Snowquester Disappoints

Much touted snowstorm set the DC area atwitter, only to fall short of expectations and yield derision.


As frequently happens, a much touted snowstorm set the DC area atwitter, only to fall short of expectations and yield derision.

When I looked outside this morning, there was a mere dusting of snow on my lawn. The streets were wet but perfectly clear. It was above the temperature at which water freezes. Nonetheless, I turned on the local news to verify that local schools would in fact be open. They were not. Nor was the Federal Government, which means that my workplace was closed as well, since we follow suit. (That just means working from home, not a free vacation day, for us.)

Temperatures were a couple degrees higher than expected so, despite relatively heavy snowfall throughout the day, there’s been next to no accumulation here. There’s been more elsewhere in the sprawling metroplex but nothing like the 6-plus inches that were forecast.

So, naturally, my Twitter stream has contained more snark and derision that usual—no small feat.

But here’s the thing: the people who make these decisions are in a no-win situation. If the snow came as predicted, they’d have made the right call but it would have seemed obvious in hindsight, so they’d have gotten no credit. If they’d sent people off to work and school and temperatures had dropped a couple degrees, people would have been forced to commute back home through treacherous conditions for which the area is ill equipped to handle. And, as happened, the projections were off and everyone looks like an idiot for over-reacting.

People from the Midwest and other areas that get lots of snowfall every year love to scoff at how wimpy people in places that don’t are. But people who expect snow prepare for it. They invest in and budget for the plows, trucks, crews, salt, sand, and melting agents necessary to deal with it. That would be foolishly wasteful in places like DC, where we might get significant snow a couple times a year every other year.

Additionally, large metro areas have to plan not only based on the weather forecasts but for the worst possible conditions in the area. So, even if they’re pretty sure DC proper is going to be passable, OPM has to account for the fact that much of the workforce lives 40-50 miles out with wildly variable road and weather patterns. While it’s annoying that my kids’ day school ties its opening decision to Fairfax County schools; Fairfax County is huge. So, just because there’s no snow on the neighborhood roads doesn’t mean it’s safe for school buses everywhere in the county.

As a side note, while they got the particulars wrong here, it’s actually rather remarkable that the weather forecasters predicted this storm would hit today well in advance. Sure, they have sophisticated Doppler radar systems and data from satellites. But it was quite warm here last week and 60 degrees downtown yesterday; that they correctly predicted that it would snow overnight and throughout the day is pretty amazing.

We got lucky in Northern Virginia. Other parts of the Commonwealth didn’t. Indeed, they’re still expecting massive accumulations ”in the mountains in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, with reports of between 18 and 20 inches and more expected.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. We got more snow than the immediate D.C. are out here in Fauquier County,,but it doesn’t look like it will end up being anywhere near the 10-12 inches being forecast yesterday, largely because of the temperatures. Indeed, right now, it’s raining here and temps are hovering above freezing.

    Of course, all this will freeze overnight when we drop back below freezing so tomorrow morning’s commute should be interesting.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    “…But here’s the thing: the people who make these decisions are in a no-win situation…as happened, the projections were off and everyone looks like an idiot for over-reacting…”

    The problem, for me, is not the inevitable hit-or-miss of projecting something as complex as the weather.
    The problem for me is that, because they live and die by the ratings, they sensationalize everything.
    They tell everyone to stock up on bread and milk.
    Then the next day they go to the grocery store and do a live shot about a bread and milk shortage.
    And another thing…
    It drives me nuts when the Wx Guy comes on to do a tease at 10:15…and gives you no information. “Is Snowquester going to ruin your morning commute…tune in at 11:00 and find out.” WTF…how about providing a public service instead of trolling for ratings points.
    I worked in TV…I know what they are thinking. I was in Miami when one of the stations there (Channel 7 where Rick Sanchez worked before CNN) changed the track of a Hurricane in order to boost ratings.
    It’s one thing to predict the weather…right or wrong…its another thing to be a ratings whore and scare the bejesus out of everyone for financial gain.
    Thx for the rant…

  3. Tell that to the 1/3+ customers of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative that don’t have power.

  4. @Timothy Watson: @Timothy Watson:

    Yea, as James noted, this is a much bigger deal in other parts of Virginia. And it’s been no slouch here in Fauquier either.

  5. Motopilot says:

    We experience this quite often here in “The Other Washington”, where the potential for significant snowfall exists and the warning goes out so people can be prepared. The conditions for snowfall in northwest Washington state are pretty complicated to predict… two major mountain ranges to the east and west that greatly affect how and where precipitation will fall at all, let alone in what form. Onshore/offshore flow of air off the Pacific. Proximity to Puget Sound waters (sea level altitude and slightly warmer temps near the water). Lots of altitude changes in the region that can mean snowfall in one area and half a mile away it’s raining. The timing of how cold air sinking out of the Fraser River valley in British Columbia can collide with “The Pineapple Express”, a streak of heavily moisture laden air coming across the Pacific from Hawaii. And so on. But Boy Scout training proves true that it is good to be prepared, so it’s wrong to think of it as over-reacting. (Although it can be pretty disappointing.) But when it happens so rarely, it is good to err prediction on the safe side. Even one inch of snow can paralyze the Seattle area, both for the many significant hills in the area and because drivers are not accustomed to dealing with packed snow on roads… not just having inadequate tires on their vehicles, but commutes that normally would take 20 minutes become a five hour journey and many gas tanks that were not above half full get to empty in the meantime.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @C. Clavin:

    The problem for me is that, because they live and die by the ratings, they sensationalize everything.

    Do what I do: Don’t listen to them. I get my weather from NOAA. Not to say they don’t get things wrong from time to time, because they do. Take for instance this latest storm. Local weather said it was going to miss us entirely. NOAA said we would get 1/2 an inch. We got 3/4.

    If NOAA misses, in my experience, it is by the difference of 1/2 vs 3/4 of an inch. The other guys…. They want to be righter than right.

    As to schools closing, it takes only one bus full of dead kids and people would be screaming for a superintendents head. And they would get it too.

    Heeeeeyyyyy…. Maybe the NRA would like to represent school superintendents?

  7. Just Me says:

    Have to confess after the first few snowfalls up here, I am generally happy when a predicted big storm turns out to be hardly anything. Much less snow to shovel.

    Of course we also have had those moments were an inch of snow turns into a foot of snow.

    Not sure in most portions of the south that they are equipped to handle large amounts of snow. I know when I grew up in Kentucky 2 or 3 inches could shut down the whole city. People up here laugh when I tell them the cities snowplow was a pick up truck with a plow attachment and a couple of guys in the bed of the truck shoveling salt and sand onto the roads.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    @ Ozark…
    Yes, I get mine from NOAA and the weatherbug on my phone.
    (I’m reminded of the congresscritter who asked why we needed to fund NOAA when we have the Weather Channel?)
    Unfortunately I watch way too much TV and it is to a degree inescapable even if you don’t watch their newscasts.

  9. JKB says:

    It is that time of year. Weather can go either way. Plus, DC is at some kind of triple point. A meeting of the continental, maritime and Southern weather. Whether the point is going to be east or west, north or south of the city is tricky and really controls who gets dumped on and who doesn’t.

    Plus Congress had hearings on global warming today, that always means a snow shutdown due to the Al Gore effect. Really, why the don’t schedule global warming hearings and meetings in July when people would appreciate some cold weather is a mystery.

  10. wr says:

    @JKB: “Plus Congress had hearings on global warming today, that always means a snow shutdown due to the Al Gore effect. Really, why the don’t schedule global warming hearings and meetings in July when people would appreciate some cold weather is a mystery. ”

    So less snow than expected, but just as much stupid.

  11. @Doug Mataconis: Sorry, I get moody (and bored) when I don’t have power. Got if back an hour or so ago.

  12. @Timothy Watson:

    Yea I saw you mention the outage earlier today on Twitter. Glad its back

  13. grumpy realist says:

    I wonder if places that regularly get snow are more apt to try to get it right. Chicago hyped it a little bit but we did get roughly what was predicted. I went home early and it was already getting nasty to drive out in my neck of the woods (Oak Park.) By 6pm motorists were quite literally spinning their wheels. Today? Snow piled up on the side of the road, roads clear. I expect most of what we have will melt over the next week.

    I think Chicago also remembers the Snowpocalyse in 2011, where in spite of all the warning about how ghastly stuff by the lake would be everyone still took Lake Shore Drive home, hence all those pictures of stranded cars.

    Humans act according to habit, even after they’ve been warned not to. ( I finally made it home on a very iced-over L train that felt like the retreat from Moscow.)

  14. @C. Clavin:

    “sensationalize everything”
    “do a live shot”…
    “do a tease at 10:15”
    “gives you no information”
    “trolling for ratings points”.
    “to boost rating”
    “be a ratings whore”
    “scare the bejesus out of everyone”

    Finally a good commentary on Obama’s style.

  15. de stijl says:

    Unless flights are cancelled and / or more than 20 people died, local weather stories should be just that – local stories.

    Meanwhile, Al Gore at one time was a little stout, and apparently he sported a beard for a while.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Let’s Be Free: Less than worthless, completely without value, stupidity multiplied, a complete waste, 3rd grade commentary….

    Finally a good commentary on Let’s Be Free’s style.

  17. Console says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    Rappahannock has power? Ha, next thing I know, you’re going to tell me Rappahannock has indoor plumbing.

  18. @Console: Most of Caroline County has indoor plumbing, just not the southern part.

  19. Tyrell says:

    The schools have to err way over when it comes to these snow predictions. Our county is large so it could have varying amounts of snow: differences of 3-4 inches are not unheard of. Most systems have all or none concerning school closings. Our county also does no plowing or salting.
    In our location, we can always depend on what is happening further south: that is where our snow and ice always comes from.

  20. Rob in CT says:

    Hey James, we got your snow.

    Last I heard, we were supposed to get ~4″. I left my house this morning and there was a foot down & it was snowing hard.