Blog Fiasco

July 11, 2014

New entry in the Forecast Discussion Hall of Fame

Filed under: Funnel Fiasco,Weather — Tags: , — bcotton @ 1:26 pm

This one’s an oldie, but a goodie. Back in 1994, two forecasters wrote the state forecast discussion for Colorado in verse. Thanks to a submission from Tanja Fransen, it has now been added to the Forecast Discussion Hall of Fame.

June 20, 2014

Is storm chasing unethical?

Filed under: Musings,Weather — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 8:03 pm

Eric Holthaus wrote an article for Slate arguing that storm chasing has become unethical. This article has drawn a lot of response from the meteorological community, and not all of the dialogue has been productive. Holthaus makes some good points, but he’s wrong in a few places, too. His biggest sin is painting with too wide a brush.

At the root of the issue is Mark Farnik posting a picture of a mortally wounded five-year-old girl. The girl was injured in a tornado that struck Pilger, Nebraska and succumbed to the injuries a short time later. To be perfectly clear, I have no problem with Farnik posting the picture, nor do I have a problem with him “profiting” off it. Photojournalism is not always pleasant, but it’s an important job. To suggest that such pictures can’t be shared or even taken is to do us a disservice. 19 years on, the picture of a firefighter holding Baylee Almon remains the single most iconic image from the Oklahoma City bombing.

None of this would have come up had Farnik not posted the following to Facebook: “I need some highly photogenic and destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially.” That’s a pretty awful statement. While I enjoy tornado video as much as anyone, I prefer them to occur over open fields. Nobody I know ever wishes for destruction, and I’d be loath to associate with anyone who did. This one sentence served as an entry point to condemn an entire hobby.

Let’s look at Holthaus’ points individually:

  1. Storm chasers are not saving lives. Some chasers make a point to report weather phenomena to the local NWS office immediately. Some chasers do not. Some will stop to render assistance when they come across damage and injuries. Some will not. In both cases, my own preference is for the former. Patrick Marsh, the Internet’s resident weather data expert, found no evidence that an increase in chasers has had any effect on the tornado fatalities. In any case, not saving lives is hardly a condemnation of an activity. Golf is not an inherently life-saving avocation, but I don’t see anyone arguing that it’s unethical.
  2. Chasing with the intent to profit… adds to the perverse incentive for more and more risky behavior. Some people act stupidly when money or five minutes of Internet fame are on the line. This is hardly unique to storm chasing. Those chasers who put themselves or others in danger are acting stupidly. The smart ones place a premium on safety. What’s more, the glee that chasers often express in viral videos is disrespectful to people who live there and may be adversely affected by the storm. Also true. The best videos are shot from a tripod and feature quiet chasers.
  3. A recent nationwide upgrade to the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar network has probably rendered storm chasers obsolete anyway. Bull. Dual-polarization radar does greatly aid the radar detection of debris, but ground truth is still critical. Radar cannot determine if a wall cloud is rotating. It cannot determine if a funnel cloud is forming. It cannot observe debris that does not exist (e.g. if a tornado is over a field). If you wait for a debris signature on radar, you’ve already lost. In a post to the wx-chase mailing list, NWS meteorologist Tanja Fransen made it very clear that spotters are not obsolete. To be clear, spotters and chasers are not the same thing, even if some people (yours truly, for example) engage in both activities.

The issue here is that in the age of social media, it’s easier for the bad eggs to stand out. It’s easy to find chasers behaving stupidly, sometimes they even get their own cable shows. The well-behaved chasers, by their very nature, tend to not be noticed. Eric Holthaus is welcome to not chase anymore, that’s his choice. I haven’t chased in several years, but that’s more due to family obligations than anything else. I have, and will continue to, chase with the safety of myself and others as the top priority.

June 2, 2014

A new item on the weather humor page

Filed under: Funnel Fiasco,Weather — Tags: , — bcotton @ 7:59 pm

The weather humor page hasn’t seen much love in a long time. It’s not that the weather stopped being funny (although this past winter stopped being funny in mid-January), I just haven’t added to it. Fortunately, my friend Scott noticed that the forecast office in Hastings, NE seems to have resumed its bad habit of canceling things it ought not cancel. Sure, it’s silly to pick on a poorly-worded product issued in the middle of a severe weather event, but silly is what I do.

May 26, 2014

Book review: “Tornado Warning”

Filed under: Weather — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 9:18 pm

Three years ago this month, the city of Joplin, Missouri was devastated by an EF-5 tornado. Not only were numerous buildings destroyed, but 159 people lost their lives. This was the first 100-fatality tornado since 116 people died in a 1953 tornado in Flint, Michigan. As word of the impact spread, I can recall being thankful that my chasing range was limited to northern Illinois that day. Author Tamara Hart Heiner drove through the Joplin area in the days after the tornado and was struck by the extent of the devastation. After speaking with survivors, she decided to write her first non-fiction book. Tornado Warning, released earlier this month, tells the story of the tornado through the eyes of seven women who survived it.

The women of Tornado Warning led varied-but-normal lives before the storm. Normalcy would not survive the day. I found the early part of the book a little dull, which is to be expected. The women and their families were going through their usual Sunday routine. When the tornado hits, the book becomes positively riveting. One woman rides it out in a bathtub, covering her children with her body and a mattress. Another was in her van. That she and her son survived is nothing short of miraculous.

Heiner does not dwell on the tornado itself. Indeed, the narrative moves the tornado along quickly; like its real-life counterpart, it is here and gone within moments. Much of the book focuses on the hours immediately following the tornado when Joplin residents frantically search for loved ones, rescue their neighbors, and try to come to grips with the stark new reality.

Although scenes shift quickly from one protagonist to another, the reader gets a definite sense of each woman’s personality. The narration seems to take on some of the character of the woman being followed. The rapid shifts made it difficult to keep track of the characters initially, but it proved to be the appropriate style during and after the tornado.

In all, this is an excellent read. It showcases the human side of tornadoes that never seems to make it into IMAX films. The tornado preparedness and safety advice is invaluable and I encourage all readers to not skip it. Some of the meteorological discussion at the beginning of the book is painful (particularly “the jet stream is typically 300 millibars strong”), but this is not a story about meteorology. Heiner does an excellent job of capturing the humanity of the Joplin tornado, so I can forgive meteorological errors.

The net proceeds from Tornado Warning are being donated to Joplin recovery charities.

May 14, 2014

New entry in the Forecast Discussion Hall of Fame

Filed under: Funnel Fiasco,The Internet,Weather — Tags: , — bcotton @ 8:02 pm

You have probably already seen an early-morning AFD from Juneau making the rounds on the Internet. The forecaster compares selecting a model to speed dating. Although the bulk of the humor is in the first paragraph, the theme persists through the rest. Certainly this is a cultural touchstone worthy of enshrining in the Forecast Discussion Hall of Fame.

May 12, 2014

Reflectivity tags

Filed under: Weather — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 9:31 pm

Sometimes you don’t notice something until it is pointed out to you, then you see it everywhere. That was the case for me when the near-ubiquity of clear slots near tornadoes was pointed out a few years ago. Suddenly, I began to (legitimately) see them everywhere. The feature was there, just completely overlooked. I expect a similar effect after learning about reflectivity tags at the Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium in March.

Reflectivity tags are hardly new. The concept appears to have been introduced in a 2006 paper by Llyle Barker. The basic idea is that a small blob of reflectivity overtaking an area of rotation is often an indicator of tornado formation or intensification. Ed Shimon’s presentation at the Symposium pointed out how the Washington, IL tornado of November 17 grew from a small tornado into a neighborhood-leveling monster when the reflectivity tag passed.

There’s a danger in over-relying on the new shiny you’ve just picked up of course. The vast majority of storms still don’t produce tornadoes. I suspect that the majority of storms that feature reflectivity tags also don’t produce tornadoes. The presence of a fast-moving tag shouldn’t mean immediate panic. At the same time, it’s another piece of information to consider when watching storms.

April 20, 2014

Ten years since Jamestown

Filed under: Funnel Fiasco,Musings,Weather — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 8:47 pm

Ten years ago, I was sitting in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. My last class of the day ended around 1:30 and I was settled in to get some work done on the forecast game that I ran for the University. WFO Lincoln had issued a few tornado warnings and there were reports of cold air funnels, so my friend Mike Kruze and I decided to spend the afternoon driving around getting rained on. Instead, we saw one of the most photogenic tornadoes ever recorded in Indiana. And then another one. And then a third (though this one is unofficial, since we could not see the ground from our position and no damage was observed in the empty field).

This was only two days after Mike and I had returned from a marathon drive to northern Iowa, where the most we saw was vivid lightning and large hail after sunset. By this point, I had been chasing for a year and a half. Chase attempts evolved from some undergrad doofuses piling in the car and driving around to a fairly mature venture with thoughtful forecasts, data stops, and real efforts to be in position. Of course, as luck would have it, April 20 ended up being somewhat of a doofus day. Mike had a data plan on his Sprint PCS phone, and it was just enough for us to pull up the occasional radar image. Without that, we’d never have found ourselves standing in rural Boone County with a tornado directly to our west.

At the time of the Jamestown tornado, FunnelFiasco.com wasn’t even a gleam in my eye. I was planning on making a career in the National Weather Service. I figured chasing would be a thing I did with regularity. Ten years on, I’ve earned my meteorology degree, but I’ve never worked as a professional in the field. I have one chase day in the last five years, and I’m less than a year from a decade-long tornado drought. I’ve still only chased west of the Mississippi twice. With a toddler and home and another baby due early summer, I’m not likely to get out this year. But I still feel the gentle tug of the storm, pulling me to go out and seek it. I know I will at some point. I just don’t know when.

March 10, 2014

Thoughts on the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act

Filed under: Weather — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 9:24 am

Insurance Journal reported last week on a bill sponsored by Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma). In a fit of poor reporting, the author says the bill makes the “protection of people and property a priority.” Unfortunately, the National Weather Service mission statement has included “protection of life and property” for years. The bill itself contains no such insulting verbiage. On the surface, it’s actually a welcome relief: a Congressman looking to direct over half a billion dollars of new funding to scientific research and operations. In reality, it strikes me as more of a pipe dream.

The average tornado warning lead time is currently around 13 minutes. The goal of Bridenstine’s bill is a lead time of 60 minutes or more. Stretch goals are good, but a 4x increase is not, perhaps, the most appropriate for legislation. Even so, there’s a question of how valuable such an increase would really be. Increased protection of property is probably not going to be that dramatic with hour-long lead times. It’s not like people can move their houses and businesses out of the way. Some damage could be prevented by securing loose objects and boarding windows, but it’s not likely to be significant.

Protecting life is the more important aspect, but would a one-hour lead time help? I’ve argued for years that there’s definitely an upper bound to lead times after which the returns diminish. My suspicion is that as the lead time grows beyond that point, people become more and more complacent. This argument has been based on hunches and unsubstantiated reasoning. It turns out, there’s evidence that increased lead time has no impact on injuries from tornadoes.

Even if the benefits are minimal, the amount of learning that would have to take place to get lead times up to an hour would aid our understanding of severe weather. The improvements to observation networks and modeling would benefit all areas of weather forecasting. Even  if tornado warning lead times remain unchanged, the scientific impact of this bill would be dramatic. I just worry that it’s setting the National Weather Service up for “failure”.

February 13, 2014

The Sperry–Piltz Ice Accumulation (SPIA) Index

Filed under: Weather — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 10:31 pm

Earlier this winter, Weather.com posted an article about a new index to rate ice storms. Setting aside the illiteracy of the author (the article talks about how the index was used experimentally in 2009), it’s a good introduction to a new-to-me index that can help meteorologists communicate impacts to the public. The Sperry–Piltz Ice Accumulation (SPIA) Index uses ice accumulation, wind speeds, and temperatures to predict the impact of winter storms on public utilities (particularly power lines). The algorithm appears to be protected by copyright, which is disappointing, since it limits the ability of the scientific community to evaluate the methodology.

Communicating impact is one of the major challenges in forecasting. Even when the forecast is technically precise, the general public often doesn’t know what to do with the information. Widespread use of the SPIA Index can help people and utility crews prepare. Unfortunately, the closed nature of the index may limit its adoption.

January 19, 2014

2013 severe weather watches

Filed under: Weather — Tags: , , , , , — bcotton @ 11:41 am

Greg Carbin, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center, recently updated his website to include maps of 2013 severe thunderstorm and tornado watches. I always like looking at these, because they highlight areas of increased and diminished severe weather threat. It’s important to not read too much into them though. As with hurricanes, it’s not always the frequency of events that makes a year memorable. 2013 was a below- or near-normal year for watches in the areas of Illinois and Indiana that were hit by a major tornado outbreak on November 17.

Tornado (left) and severe thunderstorm (right) watch count (top) and difference from 20 year average (bottom) by county. Maps are by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center and in the public domain.

Speaking of hurricanes, the quietness of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season is evident in the below-average tornado watch count along the entire Gulf coast. Landfalling hurricanes are a major source of tornado watches for coastal states, so an anomaly in watches is often reflective of an anomaly in tropical activity. Preliminary tornado counts for 2013 are the lowest (detrended) on record. It’s not surprising, then, that the combined severe thunderstorm and tornado watch counts are generally below normal.

Severe weather watches (left) and departure from normal (right) by county. Maps are by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center and are in the public domain.

As you’d expect, Oklahoma and Kansas had the largest number of watches. What’s really interesting about the above map is the anomalously large number of watches in western South Dakota, western Montana, and Maine. Indeed, western South Dakota counties are comparable to Kansas in terms of raw watch count. Of course, that doesn’t mean the watches verified, but it’s an interesting note. Looking back through past years, the last 4 years have been anomalously high in western South Dakota. Is this an indication of a population increase, forecaster bias, or a change in severe weather climatology?

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