Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lessons from the Dallas downburst

Speaking of severe, I still get shivers when I see the incredible video shot by WFAA-TV of the severe storms that brought down the Dallas Cowboy's practice facility on Saturday - scores of football players and coaches literally running for their lives. At last report 12 people were injured by the roof coming down suddenly; the early word is that it was not a tornado, but straight-line winds sparked by a "micro-burst", a violent downdraft of rain and hail-cooled air reaching the ground and spreading out into a damaging gust front. These micro-burst are especially dangerous for aircraft: capable of causing a suddden loss of lift on an airplane wing. A number of airplane disasters have been attributed to these fickle micro-bursts; a number of airports around the nation have installed special sensors to detect these sharp, violent shifts in wind speed and direction. Wind speeds can sometimes top 100 mph, as strong as an EF-0 or EF-1 tornado, but the debris field is linear, damage swept along in a straight line, rather than circular, in a tornado.

We are heading into prime time for severe weather in Minnesota, and the Dallas incident is a reminder of how quickly conditions can change. I'm amazed that these football players didn't get the word ahead of time, that nobody was keeping an eye on the weather moving in. The combination of extreme rain, hail and high winds must have been just strong enough to bring down the roof, which was not solid, but kept in place by air pressure, much like our Metrodome. Someone dropped the ball. But it underscores an important point: when you're out in public, away from home, away from your TV/PC YOU are ultimately responsible for your own safety. Don't count on anyone else keeping you safe - it all comes down to the 2 words drilled into me by the Boy Scouts (thank God for weather merit badge). Be Prepared. What does this mean? It means you should have multiple ways to get severe weather information when you're out and about. Radio (not satellite radio - that won't help you when skies turn threatening). Consider NOAA Weather Radio or signing up for e-mail warnings on your cell phone. If you poke around you can find some free options - I'll try to find a few good options and highlight them in "Paul's Links." Especially during May and June you should always ask yourself what you would do - where would you go - if you spotted a tornado funnel or the sloping wedge of low-hanging clouds of a gust front approaching? You can't count on the sirens: they were only ever meant to be heard outside, not inside a store or mall or movie theater.

(This is a NOAA Weather Radio with "SAME" technology, where you can program the device to only receive watches/warnings for your specific county. For a long list of NOAA Weather Radios you can purchase on-line click here).

This really calls for "situational awareness", making sure you know what the weather is doing, if you're in a watch or warning at all times. For example, I'd check my PC or cell phone before heading out the door, and if my home (Excelsior area) was under a tornado watch I'd still go about my activities, but I'd keep an extra-close eye on the sky, and check weather on my cell phone more often (sorry for the plug, but I'm still partial to My-Cast, the company I sold to Garmin in early 2007. They're up to version 7.0 and you can see not only Doppler radar but which counties nearby are under warnings, you can even see how far away lightning strikes are from your location, all for a whopping $3-4/month). For more information on My-Cast click here (and no, I don't get a commission!) Invest $30-70 in a NOAA Weather Radio, which you can pick up at any Radio Shack or on-line. These radios are amazing, battery-powered in case the electricity goes out. Almost all models now have "SAME" technology, which means it can be programmed for just your county (so you won't lose your mind when the alarm goes off for other counties, hundreds of miles away!) It's the cheapest form of life insurance you'll ever buy.

(this is a Doppler radar screen shot from My-Cast 7 on a cell phone. The Minnetonka company, Digital Cyclone, was the first company in the nation to put an application on a cell phone back in 2001. Today, for $3-4/month, you can receive not only Doppler radar loops, but storm tracking, lightning, 7-Day Outlooks, hour by hour forecasts, all centered on your current GPS location - or any other location/town in America). I'm a little biased - this is the company I started back in 1998 and sold to Garmin in 2007, but I've tried all the various weather "apps" on the iPhone and Blackberry, and I haven't found another cell phone application with the features and functionality of My-Cast). Click here for more information, or better yet go to the weather section of your cell phone and look for it - you won't be disappointed.

Friday, May 1, 2009

186 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of smog

The 10th annual American Lung Association State of the Air report released April 29 finds that six out of ten Americans--186.1 million people -- live in areas where air pollution levels endanger lives.

State of the Air 2009 acknowledges substantial progress against air pollution in many areas of the country, but finds nearly every major city still burdened by air pollution. Despite America’s growing “green” movement, the air in many cities became dirtier. The State of the Air report includes a national air quality “report card” that assigns A-F grades to communities across the country. The report also ranks cities and counties most affected by the three most widespread types of pollution (ozone—or smog, annual particle pollution, and 24-hour particle pollution levels) and details trends for 900 counties over the past decade.

“This should be a wake-up call. We know that air pollution is a major threat to human health,” said Stephen J. Nolan, American Lung Association National Board Chair. “When 60 percent of Americans are left breathing air dirty enough to send people to the emergency room, to shape how kids’ lungs develop, and to kill, air pollution remains a serious problem.”

(Parts of the Twin Cities metro area received a grade of "D" for ozone and particle pollution). Click here for the story in Science Daily. For information on Minnesota from the American Lung Association go to this link and then click on Minnesota for specifics, county by county.

Greenhouse gases continue to climb, despite economic slump

Graphic: Anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide, fossil fuel emissions, world gross domestic product (GDP), and world population for the past century. Carbon dioxide data from Antarctic ice cores (green points), Mauna Loa Observatory (red curve), and the global network (blue dots).

Two of the most important climate change gases increased last year, according to a preliminary analysis for NOAA’s annual greenhouse gas index, which tracks data from 60 sites around the world. Researchers measured an additional 16.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) — a byproduct of fossil fuel burning — and 12.2 million tons of methane in the atmosphere at the end of December 2008. This increase is despite the global economic downturn, with its decrease in a wide range of activities that depend on fossil fuel us.

The complete story, courtesy of NOAA, can be read here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Humans halfway to causing dangerous climate change

When human injection of carbon into the atmosphere reaches 1 trillion tons, dangerous climate change with average global warming of more than 2 Celsius degrees will likely occur, a new analysis finds.

And humans are hurrying toward that 1 trillion mark. So far, We’ve added about 520 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere. With the addition of an estimated 9 billion tons of carbon a year — a number that’s been growing since 1850 — dangerous warming is likely to occur within half a century.

That’s the message from a new paper in the journal Nature, which — along with half a dozen other papers in the issue — provides a simpler way of looking at the climate change problem. What matters is the total amount of carbon that we release into the atmosphere, and focusing on that number as a budget can shape the way policymakers look at the problem, argues Myles Allen, lead author of one of the papers and a climatologist at the University of Oxford.

“The important thing about the cumulative budget is that a ton of carbon is a ton of carbon. If we release it now, it’s a ton we can’t release in 40 years’ time. Every ton we put out is using up a ton of that atmospheric capacity,” Allen told “Reducing emissions steadily over 50 years is much cheaper and easier and less traumatic than allowing them to rise for 15 years and then reducing them violently for 35 years.”

For a thought-provoking article from click here.

The psychology, vanity and deceit of climate denial

(With the overwhelming amount of accumulated evidence at hand, I find it increasingly frustrating when I have to defend the science - the very plausibility off anthropogenic climate change. I do understand that some people, faced with something that is global, unavoidable, and deeply disturbing, might choose to ignore a topic, belittle it or create excuses, instead of facing reality and dealing with it. But this article does a good job showing how climate denial comes in many other forms, ranging from fear to vanity - even outright deceit).

There are three kinds of climate change denier. There are those who simply don't want to accept the evidence, because it is too much to bear, or because it threatens aspects of their lives that they don't want to change. These are by far the most numerous, and account for most of those whose comments will follow this post.

I have some sympathy for their position. Denial is most people's first response to something they don't want to hear, whether it is a diagnosis of terminal illness or the threat presented by the rise of the Axis Powers. The moral, intellectual and practical challenge of climate change is unprecedented. The urge to duck it almost irresistible.

The complete article is here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Beginning of the end for the Wilkins Ice Shelf?

The Envisat Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) image from 27 April 2009 superimposed on an image from 24 April 2009. The margins of the collapsed ice bridge that formerly connected Charcot and Latady Islands are outlined in white. The demise of the ice bridge led to a destabilisation of the northern ice front of the Wilkins Ice Shelf, where the first icebergs calved off on 20 April 2009 (area denoted in red). (Credit: ESA (Annotations by A. Humbert, M√ľnster University))

Satellite images show that icebergs have begun to calve from the northern front of the Wilkins Ice Shelf – indicating that the huge shelf has become unstable. This follows the collapse three weeks ago of the ice bridge that had previously linked the Antarctic mainland to Charcot Island.
For the complete article in click here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

90 Day Outlook: place your bets

(here is the 90-Day precipitation outlook from CPC, the Climate Prediction Center in Washington D.C., part of NOAA). The forecast for May-June-July calls for wetter than average weather for most of Minnesota, potentially good news for Minnesota farmer concerned about the risk of drought. The "skill" with a 90 day forecast is slightly better than 50-50. Although it's impossible to predict weather for a single location beyond 1-2 weeks, it is possible to predict general trends, based on Pacific Ocean water temperatures and other large-scale weather features setting up over the Northern Hemisphere.

(The 90-Day Temperature Outlook for the USA, with a better than 50-50 chance that spring in Minnesota will be cooler than average; warmer than average weather predicted for most of the southwestern U.S.) To check out the extended forecast for yourself click here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Missing sunspots: is this the big chill?

Could the Sun play a greater role in recent climate change than has been believed? Climatologists had dismissed the idea and some solar scientists have been reticent about it because of its connections with those who those who deny climate change. But now the speculation has grown louder because of what is happening to our Sun. No living scientist has seen it behave this way. There are no sunspots. Click here for the complete article served up by the Environmental News Network.

Climate change forces Eskimos to abandon village

Floodwaters rip through the village of Newtok, Alaska, destroying its infrastructure.

(CNN) -- The indigenous people of Alaska have stood firm against some of the most extreme weather conditions on Earth for thousands of years. But now, flooding blamed on climate change is forcing at least one Eskimo village to move to safer ground.

The community of the tiny coastal village of Newtok voted to relocate its 340 residents to new homes 9 miles away, up the Ninglick River. The village, home to indigenous Yup'ik Eskimos, is the first of possibly scores of threatened Alaskan communities that could be abandoned.

Warming temperatures are melting coastal ice shelves and frozen sub-soils, which act as natural barriers to protect the village against summer deluges from ocean storm surges.

"We are seeing the erosion, flooding and sinking of our village right now," said Stanley Tom, a Yup'ik Eskimo and tribal administrator for the Newtok Traditional Council.

Click here for the complete CNN article.

Everything you wanted to know about being a meteorologist

(this is my college buddy, Mike Seidel, who does a heck-of-a good job on the Weather Channel. He's on the road a lot, covering breaking storms. He's one of the main "go-to" guys that has to hop a jet and get to ground zero of a likely major storm, only to have to stand outside and suffer the elements, describing Mother Nature's blow by blow turn for the worse. While everyone else is trying to get away from bad weather - Mike is racing in the opposite direction, and he's not alone. Ask any meteorologist and he or she will (privately) admit that a big storm of some sort probably got them interested in meteorology, a close encounter of the wild kind, and that their heart skips a few beats when a "big one", in meteorological parlance, a "BOMB" is brewing. The holy grail? Capturing the birth of a tornado (preferably the ONLY ONE with the money shot). Or flying into the eye of a hurricane onboard the NHC Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Or witnessing a major blizzard, flood, Dodge-ball size hail, all of the above will leave a would-be meteorologist short of breath, panting with delirium? Sick? Maybe, but it's probably more along the line of what Helen Hunt's character was trying to relive in "Twister", trying to really understand the storm that had terrified (and mesmerized) them many years back - at the beginning.

Scott Sistek at KOMO-TV in Seattle has done a VERY good job of putting together an overview, a primer, on the meteorology business, what you need to know before you consider weather as a career. TV is still an option, but the glory days are over, the days of fat, six-figure salaries are gone (don't I know!) Not complaining, it is what it is - TV news is rapidly going the way of AM radio (which is still around, still listened to, but a shadow of its former self in many ways). There will always be entry-level positions at TV stations around the USA, and you'll still be able to make a pretty good living in the TV-biz, but increasingly jobs will be more entreprenurial, starting up new companies or joining small start-ups with a new take, a new strategy centered around weather (more accurate, or more convenient, more personalized, etc). There has never been a better time to start a new business - the Internet has leveled the playing field to a large degree. You don't need a family name or truckloads of cash. What you do need is a great idea, people surrounding you who continue to crank out great ideas, and tenacity. Nothing good ever comes easy - that much IS true. But in the end there is nothing more satisfying that taking an idea, molding it, perfecting it, finding smart people who believe your idea, getting them stoked about your concept, and then getting out of the way while they execute and turn the vision into a reality. That's as good as it gets. But I digress....

The complete article is right here.

Just when you thought it was safe to come out of the basement: now there are "space tornadoes" that move at 1 million mph

The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, five miles outside Kearney, Neb., on the evening of May 14, 2005. Photo by Mark Urwiller

Further information about these storms could also help scientists learn about storms forecasting the possible damage to manmade devices such as power grids. A report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that a major storm during the next peak could cripple power grids and other communications systems, with adverse effects leading to a potential loss of governmental control of the situation.

The THEMIS team further investigated space tornadoes that are funnels of hot charged particles around the Earth, and can reach speeds of over 1.6 million kilometers per hour (1 million miles per hour). As the ions circle they create what is known as auroras. Because of this great speed, the space tornadoes can produce electrical currents greater than 100,000 amperes (a 60-watt light bulb draws about half an ampere). The tornadoes then channel this current of flowing electric charge along twisted magnetic field lines into Earth's ionosphere to ignite the auroras. Click here for the complete article. Suddenly those Thursday thunderstorms don't look so bad...