When a blizzard hit two weeks ago, the National Weather Service had already been projecting the chances for the extreme cold and wintry weather more than a week before it arrived.
So why did Wednesday's near blinding drive home in the snow come as such a surprise to so many motorists?
What happened Wednesday to the sophisticated, high-resolution weather models that gave forecasters so much power to accurately predict the Blizzard of 2019 earlier this month?
Here's the first thing to keep in mind: Ice covers about 80 percent of Lake Erie. Blame the remaining 20 percent for Wednesday's snow.
And then consider this: Forecasters didn't have a good handle on where the open water was. Substantial cloud cover left them using the last best satellite images of Lake Erie available – from last weekend. The high winds this week surely moved the ice on the lake since.
A perfect storm of cold air, strong southwesterly winds and the patches of open water on Lake Erie helped create bands of snow that converged over metro Buffalo.
It would have been a routine commute Wednesday without any one of those elements.
Instead, snow was whipped around by wind gusts upward of 50 mph. That created whiteouts and snarled traffic from Grand Island to West Seneca for much of a five-hour period that included Wednesday’s rush hour.
That left many motorists caught in the thick of it thinking: What. The. Absolute. Heck?
“Obviously, it wasn’t perfect,” Michael Fries, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said of Wednesday’s forecast.
But writing off the brief blizzard-like episode as a surprise wouldn’t be accurate either.
A wind advisory was in place in Erie County for gusts as high as 50 mph. And the weather service called for a 50-50 chance for snow in metro Buffalo. If it fell on the snowy side of that coin flip, the wind would have been plenty strong enough to create the conditions that occurred.
“We knew the wind was there, and any amount of snow was going to blow around and cause visibility problems,” Fries said.
Even so, weather service forecasters met Thursday to acknowledge what was missed and where they should pay closer attention the next time a pattern develops like it did Wednesday.
Here are a few of their findings:
• A lack of data as to where Lake Erie was covered with ice – and where it wasn’t – led to challenges in pinpointing the locations of the snow bands in advance.
• Gaps in model data hindered recognizing dynamic patterns occurring upstream from Buffalo, which could have improved precipitation forecasting.
• Posting immediate attention-grabbing headlines like its new “snow squall warning” proved effective for public safety.
That a trough – a piece of energy in the atmosphere that helped fuel the snow bands – arrived in time for the afternoon rush hour made things especially hairy.
“This trough barely showed up on automated plots and surface analyses,” said Don Paul, a contributing meteorologist to The Buffalo News.
Fries said forecasters didn’t start picking up on the trough until it quickly moved across Lake Michigan, through lower Michigan and into southern Ontario.
The trough combined with a southwesterly flow that favors lake snows in metro Buffalo to help set up lake-enhanced snow bands.
Picking out where they would develop proved to be like finding your way through the dark. That’s because it wasn’t possible to tell where the ice was concentrated on the lake.
Substantial cloud cover left forecasters with the last best satellite images of Lake Erie from last weekend in addition to observations from the U.S. Coast Guard and data from the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
Forecasters relied on early convective radar echoes off Long Point, Ont., to hone predictions after the snow developed. By then, the storm was already arriving.
“This is a similar reason as to why we picked up the blizzard better (in late January) than we would have otherwise. We got a look at the lake,” Fries said. “Yesterday, we didn’t get that glimpse. We weren’t able to get a handle on where the open water was until radar echoes started coming in at the same spot.”
But from a forecasting standpoint, calling all of those elements much further in advance based on incomplete data wouldn’t have been prudent.
“If you would have forecast that, and it wouldn’t have happened, you’d have looked like an idiot,” Fries said.
Instead of the 2 inches forecasters called for in metro Buffalo, the storm total came in at 4.1 inches at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
The precipitation part of it could be considered “a bust” by those numbers alone, but Paul doesn’t see it that way.
“I can see why people in the affected areas would feel it was a bust,” Paul said. “By typical verification methods – even the exacting ones used by the weather service – it wasn’t a total bust.”
The winds are the reason for that. That forecast – with a wind advisory posted as early as Tuesday – verified.
“I’ve often written about how the public and professionals often agonize about ‘inches’ when, in fact, if winds are brutal no one will know the difference between 3 and 5 inches or between 30 and 40 inches of snow,” Paul said. “But, by the human experience – I was out driving in it later in the day – subjective as it is, it will be perceived as a bust by those caught in the worst of it.”