Do they make you do it?

As I write this, bitter cold arctic air is slashing eastward and southward across the eastern two-thirds of the nation, and a pugnacious winter storm is aborning over the Southwest.  Thus, the stage is set for a blitzkrieg of ice and snow from New Mexico to North Carolina over the next 48 hours.

Curiously enough, the storm comes almost exactly a year after a devastating bout of ice and snow assaulted roughly the same area.  The 2010 version, however, will end up focusing its fury just a bit farther south.  After punching New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma hard, the system will throw crippling haymakers at large chunks of Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina.

So, rather than continue with my series on extended-range forecasting, I’m going to break continuity here and present another piece from my unpublished manuscript INSIDE THE WEATHER CHANNEL. This segment addresses alleged “scaremongering” by the channel and uses the 2009 ice storm as a case-in-point.

On Sunday morning, January 25, 2009, I sent a strongly-worded email to key members of The Weather Channel’s production staff.  In the message, I, in my capacity as a Lead Meteorologist, warned that a major ice storm loomed for a large swath of the country.  Not only should the channel be headlining the developing storm, I said, but in all likelihood we’d need multiple teams in the field to cover it.

A fresh slug of bitterly cold air had punched into the northern Plains, where temperatures had tumbled to subzero levels, and bridged across the Midwest into New England.  South of the frigid air mass, moist Gulf of Mexico air was poised to surge northward.  Over the Southwest, a series of upper-air disturbances was taking aim on the impending clash of air masses in the central U.S.  It was an unusually potent situation.

Stu Ostro, Senior Director of Weather Communications, saw it coming, too, and blogged about it on The Weather Channel’s Website 24 hours later.  “The places that get the largest amounts of precipitation,” he wrote, “and of which most is freezing rain, will have a serious ice storm capable of producing power outages which are widespread and last for days; the greatest threat is in a swath from northern Arkansas into Kentucky….”

He nailed it.  Northern Arkansas and Kentucky indeed took the brunt of the storm over the course of January 26 to January 28.  In Kentucky alone, over 700,000 homes lost power at the height of the storm.  Overall, the storm assaulted an area that extended from Texas to New England.  At least 42 people lost their lives as a direct result of the icy fusillade; 1.3 million customers found themselves without utility services.  Dark and cold.

Most people no doubt appreciated The Weather Channel’s red flag waving, at least they should have.  But there’s always a few….  Here’s an email Stu got in response to his blog: “Stew [sic]–why do you insist on being a scaremonger?  Just curious.  Do they make you do it?”  (Whoever “they” is.)   It’s my senior citizen’s crankiness coming out, but I hope this guy was cooking beans over a Bunsen burner for a week after the storm.  Alas, he probably lived in Florida.

No one, not even NBC, orders Weather Channel meteorologists to hype anything.  In fact, forecasters have been known to get bent out of shape when producers occasionally get happy feet with hyperbolic headlines.  But the January 2009 ice storm was one that would have been hard to  blow out of proportion.

The wintry onslaught was well forecast not only by the channel but by the NWS, too.  The network isn’t in competition with the NWS, by the way; there’s a hand-in-glove synergism that exists.  The Weather Channel relies on data and technical guidance provided by the NWS through the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center.  The NWS, in turn, counts on the channel to disseminate weather watches and warnings, which are all government-issued, on a national scale.

While no one at the channel pressures meteorologists to be “scaremongers,” there is implicit pressure to “get it right.”  And that pressure isn’t so much external as internal.  Another name for it is professional pride.

I remember poring over models and discussions prior to transmitting my Sunday email and outlining a rather broad area where I thought icing would be particularly nasty.  My counterparts at the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center came up with pretty much the same outlook.  Thus, I felt quite confident when I sounded the alarm for a major ice storm and extensive power outages.  Stu, at home that day, performed his own analysis and concurred with my warning.

Photo: January 2009 Ice Storm
This image, from, shows the expansive precipitation associated with unseasonably warm air overrunning a sprawling cold air mass late on January 27, 2009.

Stu Ostro of The Weasther Channel added the hot pink color showing locations where freezing rain was falling. (Snow is not depicted.)

The reach of the freezing rain (icing) is vast, extending from northern Texas to eastern Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula.

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