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Sean Sublette and Jim Duncan column: Paralysis on I-95: What we can learn and how to get better
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Sean Sublette and Jim Duncan column: Paralysis on I-95: What we can learn and how to get better

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Anyone who has traveled Interstate 95 between Fredericksburg and Washington knows it is often gridlocked, even in good weather.

So in a blinding snowstorm with multiple accidents, last Monday was a disaster waiting to happen.

It’s natural for us to want to assign blame for what went wrong Monday, and we all want to know why and how this snowstorm turned into such a calamitous event. With storms of this intensity and impact, it will take time to sort through how the timeline of communications and response affected the outcomes, but we must also understand that the majority of what happened Monday was simply beyond anyone’s control.

From the forecasting perspective, there were hints several days ahead of time of a potentially significant storm with accumulating snow, but there was little model consensus prior to the weekend.

The flashing red lights about this storm hit as the weekend got underway, and the potential impacts became very worrisome by Sunday morning. From the Sterling National Weather Service discussion at 4:24 a.m. Sunday:

“The most likely snowfall forecast should be used with caution, with probabilities of higher amounts, towards the 90th percentile, should strongly be considered for planning purposes. Please continue to check back as we modify this forecast in the coming hours.”

Official winter storm warnings were issued Sunday afternoon, and a few hours before daybreak on Monday, the rate of peak snowfall was becoming clearer, as echoed by the Wakefield NWS office. Its pre-dawn forecast showed some parts of the state, including Fredericksburg, could see snow rates in the high range of 1.5 to 3 inches per hour.

Ordinarily, this much advance notice ahead of a massive storm would be fine, but public attention to the weather fades over a weekend unless there is an imminent threat. And with temperatures soaring into the 60s on Sunday afternoon, snow in the forecast might not intuitively seem like much of a danger.

Even as late as Sunday afternoon, it was a challenge for many of us in the meteorology community to decipher precise forecast details and determine how to best communicate what we were seeing in the data for Monday. The explanation of impacts to the public was of ultimate importance.

More snow did fall than was forecast in the bull’s-eye near Fredericksburg and the surrounding counties, but there was perhaps too much attention focused on the final snow totals versus the snowfall intensity and its impact to traffic flow. The rate of the snow falling, how long it comes down at that rate, the consistency of the snow, the ground temperature, the air temperature, and the time of day are all critically important to snow removal.

Each individual among us needs to examine where we get our weather information. It’s not good enough to repeat what we might see on social media. Find your trusted sources of information before the big storms hit. Our colleagues at the National Weather Service are a central resource for everyone, including those of us who are meteorologists in the media. The bottom line, find information you can depend on.

A weather app on your phone from whatever the source is useful to keep you notified of weather alerts, many of which will come down automatically depending on settings. Be sure to find one that works best for you, but also follow local meteorologists in the media to keep abreast of the latest forecasts when storms threaten. They are on the ground where an app cannot be.

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