Snowpocalypse? More Like No-Pocalypse...
We all heard the rumors.
"Snowpocalypse was coming," they said. "Stock up on food, water, flammable materials, all the necessities. We could be in for the long haul."
I went to Albertsons the night before the blizzard was supposed to begin, and every cashier had a line five deep. The man in front of me held three cartons of milk. The woman behind me pushed a shopping cart fully stocked with bread, bottled water and paper towels. I held two bags of chocolate chips, prepping for days' worth of hot chocolate production.
The numbers thrown around were ever-increasing: one inch, three inches, seven. It had already started in Seattle, they said. Seattle had three inches. Six inches. A foot. At school, there was talk of a whole week off. Three days off was certain, four days was within reason, and we would have to hope for five.
But the rumors were wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.
As the afternoon grew into the evening, the forecast got warmer and warmer. 29 became 31, which became 34. Slowly but surely, the snowflakes on my phone's weather app turned to rain clouds. As I lay in my bed that night, the rain began to come down. Yes, that's all it was: rain.
In the days that have followed, I have put an disproportionate amount of thought into meteorology, the science which left all of us students high and dry — er, disappointed and damp. It's a science we love to vilify, but it's also a science that we can't reasonably expect to be accurate.
Weather is incredibly difficult to predict. While it may not be too difficult to get accurate information about local climatological factors, including humidity, wind speed and direction, and temperature, it is far more difficult, impossible even, to ascertain how each of these factors influence each other and evolve over time.
To add insult to injury, meteorology is uniquely vulnerable to the antagonisms of chaos theory, the idea that minute changes in the initial conditions of a system can have extensive effects on the development of the system as a whole. We've all heard of the butterfly effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Oklahoma, but in the realm of chaos-driven meteorology, this sort of result may be more of an expectation than an exception. A slight slackening of the east wind can be the difference between three inches of snow and none; a slight decrease in cloud cover can turn joy into disappointment for hundreds of students.
So in the face of such troubling odds, what can we do? Well, the truth is that meteorology is far more accurate than its chaotic nature might suggest. Advances in the mathematics of chaotic systems, coupled with the development of detailed computer models that can generate reasonably accurate forecasts from heaps of satellite data, Doppler radar and local measurements, have made weather forecasting a precise science. Evacuation orders for hurricanes can be sent out far in advance of the storm making landfall, a fact which has saved countless lives. Flights may be delayed to avoid dangerous winds. Television broadcasts can inform civilians of weather-based threats like heat waves or intense rainfall, helping us all
make decisions to ensure our
Our meteorologists are doing their best to overcome a wide variety of challenges arrayed against them, and in general, they do an excellent job. So even though the forecasts were wrong about Snowpocalypse, I don't really blame them.
I'll just take the next prediction of weather-based doom with a grain of salt. Hopefully, the next snowstorm will end up as a pleasant surprise. In the meantime, I still have my hot chocolate.
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