Today is National Weatherman’s Day!!

Meteorologists (along with storm chasers, climatologists, storm spotters, volunteer cooperative weather observers, radar technicians and all of the other complementary fields) bring tremendous value at very low cost to American society. To get all of the value of weather forecasts, storm warnings, and data, we Americans receive we pay (in taxes each year) the cost of a McDonald’s Happy MealĀ®. Compare that cost to a single visit to the doctor!

I bring up physicians because I discussed earlier this week that storm warnings have improved to the point where they should be accorded approximately the same respect as a preliminary medical diagnosis. Neither is perfect, but both should be taken seriously.

And, when a blizzard or tornado is coming, the public gets the warning from (free) television, (free) radio, (free) AccuWeather. That Meteorological Happy Meal covers you for the whole year!

Companies like AccuWeather spend our R&D dollars on devising
better ways to get weather information you — free. This app
is advertiser-supported and costs the user nothing. 

Just this past week, the forecasts of the major snow storm allowed people to adjust their plans and mitigate the storm’s inconvenience and danger.

Here is an article about the significance of National Weatherman’s Day!

Now, go out and thank a meteorologist!

Oh, and I understand there is something about a football game later on today…….

From the American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting, Part 1

Hello from New Orleans. I’ve never been to a scientific meeting before with Marti Gras floats passing in front of a convention center escorted by police cars.

Trying to take all of this in is like drinking from a fire hose. Still, I promised I would pass along interesting info and I’ll do just that.

I do wish to comment on the overwhelming response to the “Poor Journalism” post below. Wow. Thousands have read it and I’ve received dozens and dozens of emails. For the record, I did submit a comment to ABC News and I hope they will correct the record.

And, without being self-serving: If you know a journalist, or anyone else, who is skeptical of storm warnings, please recommend Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.  It is an easy, non-technical read that will explain how the warning system works and the rapid, live-saving progress we have made.

Now, back to the AMS meeting.

There was an interesting presentation on a story first broken on this blog, the lack of warning when the tornado struck the St. Louis Airport on Good Friday evening, 2011. The presenter was Andrew Freedman of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang. Andrew wrote a two part story about the fiasco in St. Louis.

Andrew filled us in on some new details:

  • When the airport finally got word of the tornado (from an employee calling from home!), they evacuated the airport (not FAA’s) control tower. As this blog and the Post’s series said at the time, the airport people did not tell either the people in the terminal or the airline employees!
  • The damage was so extensive that Terminal 1 at the STL airport is still closed.
  • And, as has been reported here several times, and written about in Warnings, the FAA does not consider tornado warnings to be an aviation-specific product and does not distribute them on the aviation weather communications systems! This is just as true today as when I first wrote the book!
  • Bottom line: Unless you are at Denver or one of the (few) other airports that have made independent contingency plans, you are at great risk if a tornado approaches. 
More from the AMS tomorrow.

How Good, or Bad, Were the Blizzard Forecasts? Part 1.

One way meteorologists get better at what they do is by holding themselves accountable for their forecasts by validating them after the fact.

Here is the National Weather Service’s total snowfall map as of midnight CST this morning.

click to enlarge

And, here is a detailed map of the High Plains where the heaviest snows fell.

The dark blue area in southeast Colorado is more than twenty inches.

This blog provided its first alert of a major winter storm in the Plains at 7:52pm Friday evening by linking to Mike Umschied’s blog. I followed up with my own analysis of the potential storm at 9:18pm. It included this graphic for up to 11″ that you can compare it to the NWS graphic (above) of actual snowfall.

This initial forecast, about 48 hours before the snow started falling in New Mexico, isn’t too bad but is too far southeast. Because of the holiday travel period, I saw this posting mostly as a “heads up.” My sense is it served its purpose.

The next update was 9:11am Saturday. Because of the uncertainty over the path of the storm, I presented probability maps so readers could gauge their risk as I thought it was too early to plot out an exact path.

I posted an update at 3:19pm Saturday, here is a reproduction of the most important part (click to enlarge):

I presented the northwesternmost and southeasternmost models and provided a list of roads (immediately above) with advice. This turned out to be exactly correct: All of the listed roads were closed.

Sunday evening, I posted the following:

As Interstate 70 was indeed closed between Salina and Colby (actually, WaKeeney to Colby), this was a very good forecast as was the forecast map. I was late catching on to the heaviest snow actually falling in southeast Colorado and the final map over forecast the amount of snow in parts of western Kansas by several inches.

The snow started in New Mexico shortly after the above “storm total” map was posted. So, from this point on, I was updating and nowcasting (short term forecasting) the storm. The above was the final map depicting the amount of snow. You can compare it to what actually fell. I believe they compare quite well but please form your own opinion.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss the response to the forecasts.

The Final Word on the Crash of Air France 447

The seemingly mysterious crash of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic on June 1, 2009, was a mystery to the aviation and meteorological professions. Now, a new book by an aviation expert has confirmed the plane crashed due to pilot errors. And, the first error was flying into a tropical weather system that other commercial flights were avoiding.

We now understand that, indeed, AF447 passed into clouds associated with a large system of thunderstorms, its speed sensors became iced over, and the autopilot disengaged. In the ensuing confusion, the pilots lost control of the airplane because they reacted incorrectly to the loss of instrumentation and then seemed unable to comprehend the nature of the problems they had caused. Neither weather nor malfunction doomed AF447, nor a complex chain of error, but a simple but persistent mistake on the part of one of the pilots. 

The full story is here.

"Our Forecasts are So Much Better than They Were and We Never Get Any Credit…"

…said a NOAA meteorologist this afternoon at the Weather Ready Nation meeting.

I immediately replied that is because we never tell anyone about our successes!

Panel discussion at the Weather Ready Nation meeting this afternoon

There were 17 speakers in the morning session and only one — a social scientist — said “things went pretty well” with this year’s violent tornadoes. The rest were versions of “woe is us” — too many people in the U.S. died. “We failed,” the thinking went. I strongly disagree.

Now, so I am clear: Too many people did die in tornadoes this year! But, it is now confirmed, more than 99% of the people killed by tornadoes this year were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning when the storm arrived. That is an absolutely amazing scientific accomplishment.

But, until I tweeted it from the meeting (@usweatherexpert), no one outside of the meteorological profession knew it.

So, given better than 99% warning accuracy, the cause of the unusually high death toll likely lies elsewhere.

Take a look at the graph below, it is the tornado death rate (logarithmic scale — this was a meeting of scientists after all) since the late 1800′s:

From Dr. Harold Brooks, NOAA; click to enlarge

Fifty years ago, most everyone lived in a permanent home or apartment building. In recent decades, mobile and manufactured home use has exploded. The different in death rates is illustrated on the graph. The open squares are the death rate in permanent buildings. In those building types, the tornado death rate has plummeted and continues to do so.

However, the black squares are the year death rates in mobile homes. Keeping mind that only a few states require shelters in mobile home parks and that death rates in mobile homes are 15-20 times that of permanent buildings, you get giant death tolls like the U.S. experienced this year when tornadoes hit areas highly populated with mobile homes. Combine strong tornadoes in densely populated cities (Joplin, Minneapolis, Birmingham, etc.) and you get high number of deaths regardless of warning accuracy, especially when most of the cities happen to be ones where basement construction is not the norm.

Meteorologists, in general, do a terrible job of promoting ourselves and our work. So, people too often think of meteorologists as “people who get to keep their job when they are wrong all the time” rather than scientists who provide a tremendously valuable service to America at a very low cost to our society.

Weather: The All-Purpose Excuse

This time from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about their terrible track record forecasting recent corn crops:

USDA officials blame unpredictable weather for recent errant production forecasts. They say the figures are snapshots that change based on fresh information, such as damage caused by heat waves or changes in consumption patterns.

This is nonsense. Between satellites aloft which monitor crop condition and newer radar-based precipitation estimates calibrated by rain gauges, the ability to monitor weather conditions has never been better.

Weather science continues to make tremendous strides. It is past time for weather to cease being the “all purpose excuse.”