Snowpocalypse 2015

For the last few days the media in New York have been filled with continuous frantic warnings of the deadly storm of the century bearing down on the city. Grocery stores have been emptied, with long lines of desperate people trying to stock up on supplies.

Midday yesterday Columbia announced that classes were canceled starting at 3pm, Barnard went one hour better, canceling classes starting at 2pm. The city announced that it would be illegal to be in the parks after 6pm (a snow-covered branch might fall on you), the transit system would start shutting down at 7pm and by 11pm there would be no public transit, and all roadways in the entire tri-state area would be closed to non-emergency traffic. The mayor’s office warned people not to try and order takeout delivery since it would be illegal for the delivery people to travel on the streets to deliver it.

By late afternoon the university was deserted, and stores on Broadway had signs announcing early closing due to the impending disaster. Weather reports the day before had said the storm would start at 1pm Monday, but by early evening there hadn’t been much more than snow flurries, with maybe an inch or two total accumulation. When I went to sleep around midnight, the city was completely locked down, with the TV news channels filled with blaring warnings of the two to three feet of snow about to arrive, interspersed with press conferences from public officials telling people to barricade themselves in their homes and not go outside.

The strange thing about this was that if you actually looked at the weather report, they were now forecasting 3-5 inches of snow overnight. Waking up in the morning and looking out the window, all that was visible were more flurries, and a total accumulation of 2-3 inches, with the streets clear. Turning on the TV news, the huge “Blizzard of 2015” logos were still up, and camera crews seem to have been sent out to search the region (mostly unsuccessfully) for a snow drift to put a reporter in front of. The contrast between looking out the window and watching TV was pretty dramatic.

Anyway, my class today is canceled, so students will have to wait until Thursday to hear more about the mathematics of quantization of the harmonic oscillator (complex structures, squeezed states, coherent states). Lecture notes still being worked on, but this is chapter 21 of the current notes.

Columbia never used to shut down at all, New York City never used to shut down the transit system, and the states never used to shut down all roadways. Until the past decade or so people tried to go about their business here in the winter, taking action to shut things down only once snow had arrived and was causing a problem. The US has now become a nation of hysterics, with media-driven hype frightening everyone about everything, and public officials desperately taking action to protect the citizenry from imaginary threats.

Luckily for us all, people cowering in their homes do have the internet and can still learn quantum mechanics. MIT has just announced that edX will have an online version of their quantum course, Mastering Quantum Mechanics, which looks quite good and will start February 10. The instructor will be Barton Zwiebach, and I’m glad to see that one of the topics covered will be squeezed and coherent states of the harmonic oscillator.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Snowpocalypse 2015

  1. ghassan says:

    The hysteric reaction to announced hypothetic threats is not a US-Only thing, You know France very well, and it is the same thing over here. The working principles of weather forecasters, politicians, … is that they will not be blamed for taking measures to protect against something that never happens, but they will be sued for not doing anything if the threat materialises. The much fabled “precautionary principle” (now part of the French constitution).


  2. Joel Rice says:

    wow did you get that right. North of the city we got a few inches of snow, and no traffic outside. Nothing like some storms in the sixties with drifts blocking doors so we could not get out of the house ! There was some ‘political’ change at the weather channel, and they decided to go for this over-the-top style of ‘reporting’.

  3. Shecky R says:

    Well, let’s be blunt: generations today are “softer” than they used to be when it comes to putting up with temporary hardship! But, in fairness to government and politicians, I don’t blame them for erring on the side of caution, given the absolute thrashing they will suffer whenever a true emergency or disaster arises, and lives are lost and well-being threatened. Our entire medical system is built on the same ongoing scheme, of outrageous costs, in order to curtail death and suffering whenever technically possible, instead of accepting it as part of life.

  4. Bee says:

    Meanwhile in Germany the hot topic this morning was the facebook outage…

  5. Jeff M says:

    Well, up here in CT we got dumped, almost 2 feet and still coming down. Right you are about hysteria though, up here everyone goes nuts in the grocery store. I’m like “it’s New England, it snows 2 feet at least every couple of years.” We got 3 feet two years ago. It really didn’t used to be like this, even in the city. I remember the Lindsay blizzard, the blizzards in ’78, the one in ’96 when there were people skiing down Lorimer Street and my terrier mix kept disappearing in the snow in Lindsay Park. Subways didn’t shut. Key Food was open. My wife works for a NYC company, which is of course shut. Her main office person in the city actually spent the night at the office, woke up to 6″ and was like WTF? My wife is of course working on the computer, I will light a fire later…

  6. Chris W. says:

    Peter, that URL bounces to MIT’s main online course page. This link goes directly to Mastering Quantum Mechanics.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Chris W.,
    Thanks, was missing an x, fixed.

    Jeff M.,
    I’ve heard the reports of 6″ here in the city. Always hard to tell with blowing snow, but up near Columbia I’d say it’s more like 2″, and that seems typical for reports from areas north and west of here. The governor’s decision to shut down the subway system (first time in history this was ever done because of snow) seems especially odd in Manhattan, where virtually all of it is underground. The subway has problems not when the snow falls, but when it melts.

    Mercifully the US seems to have escaped that disaster (not that I would notice…).

  8. Thomas Larsson says:

    Weren’t some Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter because they didn’t warn the public about some earthquake in advance? Better safe than sorry.

  9. David Appell says:

    “NYC Mayor: ‘Reconcile Yourselves With Your God, For All Will Perish In The Tempest’”,37850/

  10. Jeff M says:

    Yeah, that Onion bit was great 🙂 Peter, I would believe N and W was less, I think some of the Central Island got a bunch of snow, my wife’s company is in Greenpoint so more than 5 miles from Columbia. It is completely nuts they closed the subway in Manhattan, really any of the underground lines. They NEVER used to close the whole subway, though of course at times with say tons of snow the above ground lines would stop running for a while, or with flooding some of the underground lines would stop.

  11. CIP says:

    And when I was a kid we had to walk six miles to school through six feet of snow….

  12. Carey says:

    Onion is great re the blizzard…

    Blizzard Survival Tips

  13. Yaakov Baruch says:

    Awesome post! Similarly, I grew up playing with caustic soda, sulfuric and nitric acid, and lots of other lively chemicals, which I could buy at my local pharmacy. Sadly nowadays kids can only read (or watch videos) about this stuff. How sad (and not one iota safer).

  14. Harlequin says:

    I can see some benefit to shutting down before a storm, because there are situations that are less dangerous if people have already gotten themselves to shelter before the snow begins. (I’m thinking of the big blizzard in Chicago a few years ago where order a thousand cars ended up snowed in on Lake Shore Drive–the storm hit at the end of the workday, and the city chose to keep Lake Shore open instead of letting those ~1000 cars get snowed in on the surface streets where they’d block emergency vehicles. If there’d been an earlier snow emergency called, maybe more of those people would’ve gotten home; as it was, many stayed with their cars all night.) That doesn’t explain why the emergency management team hadn’t figured out by midnight that they didn’t need to stay closed for the morning, though. Nor does it answer why the underground trains shut down, unless it was more incentive for people to stay inside…

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Yes, it would be less dangerous if everything shut down, everyone got off the streets and stayed home whenever a snow storm was coming. Since there are snow storms pretty regularly in this area from December through March, best way to avoid any danger would be to implement this December 1, let people come back out of their homes only on April 1….

  16. Neil says:

    “let people come back out of their homes only on April 1….”

    Just in time for April Fool’s day. We don’t need the LHC to find WIMPS.

  17. sandy says:

    It’s easy to criticize and claim ‘hype’ but the memories of Superstorm Sandy are probably still fresh in the minds of the city leaders (that includes the police and other emergency workers). They’re not taking any chances. They are wise not to.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    “Don’t take any chances” does seem to be the new motto at work here (by the way, it’s also the motto at work in the NSA’s plan to collect all information about everyone, all the time).

    It might have been a good idea though for someone to explain to the Governor the difference (re flooding) between a snowstorm and a hurricane before letting him shut down the subway system.

  19. sandy says:

    According to CNN Headline News, coastal flooding is now a problem (admittedly in Massachusetts, not NYC). I believe not all of the coastal structures in NY+NJ which suffered flooding damage due to Sandy have been repaired. I recall Chris Christie (last year?) complaining about the attitudes of some of the residents in those regions. Depending on circumstances, the flooding situation in NY/NJ could have been very different.

  20. Peter Woit says:


    Among all the hysterical weather warnings for Manhattan the past couple days, I seem to have missed the ones about how the island was going to flood.

  21. sandy says:

    I have to deal with 2 feet of snow in my driveway. At least I didn’t lose heat and power, unlike back in 2012. Back in the good old days that everyone hankers for, there was no social media and blogs, indeed not even the internet. Today, the smallest incident (or mishap) can or will be posted online and possibly go viral. The city leaders, and those in other regions also, have to operate under that scenario.

  22. Harlequin says:

    We can (and apparently do) disagree on what level of danger is necessary before steps are taken. But there’s a time lag in getting large groups of people to do stuff, like evacuate or get home, and so you can’t always wait until the storm hits before you start asking people to get off the roads. It’s mostly that point that I was responding to.

    It’s about a balance of risks; I think a foot-plus of snow dumped on the city in a short time would have been dangerous, and taking precautions in that very rare case (even though it didn’t end up happening) isn’t unreasonable. Again, the subway, possibly unreasonable–as I also agreed in my first comment. And I wasn’t putting danger before everything else, what with my “they should have turned everything back on once they realized the storm wasn’t so bad” bit at the end. Obviously, it’s your blog and you can say what you like, but it seems a bit weird to take my point to an extreme illogical end that’s been refuted by the stuff I already wrote.

    (And my perspective may also be informed by having grown in up the Midwest, where many of the highway ramps have gates that can be closed in case of snow emergency, and schools build in an extra week or two to the calendar because the expectation of snow days is so high–your statement that “the states never used to shut down all roadways” is totally foreign to me. It wasn’t common, but it did happen. That said, the university in my hometown has closed a few times in the last few years. It never used to, even when everything else shut down.)

  23. Peter Woit says:

    Apologies for uncharitable comments. Looking out my window at the beautiful day, snowless streets, and locked up University may be making me kind of crazy…

    My understanding is that announcing a closing of all roads over the tri-state area, many hours in advance, at a time when there was no snow, was completely unprecedented for this area. This wasn’t a case of prudent closing of highways when a blizzard starts.

    Manhattan really is a different kind of environment than the rest of the US. People don’t have cars, and even when a foot of snow falls (not uncommon), sidewalks quickly get shoveled so it’s not hard to get around by foot and public transit. There are only a few arteries buses travel on, and those get plowed quickly. Shutting down the subway and bus system immediately brings the place to its knees: most people can no longer get to work or conduct their business, and everything has to shut down. This has never been done before in the history of the city because of a snow storm, I think what happened is just completely outrageous. The media and politicians however are busy telling themselves what a great job they did, how this had to be done in order to “not take chances”, and I fear the obvious lesson is not going to be learned.

  24. Peter Shor says:

    On the other hand, here in Massachusetts, I easily have two feet of snow in my yard. The city of Framingham, not very far away, had 2.5 feet early this afternoon, and I think nearly six inches have fallen since then. So the total snowfall amounts here are comparable to the Blizzard of ’78, but the aftermath is going to be much less costly because everything was shut down.

  25. CIP says:

    The only thing that will inspire more whining in New Yorkers than a real disaster is narrowly missing a predicted one. This was a really big snowstorm, and NY was lucky enough to only catch the edge of it. And Gloria would have been a really disastrous hurricane for NY if it had deviated a degree or two from the trajectory it actually took.

  26. sandy says:

    Long Island is not so far from NYC (Queens, anyone?), and some parts received substantial snowfall. A small difference in the track of the storm could have made a substantial difference to NYC. You may need a subscription to read this, but anyway there was quite a bit of snow at MacArthur airport on LI.

    The National Weather Service reported that as of 1 p.m. 24.8 inches of snow fell at Long Island MacArthur Airport. That is second only to the 27.8 inches that fell there Feb. 8 and 9, 2013, according to records the weather service has kept since 1984.

  27. srp says:

    I am glad that our host has recognized the excessive risk aversion that has infiltrated almost every aspect of public policy over the last thirty years. You could fill a large volume with scientists expressing laments along the lines of Yaakov above. You could easily do the same with even late baby boomers and early Gen Xers marveling over the new terror for children going about and playing without adult supervision, along with amazing horror stories of parents being pulled in by police because their ten-year-old was playing alone in a park or even outside their house.

    That’s without even getting into scientific-regulatory issues about radiation exposure, GMOs, drug approvals, etc. (I remember reading Crease and Mann’s The Second Creation about the history of particle physics where a then-contemporary physicist had a good laugh at their expense when they proposed recreating Rutherford’s experiment that discovered the nucleus–it would have been regulatorily impossible to do that experiment in New York City in the 1980s.)

    Anyway, not trying to start a big woolly political debate of the kind Peter hates, just expressing some sympathy for his frustration with the snow-phobia.

  28. Nobody says:

    It’s a step in the asinine infantilization of adults, which we seem to like, because we keep electing would be mommies and daddies. I can only shake my head at those here who are actually justifying it.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    I do detest ideological discussions, and in this case I just don’t see this as a right/left issue. Closing down the area was a joint Christie/Cuomo effort and, as a general rule, conservatives are every bit as willing to become hysterically fearful about things as liberals. This unfortunately seems to be a bipartisan trend. Not sure who to blame, one can always blame the media…

    Peter Shor/sandy/CIP,
    I’ve been in New York several times when it got two feet of snow, and honestly it just wasn’t a big deal, no “disaster” at all. There were some subway delays, streets in the outer boroughs took a while to clear. Nowhere near the impact this two inches has had.

    And, as I pointed out in the posting, at the point the hysterics shut everything down in the city last night, was predicting 3-5 inches of snow….

  30. Michael says:

    If the storm’s track were 50 miles to the west of it’s actual track, the snowpocalypse would have happened. They simply don’t have the ability to predict storm paths with extreme accuracy with current technology. All they knew is that there was a chance of a major snowstorm. Given the problems that would arise if the storm did hit New York City, it was prudent to prepare for the storm as people did.

  31. Anonyrat says:

    The Weather Channel was quite clear about the differing predictions of three major weather models.

    And this is what happened in February 2014:

    New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office 44 days ago promising to bring together residents of a divided city, was widely vilified Thursday for keeping the nation’s largest school system open during a brutal storm expected to leave up to 14 inches of snow in some areas.

    While millions of children in the region were given the day off, New York City public schools — with 1.1 million students — remained open, triggering an avalanche of anger from many students, parents and even one well-known weather anchor.

    “It’s always a tough decision based on imperfect information,” de Blasio told reporters late Thursday morning.

    The mayor said the National Weather Service reported as little as 3 inches of snow on the ground at the start of the school day, with warmer conditions than in previous storms. Since 1978, he said, New York City schools have closed due to snow just 11 times.

    “At the time,” he said, “we thought our children would be able to get to school safely.”

  32. Anonyrat says:

    See above. So my response to “The US has now become a nation of hysterics, with media-driven hype frightening everyone about everything, and public officials desperately taking action to protect the citizenry from imaginary threats” is that it is the people who have become hysterics, the media is merely a reflection of the people, and public officials are responding to brutal criticism in the past.

  33. Rehbock says:

    I have sympathy for public officials. Damned if they do and don’t. But you have it right that the nation has become hysterical over imaginary threats.

  34. PaulS says:

    I’ll go the December 1 – to – April 1 thing one better.

    If the snowstorm had materialized, it’s at least conceivable that somewhere, somehow, at least one person might have managed to kill him- or herself. It would have been an accomplishment, since the city is chock full of buildings and suchlike, making it hard, for example, to get well and truly lost in any weather conditions whatsoever – unlike the Midwest where I now live, which has very large open or wooded areas.

    But never mind. After all, we’re freaking out over vague hypotheticals here, solely for the sake of Nielsen ratings, and the careers of braying, self-aggrandizing hucksters and drama queens like Andrew Cuomo (who takes after his father in that respect.) Remember too that back when the City didn’t close down completely, going out was nonetheless voluntary. Basic liberty has been another casualty of mindless hysteria, and not just with snowstorms.

    Anyway, so we’re worried out of our minds over just one purely hypothetical (and foolish) person. So let’s not forget – an actual, non-hypothetical person is murdered in the City, and another dies in traffic, nearly every single day. It follows inexorably that only valid “precautionary” solution consistent with the actions of the politicians on Monday and Tuesday is simply to lock the City down from December 1 to December 1 rather than April 1, i.e. permanently. Only that way can the mindless hysterics be truly “safe”.

    Come to think of it, permanent lockdown doesn’t seem too far from what those bossy “precautionary” hysterics are really after.

  35. Kevin NYC says:

    I blame the media! And, in a way, nature itself. Only a small group is in favour of blizzards and hurricanes and tornados. Most people don’t want the bother or the risk, and so if you attack these acts of nature, they have no constituency to protect them. This is great for a politician, because usually whatever he does he will.have active resistance.

    Now we have a backlash because nothing bad happened. This is preferred to the other kind of backlash, when a politician is blamed for something bad.

    Oh well.. the funny part is that Coumo closed the Subways without even talking to DeBlasio. 15 minute heads up… haha..

  36. Visitor says:

    Living in Manhattan, I find the fact that the subways were closed to be a source of personal embarrassment.

  37. Bozo says:

    Growing up in Urbana, Illinois, every year we’d put chains on the car for at least a week, usually two. Nowadays I am pretty sure most people in Urbana don’t even own a set of chains. And don’t have snow tires either. Yet everyone survives, except for those in SUVs who have watched too many commercials and think they can fly through the air, and can round corners at high speed without rolling, just because they have 4-wheel drive.

    Is it because the winters are so much milder (which is in general certainly true- a snowman built this year lasted only a week, and when I was a kid we’d have snow piles
    until April sometimes), because of front-wheel drive, or better tires, or because
    the road maintenance is more effective?

    Right you are, Peter, about the over-protection in all things. The same goes for
    speech, where you can’t risk offending anyone. And yet there is something schizophrenic in American culture: at the same time, Bush et al revelled in making it ok to say “kill”, and delighted in starting unnecessary wars and in implementing actual gulags complete with torture spas for the visiting tourists. At least presumably they weren’t being called names while undergoing waterboarding.

    To resolve this dichotomy in the future, I suggest that next time mayor pay Chris Kyle to station himself on top of the Dakota and take headshots at anyone caught
    cross-country skiing in Central Park. A very non-wimpy way of protecting the citizenry from nature!

  38. Alan K says:

    I lived practically all my life in Wisconsin (I am 44). The last few years I have lived in North Jersey. It was comical the other day when I went to the grocery store to pick up a single item, I could not believe the hysteria of people clearing off the shelves. I just shook my head. Mob mentality.

    When I attended high school in the eighties in Wisconsin, in the winter it was just a given to wake up a bit early and go out and shovel the snow (often well over a foot of snow). Then, yes, I actually walked to school in the snow. And weeks on end it would be below zero. It was the norm. It was life. School was rarely canceled for snow and never canceled for cold. They have these things in New Jersey out here called “delayed openings” for school. HAHA. Things have really changed over the decades.


  39. srp says:

    Apparently Chicagoans still know how to deal with mega-blizzards. They didn’t shut down their public transit system despite this:

Comments are closed.