Please don’t argue with the warning system

“Please don’t argue with the warning system”, Indiana University told a lecturer from its meteorology department as he rightly criticized their communications on Sunday.

Despite being wrong, the university continued to insist that they were making the right choice. Now as a Boilermaker, I’m normally in favor of Indiana University embarrassing itself. But this time, it’s just bad. Warning fatigue can kill people. The false alarm rate is already too high; telling people about warnings that don’t exist only makes it worse.

The “warnings affect the entire county until notified otherwise” statement is only a decade out of date. But I get it, our warning dissemination technology hasn’t caught up with how warnings are issued. You may recall I’ve written a few words on the subject.

The fact that dissemination technology is still (mostly) stuck in a county-based paradigm 10 years after the nationwide implementation of polygon-based warnings is an embarrassment. Emergency management is more than just weather, so I don’t expect emergency managers to know as much as meteorologists. I do expect them to not act silly when they’re corrected by experts. But most of all, I expect things to get better.

I don’t know why I expect things to get better. It’s hard to imagine the large public- and private-sector investments that are necessary to fix the issue. Storm deaths are relatively low, so there’s not even mass tragedy to spur action. It’s much easier to just work around the edges and pretend the glaring issues don’t exist. But if we’re serious about being a Weather-Ready Nation, we need to fix it at some point. Otherwise public institutions will continue making themselves look bad and misinforming the public.

Two months with the Davis Vantage Vue weather station

I’ve always wanted a weather station in my yard. Not one of those cheap “here’s the outdoor temperature” deals, but something I could really play around with. I finally decided I could treat myself a few months ago and I bought myself a Davis Vantage Vue.

Picture of a Davis Vantage Vue weather station mounted on a pole.

My Vantage Vue weather station mounted on a pole in my yard.

The Vantage Vue isn’t the top of the Davis line. To be honest, I’d have rather gone for a Vantage Pro, which has more sensors. But it’s also more expensive and I don’t have anywhere in my yard that’s a good site for a weather station. And it turns out that siting was the hard part of the whole setup.

The initial assembly and configuration was easy. The instructions were very well-written. Since I don’t have a Windows machine, I couldn’t use the Davis software for data logging. However, several open source projects fill that gap for Linux. I tried WeeWx first and it worked so well that I didn’t bother trying anything else. WeeWx pulls data, generates web sites, and provides a control interface for the console.

I left the station on my patio table overnight to make sure the radio signal was going to work well. It looked good, so I began the process of putting it on a pole. I attached the mounting pole to a fence post. The mounting brackets in the pole kit (sold separately) probably would have held it just fine. In the interests of over-engineering, I added a small ledge to the fence post for the pole to sit on.

With one pole kit, the station ended up about 7 feet above ground level. This seemed too low for both science and resistance to errant toys. I added a second pole and that raised it up a few more feet. It’s still a sub-optimal siting, but it’s the least-bad option I have.

In an ideal world, I’d set up the station two meters above an open field. That’s not an option in my yard, so I did what I could. The station is in the sun much of the day (at least this time of year). It’s as far away from trees as I can get it. It’s probably fine for rainfall, but I anticipate the wind readings will be not great. The direction seems to be pretty noisy, no doubt because of nearby obstructions. And I suspect the speed will tend to read low for the same reason.

Graph of temperature and dew point showing noisy data when the unit is in direct sunlight.

Daily temperature and dew point plot generated by WeeWx. The unit began receiving direct sunlight around noon.

One thing I did notice was that the temperature and dew point data got very noisy. The lines had been relatively smooth until about noon on August 30th. After a few days of keeping an eye on it and comparing to the official observations from the Purdue airport, I had a satisfactory answer. It seems that the noise happens when the unit is in direct sunlight and there is little or no wind. The solar shield that houses the sensors does not have a fan, unlike higher-end models. So in still air with direct sunlight, it may develop hot spots. I could build my own aspirator, but I’m not sure I care that much.

After two months, the Vantage Vue seems like a pretty solid weather station. Of course, the weather has been pretty uneventful the last two months, so I still have some unanswered questions.

  • How will it perform as the sun angle decreases? It will still get some direct sunshine in the winter, but less that it’s getting right now. This may test the limits of the built-in battery.
  • What will happen during a thunderstorm? We haven’t had any severe weather yet. I’m interested to see how the wind speed works. Of course, I don’t have a good way to verify it. I’m also curious to see if the unit gets lifted off the pole and flung into the back yard. I don’t think that will happen, but it’s a possibility.
  • How will it handle freezing/frozen precipitation? There’s no warmer on the tipping bucket as far as I can tell, so how well will snow melt to run into the tipping bucket?

I have a couple of projects I want to undertake now, too. I’d like to get a couple of small displays so I can have the basic conditions displayed by the door. I also want to modify a WeeWx template so I can make a web page that I can share that doesn’t have my lat/long prominently displayed.

Communicating uncertainty to the public

Forecasting weather is a very imprecise endeavor. This is due in part to the fact that forecasts matter on very local scales. If I cancel a cookout due to a thunderstorm forecast, I won’t care that it rained everywhere else if it didn’t rain in my back yard. Given that the forecast will never be certain, how can forecasters communicate uncertainty to the public?

As the Washington Post‘s Capital Weather Gang wrote:

As much as we communicated the uncertainty, the forecast cannot be considered a success if the message we were trying to send … did not reach some people.

So what do they suggest? The high-level suggestion is to use a “traffic light” metaphor to indicate how people should proceed with their day. This benefits from being simple, but it has some key failings. As Jason Samenow noted, it needs to be broken into at least two dayparts. As many as five dayparts may be necessary: morning commute, day, afternoon commute, evening, and overnight.

Time-of-day isn’t the only issue. Thunderstorm forecasts are particularly sensitive to geography as well. Even if you’re only forecasting for a metro area, you may not end up with the same observed weather. So the system would need to account for multiple areas. If you divide the area into quadrants, that gives you 20 time/area combinations.

At some point, the simplified system becomes almost as complicated as the status quo. This means that the public will miss the nuance in the same way they do now. It’s a hard problem. An ideal balance between simplicity and nuance exists somewhere. But who can say where?

Potential Tropical Cyclone Nine Forecast Contest

Hear ye! Hear ye! I’ve opened up the Tropical Forecast Game for Potential Tropical Cycle Nine. Forecasts are due by 8 PM EDT Friday.

Chances are very good that this storm will be named later today. I’ll keep the “nine” appellation until after the contest closes to avoid any confusion. (Yes, the code is old and crusty so the name matters).

Investigating weather data with xmACIS2

Single points of weather data are often not very interesting. You can look at see what the high temperature was on a given day, but so what? Trends and streaks are much more interesting. How many consecutive days above 60°F has your city had in January? When’s the last snowfall greater than 2″?

If you’re looking to answer those kinds of questions, the NOAA Regional Climate Centers (RCCs) has a tool for you. xmACIS2, part of the Applied Climate Imitation System, provides a free web interface to get that data. xmACIS2 provides a variety of configurable queries to provide data in tabular or graphical form.

xmACIS2 interactive temperature graph for Lafayette, IN.

xmACIS2 interactive temperature graph for Lafayette, IN.

This is an interesting tool to explore, especially when you’re in the throes of exceptional weather.

How to reduce artificial boundaries in severe weather warnings

If you’ve been around here a while, you’ve seen me have opinions about the shapes of so-called “storm-based warnings”. Years ago, the National Weather Service changed the shape of tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings. Instead of issuing warnings based on the county, warnings are arbitrary polygons fitted to the threatened area. The idea is that by shaping warnings to the actual threat, the public gets a more accurate warning.

The reality is a little messier. Warnings are still frequently communicated to the public on a county basis. Worse, the warnings themselves are sometimes shaped to a county line. This is sometimes done to prevent a tiny sliver of a county to be included in a warning. Other times, it’s the result of a boundary between the responsibility areas of different NWS Forecast Offices.

Last week gave a great example close to home. The NWS office in Northern Indiana issued a tornado warning on the edge of their forecast area. Because the adjacent office didn’t issue a warning for that storm, the resulting shape was comically bad.

A tornado warning (red) shaped by the boundary (blue) between the IWX and IND forecast areas.

To be clear: I don’t blame the forecasters here. It was a judgment call to issue or not issue a warning. The real problem is that the artificial boundary does the public a disservice. Most of the general public probably does not know which NWS office serves them. Bureaucratic boundaries here only add confusion.

One solution is for the offices to coordinate when issuing warnings near the edge of their area. That doesn’t hold up well in the short time frame of severe weather, especially if an office is understaffed or over-weathered. Coordination takes time and minutes matter in these situations.

My solution is simpler: allow (and encourage) offices to extend warnings beyond their area. Pick a time frame (30 minutes seems reasonable) and allow the warning to extend as far into another office’s area as it needs to in order to contain the threat at that time. Once the threat is entirely into the new area, allow that office to update the warning as they see fit.

This allows offices to draw warnings based on the actual threat. It buys some time for additional coordination if needed, or at least gives a cleaner end to the warning. It does mean that some local officials will need to have a relationship with two NWS offices, but if they’re on the edge they should be doing that anyway.

The downside is that it increases the effort in verifying warnings because you can no longer assume which office issued the warning. And it could lead to some territorial issues between offices. But the status quo provides easier bureaucracy by putting the burden on the public. That’s not right.

Sidebar: what about issuing warnings at the national level?

Another solution would be for a national center to issue warnings. This is already the case for severe weather watches, after all. While it would solve the responsibility area problems, it would also reduce the overall quality of warnings. Local offices develop relationships with local officials, spotters, etc. These relationships help them evaluate incoming storm reports, tailor warnings to local conditions and events, etc. While a national-level warning operation would clearly provide some benefit, warning response is ultimately a very personal action that benefits from putting the warning issuance as close to the public as possible.

In defense of the call-to-action

Dr. Chuck Doswell, one of the most well-known and respected severe weather researchers, wrote on his personal blog:

Personally, I believe telling people what to do, say via “call to action” statements (CTAs) is not a good idea.  What people need to do depends on their specific situations, about which we as forecasters know nothing! 

The latter part of his statement is true, as are his assertion that people need to develop their plans well ahead of time. But I strongly disagree that call-to-action statements are not important. 

Dr. Doswell is thinking like someone who has devoted his life to severe weather for decades. That makes sense, but it is not a mindset shared by the general public. Fundamentally, he misunderstands the purpose of call-to-action statements: they’re not for teaching people what to do, they’re for reminding people what to do.

In the middle of an emergency, it’s very easy to forget what you know. That’s why people train for scenarios repeatedly – to have responses be reflexive, not cognitive. Call-to-action statements serve to remind people in an emergency of the general principles of severe weather safety. The education about those principles and specific implementations must be addressed ahead of time.

Measuring hurricanes and tornadoes

Today marks the beginning of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through the end of November. As you may be aware, we measure hurricane intensity by measuring the wind speed. We categorize hurricanes into one of five levels on the Saffir-Simpson scale. In use since 1971, the scale is widely known, but does it serve the public well?

The United States has not seen a landfall from a “major” (category 3 or above) hurricane since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The original Saffir-Simpson scale included effects from storm surge and flooding. However, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale in use today excludes those; it is solely a measure of wind speed. So even though the U.S. has avoided major hurricanes, it has not avoided major damage. Consider that two of the three costliest hurricanes in U.S. history were not major hurricanes. Sandy wasn’t even technically a hurricane.

More recently, Hurricane Matthew caused a great deal of devastation in the Carolinas and Virginia. Matthew could have caused massive damage along the Florida Atlantic coast, but remained just far enough out to sea. And the damage further north was primarily due to inland flooding, not the near-shore wind and surge. By the time Matthew reached the Carolinas, it was “just” a Category 1 storm. As a result, many in the public did not recognize the serious threat it posed.

The National Hurricane Center in particular, and the weather industry in general, are working to improve hazard communication. The public, after all, doesn’t really care about the wind speed per se, but the effects of that wind (and rain). Last fall, several meterologists on discussed this on Twitter:

The discussion turned to the idea of real-time rating of tornadoes. NOAA researchers found that weather radar velocity data can be used to estimate the ultimate Enhanced Fujita Scale rating of a tornado. While not operational yet, it will be a big benefit to the public if it is further developed.

The ideal situation would combine the impact focus of the EF scale with the real-time rating used for hurricanes. Hurricanes are much easier to evaluate in real time for a variety of reasons, so they have a head start. Now if we can just start measuring hurricanes correctly.

3-4 week forecasts are coming, or not

With a few exceptions, most operational public forecasts only go out to 7-10 days. This is due in large part to the fact that the skill of models gets progressively worse the further out you go. However, a recent article in the Journal of Climate suggests that models may have sufficient skill for forecasts in the 3-4 week range.

I have not read the full paper (yet), but the abstract suggests that this isn’t as great as it might sound at first. The resolution, according to the abstract, is one degree of latitude at 38 degrees. By my calculations, that’s a grid spacing of about 69 miles or 111 kilometers. The grid used by the Global Forecast System (GFS) model is 28 kilometers. Shorter-range and regional models use even smaller grids.

Grid size matters because it effects the scale of weather phenomena that can be modeled. Larger-scale features such as low pressure systems can be captured at this scale, but much gets lost. So you wouldn’t use this forecast to schedule the exact time of your picnic four weeks from now, but it might at least help you pin down a day.

Of course, this is all dependent on the NOAA budget. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, which was passed by Congress and signed by the President, requires additional efforts to improve forecasts at this range. However, the proposed budget from the White House cuts this effort.

Terminate Investment in Mid-Range Weather Outlooks: NOAA requests a decrease of $5,000,000 to terminate all development, testing, and implementation of experimental products to extend operational weather outlooks, including temperature and precipitation outlooks, from 16 days to 30 days.”

The Washington Post‘s Capital Weather Gang blog and Professor Cliff Mass both have excellent writeups on the misalignment between the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act and the proposed budget. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 was a good bill, hopefully the budget adjusts to meet it. If not, the state of American weather forecasting is set to take a dramatic hit.

Motivations for storm chasing

Maybe I’m not the right person to write this post. Or maybe I would have been had I written it during a time when I was active. (It’s almost six years since the last time I went storm chasing, how much longer can I pretend that it’s a thing I do?) But here on Blog Fiasco, I get to make the rules, and Rule #1 is “Ben gets to write about whatever the hell he feels like writing about.”

At any rate, it seems that storm chasers have one thing in common: we/they really like to criticize the motivations of others. The most common target are the chasers who get in extremely close in order to get the perfect shot for TV. They take risks that most of us won’t (whether or not those risks are justified are left as an exercise for the reader). As a result, they’re dismissed as merely thrill-seekers by the “serious” chasers.

He’s in it for the money, not the science.

As my friend Amos said, “there’s no single explanation for chasing. It’s like trying to count all the reasons tourists visit Paris.” “Serious” chasers like to think they’re doing it for some altruistic reason. That could be scientific research, warning the public, or whatever. These things definitely happen, and they’re very good reasons for participating in an activity, but I doubt it’s what primarily motivates people.

Warning can be done by stationary (or nearly stationary) spotting, which also probably means you’ve developed some kind of relationship with the local authorities or NWS office. Some kinds of scientific research can only happen in situ, but that also requires a degree of discipline that many don’t want. Storm chasing is a very boring hobby that involves sitting on your butt in a car for hours on end in the hopes of seeing something interesting. It takes more than a sense of civic duty for most people.

I used to think I was doing it as a learning exercise or in order to serve the public. At some point I realized I was kidding myself. I chased (and hope to chase again) because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Can I figure out what the atmosphere is doing? Can I stay ahead of a dangerous beast while keeping myself safe? I’ll absolutely report severe weather I see, and I’ll share pictures with the NWS and any researchers, but that’s not the primary motivation. Now to get myself back out there…