Saturday October 6, 2012

For many Berkshire residents, especially those who remember the brutal surprise snowstorm they were coping with 25 years ago today, the thought of winter weather is enough to make them crawl under the covers.

Good news for them: The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md., expects a warmer than normal winter for the second straight season, with equal chances of above, normal or below-normal precipitation.

"We're heading into an El Nino winter," said Warren Snyder, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y. That means above-normal Pacific Ocean waters along the equator alter North American weather patterns.

The result for the Berkshires and the Northeast region, he explained, is temperatures a couple of degrees above normal, on average, but that doesn't rule out snow, nor rule it in.

Skiers and fans of other outdoor winter recreation, take heart: Accuweather predicts an abundance of major snowstorms in the Northeast, especially the Berkshires and the Catskills.

The private forecasting firm sees slightly warmer than normal temperatures in November and December, dropping later in the season, setting the stage for above-average snowfall.

According to Paul Pastelok, Accuweather's senior meteorologist and head of its long-range forecasting department, long-range forecasts are imprecise. Last winter, the company failed to predict the abnormally mild, low-snowfall season in the Northeast and Midwest.

The Weather Channel, which has not pinpointed a winter weather outlook for the Berkshires, has stirred up a controversy by deciding to name major winter storms. The list includes Athena, Brutus, Caesar, Gandolf, Iago, Khan, Magnus and Rocky.

"Our goal is to better communicate the threat and the timing of the significant impacts that accompany these events," according to a Weather Channel statement. "The fact is, a storm with a name is easier to follow, which will mean fewer surprises and more preparation."

But rivals such as AccuWeather took note of another explanation: "It might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users."

At best, weather forecasting is an inexact science, blending expertise with the art of judgment calls.

Not predicted by forecasters, the Oct. 4-5, 1987, snowstorm caught area residents by surprise. The shock-and-awe impact included widespread power failures caused by tree limbs still in full fall foliage snapping under the weight of the heavy, wet snow. Some Berkshire residents lost power for several days or up to a week.

Many roads were blocked and houses damaged by the branches and trees that fell, according to Eagle and Transcript archives. Some areas had the appearance of a war zone.

It was the earliest measurable snow on record in the county.

The landscape was transformed in the Berkshires, eastern New York and the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire as cities, towns, valleys and slopes were cloaked in a wintry, white blanket that contrasted with the red, orange and yellow foliage.

States of emergency were declared in Pittsfield and Great Barrington because of hazardous roads and widespread power blackouts. The annual Fall Foliage Parade in North Adams was canceled.

"It was terrible time," said Mayor John Barrett III, who had been tapped as grand marshal. "I'll never forget that day."

Joseph Tognarelli, a student at North Adams State College, as MCLA was called at the time, was killed when he touched a live, downed wire on the campus.

More than 70 tourists stranded at Bascom Lodge on the Mount Greylock summit set up beds, helped prepare meals, and were awarded certificates stating: "I survived the Great Greylock Storm of Oct. 4, 1987."

In nearby Columbia County, N.Y., two residents of Copake and Chatham were killed by falling tees.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime event," said John Hockridge of New England Weather Associates in North Adams. "It was extremely out of the ordinary."

Snyder, a 28-year veteran of the government's Albany office, said computer and radar facilities are so far advanced now, compared to 1987, that there would be greater warning of a pre-season snowstorm. "It would be less of a surprise, by far," he said.

But last fall, residents and visitors were startled by the Halloween weekend snowstorm which dropped 24 to 32 inches on the area, the majority of the season's total.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto