Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 11
Color March 15-21, 2001
Current Issue
Writing the Bay
Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Bay Reflections
Burton on the Bay
Earth Journal
Not Just for Kids
Good Bay Times
What's Playing Where
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us
The Snow That Didn’t Fall

A cat could predict the weather better than our TV forecasters did

The boy cried "Wolf, wolf!" and the villagers came out to help him.
–"The Shepherd and the Wolf": Aesop, circa 550BC

The media weathermen cried "Blizzard, blizzard!" and the citizenry stocked up on milk, TP, bread, cigarettes, ice melting chemicals, snow shovels, video tapes, then hunkered down, waited and planned a day off from work. Same old story, a replay of weather-wolf cries of the past decade or two.

But with a different twist.

This time, when all was said and done - and the white stuff didn't come - the men, women and children had had enough. And they made that quite clear. Weathermen were no longer the darlings of winter.

The same went for their colleagues in the TV newsrooms who dug up old footage of storms of yore for the anchors to play, pushing viewers into the foolish winter frenzy associated with blizzards, power outages and cold homes with snowbound inhabitants.

This time all the dire predictions topped those of 14 months ago on another front - remember Y2K and the Millennium Bug? And, might I add, with the same results. Pffft. Zilch. Much ado about nothing.

So what are you going to do with all that stuff you hoarded for the days you were supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world? Probably the same thing you did with all the batteries and candles you stocked up on preparing for Y2K.

Much Ado about Nothing

A year ago, after a few readers (one in a letter to the editor of this publication) accused me of picking on TV meteorologists, I promised readers I'd not go into boob-tube weathermen again. But this time around, there was blatant disregard for truth - not in advertising but in predicting.

There was no question. We were promised that a storm of epic proportions was due. The only question was how much snow would fall: one foot, two feet - or more. Bundle up, lay in the provisions and, of course, stay tuned to this channel.

I didn't stay tuned because, in the first place, I rarely watch television. But wife Lois does, and she was loading up with the usual stuff. When I picked up my newspapers at the convenience store, fueled up at the Shell station and picked up mail at the post office, the only thing people were talking about was the Blizzard of 2001. That when it wasn't due for three or four days.

They almost made me into a believer - almost. I returned home, filled all the bird feeders, even put the snow shovel next to the front door. Then I did what any rational citizen should do, and what I should have done in the first place.

I went into the bedroom, turned on the NOAA weather radio by the bed and within a few minutes had learned enough about how storm patterns were developing to realize all the blather about us being buried under snowdrifts was pretty much stretched speculation. Best of all, I didn't have to put up with all the hype and commercials.

There was, I learned, no need for contingency plans, no need to stack maple logs from the woodpile onto the porch or check the flashlight batteries. Sunday night would probably be just another winter evening, Monday just another winter day

Weather-Watchers Rebel

And they were. Disappointed people went to work, disappointed kids went to school, local anchormen talked about the usual morning news, embarrassed weathermen either hid off-camera or made wishy-washy excuses. The world was just any other Monday.

But it was different Tuesday. The daily press started second-guessing the video weathermen. Then on Wednesday, in letters to the editor, so did readers - among them Jason Hobar of Cockeysville, who in The Sun asked "Is it just me, or does it seem there is a conspiracy brewing between TV networks and supermarket chains?"

Another reader, Baltimorean Dean Garland, wrote "It seems to me that the local TV stations and their high-priced weather forecasters lost what little credibility they had As for me, it's the weather channel from now on."

The Snowball Effect

Dean's mention of high-priced weather forecasters prompted me to call a guy whose career was in weather as a science, not some show-and-tell deal, and ask him what could have gone wrong. That retired meteorologist is Fred Davis of Pasadena, who for ages headed NOAA's weather operations when headquartered at BWI.

His voice was a familiar one on the NOAA weather radio broadcasts, but no one ever saw him. He was a pro, conservative in his predictions, a source who didn't play the ratings game. Certainly he didn't make the big bucks reaped by his suave counterparts on the tube. He was a scientist, not a ratings-driven entertainer.

Fred didn't really finger the tube's weathermen. "Viewers hear what they want to hear, and once snow is even mentioned they don't hear anything after that - and the TV stations and managers want to stir things up."

When the weatherman mentions the 'S' word, there's no backing off, Fred mused. The stations and their managers won't allow that; they want viewers.

The no-storm of Monday, March 5, was first seriously mentioned the previous Thursday. By Friday it was the talk of the town. Saturday and Sunday the gullible stocked up and waited for snow that was to last from Monday well into Tuesday. You might say it was a snowball effect, but I'd call it an avalanche.

It's foolish to predict something like a blizzard five days in advance, said Fred. What we had, he explained, was a low-pressure system developing along the coast and an extremely cold pattern also moving in. To make our "perfect storm," they had to come together right over us, which they didn't.

They didn't even come close, but the ratings - if not the forecasting - were spectacular, and the cash registers rung at convenience, grocery and hardware stores. All the stuff purchased hereabouts should have been sent north where Fred's brother endured a blizzard in Massachusetts, and my Aunt MiMi in Vermont phoned to tell me of snow packed as high as her kitchen window.

Weathercats Do Just As Well

Six days after the no-snow, a Washington Post columnist wrote that in his next life he wanted to come back as a TV weatherman - so he could be dead wrong 80 percent of the time and not get fired.

Come to think of it, I'd like that, too. No sophisticated barometers, thermometers or anemometers for me, just a cat - and folklore, which has it that a cat running around and scratching the ground means a storm is brewing.

Other meteorological situations are also covered in folklore. A nervous cat portends wind, a yawning cat means rain and a cat that comes into the house and goes directly to the fireplace means watch for bad weather. Should that same cat turn its back to the fireplace, expect snow. A paw behind the ear means a cat is pulling down rain.

A cat that purrs while rubbing its nose brings good weather. But don't plan a picnic on the day a cat in the window licks its behind. English folklore has it that means lots of rain in summer, lots of snow in winter.

Maybe my forecasting techniques wouldn't be scientific, but they'll beat anything on the tube. Enough said ...

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly