The legend of the Southeast Michigan SnowFreak begins in early 2014, when a menacing blizzard threatened to blanket the humble counties of Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland. It was Super Bowl weekend, and the meteorologists on the local news forecasted a sizable, but non-apocalyptic dusting of three to six inches. The SnowFreak, however, was steadfast in his prediction. “I was saying 10 inches, isolated 20 inches at the most depending on county,” he tells me. “What separates me from everyone else is that I’m on it.”
He was right, of course. Michigan was obliterated. Super Bowl plans were ruined. And the SnowFreak was christened as a local oracle. His Facebook page, “SE Michigan SnowFreaks,” grew exponentially since he called his shot, and today it stands at nearly 160,000 followers. Last winter, he started a Patreon campaign where, for $2 a month, supporters can get full access to his “maps, forecasts, and updates” that annotate every twist and turn in Michigan's famously violent troposphere. During the winter season, his forecasts trickle through your email inbox like ticker tape all throughout the night. He stakes his reputation on every blizzard.
The SnowFreak, who closely guards his true identity, recognized a natural deficiency in the way we've traditionally reported the weather. A TV meteorologist most closely mimics his service, where a specialist who is historically familiar with the region is interpreting weather patterns (contrast with a more broad, automatic service like weather.com, which tends to be less accurate). But the meteorologist gets five minutes on a 30-minute local news broadcast. All the data they have needs to be synthesized into that moment. If a disruption in their model surfaces a few minutes after the station pivots into The Tonight Show, there is no machinery to get the word out to the public. In our climate change times, when weather is becoming increasingly volatile, both the newish weather apps that rely exclusively on statistics and mathematical models and the old scheduled meteorology broadcasts are ill-adapted to the frequency and severity of the weather changes we now face.
The SnowFreak is not hamstrung in the same way. He says he is active 24 hours a day, and seven days a week during the winter season, which means his subscribers receive a bombardment of breathless updates whenever he notices a minor alteration in his prediction. For a user base that's far more likely to receive news from their phones rather than a morning weather report, it's perfect. “Right when that new data comes out, I’m right on it, while other stations wait six hours to show it,” he says.
The SnowFreak claims he has never worked as a weatherman, nor that he holds a degree in meteorology. Instead, he says he has picked up his skills the old-fashioned way, by generating his own forecasts since he was 10 years old. According to his own calculus, his weather reports are 80 percent instinct, 20 percent science.
“I use about 10 different websites and I use about 80 different models. Basically it’s the time of the year, it's where the low-pressure system is, and my memory bank of what the trend is,” he says. “Meaning if it's November, the low-pressure is in Kansas City, and it’s showing that it’s trekking through Chicago. I know that’s probably not going to happen. It’s early season. There’s too much warm air … You gotta go with your gut feeling.”
“A quick snow or mixed snow and sleet burst should start off between 11 PM and 1 AM. Things should change over fairly quickly to sleet and or freezing rain,” he writes at 10pm on a dreary February evening, as a gross, frigid storm encroached upon Southeast Michigan. “Main concern is sleet and freezing rain, where .25” to .5” of that is not out of the question! Peak of very intense rates will be from 3am to 8am, I would be shocked if any school is open here to be honest... High winds will NOT help the matter!”
A few hours later it’s 1:25am in the morning. The SnowFreak, as always, is still online and reading the charts, and posts another update attached to a homebrew topological map.
“Southern areas are getting hit with sleet and freezing rain and a little snow. Forecast posted earlier still looks good,” he adds. “5:30 AM to 8:30 AM will be absolutely awful for most of Metro Detroit and surrounding areas, I am talking, very heavy freezing rain, sleet, and or snow.”
Once again, The SnowFreak is right, and a legion of Michaganders flock to his Patreon comments to remind him how much they enjoy paying him for his forecasts.
“You did it again. Predicted earlier and more accurate than anyone else. Thank you,” writes Andrea Lynn.
“It is UNBELIEVABLE the level of accuracy you provide! Wow. You really need to get your honorary degree in meteorology just for being able to do this! Major PROPS SIR!” writes Lisa Nolan.
“In the time I’ve followed you, I can’t think of one you’ve been anywhere near as wrong as all the other weather reports out there,” writes Andrew G. Black. “There are many times highly relied upon reports have been so wrong, it’s embarrassing. You keep rocking on.”
The SnowFreak exclusively focuses his niche service on his native region of about 4.8 million people, and yet he still holds the 46th most popular account on the platform according to Graphtreon's algorithm. (The SnowFreak won’t tell me exactly how much he’s making, but given that he has 5,320 patrons and the minimum subscription tier is $2, it’s at least $10,000 a month.) The winners in crowdfunding are usually podcasts and YouTube channels - content delivery machines that aim to reach everyone in the world, in the hopes that a few thousand of them will offer a donation. The SnowFreak, on the other hand, drilled down into an extremely pressing concern for a comparatively small community of midwesterners: The weather, and what it means for their lives.
The SnowFreak offers The Outlinet a few biographical details; he’s 39, married with a family, earns a living in real estate, and lists his first name as “Jon” on his email. But for the most part, he guards his status as an urban legend fiercely. he doesn’t disclose his full name to me, or frankly, anyone else. In fact, he estimates that there are maybe five people that know the true identity of Southeast Michigan's premiere independent weathercaster. Part of that is regular privacy concerns; he wants to keep his family and friends out of the viral limelight. But he also gets a Clark-Kent-esque kick of anonymously overhearing people discuss his other identity. “I go to the grocery store the day before a snowstorm and hear people talking about Southeast Michigan SnowFreaks,” he says. “I read Facebook posts from my friends. They don’t know who I am. ‘Check out Southeast Michigan SnowFreaks!’ I just laugh.”
The SnowFreak hopes that by this winter, his Patreon subscribers might swell to 10,000, or even 20,000, which would bring in enough money for him to permanently pivot to his meteorology career.
It’s not often that ordinary people choose the capricious freelance life over a rock-solid foundation, but perhaps the SnowFreak isn’t an ordinary person. He admits that sometimes, when his forecasts are proven right after the TV stations forget to account for the chaos of a high-pressure system, he enjoys some private satisfaction, the glory of stacking one’s small operation up against the big guys and winning. Maybe that’s the thing that sets The SnowFreak apart. He's good at forecasting, sure, but weathercasters who communicate on TV need to be affable first and foremost. The SnowFreak, unburdened by the likeability factor, can focus all his energy on delivering the weather, 24/7.
“I think people can feel it and see it in my writing. I think people relate to me, because I’m just an average guy,” he says. “The passion is pretty clear.”