Weather forecasting a miserable job

Feb 4, 2017

Credit Creative Commons Zero - CC0

Weather forecasters have a miserable job. On one hand, they predict impending catastrophic weather and save lives. Think of residents if Oklahoma who made it to shelter before devastating F5 tornadoes bore down on their neighborhoods and businesses. On the other, these predictions are often wrong. A  cell fritzes out, leaving the audience to compare yesterday’s hero to the boy who cried wolf. It’s a dilemma.

Not surprisingly, erratic weather has made Kansas weather announcers gun shy about making firm forecasts. One of my favorites grinned as he explained he was in the business of stating what might happen, not necessarily what would. Recent blizzard reports certainly had viewers wondering whether our favorite storm team was on target or if we had emptied our market’s milk, bread, and toilet paper shelves for no reason. More than one person questioned the forecaster when the blizzard didn’t arrive on schedule.

When this storm actually hit and blowing snow coated windows and doors, I recollected whiteouts I’d either read about or lived through myself. As recently as two decades ago, prairie people were frequently surprised by unpredicted squalls that slowed travel to a crawl or shut it down entirely. Several times, I drove twenty miles to work on clear roads in the morning. The same afternoon, travelers couldn’t tell if they drove on asphalt or in the ditch during surprise blizzards.

This brought to mind a Mari Sandoz novel my 80s and 90s era students read. I assigned Winter Thunder in January or February because readers could relate to High Plains weather’s ability to change quickly. Every one of my kids connected to this tale of Nebraska Sandhill schoolchildren who got on a bus to leave their one room schoolhouse at beginning of a snowstorm.

During the course of the story, class released early, in hopes kids would beat the encroaching storm home. Unfortunately, their bus overturned and caught fire as the whiteout roared to life. The young teacher, a 16-year-old student bus driver, and the rest of the children faced freezing to death. They had escaped the flames wearing only standard winter clothing and carrying that day’s lunches.

Sandoz based this weeklong survival tale on her schoolmarm niece’s experience in 1949. The gripping narrative detailed kids and teacher blindly clasping the person in front of them as they followed a fence line into willows where they sheltered until rescuers found them days later. Imagine every edgy survival story involving frozen limbs and starvation to consider the depth of fear these children experienced.

Thinking about this turned my mind down another bunny trail as I recalled a carload of Ellis teens lost in a blizzard in the late 80s. If you weren’t on a search team defying Mother Nature’s nastiest as you tried to find these youngsters, you were praying for children, families, and rescuers. The element this event shared with Mari Sandoz’s Winter Thunder was that before events turned into a life or death matter, no one had an inkling such a powerful storm approached.

Now, when my favorite weather team tells me to prepare for the worst, I do, knowing very well that the forecast could be wrong. I’d rather re-plan than think I had nothing to worry about.