Monitoring Severe Weather Outbreaks Online

Fair warning; this is a VERY lengthy post. However, the information within this post is EXTREMELY important, especially for those who live in areas that are prone to severe weather. I do ask you to read through this post, as it breaks down the steps taken to monitor severe weather; using today’s (11/17/13) severe weather outbreak as an example. Additionally, some of the links may change following today’s event (they are “live” pages) – however, archived information can be pulled from the links by entering the date for Nov. 17, 2013.

First of all, in order for chasers and spotters to be activated by National Weather Service officials, there must be a considerable chance of severe weather. Many spotters and chasers analyze model imagery for elevated chances of severe weather. When the models begin to come into agreement, the potential of an event arises and usually, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issues a statement on the threat. These statements can be found on the SPC’s Convective Outlook, which are detailed for days 1 through 3, and threat areas mentioned for days 4 through 8. At the bottom of each image is a synopsis and analysis of the threat (although with the extensive meteorological jargon, it may be hard to understand for some). Today’s Convective Weather Outlook is a prime example of what the product looks like for an outbreak.

With today’s event, many NWS offices have activated their storm spotter networks. The individual NWS offices release statements, commonly in their Hazardous Weather Outlooks, that have a statement regarding spotter information. For an example, here is the Hazardous Weather Outlook for today’s event from the NWS office of Lincoln, IL. Additionally, the SPC will issue Public Severe Weather Outlooks (PWO) which is aimed at state and local emergency managers, along with spotters, chasers, and the general public. The information within a PWO is explained in terms that are easier to comprehend compared to the convective outlook discussions, and also provides a statement of precautions for the public to follow. I suggest to take the time to compare today’s PWO with the discussion of the convective outlook hyperlinked in the prior paragraph; can you tell the difference? Additionally, Severe Weather Specialist Dr. Greg Forbes of The Weather Chanel updates his Tor:Con for events such as these, with today’s highest Tor:Con value as a 9 for central and eastern Illinois and Indiana.

Now for the day of the potential severe weather outbreak, Mesoscale Discussions (MDs or MSDs) are issued by the SPC regarding the threat and potential for watch issuance. A national list of MSDs can be found on a branch of the SPC’s website. To view the MSD, simply click one of the red areas or one of the items on the list below. For an example of a MSD, here is MSD #2011 that was issued for much of IN, central/lower MI, and northwestern OH. Within the MSD discussion, the threat is listed and described (meteorological jargon, yet again), along with the probability of watch issuance and sometimes, even the specific type of watch (which for #2011, was 95% for a tornado watch).

Continuing on from Mesoscale discussions are the watches that are often issued shortly after the issuance of a MSD. Watches mean that conditions are favorable for the occurrence of a specific weather event. For this example, I want to focus on the tornado watches that have already been issued for today’s event. Additionally, I can take you a step further by introducing you to a rare form of a watch; a PDS. First, all active convective watches can be found on another branch of the SPC’s website. First example is of a regular tornado watch, TW #563; along with an evaluation of the threat, there are many other sections of information along with safety precautions within the watch page. I also suggest taking the time to flip through the different tabs at the top of the watch image to familiarize with the different information.

Now, for the introduction to the PDS watch. A PDS watch is issued when the threat is extremely high for significant severe weather and/or tornadic activity. PDS stands for Potentially Dangerous Situation, and although it can be issued as a severe thunderstorm watch (usually for a high probability of damaging winds or extremely large hail), it is most commonly seen as a tornado watch. For this example, I will use PDS TW #561 (which was the resulting watch issuance of MSD #2011, linked above). The information within the watch is similar to that of the normal tornado watch. However, there is a considerable difference regarding the risk evaluations.

Following the development of a thunderstorm, there is the potential for a warning to be issued. Warnings mean that the event is imminent or already occurring. Although you can find a list of warnings on a branch of SPC’s page, I prefer the self-updating warning page from the College of DuPage’s Meteorology department. Within the warning texts are reports, radar information, hazard information, location of threat, path of threat, and precautions for the public to follow. Something to always remember is to heed all warnings issued by your local NWS office!

The last topic I wish to touch is storm reports. Storm reports are very important when it comes to producing new warnings or analyzing an event. Even though most storm reports are relayed by emergency managers, state/county officials, and trained storm spotters and chasers, the public is also encouraged to make reports to their local NWS offices. The SPC keeps a current list of storm reports, which are separated into unfiltered and filtered categories. Often times, there is a statement within warning text on how to make a report to your local NWS office. First of all, here are the guidelines, events, and criterion for making a report. Additionally, if there is no information regarding how to make a report, different methods and instructions for making a report can be found here.

Naming Winter Storms

Although it’s only the beginning of October, all of that snow in South Dakota and Wyoming has got me thinking about The Weather Channel’s thought of naming winter systems. Ever since last winter, The Weather Channel (TWC) has been naming every winter storm that has developed, regardless of how the storm “performed” with its precipitation. Although TWC promotes the idea, the same idea is frowned upon in much of the meteorological world. Additionally, the National Weather Service has even criticized the idea to name winter storms. This blog post is going to represent both sides of the debate on naming winter storms so that you, the reader, can make a decision whether the ides of naming winter storms should be promoted or thrown in the dumpster.

Let’s look through the perspective of The Weather Channel regarding the naming of winter storms. Citing the use of names by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) for tropical systems, TWC justifies the idea of naming winter storms as a way to “raise awareness.” An article published on TWC’s website in November 2012, “Why The Weather Channel is Naming Winter Storms” by Tom Niziol, explains the thought behind the concept of naming winter systems. TWC discusses the benefits of the idea will “raise the awareness of the public, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact and inconvenience overall.”

Although it’s not entirely known what criterion is used by TWC to officiate the naming of a winter system, it is known from their press release that “naming will occur no more than three days prior to a winter storm’s expected impact.” They justify this limit by stating that it will “ensure that there is strong confidence the system could have a significant effect on large populations.” In a USA Today article written by Doyle Rice, there is a mention that the storm-naming criterion is also based on the National Weather Service’s thresholds for winter-weather warnings.

From their blog post earlier this month, the Capital Weather Gang (CWG), affiliated with the Washington Post, pointed out that The Weather Channel’s press release “makes the case for why it’s fit to effectively be the parent [of naming winter storms].” Additionally, CWG also points out the implication TWC makes that they are “as qualified as the National Hurricane Center (which names tropical storms).” Within this same press release, TWC states “The Weather Channel has the meteorological ability, support, and technology to bring a more systematic approach to naming winter storms, similar to the way tropical storms have been named.” However, with The Weather Channel, a mere media outlet, comparing itself to be on par with a government organization, this is where many of TWC’s opponents voice criticism.

From the opposition to the idea of naming winter systems, most cite the lack of criterion in order for a winter storm to “earn” its name. Another support of the opposing beliefs is that the National Weather Service voiced opposition and refusal to use the idea through an administrative message that was sent out during a nor’easter in November 2012. As meteorologist Brad Panovich of WCNC stated on his blog post, “since the NWS isn’t using the names, this means the Associated Press and many other media outlets will not be using the names either.” This brings up the slaying truth to TWC’s intended “awareness”, if they are the only media outlet to use it, how much awareness is the name itself generating compared to the mention of the storm, without a name, by all the other media outlets? Lastly, the third reason many cite while opposing the idea is TWC’s cravings for ratings. The Weather Channel, owned by NBC, needs the ratings, just like any other television station, to remain on-air. With much of the ratings leaving traditional television and moving to internet and social media, many tie the ideal of naming winter systems with the ease of internet tagging. Regardless of those who support or oppose the idea of naming winter storms, it will eventually come down to whether any more organizations, government or media, will adopt the new idea.

What do you think about the naming of winter storms? Leave a comment explaining why you agree or disagree with the TWC’s idea below!

Derecho: Becoming the Most Widely Used Meteorological Term

Before the North American Derecho of June 2012, very few outside of the meteorological world knew what the term “derecho” meant. However, after the night of June 29th, “derecho” would quickly become one of the most used meteorological terms thrown at any kind of storm system. The reasoning for the constant use of the term could very well be attributed to fear caused by the initial occurrence of the June derecho. However, I’ve also seen the term thrown around to give ratings a healthy bump over the past year.

First of all, let’s classify a derecho. According to the Storm Prediction Center’s Facts about Derechos page, a derecho (pronounced “deh-REY-cho”) is a “widespread, long-lived wind storm” known for producing severe straight-line wind damage. In order to be classified as a derecho, there must be wind damage over a swath of at least 240 miles, include wind gusts of at least 58mph along most of its length, and have several 75mph or higher wind gusts within the swath. By reading down further on the SPC’s Facts about Derechos page, there is much more information regarding derechos than I’ll be posting here.

Derechos are not uncommon in the United States as shown by the SPC’s Derecho Climatology map. They are most common in the Midwest and Mississippi River Valley and mainly occur during the peak severe weather season (May-July) as shown by this graph. Regarding the occurrence of derechos throughout history, we can see just from a small compilation from SPC’s Derecho Facts page that there are many other derechos that have affected the Mid-Atlantic region just in the past 45 years. With proof that other derechos have occurred in the same area, why is there such a reaction following a single occurrence? Quoting the infamous Tootsie Pop commercial, “The world may never know.”

Let’s go back to the day of June 29th, 2012 by looking at some of the following images (via. hyperlinks). As shown by the SPC’s Surface Analysis map issued 1pm CDT on June 29th, it was a hot and humid mess throughout most of the Eastern half of the US. However, what caught many off guard was the failure of forecasting the event. As shown on the NWS’ assessment of the event (p.10-12), there was inadequate model data capable of forecasting more than a day out. The inadequacy of the model data is portrayed through the Convective Outlooks (p.12-15). By looking through the rest of the assessment, the discussion about the overriding of warning systems and the issuance of severe weather watches and other texts unfold as the derecho powers through the Appalachians. Even though the mountains weaken the derecho, it does not completely “kill” the storm as meteorologists and forecasters assumed. As shown in the radar loop, the derecho flares back to almost full strength as it moves into the DC/Baltimore area, leaving behind it massive amounts of damage.

Now let’s tie in the title of this post to the content. Ever since the June 2012 derecho, I have heard the term smeared and slathered onto everything that even looks the slightest bit similar. Amateur forecasters, along with those who love the publicity on social media, clamored at the term the very second a model run showed the possibility for thunderstorm development. Although I understand that such events help with the ratings (or amount of “likes” in current situations), instilling a fear in your followers that such an event is coming four days to a week out is NOT acceptable. Hyping up the public because one model run showed something that looked the slightest bit similar to a derecho is not good forecasting. If the slight possibility must be mentioned, do so in a manner and tone that portrays the inaccuracy and variability of a single model run.

Meteorological technology is not even coming close to the pinpoint accuracy we so desperately desire, so it should never be treated as such.  However, it is the responsibility of meteorologists, forecasters, and the general public to monitor each plausible situation that may threaten their areas. Even though there was poor forecasting in advance of the Mid-Atlantic derecho, as that afternoon and evening of June 29th, progressed, it became clear that those in the Mid-Atlantic were going to have an *electrifying* night.

Links for further reading:

“The Ohio Valley/Mid-Atlantic Derecho of June 2012” (SPC)

“Derecho of June 29, 2012” (Capital Weather Gang, The Washington Post)

Service Assessment of “The Historic Derecho of June 29, 2012” (NWS)

Event summary of “The Derecho of June 29, 2012” (NWS Baltimore/Washington, KLWX)

“Ring of Fire Derecho (Ref + Velocity Two Panel)” (Daryl Herzmann, YouTube)

“About Derechos” (SPC)

“Satellites Examine a Powerful Summer Storm” (NASA)


Radar Review: SimuAWIPS

As a weather enthusiast, trained Skywarn storm spotter, and a meteorology student, I need a radar system to satisfy my needs of monitoring the weather. For this review, I would like to focus on the SimuAWIPS meteorological workstation. SimuAWIPS, known as “Simmy” in my household, is one of the best radar systems I’ve come across. SimuAWIPS is a FREE, donation-run, meteorological workstation that satisfies the basic needs of a radar system. I’ll go into further detail on the many tools that are within SimuAWIPS, including my personal favorites, later on in this post.

I came across SimuAWIPS in January of 2012 while searching for a decent radar system. I had been using Intellicast, but due to that system’s constant bugs while going through updates, I needed something more reliable. I first found the Gibson Ridge (GR) radar software, but I knew I couldn’t afford to drop $80-$250 on radar software. After spending a bit of time practically drooling over GR2Analyst, I pressed on in my search. Not long afterwards, I came across SimuAWIPS, and our geek-relationship was born.

SimuAWIPS requires users to make an account, however, this is for personalization purposes only (once again, SimuAWIPS is funded through donations). At first, all the settings and options can be very overwhelming, and it’s not the most user-friendly to brand new users. Once you get past all the setup and basic personalization for your closest weather station and get some time to play with the settings, it will become much easier to use. I’ve had my SimuAWIPS account since January 11th, 2012; even though I’m still a fairly new user, I’ve played around enough to know most of the workings of the system. If you have any questions regarding the setup or settings of your account, leave a comment regarding your question (please be specific, I cannot read minds) and I’ll try to help you out as soon as possible!

SimuAWIPS is Nexrad-radar fed and has layers that include watches, warnings, mesoscale discussions, base velocity, base reflectivity (main radar), satellite (visible, infrared, and water vapor), models, analysis, observations, dew points, frontal positions, convective outlooks, and more. Loops can be set from a 1hr to 24hr frame (although the 3hr and 1hr loops are much easier to load). Multiple radars and layers can be added on easily-accessible tabs, and local radars specific to your area can be added to a quick drop-down list. However, one of my favorite features is the personalized warning system, which can be set to receive specific products from chosen NWS offices. Whenever a product is issued, an alarm is set off, making SimuAWIPS your personal weather radio.

Now that you’ve heard all about the amazing features SimuAWIPS has to offer, I’ll do a quick walk-through of setting up your own account. Once you’ve arrived at the SimuAWIPS website, begin by clicking on the “Register” button on the toolbar of the page. This will direct you to another page that asks you to create a unique user name, and fill out a form that asks for your name, valid email address, a password for the account, and a secret question with an answer in the event you forget your login information. Fill out the spam verification field at the bottom of this page, then click “Next” to continue. Afterwards, you will be sent an email to activate the account (do NOT give an old email address for this reason and make sure to check your spam filters). You may be asked to select a default NWS office (choose the office that serves your area) or a zip code. This will customize the console to your local NWS office. You can add more NWS offices (I recommend your surrounding NWS offices) by going into the user options menu under the “Offices” and “Radar” tabs. In that same menu, you can choose specific products you wish to receive, set a default panel layout, set a default region and map background (I prefer black), set default loop settings, and choose alarm settings.

Yes, it may be very confusing at first, but if you play around on your console, you will learn how to use SimuAWIPS in ways that are helpful to you. As stated earlier, if you have any questions regarding SimuAWIPS, please leave a comment (be specific about the question) below this post. If you have any suggestions for other online weather sites you want me to review, you can also leave those in the comments section. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this post and take the time to explore SimuAWIPS!

El Reno Downgrade: Proof of Faults within the Enhanced-Fujita Rating System?

I would like to begin this post with a note of spontaneity. I was originally going to discuss topics relevant to the eight-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. However, due to some breaking news over last weekend, I decided to switch gears and hold out for additional information to become available regarding the recent downgrade by the NWS of the El Reno, OK tornado of May 31st, 2013.

Let’s begin by discussing some technical information, summarized from the NWS regarding the outbreak about the setup of the severe weather outbreak for May 31st – June 1st in Oklahoma. Thanks to a stalled frontal system accompanied by a dry-line and an unstable air mass, conditions were favorable for tornadic activity.

The El Reno tornado was given a preliminary rating as an EF-3 following a NWS storm survey, which can be seen on the storm data page (press control-F and type in El Reno to find it among other storm reports). The reason for the upgrade to an EF-5 was the wind speed readings from a mobile doppler radar. Wind speeds measured by this radar system topped at 296mph, which is within the EF-5 rating category (second link, at the bottom of the page).

I think this situation comes to show that there are still many holes within the EF system. Yes, they improved the rating system through the conversion from the original F-scale to the EF-scale. However, with technology, should these ratings also incorporate data from radar readings? From the issuance of a typical severe thunderstorm or tornado warning, many are “radar-indicated”, so why is radar data being excluded when it comes down to the rating of a tornado? This snippet from The Weather Channel with Jim Cantore and Dr. Greg Forbes has a “short-n-sweet” explanation:

As Dr. Forbes said, the EF-scale is mainly a damage-based scale that focuses on the damage of structures. However, we also know that there are different building codes and minimal “permanent structures” as you move further away from lager cities. This brings to question whether a strong tornado over a rural area will receive a lesser rating due to less structural damage (because there were minimal amounts of structures to begin with). Using this same idea, you can also flip this the other way and have the possibility of a weaker tornado receiving a stronger rating because the area affected was more structurally dense. Some other things to consider would be the proximity to the actual tornado when there are structures that are damaged. Was it a direct hit, near miss, a few blocks away, or caused by a smaller “sister” tornado or multiple vortices? Did the tornado strengthen/weaken prior to causing damage? There are so many possibilities that need to be considered when dealing with a situation like this. We know technology is capable of determining wind speeds, with a small error margin, because that’s how severe products are issued, but when will we be able to find a balance between damage and data to precisely rate a tornado? Below is the link to the Tornado Warning issued for the El Reno tornado – 6:08pm CDT on Friday, May 31st, 2013, along with a list of other products issued that day.

Regardless of the changing of the EF-rating, May 31st, 2013 was a day of loss in the storm chasing community. Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and Carl Young, three well-known chasers from TWISTEX, and amateur storm chaser Richard Henderson lost their lives in the tornado. The El Reno tornado of May 2013 will go down in the record books as the widest known tornado in the US with a width of 2.6 miles and a path length of just over 16 miles.