How about that big storm, Seattle?


I have friends and family in the Seattle area, so I’ve been following the news about the impending doom-storm that was supposed to strike the Pacific Northwest with some interest. There was a little worry, but mainly I figured it would give my mom something exciting to talk about on the phone. At least I heard about all the pre-storm rush to stock up on candles and flashlight batteries and food, and how Fred Meyer shelves were getting cleaned out; I told them it wasn’t anything to worry about until they were selling out of big sheets of plywood.

And then it just fizzled out. I hear that all you Seattleites got was some gusty blustery rainfall, and then it was over.

How can weather forecasting fail so badly? Here’s a helpful summary of how the models got tricked. Weather is still pretty darned complicated.

It also includes my favorite meme for the non-event.


Of course, it could have been much, much worse — the consequences are far more dire if a major storm materializes that was not predicted. Read this account of the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 to get some perspective — hundreds of people died because back then, they didn’t have the tools to predict the weather as well as we do today, so people went cheerfully off to hunt ducks and walked and boated their way right into catastrophe.

It is easy to forget that there was a time — not so very long ago, really — when there was no Gore-Tex, no Thinsulate, no neoprene, and no polypropylene. There was a time when outboard motors, far from the sleek and powerful marvels of today, were crude, cumbersome beasts, unreliable under the best circumstances and all but useless under the worst. There was a time when there were no cell phones, no emergency beacons, no Flight for Life helicopters.

There was a time, too, when there were no weather satellites, no telemetry to provide data that could be plugged into sophisticated formulas and fed into supercomputers for timely forecasts. Indeed, that the weather could be predicted with any degree of accuracy then — November, 1940, to be precise — seems almost miraculous, meteorology in those days being one part science and two parts the divination of omens, signs, and portents.

I think a few false alarms are an OK price to pay.


  1. archangelospumoni says

    I am fortunate enough*** to live just N of Seattle and only clowns and fools and rubes and (probably) Drumpfheteers are complaining about the lack of the storm. I followed the heck out of it and it looked to me like it headed a little N after hitting the coastline. And areas near Tacoma had 50mph winds and gusts of 71–bad enough.

    Power outages existed in many nearby areas but the largest one (9,000 customers) locally “stopped” about 3 blocks away one direction and 5 blocks another.

    *** My dear parents moved us up here from Tejas in the ’60s and even when my mother’s dementia was severe, I was still thanking her for moving us away from that nasty, filthy, putrid, ugly, backward, barren, arid, brown, polluted, racist, rotten, fetid, stinking, ignorance-infested state. I must have thanked both parents at least 100 times for moving us. Imagine being born in Tejas and staying there. Granted, there are habitable places there but few and very very very very very very far between.

  2. numerobis says

    I was in Vancouver island just across from the olympics. Friday was pretty intense: in a matter of minutes the wind went from still to a sustained strong wind, enough that I had to brace myself to stand straight. My parents-in-sin started battening down the hatches.

    Saturday had equally strong winds perpendicular to land, but they were heading out to sea. Lame.

  3. Elladan says

    Despite the “The End Is Nigh!” chatter in the media, I never actually heard any of the predictions go above about 50mph wind.

    That’s a strong storm, but it’s not particularly unusual for Seattle. I was surprised people were making such a big deal out of it.

  4. Lofty says

    A few weeks ago, our local Met Bureau forecast a super storm for the state of South Australia the likes of which had not been seen for 50 years. Of course, very few people did anything other than to complain about the Chicken Little nature of the forecast. The storm duly arrived, tornadoes wiped out a total of 23 major electricity pylons and the whole state (1.7M people) was plunged into darkness. There were insufficient gas generators idling away to take up the slack of losing a huge chunk of wind power so we had to wait a few hours for an interstate connection to kick start the lower half of the grid. The upper half remained disconnected for days and days until temporary towers could be installed on enough lines to reconnect the industries above the break. I also watched as phone and internet services dropped out within hours because all the various nodes have limited battery power, unlike the old days when only the nearest exchange needed power and that could be supplied by a generator. In remoter towns commerce collapsed because no-one ever carries enough cash for more than a cup of coffee. ATMs and EFTPOS ceased to function.

    So don’t mind me if I take heed of a bad forecast and be a bit prepared for the worst. I spent half a day topping up the firewood box and patching up an old generator to keep the house backup battery charged.

  5. intransitive says

    A big problem with false alarms is that some of the public act like scientists were crying wolf when less happens than predicted (It’s not “nothing happened”, because the conditions warrented sending out a warning, like coastal earthquakes with tsunamis that amounted to nothing). Scientists don’t send out warnings to get attention, they do it to bring attention.

    People start ignoring warnings or worse blaming scientists (re: the ludicrous convictions of Italian geologists for not predicting an earthquake). It’s much the same for climate change scientists of the 1960s to 1990s.

  6. kimberlyherbert says

    I’m of two minds about this. I’m from Houston and was raised on stories of the 1900 storm. I know we are lucky that we get days warning of storms coming our way off the gulf. I always prepare.

    I also don’t pay that much attention to local weather reporters before a storm. They try to drum up ratings with “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE” predictions. I get my information from the national hurricane center and check local government sites for evacuation information. Yes sometimes they are off but they are not invested in scaring people to glue to them to the tube.

  7. whheydt says

    The current storm is delivering some much needed rain to the SF Bay Area. Got a fair amount Friday, almost none on Saturday, and it’s been raining off and on all afternoon and evening today. It was coming down pretty good just a few minutes ago. Here’s hoping it moves into the Sierras and starts a nice snowpack.

    The problem here is, that with about 6 months of dry weather at a stretch, dust builds up on transformers and insulators on the power poles. When it rains and that dust turns to mud, you get short circuits, blown “pole pig” transformers and even power pole fires. We had power out for 4 hours on Friday.

    For wind…I commend everyone’s attention to the Beaufort Scale.

  8. Adela Doiron says

    Up here in Vancouver the wind was bad enough that in one of our suburbs a tree came down and killed a 15 year old student. So I’ve already been giving people shit about mocking the severity of the storm on FB.

  9. microraptor says

    I live in Southern Oregon (you know, Roseburg, where there was that big college shooting a year ago). Got a lot of rain here the last few days and the river is finally up to decent levels. Other than that it’s been pretty uneventful. Eugene and the Willamette Valley got hit a lot harder: there was plenty of damage, power outages, and we even got a tornado near Tillamook on Friday. That might not seem like too big a deal for people in the midwest, but Oregon only averages one tornado every five to ten years.

  10. JohnnieCanuck says

    Astronomy Photograph Of the Day of October 10 featured the graphical output of the US weather supercomputer, just in time to watch what the storms were doing and see how well its predictions were doing. Totally fascinating. Now this is a glimpse of what the future will bring. Science teachers are going to be at least a little euphoric over incorporating this in their lessons. I know I would be.

    Scroll wheel zooms in and out. Clicking gives details of that geopoint. Drag to re-position.
    Start by clicking on the text “earth” to get the menu and hover to find out what everything is.
    The << – < – > – >> functions will allow you to move back to see history and forward for several days of predictions in 3 hr and 1 day steps. I only tested it going back to Sept 30.

    Want to see where and when the heaviest rainfall happened? Use the 3HPA (3 hr precip. accum.)
    Check out how strong the winds are at various elevations (in hectoPascals), including the jet streams.
    Particulates coming off the Sahara are intriguing.
    The Gulf Stream looks nothing like the illustrations I’m used to seeing. It meanders and has eddies and vortexes all over.
    Nicole is showing up on the Ocean wave heights, periods and temperatures.
    Where we are on the Salish Sea there were several big blows whipping the trees around and knocking out power. The wx computer showed that the area between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe got rain over 25 mm (1 inch) in 3 hours at the same time we did.

    There’s so much interesting information on the site, no nerd should bring it up without several hours to spare.

    Then there’s their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube presence.


  11. madtom1999 says

    As someone who has been climbing mountains since before gore-tex I’d much prefer the older pre-gore-tex materials for climbing in. For a start they still do the job after a few wearings – and more importantly for me they actually breath – gor-tex merely provides a thick layer of sweat for me which is quite dangerous when the temperature really drops.

  12. blf says

    gor-tex merely provides a thick layer of sweat for me

    Similar problem here. I’ve got a Gor-Tex rainsuit for bicycling in the rain — and it does work quite well in keeping dry from the rain, except for long times in deluges — but gets rather warm inside, and the jersey winds up being soaked in sweat. However, if it didn’t “breathe”, I’m confident the problem would be much worse.

  13. Thinker says

    How can weather forecasting fail so badly?

    A meteorologist I worked with once expressed this as: “The only thing we really know about our work is that we will be wrong — it’s just a question of how much…”

  14. says

    One need not go back to 1940 for “missed storms” with major consequences. The relatively weak hurricane that hit the UK in August 1987 was almost completely missed by weather-reporting authorities. There were fatalities, and significant damage, and irreplaceable losses at places like Kew Gardens. And then there were the weakenings that weren’t

    The weather gods don’t like being ignored or having their capriciousness minimized. Whether they’re mere anthropomorphic projections in an attempt to make outlier-but-possible-if-only-due-to-the-Law-of-Large-Numbers events seem like they had a “purpose” because it’s easier to accept ill intent than random side effect is another issue entirely…

  15. says

    {darn, glitched upload, last sentence of first paragraph ends:}
    initially reported as “damage,” such as aircraft (civilian and military) that failed their next structural-integrity inspections over the next few months.

  16. Silver Fox says

    When it comes to predicting big storms I only consult the European or UK models these days. The NOAA modeling system is a total mess. The latest example was Hurricane Matthew. NOAA said it would slowly gather strength over the course of a week, but within 24 hours it had exploded into a Cat 5 hurricane. Haiti had no time to prepare. And then the model said it would take a hard right turn before it reached the Virginia coast and spin harmlessly out to sea. Nope. We got lashed with heavy rains and 60 mph winds and our power went out for two days. That may not sound so bad for those of you who never experience power outages, but let be tell you that you that it’s no fun to find yourself scrambling to save the contents of the fridge and refrigerator, make meals on a camp stove, sit in the dark reading by lantern light.

  17. says

    The buildup was amazing. The news was barking about it for three days. The store actually put out displays of bottled water and tea candles, as you do. Traffic STOPPED. We all waited with bated breath for our very own Northwestern Matthew…

    And now my yard is full of madrona berries and spruce needles. THE HORROR.

    That’s all it was, as far as I can tell. “You liked our hurricane coverage/ WHELL JUST WAIT!”