Two Challenges for Meteorologists: Describing Weather, and Also How We Feel About It

Mar 14, 2017

It’s winter again in Milwaukee, three months after we got our first - and until now, only snowstorm this season.  This week's snowstorm was initially expected to bring three and eight inches of snow to the region, but it proved to be a lake effect snow and brought with it some prodigious snowfall totals.

Meteorologist Mike Westendorf, operations director at UWM’s Innovative Weather, says that the current conditions were the "perfect set up" for a lake effect snow storm. Lake Michigan's warmer temperatures - in the 30s - combined with air temperatures in the twenties supplied not only rising motion, but also fed moisture back into the air, explains Westendorf. "You're feeding a moisture source. It's like bringing your own batteries to your own toy, you keep it going."

The heavy snowfall totals were a delight to some - especially school children, while others were dismayed at the need to get their shovels and snow blowers out of the garage again. It’s that divide between the weather conditions and how we feel about them that provides the weather team with the difficult challenge of telling a narrative along with the weather. "So much of the storytelling comes from how we connect the emotion to the 'why'," says Westendorf.

"When you walk out the door, you will have an emotional reaction to what the weather is. You will enjoy it, you will be frustrated by it, and it’s important to not just go, 'Huh - I’m angry about it,' or 'I love it.' Ask 'Why?'

Westendorf says that most people who call the Midwest home actually enjoy experiencing four seasons, and this recent storm ends an abnormally snowless winter season on a positive note.

"Here is our last hurrah of winter and now all of us start to feel a little bit better now that we've had this, about what April and May will bring with flowers and showers and all that," he says.

While the current winter snowscape is an appropriate view for this time of year, this past winter has also delivered extreme weather conditions due to climate change - such as 70 degree weather in February.

Westendorf notes that while climate change is a serious conversation with great impacts to be expected, it is hard to dive into the topic during a weather update. He also admits that it is hard to feel guilty about extreme weather when you are able to take advantage of a warm and sunny day.

But, he says, for people who suffer from seasonal defective disorder, an abnormally warm day may just be the life saving break they need from typical winter weather.

"Weather hits everybody differently and it's hard to tell that story completely, especially in 45 seconds," says Westendorf. "But it is good to be curious about it and then maybe just dig underneath a little bit more."