Should Blizzard Warnings Be Issued for Polygons Instead of Entire Counties?

March 4, 2020, 5:28 PM EST

Above: Estimated snowfall from Feb. 27-29, 2020. The heaviest snowfall in the lake snowbelts is shown in the darker purple and pink contours.

The heavy lake-effect snow in the eastern Great Lakes last Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 27-29, triggered the National Weather Service to issue blizzard warnings for several counties east of lakes Erie and Ontario. But lake-effect snow is highly localized, and as it turns out, blizzard conditions were not observed at the county level.

Does this mean it’s time for the NWS to reconsider the way blizzard warnings are issued?

The format of many NWS warnings has changed little since the 1960s, with the exception of subtle tweaks such as the use of bullet statements in the warning text to more clearly highlight potential impacts (including the use of tornado and flash flood emergencies) and the use of storm polygons instead of whole counties, which we’ll discuss now.

According to Greg Schoor, severe weather program leader at the NOAA/NWS headquarters, the weather service implemented polygon warnings (officially called Storm-Based Warnings) on Feb. 1, 2007, for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods. These short-duration weather events are more geographically specific and don’t necessarily affect entire counties at one time. These polygons are then translated into portions of counties for use in non-visual media such as radio. Most other warnings, including those for blizzards and lake-effect snow, are still issued for entire counties instead of smaller, location-specific polygons.

An example of a Storm-Based Warning from Monday night’s Nashville tornado event is shown below.

A couple of years ago, the NWS added the Impact-Based Warning format to the text product of Storm-Based Warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and, more recently, flash floods. These warnings are still Storm-Based Warnings because they are issued as polygons, but the text product wording is an Impact-Based Warning, which is simply a formatting framework to help improve the communication of the threats using bullet statements, Schoor explained in an email. Jon Erdman wrote about these Impact-Based Warnings in much more detail in an article on weather.com from March 2017, and an example is shown below.

Since improvements have been made on NWS tornado warnings, for example, why not make similar upgrades to NWS blizzard warnings, such as making them Storm-Based Warnings?

It’s not often that blizzard warnings are issued for lake-effect snow, like they were last week in the eastern Great Lakes snowbelts. The NWS typically sticks with winter storm warnings or lake-effect snow warnings, unless confidence is high that winds will be strong enough during the event to create blizzard conditions, defined as sustained winds or frequent gusts to 35 mph with visibility reduced to one-quarter mile or less for at least three consecutive hours.

Prior to last week, the last blizzard warning issued by the NWS-Buffalo office was almost exactly a year earlier, in late February 2019, according to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet (IEM) at Iowa State University. That warning was also for lake-effect snow combined with high winds.

Watertown, New York, east of Lake Ontario in Jefferson County, officially met the NWS criteria of blizzard conditions last Thursday. Visibility was reduced to one-quarter mile or less from just after 7 a.m. EST until about 1 p.m. EST as winds gusted from 35 to 50 mph. However, that entire county was under a blizzard warning, along with several other counties east of lakes Erie and Ontario, and it’s unlikely that blizzard conditions occurred everywhere in those counties. Case in point: let’s evaluate what happened one county to the south in Oswego County.

The State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego is located on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario and is home to a renowned meteorology program, with alums such as Al Roker from NBC’s “Today”, our own Tom Niziol, and me (but I don’t deserve to be included in a list with Roker and Nizol). It’s a perfect place to study lake-effect snow, given that Oswego averages 143.7 inches of snow each winter (1981-2010). It received as much as 251.4 inches during the winter of 1971-72, according to the NWS-Buffalo NOWData for Oswego, New York.

Needless to say, residents of Oswego are used to snowy winters, and classes are generally held as usual unless there’s a crippling blizzard, like the Blizzard of ‘66, which dumped 102 inches of snow on campus, cutting it off from food supplies as students and faculty were snowed in.

When I was a SUNY Oswego student, walking to class in the snow and wind was part of the experience. Even in whiteout conditions, with strong winds making the snow fall horizontally, I remember walking to class along with everyone else. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t recall the campus as a whole ever closing for snow during my tenure there between 2009 and 2013 (although it did close for Superstorm Sandy in October 2012), but sometimes a professor chose to cancel his or her class because they couldn’t make it to campus in the snow (many professors made the 40-mile drive northward from Syracuse).

Last Thursday morning, students went to class in conditions like the ones I just described.

After students braved the elements for Thursday morning classes, SUNY Oswego canceled all afternoon classes on Thursday. What’s odd about this is that heavy snow had ended by Thursday afternoon, and it just remained windy (gusts 50 to 60 mph) with a few lingering snow showers or flurries at times. On Thursday afternoon, SUNY Oswego decided to cancel all classes for Friday, citing forecasts calling for continued high winds and snow into Friday. While I’m sure students enjoyed their three-day weekend, this raises the question on where SUNY Oswego obtained their weather information that inclined them to cancel classes a day ahead of time.

When Friday came around, no snow was falling in Oswego. In fact, the sun was even breaking through the clouds.

So what made SUNY Oswego, a college notorious for sending students to class in harsh conditions, cancel classes last Thursday afternoon and Friday when there was little to snow falling? Perhaps it was the NWS blizzard warning that was in effect for all of Oswego County and other adjacent counties east of Lake Ontario, predicting 3 to 4 feet of snow over the Tug Hill Plateau and 1 to 2 feet for surrounding lower elevations, along with wind gusts from 50 to 60 mph?

Wayne Westervelt, chief communication officer at SUNY Oswego, told me that the college has an individual service contract with a local meteorologist who provides a specialized forecast that assists them with their decision-making during inclement weather. This forecast also takes into account how the weather will affect travel from the greater Syracuse area, because many students and employees make the 40-mile commute from Syracuse to Oswego, he said.

It’s unknown if SUNY Oswego uses other sources of weather information such as the NWS in addition to the local meteorologist, but that brings us back to our original question: Would the college have reacted differently if the blizzard warning had been issued for a polygon instead of all of Oswego County, when forecasters were fairly confident that blizzard conditions wouldn’t occur across the entire county?

It turns out that polygon warnings for lake-effect snow are in fact in the experimental phase, according to Judy Levan, meteorologist in charge at the NWS-Buffalo office. These experimental warnings are for lake-effect snow warnings, not blizzard warnings, but this is at least a step in the right direction since blizzard warnings aren’t all that common for lake-effect snow, as discussed earlier. This winter has not been very active with lake-effect snow, but four NWS offices are currently participating in the experimental polygon lake-effect snow warnings: Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Cleveland.

“Our goal is to study the utility of polygon warnings for long-fused winter events … for example, precipitation-type differences due to proximity to the lakes or elevation-based snowfalls,” Levan said in an email. “The addition of other WFOs has allowed us to learn about office-to-office collaboration and how the polygons are coordinated in both space and time.”

The experimental polygons are issued in addition to the county-based warnings, Levan added. However, the official forecast product remains the county-based lake-effect snow warning, so at least for now, that product must still be issued.

Dr. Scott Steiger, an associate professor of meteorology at SUNY Oswego and the NWS COOP observer for the city of Oswego, said he did not personally observe blizzard conditions in Oswego during last week’s lake-effect event.

“There was a one-hour period on Thursday morning when it was ‘blizzard-like,’ but it did not last three hours,” Steiger wrote in an email.

Over the three-day event, Steiger said Oswego picked up 6 inches of snow between Thursday and Saturday. For comparison, Carthage, New York, also east of Lake Ontario, picked up 48 inches of snow during that same timeframe.

I asked Steiger if he thinks blizzard and lake-effect snow warnings should be issued as polygons, like severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I can’t think of a reason why not.”

SUNY Oswego has an on-campus weather service called the Lake-Effect Storm Prediction and Research Center (LESPaRC), which is run by meteorology students who forecast for various school districts in central New York, as well as the New York State Department of Transportation. I was one of the co-directors of the center during my senior year in 2012-13. SUNY Oswego itself used to be a client of the LESPaRC, but Steiger said the college decided to drop their services many years ago to go with another provider. It’s unknown who the local meteorologist is that they’re currently using for decision-support services when it comes to inclement weather.

The closure of SUNY Oswego wasn’t the only questionable decision during last week’s lake-effect event. On Friday, Maryland Women’s Lacrosse was scheduled to travel to Syracuse, New York, to take on Syracuse Women’s Lacrosse, but the team was concerned about the weather and didn’t make the trip. Instead, the Syracuse team had to travel to Maryland and play a game on the road, when it was supposed to be a home game for Syracuse.

What was the weather like in Syracuse on Friday? There were clouds, breaks of sun and a few snow showers that dropped 0.3 inches on the day while the heavy lake-effect snow continued to bury areas well north of Syracuse to the east of Lake Ontario. (The Syracuse women’s lacrosse team still won their game 10 to 5, despite having to play on the road.)

Let’s hope the NWS makes the experimental lake-effect snow warning polygons an official product sooner rather than later, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to include blizzard warnings either.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Brian Donegan

Brian Donegan (@WxBrianD on Twitter, wxbriand on Instagram) is a meteorologist at weather.com. He received his bachelor's degree in meteorology from SUNY Oswego in 2013 and is now working toward a master’s from Mississippi State University.

emailbrian.donegan@weather.com

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