Q&A: Winter weather forecasts, from our national centers to your neighborhood

Snowy winter day.
Snowy winter day. (iStock)

For 75 years, NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center, in College Park, Maryland, has delivered lifesaving weather forecasts for significant events that involve precipitation – such as rain, sleet, and hail and that produce flash floods, tropical cyclones and extreme snowfall.

We sat down with Greg Carbin, chief of the Center’s forecast operations branch, to talk about how meteorologists across NOAA work with WPC to produce accurate, timely predictions for the larger U.S. and down to your own Zip Code.

Greg Carbin is NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center Forecast Operation branch chief in College Park, Maryland.
Greg Carbin is NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center Forecast Operation branch chief in College Park, Maryland. (NOAA)

Q.  So, first off: How do you forecast a winter storm?

GC: Forecasting winter precipitation is interesting from many perspectives. Our ability to forecast a winter storm depends on properties in the atmosphere. Think about a snow forecast like a recipe. If ingredients like cold air, moisture, and rising air come together in the right way, they will result in wintry weather.

Our forecasters, who are scientists, understand well the required ingredients to be confident in a snow forecast. Like any weather forecast, there is greater uncertainty many days in advance, but as we get closer, the picture usually becomes clearer. It is our forecasters’ job to recognize those atmospheric patterns that trigger heavy precipitation

Q.  What is the role of the Weather Prediction Center in developing winter weather forecasts?

GC: The Weather Prediction Center collaborates with our colleagues across NOAA’s National Weather Service to provide detailed forecasts of snowstorms and other high-impact precipitation events.  

For example, if we notice a significant winter-weather pattern developing across a large portion of the country, we have the experts here in Maryland to understand the dynamics of that weather and we share our analyses with local forecasting offices.

Q.  What’s the relationship between forecasters at the Weather Prediction Center and those at the 122 weather forecast offices around the country?

GC: We have a lot of interaction and collaboration. Forecasters across National Weather Service forecast offices share expertise and information. WPC offers “big picture” national-level forecasts that weather forecasts offices can then tailor for their local communities. We like to say, “One National Weather Service, one forecast.” What this means is that we work together to deliver the best possible forecast for your neighborhood.

Q.  Greg, what do you enjoy most about forecasting winter weather?

GC: Snow is the best. I love snow! I wouldn’t be a meteorologist without my love for winter weather. While winter storm forecasts can be tricky due to significant uncertainty about where rain/snow boundaries will set up, we appreciate the challenge and strive to ensure that citizens and businesses are well prepared for the impacts a winter storm may bring. With that preparedness under our belts, we can all relax in a safe place and enjoy the awesome power and beauty of a good snow storm.

More: Head on over to NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center for national weather forecasts and to NOAA’s weather.gov for the latest local forecasts, watches and warnings for your Zip Code.