Sporting events should let meteorologists make weather decisions

Sporting events — particularly in the spring and summer when they’re generally done outdoors — present a hazard to participants and spectators alike. Thunderstorms can send a bolt of lightning in an instant, which can prove lethal. Part of the danger is that lightning can strike miles away from the storm, which means people who think they aren’t at risk might be very much at risk.

Many leagues and venues have adopted a largely sensible lighting policy. If lightning strikes within a certain radius, the activity is suspended and everyone is sent to shelter. After some amount of time without a strike (often 30 minutes), the activity resumes. This is, as a general concept, good advice.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as “if you can see it, flee it. If you can hear it, clear it.” That’s the advice given to the public because it’s simple and easy to remember. But it doesn’t always capture the full story.

To give an example, this summer my local baseball team was playing a game as thunderstorms approached the area. A lightning strike occurred within the 10 mile radius defined by the Prospect League (as an aside, I appreciate the fact that they increased it from the 5 miles it used to be). The umpires suspended play late in the game (it was the 8th inning if I recall).

The trouble with this is that the storm was traveling perpendicular to the stadium. The strike that triggered the delay was well away from the storm and just inside the 10 mile radius. Essentially, it was as close as lightning would come. In this case, continuing play would be a safe decision. And it would have meant pitchers could stay warm and the crowd would have stuck around.

When it comes to weather safety, I’d always prefer overcaution to undercaution. But weather is complex, and the simple rules don’t always fit the situation. Sporting events should always leave weather decisions to meteorologists. High-profile near-misses have raised awareness, but it’s still not universal.

Hurricane Dorian forecast contest

Due to a technical error with the forecast submission script. the contest is cancled. I’m not sure I want to invest any more time in fixing this old and busted script, and I have yet to make good on my ten years of “I will rewrite it this winter”, so this may be the end of tropical forecast contests on Funnel Fiasco.

It’s that time of year again! Submit your forecast for mainland landfall by 0000 UTC on 29 August (8pm ET on Wednesday).

NWS warnings still make me sad

Longtime readers of Blog Fiasco know that I have some opinions about how the National Weather Service (NWS) issues and communicates warnings. Just check out the “warning” tag on this site if you’re interested. But it turns out that I have as-yet-unwritten opinions. This post is inspired by a recent tweet from an NWS meteorologist:

I mentioned in a previous post that warning products tend to be technically correct instead of useful, as in the case of the non-hurricane Sandy. This is a fine example. Tornadoes over water are waterspouts and the NWS treats maritime areas (including larger lakes) differently than land areas. The end result is that forecasters are unable to properly communicate threats to the public. This is harmful.

I understand treating land and water areas differently. A storm that is unremarkable on land could be deadly to watercraft. Special marine warnings are usefully distinct. But a tornado warning over water can be useful, too, particularly to folks on land who happen to be downstream. But forecasters aren’t allowed to provide that information because it’s not technically correct.

The National Weather Service is a great agency. The dedicated forecasters are at work around the clock to provide life-saving (and life-enhancing) forecasts and warnings. I just wish it would get out of it’s own way on this issue.

AccuWeather’s new hurricane scale

It’s no secret that the Saffir-Simpson scale, used to rate the strength of hurricanes, is inadequate. It is based solely on wind speed, which does a poor job of communicating the potential impacts. I wrote just a few months ago that it’s time to consider retiring it. So when I heard that AccuWeather rolled out a new hurricane scale, you might think I’d be in favor of it.

You would be wrong.

It’s not that I think AccuWeather’s leadership is awful. I do, but that’s not the point here. The AccuWeather RealImpact Scale for Hurricanes does not address the fundamental weakness of the Saffir-Simpson scale because it still produces a single number. That this number is produced from more inputs isn’t novel (the original Saffir-Simpson scale included other aspects of a hurricane threat) nor is it better at explaining the threat. You still need to tell the public why it received a particular rating, and the preparation for wind damage may be different from storm surge may be different from inland flooding.

Not to mention the fact that the scale is opaque. It cannot be reviewed by researchers and meteorologists outside of AccuWeather. There’s no indication that it’s had any input from social scientists and science communication experts to make sure it even accomplishes the stated goal of improving communication to the general public. In short, it’s just AccuWeather acting on its own and pretending there’s value.

After insulting National Weather Service employees by falsely implying that forecasts are degraded during this government shutdown, AccuWeather would do well to shut up for a little bit and work with the meteorological community.

Is it time to replace the Saffir-Simpson scale?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: I’ll let Cliff Mass explain it. But as the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season draws to a close today, I’m more convinced than ever that the Saffir-Simpson scale does us no good.

The categories simply don’t mean much to the average person. Sustained wind speed is only one part of a hurricane’s power, and perhaps not even the most important. Storm surge, rainfall, and wind gusts are all significant contributors to the harm caused by hurricanes. Of course, coastal conditions, population density, and building quality factor into the end impact, too. Particularly inland, a slow-moving but weaker storm could cause more damage (due to flooding) than a stronger storm that spends less time over the area.

Ultimately, as I’ve written in the past, it’s not the meteorology that the public cares about. They want to know what the impact will be and what they should do about it. This means de-emphasizing wind speeds and focusing more on impacts. To its credit, NOAA agencies have put more emphasis on impacts in the last few years, but the weather industry as a whole needs to do a better job of embracing it. It requires a cultural change in the public, too, which may take a generation to settle in.

But there’s no time like the present to start preparing for day. And maybe it’s time to drop the distinction between tropical storm and hurricane watches and warnings, too.

The role of privatized weather warnings

Last week, the Washington Post‘s Capital Weather Gang blog ran an article titled “U-Md. used a private company for a tornado warning. That can be problematic.” They’re right, but the point gets lost in the article. By presenting a laundry list of the times AccuWeather got a forecast wrong and ignoring missed warnings from the National Weather Service, the post ends up reading like a hit piece.

I am unabashedly a National Weather Service fanboy, but I see an important role for the private sector in the weather ecosystem. Despite my general dislike for AccuWeather, I have no problem with universities working with them. They can provide a degree of hands-on service that the NWS is not equipped to provide. This includes warning-like products to augment the NWS products.

My only objection is to the use of “watch” and “warning”. It’s hard enough to get the public to understand these terms. Adding similarly-named products from other sources will not help. A Weather-Ready Nation requires a cooperative effort between public and private sector meteorologists. Private companies are free to give their customer severe weather warnings, I just wish they’d use a different name.

Beware weather forecast snake oil

Snake oil salesman are found in every industry and weather forecasting is no different. So how do you identify weather forecast snake oil? One major sign is that the forecaster doesn’t talk about it until after the fact. Another is that you only hear about the successful forecasts. And of course, if it seems to good to be true, there’s a good chance it is.

I recently saw someone talking about severe weather forecasts months out. The man behind these forecasts isn’t just some rando with a website. He has a PhD in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma and is a forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center. So it’s entirely possible that he’s on to something here. But I’m suspicious.

He recently posted about his forecast for March tornadoes. The forecast is ostensibly from three months before the outbreak. I looked through the archives and there was no indication prior to the fact. His website contains no forward-looking forecasts. There’s no methodology. There’s no discussion of busted forecasts.

I don’t know Dr. Cook. I don’t want to say anything about him as a person or a forecaster. But until he shows more transparency on his forecasts, I’m inclined to call it weather forecast snake oil.

Where is spring?

I look at my calendar and it says that we’re well into April. But the weather hasn’t received the memo. I’m a warm weather person anyway, and by April I expect to have more good days than bad. But it’s still cold. It snowed yesterday and snow remains in the forecast.

How not-spring is it? Here are some “fun” facts:

  • Zero days in March 2018 had a temperature above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The last time Lafayette did not reach 60 in March was in 2001. Since then, we’ve hit the 80’s twice (80 in 2007 and 86 in 2012).
  • We briefly reached the 60’s on Tuesday. That was the first time we hit the 60’s since February 28.
  • We haven’t had three consecutive days above 60 since October 23.
  • The highest temperature in March was 2.5 degrees colder than the highest temperature in January.
  • The average temperature in March was only 3.4 degrees warmer than February. The normal increase is 9 degrees.
  • As measured by the monthly heating degree days, March 2018 was colder than six of the last 10 Marches.
  • Yesterday’s high temperature (which happened just after midnight) is only two degrees above the normal low for the day.

Now March 2018 hasn’t been historically cold for the Lafayette area. It’s just obnoxiously cold. And the cold pattern looks like it will stick around through at least the middle of the month. So I’ll keep my shorts put away and my window closed a little longer. Spring has to happen eventually.

Describing areas affected by weather

My local National Weather Service office recently issued a Special Weather Statement with an unhelpful headline: “Wintry mix likely Friday night and early Saturday along and northeast of a Clinton to Greensburg line.” I have at least a passing familiarity with many small towns in Indiana, but I had no idea where this line is.

Greensburg, I remembered after looking at a map, is in southeastern Indiana. It has a population of less than 12,000. Clinton turns out to not be terribly far from my home town of Lafayette. It’s a tiny little hamlet of fewer than 5,000 residents.

It seems pretty unreasonable to expect members of the general public to know where either of these towns are unless they happen to live near them. This means the headline of the product told the audience absolutely nothing.

In this particular case “the Interstate 74 corridor” would be an improvement. There’s still no guarantee that someone will know where that is, but if nothing else, it’s easier to find on a map. Of course, sometimes there’s not even a major highway or river to use as a reference.

But wait! It’s 2018. What if it just said “central Indiana” and directed people to the NWS website for more information? Then there could be a map that clearly shows the area affected. That’s tough for immediate impact events like tornado warnings, but it works for longer-fused products. And not everyone has an Internet connection, but it can still be shown on TV. And later in the body, a description can be given. But it doesn’t need to be the headline.

For a variety of reasons, NWS text products are stuck in a paradigm that no longer applies. Hopefully this changes as the agency continues to embrace modern methods of communication.

Changes to weather radar rolling out this spring

Since this week is Severe Weather Preparedness Week in Indiana, I figured it’s a good time to have a weather post. The National Weather Service is rolling out some changes to the 159 NEXRAD weather radars sites across the country. These changes affect the Volume Coverage Patterns (VCPs) – how the radars scan the sky.

How weather radar works

To put it in the simplest terms, radars work by sending out pulses of energy and listening for the echos. The radar antenna rotates in a circle in order to get a view all around. But it doesn’t just move in a circle. The antenna also tilts upward. By moving up through increasing tilts, the radar eventually gets a 3D image of precipitation.

The key word here is “eventually”. The slowest VCP takes about 10 minutes to complete a full scan. This is generally used with clear skies or light wintry precipitation. The slow speed allows for more sensitivity and saves wear on the radar’s mechanical parts. But even the fastest scan modes take 4.5-5 minutes. During rapidly-evolving severe weather events, that can be a long time.

The changes

This spring, the weather service is rolling out changes that will introduce two new VCPs. Critically, the new software build will also remove four existing VCPs. By reduce the total number of options, forecasters will have to spend less time thinking about which radar mode to select so they can spend more time interpreting the radar data.

One of the new VCPs is focused on general precipitation and is designed to include the best parts of the patterns it replaces. The other is a new clear air pattern that shares common scan elevations with the precipitation modes and can be used for non-convective precipitation. The NWS has a paper describing the new VCPs in greater detail.

The changes will happen via software updates planned to begin later this month or in early April. It may take some time to know what the daily impact of the new patterns is. Still, it’s good to see that over 25 years after the first operational NEXRAD was deployed, the system is continuing to evolve.