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When it comes to weather statistics, bring your own tape measure

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I’ve lived in the north country long enough to understand a lot of its little, well, quirks.

One that I don’t get, though, is its tendency toward weather hyperbole. Northern New Yorkers seem inclined to make their weather events Texas-sized, determined not to let the facts get in the way of a good tale.

So when there’s a storm where winds hit a peak of, say, 40 miles an hour, a lot of north country folk will be heard to say “It was blowing 60 when it took the shingles off the barn!”

Thus, when my boss called me at home to find out how much snow had fallen in Adams, I went out with a very accurate tape measure and found that in an area undisturbed by wind or shovels, 28 inches had fallen. Which I then reported.

Most people, hearing that a little more than 2 feet of snow was on the ground, would say “My, that’s a lot!” And in terms of removing it, they’d be right.

Northern New Yorkers, though, don’t seem content to let their highly accurate tape measures speak for them. Thus, when I read on the National Weather Service website that the Adams post office received 4 feet of snow, I did a double take. In golf weather, I can hit an eight-iron from the front of my house to the post office (for you nongolfers, that’s about 150 yards). And then, when I read there was 5 feet at the Rodman post office, I choked on my coffee.

How, I wondered, did 28 inches of snow fall on my property when the Adams post office, 150 yards away, got 48 inches and the Rodman post office — 4 miles by road, less as the crow flies — reported 60 inches?

And then when I saw that the city of Watertown got 4 feet, I said “Enough. Let’s investigate.”

First, I called the National Weather Service office in Buffalo that had posted the storm totals. When I asked him the official snowfall at the Watertown airport or Fort Drum, he looked for a bit and then told me there was no official report on snow totals.

So I asked him where they came from and he said “Some from observers, some from social media.”

Social media? You’re compiling statistics from anonymous people on an Internet platform notorious for pranks, misinformation and skewed opinion?

Don’t get me wrong — I love social media. I use it. I check it regularly for news tips and other information. But I never, ever take something posted on social media as gospel. (Keep in mind I repeated to a reporter just yesterday the old saw “If your mother tells you she loves you, get a second opinion.”)

So how does one check this out? I used the old-fashioned way — I went to see for myself. First, to the Adams post office, where it was pretty simple to determine that my suspicion was correct — it didn’t receive any more snow than I did.

Then it was off to Rodman. As I entered the hamlet, I noticed a nice park bench over on the edge of the ball diamond that was NOT covered in snow. In fact, you could just see the seat. Hmm, I thought, either that park bench is 7 feet high, or...

At the post office, I immediately noticed no one had needed to shovel out the outside postbox. They are about 4 feet high. The snow was not over the handrail, which must be between 36 and 42 inches high to meet building code. And you could easily read all of the “Rodman Community Hall” sign, which tops out at about 6 feet high. Lots of evidence here that the snowfall in Rodman was quite a bit less than 5 feet. Nearer, in fact, to perhaps 3 feet. Maybe 28 inches...

As for Watertown, I’ve been sitting here in my office for the past two days watching people walk down Washington Street. It’s pretty clear that, as they stride along, the snow on the ground next to them doesn’t come up to their midtorso. And that’s how high, more or less, 48 inches is. (Except on your great-aunt Nellie, who is only 4 feet 11 inches top to bottom. On her, it would come up to her neck.) And on the bench in front of our office, the snow just about reaches the seat. It doesn’t hide the whole bench. The seat is about 30 inches off the ground. Maybe 28...

Among the things I keep telling reporters is, be skeptical. Ask questions. Use your eyes to give you quick confirmation of “facts” that are presented — if your what your eyes see seems at contretemps with what you’re told, explore some more. And my own exploration offers up this: the National Weather Service has to stop using postal employees and social media to get snowfall totals.

Especially in the north country, where despite a lot of experience with snow, the tendency for weather hyperbole seems to rule. On the other hand, perhaps it will be comforting to Rodman residents to discover they did not, in fact, get buried under 5 feet of snow. I’m guessing 2 feet is plenty.

Perry White, a hardy Adams resident, is city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Contact him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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