HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
March 12, 2007, Herald Journal

When? Where? How much snow?


It must be tough to be a meteorologist. Not only do they get blamed if their forecast is wrong, they also get blamed for bad weather.

It’s almost as if people think predicting the weather is the same as causing the weather.

Big crippling snowstorms, like the ones Minnesota had a week and a half ago, must give meteorologists fits. They know it’s going to snow somewhere, sometime. How much it will snow, and whether the wind will blow it around, are difficult to predict.

Someone who lives 50 miles from the edge of the storm might get nothing at all. If the temperature isn’t just right, the precipitation could come down as rain, or worse, freezing rain.

It must have been so much easier when people lived and worked in the same place. They looked out the window, saw snow, and made their plans accordingly.

Today, many people commute long distances to work. Their children also attend schools much farther away than walking distance from home. People who work in hospitals, nursing homes or at emergency response jobs, have to get to work no matter what.

We all need information to make plans. It’s frustrating when the information changes from one hour to the next. If we decide to hunker down on Thursday, stay home, and the storm is postponed until Friday, then we just wasted Thursday.

Weather systems are vast, complicated, and have trillions of variables. In other words, chaos. There is a saying that describes this chaos theory. “When a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it causes a hurricane in the Atlantic.”

Chaos does have structure, though. If scientists plot chaos data on an x and y type of graph, it will look like a spiral. That is why hurricanes and other big storms, as well as galaxies look like spirals from afar.

So if the butterfly in China flaps only one wing, instead of two, the snowstorm tracks through Iowa instead of Minnesota.

Pity the poor meteorologist who is expected to forecast it.