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Professor rains on Buffalo, high rank in Sunshine Derby Finds local measurement different from Orlando's

The sun has set on The Buffalo News' Sunshine Derby and with it some fallacies about Buffalo's sunny days.

Buffalo does not typically have more sunshine than Rochester, nor was the Queen City sunnier some years than Orlando, as the rankings in the Sunshine Derby have shown – and been widely reported – in the past.

As a Buffalo State College professor recently discovered and the National Weather Service was aware of, Buffalo's numbers were unintentionally skewed because of the way sunshine was calculated for its month-to-date and year-to-date comparisons as opposed to the four other cities in the derby.

"It's often said we are sunnier than Orlando. That sounds really nice, but we're not," said Stephen Vermette, who coordinates Buffalo State's meteorology and climatology program.

It also turns out Buffalo is one of the few cities in the country – and apparently the only one in New York State – where the National Weather Service continues to measure sunshine by looking for shadows.

The other cities – Rochester, Syracuse, Orlando and Phoenix – measure sunshine through a cloud-cover system, which provides a less accurate measurement of a sunny day, according to Vermette and National Weather Service meteorologist Jon Hitchcock.

"It's an apples-to-oranges comparison. The numbers are totally invalid," Hitchcock said.

That realization led The News on Thursday to stop running the Sunshine Derby, which was presented exclusively in a weather package provided by AccuWeather, a private weather company based in State College, Pa.

Vermette reached his conclusion with students in his applied climatology class and with Jack Kanack of Weather Medic, a weather consultant. Historic dates they researched found Buffalo had trailed Rochester by 3 percent in sunshine percentage. That changed – often dramatically – after the other cities switched during the 1990s to measuring cloud cover.

As of Wednesday, Buffalo was said to have experienced 174 days of 50 percent or more sunshine this year, compared with 71 for Rochester, according to the Sunshine Derby.

"There is no weather explanation to account for this scale of difference between the two cities," Vermette said. "If they were measuring Buffalo and Rochester the same way, we would be roughly the same over the course of a year."

Orlando was said to have had 116 sunny days, well below Buffalo's total.

But Buffalo would fare the worst when compared with the other cities in the derby if cloud cover was the basis for measuring
sunshine, Vermette said.

"If all five cities used the cloud-cover system, Buffalo's total would have shrunk to 58 sunny days, making it the cloudiest city of the five," he said.

Still, the Buffalo State professor said the way Buffalo's sunny days are calculated provides a more accurate measurement than does the cloud-cover system. The other cities underreport their sunny days, he said.

Unless the National Weather Service restored solar-energy measurements in Rochester and the other cities that switched to cloud-cover measurements in the 1990s, Vermette said there was no point in continuing the comparisons.

He said he was surprised that the inaccurate comparison went on as long as it did.

"I'm surprised folks from Rochester didn't say anything long ago about why their sunshine was undercounted," Vermette said.

It turns out that The News did field complaints from readers, which were shared with AccuWeather, according to Jim Piro, the weather company's climatology supervisor.

"We had known it was a problem but didn't realize how big of a problem it was," Piro said. He said the company responded by attempting to adjust for the discrepancy in measurement systems.

Ed Healy, a spokesman for Visit Buffalo Niagara, said he didn't think Buffalo would suffer because of what turned out to be invalid comparisons.

"I'm aware of [the Sunshine Derby], but it's not like we have spent a lot of time promoting that particular notion. We spend much more time promoting Buffalo as a city with great architecture and history that has appeal as a four-season destination," Healy said.

"We haven't invested a lot of time and energy in trying to promote Buffalo as the Miami of the North."

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