Livesaving Broadcasts

In Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather one of my favorite chapters to write was “The Day TV Weather Grew Up” where I tell the story of the June 8, 1974, tornado outbreak and how it was covered. It was the first time a tornado was broadcast live on television.

Steve Tegtmeier’s photo of the formative stage of the June 8, 1974, tornado we broadcast.

We received 75 cards and letters telling us, “you saved our lives!” There was also an editorial cartoon pertaining to our groundbreaking coverage along with a Letter to the Editor. The reaction was overwhelming and humbling.

The Frank Magid Company, the largest company of television news consultants, came to Oklahoma City to interview us and, within literally months, weather radars, real meteorologists, and much improved storm coverage spread across the U.S.

Fast forward to the present. Below is a video put together by the Universities and Oklahoma and Alabama pertaining to the role played by television and radio meteorologists during the 2011 tornado outbreaks. It is well done and worth watching. Broadcast meteorology does not get the credit it deserves for the lives it saves.

The live broadcast of tornadoes is now routine in many markets. The TV meteorologists at KSNF TV in Joplin continued on the air even as their lives were in danger. In some cases, meteorologists worked literally 24 consecutive hours.

It looks like tornadoes are possible in the southern Plains the next few days. The 2012 tornado season began more than a week ago.  If you appreciate the work done by your local television meteorologist, drop them a note in the mail or send them an email. I know they’ll appreciate it.

Congratulations to the meteorologists for all of the great work done in 2011! Good luck this tornado season. 

AMS Annual Meeting, Part 3: Jobs

Here is an essay from the American Meteorological Society meeting from one young meteorologist concerned whether there will still be jobs for human forecasters or whether computers will do all the work.

My estimation is that there will be a role for human forecasters for at least the next quarter century.

After that, who knows? The advance of both weather science and computer science (“Moore’s Law”) is so rapid, I won’t hazard a guess beyond that period time.

More Inverted Language from Meteorologists

In Warnings I talk about how meteorologists’ language inverts based on their forecast. Once we have forecast (for example) a blizzard, we are cheering for the blizzard all the way.

So, I got a kick out of this article in Cleveland Magazine quoting WKYC TV’s Betsy Kling:

Weather worries … Recently, Kling predicted that it would be overcast, but when the sun peeked out by noon, she freaked out because she said it’d be cloudy all day. When the sun went away, she told her husband, “OK, the sun’s gone; that’s good.”

His response … “You’re the only person in Northeast Ohio who says that.”

National Weather Assn. Day 2

Today’s presentations, in front of an overflow crowd, involved the tornadoes in the South on April 27 and in Missouri (St. Louis, April 22) and Joplin (May 22).

The University of Alabama – Huntsville has done some great work analyzing the first two of the three rounds of storms April 27 and have found a number of interesting signatures that might help us provide better warnings of squall line tornadoes.

The sheer number of warnings that had to be issued, due to the three lines of tornado-producing thunderstorms, was simply overwhelming.

There was one county — with good meteorological reason — that had a tornado warning in effect for one part or another for the county for five hours. Can people deal with that?

With regard to the Joplin tornado, its extreme intensity — in part — may have been due to a mini-front caused by rain-cooled air due to an earlier thunderstorm.

Unfortunately, I had to leave about 2 o’clock due to my talk to the Atlanta Chapter of the Association of Contingency Planners tomorrow. While I’m really looking forward to the talk, I’m sorry I had to say goodbye to so many friends and so many interesting presentations in Birmingham.

ADDITION: 617 were registered for the conference — a record. Congratulations, NWA!

First Day of National Weather Association Annual Meeting

Hello from Birmingham. Under beautiful, clear skies and mild temperatures, the 36th meeting of the National Weather Assn. began today.

Some of the interesting things that came out of the meeting’s first day:

  • The issue is no longer whether major tornadoes strike without warning. For major tornadoes (F-3 to 5 intensity that cause 89% of the deaths), there will likely be a warning issued in time to take cover.
  • People are getting the warnings. A detailed survey of the Smithfield, MS tornado showed that 98% of the residents knew about the tornado warning. However, many of them did not — at least initially — take cover. 
  • In both Smithfield and Tuscaloosa (and as stated in the Joplin tornado’s NWS Service Assessment) there is an attitude “tornadoes always hit somewhere else, not where I live…I don’t have to worry.
One of the study respondents in Smithfield doesn’t want the sirens to go off in the middle of the night. The person went on to say, Don’t wake me up, I’d rather die in my sleep.

There was a presentation by Alabama Power about the recovery effort from the April 27 tornado outbreak.
The map on the left side of the picture shows how crews came from most of the the eastern half of the U.S. to help restore power. Or, as Pam Boyd put it, “it wasn’t a restoration but a reconstruction.” They hung, in one week, enough new wire to stretch from Birmingham to Washington, D.C.  
Other topics:
  • Less than half of the weathercasters (many of whom are meteorologists) trust the IPCC. 
  • By the end of the month, a new satellite, the first-ever to be able to measure both weather and climate-important parameters, will be launched by NASA by the end of the month.
I’ll have more on tomorrow’s sessions. 

By the way, you do not need to be a meteorologist to attend. If you are interested in weather, we are meeting at the Hotel Wynfrey. Feel free to drop by.

Should the National Weather Service Be Scaled Back?

During my 40 years as a meteorologist, I have a lot of experience with hurricanes and other major storms. I have observed that hurricanes tend to bring odd ideas to the surface. When you combine an earthquake, the odd ideas – if my email is any indication – really start flowing. Beyond the theories about airplane vapor trails and remote control of earthquakes, perhaps the oddest idea floating around now is that that the U.S. National Weather Service should be shut down or deeply scaled back.
Saturday evening, a friend forwarded a Fox News op-ed calling for the NWS to be abolished. That op-ed, if you wish to read it, is here.
It is easy to say, “abolish the National Weather Service.” Explaining why that is a bad idea is a bit more complicated, so I hope you will bear with me.
The National Weather Service of the United States (NWS) plays a vital role that would be impossible for the private sector to fill. That is due to the unique nature of weather.
Because weather does not respect national borders and because the weather moves around the world, all nations must cooperate in order for effective forecasts to be made. Private companies cannot legally conduct foreign policy; that is a role of the federal government. The federal government must create the essential international meteorological infrastructure and data sharing agreements.
So that objects in space do not collide, the federal government (NASA) manages the weather satellite program and coordinates with other nations’.
It is unlikely that foreign governments would share their data with a U.S. private company and vice-versa. The U.S. relies on Meteosat (Europe and Africa), MTSAT (Asia and Australia), and GeoSat (East Asia and Pacific) to cover the world so we can forecast what is coming at us. I doubt any U.S. company would want to replace this infrastructure. The price tag would be well into the tens of billions of dollars.
Current federal policy (set by the FCC) will not allow private sector companies to run 10cm weather radars. For technical reasons, 10cm are vital in measuring precipitation. We must have a federal entity for that.
There has to be an entity to coordinate meteorological measurements so they can be used by all nations. That is the World Meteorological Organization, open only to governmental entities.
Beyond policy, I have philosophical reasons for supporting the mission of the National Weather Service.
Our federal government has a legitimate and important role in public safety (that is why we have a military and a Federal Bureau of Investigation) and creating infrastructure (interstate highways) that anyone can use. Given that philosophical position, it makes all the sense in the world to have the federal government create, maintain, and improve the meteorological infrastructure. Want to know the forecast, the current temperature, or the river stage? Just go the NWS web site and you can receive that information (paid for by your taxes) free.  Or, if you prefer, you can go to AccuWeather’s web site or watch your local television meteorologist for a forecast.
In most nations, the national meteorological service does not issue storm warnings, at least as we think of them. Our NWS provides warnings that saves lives.
Since many businesses have need of meteorological services that differ from the general public, the private sector weather industry in the U.S. fills that role.  In many nations, the national meteorological service provides special services for businesses for a substantial fee and there is little or no competition. England and France are good examples of this. The fees their businesses pay for special government services are far higher than U.S. businesses pay for similar services.  So, some foreign companies contract with U.S. private sector weather companies for those services. That improves the U.S.’s balance of trade. Canada had the British/French model and has backed away from it in favor of a public-private sector partnership like the one enjoyed in the United States.
Private sector weather companies like AccuWeather take the NWS data that is available to everyone and apply our technology and skills to it to create products that are uniquely tailored to the needs of our business clients.  Businesses pay us for the value that we bring to their operations.  Private sector weather companies, create jobs and pay taxes on our profits. Through this arrangement, the U.S. taxpayer is not paying for “corporate welfare” – i.e., special forecasts and services made by the government for individual businesses.
But, we face a challenge in this period of likely tightening federal budgets.
The amazingly accurate forecasts of Irene’s path were made possible because the NWS launched special weather balloons at an unprecedented rate last week and flew hurricane hunter and data gathering aircraft around the storm. Since we now know that making this investment directly results in a more accurate forecast, I believe Congress should make the money available to do this routinely in major weather situations and, perhaps, acquire additional data-gathering aircraft. 
Can some things in the NWS be cut and resources reallocated? Yes, but on balance, we need to invest more in the NWS and its data gathering and distribution. We need to make smart investments in research that, for example, will allow us to much more accuarately and consistently forecast the strengthening and weakening of hurricanes, a vital topic in view of our overforecast of Irene’s intensity. At present, weather science only has a moderate understanding of how hurricanes strengthen and weaken.
By making targeted investments, we can fully leverage the rapid increase in forecast and warning accuracy to save lives and make the economy grow.
The National Weather Service is one of the (unfortunately few) jewels of the federal government. It is one of the rare areas where there really is a “multiplier” effect: Dollars invested result in far greater numbers of dollars being created through lives saved and economic productivity increased.

"Warnings" — Great Reading in Stormy Weather

A friend forwarded this a few minutes ago, I had not seen it until now.

Here are two books to read that will help you appreciate the “above and beyond” efforts meteorologists are making tonight to keep you safe if you are in the path of Irene.

How dedicated are we? Well, I’m in KC for Kathleen’s class reunion, yet I have been sharing ideas with our staff at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and I have been posting on this blog. Literally hundreds of other meteorologists are doing the same.

There is an op-ed at Fox News tonight asking if the U.S. needs a National Weather Service. The answer is absolutely yes! I’ll post a detailed reply to the article tomorrow evening or Monday when the hurricane situation has calmed. Stay tuned.

The Private Sector Weather Industry

CNBC has this report that is well worth reading, especially in view of recent events.

The National Weather Service’s role is to provide forecasts and warnings for the public-at-large and a meteorological infrastructure that can be used by anyone.

The private sector works with individual enterprises on each’s specific requirements.

It is a synergistic relationship that works remarkably well.

High Plains Conference a Huge Success

The 2011 High Plains Conference is now history and it was a tremendous success with meteorologists and weather aficionados from across the U.S. attending. While there was a great variety of scientific papers presented, three themes emerged: dual polarization (DP) radar and tornadoes, DP radar and highly destructive giant (≥ 4″ hail), and protection of livestock in extreme heat. 

Don Burgess’ report on tornadoes made the Wichita Eagle
Coincidentally, the Wall Street Journal had a story about giant hail Friday. 
Vanessa Pearce and Brad Ketcham putting up the sign to the “meet and greet”
The final event was the storm chaser “meet and greet” held this afternoon which allowed dozens of people interested in storm chasing to meet the chasers and see their equipment. 
One of the things I enjoyed most about the conference was seeing the future meteorologists sitting in and learning about weather and meteorology as well as meeting the storm chasers. 
Many people came by the Mike Smith Enterprises table and took advantage of the opportunity to meet marketing director Mindy Cook and intern Cat Taylor.
Cat Taylor (left) and Mindy Cook
Next year’s conference will be held in Hastings, Nebraska. 
I also want to thank the Wichita Marriott for being such gracious hosts. 

The Trifecta; Chaser Meet and Greet at Noon

We had thunderstorms again last night in Wichita, the third night in a row. Many parts of Wichita have received a total of more than three inches, easing the drought a bit. The lesson: Invite a bunch of meteorologists to town if you need rain!

While it is sprinkling outside the Marriott right now, it will clear by noon and the Chaser Meet and Greet is on. Kellogg and Web Road, north Marriott parking lot.

More on "Weatherman as Hero"

I’ve received several comments about the posting below pertaining to “weatherman as hero” mentioning meteorologist James Spann. Yes, he is terrific. The NYT article says,

In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley called James Spann, the rock star of meteorology in the state, a hero for his role when an unprecedented string of tornadoes bore down there this spring and killed nearly 250 people.
Without the rapid warnings Mr. Spann sent out via Twitter, Internet streams and television, surely more lives would have been lost.

Agree 100%. I’ve watched James (via internet) during severe weather outbreaks and he is excellent.

Glenn and James are two of numerous outstanding meteorologists saving lives throughout the United States.

"Meteorologist as Hero"

From The New York Times,

ATLANTA — One evening in April, Tina Eller had the television on. Glenn Burns, the steely chief meteorologist for WSB-TV, said a tornado was three minutes away from slamming into her community.

Mr. Burns’s instructions were simple: Take cover…

…Every room in the house was wrecked, except the space that held her family.

“It was that warning we got from him that got us into the closet on time,” she said. “I never would have lived through it.”

As the nation moves through a year of remarkable floods, drought and its deadliest tornado season in half a century, the broadcast meteorologist has emerged as an unlikely hero.

The entire article is here.

Hmmm. Meteorologist as hero. Someone should write a book about that.

Hat tip: Patrick Clyne

Note: Fixed broken link