There's no need to freak out about the forecast
Last week — and in some areas, the week before — Oregonians scrambled to make ready for the region's latest "snowmaggedon."
Photos and videos quickly spread across social media and the nightly news, showing supermarket shelves stripped bare as shoppers stocked up for the storm. Anxious preparation turned to active irritation, though, as fluctuating forecasts and Mother Nature herself ultimately delivered a total non-event for much of Portland's Westside.
Never mind that places like Gresham and Troutdale on the Eastside and Vernonia and Timber up in the hills got enough snow to be disruptive. We were promised snow, darn it. We were ready for the snowpocalypse. Winter was coming. We cleaned out the corner stores, slapped snow tires onto our cars and trucks, and made plans in case schools and daycares were closed.
Let's face it: If the predicted arctic blast had dumped half a foot of snow on Hillsboro and Forest Grove, we would have complained about it. And when the worst of the snowstorm missed the Tualatin Valley altogether, we complained about it. As soon as the first local meteorologist dared to speak the words "chance of snow" aloud, the die was cast — a couple million people were going to grumble, no matter what, and it would somehow end up being the forecasters' fault.
Being a meteorologist is a pretty thankless job, and it's certainly one that nobody on this editorial board envies. Weather, by nature, is transitory. Fronts develop and weaken, sometimes in predictable ways and sometimes as a total surprise. Meteorologists have to consider countless variables, some better understood than others. And to cope with all of that, over the years, weather forecasting agencies have developed computer models to help interpret all of the points of data that their instruments take in.
Models diverge, frequently; this is why forecasters use terms like "chance" and "risk" and "threat" and "possible" and "likely." There is no "will," there are "could" and "may" and "might." In many cases, simulations show a range of outcomes. If some of those outcomes involve inclement weather — say, a snowstorm dropping half a foot of snow on Hillsboro and Forest Grove — then it is the responsibility of the forecasting agency to advise the public that there is, yes, a "chance of snow."
If the predictions are "wrong," meteorologists are pilloried. That's the only certainty in forecasting. They may hedge their bets, but if "chance of snow" turns into no snow, people will be upset.
Our collective pique might not be directed at the weather forecasters when the modeling consensus proves accurate and coats our roads, highways, sidewalks and bike paths in white stuff. We won't spare them entirely, to be sure — after all, they're wrong so often, why should we have believed them when they said there could be snow!? — but we'll bemoan the inconvenience that the Earth's water cycle and air currents have foisted upon us.
We'll gripe about public works crews not putting down salt on our neighborhood streets, or not clearing the roads fast enough. We'll also gripe when we forget to move our vehicles from the side of the road and they end up under a pile of dirty snow.
We'll grouse about the electric company not being ready, or responding too slow, when the storm knocks our power out.
We'll mock all of the drivers who "must be from California" when their front-wheel-drive cars get stuck. We'll mock them, too, when they take a corner too fast and spin out. And we'll mock them when they drive too slow, traffic builds up behind them, and we're late for work because "nobody knows how to drive in the snow."
The worst thing that happened is that we spent some extra time on Thursday and Friday buying extra groceries and winterizing our homes and vehicles. In hindsight, does it look like we overreacted? Sure — we probably didn't need to deplete northwestern Oregon's kale supply just because the experts thought a few inches of snow might be on the way. But there was a chance of snow in the forecast, we prepared accordingly, and then the winter weather mostly missed us and we were able to go on with our lives.
In short: The system worked. The forecasters did what they were supposed to. We did what we were supposed to. And when all was said and done, most of us were able to put our kids on their regular school buses Monday and Tuesday mornings, most of us were able to drive to work or the gym or the store without dealing with hazardous conditions or snarled traffic, and most of us were able to brag about how we knew it wasn't going to snow anyway.
So be patient, not panicked. Be understanding, not unforgiving. Be appreciative, not angry. We got a mulligan this time. And the next time your weatherperson of choice gets up in front of that greenscreen with the Doppler radar map on TV and points to a patch of blue and pink headed our way, steel yourself for the worst and hope for the best. It's best to be prepared either way.
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