Commutageddon, Again and Again

February 3, 2011 · 0 comments

Time and again this winter, blizzards and other snow and ice storms have trapped motorists on city streets and state highways, touching off firestorms of griping and finger pointing at local officials. Most recently, hundreds of motorists became stranded on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive as 70 mph gusts buried vehicles during Monday’s mammoth Midwest snowstorm. Last week, commuters in the nation’s capital became victims of icy gridlock as an epic thump of snow landed on the Mid Atlantic states. And two weeks before, residents and travelers in northern Georgia abandoned their snowbound vehicles on the interstate loops around Atlanta, securing their shutdown for days until the snow and ice melted.

Before each of these crippling events, and historically many others, meteorologists, local and state law enforcement, the media, and city and state officials routinely cautioned and then warned drivers, even pleading with them, to avoid travel. Yet people continue to miss, misunderstand, or simply ignore the message for potentially dangerous winter storms to stay off the roads.

Obviously such messages can be more effective. While one might envision an intelligent transportation system warning drivers in real time when weather might create unbearable traffic conditions,  such services are in their infancy, despite the proliferation of mobile GPS devices that include traffic updates. Not surprisingly, the 2011 AMS Annual Meeting in January on “Communicating Weather and Climate” offered a lot of findings about generating effective warnings. One presentation in particular—”The essentials of a weather warning message: what, where, when, and intensity”—focused directly on the issues raised by the recent snow snafu’s. In it, author Joel Curtis of the NWS in Juneau, Alaska, explains that in addition to the basic what, where, and when information, a warning must convey intensity to guide the level of response from the receiver.

Key to learning how to create and disseminate clear and concise warnings is understanding why useful information sometimes seems to fall on deaf ears. Studies such as the Hayden and Morss presentation “Storm surge and “certain death”: Interviews with Texas coastal residents following Hurricane Ike” and Renee Lertzman’s “Uncertain futures, anxious futures: psychological dimensions of how we talk about the weather” are moving the science of meteorological communication forward by figuring out how and why people are using the information they receive.

Post-event evaluation remains critical to improving not only dissemination but also the effectiveness of warnings and statements. In a blog post last week following D.C.’s drubbing of snow, Jason Samenow of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang (CWG) wondered whether his team of forecasters, and its round-the-clock trumpeting of the epic event, along with the bevy of weather voices across the capital region could have done more to better warn people of the quick-hitting nightmare snowstorm now known as “Commutageddon.” He concluded that, other than smoothing over the sometimes uneven voice of local media even when there’s a clear signal for a disruptive storm, there needs to be a wider effort to get the word out about potential “weather emergencies, or emergencies of any type.” He sees technology advances that promote such social networking sites as Twitter and Facebook as new ways to “blast the message.”

Even with rapidly expanding technology, however, it’s important to recognize that simply offering information comes with the huge responsibility of making sure it’s available when the demand is greatest. As CWG reported recently in its blog post “Weather Service website falters at critical time,” the NWS learned the hard way this week the pitfalls of offering too much information. As the Midwest snowstorm was ramping up, the “unprecedented demand” of 15-20 million hits an hour on NWS websites led to pages loading sluggishly or not at all. According to NWS spokesman Curtis Carey: “The traffic was beyond the capacity we have in place. [It even] exceeded the week of Snowmageddon,” when there were two billion page views on a network that typically sees just 70 million page views a day.

So virtual gridlock now accompanies road gridlock? The communications challenges of a deep snow continue to accumulate…