HAP Blog

How to Track Winter Weather Like a Pro

You don’t need to be a weather expert, but you should follow the forecasts like one

January 31, 2022

Ask anyone in the business of weather watching and they will tell you that forecasting winter weather is one of the hardest things to do accurately. There are plenty of forecast models along with specific trends and data and, at times, they can all show different predictions until the day before or even the day of a storm. We know that winter weather can have a severe impact on our facilities, so tracking these forecasts is part of our job in emergency management.

Winter weather forecasting begins with various observation systems such as satellites, Doppler radar, and automated surface observing systems. These systems combine data and produce models that will estimate what will happen next with the storm. There are many models out there, such as high-resolution models, national models, and global models to name a few.

These weather models may feel overwhelming at times, but tracking the forecast gives us more time to get ready for the storm. Let's go over a few of the most common types of models and why knowing the forecast matters to you.

Global models

There are two major global forecast models in the world: the Global Forecasting System (GFS) and the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (Euro).  

Weather aficionados are familiar with the ongoing “model wars” about which of these systems best predicts the weather, but they both take into account a complex matrix of variables to make long-range forecasts.

Here’s a little bit about the two models:

  • GFS:  The GFS model was produced by the United States government and covers the entire globe. The model shows the forecast up to 16 days out and runs updates four times per day. Critics have said this system lags behind several major weather centers abroad, but it has been upgraded during recent years. This model is free to use, so your facility can track changes without a subscription. 
  • Euro:  The Euro model was produced by a group of European governments and covers the entire globe. The model shows the forecast up to ten days out and runs updates twice a day. This model is known as one of the most accurate to use for winter storms and gained notoriety for accurately tracking Hurricane Sandy during 2012. This model typically is only for commercially licensed businesses, but you can have a personal license with access through an individual subscription on a website hosting the model

These models can give you a glimpse of what our world’s weather experts are expecting to occur more than a week in advance. While no weather model can be perfect, they both offer longer-range predictions about what the weather could look like in your community.

Local models

There are also local models, which provide the forecast for the United States and are considered mesoscale models. The two most popular models are the North American mesoscale forecast system (NAM) and the high-resolution rapid refresh model (HRRR). 

These models generate high-resolution forecasts over fixed regions and tend to have shorter prediction windows than the GFS and Euro models.

  • NAM:  The North American mesoscale forecast system was produced by the United States government and covers only the United States. There are two versions of this system, a standard and a high resolution. The standard model will predict weather three-and-a-half days out, whereas the high-resolution will predict weather two-and-a-half days out. This model is free to use, so your facility can track changes without a subscription
  • HRRR:  This model also was produced by the United States government and covers only the United States. The forecast is provided up to 18 hours ahead of the storm and updates occur once every hour. This model is free to use so your facility can track changes without a subscription

Preparing for the storm

This is just a small sample of what goes into winter weather forecasting. Although the forecasts are subject to change, especially during the winter, they are helpful across our emergency management teams.

Having more lead time allows us to get our emergency weather plans in motion and check the action items off our preparedness list, which can include:

  • Clearing snow to keep driveways, walkways, and doorways clear and safe, and removing snow off potentially vulnerable structures/overhangs
  • Considering the impact on roads for car accidents and the transfer of critical patients
  • Changes in deliveries from vendors and other groups
  • Staffing levels and the potential for call-offs across your organization

You don’t need to be an expert in the intricacies of these weather models or atmospheric ozone concentration, but knowing the long and short range forecasts gives us ample time to prepare. Once we know a storm is on the way, we can put our expertise in emergency management into action.

For questions about weather models and forecasting, contact HAP’s Emergency Management team for more information.

Authors:  HAP’s EM Managers Matt Linse and CJ Sabo, MPH, EMT-B.

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