The infamous January winter storm that never happened triggered mixed emotions and unnecessary panic. The so-called nor’easter walloped much of New England, while Philadelphia and New York City emerged mostly unscathed. Gary Szatkowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist, deeply apologized to the public for the mistaken forecast.
Can we really blame him? If anything the apology was welcomed but unnecessary. Weather forecasting is difficult, as it involves complex mathematical models on fluid dynamics and chaos theory. The current numerical models provide five-day forecasts with incredible accuracy, suggesting that incorrect forecasts are likely due to last-minute changes in the weather.
Weather patterns may be chaotic, but they provide a sense of regularity. After all, we expect winter to be doused with snowstorms and freezing rain, hence why the season requires extra caution.
The takeaway message here isn’t about the incorrect forecast but rather the understanding of the relationship between short-term and long-term changes. The meteorological connection is clear: Weather focuses on short-term atmospheric fluctuations, while climate focuses on long-term trends.
Short-term demands are necessary to achieve long-term goals. For college students, this means doing well academically each quarter leads to fruitful graduation. In the job market, accomplishing weekly requirements yields successful projects and rewards. Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can minimize global warming and protect the planet.
Sadly, snowstorms have devastating economic implications. The obvious consequence involves hazardous conditions that impede travel and endanger civilians, causing people to stay home from work and not go out to purchase or consume goods. Freezing rain destroys tree branches, while heavy snow disrupts electrical grids and cancels flights. Offices and schools close, and businesses experience losses due to a disrupted labor force.
Ordinary activities are interrupted, damage-related costs increase, supply falls and prices soar. The Wall Street Journal unsurprisingly anticipated that the January nor’easter could slow U.S. economic growth.
Thanks to the NWS, we are warned few days in advance of the impending snowstorm. Assessing the negative long-term consequences, the optimal approach is to increase short-term consumption of necessities. With the possible risk of a shortage and subsequent high prices, it’s better to purchase before while goods are cheap.
Curiously, unwarranted panic induces survivalist feelings in many consumers. Fearing a snowstorm-induced catastrophe, consumers flood stores to purchase “survival gears.” Road salt is a popular choice, as it reduces the freezing point of water and promotes de-icing. From the U.S. Geological Survey, nearly 43 percent of the nation’s salt was used for de-icing highways in 2014.
Where did all the hysteria originate? Geographic variations in climate are one such cause. The northern states in New England, the Midwest and the Mountain Zone are regularly below freezing temperatures during winter. Snowstorms are a common occurrence and citizens are accustomed to the climate. However, sudden snowfall in the warm southern states will likely trigger panic.
A second cause is political exaggeration. The main objective of all political officials is to ensure the safety of the public, but expressing doomsday concerns is counterproductive. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker rightfully urged residents to prepare for the snowstorm. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo added on by requesting residents to work from home.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to take a step further by gloomily warning residents to “prepare for something worse than we have ever seen before,” a justified statement as he was simply going off the information provided by the meteorologists. Such a stark caution would trigger fears of an apocalypse, and thus drive consumers into frenzy.
In a recent Time article, Brad Tuttle pinpoints an amplifying factor behind consumer hysteria: mob mentality. Acting on instinct, consumers simply buy whatever goods the masses purchase, as they believe crowds make well-informed decisions. The resulting snowball effect leads to intense competition, stampedes and wasted resources.
Mob mentality also explains why consumers stockpile perishable goods, like bread and milk. Alternatively, consumers may believe that the snowstorm apocalypse lasts only for a day or two; so perishable goods are sufficient. In a way, overstocking justifies altruism, since consumers can provide extra food for those unable to make such extravagant purchases.
Clearly, overconsumption of perishable goods is unwise and unhealthy. Snowstorms can induce power outages, so milk can’t be refrigerated, allowing for faster spoilage. Numerous health reports indicate that bread is rich with, LDL cholesterol and carbohydrates.
Instead, nonperishable goods, such as canned food and bottled water, should be purchased in sufficient amounts. Canned goods are last for few years, while powdered milk lacks the moisture needed by bacteria to grow.
For all purchases, it is critical to be frugal. Optimal consumer choice requires rational decision-making, and resources are simply too scarce to be wasted.
Badri Karthikeyan is a senior biology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]