For some people, the biggest pain of a winter storm may be having to shovel the driveway. Some may say traveling in it is the worst thing to do. As for meteorologists, the biggest pain of a winter storm is forecasting it. Specifically, forecasting the snowfall totals.
“Sometimes you think you’re getting so good at forecasting snowfall totals. Then a winter storm comes along and humbles you,” said JD Rudd, meteorologist at KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kan. “The bottom line is you’ll get to be pretty good at it most of the time. You’re not going to be able to nail the totals for every storm, though.”
One of the main reasons predicting the snowfall totals for winter storms is tricky is the track of the storm. Even if the storm’s path deviates just 50 miles from the model predictions, that could spell the difference between a major snow event and hardly any precipitation at all. For example, if the center of the storm goes to the north of a location, that location will see only rain. If the center tracks right over a location, there will be rain turning over to snow. But if the storm’s center tracks to the south, heavy snow is to be expected for that place.
“One of the things I try to focus on is where most of the cold air will be and where will the moisture will be, too,” Rudd said. “Obviously, there can’t be snow without cold air and moisture. So another hard part of the forecast is figuring out where – if any – dry air will be coming into the storm.”
Recently, a snow storm impacted portions of the Great Plains, including Kansas and Missouri. Snowfall totals around the Kansas City area were anywhere from eight to ten inches, including reports of six to seven inches in Lawrence. Overall, the snowfall projections for this storm were fairly accurate.
“I’m actually pretty happy with how the snowfall projections lined up with the actual totals that we saw,” said Bryan Busby, chief meteorologist at KMBC-TV in Kansas City. “I was a little worried when we received some thundersnow, but it’s not every day you get to say you validated your snowfall prediction.”
A meteorologist validating a snowfall forecast is an impressive feat all on its own, but what makes it even more impressive this year is the extreme lack of snowfall forecasting that had to be done last year. Kansas City only saw 3.1 inches of snow – way below the 30-year average of 14.8 inches.
“I’ll admit, at the start of this winter, I thought I was going to be a little rusty in my snowfall forecasting,” Busby said. “But it’s just like riding a bike. Sure, we didn’t do it last year, but all those previous years of training will never leave you.”