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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Forecasting "turkeys": predictions gone awry

By Don Lipman

Part I: Big forecast busts between 1870 and 1969

* Chance of showers, mild: Full Forecast | Cold air eases on way east *

Recently, I noticed that a Florida senior center was planning a presentation entitled "Tremendous 'Turkeys' of History." Included were: Fulton's steam engine, initially deemed a folly; Disney's Snow White, considered a certain flop when (and if) it reached the theaters; and, of course, Ford's Edsel, anticipated as the "car of the future," but which turned out to be the greatest design disaster in automotive history, although some considered it a car ahead of its time.

What about U.S. weather forecasting "turkeys?" We can all think of some, but what were some of the most conspicuous since the founding of the Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service (NWS), in 1870? I did some research (1) and, because it's now almost winter, am limiting the cases to blown, or almost blown, snow forecasts , which usually leave an indelible mark on our collective memories. This post focuses on storms between 1870 and1969.

THE BLIZZARD OF 1888

blizzard-1888.jpg
Aftermath of Blizzard of 1888 in NYC.

It only took 18 years for the U.S. Weather Bureau (hereafter referred to as the NWS) to commit its most famous, or infamous, forecasting debacle, one that's been chronicled in many ways because of where it occurred (the nation's biggest population center), when it occurred (the middle of March) and how it unfolded (light rain ultimately becoming a full-blown blizzard). It was called the White Hurricane.

On the morning of March 11, 1888, the prediction for New York City by the Washington office of the U.S. Signal Service Corps (an early NWS title) for the next 24 hours was for "fresh to brisk easterly winds with rain at night, followed by colder....and fair weather throughout the Atlantic states."

What followed was that, as predicted, it did rain at night but the rain later changed to sleet and then to snow. As Arctic air was entrained into the disturbance, temperatures plummeted into the single digits, the snow piled up and, as the whole system "bombed out" and stalled off of Long Island, 40-70 mph winds with white-out conditions developed and persisted for some time. The Northeast--particularly western New England and New York State, including New York City--was hit by one of the most severe blizzards in its history, with some drifts up to 15 feet, 40-50 feet in some rural upstate areas. From Chesapeake Bay to Nantucket, 200 ships sank with 400 lives lost. (3)

Although greater snow accumulations have been recorded in NYC than the 21 inches recorded during the 1888 storm, few, if any, have combined all of the elements described above. In Washington, on the southwestern periphery of the massive storm, there was about only 6" of wind-blown snow-- but it still managed to paralyze the city.

Talk to descendants of Midwesterners about the Blizzard of 1888, however, and they will tell a whole different story, as that area was blasted by a sub-zero blizzard of such epic proportions in January of 1888 that the eastern storm seemed almost tame. The Midwest storm is sometimes called the Schoolchildren's Storm, because so many children were stranded in their schoolhouses.

THE "ARMISTICE DAY" STORM OF 1940

armistice-1940.jpg
Excelsior Boulevard, west of Minneapolis after the Armistice Day Storm. Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society.

Historically, the period around November 11th, now called Veterans' Day, has seen a number of severe, badly predicted winter-like storms in and around the Great Lakes states. (Of course, we had our own in the Washington area, although not nearly so catastrophic, on November 11, 1987. I will discuss the forecasting lapse for this storm in Part II.) Other stand-outs were the long-lasting White Hurricane of 1913, and the 1975 Edmund Fitzgerald Storm, which caused the mysterious sinking of the ore freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in a furious gale. The shipwreck later inspired Gordon Lightfoot to write the wildly popular ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,"

Although each of these storms attained great intensity, and each could probably vie for top billing in its own way, it was the Armistice Day Storm of 1940 which probably deserves it best. Though the death toll was greater in other storms, this storm is best remembered for its suddenness, its ferocity, and the monstrous 20 foot drifts left behind. On average, snowfall ranged from 10 to 26 inches. (4)

Pre-storm forecasts had called only for colder weather and "a few flurries," leading people to get in some last-minute outdoor activities, as temperatures were still in the 60's. (5) Tragically, the storm caught many by surprise, particularly hunters in remote locations, and up to 52 died. Ultimately, 123 died in all, with many ships either lost or grounded.

THE SURPRISE MID-ATLANTIC SNOWSTORM OF 29-30 MARCH, 1942

Arriving very late in the season for our area, this storm, also known as the Palm Sunday Snowstorm was one of the more bizarre in the historical record because it lacked most characteristics of a northeast snowstorm, such as a strong, cold, high pressure system anchored to the north and intensifying low pressure off the coast. Instead, a high had drifted eastward off the New England coast, which usually allows milder air to filter in aloft--but in this case it didn't-- and the offshore low never did intensify.

Understandably, the storm, which dumped 12 inches of snow in Washington, double that number in Baltimore, and over 30 inches northward into Pennsylvania, was poorly forecast. At the time, it was one of the heaviest snowstorms ever recorded in the affected areas, especially for so late in the season. Interestingly, little if any snow fell both to the east and west of the main snow band.

THE "LINDSAY" STORM OF 8-10 FEBRUARY 1969

The "Lindsay" Storm was so named because of the political price paid by Mayor John Lindsay of New York City, who was unable to have city streets cleared in a timely manner (3). The main reasons: 40% of the snow plows were inoperable and the city's administrator was out of town and unreachable. (All of which brings back memories of the political price paid by DC's Mayor Marion Barry who, in January 1987, was in California attending the Super Bowl when twin snowstorms buried Washington.) Ultimately, 42 people died and 288 others were injured in New York.

This storm, as the one in March 1942, was hardly a classic northeast snowstorm. With no Arctic air in place, the NWS kept calling for the snow to change to rain--but obviously it didn't and 20 inches of snow accumulated, at least at JFK Airport. (There was only a 3-5 inch coating of wet snow in the DC to Philadelphia corridor.)

POST 1970 TURKEYS

This post documents some of the biggest forecasting snafus between 1888-1969. Which 4 storms from 1970 to present would you nominate as the other "turkeys"?

(1) Much of the information for this article is derived from Kocin and Ucellinni's masterful monographs, Northeast Snowstorms, Volumes I and II.
(2) The New York Times, Our Towns," 9/1/2010
(3) The New York Times, City Room, "Remembering a Snowstorm That Paralyzed the City," 2/10/2009
(4) National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, Milwaukee/Sullivan, WI
(5) Minnesota Climatology Working Group, University of Minnesota

By Don Lipman  | November 23, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  History  
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Comments

In addition to 11/11/87, some other turkeys that come to mind include January 25, 2000 (surprise snow), March 1999 (surprise snow), and March 2001 (no snow after epic storm forecast).

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | November 23, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

The big February 1979 President's Day storm wasn't all that well forecast, either. The nearly 19" (DCA) from that storm was considerably more than originally predicted.

And then there were all those snow forecasts in the late 1960s when the reality was blue skies, relatively mild temps, and gentle breezes. Or else it just rained.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | November 23, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

well, despite its appellation, i remember the 1993(?) "superstorm" or "storm of the century" as a turkey. my future wife and i were hunkered down in an apartment in rosslyn expecting to ride out one of the greatest storms of our lives. instead, we got about 6", maybe(?) of ice granules.... we got less than many many areas south of us... quite disappointing...

it's difficult for me to consider a storm that "over-performed" as a "turkey", but i understand you're talking about turkey forecasts.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | November 23, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

btw, i understand that the superstorm WAS huge elsewhere...just not here.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | November 23, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

So must surprise snowstorms be a surprise?? see:

here and here

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | November 23, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I think we should use the term "stinkbugs" for non-performing storms such as the misnamed (for us) "storm of the century". Reason: these "stinkers" bug snow lovers when they underperform.

Before I left for work, I squished another stinkbug. Tinkerbelle is lucky the little pests have been iced down, where she lives.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | November 23, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

hhhmmm... steve, you peaked my curiosity, but then, those links didn't work.

jerry,
under-performing storms are indeed stink bugs!

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | November 23, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

dang! i meant "piqued" my curiosity... how embarrassing...

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | November 23, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | November 23, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I would like to nominate the countless forecasts of school-closing snows that I experienced in the 60's. In those days the ONLY weather information was obtained by calling the Weather Bureau forecast number (936-1212) at 5am, 11am , 4pm, and 11pm when they updated the forecasts. The TV weathermen were ok but they were basically forecasting blind having no access to satellites. In those days there were only two day forecasts available - today and tomorrow. I distinctly remember forecasts of "heavy snow" and then driving around my neighborhood only to see broken clouds with the stars shining through them and knowing then that there would be no snow and I was always correct.

Posted by: MKadyman | November 23, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

steve,
those worked. thanks.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | November 23, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

How about the following possible "turkeys"???

Hurricane Hazel, 1954...I don't believe that high winds were forecast for inland areas as the result of this storm. And there seems to be evidence that the Federal Government DID NOT shut down for Hazel as it did for Isabel some fifty years later. I've seen footage of workers waiting for D.C. Transit [pre-Metro days] buses with umbrellas turned inside-out near the corner of Constitution and Fourteenth.

The extremely intense wind and rain storm of Dec. 1, 1974, responsible for the fatal crash of TWA Flight 514 at Mount Weather, VA. I still remember this storm vividly; it included one of the few December thunderstorms to hit Washington. A Northwest Airlines flight also crashed in New York or Pennsylvania later that evening.

The Pre-Kennedy Inauguration snowstorm of Jan. 18/19, 1961. The WB/NWS forecast I heard about predicted only "flurries" for Washington. About eight to twelve inches fell and crews had to work overtime the night of Jan. 19/20 to clear streets for the Inaugural festivities. I remember this one because my aunt was working in Washington at the time and I wrote a detailed term paper for eighth grade history on the Kennedy Inaugural.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | November 23, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Outside DC, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 is hands down the winner of forecasting gone awry

Posted by: maestrojmk | November 23, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Second JerryFloyd1 on the Washington's Birthday storm of 79. At 6PM the forecast was, IIRC, for a few inches. At 11 PM it was for under a foot. We woke up to 18 inches in McLean and school was out for days.

Posted by: wiredog | November 23, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

The Dec 1, 1974 storm was a bear (and very tragic). I had a friend who flew later in the day from Cleveland, where it was snowing heavily and delayed her flight. When I picked her up at DCA, the air was calm and temps were in the 60s (the thunderstorm had passed through in the afternoon). This was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and flights were hosed in many cities.

For me, the all-time worst forecast was in 1960 when the weather bureau reported the eye of Hurricane Donna was located east of Charleston, SC, even as it was passing over Wilmington, NC, where I lived, and well north of Charleston.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | November 23, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

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