Following Up on Japan and Media Mismanagement

NOAA HYSPLIT Model Run for Japan, from Dr. Jeff Masters' blog at Wx Underground (http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1767)

A pretty cool link I stumbled upon today allows you to actually listen to the devastating Japan earthquake. The Japanese Lab of Bioacoustics has a network of undersea instruments that allows for this. It’s rather incredible.

Also, here’s a link to a  pretty nifty animation someone’s created that shows the foreshocks, the 9.0, and the subsequent aftershocks pop up in sequential order. Amazing how much seismic activity continues over there. Note that this is not at all uncommon. Most major quakes like this have aftershocks (some that can still be large) continue for weeks, months, or even years after the main shock.

Along the lines of what I wrote about earlier in the week, it’s been incredibly frustrating to read and hear some of the coverage in the media about this incident and what actually should matter to people here (besides the recovery effort and how we all can help). There’s been an intense debate about nuclear energy, which is certainly fine, but I think that needs to wait until after we at least figure out how to solve the issues in Japan.

There continues to be this implied comparison to Chernobyl. Here’s a good link that details the worst nuclear incidents in the world. To this point, this is not Chernobyl. The IAEA rates events (similar to tornadoes and hurricanes) in a seven category scale. Chernobyl is the equivalent of Andrew, Katrina, or Camille. So far to this point, the Fukushima incident ranks as a 5 out of the seven. This is terrible on every level, but again, this is NOT Chernobyl.

There also continues to be a wishy-washy bit of media coverage regarding how radiation will impact Americans. You get headlines like this…even though the article has very little to do with direct radiation impacts in California (it’s mainly discussing how LA is activating a lesson’s learned sort of campaign to help mitigate and prepare in case a similar disaster occurred there). But if you just read the headline, you’d assume that even if there is no direct impact, they’re still concerned enough that they have to activate emergency procedures.

In the New York Times the other day, they put this movie online showing the plume’s path. Their intent was to show people when *trace* amounts of radiation would be detected at various monitoring stations. If you are an ordinary American, with a limited science background, and you look at this movie, what do you see? Radiation coming to America.  Buried on the righthand side in the text at the bottom, it says that it would, “at worst, have extremely minor health consequences.” First off, this needs to be emphasized ON the movie or IN the headline. That’s the MOST important aspect of this imagery. And what do extremely minor health consequences consist of? Honestly. Vagueness is what will cause people to panic.

Then, you just get completely misinformed articles like this that make headlines on Drudge. But truthfully, why shouldn’t they be making headlines? Heck, the surgeon general earlier in the week implied it was intelligent for people in the West to stock up on Potassium Iodide. And of course she meant that it was good to always be prepared for a disaster, but it was implied that they should stock up directly because of THIS incident.

The fact of the matter is, that this is NOT a threat to Americans here at home. There have been a handful of great articles written on this topic. I’ll direct you to a couple of them.

Dr. Greg Forbes of The Weather Channel discussed dispersion and dilution, the main drivers of why this won’t be a major threat.

Dr. Jeff Masters of The Weather Underground has discussed this for several days now. Granted, the headline isn’t putting the focus on what’s important in all this, but he makes a point to emphasize the lack of a health threat.

The biggest issue in all this is communication. Scientists inherently have issues communicating information in a language and a way that ordinary people can relate to. Perception is everything in these types of situations. If people sense any iota of danger to their health, of course they’re going to react. Scientists, politicians, and, most importantly, the media need to get their acts together and make sure the information they are providing is coherent, clear, and important to people. The reports of “trace” radiation, while interesting, don’t matter in the grand scheme of things to an average American.

The prospect of radiation making it to America from Japan is interesting, but it’s an interesting concept for scientists. As an ordinary American, who probably has enough to worry about,  this is one thing you do NOT need to be concerned with. Over the next few weeks though, this whole disaster should serve as a reminder to you that it *can* happen here. Anything can. Look over your plans if a disaster strikes (any disaster…fire, quake, hurricane, tornado, etc.) and make sure it will work (make contingency plans). And if you don’t have a plan, make one. You might be happy you did.

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About the Earthquake in Japan

First off…now in Jacksonville, FL, and that is where I shall be for awhile, so expect more insights on hurricanes and thunderstorms as the warm season gets going. New job affords me more time to look at weather data, but less free time, so we’ll see what kind of balance I can maintain going forward.

First off, my thoughts and prayers go out to anyone and everyone impacted by this unspeakable tragedy in Japan. It truly is a horrific disaster, and we all can only hope they can recover as quickly as possible. You’ve all seen the videos, read the stories, etc. I’m not going to get too wordy here, but I have heard a few odds and ends here and there that have sort of irked me the last few days. I’m not a geologist, nor am I a seismologist. I am a meteorologist, though we used to joke in TV that we were supposed to know every field of science because we were the only ones in the station with a legitimate science degree. I digress. Let’s discuss a couple points.

Myth: A tsunami can only occur on the West Coast of the U.S.

I actually heard a nuclear expert say on TV tonight that the East Coast isn’t susceptible to tsunamis. And while the East Coast certainly doesn’t see the frequency of tsunami events that the West Coast sees, history tells us that they have occurred…and they could be substantial. The Capital Weather Gang actually published an entry today with a lot of details on past East Coast events. I won’t recite them all here, but you can click the link and read for yourself. And the NWS in Philly has a really good timeline of past events and details. Landslides off the coast in the Continental Shelf, landslides elsewhere, or a large earthquake in the Caribbean (Lesser Antilles subduction zone) would be the primary culprits for such an event on the East Coast. But they can happen, and you should be aware that they can happen.

Hype: The nuclear power disaster unfolding in Japan could happen here too.

Without getting into the debate of whether nuclear power is good or bad, suffice to say this: Yes, we do have nuclear plants in the Western US in vulnerable areas. However, keep this in mind: The nuclear plants in Japan survived the earthquake. They did as they were supposed to do during the quake, which is not crumble. They did not however survive the tsunami. And that’s where a lot of the focus on the current nuke plants on the West Coast should be made. In California, San Onofre, in between LA and San Diego is a concern, as is Diablo Canyon (Avila Beach). However, both of these plants are equipped with extremely sophisticated technology and able to withstand earthquakes of very powerful magnitude that can occur in those areas.  San Onofre is on the coast and has a wall designed to withstand a 25 foot tsunami. The LA Times had an article today specifically about San Onofre. So with all this in mind, yes this is a serious issue that needs to be revisited, but again, keep in mind that you aren’t going to see a 9.0 earthquake centered in SoCal. In general, northern California is at a much higher risk than SoCal for a tsunami as well.

This is Another Chernobyl

No it is not. Chernobyl had a number of extenuating circumstances that compounded its disaster. All you need to know is here. That being said, that’s not minimizing the magnitude of this disaster or how bad it could get. But these are two completely different scenarios.

Myth: The Japan Earthquake Could Not Happen Here

You probably won’t see anything quite as strong as 9.0 occur on the Mainland of the US, though, yes, we can and will see large earthquakes occur. But an earthquake of the magnitude observed in Japan could occur off the Northwest Coast. The culprit would be the Cascadia Subduction Zone. If you live in the Northwest or have friends/loved ones in the Northwest, make sure they are fully aware that what occurred in Japan WILL one day occur there. It could be tomorrow, or it could be in 200 years. We simply don’t know, but the geology is similar. And we’re not prepared for it. Make sure they/you get prepared as best as you can.

Seattle Times Article

Cascadia Subduction Zone Info

This is just a sampling of the flash points I’ve come up with based on what I’ve read and heard over the last couple days. Hope this helps clear the air a little.

Hurricane Season Ends, European Chill, Cool Video, Quake Off Jersey

Well, I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving and holiday weekend, did their shopping, etc. Back in California after a fun leg of flights today over the large storm system swirling in the middle of the country. More on that shortly. First, let’s catch up on some of the more interesting stories from the last week or so…

2010 Atlantic Hurricane Season Storm Tracks - courtesy NOAA

2010 Atlantic Hurricane Season Ends

First and foremost, today is November 30th, which is the last day of the Atlantic Hurricane season. That isn’t to say more storms can’t form, but in terms of statistics, this season is done. How did we do?

19 Named Storms
12 Hurricanes
5 Major (Cat 3+) Hurricanes

Normal is 11, 6 and 2 respectively. Here’s the official NOAA press release on the season. The season ends up tied for the 3rd most active on record (1887, 1995), and it ties for the second most hurricanes on record (1969). The money quote from the release (in my opinion):

“Large-scale climate features strongly influenced this year’s hurricane activity, as they often do. This year, record warm Atlantic waters, combined with the favorable winds coming off Africa and weak wind shear aided by La Niña energized developing storms. The 2010 season continues the string of active hurricane seasons that began in 1995.

But short-term weather patterns dictate where storms actually travel and in many cases this season, that was away from the United States. The jet stream’s position contributed to warm and dry conditions in the eastern U.S. and acted as a barrier that kept many storms over open water. Also, because many storms formed in the extreme eastern Atlantic, they re-curved back out to sea without threatening land.”

KTRK-TV in Houston compares some of the seasonal forecasts.

Some more perspective on the season and hurricanes in general, including a neat satellite derived rainfall map from this season.

Overall,  I think this season is going to go down in the books as a bust in general, namely because the U.S. was spared a hurricane hit for the fifth straight year, despite the hyperactive nature of the season. But the forecasts were very well done for the most part this season, and frankly, I don’t know that you can ask for much more than that, given our limited ability to predict weather and climate.

So what about next year? It’s obviously way down the line and there’s little skill in trying to make a forecast this far out. But, if you look at a couple of key El Nino area forecast, the ECMWF and the IRI, both indicate (an implied and/or average) weak La Nina persisting into next summer. Should that hold together, that would be one factor that would would favor another busier than normal season. Whether it’s even remotely as busy as this year…or busy at all…remains to be seen though. But that just gives you an idea.

Lastly with the tropics, some new online maps are available, indicating flood vulnerability along the coast due to storm surge. If you click the link in the article and tool around with the maps, some of them are interesting. Bottom line, there are a LOT of vulnerable places on this country’s coast to storm surge flooding.

Mildly similarly related…

There was an interesting article published in Friday’s New York Times about how Norfolk, VA is handling frequent bouts of tidal flooding.

Some cool video came out of last week’s big Western storm. This video was courtesy of Dale Ireland in Silverdale, WA (originally published in Cliff Mass’ Washington weather blog). Then of course, there was this priceless video from Seattle last week:

Here’s a radar loop from the snow in Seattle last week as well:

That Seattle snow made it to Salt Lake City last Tuesday, and here’s some really cool time lapse video of the snow rolling in, and a slower video that shows basically a wall of angry weather arriving:

Interesting AccuWeather blog post today about how the West is seeing absolutely phenomenal early season ski conditions…some of the best in years. It has been stormy…and it’s also been cold, helping a lot of ski resorts add more white gold to their slopes. Absolutely great conditions out West this year. Here’s an article on how citrus growers in Central California have been protecting their crops.

Cold in Europe

This winter is behaving (in some regards) oddly similarly to last winter. If you remember last winter, the US and Europe had it especially rough. Well, Europe is off to the races this winter too.

A few inches of snow for London…and a lot of travel disruptions.

The snow is disrupting school and life in the UK.

This follows some of the coldest November temperatures on record in the UK over the weekend!

Sweden is also seeing some of their coldest November weather in years.

The Eastern US will taste some cold weather, sort of driven by similar factors (and relatively, not nearly as cold) as we go through the next ten days or so. The pattern will also be ripe for the potential for at least some snow. More on that in coming days.

A few final things today.

USGS "Did You Feel It?" Map from today's 3.9 magnitude earthquake off Long Island.

From the head scratch department, dust storms can occur in the Arctic…and there’s an interesting driver behind them.

A 3.9 magnitude earthquake occurred around 10:45 AM today, about 120 miles ESE of New York City. The details on the quake are here. A ton of “Did You Feel It?” reports were received by the USGS from Long Island, New England, and New Jersey. Anyone notice this today?

And finally, in what is the most painful story of the day, another tornado hit Yazoo City, MS this morning. If you recall, Yazoo City was hit by a devastating EF-4 tornado back in April that killed 10 and injured dozens. From what I’ve read thus far, there were six injuries from this morning’s storm. More details if I get them.

More on some of the upcoming weather in the next couple days as I get myself caught back up on things after the extended weekend.

A Rational Review of a Rational Discussion

Some more coming out from yesterday’s Rational Discussion on Climate Change on Capitol Hill. A couple of blog postings and other info from yesterday…

Dr. Judith Curry offers some suggestions for how the science-policy interface should work. They’re very sensible, and sadly, to me, represent a common sense approach to this…something that’s been severely lacking in this debate all along. Another “skeptic” of anthropogenic global warming, Dr. Richard Lindzen, a decorated atmospheric physicist from MIT offered his own take. Lindzen states:

However, my personal hope is that we will return to normative science, and try to understand how the climate actually behaves. Our present approach of dealing with climate as completely specified by a single number, globally averaged surface temperature anomaly, that is forced by another single number, atmospheric CO2levels, for example, clearly limits real understanding; so does the replacement of theory by model simulation.

Some very sensible commentary. Lindzen’s testimony is worth a read, as he delves into some very strong counter-opinions to what is standard climate change belief. And Lindzen (or Dr. Curry) isn’t a typical “rogue” scientist…his opinions carry serious clout.

An article in the Orange County Register today discusses how alarmism may have polluted climate science enough to cause it to backfire and lose popular support. I agree 100% with this. I described a few entries ago how I believe this “science is settled” mantra is unfair and is the undertone for the entire climate science debate. As a scientist, I can attest to the fact that most of us are absolutely dreadful communicators. Most scientists do not know (some notable exceptions do exist) how to explain their research in simple terms that the average person can understand and NOT come off as smug, elitist, or…to a lot of people…frankly, annoying. There’s a significant communication gap between climate science, policy, and the public. And as I have previously stated, it is the job of climate scientists to not be policy advocates, but to explain their research. And it would do a world of good if colleges and universities require basic communications classes for scientists. The clearer and more approachable scientists become, the more likely the public is to not raise an eyebrow with everything they say. Skepticism is good for climate science, as it challenges what have been unchecked beliefs. Meteorology is an inexact science. Climate science is rooted in meteorology to a large degree. The processes driving weather vs. climate aren’t always the same, but the result of uncertainty and doubt at the end of the day still exists.

The bottom line on this: I hope we can continue to engage in a rational debate on climate change…with both sides being open minded to each other’s viewpoints and ideas…and hopefully absent of policy.

Damage in Baltimore from a macroburst and EF-1 tornado, image credit: NWS Sterling, VA: http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/lwx/events/svrwx_20101117/

In other news….

The NWS confirmed an EF-1 tornado and larger macroburst in Baltimore, MD from yesterday. Here’s some links on it:

AccuWeather has some decent imagery and a brief synopsis.

The NWS has a full page of damage photos and information from the event.

So a very active November day in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic piles on some more!

Elsewhere, a good read from the Capital Weather Gang on this hurricane season and where it stands historically (starting to get to the recap mode of hurricane season now…expect more of these in the coming days).

Also, a new faultline has been uncovered in the Rocky Mountains in Idaho…apparently capable of producing a 7.5 magnitude earthquake…scary stuff. Fortunately it’s a relatively sparsely populated area, but still certainly worth noting…and it makes you wonder what else we don’t know about!

One last bit of cool weather news: Fairbanks, AK shattered their highest barometric pressure reading of all-time yesterday. It actually was such high pressure that it forced an aircraft to divert! The air pressure was so high, it made reading the plane’s altimeter exceedingly difficult. So a plane was diverted because of…good weather? It can happen. We’ve had a significant amount of low pressure records set this year…so this is an intriguing change-up. The PNS from Fairbanks on the 1051 mb pressure is below:

PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FAIRBANKS AK
445 PM AKST WED NOV 17 2010

...FAIRBANKS BREAKS SEA LEVEL PRESSURE RECORD...

AT APPROXIMATELY 1 AM ON WEDNESDAY...THE FAIRBANKS INTERNATIONAL
AIRPORT REPORTED A SEA LEVEL PRESSURE OF 1051.4 MILLIBARS.
THIS BREAKS THE PREVIOUS NOVEMBER RECORD FOR HIGHEST SEA LEVEL
PRESSURE IN FAIRBANKS OF 1047.6 MB...WHICH WAS SET ON NOVEMBER 26
1966.

Richard, Winter, Drought, Quakes

Lots to hit on today. First and foremost, Tropical Storm Richard has formed today between Jamaica and Honduras, and it is storm  number 17 of this 2010 hurricane season. Clearly hyperactive and clearly well forecasted from the start. Richard should gradually organize over the next day or two. It’s likely Richard will become a hurricane, and there’s also a decent chance it could become a major hurricane if the environment is right. Shear should be low over this in a couple days and the environment overall should be more favorable. A lot will be determined by how close to the Central American coast this storm gets. The closer, the better chance it does not intensify. The current model clustering suggests that the storm is headed for the southern Yucatan. However, there is a minority of models taking Richard toward the NE part of the Yucatan and then into the open Gulf of Mexico, which would imply less time over land. It’s a tough forecast right now, and I would lean closer to the track into the Yucatan north of the Belize border, likely as a strong, if not major hurricane. We’ll have to watch how close to land this gets early on. Beyond the Yucatan, it’s really up in the air as to where this thing goes…if it hooks toward Florida or moves into the open Gulf and hooks toward the Northeast Gulf Coast. Stay tuned. Track the latest official items on Richard here.

Winter

With winter rapidly approaching, an onslaught of forecasts is beginning to emerge. I’ve already seen multiple vendor forecasts at work, and today, the National Weather Service unveiled their own forecast for winter. The highlights?

– Warm. Overall the pattern of much above normal temperatures nationally from summer continues. The exceptions being the West Coast, Northwest (cool), and potentially the Northeast…where there are mixed signals.

– Dry in the South. From Florida over to Arizona and possibly SoCal…drier than normal. More on that shortly.

– Wet from the Tennessee Valley into the Great Lakes, which implies a storm track favorable for chaos in the East this winter. In other words: Higher risk of mixed precipitation and ice storms in much of the eastern Lakes, Appalachians and Mid Atlantic. Also wet in the Northwest, Northern Rockies and Northern California.

The forecast this winter, as expected, is dominated by La Nina, the periodic cooling of water in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. And this year’s La Nina is raging at the moment, with no real signs of slowing. In my own opinion, their forecast is definitely acceptable. I’m finalizing my own ideas on winter, which I may present in some detail soon (I’ll at least present a summary…I may not post maps though for job reasons).

At least initially, I think the things that will be interesting will be: The development of a rather widespread, large drought (potentially…again, more on that in a moment), the potential for mixed/ice events from New York State into the Mid Atlantic, the potential for the Northwest to get slammed with heavy rain and heavy snow (with a lot of questions about temperatures possibly averaging above normal for a time), and New England…which could teeter on the edge of a blockbuster or lackluster winter. Again, I’ll discuss this more in the future.

Drought

This is beginning to get interesting. The US Drought Monitor report from this week shows some significant areas of drought from east Texas to Georgia. Abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions exist from Texas west to Arizona, which has been in a relatively long term drought. Referencing the NOAA forecast above, if you assume the southern tier gets abnormally dry conditions all winter, you can see where this is heading. Now, it’s not a slam dunk that this winter is going to be bone dry…nothing ever is, but past history suggests that this could be a pretty dry winter for a number of reasons (if you’re curious for a decent breakdown of these reasons, check out this blog posting from the Houston Chronicle).

Additional anecdotal evidence of drought is discussed in an article from today’s Wall Street Journal.

Mexico Shaking

The Baja Peninsula has been quite seismically active since I moved out here in 2009. It’s been interesting to watch. They’ve had several 3-5.0 quakes in south-central Baja the last few days. Today those erupted into a 6.7 magnitude quake, the same day, ironically, as the Great California Shakeout earthquake drill. If anything, this just serves as a reminder that we’re not immune from quakes and potentially large ones at that in this part of the world. Hopefully today’s 6.7 marks the end of the big shakers there for a bit.

Tis all for now.