Social media-ologists bring unnecessary worry forecasts

Over the weekend, I was reading through my messages on Facebook when I ran across a message that asked: “Is this true?” Attached was a link to a story about a “snowmageddon” possible for the Ohio Valley. The story talked about the potential for a massive snowstorm to hit our area in the “next 10 to 15 days.” The story included a graphic showing snowfall amounts in the Miami Valley of nearly three feet by Feb. 21. Wow, I thought! Did I miss something last week?

I read through a few more messages and emails about this potential blizzard then decided to do a little more research. It turns out this story came from, what meteorologists call, social media-ologists. This has happened several times in recent years where these social media-ologists, often amateurs or just weather buffs, can access widely available weather forecast models on the Internet and misinterpret them as forecasting massive snowstorms.

In the summer, I’ve seen posts weeks out of impending hurricanes that never happened. While I would never want to limit anyone’s access to weather information, sometimes I wonder if this information, without the proper understanding and knowledge in forecasting, can be dangerous. I have seen such stories cause unnecessary panic and worry, especially in areas that may have encountered recent severe storms. Unfortunately, these social media-ologists bring into question the reputations of credible meteorologists.

So here’s what you need to know about these Internet forecasts: First, if you read something on the Internet about a “massive storm” that is more that five to seven days away, you can skip it. Second, don’t share these stories. You will likely only spread unnecessary panic or stress. Third, verify the source for weather information. If it is not from a well-known, respected company, media organization, or National Weather Service, I would question the quality of the data interpretation.

Here’s how you will know you’re getting good, factual information: While our weather forecast models can go out as far as two weeks, meteorologists can really only see if an overall weather pattern might favor a “big storm” beyond five to seven days. Yes, forecast models will print out total snowfall amounts projected all the way out to more than two weeks, but they are not good enough (yet) to know such specific impacts beyond much more than 72 hours or so. Winter storms and snowfall forecasts are especially difficult to forecast due to the tremendous amount of variables that can affect precipitation type, amounts, and even the size of snowflakes.

With all this being said, I can tell you that winter weather is back for at least a week, if not longer. I do expect wind-blown snow showers to last at least through Wednesday with perhaps a few inches of accumulation. As far as any potential “bigger storm,” I will say the pattern does favor a larger system sometime late this coming weekend or into next week. However, any details beyond that, would just be impossible. But stay tuned.

Eric Elwell is WHIO StormCenter 7 Chief Meteorologist. Contact him at eric.elwell@coxinc.com or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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