Growing up in Washington, D.C., George Grabryan knew what was coming in the winter.
"Up there, it was pretty well cut-and-dry," said Grabryan, director of the Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency. "What we got up there was snow."
That's not the case for north Alabama when wintry moisture threatens, Grabryan said.
"You can have rain, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, sleet, snow and then back to rain — all of that in just a short amount of time," he said. "There have been times when we'd have snowfall in Lauderdale County, and Colbert County could have completely different weather."
Brian Carcione, operations officer for the National Weather Service office in Huntsville, braved Pennsylvania winters before moving to north Alabama.
Carcione said this region has a reputation as a challenging place for winter forecasts.
"I would certainly say this is one of the toughest parts of the country to forecast for," Carcione said. "That's certainly a huge challenge because it's very difficult to get the right combination of moisture and temperature at just the right time and place.
"You can get one of those pieces off just a little bit and it could change dramatically."
So what makes it so difficult here? It could be that north Alabama often finds itself right on that edge between freezing and above-freezing temperatures.
Carcione said there were several times in January when some parts of the state received frozen precipitation, while others were just 1 or 2 degrees too warm.
"It's that balance of the cold and moisture," he said. "It takes a lot to get the truly cold weather we need for the snow or even for freezing rain or sleet. But then you have to get the right atmospheric conditions to overlap with that cold air.
"Almost all of the time, we are right on the edge of either having the moisture or having the cold air. Out of all the places in the country, we probably find ourselves on that knife's edge more than anyone else."
Grabryan remembers areas west of the Natchez Trace in Lauderdale County receiving 4 to 5 inches of snow one day a couple of years ago. "East of the Trace, they received nothing."
Colbert EMA Director Mike Melton said there are times when frozen precipitation is in the atmosphere above the Shoals but evaporates or warms into rain before reaching the surface.
"If you start looking at the different layers, rain falls through levels of the atmosphere," Melton said. "Sometimes, when that moisture comes in, it warms the temperature, and sometimes it makes it colder.
"The meteorologists where we are do an excellent job, but it's tough, it really is."
Carcione said many local motorists are not experienced in driving on snow or ice, and the area nearly shuts down in significant snow or ice events. That adds to the importance of getting the forecast right.
"The added challenge is it doesn't take much to have a high-impact event," he said. "As a forecaster, we feel that quite a bit. We take ownership of these forecasts and we're aware that when we forecast just an inch of snow to begin at this time and it begins at another time, that has a big impact on people's lives.
"Certainly, there's a level of excitement here. I have lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years and it got to the point where an inch of snow didn't generate the same excitement it once did because they'd seen it snow an inch 10 times in the past two months.
"We've all seen enough situations where, even if we warn the public about freezing rain or snow, you can see how chaotic that is. If we had something like that occur completely undetected, you could see how serious that situation could be."
Decisions are made with safety at the forefront, which is the way it should be done even if that means cautioning the public about an event that ultimately does not occur, officials said.
"If you want to err on the side of safety, you do blow it a few times," Melton said.
There was an example this season when most local school systems opened late because of the threat of freezing rain. The frozen conditions never occurred.
"We try to look at what the forecasters are saying can happen and respond accordingly," Melton said. "When I got up at 5 a.m. on the morning when there was a 70 percent chance of frozen precipitation, it was like 50-something degrees. But nobody could tell you 10 hours earlier that was going to happen. Nobody could predict that."
The uncertainty regarding winter weather brings difficult decisions to local school systems.
Tuscumbia City Schools Superintendent Mary Kate Smith said her goal is to gather information from emergency management officials, make the best decision she can based on that and notify parents as soon as possible.
"If we get it right, we're heroes. If we miss it, everybody's mad at us," Smith said. "I learned a long time ago to go with the advice based on what the EMA tells us, and that's the best we can do."
She said delayed openings help ease decisions. In addition, it's possible to let schools out early if winter precipitation is on the way during the day.
Smith said about 1,500 vehicles are on the road taking Tuscumbia students to and from school daily. "That includes inexperienced teenage drivers. There's a lot riding on these decisions."
Grabryan said his agency tries to keep schools, transportation agencies, emergency responders and others updated.
"Our goal is to provide them with every shred of information we get in a timely process," he said. "I know it's frustrating on the forecasters. It's tough to call, and really tough for a lot of decision-makers to look into that crystal ball 12 hours out and make that decision.
"We communicate very well with the schools and they've got a tough set of decisions to make."
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739.