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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Forecasting "turkeys": predictions gone awry

Part I: Big forecast busts between 1870 and 1969

* Chance of showers, mild: Full Forecast | Cold air eases on way east *

Recently, I noticed that a Florida senior center was planning a presentation entitled "Tremendous 'Turkeys' of History." Included were: Fulton's steam engine, initially deemed a folly; Disney's Snow White, considered a certain flop when (and if) it reached the theaters; and, of course, Ford's Edsel, anticipated as the "car of the future," but which turned out to be the greatest design disaster in automotive history, although some considered it a car ahead of its time.

What about U.S. weather forecasting "turkeys?" We can all think of some, but what were some of the most conspicuous since the founding of the Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service (NWS), in 1870? I did some research (1) and, because it's now almost winter, am limiting the cases to blown, or almost blown, snow forecasts , which usually leave an indelible mark on our collective memories. This post focuses on storms between 1870 and1969.

It only took 18 years for the U.S. Weather Bureau (hereafter referred to as the NWS) to commit its most famous, or infamous, forecasting debacle, one that's been chronicled in many ways because of where it occurred (the nation's biggest population center), when it occurred (the middle of March) and how it unfolded (light rain ultimately becoming a full-blown blizzard). It was called the White Hurricane.

On the morning of March 11, 1888, the prediction for New York City by the Washington office of the U.S. Signal Service Corps (an early NWS title) for the next 24 hours was for "fresh to brisk easterly winds with rain at night, followed by colder....and fair weather throughout the Atlantic states."

What followed was that, as predicted, it did rain at night but the rain later changed to sleet and then to snow. As Arctic air was entrained into the disturbance, temperatures plummeted into the single digits, the snow piled up and, as the whole system "bombed out" and stalled off of Long Island, 40-70 mph winds with white-out conditions developed and persisted for some time. The Northeast--particularly western New England and New York State, including New York City--was hit by one of the most severe blizzards in its history, with some drifts up to 15 feet, 40-50 feet in some rural upstate areas. From Chesapeake Bay to Nantucket, 200 ships sank with 400 lives lost. (3)

Although greater snow accumulations have been recorded in NYC than the 21 inches recorded during the 1888 storm, few, if any, have combined all of the elements described above. In Washington, on the southwestern periphery of the massive storm, there was about only 6" of wind-blown snow-- but it still managed to paralyze the city.

Talk to descendants of Midwesterners about the Blizzard of 1888, however, and they will tell a whole different story, as that area was blasted by a sub-zero blizzard of such epic proportions in January of 1888 that the eastern storm seemed almost tame. The Midwest storm is sometimes called the Schoolchildren's Storm, because so many children were stranded in their schoolhouses.

Historically, the period around November 11th, now called Veterans' Day, has seen a number of severe, badly predicted winter-like storms in and around the Great Lakes states. (Of course, we had our own in the Washington area, although not nearly so catastrophic, on November 11, 1987. I will discuss the forecasting lapse for this storm in Part II.) Other stand-outs were the long-lasting White Hurricane of 1913, and the 1975 Edmund Fitzgerald Storm, which caused the mysterious sinking of the ore freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in a furious gale. The shipwreck later inspired Gordon Lightfoot to write the wildly popular ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,"

Although each of these storms attained great intensity, and each could probably vie for top billing in its own way, it was the Armistice Day Storm of 1940 which probably deserves it best. Though the death toll was greater in other storms, this storm is best remembered for its suddenness, its ferocity, and the monstrous 20 foot drifts left behind. On average, snowfall ranged from 10 to 26 inches. (4)

Pre-storm forecasts had called only for colder weather and "a few flurries," leading people to get in some last-minute outdoor activities, as temperatures were still in the 60's. (5) Tragically, the storm caught many by surprise, particularly hunters in remote locations, and up to 52 died. Ultimately, 123 died in all, with many ships either lost or grounded.

Arriving very late in the season for our area, this storm, also known as the Palm Sunday Snowstorm was one of the more bizarre in the historical record because it lacked most characteristics of a northeast snowstorm, such as a strong, cold, high pressure system anchored to the north and intensifying low pressure off the coast. Instead, a high had drifted eastward off the New England coast, which usually allows milder air to filter in aloft--but in this case it didn't-- and the offshore low never did intensify.

Understandably, the storm, which dumped 12 inches of snow in Washington, double that number in Baltimore, and over 30 inches northward into Pennsylvania, was poorly forecast. At the time, it was one of the heaviest snowstorms ever recorded in the affected areas, especially for so late in the season. Interestingly, little if any snow fell both to the east and west of the main snow band.

The "Lindsay" Storm was so named because of the political price paid by Mayor John Lindsay of New York City, who was unable to have city streets cleared in a timely manner (3). The main reasons: 40% of the snow plows were inoperable and the city's administrator was out of town and unreachable. (All of which brings back memories of the political price paid by DC's Mayor Marion Barry who, in January 1987, was in California attending the Super Bowl when twin snowstorms buried Washington.) Ultimately, 42 people died and 288 others were injured in New York.

This storm, as the one in March 1942, was hardly a classic northeast snowstorm. With no Arctic air in place, the NWS kept calling for the snow to change to rain--but obviously it didn't and 20 inches of snow accumulated, at least at JFK Airport. (There was only a 3-5 inch coating of wet snow in the DC to Philadelphia corridor.)

This post documents some of the biggest forecasting snafus between 1888-1969. Which 4 storms from 1970 to present would you nominate as the other "turkeys"?

(1) Much of the information for this article is derived from Kocin and Ucellinni's masterful monographs, Northeast Snowstorms, Volumes I and II.
(2) The New York Times, Our Towns," 9/1/2010
(3) The New York Times, City Room, "Remembering a Snowstorm That Paralyzed the City," 2/10/2009
(4) National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, Milwaukee/Sullivan, WI
(5) Minnesota Climatology Working Group, University of Minnesota

By  |  10:30 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Categories:  History

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