Modern Technology Saved Lives During Buffalo Blizzard

Newer, high-resolution weather forecast models helped National Weather Service personnel in Buffalo, N.Y., predict when, where and how bad a deadly storm was going to be in Erie County.

by Jim McKay / February 22, 2019
A man is bundled up against bitter wind and blowing snow as he operates a snowblower, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. The area received more than a foot of snow since Tuesday and was under a blizzard warning. AP/Carolyn Thompson

The National Weather Service in Buffalo, N.Y., began predicting extreme cold more than a week before a deadly blizzard smacked Erie County, N.Y., January 29.  

Forecasts like that haven’t always been accurate but this one was, thanks to the evolving, high-resolution forecast models and some expertise on the part of Weather Service personnel. It resulted in lives saved, although there were at least three fatalities linked to the blizzard conditions.

Over the last decade or so newer technology has improved the resolution of forecast models to the extent that the Weather Service was able to predict when and where the storm would hit and how bad it would be. A decade ago that may not have been possible and the forecast — consisting of “old-fashioned” techniques like direction of wind — would have been hit and miss.

But the Weather Service predicted this storm would barrel right into the city of Buffalo with high winds and deadly cold, and it was right.

“The blizzard was lake-effect snow and strong winds,” said Jon Hitchcock, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo. “Several counties downward from Lake Erie, including more than a million people in the Buffalo metro area, were affected. We had winds gusting over 40 miles per hour and near zero visibility for the better part of a day when the blizzard occurred.”

The forecast allowed officials to close schools and get people off the roadways. Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz said “there’s no doubt” the forecast saved lives.

“Absolutely,” said Hitchcock. “Especially given how many things closed in terms of schools, businesses, just keeping people off the roads and at home. It certainly saved lives because the visibility was so low all day.”

The high-resolution models were a big part of it. Whereas previously, Weather Service staff would know a storm was coming but not how bad it would be or exactly where it was headed, the new model now gives them a much clearer picture.

The newer model breaks up the atmosphere into small grids or blocks. Fifteen years ago, the blocks were about 20 miles across, but the high resolution has cut that to about 2 miles across, providing a more vivid look. “Because of that higher resolution, the model can resolve things like thunderstorms, lake-effect snow,” Hitchcock said.

“In the old days, those course-resolution models couldn’t even forecast lake-effect snow so all we had to go on was the old-fashioned techniques like ‘the wind is blowing from the southwest and everything looks favorable so there probably will be a band,’” Hitchcock said.

But the knowledge of Weather Service staff about how the new models work made a huge difference as well. “It’s not perfect, there are some errors,” Hitchcock said. “Typically, they’re usually too far to the south.”

The models showed the blizzard hitting just south of Buffalo. Armed with the knowledge that the models tend to lean toward the south, staff projected the storm would hit Buffalo straight on. “It’s not a huge difference, about 10 miles,” Hitchcock said. “But a difference of about a million people getting hit and a million people not getting hit.”

Hitchcock said the future is bright for even better forecasting. “Just being able to pinpoint these smaller-scale features that have a high impact on weather is going to lead to more accurate forecasts in terms of location and timing of things like lake-effect snow bands, blizzards, thunderstorms and, in turn, those more accurate forecasts will allow emergency managers to make better decisions on what to do before, during and after a storm.”