Severe weather lingering to the south

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to appreciate the duck like appearance of today’s severe weather outlook.

Quack quack quack. Now, the breast meat of this duck-look is featuring an enhanced risk of severe weather. Looking at the bulk of the severe weather in the forecast, it is apparent that here is a cold front running roughly from the Great Lakes to the Red River Valley, with a second embedded low over north Texas to inflame any severe storms in the region.

There is something mildly unusual about this particular forecast, and it has been part of an ongoing trend to the spring and early meteorological summer. It’s been so cold in the central US that the bullseye for severe weather hasn’t really shifted as far north as it usually does this time of year.

Here is the SPC climatology for severe weather for 6/19s through history.

Certainly, there has been severe weather further north this season, such as the tornadoes in Dayton and Jefferson City, and Kansas and Nebraska have had some severe storms as well, but the particularly cool start to summer in the Upper Midwest has kept the Great Lakes fairly quiet so far this season, it has also lead to a prolonged storm season through Texas and Louisiana.

With the long term outlook for the next couple of weeks turning warmer in the center of the country, the severe threat looks to be moving further north. Additionally, a standing trough coming to the west looks to set up a clash of air masses in the Dakotas late in the month to the beginning of July. It’s certainly too far out to make any specific predictions, but it certainly looks like we are on our way to course correction through the middle of summer.

The ongoing messaging struggle

I recently wrote about the challenge of presenting weather dangers in a clearer manner, and how important it was to clarify the risk represented by much of our sometimes vague terminology.

Another problem is that most consumers receive their weather from the media, and the media does indeed to need to drive viewership. I am of the opinion that people who are watching the news are already in it for the weather forecast, as it will help guide their decisions for the day, but some corporate overseers see it differently.

Meteorologist Joe Crain was recently terminated for espousing the opinion found in the above video. His station’s corporate management insisted upon a certain number of “Code Red” weather days with no real threshold for what that meant. Obviously, that runs counter to the efforts of increasing weather awareness for the every day person.

Overwarning, or in this case overpromoting severe weather is akin to crying wolf. If a Code Red day can mean rain for three or four days, how can the viewer know that Code Red means severe thunderstorms or tornadoes on another day?

But alas, the bottom line is financial, especially when a national corporation owns a local TV station, rather than public safety. While Crain was in the right by most clear thinking opinions, he definitely ran afoul of his employers’ business plan. It’s a blight for all meteorologists.

Haboobs aren’t just for the Middle East

This massive, sprawling dust storms are more frequently associated with the sandy deserts of the Middle East, or more locally, the dusty landscapes of the Southwest, but this massive haboob swept into Lubbock, Texas late last week, and was captured by Texas Tech University for all of us to marvel at.

As the Red Raiders noted, the haboob is formed, as they often are, but winds rushing away from thunderstorms, thanks to downdrafts hitting the earth and spreading outward, faster than the storm motion itself. This is a feature that often appears in the desert where the climate is arid and the ground can get dusty, but where instability can be such that strong, but low precipitation thunderstorms can develop. Usually, there is more moisture available than this in West Texas, but on this occasion, we get quite the show.

Hot Here, Hot There, Hot Everywhere!

We’re now into Meteorological Summer (June-August), so it’s no surprise that temperatures are starting to heat on up here across the country. After what seemed like an extremely late start to Spring around here in the Upper Midwest, everything is in full bloom as the temperatures have been pushing into the 70s and 80s lately. Well, today here in the Twin Cities, we officially hit 90! We last hit 90 on September 16th, a span of 264 days! (The record, if you wish to know, is an insane 691 days, Minneapolis went all of 1915 without hitting 90F). Luckily the humidity was kept in check today, with dew points around 60, so it was nowhere close as bad as it could have been.

Where it WAS pretty awful was south Texas. Brownsville hit 104 degrees today, not only setting a record for the date, but setting an all-time record high for the month of June! (103F in 1918 and 2012 previously). However, that was no match for Falcon Lake, TX (also along the Texas/Mexico border), which reached an incinerating 116 degrees! Heat Indicies reached into the 120s in some places given the dew points were in the upper 70s to 80 at some spots. Certainly no good for anybody having to be outside in that.

And it’s not just the US that’s roasting right now. Record heat engulfed Scandinavia, as portions of northern Finland reached well into the 80s, nearly into the Arctic Circle. Some reports are saying they haven’t experienced this type of heat that far north so early in the summer season before. And since most of those locations have homes which aren’t equipped with air conditioning, it’s leading to some miserable nights.

Most likely we’ll see more extreme heat “outbreaks” as Summer plugs along, but we can always hope that they’re short in duration and people take precautions to protect themselves from its effects.

The SPC and it’s terminology

There are so many layers of terminology in meteorology and weather forecasting on top of the scientific definitions of various phenomenon that it’s no wonder there is so much confusion when dangerous weather looms. Part of the problem is a fundamental lack one’s own geography, but also a lot of these terms we use in alarm as meteorology, we take for granted that the general public understands.

The problem is that more often than not, the public does not understand. There are a lot of terms, there are a lot of different levels of concern and there is generally a lot of confusion. One of the disconnects is that meteorologists are immersed in the terminology at all times, whereas the lay person only worries about, say, thunderstorm watches a handful of times a year. I’ve seen too many meteorologists get exasperated with the public, but the truth is, there is culpability on our side as well.

I would invite you all to explore my book, coming out on June 18th, for some definitions on watches and warnings. The short version is that warnings are more immediate, while watches are more precautionary. This section begins on Page 108, if you are so interested.

The Storm Prediction Center is truly our first alert for impending severe weather. Still, their terminology can run afoul of the laypersons intuition. Take a look at the current Day 1 (aka – today) forecast for thunderstorms across the US.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might know that a “Slight Risk” (SLGT) suggests a potentially stormy day, while an “Enhanced Risk” (ENH) portends a bit more intensity, but if you aren’t familiar with these definitions, a “slight risk” may seem dismissable, while an “enhanced risk” sounds apocalyptic.

Generally speaking, the outlooks are based on the potential for severe weather to occur within 25 miles of a location. The threshold for severe wind and hail is a 15% chance to be referred to as a “slight risk” which means that roughly, you can expect a severe weather event once every 6 or 7 times a slight risk is issued in your area. Tornadoes have a lower threshold, of 5%, or one in every 20 issuances, to have a slight risk be issued for an area. This is the case today in southern Mississippi and eastern Louisiana.

when a “Moderate” or “High” risk is issued, this should be an advanced notice of a significant severe weather outbreak expected for the day. Usually, this terminology is broadcast by the media. For further information, a visit to the SPC website will give a breakdown of the individual threats. and will even label areas under the threat (10% or higher) of significantly severe weather, by use of hatching in their graphics.

It kills us as meteorologists to hear that there was “no warning” when a catastrophic storm moves through an area, because in our minds, there are often at least three layers of notification before a storm arrives. We must accept the fact that the messaging is not as crystalline for the lay person as it is for us, and attempt to deliver out alerts more clearly. for the time being, I hope that this helps to clarify some of the terminology that exists today.

May Forecaster of the Month

Between a move and a long vacation, Victoria-Weather wasn’t very active, so as much as I like to laud active months for their clarity in selecting a forecaster, I think luck had more to do with the result than usual. The win was split by The Weather Channel and Accuweather all the same.

sOutletMonth wins
The Weather Channel1
National Weather Service0
OutletMonth winsyear wins
The Weather Channel17.25
National Weather Service05.25

April Forecaster of the Month

It’s been a pretty wild week of weather, starting with a high risk severe day in the southern high plains, followed by a more dangerous day, as tornadoes swept through a more populous region, killing three in Golden City, Missouri, and sending an EF-3 tornado through Jefferson City. It passed very near the downtown and the State Capital causing extensive damage, a few injuries, but miraculously, no deaths. And then, just last night, a tornado passed nearly in the back yard of my in laws outside of Iowa City, Iowa. This was an EF-1, and while it caused some damage nearby, everyone is all right.

So with that in mind, it’s strange to be thinking back to April. We were fairly active back then, before Anthony went on a vacation and I moved. There was enough there to comfortably state that it was a very tight competition. The Weather Channel narrowly defeated Victoria-Weather, Accuweather, Weatherbug, and The National Weather Service to win the prize.

OutletMonth wins
National Weather Service1.5
The Weather Channel0.5

Month winsyear wins
The Weather Channel0.56.25
National Weather Service1.55.25

Learn your geography!

One persistent problem that hasn’t gone away, even with improvements to forecasting and technology is the reception of a weather forecast, in particular during alert or warning periods. NPR recently released an article that highlights the number one issue with weather forecast reception among the public.

People just don’t know where they are.

I reached out to some meteorologists and social scientists in the process of writing my book, (which comes out next month!) and more than any discussion on a particular type of weather phenomenon, the dissemination of alerts and warnings stood out as the most problematic issue with regards to operational meteorology. While meteorologists can continue to refine our communication of the severity and immediacy of a weather situation, it’s hard to tell someone to be vigilant of the weather in their area, if they don’t even know where their area is.

The NPR Facebook post for this article had many commenters claiming that James Spann’s methods for testing this out were flawed. How can anyone figure out where they are if you are given a map with only county and state lines? If you are given a state, I would posit, you should be able to know, roughly, what part of the state you are in. This should take only a couple of glances at the map to get yourself a rough idea. Failing that, warnings are given on a county basis. Learn county names, and you are a step ahead of the game.

Admittedly, I grew up as a kid who loved looking at maps and knowing where I was. I’m visiting relatives as I write this, and I know exactly where I am on a map of South Dakota, just as much for my own interest as for the benefit of receiving weather information (we did get thunderstorms overnight, though they were not severe). Also, I’ve been looking at maps for my entire professional career, so that is surely a benefit to me. That said, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to address one’s physical location in schools across the country at an early age. If it’s too late for some older people, perhaps we can inform young students and THEY can help their parents along the way.

Early start to the severe season

Generally speaking, Tornado Alley is at its most active during the late spring and early summer. The most treacherous tornadoes in Oklahoma’s history have all seem to come in the first week in May, for example. Here in 2019, however, we have been reminded that the so called “Dixie Alley” sees its busiest time in the early part of spring.

We’ve already seen the deadliest tornadoes in 6 years on March 3rd, as a twister in Beauregard, Alabama killed 23 people there alone. Earlier this week, destructive tornadoes rumbled from Franklin and Alto, Texas to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

This pattern is expected to continue in the next couple of days. There is a chance for strong thunderstorms today in the southern Plains, a bit further west than what we have seen so far, but tomorrow poses a risk for a return of severe storms, with an emphasis on tornadoes in Dixie Alley. There is an enhanced risk for severe storms from Louisiana to Georgia and the Panhandle of Florida.

The jet stream hasn’t quite retreated to Canada yet this early in the season, so surface moisture doesn’t build all the way back to the Plains. Cold air is more dense and has more momentum than warm air, so it has no problem intruding on the southeastern US, touching off the strong storms of early spring.

It will get a little bit further away, that cold air, as the summer approaches and finally arrives. The severe threat in the southeast will lessen, but the oppressive heat and humidity will certainly arrive.

Spring Snowstorm Sadness

It was a picture-perfect day around here in the Twin Cities. Upper 60s, partly cloudy, a little on a breezy side but wasn’t awful. These are the beautiful spring days that we cherish around here.

So of COURSE we’re looking at a monster snowstorm moving our way in 3-4 days. A low pressure system that’s currently moving onshore over the West Coast is expected to eject into the Plains on Wednesday and become another BOMB CYCLONE (it’s this year’s fun media-hyped weather buzzword, like Polar Vortex). Forecasts are, naturally, very wide-ranging in our area specifically, but it’s looking extremely likely that there will be a broad swath of land from western Nebraska to northern Minnesota that will get 12-18″ of snow, with embedded areas getting over 2 feet. Below is the latest GFS snowfall forecast through the event. It will be interesting to see how the system evolves over the next couple of days.

Just for reference, the biggest April snowstorm on record in the Twin Cities is 15.8″ set all the way back in… 2018. The 9th biggest storm of 9.0″ was also last year. This is not a trend I like to see continue, but alas, BUCKLE UP EVERYBODY. Winter is coming… well, I guess it hasn’t left at all.