Appreciating the Difficulty of Winter Weather Forecasting (Imagery Credit: UW-CIMSS)
Over the course of any winter season, one of the leading issues when it comes to winter weather forecasting has to deal with understanding the limits and difficulties of day-to-day weather forecasting (and specifically during the Winter-time season). Before getting any further, it is imperative to recognize that the atmosphere is effectively a dynamic fluid which is constantly evolving and moving every second of every day. As a result of that factor, it can often be incredibly challenging to begin to try and anticipate when and where the heaviest snowfall can occur during a given winter weather event. Whether it is forecasting a given low temperature or where maximum snowfall will occur and how much there will be at a given location can often be one of the hardest things to do in the atmospheric science world.
Despite how much meteorologists will often get criticized during any given winter season regardless of what they do and how well they do their job, there is something very important to keep in mind. This key concept to always bear in mind is that weather forecasting is a challenging job which involves monitoring dozens of parameters at multiple levels of the atmosphere and being able to make sense of everything. From there, one needs to boil it all down to a single forecast for the next 3 to 5 days wherein there is a prediction of upcoming temperatures, winds, cloud clover, and precipitation. However, when trying to do a longer-term forecast one of the leading challenges is often tied to the fact that most longer-term forecasts involve prediction the future evolution of developing oceanic cyclonic systems over larger oceanic basins. Thus, in the case of North America, this deals with anticipating the future dynamic evolution of cyclonic low-pressure systems developing over the Central and/or Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Thus, when it comes to anticipating how developing Pacific low-pressure systems upwind of North America, it can be incredibly challenging to consistently generate very accurate and even localized weather forecasts for regions even across the Western and Central United States. However, as of 2016, help has finally begun to come to the rescue by way of the GOES-16 and now the GOES-17 satellite imagers. Hence, even in an age when weather and climate continue to be front and center, it is important to give due credit to your local National Weather Service forecast offices as well as your local tv meteorologist since everyone is constantly working their best to produce the best possible forecast. So, be sure to keep these things in mind the next time you have second thoughts about how and why a given winter weather forecast evolves the way it does at a given point in time.
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© 2019 Meteorologist Jordan Rabinowitz
Records dating to 1887 show Phil predicted a longer winter 103 times, while forecasting an early spring just 18 times.
At daybreak on February 2nd of every year, Phil is awakened from his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and is helped to the top of a stump by his handlers. With the recent Polar Vortex hitting Phil's home with wind chills of -32 F and clouds in the forecast for tomorrow, will Phil see his shadow? If there was no shadow, it would mean an early spring. But, how can a groundhog predict the weather? Groundhog Day is rooted in Celtic and Germanic traditions and has been celebrated since 1887. Phil may be a popular critter, but he may not always right…
Last year, for example, Phil saw his shadow suggesting six more weeks of winter. However, February was ranked in the warmest third February’s or about 1.6°F above the 20th Century average, and March was ranked near the median value of a 124-period record. Alaska’s February and March temperatures were 8.3 F and 6.9 F above the long-term average, respectively. But, results weren’t consistent across the United States. Below average temperatures were observed along parts of the East Coast in February and in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains for March 2018.
As of 2018, Phil has made 132 predictions, with an early spring (no shadow) predicted 18 times (~14%). On average, the groundhog’s accuracy has given results somewhere around 39%. After 1969, Phil’s accuracy drops to about 36% with the availability of and accuracy of records to verify with (Wunderground). Even flipping a coin, you’d still be right about 50% of the time, which would still be better odds than going off of Phil’s predictions.
Predicting the weather 6 weeks out would require greater computational power than what is currently available. Even accuracy after about 7-10 days starts to fall of rapidly when introducing model differences. However, climate forecasts are primarily based off sea surface temperature patterns. The three-month CPC outlook for March, April, and May spring currently shows above normal temperatures for the western and southeastern United States, and above normal precipitation for the Rocky Mountains and Great Plain states. We shall see how well the remainder of February matches what would be expected based on what a groundhog named Phil predicted. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy Phil’s promise of an early spring ahead.
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©2019 Meteorologist Sharon Sullivan