January 10, 2019

Here's What We Do (And Don't) Know About This Weekend's Snowstorm

A winter storm will move across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic this weekend, bringing a blanket of snow to the center of the country and a mix of rain, snow, and ice to the Mid-Atlantic. A significant chunk of Missouri stands to see more than half a foot of snow from this storm. Exact totals—and even what kind of precipitation will fall—is still uncertain farther to the east.

What We Know

A low-pressure system will develop in the southern Plains on Friday.

This storm system will likely track farther north than the one we saw a month ago that produced epic snowfall totals in North Carolina and Virginia. My little town north of Greensboro, N.C., saw an entire season's worth of snow in one day back on December 9. What does that mean in practical terms? A track farther to the north will also force the warm air farther to the north. This storm also isn't as juicy or intense as the storm we saw last month, either. That will help to cut down on snowfall amounts in many places.

The best chance for snow exists in the Midwest.

If you're looking for a good snowstorm, your best bet is probably to stake out in central or eastern Missouri on Friday and Saturday. The latest forecast from the Weather Prediction Center, which I've mapped out above, calls for a widespread area of 6"+ across a huge chunk of Missouri and central Illinois. The bullseye for the heaviest snow will very likely shift around and change over the next couple of days as forecasters get a better idea of what the storm will do, but if you're looking for snow, it's probably a safe bet to meet it in St. Louis. (Booo. Sorry.)

Aside from specific amounts, the storm's life in the Midwest is a fairly straightforward event. From here on, I'll mostly talk about the effects of the storm once it crosses the Appalachian Mountains.

Something's gonna happen back east.

That's the best non-answer I can give for what is likely to unfold overnight Saturday and into Sunday. The storm will run into too much cold air for everyone in Virginia and North Carolina to wind up seeing plain old rain. Some folks will have a decent, shovelable thumping of snow. Others may see a prolonged period of freezing rain or sleet. Many communities—likely to the south of I-85—will just deal with a cold, annoying rain.

Cold air damming will determine the rain/ice/snow line.

This point is in a similar vein to the big storm back on December 9. That storm was able to produce prolific snowfall totals across N.C. and Virginia in part due to the resilient wedge of cold air that dammed up against the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. This allowed precipitation to almost entirely fall as snow, plopping a foot or more of snow across dozens of counties.

The cold air damming ahead of this storm likely won't be as intense or resilient as what we saw the last time around. There's going to be a layer of warm air forcing its way above the cold air during the storm, causing at least some of the snow to turn into freezing rain or sleet before it reaches the surface. It looks like the best chances for an ice storm exist in the Piedmont Triad, the border region between Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Burlington in North Carolina and Danville and Martinsville up in Virginia.

What We Don't Know

What kind of precipitation will fall.

Snow is more likely closer to the Appalachian Mountains in the Mid-Atlantic and along a relatively narrow path between the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. Delightfully vague, right? That's because it depends on how much precipitation is able to coincide with the best profile of cold air through the atmosphere.

Since Saturday night and Sunday are too far out right now for me to post any WPC/NWS forecasts, here's a look at (forgive me, Weather Twitter, for I am about to sin) what the last ten runs of the GFS weather model have shown in terms of precipitation types. Each image shows what the model thinks will happen at 7:00 AM EST on Sunday. The first image starts with the Monday afternoon run of the GFS model and shows 7:00 AM Sunday according to each successive run of the model through Wednesday evening. This shows us the trends from run to run.

Source: Tropical Tidbits
Don't take it literally—it's just a weather model and there's a bunch of caveats to what it's showing above. But you can see how the rain/mix/snow line shimmies with each update of the model. That's due to changes in the track of the storm and temperature profile through the atmosphere near that transition point. Folks close to that transition zone will likely see multiple precipitation types during this storm, complicating predictions of how much will fall and making conditions exceptionally dangerous for travel by car or foot.

How much will fall.

We can't quantify snow/ice that may or may not exist. Not yet, anyway. The best chance for an all-snow storm will lie well to the north of the low-pressure system's track. The folks who manage to stay all snow will see the greatest snowfall totals, since freezing rain and sleet pack significantly pack down accumulated snow.

Right now, it looks like the higher elevations of the Appalachians and central Virginia stand the best chance of seeing all (or mostly) snow from this storm, which would give them a shot at the best snowfall totals. Farther south, enough ice is possible that it could damage to trees and power lines. Again, it'll depend on how much precipitation falls as freezing rain and how long it lasts.

We'll know a lot more about this storm on Thursday evening and Friday.

You can follow me on Twitter or send me an email.

Please consider subscribing to my Patreon. Reader-funded news is more important than ever and your support helps fund engaging, hype-free weather coverage.

January 2, 2019

AccuWeather CEO's Nomination to Run NOAA Expires as 115th Congress Adjourns

Donald Trump's nomination of AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to run NOAA will expire without action on Thursday with the adjournment of the 115th Congress. Myers' nomination faced pointed opposition from ethics watchdogs and groups within the weather industry due to the nominee's conflicts of interest, including his company's past support for legislation that would have severely curtailed the National Weather Service's ability to provide weather forecasts and data to the public.

The New York Times reported last month that the Senate will not take up Myers' nomination by the end of the session on January 3, and it was unclear whether Trump would re-nominate Myers to the position once the new Congress begins. 

For the foreseeable future, NOAA—and, by extension, the National Weather Service—will remain under the charge of Acting Administrator Tim Gallaudet, who holds a doctorate in oceanography. Myers, who holds a business degree, would have been a rare NOAA Administrator without an academic background in science. Gallaudet's leadership of the agency has so far been uncontroversial.

Myers is one of hundreds of presidential nominees who didn't receive a final confirmation vote before the Republican-controlled Senate. A whopping 47 percent of executive branch positions that require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation remained unfilled during the first half of Donald Trump's term in office, either for lack of a nominee or through Senate inaction. These positions are currently filled by acting officials or simply remain vacant.

Unlike the protracted battles over other controversial nominees to the executive and judicial branches, the kerfuffle surrounding the AccuWeather CEO's nomination to run NOAA came and went fairly abruptly in the days after the White House announcement in October 2017.

The greatest single point of opposition to Barry Myers leading NOAA is the many conflicts of interest that would follow Myers into office. The greatest example of these potential conflicts was his company's support for S.786—the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005. The bill, introduced and unilaterally supported by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), would have effectively privatized the NWS and used the agency to subsidize private weather companies.

Santorum's legislation would have required the National Weather Service to stop issuing public forecasts except for "severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public"—in other words, it limited the agency's public portfolio to emergencies like tornado warnings. All of their other forecasts, products, and data had to be provided "through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers of products or services," turning private weather companies into middlemen between the NWS and the public.

Why would the bill go to such great lengths to dismantle the National Weather Service as we know it? First, some right-leaning meteorologists and weather industry executives routinely criticize the National Weather Service's efforts to directly interact with the public, arguing that the federal government is unfairly competing with private companies like AccuWeather. (Sidenote: this is also the main reason you'll never get an official NWS smartphone app, in case you've ever wondered.)  

The second factor is just pure politics. Joel Myers, the nominee's brother and founder of Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, donated $2,000 to a political action committee supporting Santorum's failed 2006 reelection bid just days before Santorum introduced the doomed legislation on the floor. It's not exactly breaking news when a company's executives appear to have a cozy relationship with their home state's congressional delegation, but the bill was awful enough—and AccuWeather's tremendous potential benefit from the bill obvious enough—that the donation sent up red flags in the weeks and months after its introduction.

A failed piece of legislation from a decade-and-a-half ago isn't the entire reason for opposition to Myers' nomination. But it typifies the potential that exists for Myers to act in ways that benefit companies like AccuWeather. The nominee would enter office with enormous conflicts of interest in tow. If Myers became the NOAA Administrator, he would control the agency that directly competes with his company. Even if Myers divested from AccuWeather, his brothers still control the company and he has a vested interest in seeing his family's company thrive against the direct competitor he would control. 

Donald Trump can easily re-nominate Myers once the 116th Congress is sworn-in on Thursday. The president could also nominate someone else or simply opt to let Gallaudet continue serving as Acting Administrator for the remainder of the administration. Republicans gain two additional seats in the midterm elections, expanding their majority to 53-47. However, the president's party could easily confirm nominees on a simple majority vote—a luxury they had in the previous Congress, as well, indicating a lack of will to expend the political capital necessary to push Myers into the job.

[Top Image: Pierre cb via Wikimedia Commons]

You can follow me on Twitter or send me an email.

Please consider subscribing to my Patreon. Reader-funded news is more important than ever and your support helps fund engaging, hype-free weather coverage.