Mississippi, Alabama, and Some Odds & Ends

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged about anything, and I think it’s time to try and work back into it. Maybe I’m just more inspired now after attending talks at the AMS Conference in New Orleans about how totally awesome social media in severe weather is. Or it could just be that I enjoy doing this, and I tend not to do it enough, and I post too much on Facebook when I can package a lot of things in here. Just to catch you up on some things….

I started contributing to another blog on a weekly basis in my free time, with just some more in depth “whys” about the weather…just some color on what’s going on with the weather, maybe a postmortem or two, or some interesting links and info. I usually don’t touch forecasting issues, as I keep that minimal because of my job. Anyway, be sure to visit PhillyWeather.net. Bookmark it, read it, love it, like it on Facebook. I post Wednesday evenings.

I went to the American Meteorological Society conference in New Orleans last week. The conference was solid…some good talks. But, man, New Orleans is a great city. I visited it for the first time last year, and it’s rapidly climbed my list of favorite cities in the US. I think my top 5 is probably

1.) Philadelphia
2.) Madison
3.) Chicago
4.) New Orleans
5.) Houston

Six through 10 would probably feature NYC, Boston, Pasadena, Seattle, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

There were a lot of talks at AMS about the springtime tornadoes, some of which were extremely sobering. I recalled many of the details of those tornado talks last week in a blog over on PhillyWeather. I won’t repeat myself here, but you can check those out if you want.

After AMS, my wife and I, as we seem prone to do, took a detour on the way home and spent a couple nights in Central Mississippi and Alabama. It’s a part of the South I’ve never visited before. It’s worth a visit. We spent the first night in Jackson, MS and the second night in Birmingham, AL. Jackson is a very old city, but seems to have quite a bit of Southern charm to it. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, which I strongly recommend if you find yourself in Jackson…just a lovely old hotel converted into a modern HG Inn. We didn’t spend much time in Jackson, so I’d like to go back, but we did check out the State Capitol . Lovely grounds, like most state capitols, with a handful of other monuments.

After Jackson we visited Vicksburg and spent a few hours exploring the Vicksburg National Military Park there….site of the 1863 Civil War Siege and Battle. It’s a good place to visit…lots of history as it really was a major turning point in the War…not so much from a strategic perspective (though it was that), but from a morale perspective in the Union.

We drove back east through Jackson again on our way to Birmingham. Birmingham is a great city as well. The Little Five Points area is pretty cool..hip, with some eclectic individuals, but cool. We also visited the gigantic statue of Vulcan in Vulcan Park overlooking the city. The area really reminded me of a mini Atlanta. If you’re in that region, it’s worth a trip to the city. We overnighted in Birmingham before heading home through Montgomery and Dothan. The Alabama State Capitol is very, very nice. Lots of monuments (an intriguingly high proportion of them were devoted to the Civil War). Definitely worth a visit. Some very friendly people in both Mississippi and Alabama. I look forward to exploring more of those states eventually.

Backtracking a bit… On our way to Birmingham, I had my wife navigate us into Tuscaloosa, AL, following the path of the horrific EF-4 tornado that ravaged that city back in April. I’ve seen one tornado in my life…a meager F-1/EF-1 tornado that hit Somers Point in 2001. I was a cashier in a grocery store there and watched it move across the parking lot. I was stunned. It did a minimal amount of damage, but it was the most intriguing thing I had ever seen meteorologically.

I anticipated we’d see a fair amount of damage, but we were honestly not prepared for what we saw. Everyone’s seen pictures and everyone knows how awful it was. But to actually see firsthand just how much of a scar this left on this city. I never expected it. Seeing pictures is one thing, but seeing it with your own eyes is another entirely. I really wanted to take photographs of some of the damage and the scope of how much damage there was, but I was very conflicted…I really didn’t want to be that guy who gawks over something as awful as what these people went through, and honestly, after seeing some of it with my own eyes, I didn’t want to photograph it. I took about 3 photos, one or two of which actually came out. That photo is posted at the left, which shows what used to be a full neighborhood, now completely vacant, barren, empty. Amazing to see how close the tornado was from the University of Alabama (literally about 5 blocks). It was a real eye opening experience, one that really brought home the fact that what we as meteorologists love so much and are so passionate about can really devastate communities and people’s lives. A lot of people were somewhat annoyed at the social science talks at the AMS conference. I think some of those people need to visit some of these communities devastated on April 27th and on other days and understand that weather isn’t just science or something that inconveniences people…it impacts people’s lives directly. Here’s to hoping the 2012 severe weather season is much, much quieter.

Raleigh, Tuscaloosa/Birmingham, Joplin….Springfield, MA

2011: Raleigh, NC….Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, AL…Joplin, MO…Springfield, MA
1953: Flint, MI…Worcester, MA…Waco, TX

Not much to say about this…it was awe-inspiring to watch as it happened yesterday, and it happened in an area I’m very familiar with, so it hit close to home. But a couple words on it….

Tornadoes don’t have personality….they don’t pick and choose to destroy some houses and spare others. They don’t choose to form on certain days and choose not to on others. If the right ingredients come together over any given location, a tornado can develop. And in 1953 and now in 2011, it’s just so happened that several of the areas impacted by tornadoes have been large communities and unfortunately they’ve been large tornadoes in many cases.

Weather Scope App for iPad image of Doppler Velocity near Monson, MA

If Springfield, MA should teach you one thing, it’s this: It does not matter where you live or what you remember or were taught about the weather in your town: If the right set of ingredients comes together at the right time, a large, destructive tornado can develop and can do serious, life threatening damage. What you see on the left…that’s something straight out of the Midwest or Plains. But that’s over Massachusetts. It can happen to you, and yesterday is a textbook example of why you need to pay attention when warnings are issued. If you take one lesson from it…that’s the one.

In the end, I think we’re looking at a solid stripes of EF-3 damage in between widespread EF-1/2. The radar presentation of this thing was as good as anything I’ve seen this spring, and hands down the most well developed supercell I’ve ever seen on radar in the Northeast, so it has the potential to be an EF-4 in a few spots… especially near where this radar image was taken. It was at its best (worst) I believe between Monson and Southbridge. But we’ll see. NWS Boston won’t have an official answer until tomorrow it appears.

Pick of the Weekend

Just trying something new here. My pick of the weekend is the Pacific Northwest. After months of rain and misery, at least a couple nice days are on top with 80s likely in Portland Saturday and upper 70s in Seattle as well into Sunday. As long as the dry, offshore flow develops as expected, it could be a chamber of commerce type weekend in the Northwest. Long overdue!

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Thoughts on the Outbreak…and Sociometeorology

This will be a long entry, but I’ll preface it by saying that I think it will be worth reading and hopefully be interesting. I’ll also preface it by saying that I am a meteorologist who didn’t experience or witness the Super Outbreak of ’74 or Palm Sunday 1965. What I know about those events is what I’ve read about, seen pictures of, heard stories about. What I know about this event is that while I hope and pray to God that we never witness anything like this again, the harsh reality is that we’re one day going to and there’s a chance that it will be worse than this. And I think there needs to be an open discussion about this event in the context of where we stand (in what I’m now coining as) socio-meteorologically.

Preliminary Map of Tornado Tracks (credit: NOAA)

Let me start by making a statement that I think is partially true: I believe that the proverbial “we” (the meteorology and OEM fields) did almost everything right in this event. We may learn in the days and weeks ahead that warnings weren’t received by the people they were intended for because of power problems or other infrastructure problems. And if that’s the case, certainly we’ll learn from it, but I find it difficult to believe that it will end up being the case. Warnings for this event were pretty much given 6-9 days in advance. Henry Margusity of AccuWeather even made the bold statement that he believed 300 more tornadoes would be possible 4/19-5/4. A lot of people I know (including myself) tend to view AccuWeather as often being overdramatic about certain things, but they get publicized, their comments get out there, and this time they ended up being correct. I even recall saying off the cuff to a colleague of mine the Thursday or Friday before that we “should just issue a PDS Tornado Watch for the Southeast next Wednesday now.” The point is, we all saw this coming. The SPC had enhanced wording and risks days in advance…including the first time I’ve ever seen a moderate risk issued on Monday’s third forecast day. The local NWS offices issued enhanced wording, statements, and tornado warnings with plenty of lead time in most cases. The TV meteorologists I watched in Huntsville and Birmingham did an outstanding job conveying and qualifying this information to residents. James Spann and his team of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham deserve some sort of medal for the coverage and warning they provided. Anyone who is in TV meteorology or aspires to one day be in TV meteorology needs to go back and watch their coverage, how they handled it, and how they presented it. They cover severe weather the way it is supposed to be covered.

Radar Montage of the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham Supercell (credit: Brian Tang/NCAR)

My point: I truly believe this was one of meteorology’s finest hours. There is no question that many lives were saved Wednesday because of the SPC, the local NWS offices, and local TV meteorologists (as well as national outlets such as The Weather Channel with Dr. Forbes, who also did a fine job and have been doing a fine job all month). But no one in the meteorology community can label Wednesday as a finest hour because of the enormous loss of life.

So if the warning angle and meteorology were close to as good as you could ever do, what went wrong?

We’ll learn more in the coming days and weeks about how the warnings were received by people (did everyone who needed the warning get it and if they did get it did they act on it?), what they did, how the unfortunate victims of these tornadoes died, if there was a pattern in the type of construction that saw the most fatalities (mobile homes vs. single family homes vs. businesses vs. highways, etc.). But as it stands right now, it seems like most people did what they were supposed to do…sheltered in their homes, lowest level, interior room, protected by a mattress, etc. Yet, it seems in the infancy of the aftermath of this event that many people that followed the rules still didn’t survive. Why?

It’s human nature to want to peg reasons for why things happen on some sort of singular thing. Someone or something is to blame for it. I will say something that a lot of people may not agree with (and as we learn more, may not even necessarily be true, but I believe it anyway): I truly believe the only thing you can “blame” for this event is that extremely violent tornadoes went across areas that are more populated than Americans are used to or comfortable with. In the 1974 Super Outbreak, there were roughly 150 tornadoes over 13 states that killed a little over 300 people. This one will likely see more tornadoes with more fatalities despite likely better warnings. Alabama’s population however was 3.4 million in 1970 and roughly 4.8 million today. I hate using gun analogies in this situation, but I think it illustrates my point well: If you fire roughly the same number of bullets at an increasing number of targets, you will likely hit more targets. The population has increased, and with violent tornadoes traversing some of these more populated areas, it is inevitable that we would see a large number of casualties. We have really only had isolated events in the last 35 years…yes there have been large tornado outbreaks, some of which have had an unfortunately large number of fatalities, but if you look at the list of tornado outbreaks since the 70s…many of the deaths have been the result of singular tornadoes in isolated but populated areas. We haven’t really seen multiple strong tornadoes traversing many populated areas. And as the population of some of the more vulnerable areas has increased, sadly it could one day be even worse than this.

So what else is it? I coined the term sociometeorology above, and when I Google search it, I get a grand total of 25 results, which tells me it isn’t a term that’s really been defined or is widely in use. After this month, it needs to be. Sociometeorology, to me, would be the crossroads of how people view and respond to significant weather. I think we’re learning a lot more about what Americans know, understand, and how they react to tornadoes. Some examples:

– Many of the stories I’ve been reading have said that many people in the south do not have basements or storm cellars.

– I read this article from after the North Carolina tornadoes earlier in April about how some have become desensitized to tornado warnings because they’ve occurred very often in places and have not occurred in those places.

– An anecdotal note: In a conversation with my mother yesterday, her comment was, “When I think of tornadoes like that, I think of Oklahoma, Kansas, and ‘The Wizard of Oz.'”

Climatological Tornado Alley Map - credit: NOAA

When we were in school, we were all taught in the couple of weeks of weather we had that Tornado Alley is the map on the left. It’s been engrained in you since you were a kid that the big tornadoes are there. And while this is somewhat true (yes, climatologically, the Plains experience more and more frequent violent tornadoes than you’ll see anywhere else in the country), it’s my opinion that this needs to now be treated as a myth. Tornado Alley no longer exists as we were taught as kids. It never has.

Redefining Tornado Alleys in America, credit: Michael Frates/University of Akron (http://www.uakron.edu/dotAsset/1085452.pdf)

Michael Frates of the University of Akron did some research last year that I’ve really only seen get widely publicized recently (though there was a Discovery Channel article last April). His determination was that there are technically four tornado alleys in the US: The traditional tornado alley I posted above, Dixie Alley (NE Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia), Carolina Alley (NC/SC), and Hoosier Alley (Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky). In my opinion, this map needs to be in every weather section of every science textbook that exists.

I believe people living in these areas, especially Dixie and Hoosier Alleys, should have their homes built with the same foresight that most homes in traditional Tornado Alley have….storm cellars and/or well-built basements need to be absolutely required in every new home built in the South from now on. I don’t think that can guarantee you protection and safety when an EF-5 comes rolling through, but even that is better than the lowest level/interior room. And I believe that mobile home communities need to go beyond anchoring trailers…they need to have some sort of mass underground bunker for people to get to in the event of a tornado. How this gets done logistically, I do not know, but I think this discussion needs to start happening.

In reference to the article linked above about being desensitized to warnings, I think the National Weather Service needs to have a frank and open discussion with the public about this. For as much good as they do, the false alarm rate (FAR) on tornado warnings is still very high. Just doing a simple search on the Iowa State archive can produce some results that are disappointing in terms of percentage of warnings verified. I have always been a major, major proponent of overwarning in severe weather…the “better safe than sorry in this situation” mentality. I have always argued in conversations to support the NWS with warnings. And in many cases of warnings that don’t verify, they don’t have much choice. But based on the last few weeks, this conversation about how FAR can be reduced needs to happen, because as was seen in North Carolina, it’s evident that people do not always take things seriously (and yes, you can blame people for being irresponsible…but that’s really unfair). Storm based warnings replacing countywide warnings was a huge step in the right direction. But things can always be done better, and to me it seems they need to be.

What we witnessed last week was tragic on every possible level. I hope and pray that residents of the South can put their lives back together. But the truth is, this is going to happen again. While we pause to reflect and hopefully help others to recover, it would behoove us as a community of meteorologists, emergency managers, engineers, and politicians to have a very frank and open discussion about this concept of sociometeorology, about what is currently required of residents outside traditional Tornado Alley and what needs to be, and how we can offset the negative aspects of overwarning for other storms. I hope this can happen soon, because we’re inevitably going to see more tornado outbreaks in the future…and we may see ones that are even worse than this. There are a number of very large cities that sit in incredibly vulnerable areas. Weather has the ability to surprise. Everything you thought you believed is sometimes debunked. While it would be nice to hope this never happens again, it will, and I hope we can learn from this year to help mitigate how bad it might be next time.

Some links of interest about the outbreak and flooding:

Just go back through Alabamawx.com for tons of photos and videos…some powerful, some heartbreaking, some just incredible.

NCAR article on the meteorology behind the outbreak

Dr. Judith Curry on the climate change angle (including some insensitive and misguided comments from experts).

NWS New Orleans page on major flooding in the lower Mississippi

NWS Jackson, MS page on tornadoes in their CWA

NWS Shreveport, LA page on tornadoes in their CWA

NWS Little Rock page on severe weather/tornadoes/flooding in Central Arkansas

NWS Memphis page on river crests from record Mississippi River flooding

NWS Huntsville, AL storm survey page

Latest storm survey info from NWS Birmingham

Morristown (Chattanooga) NWS Page on the outbreak

Peachtree City (Atlanta) NWS Page on the outbreak

NWS Paducah, KY page on flooding

Storm surveys from Maryland, DC, Virginia

Storm surveys from Central Pennsylvania

Storm survey info from Herkimer County, NY

Storm surveys from NWS Binghamton, NY

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Historic (?) Southeast Storm Could Be Next Northeast Snow Threat

Overall pleased with the forecast for the current storm for the Big Cities. Definitely underestimated parts of CT that saw 8-16″ of snowfall on average in the western part of the state, even down to New Haven County. Just a reminder… State of Occlusion is on Facebook. I’ve posted some additional cool links and snow maps early on that page. “Like” the blog by clicking here! On to the fun…

The Eastern 2/3 of the US are going to be peppered by winter events over the next five days or so. Let me run through things here.

Snowfall Forecast from Friday Overnight-Sunday Morning

First off, tomorrow, as all of the energy responsible for the unsettled eastern weather the last couple days starts to slide offshore, it will begin to develop into a nor’easter, but rapidly exit to the east. However, as it intensifies, it could produce a pretty well organized band of snow from about Southern NJ/Central DE through E Long Island and possibly Cape Cod. The snow map is over to the left if you want to enlarge it and see my thoughts through Sunday morning. Not a big storm, but there could be some heavy snow for an hour or two, especially east of Rt. 206 in NJ as the storm pulls away. Lingering snows will produce perhaps a couple more inches in New England, with upslope areas of the Green Mountains and Berkshires more favored. I don’t believe accumulations will be that high. There is some chance the Cape and Islands, as well as the Boston area may see some enhancement too.

GFS Forecast of Total Ice Through Tuesday Morning (Credit: wxcaster.com)

That will exit tomorrow night and by Sunday morning or so, things will be quiet. But that sets the stage for the next event, and this one might be an absolutely punishing doozy of a storm. The map to the right shows the GFS forecast for total accumulated freezing rain through Monday. A strong storm system is going to trek across the Southeast in an unusually cold air mass, and with it will come plenty of moisture…almost an El Nino type storm. Winter Storm Watches are posted almost to the Gulf Coast for Mississippi and Alabama, and for most of northern Georgia and Louisiana, as well as Arkansas. This amount of ice this far south would be absolutely crippling…that isn’t hyperbole either…these are places that almost never see frozen precipitation of any kind, let alone to this extent. The raw model outputs in some of these places is absolutely mind boggling. Atlanta is showing anywhere from 6-12″ of snow, with 1/4″ of ice! Of course, that’s raw model and has to be taken with a grain of (road) salt. But still, that’s absolutely insane, The all-time snow record for Atlanta is (I believe) 10″ in January 1940. It’s tough for me to put this in historical context, as I’m not THAT familiar with Southeast wintry climatology, but this would be, from a meteorological perspective, one of the most incredible things we’ve seen over the last couple winters (and we’ve seen a LOT). Check out the total snowfall forecast through Tuesday morning in the Southeast below (from http://wxcaster.com/regional_snowfall.htm).

Southeast NAM Snowfall Forecast Thru Monday Night (Credit: http://wxcaster.com/regional_snowfall.htm)

The next question becomes, where does it go? The three main models to look at for tonight, taking them (since the NAM only goes out 84 hours) to Tuesday morning shows the low sitting somewhere off the northeast South Carolina coast. Not surprisingly, where this storm sets up, will determine how it impacts areas up the coast. The European model sets up the furthest northwest. Not surprisingly, as you run it out further in time, the European delivers a quick moving, but solid snow event (6-12″ish) for most areas from I-95 south and east. The GFS is a glancing blow, but mainly a miss (not bad for New England). The NAM stops at hour 84, but is a little closer to the European model than the GFS. So my feeling is that despite model flip flopping the last couple of days, we could still see a pretty potent little storm from the Carolinas up into New England. The timing on the snow would be later Tuesday to the south, ending Wednesday from Jersey through New England. Stay tuned on this, especially if you have midweek plans. I’ll do my best to keep you posted.