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If…

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“If” is the biggest word in the English language, or so I’ve been told.

If I controlled the weather, we would still have tropical cyclones because they are an important part of the global system that encompasses weather, climate, ecology, and environment. Often, years without tropical systems end in drought. However, if I controlled the weather, Harvey would not have played out this way.

Harvey's forecast track

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast track for what’s left of Tropical Storm Harvey.

If I controlled urban development, we would not have cities built on barrier islands, or in flood zones, or in areas prone to annual wildfires… or in California now that I think of it. Yep. California would be one gigantic National Park. No urban centers allowed.

If I controlled human behavior, everyone would be patient, kind, and logical. People would understand just how complicated the world is and would find ways to reason out the best possible solutions to our problems without making more of a mess despite (or by way of) the best of intentions.

Are you rolling your eyes yet? I am.

If is a great playground for the mind, but if does not deal well with reality in this case.

Harvey is bad. Urban development in places like Houston exacerbates flooding potential. When things get bad, human emotions get riled, and many people have their own way of dealing with bad situations – not all of which are inherently bad themselves, but many of which are less than constructive.

I could write about how Harvey is breaking official records, but we’re still awaiting verified, quality-assured data. I could write about how my heart breaks for those affected by Harvey, but if you’re as human as the next guy, your heart is right there with mine. I could write about how to make charitable donations to help with recovery, but I know the rest of the media has that covered. (I chose the Red Cross, personally.)

Instead, I’ll just say that when the waters recede, the national media leaves, and those people who can return home to start picking up the pieces do… that’s when we will have time to head back to the playground called If and see what imagination, ingenuity, and logic can do to help us mitigate future potential disasters like this one.

Weather Blog

The eclipse created smiles.

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If you spent any time on social media after the eclipse yesterday, you probably saw as many mixed reviews as I did, especially from those who witnessed it locally and did not travel to the path of totality. I noted descriptions from “beautiful” and “awe-inspiring” to “cool” and “that was it?” For many, it was a great experience. For others, it wasn’t worth the hype.

eclipse on paper

Amy Yinger rigged binoculars to capture the eclipse.

The experience here at the office in Wake Forest was pleasant and unsurprising. I understood that we would not experience totality and therefore not experience a dip into total darkness. Instead, the light grew dusky for about 20 minutes. The temperature dropped measurably, but not over-dramatically. My coworkers and I enjoyed a little time outside on the grassy area near Town Hall watching the projection of the eclipse change by the moment as it peaked.

What I noticed most were the smiles the eclipse created. From those beside me to friends posting on Facebook and from those staring into boxes and paper plates to those wearing their NASA-approved eclipse glasses with eyes raised to the sky, everyone was smiling. I think that, my friends, made the whole thing worth it to me despite my burnout on the hype, about which I wrote yesterday.

If you follow this hyperlink, you can take a look at some of the photos I took with my little old cell-phone yesterday, and you’ll see a few of the smiles to which I’m referring.

Weather Blog

I’m not an astronomer, and I don’t play one online.

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Eclipse mania has officially driven me mad. Well, maybe not truly mad, but I’m tired of the hype.

Is it a total eclipse a rare event? Somewhat, but not as rare as you might think. According to Space.com, “… in any calendar year, there are at least two solar and two lunar eclipses visible somewhere on Earth. The maximum number possible in a single year is seven — a mix of the two kinds. This year, we’ll have four.” Today’s eclipse is only truly rare in that the narrow swath of visibility crosses the entire continental United States.

Don’t misunderstand me. I get why people are excited. I was excited about it back in February when I first learned of it. I even considered finding a way to go to Charleston with a friend to witness it there. Since then, though, the buildup on the news and on social media has been over-abundant and overwhelming.

astronomer meme

Meteorologist Niki Morock made this meme, inspired by the suggestion of a coworker to make a new eclipse meme.

Television broadcast meteorologists have positioned themselves (rightly so) as station scientists, and are depended upon to explain all things related to earth, atmosphere, and space as if they are total experts. A few may have taken astronomy classes as optional choices in school, but astronomy is not required to earn an atmospheric science/meteorology degree. I myself never took an astronomy course, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much more about it than I do volcanology – which isn’t all that much.

The information I have posted about the eclipse came from Nasa.gov and Space.com because those sites are teaming with experts. I trust them to have reliable and useful information regarding the eclipse. My guess is that most broadcast meteorologists are using those and other similar websites as resources to answer questions and make predictions about today’s eclipse.

When I have been asked questions that should be answered by an astronomer, I have directed people to those sites. I’m not even going to pretend to know more than I do. Can I learn more? Yes, and I have over the last few months. Do I feel like I’m an expert now? Not at all. Reading a few pages on space-related websites doesn’t replace earning a science degree in a specialized field. I’m no more of an astronomer today than you are a meteorologist because you watch the Weather Channel every morning.

I will be out this afternoon taking in the effects of the eclipse as it pertains to temperature and the reactions of living things because even at 90-95% totality, it will be interesting to experience. Maybe I will write about my observations and we can compare notes tomorrow. I know one thing for sure, I’ll be happier tomorrow knowing that I can avoid being asked astronomy-related questions… at least until the next time.

Weather Blog

Two weeks is too soon: long-range forecast vs. reality

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Hurricane Gert is currently southeast of the North Carolina coast (at 9:00 am on Tuesday, August 15, 2017). She is a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds at 75 miles per hour. Expect her to turn toward the northeast today and strengthen a little before she becomes a post-tropical storm in the North Atlantic later this week. At this point, the only effect our coast will feel will be from swells and rip tides. As a friend of mine put it, “She’s a good surfing storm.”

satellite image

August 15, 2017 satellite image of Hurricane Gert off the southeastern U.S. coast.

What a difference two weeks has made! When I first started watching the forecast models and how they were handling the would-be tropical system, the GFS showed Gert slamming into the coast of Georgia at about 2 AM Thursday.  According to the National Hurricane Center’s 5 AM advisory today, by early Thursday morning, Gert should be far from land in the North Atlantic – still a hurricane, but not a threat to anything but transportation lanes on and over the ocean.

So, what did I learn or confirm from this little exercise?

A forecast two weeks in advance may have some hint of what is to come, but the details are far from exact. On Thursday, there will be a hurricane in the Atlantic, but the positioning, strength, and direction were all wrong. While I suspected as much, I wanted to prove it to myself and my readers with documentation.

Hurricanes aren’t the only events people ask about, tempting meteorologists to forecast several weeks in advance. The weather for the solar eclipse on Monday is another example. I’ve been asked how the weather will be on that day at certain locations since last month. It was difficult to hold my snarky replies in check. Anyone forecasting weather a month in advance is either looking at climatology, or she’s rolling the dice, throwing a dart, or guessing randomly. There is a chance to be right, but more than likely, she won’t be. So, I didn’t even try it, especially for an event inspiring such anticipation.

I have a sweet cousin getting married in upstate New York on August 26. Sure, I looked at what the models are predicting this morning while I was making the Wake Forest and Butner-Creedmoor forecasts. I didn’t like what I saw. Her outside wedding could end up wet. Of course, I could tell you that part anyway because that is the nature of planning an outdoor ceremony. Will I urge her to move it inside based on a long-range forecast model 12 days in advance? Heck no! I’m not even going to mention the possibility of another hurricane being just off the east coast that weekend.

Hopefully, she doesn’t read this blog. (Wink. Wink.)

NHC forecast

The 5 AM, August 15, 2017, National Hurricane Center forecast track for Hurricane Gert.

Weather Blog

Where’s that storm?

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Last Thursday, I wrote about the potential problems with mentioning possible tropical storms the minute they show up on a computer forecast model. I promised to look at a specific date and time on the GFS model every morning until that date – 06Z Thursday, August 17, 2017.  The following day, I noticed several meteorologists mentioning a potential tropical storm the week of August 13-19 on social media.

By Monday, my point was proven. The model that I was watching no longer showed any hint of a storm anywhere near the Atlantic Coast on August 17. I had to look days in advance to find a shadow of what the forecast storm had been.

This morning, the GFS had dropped it altogether. Ironically, a few of the other models have picked up on a potential, weak storm that could travel up the coast at the beginning of the week. In fact, I took a few screenshots of 0Z Monday, August 14.

Comparisons between what I have seen today and last week:

GFS forecast precipitable water

The GFS model shows available moisture for 0Z, Monday, August 14. The tropical system is barely a shadow of what the model was predicing last Thursday.

Last week, the GFS had the storm slamming the coast of Georgia. Today, the ECMWF and CMC models have it staying well out to sea.

Last week, the GFS showed a strong low pressure system with a pretty high amount of moisture available to it. Today, the ECMWF and CMC models show a weak system with about the same amount of available moisture that the east coast of South Carolina is experiencing today – typical summertime moisture for that coast.

Last week, the GFS showed winds around the center of circulation around 75 miles per hour. Today, the ECMWF and CMC models show winds around 20 miles per hour.

It is still possible that the system develops into something worth talking about in the next few days. The National Hurricane Center is keeping an eye on it. My point here is that a great deal can change in just a week or two when it comes to long-range weather forecasting. The answer to my question of “How far out is too far out?” may not be cut and dry, but in this case, we can safely say that two weeks is still too far out for any real accuracy, at least with the technology we have today.

 

Note: 0Z is midnight Zulu time, which translates to 8:00 PM Sunday evening in Eastern Time.

 

For those who love weather maps, here are some of the screenshots I have taken for this little experiment:

forecast from 8/3/17

The GFS forecast for 06Z, August 17, 2017, as seen on Thursday, August 3.

GFS on 8/4/17

The GFS forecast for 06Z, August 17, 2017, as seen on Friday, August 4.

GFS on 8/7/17

The GFS forecast for 06Z, August 17, 2017, as seen on Monday, August 7.

CMC 8/9/17

On August 9, the CMC model shows a storm well off the US coast at 0Z, Monday, August 14, 2017.

ECMWF model on 8/9/17

On August 9, the ECMWF model shows a storm well off the US coast at 0Z, Monday, August 14, 2017.

On August 9, the GFS model for 0Z, Monday, August 14th, shows just a week disturbance off the coast of Florida. There was nothing notable about the forecast for 06Z, August 17, with regards to the tropics at this point.

NHC map

The National Hurricane Center is watching an area of disorganized storms that may become a tropical storm early next week.

Weather Blog

How far out is too far out?

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This morning, while making the forecast for the next 5 days, I saw an interesting scenario on the GFS long-range model. My first thought was “That looks impressive!” Then I wondered how many young, reckless, let-me-just-make-a-name-for-myself meteorologists were going to flood social networks like Facebook and Twitter with screaming headlines about a terrible hurricane hitting the southeastern coast exactly two weeks from today.

Yep. There’s a tropical system striking Georgia in that model.

GFS model forecast map

The GFS forecast model shows a tropical system hitting the coast of Georgia on August 17, 2017.

I’m not mentioning it here for click bait or trying to be the first to talk about it. I mention it because it’s there and it will be interesting to watch how the model develops and changes the forecast from day to day. This morning, I took a screenshot of what I saw two weeks out for that exact time and date. I will continue to take screenshots between now and 06Z Thursday, August 17, 2017, of what the model is predicting for that exact time. In two weeks, I will post them, and we will see how things have truly developed from today through this morning ’s projected day of landfall.

I will give you a hint. I’m not expecting it to happen the way the GFS is predicting today.

I’ve written before about how the accuracy of the numerical weather prediction models decreases the farther out you go. Factors that the models aren’t even aware of can affect the forecast just a week out, even more so two weeks out. It would be irresponsible to say that we’ll be dealing with a hurricane two weeks from today knowing what I know.

Or would it?

Would anyone on the coast be more likely to prepare if they had two-weeks warning? Or are they savvy enough about the models to think they should ignore it for at least another twelve days?

My guess is that they would wait to see how it progresses because they live in an hurricane prone area and are used to forecast tracks changing. On the other hand, the not-as-savvy people inland who are considering a vacation at the beach that week may panic and start worrying about whether they should have bought trip insurance.

Until the computer models are more consistent with long-range forecast accuracy, anything more than a passing mention of a potential tropical system somewhere on the southeastern coast of the United States is imprudent. Still, I’m going to do my little screenshot experiment to see how this plays out. I’ll let you know.

Weather Blog

Upper 70s for highs in July?

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Sometimes Mother Nature surprises you.

Last week, most of the comments to me about the weather were along the lines of “How long is this heat going to last?” and “Is it hot enough for you?” I gave a Captain Obvious-type reply to most of them: Yes, it’s July in North Carolina. What do you expect?

I will admit that when I saw cooler temperatures in the long-range computer model for this weekend, my first response was disbelief. That model must be out to lunch. It’s late July for goodness sake!

Sunday's high temp

Sunday’s high temperatures could be in the 70s for parts of our area.

As this weekend moved from long range to shorter range, I started to believe it. Yet, I kept my forecast highs on the warmer side of the trend. I mean… it’s still late July in North Carolina.

Today, I’m finally accepting it, and I doubt many will complain. The high temperatures this weekend in Wake Forest will be around 80 degrees – “around” meaning 79 degrees is not out of the realm of possibility. In Butner and Creedmoor, another area for which I forecast, the high on Sunday will likely be solidly in the upper 70s. Wow! Right?

These cooler temperatures at the end of July are rare here, but not unheard of. I checked the records for temperature extremes in Raleigh this morning. Here’s how they stack up:

July 29: the record coolest maximum temperature for the day was 67 degrees in 1984.

July 30: the record coolest maximum temperature for the day was 73 degrees in 1936.

Even if the actual temperatures on Saturday and Sunday are a degree or two warmer than what I am expecting now, this weekend will still be a nice break from the summertime heat. While there still may be some rain around on Saturday as the cold front passes, Sunday will be the perfect day to get out there and enjoy it!

Weather Blog

How hot is it?

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“It’s so hot…” That’s either a northerner complaining about summer in the south, or the beginning of an old joke. You know the ones. “It is so hot that the catfish are already fried when you catch them.” In fact, this is the time of year that even lifelong southerners start mumbling about the heat.

Summer is also the time of year that you hear terms like “heat index” and “real feel temperature.” What exactly do they mean, and what’s the difference? They mean the same thing. One is an accepted scientific term, and one is a marketing phrase used by one of the bigger broadcast meteorology companies to paraphrase the accepted scientific term.

NWS Heat Index Chart

The National Weather Service Heat Index Chart

The heat index is defined as “how hot it really feels when relative humidity is factored in with the actual air temperature.” You might be surprised to learn that the heat index can actually be cooler than the air temperature; although, it doesn’t happen often. Typically, around here the heat index is higher than the air temperature.

Another fact about the heat index many aren’t aware of is that the values were “devised for shady, light wind conditions.” So, in full sun, the temperature may feel much hotter than the given value for the heat index that day. Yikes!

We track the heat index because it helps give an idea of how intense and dangerous the heat can be. The higher the heat index, the more likely even otherwise healthy people can suffer from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Pets need to be kept cool, senior citizens should be checked on, and people without air conditioning need to find a safe way to escape the heat.

Like the wind chill, different regions have different criteria for heat advisories. I saw the other day that one was posted for part of Minnesota with a lower forecast value than we would expect here. To a degree, how you handle the heat depends on what you’re acclimated to, but don’t think that means if you grew up in the Deep South, you are immune to heat exhaustion. Eventually, we all feel it.

Weather Blog

Waterspouts on North Carolina’s coast!

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People on the sound side of Kill Devil Hills got quite the surprise this morning when they looked west and witnessed waterspouts over the Albemarle sound. There are some pretty cool videos already going viral on Facebook. Check out this one posted by Tortuga’s Lie on their Facebook page:

So, what exactly is a waterspout? There are actually two answers to that question because there are two different types.

According the American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology, the first type is simply any tornado over a body of water. A tornado is a rotating column of air connected to the cloud base and in touch with the ground. A tornado creates a debris cloud as it spins up whatever material is at the surface. When one is over water, the debris cloud is a moisture cloud.

Tornadic waterspouts are relatively rare compared to the second type, and are as dangerous as any other tornado. Boaters should avoid them at all costs. The one near Kill Devil Hills this morning did move over land and cause some damage.

LSR of waterspout

Local Storm Report map of the waterspout seen west of Kill Devil Hills, NC, on the morning of July 10, 2017.

The second type of waterspout is often referred to as a “fair weather waterspout.” Most people will recognize these as the type famous for forming off the Florida Keys, but they also form over the Great Lakes during the late summer to early fall months, as well as in many other parts of the world.

As insinuated by the name, supercell thunderstorms are not required for the formation of fair weather waterspouts. They are formed by a different process as explained in an article from the National Weather Service:

Dr. Joseph Golden distinguishes five stages of waterspout formation:

  1. Dark spot. A prominent circular, light-colored disk appears on the surface of the water, surrounded by a larger dark area of indeterminate shape and with diffused edges.

  2. Spiral pattern. A pattern of light and dark-colored surface bands spiraling out from the dark spot which develops on the water surface.

  3. Spray ring. A dense swirling annulus (ring) of sea spray, called a cascade, appears around the dark spot with what appears to be an eye similar to that seen in hurricanes.

  4. Mature vortex. The waterspout, now visible from water surface to the overhead cloud mass, achieves maximum organization and intensity. Its funnel often appears hollow, with a surrounding shell of turbulent condensate. The spray vortex can rise to a height of several hundred feet or more and often creates a visible wake and an associated wave train as it moves.

  5. Decay. The funnel and spray vortex begin to dissipate as the inflow of warm air into the vortex weakens.

Although this second type is not technically a tornadic storm, it is still dangerous enough that it should be avoided. Waterspouts off the Florida Keys have been well studied and well documented. A simple search of “Florida Keys waterspouts” on Youtube gives over 18,000 results. So, if you want to “ooh” and “ah” over more video and geek out like a true weather fan, there are plenty of options for viewing.

Weather Blog

Summertime thoughts on air quality

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For many of us summertime means spending more time outside, enjoying the longer days and milder nights. It’s a great time to be a kid and a kid at heart when the lightning bugs come out to play. The outdoor concert season is in full swing, and if you’re not into live music, there are always outdoor movie nights around here on the weekends.

At the same time, there’s an added danger in the summertime that not everyone notices, but perhaps more people should. During these warmer days with more sunlight and lighter breezes, our atmosphere tends to trap pollutants closer to the ground. For sensitive groups such as those with asthma, heart disease, the very young and the elderly, poor air quality is a serious issue. It may surprise you to learn that it’s something we can all help alleviate.

NCDENR MAP

The North Carolina Air Quality Forecast Center‘s map for Thursday, 6/29/2017

It may also surprise you to learn that ground-level ozone is not the only pollutant of concern. While ozone is definitely more prevalent in the summer, the Environmental Protection Agency actually has five other air pollutants they monitor with set standards in mind. These six common air pollutants are known as “criteria air pollutants,” and are ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

All six can have negative health effects on people, especially those with lung and heart issues. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone in high concentrations can also harm sensitive plants.

Where do criteria pollutants come from?

Ozone is produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere that happen when sunlight interacts with NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOC). High in the atmosphere, ozone is actually a good thing because it blocks harmful UV-B rays, which play a role in the development of skin cancer.  However, close to the ground, ozone can cause breathing problems.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is released when we burn things including the fuels used in cars, trucks, boats, etc. While high levels of CO do not tend to occur outside, when they do, they can be harmful to people with certain types of heart disease because carbon monoxide limits the amount of oxygen pumping through our blood to our hearts and brains. In very high amounts, it can be deadly, which is why it is such a dangerous problem indoors.

Particulate matter is one name for hundreds of different small solid particles and liquid droplets that make their way into our air. PM includes smoke, dust, pollen, and microscopic matter made up of organic compounds and metals.

Lead pollution is put into the atmosphere during the processing of ore and metals, the use of leaded fuel for aviation, manufacturing lead-acid batteries, etc. The use of unleaded gasoline has helped reduce the amount of lead in the air greatly, so not all regions have problems with lead pollution.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are emitted into the air through the burning of fuels for transportation, utilities, etc. Both contribute to haze and visibility issues as well as acid rain. Both can cause breathing issues in sensitive groups.

Non-criteria pollutants exist, too.

One example of a pollutant that is not on the EPA’S air standards criteria list is mercury. In past years, in North Carolina, we’ve heard a great deal about mercury poisoning of our rivers and streams, which in turn poisoned our fish and could lead to high levels of mercury in people who eat those fish. Did you ever wonder how mercury got into the water?

Gaseous mercury is naturally released from “rock, soils, and surface waters, or emissions from volcanoes and from human activities.” It can travel a thousand miles through the air, combine with water and be deposited back to the earth with rain. Mercury is a natural part of our environment, but with fossil fuel burning and waste incineration, humans have added more mercury to the atmosphere and eventually to our water sources. In that way, it is now a pollutant and mercury poisoning is a serious health issue for those who have it.

Steps we can take to reduce air pollutants:

You might have noticed that burning fuels is a source of most of the above listed pollutants. Logically, the first thing we should consider in improving air quality is finding and developing cleaner fuel sources in such a way that people will want to use them. They need to be easily accessible and affordable, but that is as much as I will say since I am neither an engineer nor a policy maker.

Individually, we can consciously be more economical with our fuel, especially during the summer months – drive less and ride-share or walk and bike more. We can also do things that burn fuel during the morning or later in the evening when the sun is not directly overhead – mowing is the first thing that comes to my mind. Direct sunlight causes the chemical reaction with engine emissions that creates ground-level ozone. Personally, I am considering buying an electric lawn mower, which will greatly reduce those emissions from my own yard.

Solar and wind have received a great deal of press in recent years in North Carolina. We are a leading state for solar energy production, and solar panels for homes are gaining in popularity with improved technology and reductions in price. Wind farms are a bit more controversial than solar options, but they are also becoming more popular across the country. Both have great potential for reducing pollution.

 

You might have noticed that I have not mentioned carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Many people mistakenly think of it as such because of its link to global warming. Technically, it is not a pollutant. In fact, it’s a requirement for plant life and plant life is a requirement for human life. That being said, if too much CO2 in the atmosphere may cause negative effects in the long term and reducing it happens to be a byproduct of reducing the EPA’s criteria pollutants… well, that’s not such a bad thing, is it?