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Giving thanks in a changing climate

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Our national day of gratitude is next Thursday. In Plimoth, New England – now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts – almost 400 years ago, the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag tribe had a feast to celebrate the colony’s first successful harvest. The year was 1621, and the climate was cold. In fact, that year was just decades within range of the peak of the Little Ice Age.

There’s quite a bit of disagreement within the scientific community about exactly when the Little Ice Age began, but most agree that the coldest period within it started around 1650. There’s also some disagreement on the cause of the chilly climactic period. Some point to heightened volcanic activity, some to solar minima, and some to a change in the Earth’s orbit. It’s quite possible that many things contributed to the centuries-long cold spell. After all, climate is a complicated thing.

One fact seems certain: humans had to adapt or die in the face of a cooling planet. The Little Ice Age has been blamed for famine, changes in agricultural practices, and wars (indirectly). For example, when old ways of keeping warm weren’t enough, fireplace hoods and enclosed stoves were developed to make more efficient use of heat. Fossil fuels became more widely used for power toward the end of the period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Can you imagine life in a strange, new world without our modern-day conveniences when the earth was at least one-degree Celsius cooler? Farm animals struggled to survive long, cold winters. The growing season was shorter. Disease was rampant.

In Plymouth, after two years of struggling, and with help from the local Native American tribe, the settlers finally had a successful harvest and something to celebrate. So, they had a community feast and gave thanks to the Creator for that success.

A tradition was born, and we still celebrate it today. Now we have accessible technology and more options for heating our homes in the winter and cooling them in the summer. We have flat-top stoves, microwaves, and television. We import our cranberries from Massachusetts to North Carolina, raise turkeys on gigantic farms, and wear synthetic fleece to keep the chill off when walking to our cars. Even on our worst days, we have so much for which to be thankful.

Our ability – humanity’s as a whole – to overcome the Little Ice Age by creating new technologies and adapting our lifestyles is the reason I don’t feel hopeless when thinking about the current state of the climate. When the going gets tough, we find new ways to get going. For example, we take old technology like wind mills and improve upon their efficiency and scale. We create new technology such as solar panels and graphene. And in the face of necessity, we find ways to make them more accessible and economical. We must! Because now, as always, humanity needs to adapt to a changing climate.

Weather Blog

Might it snow in North Carolina in November?

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Every time it thunders in the winter, at least three people feel the need to remind me of the old wives’ tale that it means snow within a week. Of course, then I feel the need to remind them all it really means is we’re in an active weather pattern, and it might snow within a week anyway because it’s winter. There is some statistical evidence showing snow is slightly more likely after thunder in winter, but I don’t hang my hat on it as a forecaster.

Meteorological winter starts on December 1 and runs through the end of February. Astronomical winter starts on the winter solstice, which is December 21. So, either way you look at the seasons, November is late fall.

In North Carolina, November tends to bring moderately cooler temperatures and some wild swings in the weather. For example, today’s 30-year (1981-2010) average high temperature is 68 degrees, and the average low is 44 degrees. However, the record high on November 4 is 84 degrees and was set in 1946, and the record low is 25 degrees set in 1966.

Typically, precipitation in November falls as rain. Occasionally, that rain comes with high straight-line winds and tornadoes. Rarely does the precipitation fall as snow, sleet or freezing rain, but it has happened.

There are two November events on record in the State Climate Office’s Winter Storm Database. The first was a two-storm event that was combined into one report and took place from November 9 through November 12, 1968. Between a half-inch and 1.5 inches of total snowfall was reported in Wake County during those dates.

The second earliest snowfall reported in Wake County happened November 18-19, 2000. Up to two inches of snow accumulation on grassy surfaces were reported across the area with that one.

What about this year?

Over the next two weeks, the Climate Prediction Center is predicting above-average chances for cooler-than-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation. For one run of the GFS this morning, I noticed a slight chance of snow early on the morning of Tuesday, November 13. So, my answer is that’s it’s possible. It doesn’t seem very probable at this writing, though, because the very next model run took the snow line a little farther north to our border counties.

Climatology is working against us, but I probably don’t need to remind anyone that climatology was against Florence hitting our coast. Our historical record is relatively short when it comes to these things, and just because it doesn’t happen often doesn’t mean it can’t happen next week. It will be interesting to watch as the day approaches.

forecast map

One version of the GFS forecast model run on November 5, 2018, shows the potential for snow in north-central North Carolina early on November 13.

Weather Blog

Science creates opportunities for all

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I have a quote by Mark Cuban hanging in my office: “Creating opportunities means looking where others are not.” For me, it’s a reminder that instead of reinventing the wheel or using the same wheel everyone else is using, we need to look at alternative options to the wheel. That kind of innovation requires the systematic pursuit of knowledge, also known as science.

As a meteorologist, I often write about our pursuit of knowledge and advancements in technology with respect to atmospheric science, weather forecasting, and climate science in general. Sometimes, I branch out a little and write about how new technologies and improved understanding of current science can lead to adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change. That theme seems to be running through everything I’ve read so far this morning, and I feel the need to share a bit with my readers. Perhaps, it may spur some fresh ideas that could lead to new opportunities locally.

Pollution reduction and sustainability:

You might have heard the news that broke on Friday that Smithfield Farms has developed a way to turn hog waste into renewable natural gas. Much of the research and work on this manure-to-energy project was done in North Carolina, and the results will be felt nationally. By capturing biogas in covered digesters and processing it into a renewable energy source, Smithfield Foods will be reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of one of the largest hog farming operations in the country and making huge strides toward sustainability.

In other agricultural news, startups across the country are developing a new way to fertilize plants that will cut down on nitrogen-based pollutants that run off farmlands and make their ways into our streams, rivers, and oceans leading to toxic algal blooms. The idea is to use nitrogen-fixing bacteria to fertilize plants and in the long run eliminate the need for synthetically created fertilizers. By combining the bacteria and the seeds at planting time, the required fertilizer will be created at the root of the plant and in a more sustainable way. The technology isn’t perfect yet, but it’s coming along quickly.

Energy resilience and developing economies:

Nuclear power is an energy source that does not require the burning of fossil fuels. However, it has its own drawbacks including the potential for devastating nuclear reactor meltdowns and nuclear weapon proliferation. That’s old news. The new news is how energy technology startups are creating newer, potentially safer, smaller, and possibly less expensive nuclear reactors. A new generation of nuclear power plants appears to be on the horizon, which should lead to a diminished reliance on fossil fuels around the world.

While wind and solar energy use is still growing, it’s not doing so at a pace that will reach any world goals for cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions within the next few decades. New nuclear technologies may not become widespread any faster because they are still being developed and need to pass regulatory review. However, they could easily eventually overtake those renewable energy sources as an environmentally feasible form of spreading affordable and reliable energy around the globe.

Earth at night

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA
A composite image of the Earth at night shows well how the more developed regions are lit up by electrical means.

An opinion column on scientificamerican.com I read this morning also looks to natural gas as a source of inexpensive energy for developing nations, especially in parts of Africa and Asia where natural gas reserves are proven and yet mostly untapped. Inexpensive and reliable energy is necessary to help poverty-stricken regions develop economically.

Where there is no local source of natural gas, maybe the renewable natural gas created from hog farms could be a viable option with Smithfield Foods leading the way internationally.

At the source of all these innovations is science. Without curious minds willing to look at alternatives to the same old wheel everyone else is using, our technology and our societies would stagnate. Scientists are the key to creating opportunities for all, and it’s up to all of us to encourage the next generation of inquiring minds.

Weather Blog

Will Willa wash out our weekend?

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If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the last couple of days, you’ve probably heard about Willa, the major hurricane on track to hit western Mexico today. Yesterday, she was a category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. As of this writing, Willa is a category 4 storm and still extremely dangerous. She may weaken a bit more before making landfall, but as we’ve seen here with Florence, weaker winds do not mean the storm is any less dangerous. The Saffir-Simpson scale measures wind speed, not rainfall or storm surge.

Fortunately – for lack of a better word – Willa will be a fast-moving storm tracking across Mexico and falling apart as she crosses the Sierra Madre mountains. Unfortunately, she’ll cause flooding and landslides as she goes. What little is left of her vorticity – the rotation within the low-pressure system – and her moisture will cross southern Texas and move across the northern Gulf of Mexico to link up with a frontal zone on Thursday. Then, the whole mess will head across the extreme southeastern states and into the Atlantic to roll up the United States coastline toward eastern Canada.

Combining a sort of cold air damming situation in place over our region with a developing coastal low Thursday night and Friday will give us increasing rain chances late Thursday. By Friday and Saturday, rain will be likely, and it could be heavy at times while the storm moves along North Carolina’s coastline. Then as it pulls farther away on Sunday, we may see some breaks in the clouds, and the rain will become more scattered in nature.

Saturday forecast map

The forecast map from NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center for Saturday morning showing a developing low pressure system off the coast of North Carolina.

By Tuesday morning, the system will no longer be affecting us, but it will likely leave up to two inches of rain in its wake here in Wake Forest. Compared to other storms this year, that seems pretty mild, but it’s still enough to ruin outdoor plans on Friday and Saturday.

In addition to the clouds and rain, our temperatures will be well below normal through the period. Our 30-year average high for this week is around 71 degrees and our average low is in the upper 40s. By contrast, on Friday, depending on the track of the developing coastal low, our afternoon temperature may struggle to make it to 50 degrees. Saturday and Sunday should be a little warmer each day, but stay well below normal.

Weather Blog

Bypassing autumn?

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Do you know where your cozy gloves are? It’s mid-October and time to dig out the cooler-weather accessories. Somehow, we are going from sweat weather to sweater weather in just a matter of days. What happened to having a whole season of transitional weather?

It’s been kind of a strange year. Our winter temperatures set records for cold. Our spring settled in later than usual. Our summer had bouts of extended rainy periods and extended dry periods, and there seemed to be no middle ground. We saw the effects of two strong hurricanes within a few weeks of each other, and now we seem to be bypassing autumn, or at least experiencing an incredibly brief version of it. As one of my friends asked me on Facebook this morning, “When did fall and spring become a one-week season around here?”

The question made me think about what our average autumn looks like.

If we consider today’s 30-year averages – what meteorologists consider “normal” – our normal high temperature at Raleigh-Durham International Airport is 73° F, and our normal low is 50° F. Our forecast high for today is in the upper 70s and our low this morning was 58° F. So, today, we are running warmer than normal.

This week will be a transitional one as a cold front comes through and brings the dewpoints and air temperature way down by Thursday morning when our low could hit the lower 40s. By Monday, we could be seeing lower 30s for the morning low temperature. Yet, Monday’s forecast low is happening about the time we might expect it. According to the interactive map on plantmaps.com, the average first frost dates for Wake Forest are in the range of October 21 through October 31. Monday is October 22.

first frost dates

Plantmaps.com‘s average first frost map for NC shows October 21-31 being our date range for Wake Forest and the surrounding countryside.

According to the North Carolina Climate Office, September was our third-warmest on record. “We haven’t seen a September that warm in almost a century; our only two warmer Septembers were in 1921 and 1925!” Our warm summer extended into early fall, and by many accounts, overstayed its welcome.

The first weeks of October were also warmer than normal. As I said, this week will provide our transitional period, and then, according to the long-range models and the Climate Prediction Center, next week we head into colder-than-normal territory. Those unusually cool temperatures could last well into November.

The CPC is forecasting our winter months of November through January to have equal chances of being average, above average, or below average regarding temperatures. Their seasonal predictions are based on global-scale circulations like the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, and there are many flavors of weather possible based on those patterns alone. So, only time will tell if we really are bypassing autumn completely, or if autumn will try to force its way into early winter.

monthly averages

Chart from usclimatedata.com showing RDU’s average high and low temperatures as well as average precipitation per month.

Weather Blog

Why man-made global warming is still debated

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Panic and scandal sell. They sell advertising. They sell policies. They prompt knee-jerk reactions. They prompt the voicing of opposing points of view. They prompt arguments on social media by people who fully buy into one side or the other, often without being open-minded enough to actually listen to the side they disagree with. Yesterday, a new report sounded the alarm again about man-made global warming. It also prompted reactive posts from the scientists who question the data used in it.

But only one side really made the headlines in the local and national news.

CO2 ppm

From Climate.gov:
The bright red line (source data) shows monthly average carbon dioxide at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawai’i in parts per million (ppm): the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million molecules of dry air. Over the course of the year, values are higher in Northern Hemisphere winter and lower in summer. The dark red line shows the annual trend, calculated as a 12-month rolling average.

I’ve written before about the need for scientists (and the general public) to weigh all the evidence, even the evidence that doesn’t necessarily support their personal viewpoints. I learned in tenth grade debate class the best way to understand a topic is to be able to argue both sides. Once you do, you realize just how complex most topics are and that the truth is often found somewhere in the middle.

The stark news was everywhere yesterday.

From CNN:
Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn

From The Guardian:
We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN

From BBC:
Final call to save the world from ‘climate catastrophe’

 

What most people won’t see or take the time to read is the news from the other side of the debate:

From climate scientist Judith Curry:
1.5 degrees

From science presenter JoNova:
#DataGate! First ever audit of global temperature data finds freezing tropical islands, boiling towns, boats on land

From meteorologist Anthony Watts:
The ever receding climate goalpost: IPCC and Al Gore “12 years to save the planet” (again)
 

At this point some of you might be saying, “Oh, Judith Curry. She’s a luke-warmer,” or “Anthony Watts – he’s famous for being a climate skeptic.” Well, that’s my point. I read both sides, and I challenge my readers to do the same. Why? Because I miss the days of presenting both sides of a story and allowing people to think for themselves.

Where do I stand? You could say I’m the old soul on the sidelines watching things play out and hoping for smart decisions to be made for everyone involved. I’m wondering why it took so long to answer the questions I’ve had for years about the quality of the data from the early decades included in all of these climate reports. I’m also recycling, using LED light bulbs, driving a little economy car, and watering my garden with rainwater from two rain barrels. I’m not condemning those people around the world who can only afford cheap and easily accessible energy sources. I’m not panicking.

Weather Blog

How do we mitigate flooding like Florence?

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To say that Hurricane Florence was bad would be the understatement of the century. Like most other people, my heart breaks to see so many suffer such incredible loss and tragedy, and it also fills with warmth at the outpouring of love and support from people across the state and the country. Disasters have a way of bringing people together and bringing out the best in good people.

sat image

NASA: Satellite image of Hurricane Florence just before noon on September 12, 2018.

If you’ve kept up with my Facebook posts or those of other meteorologists over the past 2 weeks, you know we did what we could to describe how much rain was possible from the molasses-in-the-Arctic-paced storm. Unfortunately, some people have trouble visualizing that much water or even believing it could happen again so soon after Hurricane Matthew inundated much of the same parts of the state. I’m not here to judge those who didn’t evacuate. I get it. I may not have made the same choice, but I get it.

While other people are debating the need for a better way to rate hurricanes, whether people took the warnings seriously, which viral photos were fake news, and the best way to get help to those in dire need right now (grassroots organizations or government bureaucracies), I want to focus on how to mitigate future disasters like Florence and Matthew. Some may think it’s too soon, but often, the best time to prepare for the next disaster is right after the last one.

What lessons can we learn from Matthew and Florence here in North Carolina, especially in the areas that suffered/are suffering severe flooding from both storms? What lessons can we learn from other regions that have suffered similar flooding like Houston did with Harvey? How do we lessen the impact of the next intense rain-maker of a tropical system?

There are some seemingly obvious answers to these questions such as improve dams and levees that breeched during the days-long rain, but those tasks only go so far against one to three feet of rain over the course of a few days. As creeks and rivers rise, the water is going to go where it wants to go, and we have to figure out how best to deal with it.

So, what do we know about where the water will go? Gravity takes water downhill, which is why low-lying areas tend to flood first. Streams also have a preferred route. Even when humans try to engineer a new route, stories tell of the rising water returning to its natural path, often resulting in flooding of the same area the engineers said wouldn’t flood again.

Owners of homes and businesses existing in a flood plain can and should buy flood insurance. If you live in a floodplain and have a mortgage, most likely your lender required you to buy flood insurance. If it isn’t a requirement, it’s still a good investment. However, the National Flood Insurance Program is being called insolvent by some. Storms with financially high costs such as Harvey have caused FEMA to borrow funds from the U.S. Treasury to pay out claims. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “As of February 2018, FEMA’s debt stood at $20.5 billion.” Translation: the tax payers are going to pay for what the premiums can’t cover.

Raising National Flood Insurance Program premiums could help cover those costs, but it would prove detrimental to many of the people who live in floodplains. Often those people are on the lower-income side of the economic spectrum.

In an article published last week, Bloomberg described how Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina are handling the potentially recurring costs of rebuilding after each flood. To summarize, they have been buying up properties that flood repeatedly, or are likely to flood, at fair prices as the funds are available. Once purchased, they demolish the buildings and do not allow development on that land. With that tactic, they are helping those sellers escape places they might not otherwise be able to sell because their potential for flooding is well known.

Flooded cars are another concern and one that can be easy to avoid by moving them to higher ground. During the weekend of Florence’s rainfall, the City of Raleigh opened the city-owned downtown parking decks for residents who live in low-lying areas to temporarily store their cars without a fee. It was a practical way to give people an option and a little peace of mind with regard to the security of their vehicles.

In the Netherlands, they have designed dikes, levees, walls and giant floodgates to hold back the sea, and many people point to their grand-scale technology as the perfect example of how to deal with rising sea level and coastal storms. Still, no solution is perfect, and trade-offs are necessary. While their floodgates and walls do their job, ecologists see problems such as toxic algal blooms arising from limiting the natural ebb and flow in the wetlands and bays behind those walls.

There are many other ways to mitigate flood risks including restoring wetlands in coastal areas, building floodways to relieve pressure on levees, restoring rivers to their natural channels, and raising the structural elevation of buildings. Public and private entities – towns and homeowners alike – need to do their own cost-benefit analyses to decide what works best for them. In the case of towns and cities, political support of the best plan is necessary since taxes will most likely – at least in part – be used to pay for it.

 

Note: I’ve included multiple hyperlinks in this post because some may want more information than I have space/time to include on the ideas listed.

Weather Blog

Florence vs. Fran: a comparison

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With Hurricane Florence likely to make landfall somewhere on the coast of South Carolina, North Carolina or Virginia, people are raiding the grocery stores for water and non-perishable foods. The official National Hurricane Center forecast track as of 11:00 this morning shows the center of the cone of uncertainty near Wilmington and Florence being a major hurricane – category 3 or higher – at landfall. Many who have lived in this area for years are starting to compare the forecast track to Hurricane Fran, and with good reason, and that may be why locals are taking this one so seriously.

There is another similarity to Fran that could be cause for concern: the soil saturation level. A friend at the Southeast Regional Climate Center shared some data with me this morning comparing the soil saturation at the end of August this year versus in the same time in 1996 a few days before Fran hit. (See the charts below.)

Since that data is for the end of August, and we are 10 days into September, I also looked at the calculated soil moisture as of today from the Climate Prediction Center, and it appears the eastern half of the country is still on the wet side.

Saturated soil plus heavy rain and high winds are what brought the oaks down across Raleigh during Fran. It’s definitely a concern for those of us with yards full of trees, especially oak trees.

Heavy rain is a real possibility with weather models calling for anything from one to four feet. Where the highest totals will happen is still up in the air because each model is putting the bullseye in a different part of the state. The Weather Prediction Center has the bulk of the rain falling in eastern NC as of this morning, but that may change tomorrow.

As the date and time of landfall gets closer, the models will have a better handle on where that will be, how strong the winds will be, and where the bulk of the rain will fall. Until then, don’t panic, and especially don’t panic over maps that people on social media are sharing that only show what one model out of dozens says might happen. Chances are, it’s not accurate. Follow the updates from the National Hurricane Center and our local National Weather Service office.

Panic won’t help. Preparation will.

Personally, I’ve decided to do what I can to mitigate possibly flooding of my crawl space, make sure anything that might blow away is secured, and make sure I’m stocked up on supplies. The rest is up to a higher power. It’s easy to get wrapped up in worry over my trees coming down, roof damage, or a leaky shed, but there’s not much I can do to stop the rain and wind from coming despite what powers people seem to think meteorologists have over the weather.

We’re all in the same boat here…

I hope I don’t need a boat.

RDU rainfall comparisons

A comparison of the precipitation accumulations for the summer of 1996, 2018, and the 30 year average at RDU.

 

comparison at NCSU

A comparison of the precipitation accumulations for the summer of 1996, 2018, and the 30 year average at the NCSU coop reporting station.

CPC soil moisture

The Climate Prediction Center’s map of Calculated Soil Moisture for September 9, 2018.

 

 

WPC QPF

The Weather Prediction Center’s forecast total rainfall for Monday, September 10, 2018 through Monday, September 17, 2018.

Weather Blog

A Florence landfall is a possibility

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As “late next week” starts to come within range of increased model accuracy for tropical storm forecast tracks, more of those models are bringing Florence – at this writing a tropical storm – farther west. There’s still no guarantee she’ll take any one particular path and climatology is technically against her making landfall, but it’s hard to ignore the potential now.

There are a few points I really want to make with this post:

  1. Just because no hurricane on record started where Florence started and hit the US mainland as major hurricane doesn’t mean that it has never happened. Accurate keeping of storm track records is a relatively recent activity, especially when you factor in satellite records. To the same point, it also doesn’t mean that it can’t ever happen. As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything!

    spaghetti models

    Tropicaltidbits.com’s map of the spaghetti models – multiple numerical weather model potential forecast tracks for Florence

  2. It’s still too early to tell. For the most part, hurricane track forecasting is not very accurate more than five days out, which is why the National Hurricane Center’s official track only shows the next five days. It’s also the reason the cone of uncertainty on that track is widest on the fifth day. Often, the storm’s path will fall somewhere within that cone, but if you watch the updates religiously like we weather geeks do, you’ll notice even the cone moves with each new model run.
  3. Despite potential landfall still being too far out to say for certain if it will happen, it is a good time to go ahead and prepare, especially if you live on or have property on the coast. It only takes one storm to devastate an area, and even if Florence is not that storm, there are two more potential tropical storms lining up behind her off the coast of Africa. And it’s definitely too early to tell where they will go.

We are currently in the climatological peak of hurricane season for the north Atlantic, and the ocean’s temperatures have become much more conducive to storm production in recent weeks. If you haven’t already prepared, now is the time.

NHC map

The National Hurricane Center‘s forecast map for Florence as of 5am, September 7, 2018

Weather Blog

How we count matters

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Once upon a time, I took a statistics class in college. On the first day, the professor told us a simple truth we needed to understand before we started down the road of probabilities, bell curves, and standard deviations. He told us that numbers can be made to say whatever we wanted them to say. At that time, I was a mass communication major whose favorite class was Criticism of the Information Media, and the idea hit home quickly. That class taught me to think critically about the statistics we see in the news and to ask how they are calculated. Most people don’t consider it too deeply, but how we count matters.

The past few weeks have brought that point to the forefront with reports of revisions to the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. This week’s revision brought the number to about 3,000, but why did the number jump so high from the initial, official report of 65? In Miami, the NBC station’s Chief Meteorologist, John Morales, published a blog post this week that explains well how they arrived at those numbers. Basically, he makes the point that what is being counted and how it’s being counted differs from report to report.

Maria Radar

From the National Hurricane Center’s summary of Hurricane Maria: San Juan WSR
-88D radar image of Hurricane Maria
at 0950 UTC 20 September,
just before landfall in Puerto Rico, showing
the more dominant outer eyewall. This was the last image fro
m the radar before it was destroyed.

The initial, official report was of deaths directly related to Hurricane Maria’s wind, rain, and flooding. The following reports with numbers in the thousands were those of “excessive deaths” that could possibly be linked to the after-effects of Maria’s damage in the months following her landfall, and each of those follow-up reports counted things differently. Read Morales’ blog for more information.

To quote Peter Griffin on “Family Guy,” “what really grinds my gears” about the revised death toll studies more than anything is how most media outlets are reporting them – with a headline and a sentence or two and little-to-no explanation of what the numbers truly mean. They are being reported as hard fact and not best estimates of deaths indirectly caused by the storm.

There are other weather-related numbers that get tossed about regularly in news reports and taken at face value, which can often be misleading. Take for example, stating local temperature records such as the coldest or hottest high temperature for the date. The additional information needed to put those records into context includes how long records have been kept for that specific location, has the thermometer always been accurate and reliable and sited in the appropriate spot for the purpose, or has it been moved and/or replaced? Are there quality control processes for the data in place? If so, what are they? Are there historical gaps in the data?

Granted, when a reporter only has three seconds to mention a factoid in passing as he transitions to a larger story, it’s difficult to include all that information. For that reason, we need to be willing to ask those questions and dig a little deeper if it’s a topic that matters to us and a fact we plan to repeat at the coffee bar.

What about other superlatives like “most destructive hurricane” or “most expensive storm”? Are we considering inflation, insurance, building codes, population density? Is it fair to compare a hurricane which affects the densely populated Mid-Atlantic and New England region to a storm that hits mostly rural Florida and Georgia if both storms’ attributes were equal? More people and more expensive property may be affected in New England, but that doesn’t make the devastation in the Southeast any less real to those who suffered it.

Regular readers of this blog know that my goal in writing it is to challenge you to think about science in the news in an educated way. My personal opinions may differ from yours, and that’s fine with me as long as you’re thinking more critically about what you hear and read as a result. In this new virtual world of flashy headlines and little substance, it’s our personal responsibility to be media savvy.