Lessons learned in this stormy December

The weather took a terrible turn this past month, with dozens killed in a tornado outbreak centered around the lower Ohio Valley, and strong winds and isolated tornadoes coming at the an unusual time, and bringing destruction to the Upper Midwest. One question that was raised, particularly after the Mayfield tornado occurred, and the samage and loss of life was assessed was what could have been differently.

From a meteorologist’s standpoint, there wasn’t much. There was at least a 20 minute lead time in Mayfield, for example which was certainly enough time for shelter to have been taken, even for some people in the small town to find safety in a structure other than the destroyed candle factory where so much loss occurred, if they didn’t think the building itself was safe.

Meteorologists used every tool they had at their disposal, and they did so in a timely, generally accurate pattern. Not only was there an outlook for severe weather in western Kentucky, but it was posted as a moderate risk. There were tornado watches for hours ahead of time, and Mayfield itself was in a tornado warning with a confirmed tornado, before the warning was upgraded to a tornado emergency, with 15-20 minutes of lead time. The tornado emergency, which doesn’t come until after a tornado warning is issued, gave residents almost twice as much of a lead than a tornado warning typically affords.

The issues are educational and psychological. With as much lead time, and as quality as the forecast was with a good handle on the live situation as meteorologists had, it filters back to the populace to be their own own last line of defense. Praise, rightfully, has been given to local NWS and television meteorologists, but their calls for safety went unheeded by some.

Some answers to the source of the issues can be seen in the response to the storm in the Upper Miwest a week later. There was a great deal of concern ahead of time for a serial derecho, with some tornadoes and even strong wind outside of the heaviest storms. Tornadoes did hit several communities from Nebraska to Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the track was a hair further south than had been anticipated in a lot of forecast outputs. To hear many residents of the Twin Cities tell it, the forecast was completely off, even though the storm had been significant, with confirm tornadoes one county outside of the greater metropolitan area.

There is a segment of the population that gives weather forecasts zero margin for error, and even though most broadly consumed forecasts are for a region, rather than a point, a forecast’s validity for many users is only accurate insofar as it is accurate for their location. The SPC said there was a chance for a tornado within 25 miles of the metropolitan area This forecast was indeed accurate, but some residents likely disagree with that assessment, as there were no tornadoes IN the metro area.

If there is a preconditioning towards disbelief of a forecast, the forecasts are not going to be regarded, and that is generally OK with me. If you want to be caught without a coat or an umbrella, that is your prerogative, but also, a warning is not the same as a forecast, and the messaging reflects that, even is the reception doesn’t.

In this case, it comes down to education. While forecasts are broad, various updates and warnings become more focused as severity increases. This has always been the case, but even my closest friends and family can’t always figure out the difference between a watch and a warning. If that’s the case, adding the extra layers of a reported tornado warnings and tornado emergencies lose their efficacy. Under no uncertain terms, these definitions should be taught in schools, as should local geography. If you know where you are on a local map, you can look at radar yourself and “do your own research” if you don’t believe meteorologists.

Another phenomenon of human psychology, especially as it pertains to warnings and the weather, is described well in the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Even in Mayfield, there was a tornado warning earlier in the day, and it is alleged that the fact that the first warning bore no harm to Mayfield perhaps led management of the candle factory to disregard the second forecast. A look at a radar would have shown that another storm was indeed on it’s way, and an education in the parlance of warnings would have shown that this second warning was actually a tornado emergency, and significantly more serious.

Meteorologists and anthropologists for years have known that repeated warnings lead to increased popular dismissal of the warnings, and the National Weather Service has responded by reformatting warnings to base them on polygons, rather than strictly by county. They have altered the text in warnings, and added tornado warnings to reflect severity, or to focus the warnings even further on individual locations. At some point, we need to focus on education to make sure these messages are understood and acted upon appropriately.

Winter blows in

The beginning and middle of the month of December were rough, to say the least. The second major system featuring severe weather started in the northern Plains, and reached the Great Lakes by our December 16th forecast time in Grand Rapids. There was a gust of nearly 60mph, even outside any precipitation on Thursday the 16th. Temperatures, which started in the low 60s on Thursday were ready for a decline, dropping 35 degrees for Friday. Even though the weather was bad, forecasts were generally good. The Weather Channel had the best temperature forecast, but Forecast.io drew level as they were one of only two not to have rain in the forecast.
Actuals, Wednesday December 16th, High 63, Low 35
Thursday, December 17th, High 38, Low 28

Grade: A-C

Reno, Nevada to Sebastian, Florida

How far are you willing to travel for a holiday? It’s going to take 5 days to make this trip, covering 2914 miles. Sounds like a perfect Christmas gift to me, especially when a pace of 69mph can be sustained. The swift pace will allow 555 miles to be the goal on days 1-4, with a long conclusion to the trek.

DAY ONE (Sunday)

Reno, Nevada

The western US is getting battered by a holiday weather system that is bringing cold weather and snow mostly to the peaks of the Cascades and Sierras, but even to the lower terrain between, at least to a certain level. Seattle and Portland were in line to see some unusual snowfall for Christmas, and white capped peaks are definitely coming to Nevada and Utah. The snow should be done outside of the highest points of northern Nevada, but that won’t necessarily be the case in Utah, where heavy snow could, theoretically, even lead to some road closures. Expect a tougher slog through Utah, especially where the terrain gets a little more hilly east of Salt Lake City We will stop for the day, mercifully, in Wanship, in heart of the Wasatch.

DAY TWO (Monday)
The pattern in the western US is just going to be active for the beginning of the week. The low will split in two over the next couple of days, sending the first round of snow and cold air to the Upper Midwest, while leaving quite a bit of moisture in the Pacific Northwest as well. The northern Rockies will be between these two branches of the feature, so while it won’t be stormy, it won’t be great either. Mountain snow with lighter flurries in the valleys will continue through Utah and western Wyoming, but at least the lee side of the Rockies, in Wyoming and western Nebraska will be a bit more favorable, with spots of sun, but mostly cloudy skies. The day will conclude in Big Spring, right at the northeast corner of Colorado, just on the Nebraska side.

DAY THREE (Tuesday)
The continued rotation of the low pressure in the west will regenerate again on Tuesday. Expect a generally ok drive through the rest of Nebraska, and the 4 hours that will take, but a cold rain is possible as soon as we hit Nebraska City and the Iowa border. Even more robust precipitation is possible after we make the eastward jaunt at Kansas City, and a cold, steady rain is possible when we stop for the night in Sweet Springs, about an hour east of KC.

DAY FOUR (Wednesday)
The rain we see on Tuesday will be the result of a rising warm front, but we won’t really ever be able to get south of the boundary, and our day will begin on a chilly note in Missouri. The lingering boundary will be diffuse and stretched across the mid-Mississippi Valley, an environment rife for redevelopment. Late in the day, a new feature will begin to arise in Mississippi and bring us some cold rain starting around Nashville. Heavier rain will be persistent in the higher terrain of eastern Tennessee throughout the day, so bring an umbrella as we get to our hotel in Manchester, about halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga.

DAY FIVE (Thursday)
The front bringing that rain will weaken as it shifts east through the mountains, and at long last, we can expect to be out of any threat for heavy precipitation. Some light showers and overcast will persist from Manchester through the remainder of our time in Tennessee, as well as much of the state of Georgia. We should finally emerge into dry conditions around Tifton, and it will probably even be sunny by the time we alight upon Sebastian.

Sebastian, Florida

Sebastian, Florida

I spend every other Christmas in Florida, and it definitely feels right to me. So come with me and enjoy the holiday among palm trees and hopefully some sunshine.

At 1035PM, ET, Sebastian was reporting clear skies and a temperature of 58 degrees. A cold front moved through town earlier in the week, and even dropped an isolated tornado in the Fort Myers, but has left the southeastern US embraced in a pleasant bubble of high pressure.
Some stability in the southeastern US will be in order through Christmas and Boxing Day, with a very strong, very linear jet streak running through the Great Lakes is going to continue to tamp down any significant weather. Unseasonable warmth will be in order for Sebastian.
Tomorrow – Sunny, High 79, Low 55
Sunday – Sunny, High 79, Low 54

TWC: Tomorrow – Sunny skies. High 81, Low 55
Sunday РSunny skies.  High 80, Low 55

AW: Tomorrow – Plenty of sunshine; beautiful weather for Christmas Day High 80, Low 58
Sunday – Sunny High 78, Low 56

NWS: Tomorrow – Sunny, High 78, Low 57
Sunday РSunny, High 77, Low 55

WB: Tomorrow – Sunny, High 79, Low 57
Sunday – Sunny, High 76, Low 57

WN: Tomorrow – Mostly sunny, High 77, Low 60
Sunday – Mostly sunny, High 75, Low 58

FIO: Tomorrow – Clear throughout the day. High 77, Low 55
Sunday – Clear throughout the day. High 75, Low 56

With skies as clear as this, you can almost make out Santa and his reindeer. Merry Christmas all!

Missing the drop

The same system that brought such devastating weather to the Ohio Valley was also responsible for putting a chill in the mid-Atlantic. When we forecast for Lynchburg almost two weeks ago, nobody anticipated the plummeting temperatures on the evening of December 12th. We all more or less suspected a non-standard day, but not THIS non-standard. It was 27 degrees by the time the 12th turned to the 13th, and forecasts busted across the board. The fast arriving front also prevented record highs on Saturday, which was against the grain for some outlets as well. Forecast.io ended up collecting the wind, mitigating their losses with a cooler forecast.
Actuals: Saturday, December 12th: .28 inches of rain in thunderstorms, High 66, Low 49
Sunday, December 13th, High 50, Low 27

Grade: C-D

November Forecaster of the Month

It’s hard to remember much about November most of the way through December, especially because December has been such a historic month. The upper level pattern was strong and undulating, reminiscent of an active spring, rather than the middle of December. One of the most devastating and perhaps longest track tornadoes came to the lower Ohio Valley, where there were deaths in Arkansas and Illinois, but particularly in Kentucky, where 76 lost their lives. The tornadoes did the most damage to Mayfield and Dawson Springs in Kentucky, but certainly, other communities are hurting.

That same storm was responsible for dumping up to 20 inches of snow on parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Then, a few days later, another strong system tracked into the same area, and serial derechos spread across the High Plains and Upper Midwest. In addition to winds that were approaching 100mph, there were tornadoes recorded in December for the first time in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Fortunately, the human impact was a lot less significant with this storm than the one that struck Mayfield and communities surrounding.

It’s been a very difficult month.

November was a more relaxed month for weather headlines, and it went particularly well for The Weather Channel, who easily won the month, and will be tough to beat for the year’s prize.

OutletForecast Wins (year)
The Weather Channel11.16
National Weather Service6.16

Lynchburg, Virginia to Grand Rapids, Michigan

The holidays are upon us and travel is going to be much more common this year than it was last year. How will it be, going from one place to another tomorrow, especially along the 712 mile stretch between Lynchburg and Grand Rapids. We’re going to cover it all in one day, at a pace of 63.2mph. It is going to be a long drive, so make sure you hit the restroom before we hit the road.

Lynchburg, Virginia

The next system is getting ready to develop in the Ohio Valley, and it’s sure nice to not have to describe it in apocalyptic terms. Still, for a road trip through the region, it’s still going to introduce challenges to our itinerary. The warm front associated with this system will have lifted north of Lynchburg and most of Virginia by the time we set forth on Saturday, but the warm southerly flow will potentially lead to a stray spot of drizzle, and the associated moisture may lead to some fog in the mountains of West Virginia. The reain will begin in earnest after we hit about Athens, Ohio, and will continue across the Buckeye State. It will be overcast when we reach Michigan, but the precipitation will be moving out of the state. Expect some wet flakes to mix in with the rain, maybe as early as Toledo, but the precipitation will wind down around Battle Creek. Given the wind dynamics, chill to the air and the presence of a Great Lake to the west, there could be a fewbands of lake effect snow in western Michigan, of which, one may linger in Grand Rapids for our arrival.

Grand Rapids, Michigan By Rachel Kramer – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rkramer62/3965913452/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108742650

Grand Rapids, Michigan

A large nasty area of low pressure is threatening to create another significant December severe weather outbreak, this time in Minnesota and Iowa. How well will the nasty weather hold together? Does Michigan need to brace itself

At 953AM, ET, Grand Rapids was reporting overcast skies and a temperature of 50 degrees. Low pressure in the Plains was already working to pump warm air into the Great Lakes, leading to near record highs at this early hour. Snow melt was putting a lot of extra moisture in the air and leading to extra fog and clouds across the region. Eventually, there may be some clearing later today, but not much, even with aggressive southerly flow.
The rapidly developing, strong system in the Plains is also going to be very fast moving, with the associated cold front arriving in Michigan early tomorrow morning. Fortunately by that point, the dynamics of severe weather will be gone, and even the associated moisture will be drawn north to the center of low pressure. and little to no precipitation will accompany frontal passage. More typical December weather will follow on Thursday afternoon and into Friday, with clearer, colder but less breezy conditions.
Tomorrow – Early drizzle and wind, then clearing and colder, High 57, Low 32
Friday – Mostly cloudy, High 36, Low 26

TWC: Tomorrow – Windy with a few clouds from time to time. (early rain) HIgh 60, Low 35
Friday, Partly cloudy skies. High 38, Low 28

AW: Tomorrow – Mostly cloudy and windy (early rain) High 59, Low 34
Friday – Sun and areas of high clouds in the morning; mostly cloudy in the afternoon High 40, Low 28

NWS: Tomorrow – Mostly sunny (Early rain) High 58, Low 36
Friday – A slight chance of rain and snow showers before 2pm, then a slight chance of rain showers between 2pm and 5pm, then a slight chance of rain and snow showers after 5pm. Partly sunny, High 40, Low 29

WB: Tomorrow – Windy, Mostly sunny, High 61, Low 34
Friday – Mostly sunny until midday, then partly sunny with a 20 percent chance of rain and snow showers, High 35, Low 30

WN: Tomorrow – Partly cloudy with light rain showers, High 59, Low 43
Friday – Partly cloudy, High 39, Low 29

FIO: Tomorrow – Dangerously windy until afternoon. High 60, Low 34
Friday – Partly cloudy throughout the day. High 39, Low 28

The map is very cloudy this morning, and may be for the entire day. Fortunately for Grand Rapids, it looks like they are going to duck the worst of the weather, and will instead jump right back to December.

No floor

The morning lows in Asheville last week were out of control. After a couple of clearer than expected evenings, the low temperature dropped well beyond expectations, especially on Saturday, where the morning chill was in the mid-30s. Rain never came to the North Carolina town, and Forecast.io, was the only dry forecast in the house, securing victory for the day.
Actuals: Sunday, Dec 5th, High 55, Low 37
Monday, Dec 6th, High 63, Low 38

Grade: C-D

Coming Soon…

We will certainly reflect on the devastating tornado that afflicted parts of 4 states, most influentially the state of Kentucky in the next several days. We will also take the time to look at the following forecasts.

Sebastian, Florida
Road Trip from Reno, Nevada to Sebastian

Erie, Pennsylvania

Oxnard, California

Santa Rosa, California