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What a Meteorologist Thinks About the Big Online Blizzard Debate

Sven Sundgaard talks shop in the social media age.

MN DNR Eagle Cam|

What does this bald eagle think? We can only guess.

Is the current hyped-up, unnamed blizzard a bust? Depends on who you ask.

Perhaps no Twin Cities storm in history has drummed up so much online discourse, a symptom of social media brain-poisoning meeting Minnesotans' DNA-level propensity to talk weather. Some models projected 25 inches, which would've put us within a snowball's distance of the '91 Halloween Blizzard, though the on-the-ground reality will hit closer to 17. That measurement gulf is leading to two schools of tweets.

The Patrick Reusse attackers:

And the Sven Sundgaard defenders:

In pursuit of context and clarity, we reached Sundgaard by phone earlier today. The questioning was twofold: How off or not off were professionals in his profession? And what's modern metrological life like in the cacophonously chattering trenches of Twitter, Facebook, and *shudders* Nextdoor?

How does the level of townspeople grousing online now compare to the past?

I have to say, last night and earlier this morning there was a lot of vitriol. Because people had commented before waiting for the storm to finish. I literally just tweeted about 10 minutes ago some of the latest snow totals, and basically said trolls you need to be quiet, and I've gotten several apologies.

Whoa! That never happens.

Yeah, yeah. I think once people see the numbers come in, or go outside and shovel it, they'll be like, "Oh, wait, OK." Phil Picardi, who's one of our news readers at MPR, just tweeted out: "I'm old enough to remember when a bust was actually a bust." There's some funny back and forth. To return to your original point, people kind of lump all meteorologists together. And there were some forecasts earlier in the week that were up to 25 inches, and those were clearly too high. But there was always a pretty wide range in the forecast totals. We had 19 inches in Apple Valley, there was a 16.7 in northeast Minneapolis, and a lot of 15, 16, 17 inches within the metro. Really the forecast was verified for all intents and purposes. I think people got all worked up about wanting to get to that two feet or more, rival something like the Halloween Blizzard. Which is probably never going to happen. That record sits there, probably forever; it's like four inches beyond the next highest total.

In the complaining zone of Twitter this morning, I saw a quote attributed to you saying that if you're under 32, you'll have never seen a snow event like this. How close did we get to that being true?

So [2010's] 17.1 inches was the biggest storm since the Halloween Blizzard. Anything over that is the biggest since then. That all depends on which suburb you're in for this one.

So more or less, you were right?

Yeah. I mean, personally my forecast total was 16 to 20. I'm happy with that coming in within that range for most areas. People tend to look at—and this is a product of the internet—they see whatever shows up in their feed, they see this snow total map, and they don't actually read anything. And this isn't unique to this storm, we hear this a lot. The number of people who, on Tuesday night, were like: "We only got three, four inches of snow—this is a bust!" People... it's always been coming in two rounds. Even from a couple colleagues this morning, who will go unnamed, earlier this morning they were talking about the storm being a bust. Look out the window! It was still snowing two inches an hour. We're not done with the storm yet, we're still getting those perfect dendritic snow crystals—the big fluffy ones that pile up quick.

That's a good meteorology term right there. So when you were going to school, I'm sure you were prepared for the reality that meteorologists are essential to communities, but also kinda Public Enemy No. 1 when things don't pan out the way they predicted. How much were you prepared, in your education, for that element of the job? If at all?

Not at all. Growing up as a member of the public, you maybe kind of have that idea of how people talk about meteorologists, but I don't think any metrology program can prepare you for the PR aspect. Frankly, there are crazy politics involved. The other thing these days, is you have amateur weather people who are posting these crazy computer-generated maps a week ago. That's when people are starting to see those 25-, 30-inch amounts. That starts to set the expectation in people's minds. You have to start from the beginning combatting that. If people read the forecast discussions, they should not be surprised at all. Two feet of snow was never a likely outcome from any good forecaster.

So I'm curious: You, Paul Huttner, I'm sure lots of other locals in your field, really put yourself out there on social media. The debate, the dialogue, the weather discourse... Do you kind of enjoy it?

I mean, I do when we're right I guess [laughs]. The problem is, for any meteorologist who talks a lot about climate change like I do, we're kind of used to this. The whole denying of facts, and if you choose to respond: Here, charts! We're used to it. It's a matter of do you engage or not? And if somebody is being just totally disrespectful there's no point, but some people genuinely want to have a discussion. Which, of course, we all know Twitter is not good for that. I've gotten a lot of apologies this morning, which is not very common.

Anything about this current weather event we haven't talked about that you think is interesting or important?

I think the expectation game is interesting. Whether you were expecting 20 inches or 18 inches or whatever, the fact that everywhere got over a foot for a storm total, and there are disappointed people? That's interesting, because that's still a major storm for Minnesota. We're waiting on the airport total, but as long as it comes in at over 13 inches, which it's virtually guaranteed to, this is a top 24 snowfall for the Twin Cities. (Ed. note: It did, just barely.) And it's our second of the season! That's only happened three other times, and all three of those were in the '80s. This is the first time in 38 years that we've had two storms in one winter season in that top category. That's impressive. People should feel proud about that. We don't have to beat the Halloween Blizzard for bragging rights.

Speaking of the Halloween Blizzard, my colleague Keith recently came out very strongly against the naming of blizzards. I'm curious what you think: Should we name them? Are they fun to name? Corny to name? Have any for this current one jumped out to you as good or bad?

I think it's OK to name the most significant ones, because we kind of have to refer to when they happen. There's the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940, the Halloween Blizzard happened around Halloween. But a lot of people forget: Most of that snow came on November 1, but we call it the Halloween Blizzard. So naming a storm after the fact, if it was a significant one? I think that's OK. It's what the Weather Channel does, where they name every winter storm, that's silly scientifically. NOAA does not officially name winter storms because it's just silly—the storm evolves too much, the impacts are different everywhere. The Weather Channel does that, basically, for media hype. After the fact it's OK. The 2010 December storm that knocked down the Metrodome roof? I'll always call that the Domebuster. That's what it's known for, and it was one of our most significant storms in Twin Cities history.

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