draw my own weather maps and pretend to be a TV weatherman giving his forecast. Of course, back then all my forecasts were for heavy snow. I imagine after the March 6t snow forecast, some readers think that is still true.

Back then, I had a love-hate relationship with Allen and with other meteorologists and TV weathermen. I wanted to be like them but often got furious when a forecast of snow failed to pan out. That same sense of betrayal obviously has transferred to some of our readers who wanted all meteorologists fired after the March 6 bust.

If there had been a Capital Weather Gang back then, I would have joined the “I hate meteorologists” chorus. Being a mediocre student, when snow was forecast I usually failed to do my homework and then would be left trying to explain my poor performance on a test or assignment to my parents. My missing assignments were the meteorologists’ fault, not mine.

When snow was forecast, I watched the sky, the temperatures and fantasized about the snowstorm. My dad was constantly after me for opening the door and looking to see how cloudy it was and to check to see if the snow had started yet. I also constantly turned on our one spot light to watch the falling snow. To me falling snow was better than fireworks.

When my current house was built, I only had one firm requirement: spot lights on each side of the house. I don’t worry about possible intruders, I worry about snow and how hard it is falling. I love taking walks in the snow or just watching it fall.

Somehow, despite my lack of enthusiasm about school, I managed to become a meteorologist allowing me to feed my weather addiction almost daily. Verification of forecasts reigned in my snow forecasting bias. During the years I made some really good forecasts and even won awards.

However, like my childhood idol, Louis Allen, I’ve had some less than stellar forecasts and some outright busts. One of the most notable occurred in 2001 when I forecast enough precipitation to support a winter storm warning based on two of the newest models on the block. The Boxing Day (December 26) storm of 2010 was another bust. Both were essentially trying to forecast the snow with a storm to develop right over us. That’s always a dicey forecast and using an unproven model as the basis for forecasting a winter storm is generally a mistake. In the 2001 case, heavy snow was expected to develop within twelve hours. The next morning the forecast had crashed and burned as I woke up to bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky.

Back in 2001, meteorologists were just starting to look at ensemble forecasting as a way to assess uncertainty. Unfortunately, the forecast was a deterministic one. That storm was a lesson that probabilistic forecasts of storms were needed.

The Boxing Day storm a couple of years ago was another forecast fiasco when a number of models were forecasting the storm to develop quickly enough to give us a decent snow. This year brought the Snowquester storm. Busts always hurt and stay with you longer than the successes. In weather, you’re only a bust away from hearing statements such as “meteorologists have the best job in the world, they are never right but get to keep their jobs.”

The Presidents’ Day storm of 1979 was my favorite storm. After 4 inches of snow had accumulated, the moon poked through the clouds. I called work panic-stricken as I had been expecting a foot or more of snow. When I asked whether the storm was over, a colleague and friend said, yes, but we might get another inch with the vort (upper level spin center). What he didn’t tell me was that we’d get an inch every 15 minutes for four or five hours. When I awoke at 4 a.m. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen snow fall that heavily. In my enthusiasm, I inadvertently woke my wife more than once during the remainder of the night. Wives and lovers of weather weenies put up with a lot.

Like most weather nuts, I’ve chased storms, driving after snow into the mountains in a van with no snow tires during one chase. Years later, I went tornado chasing, punching a squall line. After each trip, the same thought crossed my mind: “What was I thinking? I must be crazy.”

I like to think that over the years I’ve matured. I no longer chase storms nor do I like ice storms or severe weather. I don’t like losing power.

Last year’s derecho knocked my power out for a week. The sweltering heat had my wife and I roaming the house in our underwear (or less). When you’re in your 20s that might be exciting and result in a baby boomlet but in your mid 60s, it’s not a pretty sight and isn’t fun. I guess the prolonged outages from the ice storm in 1994 and last summer were a form Karmic payback for enjoying the storms in 1958.

I still obsess about snow and follow every model run during winter hoping to see a pattern that looks favorable for snow but during summer only follow the weather if I’m going fishing or golfing.

I joined Capital Weather Gang three years ago as a “winter weather expert” at the start of the least snowy three-year stretch in D.C. weather history. As Alanis Morissette sang, “Isn’t it ironic don’t you think?” No, but for a snow lover it is maddening and kind of funny.

If you have been bitten by the weather enthusiast bug, share your stories of why you became a weather fanatic or feel free to vent.

By  |  10:30 AM ET, 03/12/2013

Categories:  Winter Storms, Latest, Capital Weather Gang, Humor

 
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