Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Forecast

One of the tough things about living in northern Virginia, about 40 miles west of DC, is that storm forecasts are abysmally inaccurate until the event is actually occurring.  We are on some kind of invisible weather line that divides rain and snow and sometimes even the storm and no storm, which makes forecasting challenging.  It also makes things like planning conditioning rides a hit or miss proposition.  I often don't even try until 2 days before the weekend, and even then, I have to constantly keep my eye on the forecast until I'm getting in my truck to pick up Nimo.

This weekend marks the first winter storm in Virginia.  I've been reading about the impact of Winter Storm Diego in multiple states, including Virginia, all day, but we saw our first feathery flakes at just after 3 pm.  Interestingly, the weather app on my iPhone, which is owned by The Weather Channel, was in denial that there would be snow for us at all today.  All week long, I've been watching it and it was just going along it's merry way showing no snow.  Nope.  Not at all.  In fact, at one point a couple of days ago, it said it would be sunny and 39 degrees today.  This was despite the fact that multiple weather models were showing a mother of a storm just to our south.

I had recently complained to my riding instructor about how frustrating the weather forecasts are for this area.  There was a hurricane that came through earlier this year, and the forecast literally went from, "You are going to get 8-10 inches of rain" to "OK, it won't be that bad - maybe 2-4 inches" to "You'll be lucky to see a sprinkle" in a pretty short period of time.  It really sucks trying to prepare, and it happens ALL THE TIME that major events are predicted for our area and everyone runs out and buys out all the milk, bread, eggs, paper towels, and beer and then we get NOTHING.  Not even a hint that there is bad weather anywhere in the world.  I am concerned about this pattern because we do occasionally get really awful snow storms (not so much rain storms but we did get a lot of wind this year, including one day that my app said would be "windy" which is not the same as 70 mph winds that will easily take your beloved gazebo on your deck and transport it up over the deck railing, crash it into a tree, and flip it upside down so that it lands against your fence in a crumpled heap of metal).  And if meteorologists are perceived as routinely wrong about predicting major bad weather, at some point, there will be a lot of unprepared people in a world of trouble.

My instructor happens to be a weather junky and pointed me in the direction of a couple of sources for better forecasting information.  It's possible that I've become addicted to checking both of them multiple times a day, especially while this storm was on the way.  The first is https://www.tropicaltidbits.com/analysis/models/.  This one is great because it shows the whole United States and you can choose from quite a few different forecast models and the website will run the model for up to 384 hours (16 days) in advance.

Apparently the GFS model is most commonly used by TV forecasters and also by the weather app on my phone.  That isn't necessarily a problem unless an East Coast snowstorm is on the horizon.  According to the other source my instructor gave me - Wxrisk.com - the GFS model is notoriously bad in forecasting these types of weather events.  Wxrisk is focused on the mid-Atlantic region, although there is information about other areas of the country on the website too.  I follow the site on Facebook, and I watched the full 16 minute Last Call Forecast last night at about 11 pm to get what I thought was a very thoughtful analysis.  DT (the name of the forecaster) walked viewers through several different models and then gave his own assessment about what would happen in terms of snowfall in the NC/VA area (he is based in Richmond, VA, so that is his primary location).

Time will tell if DT was correct in the snowfall numbers, but it looks like some of the initial reports coming in are supporting his prediction.  Our location was on the boundary of 2 inches and less than 1 inch, and sadly, less than one inch is what we got.  Despite some promising snowflakes falling during the afternoon, by the time I left to head out to the barn, this is what my truck looked like:


I had decided to take our dog, Hera, with me, even though I have actually never taken her to the barn where Nimo is currently at before.  (I brought her with me to a previous barn during one of the many ridiculous snow storms we had during the winter of 2009-2010 because she was cooped up so much.  We ended up having to hike a half mile through 24-36' high snowdrifts during 60 mph winds to get to the barn and at one point she hunkered down behind a drift as if to say, "We might as well wait it out in here."  We did eventually make it to the barn, but I don't think it is one of her fonder memories.)  The reason is partly because she just doesn't like horses, people, or other dogs, all of which tend to be in large numbers at the barn, and the dogs are typically not on leashes (even though the barn rules say they must be) and also because I don't really know what to do with her while I'm riding.

But tonight, I knew I was just going out for a quick feeding and turn out.  I've been infected with some sort of virus and after managing to miraculously survive Friday (I felt like I was on death's door by the time I crawled my aching body into bed) and keeping it together for a full day of activities on Saturday, I was trying to rest today before my week starts again tomorrow.  And Hera has been bored out of her mind because she hasn't been getting the attention and walks that she should be lately, so when I asked if she wanted to go, she practically jumped her 75-pound self into my arms with joy.  Plus, she has been handling normally stressful situations better than ever, so I figured it would be good practice for her if we encountered new things.

It was a bit of an adventure getting out to the barn because, as is quite common in northern Virginia, any time it snows or rains, enough drivers become idiots that it tends to jam up the roads.  In this case, we came upon what looked like a 3-car accident where two of the cars had hit head on and were totaled.  Emergency personnel hadn't arrived yet, so we were left to our own devices to get around the accident.  Regrettably, the Virginia Department of Transportation has never seen fit to build a proper shoulder on this road, even though it is a major state highway, so the shoulder, if it exists at all, is usually about 2 feet wide.  This means it is impossible for cars in accidents to get off the road.  But never underestimate the resourcefulness of drivers who want to avoid waiting for an accident.  Typically, we figure out a way to work through it that involves alternating one by one from each direction or sometimes even pretending we have a flagger who lets 10-15 cars go from one lane before stopping and letting another 10-15 cars go from the other lane.

This evening, though, we were in for a real treat.  As I was slowly pulling forward and as far on to the minimal shoulder that I could go, trying to assess how people were getting through, I realized a young woman was opposite me on the road and talking into a cell phone and waving her hand around.  I initially ignored it because I assumed she was part of the accident and on the phone with a 911 operator.  But no, apparently, stupid has reached new lows these days.  She was on her cell phone yacking away WHILE TRYING TO DIRECT TRAFFIC.  The hand that was waving was actually making a stop motion while she was also yelling "stop."  She was on the side of the road wearing dark grey clothes with no flashlight or reflective clothing in the dark with snow falling.  I soon ascertained that she had a partner in crime a little farther down the road.  He was wearing all black clothing and I could make out his silhouette because he was standing in front of a car's headlights.

I decided stopping was probably a good idea at this point because who knew what craziness was ahead.  I also noticed that part of the problem was that a fourth car had joined in the melee and was parked opposite the accident, effectively narrowing the bottleneck.  I was in the process of trying to decide how much trouble I would be in for using my truck as a battering ram to push the other truck into the ditch and out of the way or for getting out of my truck and yelling at the woman on the phone for setting up such a dangerous situation when the first police car on the scene arrived.  Relieved, I expected a quick resolution to the problem (which makes no sense because I have never seen an accident efficiently dealt with on this road.  In fact, the normal course of action is simply to close both lanes and let traffic back up for miles in both directions.)  The police officer first parked his car behind the truck on my side of the road, narrowing the bottleneck even more and then got out of his car and handed a flashlight to the man in black directing traffic before wandering off to do...something useful I hope.  So now I see this little flashing light in the distance that looks sort of like one of the little bobbing lights used for patronuses in Harry Potter.  I surmised that the bobbing light was my cue to move forward, so I decided to get out while the getting was still good and continued on my way, shaking my head in disbelief.

Free at last, I happily speeded up down the highway and enjoyed a few minutes of forward momentum before coming up behind a truck going approximately 30 mph.  I want to be clear that yes, it was snowing, but it wasn't sticking much to the road and there was no reason to be going that slow.  I am a pretty conservative driver, and if someone is going slower than I am, that person is pretty insecure about driving.

It wasn't long before we encountered another type of driver often seen during snow events.  The one who attempts to abandon their vehicle in an inconvenient place because they simply cannot cope with the weather conditions anymore.  This person was driving an SUV so shouldn't have been having any trouble with the road, and yet, there he was, pulled off of the road partway and wandering around on the side of the road, probably calling for a tow truck.  No hazard lights on.  No flares.  No flashlight.  Just stopped.

I made it around him, suffered in silence behind the slow driver for several more miles and finally turned off of the main highway for the last few miles to the barn.  The road was blissfully unpopulated, and I was pleased to see the barn had gotten about an inch of snow.  It was pretty in the dark and Hera loves snow, so she was excited to get out and jump around in it.  She went with me into the barn and happily accompanied me while I did my chores and turned Nimo out.  We even took a few minutes to run around and play in the snow before we headed back home.

Two of my favorite creatures in all the world
The drive home was thankfully uneventful and it looked like the road had finally been treated (seriously, VDOT, there is nothing like treating the road AFTER it has snowed...).  Although, I was behind a Sheriff's SUV for awhile and just as we got to the town limit, he flipped his lights on, slammed on his brakes, and did a U-turn.  I'm assuming yet another idiot managed to somehow have an accident in what was basically a dusting of snow on a treated road.  Ahhhhh, life in northern Virginia!:)

4 comments:

  1. Here is one thing you would love about Germany, besides the salt trucks that go through every night even if it's just icy out, every car must have a first aid kit with a reflector triangle and vests for as many passengers are in the car. So while you rarely see break downs/crashes, when you do, you'll see an entire family standing on the other side of the wall from their car, all dressed in blaze green/orange. The vests must be reachable from the inside of the car, no stashing them in the trunk allowed. I could see this as another imposition on my freedoms, but this seems like a good one.

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    1. I think this is an awesome idea, lytha! I can see how being told every little thing you need to carry with you would be irritating, but it would have helped so much if the people in the accident had been wearing vests or there had been some kind of hazard lights on or reflective triangles on the road. I like this idea so much I think I'm going to implement it at our house!

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    2. The nice thing about being forced to have a first aid kit in your car - you will normally be within reach of your car when you suddenly need to administer first aid. We certainly don't have what we need in our house, but we grabbed it from the car when a gardener cut himself with a chain saw. Silly bureaucracy - the first aid kit expires regularly and must be replaced *pffft*!

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    3. Oh my! Well, it's good that you were prepared with a non-expired first aid kit! I'm kind of curious to know what is in the kit now and how the expiration date is checked.

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