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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More Wintry Mayhem

This might be the worst period of travel of all the storms we’ve seen the last two winters. With 1,000 flights cancelled in Atlanta tomorrow, and the odds increasing that this southern storm is going to become a major Northeast snowstorm, airline schedules are going to be absolutely logjammed this week. This is looking ugly right now. Travel in the Deep South is becoming difficult if not impossible in spots. A stripe of 3-6″+ of snow, plus a stripe of 1/4-1/2″ ice accretion, and you have issues.

Snowfall Outlook for the Midweek Storm (Not a forecast)

My snowfall outlook for the Northeast is at the left. We’re still a solid 48 hours away from things beginning. But this is just meant to give you an idea of the highest probabilities of the highest snow. This is not meant to be a forecast and should not be treated like one. To sum up the models this morning: All models take the low and develop off the Northeast coast. Some are closer than others (NAM/Euro) and bring heavier precip. There’s going to be (again) a sharp cutoff of the western extent of the real heavy snow, vs. generic 3-7″ totals. There will also be a sharp southwestern cutoff to this as well.

So what does this mean? It means that in specifically New Jersey I think, there’s going to be a very sharp gradient that cuts off somewhere between Atlantic City, Trenton, and about Parsippany. North and east of that line, odds for heavy snow (6-12+) increases significantly. South and west of it, the odds drop off. It will be a little while before we can really peg that down. So for now, roughly from about NYC into New England stands the highest odds for significant snow. There is a strong possibility of a 12-18″ area of major snows, somewhere between the immediate north and east side of NYC into Southern New England. Mixing may cut down some totals in Eastern Long Island and coastal S New England, but for now, I just carpet bombed the whole area for potentially significant snows until we can know more. The DC and Baltimore areas, as has been the case most of this winter, look to get shafted by this storm, caught in between the developing coastal and dying inland low. I think this means 1-3″ at most, but we’ll see. Philly is on the cusp between the heavy stuff and nuisance stuff, so think 4-8/5-10 type snows for now.

Can things change? Yes. The NAM and Euro models are the beefiest right now in terms of heavy snow. In my opinion, they’ve had some strengths this winter, so I’m leaning more heavily on them together. The GFS model is a little too far offshore in my opinion, and thus produces lighter snow. The short range ensembles are also not very excited about this storm, but they also underestimated snow in the last event, so I would take them with a grain of salt.

So stay tuned, as there will be tweaks and changes, but I feel personally that this will be a nuisance event in DC/BWI, moderate event for Philly and South Jersey (potentially significant for the Shore), a significant to borderline major event for NYC, and a major event for much of interior Southern New England (some shadowing may occur in some areas, so it may not hammer ALL of SNE, but it looks promising to be good for many).

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Just a reminder… State of Occlusion is on Facebook. I’ve posted some additional cool links, quick model updates, and snow maps early on that page. “Like” the blog by clicking here!

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.

 

Models Throwing Punches for Boxing Day Storm

Maps from Sunday and Monday Morning from this morning's European Model: http://raleighwx.americanwx.com

I’m still not ready to commit entirely to a major storm yet for the I-95 cities or the coast, but this morning’s Euro run is holding serve awfully steadily. The Euro, as you can see to the left (click to enlarge), is an utter monster. Keep in mind, this model has little to no support for a solution like this, but it has also been quite consistent. Its ensemble mean is a bit further away from shore, but this would still imply a good hit for a lot of locations. The GFS is a big storm, but just grazes the coast and hits far Eastern New England hard. The Canadian model is somewhere in between the two models.

Again, I will emphasize that the pattern out west with a ridge axis centered over CO/WY is not exactly ideal for a major East Coast storm for the Megalopolis. Yet, something is going on here to allow it to happen on the Euro. The Euro model solution is absolutely incredible. It implies the potential for heavy snow as far south as Jacksonville, FL and on up the East Coast through New England, with the heaviest snow likely in interior VA-NJ/PA and southern New England.

My take:

  • Odds for a storm to impact the coastal areas are equal or greater than it was this time yesterday.
  • Odds for a storm to impact the interior/Megalopolis are about the same as it was yesterday; maybe slightly higher.
  • Odds for an epic blizzard like the Euro model is showing are very low to near zero in my opinion.
  • But…the odds for a significant plowable snow in a lot of areas are slightly higher than yesterday.

Tonight’s model runs will be the first real key, as the main energy involved in blowing this storm up is now onshore here in California. If tonight’s Euro shows something similar to this morning, and/or the GFS model trends closer to the Euro model, we have to think odds are increasing for a big Boxing Day Knockout. If the Euro trends toward the GFS tonight, I think the chances of a major, high impact storm drops substantially. I can’t emphasize this enough: The Euro stands alone right now…it CAN score a coup; it has before, but it also has not been its usual stellar self this winter, which is why I sit here still skeptical. If the models trend toward any given solution on consecutive runs both tonight and Thursday morning, I think the odds of whatever that solution is increase multi-fold. So the next two main model runs (7-10 PM tonight & 7-10 AM tomorrow) are absolutely key in all this. Stay tuned.

Tracking Tomas, Late Week Storm Update, Hitting the Links

Official National Hurricane Center Forecast for Tomas, credit: NOAA/NHC

Just a quick update here. Tomas basically fell apart earlier today, with maximum sustained winds plummeting to 45 mph. However, if you look at a satellite loop of Tomas, you’ll see that thunderstorms re-flared up this afternoon. The take home from this is that Tomas still has its inner workings in place, and once shear relaxes, Tomas should be back in the game of intensification. You can see the official forecast to the left from the National Hurricane Center. Obviously, again, this looks primed to hit Haiti hard…be it a dangerous hurricane or heavy rain. There are a couple outlier models taking Tomas into either eastern Cuba or Jamaica, but the majority are clustered entirely over Haiti. So I’ll have more on this tomorrow probably.

End of Week Storm

The models shifted a bit today…further east and more disjointed. The Euro, which had been showing a large storm, has surprisingly trended toward the GFS model and is now showing a more strung out area of precipitation, less deep of a storm, and less interesting of a storm. Still could see some snowflakes in the air from the Appalachians up into New York, but this wouldn’t be a major storm, except a decent one in far Northern New England and Quebec, with rain ending as a little wet snow. But the Euro does bring in a second system into Sunday and Monday, with a setup that would favor lake enhanced snow in New York. So I’m not sold right now on any particular solution, as there appears to be a lot of additional uncertainty, both with the progress and breakdown of the ridge in the West, and the large amount of moisture likely to be present out of the Gulf and in the East. Stay tuned on this one.

Hitting the Links

A study claims that global warming is causing rainfall patterns in the Southeast to become more variable. Take it or leave it.

Also from the Capital Weather Gang, Wes Junker, one of the sharpest meteorologists you’ll ever find, is beginning a two part series on why last winter was such a record buster in the Mid-Atlantic. Well worth a read if you’re in the DC/Baltimore area or just like snow.

Wrapping up a ridiculous October in Minnesota.

Photography Sauli Koski in Finland, hit the atmospheric optics grand slam, when he caught no less than 13 different optical phenomena!! Amazing picture here, and more on spaceweather.com.

A list of the ten largest cities in America that may be in danger of running short on water in the future.