This winter, if a poorly timed but otherwise mild snow event threatens to cause gridlock on roads across the region, the National Weather Service will issue a new type of alert to warn commuters.
The weather service's Baltimore/Washington forecast office will begin issuing what it is calling a "Potential Winter Commuting Hazard" statement.
The aim is to prevent events like ones that occurred last January and in January 2011 in which a dusting of snow on frigid roadways snarled traffic for hours. Some commuters were trapped in their vehicles and dubbed the 2011 event "Commutageddon."
The problem is that the events often involve such little snow that, unlike with major winter storms, many people may not be aware that icy precipitation is in the forecast, said Chris Strong, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service's local office. But the precipitation can nonetheless cause major problems.
"Small amounts of snow are often caused by tiny ripples in the atmosphere," Strong explained in a video posted to YouTube. "Twenty-four hours in advance knowing whether that ripple's going to produce a few flakes and no problems or a small amount of snow with potentially really big impacts is a very small needle for our forecasters to try to thread."
Meteorologists "can usually see that the threat is there," though, he said.
The alert will be shared with transportation officials around the region and with the public, urging motorists to stay informed, if not to change travel plans.
"It's our hope that with heightened awareness from this new message that our region will be able to better prepare for the possibility of these winter traffic disasters," Strong said.