Where does Utah rank in states with unpredictable weather?

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Michael Meier shovels snow as Jon Meier (right of Michael) looks on as their group tries to build a snow cow during one of Chick-fil-A's First 100 challenge. (Photo by Rebecca Lane)

Michael Meier (left) shovels snow as Jon Meier looks on as their group tries to build a snow cow during one of Chick-fil-A’s First 100 challenge. Many Utah residents consider Utah’s weather unpredictable, but a recent study ranked Utah No. 91 in unpredictable weather. (Photo by Rebecca Lane)

Having grown up in Utah, I can vouch for the strange, unpredictable weather that happens here.

At couple of times in my lifetime, it has snowed in May and June. I remember a huge snowstorm in 1984 — in the middle of October — that blanketed Salt Lake and Davis Counties with two feet of snow and caused havoc on the roads. In 1999, we had a rare tornado that ripped through downtown Salt Lake City and caused significant damage. It was the second tornado to strike Utah that resulted in a fatality — with the other occurring in 1884.

I remember plenty of Christmases that weren’t white, but sunny and bright, and warm enough to wear a short-sleeved shirt.

And several weeks ago, there was a torrential rainstorm in Cedar Hills that turned my street into a lake suitable for canoeing in a matter of minutes.

So I understand why people say, due to the abrupt climate changes here, “If you don’t like the weather in Utah, just wait five minutes.”

However, many places throughout the country say the same thing about where they live.

Looking at it objectively, can Utah really have the most unpredictable weather? After all, tornadoes are exceptionally rare here and, of course, there are no hurricanes in the Beehive State (unless you count the protestors that stand outside the LDS Conference Center during general conference). We don’t really have ice storms that are known to plague the deep south.

Could the place with the most unpredictable weather be a place like Charleston, South Carolina? Or Bangor, Maine? Or Dallas, Texas? Or San Francisco, California (which is known for a popular quote that is attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”)

Well, we finally have some scientific data that gives us an idea about which part of the country actually has the most unpredictable weather.

Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum of the Website fivethirtyeight.com researched this topic recently, examining weather for 120 U.S. cities in all 50 states, and published the results.

“Most every American has some basis to complain about unpredictable weather,” Silver and Fischer-Baum wrote. “As a mid-latitude country with shining seas and majestic mountain ranges and fruited, wind-swept plains, we’re subject to pretty much every type of weather meteorologists have thought to identify.”

They set out to answer this question: “Where in the country is the weather truly the most unpredictable?”

Silver and Fischer-Baum used complex mathematical equations and long-term weather data to find the answer.

“We scrubbed the data to identify extreme outliers and obvious data-entry errors and removed them before calculating the weekly averages,” wrote Silver and Fischer-Baum. “Then we calculated the root-mean-square deviation for each variable. Because all the statistics are on different scales — degrees Fahrenheit for temperature, mph for wind speed — we standardized them onto a common scale before averaging them together.”

 

What do these exhaustive studies mean?

“Among the cities we tested, the one with the most unpredictable weather is … Rapid City, South Dakota. Congratulations, Rapid City!” Fischer and Fischer-Baum wrote. “But Rapid City isn’t alone; other cities in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest dominate the most-unpredictable list. After Rapid City, those with the most unpredictable weather are Great Falls, Montana; Houghton, Michigan; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Fargo, North Dakota; Duluth, Minnesota; Bismarck, North Dakota; Aberdeen, South Dakota; Grand Island, Nebraska; and Glasgow, Montana.”

“If you want to have an easy life as a weather forecaster, you should get a job in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles. Predict that it won’t rain in one of those cities, and you’ll be right about 90 percent of the time.” —Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum, researchers

Of the most populous metro areas, here are the top 10 areas with the most unpredictable weather:

  1. Kansas City, Missouri
  2. Oklahoma City
  3. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  4. Cincinnati, Ohio
  5. Indianapolis, Indiana
  6. St. Louis, Missouri
  7. Birmingham, Alabama
  8. Boston, Massachusetts
  9. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  10. Dallas, Texas

On the other hand, Silver and Fischer-Baum noted, “If you want to have an easy life as a weather forecaster, you should get a job in Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles. Predict that it won’t rain in one of those cities, and you’ll be right about 90 percent of the time.”

The two cities Silver and Fischer-Baum deemed to have the most predictable weather were Honolulu and San Diego.

So where does the Salt Lake City area rank?

Drum roll please…

It came in near the bottom, at No. 91 — tied with Jacksonville, Florida.

According to this scientific study, no, Utah’s weather isn’t as unpredictable as you’d think. But try convincing a Utahn of that the next time it snows in June or he’s soaking up the sun on a snow-less Christmas Day.

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Jeff Call has covered BYU sports since 1993, including the past 16 years for the Deseret News. He, his wife and six sons live in Cedar Hills.

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