Mini-blizzard and the media-technology hype

It was a potentially deadly blizzard roaring toward Utah on Tuesday. Everyone had plenty of warning, and many made preparations and got home early.

Did our saturation of information help save the day? Or was the Blizzard of Death an oversold blind date with a disappointing unibrow? It is an interesting topic.

People on Facebook, Twitter, TV and radio news, websites and newspapers, quoting the National Weather Service, put out constant warning of the storm. It was impossible to ignore. The weather people labeled it a “deadly” storm, to which the paranoid and rational alike could not have been faulted for asking, “Am I going to die tonight?”

Faceplant. Tuesday afternoon and evening’s storm was indistinguishable from a hundred other storms I’ve lived through in northern Utah. It’s nowhere close to the top 50 even.

Here are a couple of representative Twitter posts today:

@kris247 Kris LanderĀ  – Very cute, weather forecasters. I’ll expect your resignations on my desk by morning. #snOMG

@msbutah Matt Blank – #SnOMG was more like #SnoMeh

So how did this happen? OK, the best-laid plans of weather forecasters are easy to mock, before and after. It’s not the snow’s fault the meteorological community collectively fumbled on the goal line. Really, this was reminiscent of many other predicted mega-storms in our area during my lifetime. The call was wrong. Hence, the mocking in the hours before the storm. “Ha ha, look, the sun is shining!” Nothing different here.

Which brings me back to Facebook and Twitter and smart phones and frequently updated websites. Everyone was talking about the killer storm all day Tuesday, pinged every few seconds by another post or tweet. People speculated, advised, complained, reported their personal preparations, etc. Lots of schools quickly announced closures. It was driven to the top of all minds. Everyone grappled with the anticipation.

With the benefit of decades of dealing with snow along the Wasatch Front, it’s easy for me to conclude that this storm was different. Actually, the storm wasn’t, but perceptions were. The storm was predicted to be bad and ended up being a washout, but both occurrences were run-of-the-mill. In pre-Internet times, most people heard or read a storm forecast or two and went about their business, then dealt with the snow when it came. Big deal.

Tuesday’s information explosion amplified perceptions. It’s probable that many people took precautionary measures they might not have done in earlier times. But it’s also a certainty that in general we got suckered into a mass freakout.

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5 Responses to Mini-blizzard and the media-technology hype

  1. Bob says:

    Excellent observations, Mark.

  2. Doug Gibson says:

    The Artic air predicted was true and there were hundreds of slide offs and minor accidents. And some areas received several inches of snow. We got 2 inches. All in all, I’m glad the forecast was off for snow totals.

  3. Bob Becker says:

    MS:

    I’m not sure “suckered into a mass freakout” is accurate. This is the weather we’re talking about. Notoriously changeable. Notoriously volatile. Think what would have happened if the NWS only warned of another winter storm and it had, instead of moderating, worsened into a killer blizzard.

    On the Gulf Coast, the same debate occurred almost annually as the NWS would issue hurricane warning, and the storm would dissipate and degenerate into merely a tropical storm [a rainstorm on steroids, but no more]. And yet, since the storms are changeable and we don’t know why or how or when or what direction a change will take [increase in intensity? decrease? change direction? stall?], putting out a warning that reflected a best guess as to the most severe range of the probabilities makes sense.

    There is a downside. It’s called “hurricane fatigue.” People evacuate on warnings of s real stem-winder. It doesn’t happen. Happens a couple of times. Then maybe next time, they don’t evacuate, and it turns into a killer storm and people die. I imagine out here there’s a similar danger with respect to blizzard warnings. Still, if I have to make the call at the NWS and the models suggest a killer storm is probable, I’m going to put out the warnings. And the press, all forms, is going to report the warnings. As it should. The risk to life and limb of not doing so is too great, and the downside of warning about something that doesn’t happen is comparatively light. A little lost business, some annoyed people, a little mocking in the public prints.

    Cut ‘em some slack. Weather forecasting, particularly when it involves severe weather — tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards — is an imperfect art.

  4. Dave says:

    It seems every year the media and the National Weather Service over hypes storms resulting in people going to stores buying generators, food items, and other survival gear for the “deadly storm” that’s coming. Schools and businesses were let out early so people could get home or stop by the store for survival gear before the storm comes. Some people who didn’t get off work such as the IRS employees even complained that their employer doesn’t care about their safety for not closing down! I think it is a ploy by both the media and weather service to scare people into constantly monitoring the weather and help the local economy by causing people to panic and buy items such as power generators. All the TV stations had “team coverage” on this “storm of the century”. This storm wasn’t even close to a blizzard and I cannot believe that they even issued such a warning! Of course later this year the media outlets in Salt Lake City will predict 1-2 inches of snow for Ogden and instead we will get a foot of snow while Salt Lake City won’t receive any snow. Is there any real meteorologists out there who are as educated as the ones in days past. Weathermen such as Mark Eubank were able to accurately predict the weather and they didn’t have the technology we now have!

  5. Kelley Saunders says:

    I didn’t think the forecasts were off at all– they said the storm would hit about afternoon rush hour in the Salt Lake Valley (4:30 here in Ogden) and the combination of wind and snow would make safe driving difficult at best. However, it was the internet posters, bloggers and members of the broadcast media who started calling the approaching storm “Snowmageddon” and other similar names, and saying things like, “go buy a generator,” or “go to the store and get all of the food and water that you can.” Those kinds of comments were not helpful. When the storm did hit, it arrived in the middle of rush hour exactly as predicted. There were sustained winds in the 20-30 mph range, just as predicted. The fact that everyone HAD GONE HOME is what made it the “non-story” it was. There were few accidents and every one was safe. I think the fact that everybody listened to the Weather Service, for a change, was the real success of this incident. UDOT was able to clear the roads, and the Utah Highway Patrol helped travelers that were out there through the few incidents that did happen. I say thanks to the weather service for giving us the warning they did. I was home and I was safe. What could be better than that.

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