The Worst Commute Ever: What Went Wrong Last Night In Portland

December 15, 2016

9pm Thursday…

After the disastrous December 29, 2009 commute (the worst I had ever seen), I wrote quite a long blog post explaining what went wrong with the forecast.  This time it’s a bit different.  Most of the problem wasn’t with the forecast or the forecasters, although we should accept a small part of the blame as you’ll see.  I don’t want this to turn into some diatribe against our hard-working friends who work for the government, so I’ll keep it brief.  If I get any facts wrong, PLEASE correct me in the comments below.


First, the forecast was CORRECT.  The Portland NWS forecast 2-5″ of snow and my 1/2″-2″ were fine.  Actually anything over 1″ would have had the same effect.  The drama had unfolded within the first two hours when the initial snowfall began.  Timing was excellent, with flurries beginning around Noon-1pm and then real accumulations beginning around 1:30 west metro and a little later east and north metro.


  1. MANY OF YOU DECIDED TO WAIT UNTIL SNOW WAS IN THE AIR OR ON THE GROUND TO HEAD HOME  I was driving into work 11:30-12:30 and highways were fine, traffic was light.  Apparently lots of people didn’t head home at noon or 1pm.
  2. PORTLAND FREEWAYS HAVE NOT KEPT UP WITH OUR POPULATION GROWTH  This isn’t meant to be a political statement, but just a fact that we are over capacity.  We’ve run one story after another about the constant traffic jams on various freeways.  I remember moving back to the area in 1991 and thinking “wow, there are still only two lanes on I-5 by the Memorial Coliseum.  They’ll probably add a lane soon”.  Well, it’s 25 years later!  How is it possible that in a metro area of 1.5 million people we still have a two lane freeway through the central core???  So regardless of the choices that have led to this, if you have a surge of people suddenly head out on the highways, the roads will get jammed.
  3. TOO MANY PEOPLE WERE TAKING A BIG CHANCE DRIVING A CAR THAT SHOULDN’T BE ON SNOWY ROADS.  Regardless of the reasons for driving that vehicle, many of us share responsibility for this one.  People driving cars and/or tires that shouldn’t be on ice/snow are a big problem because they caused backups for others.
  4. SOME SCHOOL DISTRICTS (INCLUDING PORTLAND/GRESHAM/BEAVERTON) CHOSE TO DO A FULL DAY AND HAVE BUSES ON THE ROADS WHEN SNOW IS FALLING.  Of course reporters have grilled all the local districts about the fiasco.  They have all apologized profusely and plan to be a bit more careful next time.  Fair enough.  Here’s an interesting tidbit…The superintendent of the Beaverton District said this in his note to parents: “Unfortunately, the weather arrived sooner than expected”.  Of course that’s not true.   But after thinking about it, I realized that statement could be directly related to our forecasts…item #5
  5. FORECASTS HAVE IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY THE PAST 15 YEARS, EXPECTATIONS ARE HIGHER.  Back in 2000 we would have just forecast “snow developing, 1-4″ by evening”.  But nowadays we can often pinpoint the timing and give a more detailed forecast.  Thus my 2pm-9pm snow forecast the day before.  Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t have started at 1pm or 3pm, or even 12 or 4.  But people are trusting us more than ever.  The key here is that we are implying more accuracy than we can REALLY deliver most of the time. One phrase I never use on TV and we don’t use at FOX12 but I hear used a lot:  YOUR HOUR BY HOUR FORECAST.  That’s a load of TV marketing crap; we can’t forecast down to the hour and neither can your app.  But sometimes we can get close.  To summarize:  If we say 2pm-9pm, it’s probably safest to be out of there a good two hours before that.  Again, this is partly our fault.
  6. LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES DON’T MAINTAIN MASSIVE FLEETS OF SNOW REMOVAL EQUIPMENT AND DON’T USE SALT ON METRO AREA ROADS SINCE WE RARELY GET BIG STORMS.  Again, regardless of the reasoning, these are just choices we have made.  Would we double the size of the plow fleet in the area for an event that happens only once every 5 years?  I doubt most of us would think it’s worth the cost.  As for salting roads, it was sure interesting visiting a local mall parking lot and two other establishments this evening…wet parking areas.  As soon as I hit city streets again it was a sheet of ice.  Obviously they are using something different at private businesses.  Seattle also didn’t use salt…until a mayor lost re-election after a big snowstorm fiasco up there in 2008.   They now use it during major storms only…seems like that could be a reasonable environmental compromise?  You can discuss that below.

There you go…my thoughts on the 1-3″ snowstorm that brought us the worst commute ever in Portland.  Feel free to comment, but if you are new to the blog your comment won’t show up until I let it pass through.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

Final Storm Totals & Cold Nights Ahead

December 15, 2016

There has been some confusion over the official snow total here in Portland.  Of course to meteorologists and weather stat geeks this is IMPORTANT stuff!

The official snow total that will go in the record books for the Portland observation will be 1.5″ from yesterday’s storm


The official observations between 1940 and 1996 were taken at the Portland airport, but when the Portland NWS forecast office moved, the observations moved as well.  At that time most of the time snow observations stopped at the airport. So for the past 20 years our official snow reports come from the Parkrose area, a few miles SE of the airport.

Around 2008 (during that big snow event) I noticed observers started occasionally reporting snow totals at the airport again.  As far as I’m aware they have not been required to do that but they do from time to time.  Someone from the FAA/NWS can correct me if I’m wrong about the observers out there.

Snow depth is also recorded at KGW which is part of the official downtown record.  They had 1.5″ as well.  Now today the observer reported 2.3″ AT the airport, so that may be a number you are hearing.

Here’s our final snow map then which includes those totals:


Obviously the downtown and NWS office numbers seem a little low, although they fit well into the 1-3″ range I mentioned in the previous posting.

Now we’ve seen 2, yes 2 measurable snowfalls this month…how exciting.  That means it’s the SNOWIEST DECEMBER SINCE 2009.  Very dramatic I know, but it’s Portland.


Let’s briefly talk weather…it’s gonna be real quiet the next few days.  Pretty much dry Friday-Sunday unless we get flurries, mainly on Sunday.

Skies will at least partially clear tonight, so I’m going for a 21 at PDX with our partially snow-covered ground.  IF we get total clearing by midnight, these forecast temperatures will be on the high side:


Tomorrow night should be colder with drier air and NO cloud cover.  I expect to see widespread teens even in the urban areas.  Friday night should be the coldest we have seen in 3 winters:


By the way, I got very lucky last night.  My commute (43 miles this time) was only 20 minutes longer than normal due to light traffic, a good 4Runner, and new studded tires.

Only 2″ snow for me, but enough to run my new (used) toy.  A Craigslist snowblower!  I bought it from some guy back in August.  He moved here from Fairbanks, lived in Gresham, and didn’t use it for 3 years.  Fun times, but it would get really old if you have to do it every other day for 4 months!

Stay warm!

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

Storm Almost Done: 1-3″ Widespread in Metro Area

December 14, 2016

7pm Wednesday…

The traffic gridlock this evening in the Portland metro area was the worst we have seen in 7 years and many freeways are still jammed going on 4 hours now.  You may remember the surprise snowstorm of December 29, 2009?  That’s the last time we saw this.  Click on the link for summary of that fiasco.

But this storm was perfectly forecast!  At least up until around 5pm when totals started going above that 2″ forecast I gave.  I think too many people decided to wait to leave work until the snow started falling.  So then we had a very compact commute at the same time roads turned icy…what a mess.

The one miss is the northern extent of the snow band.  Instead of stopping around Pacific City to St. Helens to Woodland, it headed north all the way to Longview, Tillamook, & Cannon Beach.  You folks got an unexpected snowfall.

This is what we’ve seen so far, as the main band has pushed to the east.  Officially the total so far is 1.5″ at the Portland National Weather Service forecast office; I assume that number will go up at little:

Definitely a solid inch or so above my 1/2″ to 2″ forecast.  Remember I said a few folks could see 3″, but in reality we’re going to see a few spots up around 4″ instead.  Close enough…

Radar shows the real solid snow has passed on to the east, but the wraparound moisture from a wave moving by will move over our area the next couple of hours.

Enjoy the snow!

3:40 PM: Conditions Thread

December 14, 2016

Post your current conditions and snowfall totals in the comments. Don’t forget to tell us your location.

2pm: Snowstorm Beginning

December 14, 2016

We’re all seeing the snow now in the metro area with the storm getting started.  Hope most of you are home!

I see a few school districts didn’t release the kids at noon…that could be a problem.

We’ll be live on FOX12 likely the rest of the day.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

9am Wednesday: Snow Arrives This Afternoon

December 14, 2016

Everything is still on track forecast-wise this morning.  Yes, it’s always good to see the forecast train hasn’t flown off those tracks and into a deep meteorological ravine…

Eugene has seen freezing rain since 5am, but the precipitation has not progressed much north of that area.  But we didn’t expect to either.  Radar looping shows very little northward movement of the band so far.

So with respect to start time for snow in the metro area, it still appears significant “travel-impacting” snow (other than a few flurries) will hold off until around 2-3pm.

Temperatures and the airmass pouring into the metro area definitely scream “something frozen is on the way“.  Compared to last Thursday’s east wind event, this airmass is slightly drier and colder down here at the surface.  When precipitation arrives, the temperature will easily fall right back to freezing (after going to 35-37 early afternoon) and then below after dark.

Up above, the morning sounding at Salem is all snow with below freezing temperatures all the way up through the atmosphere.

Morning models are marginally “wetter” with some showing the potential for up to 3″ of snow.  Our RPM has moistened up a bit showing more like 2″ of snow instead of a trace to 1″.  So we MAY get lucky and see a solid 2″ in much of the metro area…maybe.


Again, as mentioned in previous postings, the central Willamette Valley has a snowstorm about to begin.  A solid 3-5″ (maybe more?) is likely Salem/Albany/Stayton areas.  We’ll see how that turns out.

To wrap it up, I’ll bring back yesterday’s highlights:


  • Light snow arrives by mid-afternoon (2-3pm) and continues through the evening hours as temperatures drop back to & below freezing
  • 1/2″ to 2″ snowfall is most likely, with that heavier total likely south metro (Wilsonville/Oregon City) and maybe even as low as just a dusting up in outer Clark County & western Washington County.
  • Whatever falls will be pretty much finished by 10pm.
  • Freezing rain is NOT expected, Great news!  Too cold overhead for snowflakes to melt into raindrops


  • At some point beyond 3pm roads will likely turn snowy/icy in the metro area
  • Evening commute could be a real mess, especially if we get more than 1″.  All roads will likely be frozen after 5pm.
  • IF YOU WORK A REGULAR SHIFT, I’D SUGGEST A HALF DAY.  NO NEED TO SKIP THE WHOLE DAY.  Leave Noon-2pm.  Plan on being home by 3pm.
  • SCHOOLS:  Half day would be perfect.  Get the kids on the busses around noon or 1pm.  No models show snow before 2pm.  Doing a full day of school would be risky.
  • Thursday AM:  Roads remain frozen with snow on them (assuming it snows tomorrow)


  • Snow will start falling in the next 2-3 hours in the central valley.
  • 2-5″ likely Woodburn to Albany, heaviest south
  • Frozen roads for Thursday morning
  • Kelso/Longview only get a dusting, or just stay dry


Looks dry, but maybe a rain/snow mix from Newport south, I don’t expect any road impacts.


Same as metro, but 2-5″ totals likely.  Strong wind at the west end will create rough driving with sideways snow this evening


  • This is the bullseye of the storm
  • 8-14″ possible Madras to La Pine, 3-6″ elsewhere

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

Quick Tuesday Evening Update: Forecast on Track

December 13, 2016

11pm Tuesday…

All evening models are in now.  There will only be one more set of model runs in tomorrow morning before our big event (well, at least big to our south and east).

What’s different?  In the big picture very little.  Cold air is pouring through the Gorge with gusts around 70 mph at Vista House and just below 60 mph at Corbett.  Temperatures in those locations are now down to where they were just before last Thursday’s event.  Evaporational cooling (temp drops when precip falls into a dry airmass) should bring us all down TO freezing when precip arrives early-mid afternoon.

The Portland metro area will be right on the northern edge of a band of snow stretching across much of Oregon.

Two minor changes:

  1. Timing: Models (as a whole) are slightly slower bringing in the precipitation and getting it out of here as well.  I’d be surprised to see anything other than flurries before 1pm.  The ECMWF keeps some sort of snow going until late evening too.
  2. Accumulations:  The GFS/GEM/ECMWF were all SLIGHTLY wetter (whiter in this case).  At most there is enough precip for 3″ of snow.  But in a nod to the tight gradient of no snow to the north to 3″+ at Salem, I’ll leave our 1/2″ to 2″ forecast the same.


This is what I’ve used on-air this evening and I guess it counts as my final forecast…we’ll see what happens!



Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen