As blizzard skips New York, meteorologists ponder forecasts' power

By Jonathan Allen

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In the end, it was the weather forecasts that crippled New York City, not the blizzard.

As residents emerged into a largely shuttered city on Tuesday morning after a snowfall that barely covered garbage bags left out on the sidewalk, several meteorologists pondered the storm-like havoc their mere words can cause and debated who among them was the least inaccurate.

"CRIPPLING AND POTENTIALLY HISTORIC BLIZZARD TO IMPACT THE AREA," read a weekend National Weather Service (NWS) advisory amid colorful maps warning that the whole city could expect up to 36 all-time-record-breaking inches (91 cm) of snow.

This was reason enough for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to go to the unusual lengths of ordering that every street and subway in the city be closed to commuters.

It reminded Tom Niziol, the Weather Channel's winter weather expert, of something a professor told him decades ago at meteorology school in upstate New York.

"'Young Tom, you need to listen to me, because I can be the most powerful man in the city,'" Niziol said in an interview, doing a professor's voice. "With the stroke of a pen, I can shut this entire place down!'"

In this instance, Niziol suspects he was not to blame: earlier in the weekend, he was on the Weather Channel predicting between 12 to 18 inches of snow for the city, half that of the NWS's direst warnings. Meteorologists, including Niziol, generally make their predictions based on the same data and a half-dozen or so internationally shared computer models.

On Monday afternoon, not long before Cuomo announced the subway would close to riders for the first time ever because of a snowstorm, Niziol rolled his prediction back to between 8 and 12 inches: snowy, but not one for the ages.

The NWS, which has the gravitas of a federal agency and whose officials directly brief civic decision-makers, continued to stand firm on a prediction of three feet.

Events would show that Niziol's revised estimate was close enough. Most of the city got no more than 8 inches, De Blasio said on Tuesday, although some areas of Queens got 10.

As with the NWS and other meteorologists interviewed on Tuesday, Niziol also pointed out that the far end of Long Island, east of New York City, and swathes of Massachusetts and other neighboring states were grappling with an actual blizzard, more or less as predicted.

"There is no pleasure in getting the forecast right over the guy at the next desk," Niziol said, "because, you know what, next time I'll get it wrong and that guy will get it right."

Louis Uccellini, the NWS director, was by turns defensive and remorseful in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

"What we learned from the storm is we all need to improve how we communicate forecast uncertainty," he said, after citing a list of places besides New York City where the NWS accurately predicted a disruptive amount of snow.

He said he was still "tracing" who wrote the service's "CRIPPLING" and "POTENTIALLY HISTORIC" advisory, whose language was widely echoed by civic leaders as they declared states of emergencies.

Individual NWS offices are responsible for what they publish, he said. The chief meteorologist at the NWS station in the Long Island town of Upton, which is responsible for New York City, did not respond to a request for comment.

The preferred meteorologists of Cuomo and de Blasio, who both continued to cite the scarier forecasts on Tuesday as they defended their transport shutdowns, could not immediately be determined.

Cuomo's office said his officials rely on the regular briefing services that the NWS offers to city officials. De Blasio's office did not respond to questions on the matter.

John Davitt is a familiar face in the city as the chief forecaster for the NY1 local news channel, but he suspects that civic leaders must not pay outsize attention to him, given that he predicted 12 to 16 inches.

He wrote to his producers on Monday afternoon saying they should drop it further to 10 to 14 inches, and now regrets that a "persistent snowband" over Manhattan caused him to doubt himself and retract the email within the hour.

"We all have a bad day," he said when asked about the NWS, "but something sure seems wrong when you're missing by 26 inches."

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Alan Crosby)