Should Winter Weather Be This Much of a Surprise?

Why can’t we handle snow? Let’s start with why we can’t read. Or why we choose to drive down the steepest, iciest hills in Seattle.


UW meteorologist Cliff Mass has a new post up promising “Perspective on the Winter So Far.” Here’s the conclusion, which may surprise some of you who believe the end-times are near:

Has this early winter been wacky and unusual? Not particularly. Pretty much every year there are storms and floods and daily records. Sign of global warming? No reason to think so.

Mass ticks off precipitation, temperature (average, highs and lows), snow pack, La Niña–it all averages out to be fairly normal. That doesn’t mean nothing of note has happened; I think Mass’s larger point is that winters, whether light or heavy, tend to bring us remarkable weather for the simple fact that people like to remark upon the weather doing something.

(On global warming, Mass always tries to direct people’s attention away from weather to climate. Weather is statistically noisy.)

What I notice about recent winter weather is not the weather so much as our seeming inability to respond to any winter at all. A quick review of weather records reveals that the truly whopper snow storms and deep freezes dwarf anything I’ve seen the past 20 years. When we talk about terrible Seattle winters now, what we are really talking about is failures of our infrastructure, and the fact that few of us are even remotely prepared to go a few hours without power, heat, and access to transportation.

Why can’t we handle snow?” asked the Seattle Times, in the wake of our late-November few inches. People were “trapped” on I-5 for up to ten hours. Psychologically, that’s more than long enough for people to lose their minds. Drivers ran out of gas, they had little food or water with them, and once gridlock set in, there was nowhere to go–not forward, not backward.

The net result was a lot of kicking and screaming for what would be a magic amount of snow and ice removal, at a time when city, county, and state transportation agencies are all operating on budgetary thin ice. For me, the question is not why we can’t handle snow. That’s obvious: We don’t get a lot of it, and even a minority of unprepared drivers can bring traffic to a standstill. One two-wheel-drive car with all-season tires trumps the nine 4WD Outbacks stuck behind it.

So the question is, How long is it going to take before we change our behavior? Seattle seems gripped by a mass delusion that there’s a fix that will make winter go away, more salt, more plows, different mayors. Some people argue that despite every other lane on I-5 being blocked by stuck and spun-out vehicles, the real problem was express lane management. But winter happens.

Not only does our real-time information about winter not negate its real-world effects, but we don’t act on that information responsibly. Our November snow storm was predicted days in advance, though the scope of it was really only nailed down the morning of. It was close to blizzard conditions as thousands of people, who had worked until 5 p.m. instead of leaving early, exited their offices, got inside their cars, and hit the road without much thought to their personal safety if something went wrong.

That is pure crazy. Every single snow storm of any size for the past ten years has involved horror-movie footage of people abandoning their cars on I-5, and boring articulated buses changing Jekyll-like into thrill rides.

Post-mortems can sound like blame, which is not the point. My observation is simply that we seem to direct 99 percent of our energy into expectations of fail-safe systems, and perhaps one percent into “insurance” in case of failure. Blaming too-optimistic weather forecasters will not get you home any faster. (On a side note, local media, how about instead of endless weather-porn, we spend more time developing preparation and “What to do if…” tips?)

That’s our job, to take personal responsibility not just for ourselves, but for our friends and neighbors. Do we bother to put together an emergency box for the car? Do we make sure our cars are ready for winter before winter arrives? Are we prepared for 48 hours without heat or power at home? Have we accepted that our smart phone will run out of power because we can’t recharge them, and that we’ll need alternate communications/information sources? Are we okay with telling our employer that we will not be at work because conditions are unsafe? Who the hell is in charge of shoveling the sidewalk?

Believe it or not, any winter at all will come as a surprise to someone who’s moved here from southern California. Mention to them, politely, that flip flops are not year-round footwear. Don’t let them head out in shorts and a t-shirt. It sounds flippant, but hypothermia doesn’t care what year it is. Maybe we should stop daring winter weather to show us what a real catastrophe is like.

3 thoughts on “Should Winter Weather Be This Much of a Surprise?

  1. I picture Martin Prince from the Simpsons delivering this blog post as a speech before the Springfield ladies guild

  2. Still trying to understand this one.

    Several years ago, I was visiting San Diego and a terrible wind storm – with driving rain – ensued. I was on the Escondido Freeway, headed through Balboa Park. Traffic stopped dead, as several trees had fallen over the freeway.

    What happened next? The Sate Patrol was quickly on the scene. We were, lane by lane, redirected (via U-turns on the shoulders) backwards off the on-ramps. It seemed like it took forever, more likely 45 minutes. Why can’t our State Patrol do a similar thing?

    Ah, helping out is apparently not in the charter.

  3. 15 years ago, I worked in offices where workers were generally sent home early, or there were AM call-in messages advising staff to stay home, due to predicted inclement weather. That doesn’t happen anymore; in fact, employees are often penalized for calling in absentee due to weather, these days.

    I don’t know why this happened, but it’s measurable and obvious.

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