The great Facebook flake-out: A little, not a lot of snow for East Coast this weekend

“They” said 20-30 inches of snow were coming this weekend. A paralyzing East Coast blizzard. Cooler heads said not so fast. Cooler heads will prevail. But still, there could be a little snow.

Yes, as far back as January 29, rumors were swirling that the period of February 8-10 would bring the big one. These rumors originated on Facebook.

I first saw talk of an epic storm on the Facebook page Weatherboy Weather (on January 29).

“Something that is sure to get a lot of buzz today is the European forecast model’s projection of an “epic” blizzard along the east coast at the end of next week,” Weatherboy’s page read.

Screen capture of WeatherBoy's Facebook page, January 29.

Screenshot of WeatherBoy’s Facebook page, January 29.

Weatherboy then admitted he didn’t trust the model and discussed all the reasons it could be wrong.

“We are NOT confident in the European model’s extended forecast,” he wrote.

Yet the damage was done. His post – which included an image of the European model’s crippling snowfall forecast – was shared thousands of times.

The same forecast independently ended up on The Delmarva Firefighter Forums Facebook page and was shared over 41,000 times .

Screenshot from Delmarva Firefighters

Screenshot from Delmarva Firefighters Facebook page

It turns out the above image was an alternative version of the European model called a control run, not the real thing – and represented 10 days worth of snow (not just the weekend storm).

“The image was a printout of an experimental version of the well-respected European forecast model,” reports Stephen Sterling for the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “But it wasn’t showing the impacts from a single storm, it was showing how much snow would accumulate over a 10-day period ending this weekend if no other type of precipitation fell.”

Many meteorologists, myself included, tried to confront the perception a mammoth storm was coming, but had to walk a tight rope. As over the top as that particular forecast was, the overall pattern was favorable for some winter storminess.

On Capital Weather Gang’s Facebook page, I wrote: “Re: rumors of a big snowstorm around Feb 9… it is true that we think the overall pattern might be better than average for snow around that time. However, IGNORE posts on your FB wall that offer specifics (including talk of a blizzard and incredible amounts) and show model simulations this far out. THEY HAVE NO CREDIBILITY. We cannot forecast individual storms reliably beyond 5-7 days…it’s even challenging within 1-3 days at times.”

Gary Szatkowski, meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service forecast office told Delaware Online: ““We can’t forecast this 10 days out. The people who did this were really irresponsible.”

Szatkowski’s office went as far as to post the following Powerpoint slide online, which states in its first bullet: “It was the antithesis of public service when the 30 inch snowfall graphic was posted & hyped last week.”

(National Weather Service)

(National Weather Service)

Joe Pollina, a meteorologist for the NWS office serving New York City, told the State Island Advance: “We are trying to deflate the hype. It (the snow storm) may turnout to be true, but at this point we are not forecasting any totals for the snow.”

Numerous other meteorologists took to Facebook to squash the rumor, some taking the forecast map and drawing a big black “x” over it.

This completely out of control snow rumor underscores the need for consumers of weather information to consider the source of forecasts and, of course, read any qualifying text. Also, don’t share forecasts from sources you don’t trust.

Because of the possibility they’ll be misinterpreted, we don’t post model simulations of storm total snowfall accumulation beyond a few days on social media feeds – qualified or not. I’d recommend this as a best practice for professional meteorologists, hobbyists and students.

Related: Beware of faulty, flaky Facebook weather forecasts

Since late last week, while we’ve discussed the potential for storminess, we’ve stressed the uncertainty and challenge of nailing down this forecast.

The forecast

So now that were within a few days of any storm, what is the forecast?

There is going to be some snow, but just a little – likely in two rounds.

Low pressure will develop along a cold front stalled near the Southeast coast and then zip northeast off the North Carolina coast and out to sea. It may spread a little light snow in the Mid-Atlantic, especially from around Richmond into southern New Jersey. Light snow could impact the D.C. area between Saturday morning and afternoon, with a dusting to a couple of inches the most likely range. The European model would suggest 1-2 inches for the D.C. area, while the GFS would suggest a coating or so. The NAM model only indicates flurries. We’ll try to fine tune the accumulation forecast tomorrow.

European model shows some light snow falling over the Mid-Atlantic Saturday morning and afternoon (StormVistaWxModels.com)

European model shows some light snow falling over the Mid-Atlantic Saturday morning and afternoon (StormVistaWxModels.com)

For this to have become a significant winter storm, it would have needed to combine or “phase” with a disturbance that will swing by to D.C.’s north on Sunday. But the timing of the second disturbance’s arrival is off. Not arriving until Sunday afternoon and evening, it could bring some snow showers and flurries in D.C., but the best chance of any light accumulation is north of the District extending into southern New England.

European weather model shows light snow from the northern Mid-Atlantic into New England late Sunday (StormVistaWxModels.com)

European weather model shows light snow from the northern Mid-Atlantic into New England late Sunday (StormVistaWxModels.com)

Beyond the weekend, there is potential for more winter storminess in the middle of next week (around Wednesday). Model simulations show this storm coming out of the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast, so it may contain ample moisture IF these simulations have it right. The big question is how long cold air will hold in place. We’ll offer some more detailed thoughts on that tomorrow.

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