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Super models: How new technology – and forecasters – got the blizzard right

There's a word weather forecasters use after a storm if their predictions were right: "verified."

Mark this blizzard “verified.”

"It seemed to unfold pretty much as we expected," said Jon Hitchcock, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

A decade ago, the forecasts might not have been so precise.

Sophisticated, high-resolution weather models now give forecasters much more power to predict what's coming.

Think of it as the difference between your old cathode-ray television and the new smart TV you watch now. The higher resolution fine tunes the picture and makes it much clearer. It's similar with lake-effect snow forecast models. Instead of using large grids, they're much smaller.

"These high-resolution models can tell you a lot more about the intensity of lake-effect snow," Hitchcock said.

But, they're not perfect.

So weather service forecasters at the Buffalo office narrowed in on the geography using "old-school" human power, too.

"Some lake-effect events are easier to predict than others," Hitchcock said. "In this case, this was a classic setup."

Storm signals

The Blizzard of 2019 wasn't without tragedy. At least three people died as a result of the storm.

But did the precision and timing of the forecast save other lives?

"Without a doubt," said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. "There's no doubt in my mind."

An early forecast warning of lake-effect snow and subzero temperatures provided emergency managers, school superintendents and other decision-makers time for plotting strategies days in advance.

"There’s always a forecast," said Scott G. Martzloff, superintendent of the Williamsville Central School District. "The question is: 'Does the forecast accurately bear out?' In this case, it did."

The National Weather Service began projecting the chances for extreme cold and wintry weather more than a week before it arrived.

Meteorologists narrowed down how much snow would fall, and where, with the help of supercomputers running the Weather Research and Forecasting model and the North American Mesoscale Forecast System model at grids as small as about two miles.

Imagine each grid covering an area just under 2 square miles. That enables forecasters to really narrow in on where the lake-effect snow will fall, and where it's expected to be most intense. Earlier models were limited to forecast areas of 7.5 square miles. And, before that, it was close to 20 square miles.

Meteorologists Heather Kenyon and Michael Fries track a wide variety of data sets at the National Weather Service office near the airport in Cheektowaga. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Progress is also being made in 3-D modeling that can aid in forecasting storm development between the lake and the atmosphere above it.

"Small baby steps can eventually lead to a bigger step," Tom Niziol, the winter weather expert at the Weather Channel told The Buffalo News in late 2017 about recent research efforts to improve lake-effect snow modeling in the Great Lakes.

Niziol pointed out then that when his career started at the National Weather Service in Buffalo about 30 years ago, weather computers didn't even have parameters for lake-effect snow forecasting or even recognize the Great Lakes on a map.

Geography matters, too

Well before last week's blizzard arrived, extended-range models started picking up on signs that the polar vortex – an Arctic jet stream that's typically locked away over the North Pole – was weakening as early as the middle of December, according to Don Paul, a longtime Buffalo television meteorologist who contributes to The Buffalo News.

A weakened polar vortex is susceptible to being divided by kinks or waves in the overall atmospheric pattern. Frigid air is drawn southward into earth's highly populated middle latitudes.

"That's the big picture," Paul said. "In this era, we can often get more than a week's warning of the potential for more extreme cold and wind chill."

Extreme cold, winds and a relatively wide open Lake Erie from an unseasonably warm December is the recipe for heavy lake-effect snow.

While the ingredients for lake-effect snow are well-established, forecasting it is far from a cinch.

"An accurate forecast is dependent on the details," said Stephen Vermette, a climatologist and geography professor at SUNY Buffalo State. "The forecast is as much about geography as it is meteorology."

Even as a record-breaking lake-effect snow dumped 17.2 inches at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Jan. 25, forecasters homed in on the potential for a blizzard over the days to come.

The big synoptic picture revealed elements were in place: the polar air mass, a series of frontal boundaries and a system setup favoring a strong flow around the storm. That meant forecasters knew there'd be frigid temperatures, strong winds, dangerous wind chills and heavy snow.

The position of the storm's center, and its southwesterly flow over the Buffalo Niagara region, was a clue it would fetch moisture from Lake Erie and dump it in metro Buffalo.

"As we drew nearer to the lake-snow event, a model which ran on supercomputers Sunday afternoon was remarkably accurate for placement and intensity of Wednesday morning's lake snow band," Paul said.

Forecasters also estimated the direction of the all-important "steering layer winds" between about 5,000 and 10,000 feet in altitude by analyzing forecast soundings of the atmosphere to home in on specific locations where the lake-effect bands would set up. Then, based on what they've learned over years of experience locally, forecasters made adjustments.

It's part of that "old-school approach" to meteorology that's required to really sharpen forecast details.

"Even the high-resolution models are sort of biased to the south," Hitchcock said. "We take that into consideration."

Melding those old-school forecasting techniques with the ultra-modern computer guidance has improved lake-effect forecasting, Hitchcock said.

"It will usually guide us pretty well," he said.

Meteorologist Dan Kelly takes a measurement of the snow depth outside the National Weather Service office near the airport in Cheektowaga. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Vermette said several advances have fine-tuned lake-effect snow forecasting to improve its precision and help protect property and lives.

"Every added observation site, newly developed forecast models, advances in weather radar, experiential knowledge and a strengthening working relationship with communities and emergency responders ... have improved the lake-effect snow forecast and our safety," Vermette said.

Added Paul: "There's no way to be certain, but more advance warning lessens some of the coming disruption and may actually save a life or lives."

Early warning

Williamsville was among the hardest hit areas in the region with more than 20 inches of snow. It was also among the first to cancel school and activities.

Martzloff said it was about safety for the students, facility and the staff of his district.

"I would definitely make the same decision I made," he said. "We had a full calendar of events going on this week that will have be rescheduled and reconfigured. But, that’s a minor thing when contemplating the safety of young people."

Meteorologist Dan Kelly points to a graph tracking dew point (blue) and temperature at altitudes up to 100,000 feet at the National Weather Service office. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Officials in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District acknowledged that strong opinions exist on both sides of the issue of closings, but in either case parents appreciate early communication so they can make arrangements ahead of time themselves. Lately, that's seemed to happen more often than not.

"Due to the unpredictability of Western New York weather, that may not always be the case, but it certainly seems that more advanced weather forecasting has made it easier for school districts to make the decision to close school earlier, which families seem to appreciate," said Patrick Fanelli, Ken-Ton's community relations coordinator.

Poloncarz said getting an accurate forecast in advance allowed Erie County to scramble more plow trucks from the southern part of the county where there was uncharacteristically less snow to the northern sections where more intense lake-effect squalls were falling.

"When the storm hit, it was pretty much as it was predicted," Poloncarz said. "And, we were able to handle everything that was related to it."

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