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.

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

A quiet December kick off

Temperatures aren’t incredibly warm right now, but they are above normal across the country, as our strong seasonal jet lies along the Canadian border, ensuring Arctic air is held at bay, and continues to force the various systems moving through North America into Canada, with little impact across the US.

There is a pretty decent area of low pressure coming together over Ontario tonight, preparing to move through New England over the next 48 hours, with some precipitation coming, including snow in the Green and White Mountains, but not down near the coast. In early December, a Canadian area of low pressure could reasonably be expected to bring about snow and wind, but without cold enough air in place, and a redirect towards the north thanks to the jet’s position, the storm will be more nuisance and less of a concern.

We will be graced by this mellow start to December only for a couple of days. The long range forecasts, while still on the warm end, suggest that more precipitation is going to be on it’s way for the rest of the month. Eventually, normal temperatures are expected for the northern part of the US, which means, of course, chilly winter weather. The snow is coming, and a white Christmas is probably on it’s way for a lot of people that are used to it.

More immediately, a trough will start to emerge in the second half of the weekend, with a strong, deep trough emerging in the center of the country. Cold air will spill into the Mississippi Valley, while low pressure and an active cold front start sweeping through the eastern third of the country to start next week. It is more likely that this is our first really good taste of winter, because the wet weather moving into New England isn’t really it.

Enjoy these quiet days, because things are going to get a bit more wintry as the month moves forward.

October Forecaster of the Month

I’m not sure it’s happened in a while, but we get to talk about the Forecaster of the Month without having to touch on a major storm cruising through some part of the country. Of course, there is flooding rain in Bellingham, Washington today, so perhaps I should hold my tongue.

There isn’t much to say this month, except that The Weather Channel dominated the month in forecasting, winning easily over any of the competition. They hold a commanding lead for the monthly forecast titles for the year, even though they trail Weatherbug in individual forecast wins.

OutletForecast Wins (year)
The Weather Channel10.33
National Weather Service5.16

A busy week comes to an end

I’m not sure it was planned this way, but Fox Weather sure had a good chance to show off the skills it’s bullpen of meteorologists have, with a pair of severe weather days, first in Missouri on Sunday (Fox covered the aftermath on their launch day) and again in the Sabine Valley from east Texas to western Louisiana, where Lake Charles had a tornado sweep through town only a year after being devastated by the 2020 hurricane season, notably by Hurricane Laura.

That first round of storms reemerged off shore and drove into southern New England and the mid-Atlantic as a nor’easter, bringing flooding rains around the New York area. There was also more mountain snow and the long awaited conclusion of rain on the west coast, and steady rain at times for nearly everyone in the country as some point, wrought by one of these storms.

The low that was so problematic in the south central United States has become bloated and slow moving. It is now slogging through the eastern Great Lakes bringing intermittent rain to a lot of the northeastern US. Through the weekend, the low will sink off shore, become reinvigorated and blast back north into New England. Behind the feature, cooler than normal temperatures in place, and will be there for the beginning of November.

So how did Fox Weather handle the busy week? Fairly well, I would say. If nothing else, Fox Weather hired people who were comfortable in front of a camera, or were capable of highly produced television. The station is slick, and looks nice. The presenting meteorologists are clear and conversive, and it is a good over the air package.

Unfortunately, all the money was spent on making the streamed product. There is no way for you to get the forecast on their website, and the app is a challenge to use. Fox Weather is essentially a news website with a focus on the weather. You can’t get any forecasts online from Fox. Can you imagine a weather website in which you can’t get your local forecast?


Fox releasing a weather app

There will soon be another major player in the weather market. On Monday, Fox is releasing a new streaming weather service and app. They have a weather based website primed to launch as well, but it remains unclear if that will be a traditional site, or if it will host the streaming service.

Some of the features, like the long range forecasts, are silly, and are just ways to try to drive users to the site. The 3d graphics that are promised are a selling point, and the use of local meteorologists across the country is innovative and should bring about some local knowledge that drives effective forecasting.

The elephant in the room, as with all things these days, and particularly when Fox comes up, is politics. Fox News is notoriously conservative in it’s news choices, and that has filtered down into their other media resources. Fox Sports, when they provide analysis, skews conservative as well (If you don’t believe me, listen to Clay Travis just once), and there is a thought that Fox Weather might intend the same.

I think, though, there is space in the market for an explicitly conservative weather outlet, and given the format of the app and stream, it will likely mitigate the most antediluvian tendencies. While climate change is a fairly well grounded scientific principle, it is a political issue and is not well accepted by those with conservative political leanings. While some meteorologists share these stances, they have evolved into questioning the potential impact and appropriate course of action, rather than the veracity of global warming. Additionally, with the network leaning on local weather persons, who may not be directly employed by Fox, there is probably less imperative to follow the corporate mantra.

I think the compromise that we will see at Fox Weather is that, instead of talking about climate change and mankind’s role in the process, and needing to stake a position that may or may not be different than Fox News’ position, the topic will be unaddressed. Instead, Fox Weather, to claim that conservative weather client, will focus only on shorter term forecasts and breaking weather news.

With The Weather Channel leaning heavily into climate change coverage and activism, some people in tornado alley may have drifted away. Having a resource from a brand name they trust providing the important information, they may be more keen to tune in at or ahead of time. As long as the Fox Weather personnel opt for avoidance of the climate change topic rather than being pressured into giving misinformation, I think Fox Weather has a chance to be a benefit to the public safety of our country.

If the Fox Weather site becomes usable like other weather sites we use, there is a very good chance we will see it on these pages in the future. I will also make sure to get the app and will post online any thoughts that come to mind.

September Forecaster of the Month

We had so many forecasts this month, every outlet had at least a share of a victory. Another way to look at it is that there was good skill across the board, but that may not be 100% the truth. The victory ultimately went to an outlet that was good even when they weren’t the best, which couldn’t be said for everyone. The Weather Channel narrowly surpassed WeatherNation to gain the victory for the month. At least everyone got to feel the warmth of a victory one time in September.

OutletForecast Wins (year)
The Weather Channel8.33
National Weather Service4.16

August Forecaster of the Month

Hurricane Ida made her landfall at the end of August, and continued to the eastern Seaboard to provide devastating rainfall and flash flooding before she expired at the beginning of September. Ida was an extraordinary storm, both for the strength at landfall, (and the forecast accuracy as it arrived, which definitely saved lives) and the flash flooding rains, which led to the second flash flood emergencies ever issued by the New York City office of the National Weather Service — the first was earlier in the month with Henri. It exposed the poor infrastructure of the region, which is ill equipped for torrential rains. which will only become more likely as we head into the future.

We had a lot of forecasts in the month of August, and some were impacted by the broad scope of Ida. Otherwise, heat and a break to some drought issues in the upper Midwest were the theme for the months. The Weather Channel concluded the month of August with the victory, followed closely by Weatherbug, a tandem that owns a tie at the top so far in 2021.

OutletForecast Wins (year)
The Weather Channel6.33
National Weather Service3.16

Ida will landfall tomorrow in Louisiana

Hurricane Ida sits off the coast of Louisiana, and will descend upon the Bayou State tomorrow. Strong winds are already starting to pick up from Mobile to the Mississippi Delta. At this hour, Ida is a Category 2, but she is slowing down her momentum and is anticipated to strengthen rapidly. The NHC suggests that Ida will become a major hurricane, likely a Category 4 before she comes ashore.

Ida’s swift momentum before this point brings good news, in the fact the storm surge will not be as terrible as it could be, given it’s status as a major hurricane. The rapid development before it makes landfall also limits the fetch and the subsequent coastal flooding. Additionally, if Ida closely follows the forecast track, she will landfall south of Houma, a bayou laden, sparsely populated (relatively) stretch of coastline. This is the good news.

The bad news is that a Category 4 storm is still strong. It will pass near enough to New Orleans to cause significant problems. There will also be a disruption to the platforms in the Gulf, and a hike to gas prices nationally as a result. Also, with Ida’s recent slowdown, heavy rain and flash flooding will become a concern. The gravest concern, and what makes Ida more dangerous than most, is that because she is expected to develop so quickly, mass evacuations were not issued. There are simply far more people in the line of fire than there would be typically when a major hurricane is bearing down.

Another bit of good fortune is that Ida is a compact storm, and as a result, will not impact even the entire state of Louisiana. Where she will impact though, will struggle to recuperate. Ida will landfall tomorrow evening, and will finally pull away from Louisiana on Monday evening.

Wrong place at the wrong time

There are presently three named features in the north Atlantic and North America. Fred is continuing his slow spin into oblivion over the eastern US, while Tropical Storm Grace is moving through the Caribbean and Tropical Storm Henri is spiraling out by Bermuda. You can see them all on satllite.

Well, at least you can see the tail end of Fred. He is a spiraling storm presently threatening rain and tornadoes to the central Appalachians. The rotational energy will dissipate through tomorrow, but rain will continue in the mid-Atlantic tomorrow.

Off shore, Henri is presently the stronger storm, and likely will be the case until Grace reaches the open Gulf again. Henri will disrupt travel to and from Bermuda, but is not going to affect the island directly. Grace, the weaker seafaring storm, has never really been able to muster herself to become a hurricane, and looking at the wind history, hasn’t been a significant storm.

Of course, there are times when the numbers don’t tell all the story. Even when considering Fred, Henri is the strongest of these three storms (though Grace may eventually overtake him), and Fred has been dropping tornadoes in the western Carolinas all day, but it is indeed Grace that has been the most problematic.

Grace passed through Haiti at a time when the country was struggling with the aftermath of a strong earthquake that left thousands dead. Grace brought flooding rains to the country as relief efforts were underway. There is a point at which the death toll from the earthquake and Grace are inextricably linked, but at this point, no loss of life has been assigned to the storm. Whatever the statistics bear out, Grace, in all her disorganization came at the worst time to the worst place, something that will never describe Henri, even if he is the bigger storm.