Are meteorologists forecasting ice too much?


Over Christmas break, my brother (who lives near Boston) asked me a very interesting question that I don’t have a definitive answer for. His question was about ice forecasts, and why it seems like meteorologists forecast it way too often compared to what actually happens.


I’m torn on this one. Being in the Boston area, my brother does not get many “good” ice events compared to areas further inland in the Northeast. Inferring that my brother was basing his question mainly on storms that have a quick transition from snow/sleet to freezing rain to rain, I want to attempt to answer this as logically as possible.

I think the answer varies based on perspective. Whether you’re a meteorologist, Joe Q. Public, an emergency manager, a utility company, etc., ice accumulation and its potential impacts can be a huge problem for some, and a minor nuisance for others.

Meteorologists try to verify a forecast to the best of their abilities. If it looks like even a couple hundredths of an inch of ice is possible before a changeover to rain, it will likely end up in the forecast. Then the ice happens and the meteorologists pat themselves on the back for a job well done. But is it a job well done?

Verification aside, what did including ice in the forecast actually accomplish? Assuming the storm quickly changed over to rain after the brief period of freezing rain, did that minor, short-lived ice accumulation actually do anything? Was it even noticed?

And this is the point where my opinion becomes split. As a meteorologist, not only do I want the forecast to verify, but I also want to build in a contingency to my forecast in case something goes awry. What if the freezing rain lasts an hour or more longer than I expected, and it becomes much more of a problem than I had anticipated? What looks more foolish, mentioning ice with little to no impact, or not mentioning ice and then having some scale of disaster happen due to a more prolonged ice event?

For me, the answer depends on the storm evolution as well as the forecast confidence. Unless it’s a high confidence forecast with a very short transition period from snow/sleet to rain, it’s probably better to include ice accumulation in the forecast. Given how little ice it can take for things to go from okay to really, really bad, I think most people will forgive meteorologists for being a little overcautious.

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