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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 01/25/2010

A snowy surprise, 10 years ago today

By Steve Tracton

* Turning more wintry: Full Forecast | Late-week snow chance? *


Visible satellite image shows snow cover after the "surprise" Jan. 24-25, 2000, storm. Credit: NASA.

"Major Snowstorm Ambushes Washington"

Now that I have your attention, this is not a speculative (wishful-thinking) headline for a storm that might come along later this winter. Rather, it is the front-page, above-the-fold, large bold-print headline of the Washington Post 10 years ago when reporting on the "surprise" snowstorm of Jan. 24-25, 2000. Related stories ran under the headlines "Blindsided and Snowed Under" and "Snow Job."

This major East Coast storm blanketed heavy snow from North Carolina northward to New England and eastern New York State (see recap here). As much as 20 inches were recorded in sections of North Carolina, and up to 12-15 inches in the D.C. area between the early morning and evening of Tuesday Jan. 25. The storm's notoriety arises from the fact that heavy snow was unpredicted for D.C. and vicinity until about six hours before beginning to accumulate.


Total snow accumulations from January 2000 "surprise" storm. Credit: National Weather Service

All the operational forecast models routinely available at the time gave little, if any, clue to the imminence of this major weather event until late afternoon on the 24th. Even then, notwithstanding the fact that radar and satellite imagery appeared to indicate the area was in for at least a close call, since all models insisted on keeping the main area of precipitation to the east, the late-afternoon (4 p.m.) National Weather Service forecast for Tuesday called only for "Cloudy and Cold. Chance of snow...accumulation of an inch possible."

Likewise, the local early-evening broadcast meteorologists unanimously and categorically dismissed the possibility of a big snowstorm for Washington.

It was not until 10 p.m. that an official "Winter Storm Warning" was issued with the forecast now calling for 4-8 inches. Unfortunately, many folks had already gone to bed blissfully content that the next morning would dawn with a light accumulation of snow at worst and possibly nothing at all. Suffice it to say, when these same people arose the following morning to unexpected blizzard conditions, consternation was abundant. The snow lovers, on the other hand, some of whom surely stayed up all night monitoring the situation, welcomed the excitement of a raging snowstorm -- surprise or not!

The dismay and embarrassment on the part of the NWS and local TV meteorologists was especially haunting given the announcement one week before by NWS Headquarters that the introduction of a new supercomputer "puts us closer to reaching our goal of becoming America's no-surprise weather service." Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote at the time, "Models? Next time, read pig entrails." Syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant depicted an NWS person digging out from a snow drift saying "with our new equipment, supercomputer models and enhanced programming, we will now be able to be wrong much quicker."

What went wrong in the forecast process in this case is well described in a paper (section 2b) by highly respected research and teaching meteorologist, Lance Bosart. Critical mistakes included forecasters taking the models at face value (with virtual disregard for radar and satellite) and relying too much on "deterministic thinking." That is, to forecasters then it was essentially an absolute yes/no for a snowstorm in the D.C. area, and the models said "no" until very late in the game.

As I've written previously, virtually every forecast has some level of uncertainty. Recognizing this spurred development of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction Short Range Ensemble Forecast (SREF) system, which explicitly estimates levels of uncertainty (confidence). In retrospective experiments, SREF gave at least a 40% chance of significant snow for the Washington area 24 hours in advance of the storm. Had this information been available in real time. it would have provided at least a probabilitic "heads up" of a possible snowstorm rather than a deterministic "no."

For more on dealing with uncertainties in weather forecasts, see this PowerPoint presentation.

By Steve Tracton  | January 25, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton  
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Next: PM Update: A few showers, then warmth wanes

Comments

My all time fave. The roommates and I were playing cards that night and saw Local on the 8s giving us about an inch or so - this was about 10 pm. And within an hour when the local news came on they were using the term "Coastal Bomb". And we started drinking...what a cool snow day that was. Can not believe that was ten years ago.

Posted by: DullesARC | January 25, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

It happens frequently, even with today's model guidance...we either get a surprise hit, or an under-performing system. ast night's rain is an example of the latter for us.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | January 25, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea

We're getting better, but "surprises" of one sort or another - even at shorter ranges - are inevitable (and always will be). See PPT referenced above, and let me know if you have any questions

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | January 25, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I seem to remember that the Washington's Birthday Storm of 1979 was the same way. On the 6 o'clock news they were saying a couple of inches, and by 11 they were calling for half a foot. We woke up to a foot and a half and the town was shut down for a week.

Posted by: wiredog | January 25, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

We must have been watching different channels, DullesArc, because I distinctly remember even the 11 o'clock news (maybe Bob Ryan) not even calling for an inch. During the night I remember hearing strange noises from the street, but not thinking much of it. When I got up in the morning, I realized is was snow plows.

My roommates and I were just a few months out of college - none of us had shovels, so we have to dig out our cars with a dust pan!

Posted by: SouthsideFFX | January 25, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Raleigh's 20 inch snowfall was an all-time record, see http://www.wral.com/weather/story/6865819/

I was in Pembroke, NC, just off I-95, in Oct. 2000 and they were still carrying on about the deep snow in Jan. I believe the snow from this storm extended as far south as Charleston, SC.

The snow pretty much ended in NW DC by mid-morning while areas to the east were still getting significant snow.

As for New Year's Eve 2000, the so-called beginning of the new millenium? Temperatures hereabouts were in the 50s.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 25, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Remember it well, big fat juicy flakes, something we haven't seen much in the storms since.

Posted by: jaybird926 | January 25, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

That is one of my all-time favorite storms. I tracked the storm on the 24th and the radar initially showed the precipitation unable to move north of the North Carolina state line. It did not look promising on radar for DC. However, the satellite loop showed the storm rapidly spinning a massive area of clouds westward across the Atlantic Ocean toward the East Coast. It looked very impressive on satellite and I showed the loop to some of my co-workers that afternoon and mentioned we might have a surprise in store for the next morning.

When the clouds that were visible on the satellite loop over the ocean approached the coast of Virginia and Maryland, heavy precipitation echos appeared on radar. The precipitation moved quickly northwest from the ocean and soon after the alarms were sounded for a winter storm warning. The snow began very early in the morning on the 25th and lasted most of the day. A dry slot developed mid-day just west of DC, over Fairfax County, but the eastern suburbs and far western suburbs did particularly well.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | January 25, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Good day for you to be discussing errant forecasts. What happened to the 1-2" of rain and the flash flood watches we heard about all day yesterday and into the night? A half inch of rain does not a deluge make.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from the surprise snowstorm.

Posted by: xcurmudgeon | January 25, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I remember hearing about problems with the Tallhassee NWS baloon launches leading up to that storm. Issues with the radiosonde ended up causing an underestimating of the southeast ridge strength, hence the off-shore tracks the GFS was showing leading up to the storm.

Posted by: adurante | January 25, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I remember driving home from work (6 pm) on the beltway listening to WTOP and the forecast was "up to 1 inch in the eastern suburbs" for the next way. Waking up the next morning, I was like a kid in the candy store. Just shows that forecasts do get missed. We usually just don't notice or care when it's sunny and 70 instead of rain and 60, for instance.

Nothing too surprising about what's looming this coming weekend - but a very interesting and dramatic change from today...not hype, just a thought!

Posted by: curtmccormick | January 25, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your observations and description, Kevin.

xcurmudgeon, with regard to opposite end of the spectrum from the surprise snowstorm, in the PowerPoint presentation referred to I discuss the DC surprise NON Snowstorm of Dec 29-20, 2000. As late as 10PM on Friday evening the 28th, the official forecast – based on agreement between all models – read, “…WINTER STORM WARNING FOR LATE TONIGHT THROUGH SAT EVENING, ….5-10” EXPECTED FROM THIS STORM ….

Media had a field day with with prospects of snow with comments like, "it's going to get ugly out there". CNN reported, “In Washington, more than 300 snowplows and salt trucks were ready to go into action Saturday, according to city officials.”, and airlines began to cancel flights for Saturday because of the predicted heavy snowfall.

Suffice it to say Washingtonians woke up to bright sunny skies Saturday morning, though significant snow did accumulate throughout much of the Northeast (referred there to as the End of the Millennium Storm). In hindsight, the SREF rerun indicated a 40% chance of heavy snow, i.e., a 60% chance of no snow.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | January 25, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

While last night's rain must've underperformed in some areas per some commentators, I'm sure areas of Fauquier exceeded the forecast.

The High Knob Wunderground station shows almost 3" of rain today including a period around 3:30a with a rainfall rate of 5"/hr. That plus rain before midnight yesterday makes close to 3 1/2" of rain.

Posted by: spgass1 | January 25, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Jan 25, 2000: I had just moved to Fairfax, from Pennsylvania, 24 days previous. I had started working just the prior week. I was one of the ones who went to bed early the night of the 24th with no clue that a large snowstorm could possibly hit. My first knowledge of it was when I saw the snow after getting up and trudging sleepily to the kitchen, pre-dawn.

My solution since then to avoid suprises? Stick with CWG - although we had to wait a few years after this storm to get them.

Posted by: --sg | January 25, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I remember this storm very well. I was in 3rd grade and when I went to bed they were calling for little or no accumulation according to my mom. I told her that it was going to be a huge snowstorm and she said "No it isn't Dennis, go to bed." I said "Mom I'm telling you we're going to get a huge storm" (I had no actual reason to believe we would get a big storm aside from the fact that I wanted a snow day) and I went to bed. I woke up the next morning and my mom was standing in my doorway laughing and she said "You suck! Look out the window" and everything was covered in about 7 inches of snow. One of the best moments of my childhood, can't believe it was 10 years ago.

Posted by: weatherdudeVA | January 25, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I remember that storm well. My union had officers from all over the country called to a meeting in D.C. I was the only one who didn't make the meeting because I was snowbound.

I went to sleep thinking "flurries maybe." I woke up and opened the front door to get the paper and saw snow and did a double take. I closed the door and opened it again to make sure I wasn't hallucinating.

Posted by: griffin1108 | January 25, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

The night before the snow took a taxi home from my office at about 11 p.m. The driver had the radio on and the forecast was definitely (and very surprisingly) for upwards of 8 inches of snow.

The dry slot during the storm was very frustrating. I watched the progress on Intellicast's online radar and it was snowing to the east and to the west but after mid-morning not much outside my window in NW DC, WRC's Pat Buchanan did a report at Dupont Circle at about 10 a.m. and by then the snow was pretty much over. He of course stuck his ruler into the snow to measure the depth. So scientific!

Not long thereafter I flew out to Chicago on a clear day and the terrain was snow covered all the way to Chicago. There was as much snow (about a foot) on the ground in Wilmette as there was in N.W. D.C.

After going to Chinatown to watch the Asia New Year parade, I went back to The Loop and there were really neat ice sculptures along the sidewalks up and down Michigan Avenue, part of a special exhibit. Alas, the Chicago warmed up into the low 50s in the next few days and most of the snow and the ice sculptures melted.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 25, 2010 7:48 PM | Report abuse

I also remember that storm well. Bob Ryan, at Channel 4, had predicted about an inch. later, he showed up on the camera rather red-faced, and admitted it was a blown forecast. Usually, though, both he and Doug Hill are pretty good.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | January 25, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

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