What the heck went wrong with the storm forecast?!?
Well, this storm certainly will go down as one meteorologists will be talking about for years... just not in the way it was expected.
What was computed -- even as of Saturday morning -- to rank among the region's greats ended up woefully under developing. What was supposed to be a lion turned out to be something more along the lines of a lizard with maybe a bit of an attitude -- did you see that squall that came through Seattle just after sunset?
But the squall was about it for storm notability. In fact, for many spots, wind speeds were greater in the Friday "appetizer" storm that turned out to be more worthy of the main dish.
So, what went wrong?
It's a question we meteorologists will be poring over -- and smarting over -- for quite some time. This wasn't a busted snow forecast, which are way more difficult to predict around here. It was a windstorm, and sure, sometimes wind storms end up a little stronger or weaker than predicted, but to go from seeing 70-75 mph forecasts to in actuality, struggling to reach 40 mph is quite jarring in this day and age, especially when the forecasts had been pretty consistent. It's not like half the models said storm and the other half said "stiff breeze". They were all on board. Minor differences in detail but all so consistent in potential for damaging winds that it gave us great confidence in the forecast.
But then as the storm reached the spot to develop as predicted, it started strengthening. And then, something strange happened, it didn't go as strong as forecast -- ending up much weaker then even the most pessimistic forecast model had predicted. Models had originally predicted a center pressure in the 955-960 millibar range -- on par with a Category 3 hurricane. The track was somewhat far north but the strength certainly made us take notice.
As the days drew closer, the storm strength was trended back to about 968-970 millibars but on a much closer, more dangerous track right into Western Washington and all models came into general consensus. The ensuing difference in pressure calculated to winds over 60 mph in the city and over 70 in the northern parts of Puget Sound:
Then *even Saturday morning* -- just hours before the storm was to strike, forecast models were still predicting a major windstorm. There's a forecast model now that runs in high resolution every hour and this was its prediction at 6 a.m. Saturday:
That's 50-55 mph in the city of Seattle, over 60 in the North Sound -- and over 80 on the coast and in the far North Sound! This was in line with our other forecast models and it painted a very dangerous and daunting picture of how the storm was going to play out.
So by now, we've had several days of computations reasonably suggesting a storm of great magnitude was going to form and move into the region, following a scenario that has played out a number of times in Pacific Northwest meteorological history: A storm with a tropical storm/typhoon heritage getting energized by a strong jet stream coming into the Oregon waters, then turning north into Washington. All the ingredients were there.
Then...well, nothing. Or at least not much.
The National Weather Service in Portland-- where they at least got some modified strong winds -- wrote a lengthy Facebook post with a clue about what might have happened. Using a satellite product that can measure surface winds, they noted there were actually two separate centers of circulation when the storm developed -- something no forecast model had picked up on. The two centers will fight for energy, sort of like siblings fighting for space in the same bedroom, and the result was a much weaker storm than forecast.
Humanity has come such a long way in technology and mathematics. Consider how big and complex the atmosphere is -- every little molecule of air can influence its surrounding area. Yet we humans have developed enough mathematics to simulate the entire planet's atmosphere to where we can sufficiently model what it will do days ahead of time. It's not perfect -- we're not to the technological standpoint where we can simulate every air parcel, but it's pretty rare that a rainy day comes on a day we predict sunny and 80. We had a reasonable idea that a Typhoon off the coast of Japan was going to potentially have a major effect on our weather thousands of miles away a week later. And it predicted where it would go within 50 or so miles of accuracy. That's like calculating what it would take to shoot a basketball from Los Angeles to a hoop in Denver-- and having it clank off the rim.
There are a lot of people that were upset with the dire warnings that they didn't pan out. I get that. Meteorologists are also always concerned about the "cry wolf" factor. We didn't get into this science field to get joy out of faking everyone out. It's really not fun. We take pride in our forecasts and trying to help people. With the tools that we have that have proven pretty darn accurate as a whole, it was presenting a very dangerous situation to the people we forecast for.
But Mother Nature proved once again we still have a lot to learn and that she still has some tricks up her sleeve. We'll learn from this and hopefully develop even better tools to where maybe the next time we'll see a double low ahead of time.
In the meantime, we get it...