Oh, how the Pittsburgh television weathermen and women must be longing for those late-summer days when they can say, with a great degree of certitude, that it will be “hazy, hot and humid, with a chance of a late-afternoon or evening thundershower.” Because, to be frank, they’ve been having a heck of a time trying to forecast the winter weather the past few months.
It hasn’t been the easiest of winters to be a weather forecaster in Western Pennsylvania. Our snows started coming early, and they came often. In a normal year, Pittsburgh and its environs can expect about 40 inches of snow. This year, the figure climbed well past 60. But trying to predict exactly when those inches were coming, and how many of them at a particular time, seemed to befuddle the prognosticators more often than not.
A prime example was the forecast for this Tuesday into Wednesday. For days ahead of time, the weathermen and women were telling us there would be a chance of snow. But by the time Tuesday rolled around, they all seemed to be in agreement that it would be a next-to-nothing “weather event.” That’s what they like to call things like rain, snow and wind these days. Folks who were expecting to see flakes falling for their drive home from work Tuesday evening – that’s what was predicted – saw nothing of the kind. By 8 or 9 o’clock, some light snow finally started to fall, and on the 10 o’clock news, at least a couple of the local TV stations were saying that’s about all we would see. “A light dusting on the grassy areas” was the phrase they used. One Pittsburgh meteorologist jokingly told his Twitter followers to stop asking him about school delays, because it wasn’t going to happen. Oopsie.
By the time Wednesday morning dawned, some of us were looking at as much as 3 inches of snow on the ground. Not just on the “grassy areas,” but as far as the eye could see. Certain area roads were next to impassable. For example, Route 844 near Buffalo Village was, for all intents and purposes, a parking lot for a couple of hours early Wednesday. Pickup trucks, cars, vans and tractor-trailers were getting stuck while trying to make it up and down the hills in that area. Even a snowplow was hung up for a time. Where were the folks from PennDOT? Probably sleeping in. Like the rest of us, they made their plans based on what the weather forecasters were saying. And by the time Wednesday morning rolled around, and local roads were turned into hockey rinks, they were no doubt scrambling just to keep the major arteries passable.
The “Well, we didn’t see that coming” forecast seems to have been the norm this winter. If the weather folks called for 6 to 8 inches, you could usually bank on 1 or 2. If they called for a coating to an inch, better get that snow blower ready. Remember Joe DeNardo, Bob Kudzma, even Pat Shingleton with that little arrow thingy on his finger? They seemed to have done just as good a job as the current crop of meteorologists, despite not having all those dopplers, Vipers and advanced computer models at their disposal. And the TV stations don’t have just one guy or gal riding herd on the weather forecasts these days. They have entire “storm teams” hanging out in their “severe weather centers.” And for what?
You can’t really blame the TV stations for hyping their weather forecasts. For many people, those predictions – especially in winter – are the main reason they turn on the local news. But could we perhaps turn down the hysteria level a bit? We probably could do without the forecasters whipping people into a frenzy over an “approaching winter storm” when said storm is still percolating somewhere over Topeka. You have to wonder whether they’re getting kickbacks from Giant Eagle and Shop 'n Save based on sales of bread, milk and toilet paper.
The other thing that’s gotten ridiculous is the length of the long-range forecasts. Back in the olden days, forecasters didn’t think it was prudent to go beyond five days. Now we have stations offering seven or eight days’ worth of predictions. One gives us temperatures for the next two weeks. Accuweather even trotted out a 45-day – yes, a month and a half – weather forecast, complete with daily temperature and precipitation predictions. Fellas, we’ve got an idea. Focus on getting the next 45 hours right, and move on cautiously from there.