A Volcano is Not the Last Thing You Need to Worry About: How A Distant Eruption Can Impact the U.S. and the World

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It’s not every day that a volcanic eruption in Iceland can reach out and touch those of us in the United States, but that is certainly the case today (and tomorrow and the next day). The feared eruption of Bardarbunga—Iceland’s second tallest volcano—is thought to be so imminent that the Icelandic government evacuated more than 300 people from the region last week (an early no-fly zone was eased today). Thousands of earthquakes have occurred in just the past week, a sign of increasing magma flow and rising expectation of an eruption.

First, I don’t mean to deflect concern from the eruption potential and what it means to the people of Iceland. I’ve written about the volcanoes and their potential for eruption several times over the past few years, even the Bardarbunga stratovolcano (Katla Volcano, Bardarbunga Volcano) that now has the Icelandic population on high alert. However, a major eruption of this size could be climate-impacting on a global scale and so this becomes an issue for the world.

Bardarbunga is sealed under half a mile of ice. If the eruption happens and the ice seal remains unbroken, the massive release of heat will cause tremendous flooding issues for Iceland. If the eruption is strong enough to break through the ice—and many experts believe it is—then this eruption may rewrite the history books. Bardarbunga does not erupt often, but when it does it is significant. Just yesterday an earthquake within Bardarbunga was classified as the strongest since 1996 and the Gjálp eruption.

Buried under nearly half a mile of ice, the Bardarbunga Volcano is not much to look at from the air. This image shows the Vatnajokull ice cap that has-thus far-kept a catastrophic eruption at bay.

Buried under nearly half a mile of ice, the Bardarbunga Volcano is not much to look at. This image shows the Vatnajokull ice cap that has-thus far-kept a catastrophic eruption at bay.

What does all this mean for the rest of us? It was four years ago that the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, erupted in April, 2010. The explosive eruption caused a week’s worth of air travel disruption, no-fly zones and airspace closures over many areas of Europe and was responsible for billions of dollars in damage. Though the volcano is considered dormant now, the eruption showed how a distant and remote eruption can impact people across the world. The eruption being considered at Bardarbunga could be even more massive. Just this morning, ImpactWeather’s Sr. Meteorologist and geologist, Fred Schmude noted his long-range seasonal forecast which calls for most of this country to be under cooler if not outright colder conditions, as well as wetter conditions, for the winter of 2014-2015. Fred pointed out that, “If Bardarbunga does erupt in an explosive hydro-magmatic fashion, we could be looking at even colder weather.”

Consider a volcanic eruption stronger than Eyjafjallajokull—one that might not just shut down airspace across sections of western Europe, but most of Europe and perhaps even Asia. Consider the time of year in the Northern Hemisphere—the nearing end of summer and cooler weather right around the corner. In this part of Texas, today marks the first day of school and a sure sign that stores are beginning to accept warmer stock in anticipation of winter. What if Fred’s conclusion about a Bardarbunga eruption proves to be correct? We already have a cooler season expected, but could an even cooler one be one distant eruption away?

Would decreased air traffic for a large part of the Northern Hemisphere play havoc with business? Would executives be forced to miss or cancel meetings? Would the cost of air travel rise? Would the cost of a gallon of gasoline go up? Would the world of shoestring supply chains that famously survive on limited stock and fast turn-over based on overnight delivery, unravel? Would that cause the managers of the local Target, Wal-Mart or countless local and global retailers to shrug their shoulders to the demands of their shoppers who can’t buy a heavier jacket? What about the decreased incoming solar radiation, diminished by high altitude volcanic ash? Would solar panels become less effective? Would lakes cool faster allowing seasonal ice-over to occur sooner? Would this inhibit lake and river travel and shipping?

With hurricane season well under way in the tropical Atlantic, many businesses with exposure to tropical threat have incorporated contingency plans and disaster response plans to effectively mitigate damage and manage the crisis. But is the threat isolated to hurricanes? One doesn’t have to look far to see how easily businesses can be disrupted. From yesterday’s Napa earthquake (link), to the recent and ongoing fears of the major Ebola outbreak, to the drought and wildfires of the western United States, to the civil and racial unrest in Ferguson, MO (link) it’s the foolhardy business without the need for a good business continuity plan. Just today, forecast consensus believes that Tropical Storm Cristobal will remain off the U.S. East Coast (good news for those still not fully recovered from Superstorm Sandy!), while all eyes are now on Tropical Disturbance 22 in the north-central Gulf of Mexico moving in the direction of Texas. The likelihood of development is low, but it’s now time to review your well-practiced hurricane response plan, not create one from scratch.

Over the past few years the alarms have been raised often concerning the next Icelandic eruption. Will it happen today? Will it happen tomorrow or next year? No one can know with certainty, yet it will happen someday.

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Next Atlantic Hurricane: You Should be Uncertain and Aware of It

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If you’re following Twitter and other up-to-the minute sources, you know that there’s a potential hurricane boiling in the central Atlantic Ocean. That said, the as-yet undeveloped hurricane may possibly take aim at Florida and even the Gulf of Mexico. However, the development for this type of major storm is still a long way off in both distance and time, and any number of things may happen.

What’s that mean to you? Is it time to fill up the gas tanks, turn off the electricity, batten down the hatches and head for the safety of high ground hundreds of miles from the coast? Not quite yet.

Earlier this morning, I noticed a tweet (link) that circled an area of disturbed weather in the central Atlantic and then drew a line directly to Houston. Rest assured Houstonians, it’s still too early to predict landfall in your city for a storm that hasn’t developed yet and is still a week away from Cuba. Additionally, computer models are still undecided about which area of disturbed weather will become the eventual hurricane.

This is the image tweeted by Harris County's Public Information Office earlier this morning. If you live in Houston, what does this tell you?

Though this image was tweeted earlier this morning, it is still too early to suggest any kind of tropical development will affect specific areas of the U.S. coast.

Even though the tweet only suggested the Tropics are “about to get busy,” that kind of graphic does get your attention, doesn’t it? Though it’s too early to suggest that an area of very distant disturbed weather is coming to the U.S., the Gulf, Houston, or anywhere else, it is the perfect time to consider the development potential. Take the time to double-check your emergency kit and other preparedness items, and make sure your family is aware that it’s hurricane season. Also keep in mind that we are moving into the busiest part of the season historically (the climatological peak of hurricane season is less than a month away on Sept. 10).

Indeed this area is being closely watched by ImpactWeather’s TropicsWatch team (@TropicsWatch). Our clients’ daily video from early this morning noted development potential for a tropical cyclone in the 6-9 day time period. We will continue to monitor this developing situation.

One thing all of us here can agree on is that being at the end of a 10-day storm track is one of the best places to be since we still have time to prepare our family, homes, businesses, employees and operations for a threat.

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Is Tropical Storm Bertha On Deck Already?

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Though model consensus is quite divergent over the next 120-240 hours, it looks almost certain that well-defined Tropical Disturbance 13 will become a depression and likely a tropical storm before it reaches the eastern Caribbean Islands over the next 24 hours. If the storm strengthens as expected, Depression 3 could become Tropical Storm Bertha by tomorrow afternoon (July 30).

Formation of Bertha would be slightly ahead of climatological average. Like Hurricane Arthur which developed on July 1, eight days ahead of seasonal averages, should Bertha form tomorrow it will be two days ahead of seasonal averages which lists Aug. 1, as the typical development date of the second named storm.

ImpactWeather TropicsWatch Meteorologist Derek Ortt

In the TropicsWatch Daily Briefing video, ImpactWeather TropicsWatch Meteorologist Derek Ortt explains the probable storm track for Tropical Disturbance 13, which will likely strengthen into Tropical Storm Bertha by tomorrow afternoon.

The storm had a drop-off in overall rain shower and thunderstorm activity overnight, and even flirted a bit with the Saharan dust—which can often put a kibosh on not only a single storm but on the entire season—but the disturbance is expected to push on. ImpactWeather’s TropicsWatch Meteorologist Derek Ortt gives the storm a 90% chance of reaching tropical storm status.

What next? The storm will eventually turn northwest and, after crossing the central or northern islands of the eastern Caribbean, likely move north and out to sea. Ortt is quick to point out two things. First, at this time of year the models tend to turn a storm northward too quickly. Meaning, when the models suggest crossing the the northern regions of the Caribbean Islands, the central islands should remain alert for a more southern track. Additionally, the long-range models suggest a location anywhere from east of the United States coastline, to east of Bermuda—a distance of potentially 800-1,000 miles. In terms of the long-range forecast, Ortt states that interests along the eastern coastline of the U.S. and even the eastern Gulf of Mexico should continue to monitor the progress of this developing storm.

Overall there have been no significant changes to the seasonal forecast for the Atlantic Basin. Early predictions were for a quiet season, or one with fewer named storms and hurricanes than is typical for an Atlantic storm season, and that remains the case. However, when interviewed for Houston Public Media’s News 88.7 FM yesterday (link), ImpactWeather’s TropicsWatch manager and lead hurricane forecaster, Chris Hebert, said, “The Gulf of Mexico is going to be one of those areas that’s a little bit more favorable for development this season because it’s going to be so unfavorable further south. We have to watch it: We could see two or three named storms form in the Gulf and maybe a hurricane or two in the Gulf of Mexico this year.”

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Lightning Awareness Week: There’s Probably Something You Don’t Know

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Lightning strikeIt would be presumptuous of me to say, of my articles and postings on YourWeatherBlog, that I have an audience. It would be even more presumptuous if I were to say I know who you are or that I understand your professional background or your interest in meteorology. I can make the assumption however, that you’re probably not a grade school student, you’re likely not a teenager and that you’ve almost certainly been around the block a time or two. All of this makes writing an article about lightning awareness and safety difficult—difficult because you’ve heard it all before. Especially so because, as we head into the fourth week of June, the severe weather season is behind us (twin tornadoes in Nebraska not withstanding); we’ve all heard about severe weather safety and awareness since February. We should have the innocuous dog days of summer to look forward to, not more severe weather outbreaks. And just who’s idea was it to put Lightning Awareness week at the end of severe weather season?

Lightning Awareness Week

Click on the image to view ImpactWeather’s Lightning Awareness Week infographic.

That said, this week is Lightning Awareness Week. So let this post serve not as a way to teach or educate you about the meteorology of lightning, but as a reminder that lightning is all around us. It can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone. And to any business. Awareness is key, precaution is prudent and safety is paramount. Let this post serve as a way to bring lightning awareness to the top of your Inbox, to your business continuity meetings at work to to the conversations at your dinner table. Workers in the field need to have the same awareness as kids at the pool, golfers on the links and cyclists on the open road, dads at the office and so on.

Each year lightning kills 51 people, on average. So far, for 2014, there have been six reported lightning deaths. Last year there were 23 fatalities in 14 states and 28 deaths reported the year before (link). Lightning is also the largest source of external power surges which can damage electrical components and lead to fires and expensive repairs, not to mention the potentially huge disruptions to business and family.

NOAA and the National Weather Service have created a comprehensive web site (link) to bring the topic of lightning safety and awareness to each of us. All we have to do is not walk casually into the dog days of summer and turn our backs to the danger that is all around us and one that can seemingly strike out of the pure blue sky. (That reminds me—the NOAA Lightning Safety site has a page devoted to nine of the most popular myths concerning lightning. Check it out here.)

 

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Brad Pitt May Save Your Life: Making a Case for Twitter

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Brad Pitt may save your life? Sure he will. And Angelina will help him. So will Puff Daddy and any one of the Kardashians, or Brittany, or Simon, or Ashton, or Paris, or?

Alright, so I’m kidding. They won’t really save your life unless they happen upon a car crash that you’ve just been involved in—and probably not even then—but they’re all using a tool that you very likely have in your pocket or purse. Your tool however, is likely not ready to save your life or the life of any of your family members, or neighbors, or co-workers, or even a wayward celebrity.

What’s the tool and why did I mention the celebrities above? And why did I give Brad Pitt the opportunity to save your life? Read on.

Who doesn't have a smartphone today? By and large, most of us do. Make sure yours has apps that are relevant to potential disasters so that your phone can help save your life.

Who doesn’t have a smartphone today? By and large, most of us do. Make sure yours has apps that are relevant to potential disasters so that your phone can help save your life.

Every spring one of my most enjoyable duties is visiting clients and presenting what ImpactWeather calls the Employee Hurricane Preparedness Presentation (EHPP). The EHPP brings general preparedness information to employees who may be new to the Gulf Coast and the unavoidable hurricane risk here. Preparedness doesn’t really change from year to year, but the technology changes and we can bring new technology to preparedness. Your smartphone should be considered required equipment for your emergency kit. Don’t leave it in your kit with your other stock—keep it with you!—but make sure it’s up-to-date with the latest emergency and preparedness apps before you find yourself in the midst of an evacuation zone wondering what do to. Just like rotating your stock of emergency water (one gallon, per person, per day), you should make sure the emergency apps on your phone are still valid and you should spend an hour or two searching for new apps that may bring new information and techniques to your fingertips.

Before you check to see if your emergency apps are still valid, you need to load the emergency apps onto your phone. Search for apps using keywords “emergency” or “disaster,” or “preparendess.” Be sure to download the FEMA app. The Red Cross has a great app, too. In fact, where some apps rely on connectivity to function, the Red Cross app downloads many features directly to your phone’s memory so that they can function independent of any type of cell or Wi-Fi connection. Some apps can help you locate family members in a disaster zone (Life 360 Family Locator). Some apps, like the Red Cross app, can help you treat burns or broken limbs. The FEMA app can help you build an emergency kit and point you to the nearest Disaster Recovery Center among other services.

There’s another app you should have on your phone, and this is where your favorite celebrities come in. The app you need, the app that may save your life, and the app that is on every phone of every celebrity, is Twitter. Yes, Twitter. If you’re over 45 or 50, I’ll wait until you can say Twitter without chuckling. Go ahead. When I did my last EHPP and asked who in the audience had a Twitter account, not a single person raised their hand. To me, this was remarkable and the reason I’m writing this article.

Yes, Twitter may save your life. At the least, Twitter can make your life a whole lot easier if you use it in the days leading up to, and the days following a disaster like a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, wildfire or even pandemic. But before it can do that, you have to understand what it is, what it does and how it applies to you.

At its base, Twitter is a web-based social networking and microblogging service that allows registered users to send and receive text messages up to 140 characters in length. You can access Twitter from your desktop computer, your tablet or your phone. From your desktop computer you’d go to Twitter.com and use it like any other web site; from your phone or tablet, download the appropriate Twitter app. Using only 140 characters is the “micro” part, but perhaps you’re put off by the social networking aspect of Twitter? That’s OK—I am, too. I have no need to know what Paris Hilton (am I dating myself?) had for breakfast or who the latest husband of Ms. Hollywood is. However, what’s great about Twitter is the non-social aspect of so many users that you need “follow.” Users like your local city and county emergency offices, for example. I doubt there’s a single county OEM in this country that’s not tweeting on a regular basis.

Twitter is made up of tweeters and followers. If you are a registered user you can tweet (send) a 140-character text and it will be received by your followers. To become a follower, create your Twitter account and search for your local county OEM using the Twitter search tool. For me, in Galveston County, I would find @galvcountyoem. I’d click on it and be taken to the Galveston County OEM Twitter page. I’d then select, “Follow.” The good folks at the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management regularly tweet pertinent information to their followers. Their tweets consist of special weather statements, Amber Alerts, announcements relating to OEM business and much more. The most recent tweet is at the top of the page and, if you like, you can scroll and scroll and scroll to find tweet after tweet after tweet. Unlike email, the tweets don’t pile up and you don’t need to delete them; there’s no Inbox and there’s no spam. You just log in, see what’s new or interesting, then go about your business. When you return the next time, the newest information is again at the top. Once you’re following your emergency officials of choice, the most important disaster-related information is there for the viewing when it’s convenient to you. And that’s why you need it.

When landline phone service is not available and cell service is disrupted, a text message can often be successfully sent and received.

When landline phone service is not available and cell service is disrupted, a text message can often be successfully sent and received.

You need Twitter because in an emergency you may not have radio or TV. If you have radio or TV, you may not have time to wait for the specific information you need. How many counties does your local TV station serve? With Twitter you go directly to the source of the information you need without having to wait for the TV news anchor to tell you, without having to dial a phone number, without having to drive anywhere and without having to stand in line. If your family members follow you, you can tweet once and they will all receive it. In a disaster when every second counts, Twitter has just come to your rescue. By the way, in the age of Twitter your TV news people are likely using Twitter to monitor the various OEM sources as well, and are becoming “middlemen” to the information you require—the same information you can pull directly from the source with your own Twitter app.

There’s more to Twitter and it’s called the hashtag. What was, according to Twitter founders, almost dismissed and at one time considered nothing much more than an afterthought to the main program, Twitter engineers renamed the lowly pound symbol “hashtag” and empowered it with the ability to organize and group metadata so that you can search for, and be included in, groups of messages pertaining to a particular subject (origin). If, for example, Galveston County tweets a message about evacuation and includes a hashtag of their choosing such as #galvestonevacuation, you can search on #galvestonevacuation and any message using that hashtag will be displayed. You can also tweet your own message and if you include the same hashtag, anybody else who searches #galvestonevacuation will see your message in addition to all the others utilizing the same hashtag. You can see immediate communications from the source, and they can see yours.

Why not dial 911? In many post-disaster zones, landline phone service is disrupted and cell service is down—it’s possible 911 is not available. Text messages can often get through when cell calls are dropped or otherwise unable to connect (read more on this subject here). Text messages can also be quicker to write (no waiting for an overwhelmed dispatcher or family member to answer the phone), allowing you to move on to other, potentially life-saving tasks more quickly. Text messages can also be delivered when your phone is out of range or turned off. There are advantages to texting.

The same advantages apply to Twitter, but with the ability to follow your chosen emergency sources in near-real time, the ability to use hashtags to search for and be included within specific information, the ability to tweet directly with many people at once makes Twitter a must-have for any smartphone user in an emergency or disaster situation. Let’s not forget, it’s free.

Joking about the vanity of celebrities and their willingness to tweet anything is one thing, but let’s not dismiss Twitter because of its perceived value as little more than a frivolous tool of the rich and famous. Brad Pitt may not directly save your life, but if he is one of the thousands of individuals alerting you of severe weather or tropical threats via his Twitter account, he may be the super hero we’ve all come to enjoy on the big screen.

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Facts Are Meaningless, Hurricanes Are Not

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One of my favorite Homer Simpson quotes is, “Facts are meaningless. They can be used to prove anything.”  Over on Wikipedia, “Spin” is defined as, “a form of propaganda, achieved through providing an interpretation of an event or campaign to persuade public opinion in favor or against a certain organization or public figure.” While “Hype” at Dictionary.com, is defined as “to intensify (advertising, promotion, or publicity) by ingenious or questionable claims, methods, etc.” Public relations departments spin facts into hype and misdirection countless times each day. Who among us has not learned to read the fine print of any claim from your favorite car manufacturer, cigarette company or diet commercial? Who among us doesn’t approach almost everything we see with at least a modicum of doubt or hesitation? For every fact, a counterfact.

But can we blame or prohibit spin or hype (we certainly can’t muzzle Homer!)? As a consumer, it’s up to each of us to be our own watchdog and make buying decisions carefully, as determined by how each of us decipher the facts. Caveat emptor.

What about your favorite meteorologist? If the forecast calls for thunderstorms on Saturday, do you assume a twist or a spin or a misdirection of the facts? Is it hype to lure you to tune in again? Probably not. After all, what’s the motivation to twist, spin or misdirect? You’re not buying the forecast so why wouldn’t the meteorologist lay it all out there for you? In reality, you are buying the forecast but that’s a story for another blog.

From inside my locker at ImpactWeather, Homer Simpson reminds me daily of how facts can be misinterpreted. (Photo: Dave Gorham)

From inside my locker at ImpactWeather, Homer Simpson reminds me daily of how facts can be misinterpreted. (Photo: Dave Gorham)

The hurricane forecast, however, is a different animal. Where a thunderstorm impacts a neighborhood, a hurricane impacts a geographic region with perhaps millions of people in its path. On the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, television meteorologists battle amongst themselves to be the top-rated weathercast, and news stations rely heavily on their weather team and their hurricane prowess to vault them to the top position in the all-important ratings. Some are very worthy of the position; some less so. Like Ram wants you to buy their truck, your local news station wants you to tune in. What part of the hurricane forecast do you believe?

Dr. William Gray and Dr. Phil Klotzbach are two of the recognized leaders in long-range, seasonal outlooks for the tropical Atlantic (their 2014 report can be found here). Dr. Klotzbach, on numerous occasions has been a speaker at our ImpactWeather Hurricane Symposium. Not television meteorologists, they are researchers free of advertising dollars and television ratings. Do you believe their report?

Oh, I see. It’s not about spin, it’s about science. Who could believe a six-month seasonal report, no matter the numbers, when it seems meteorologists struggle with the lowly three-day forecast. If Drs. Gray and Klotzbach predict a busy season or a quiet season, does it matter? Is it hype? Is it spin? Is it meaningless?  Isn’t the “science” of meteorology part science, part black magic and part theater. Therefore, until a hurricane knocks on your front door, you have better things to worry about.

Here’s a fact. As of today, it’s been 3,116 days since the last major hurricane (Saffir-Simpson Category 3 or higher) struck the U.S. Mainland. Typically, busy season or quiet, a major hurricane strikes our coast at the rate of twice every three years. The last Category 3 or higher storm to reach the U.S. coast was Hurricane Wilma, on October 24, 2005. That’s almost nine years ago.

You could spin that and say that the hurricane season is only 180 days, so that instead of two Cat 3 storms every three years, it could be two every 540 days (180 x 3), or one every 270 days. Would that get your attention more than the “unspun” number? You could also hype it by saying, “This is the year because we’re so overdue!” Or might you still say that until a hurricane is moving into your neighborhood, facts are meaningless because they can be used to prove anything.

At ImpactWeather we have a dedicated team of tropical meteorologists who want, above all else, their forecasts to be accurate—both the day-to-day and the long-range seasonal ones. We don’t have television ratings, but we have clients. If we hope to maintain (and increase) our client list, our forecasts have to be accurate and to-the-point while remaining free of spin and hyperbole. However, an accurate forecast is only part of what we do. We also have an obligation to our clients to help them understand how the forecast relates to them and to help them plan for, respond to and recover from any tropical threat.

One of the ways we do that is with the ImpactWeather Hurricane Symposium. Now only a week away, the symposium assembles speakers who are experts in their fields of meteorology, business continuity and disaster recovery, as well as speakers from major corporations who have lived through a tropical disaster and have lessons and best practices to impart. You can learn more here and sign-up here.

Another way we do that is with the ImpactWeather Timeline Tools. The actual forecast is one thing, but the Timeline Tools are designed to help a client dig into the storm and produce objective guidance from which to make real decisions. Guidance that will help drive phase changes in response plans and help determine when to turn off the lights and evacuate (or, just as importantly not to evacuate).

Facts are facts. Some are meaningless, some are spun, some are hyped, but some stand on their own. It’s a fact that the last Category 3 hurricane was 3,116 days ago. What does that mean to you?

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Cool Water is to Hurricanes Like An Omega is to Arctic Outbreaks

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This is the time of year, and I remember it somewhat well, when all things for teenagers point to final exams. And final exams typically mean a morning (or an afternoon) with the dreaded word problems. Early in my schooling, with math not being a favorite subject, I looked forward to the word problems (“If a train leaves New York City at 11 AM and travels east for six hours, how long will it take…”). I soon realized however, it was a trick. Everything, it seems, circles back to math.

It didn't take me long to figure out there word problems were cleverly designed math problems.

It didn’t take me long to learn that word problems were cleverly designed math problems, yet meteorology became my career.

As does meteorology. The movement through time of displaced cool water and a stagnate upper level flow can only be calculated with math. “If cool water can weaken a hurricane or prohibit its development, then how could an omega block in the Pacific can enhance winter outbreaks in the eastern U.S.?” is not likely a word problem that would be found on a high school exam, but it’s still a question that needs an answer. The two, cool water and the omega, have affected (and will effect) the weather locally, nationally and globally.

The Pacific Omega block (link) was a direct influence on the Polar Vortex and the especially cold and never-ending winter of 2013-14. It seemed from Halloween to April Fools’ day, the eastern half of the country was mumbling either “It’s too early for this type of cold!” or “When will winter finally end?” (or perhaps both!). The same upper flow that supported the Omega block, also allowed high pressure, central to the Atlantic Basin, to push cooler water southward throughout the eastern Atlantic into the formative zones for tropical storms.

Cooler water in Atlantic tropical zones is good news if you’re a fan of fewer tropical storms. I wrote here (link) a couple of weeks ago how the hurricane season is fast sneaking up on us—and that remains true today. Yet cooler waters ushered southward shouldn’t suggest a drop in your tropical vigilance. Nor should a developing El Niño—which looks likely later this season. Like cool water in tropical regions, an El Niño event, at least a moderate to strong one, can also tend to suppress development of Atlantic tropical storms. But again, it’s not that we spend all our time preparing ourselves, our homes and our businesses for a busy tropical season, it’s that we prepare for the one storm that may change our lives—the one that may not happen this year, next year, or perhaps not happen at all. Studies have shown that businesses who take preparedness seriously are up to 22% more profitable following a disaster. What camp are you in? Does a forecast for fewer storms allow you to delay or shortchange your preparedness?

The Keller and Pretty study visualizes the difference in share value between

The Knight and Pretty study (1996) visualizes the difference in shareholder value between effective and ineffective crisis response.

ImpactWeather’s Hurricane Symposium (link), like the Atlantic Hurricane Season, is approaching quickly. If you’d like to learn more about the meteorology of hurricanes or how to best prepare your business for a crisis, then consider attending. Our symposium is for business professionals who have employees, families, homes and a bottom line to protect. We have an impressive list of speakers (link) who will bring you pertinent, timely and useful information that can help you through a hurricane and get your business back on track in the shortest possible time. Learn more and register here.

Your hurricane preps don’t need to be complicated like a word problem (“If Jimmy begins buying additional water in January for the coming hurricane season, how many named storms will there be by July 4th?”), but it still takes thought and consideration…and an early-enough start to get done what you need to get done.

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Hurricane Season? It’s Not Possible

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If you’re like me, you are NOT ready for hurricane season. As I write this, there is snow on the ground in New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Michigan and Minnesota (as well as the usual higher elevations in the Rocky Mountains, of course). I haven’t yet flipped the home HVAC system from heat to cool and, even today, I have my jacket with me. Here on the Gulf Coast, there’s usually six to eight weeks of warm-up — literally, warm up — before mid-May, and although mid-May is still a few weeks away, it just feels like the hurricane season is far, far away.

Except it’s not.

If you consider that three times in the last seven years there has been a tropical system in the Atlantic Basin that formed prior to the first day of hurricane season (June 1), we’re very close to the window of “anything can happen.” Those years, by the way, were 2012 (5/19), 2009 (5/28) and 2008 (5/31).

Worse, I’m supposed to be more on-the-ball than I am. Each spring ImpactWeather sends a team of senior meteorologists out to visit our clients and present the Employee Hurricane Preparedness Presentation (EHPP) and I’m on that team. Part of my presentation includes me saying, “I begin my preparedness preparations in January and February.” You know, lead by example and all that. Yet, I have yet to begin. Part of that is that my supplies are in very good shape — I’ve been doing this for years, I know what I’m doing and I know it won’t take too much to bring me up to where I need to be. But a big part of it is that it’s still cold out! How does one wrap a brain around hurricane preparedness when it’s still cold?

One of the major lead-ups to the hurricane season for those of us at ImpactWeather is our annual Hurricane Symposium (www.hurricanesymposium.com). This year it’s on May 15 — still a month away, yet I’ve got a million other things to do and I’m out of the country for a week between now and then. What I’d really like to do is move the start of hurricane season to August. August of 2020. That would be great.

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Are you like me? If yes, that can be both good and bad. It can be good because if you are like me then you take your hurricane prep seriously and you’re very close to where you’d ideally like to be. That’s good. But if you’re like me, that also means you have a million things to do and the last thing you want to think about is prepping for a catastrophic storm. That’s bad.

Yet you have to do it. Whether the forecast calls for a busy season or a quiet one, we all have to prepare for the one storm that could change our lives. Prepared or not, storms have a way of turning things seriously upside down and it’s much better to be prepared than the alternative. And if you have a company to protect and employees to look after, then it’s even more imperative that you not postpone your preparedness.

Of course, if you have professional interests to look after during the hurricane season, then our 25th Annual Hurricane Symposium is the place to be and an ideal way to ensure you’re on the right track for the coming season. The link above will take you to the symposium’s website, or you can click here to see our line-up of expert speakers who represent a broad slice of both the onshore and offshore industries, as well as meteorology and the science of hurricanes. Click on either of the links and it’s easy to register.

In just a couple of weeks it will start to feel like hurricane season, but if this year is like 2012 that means we could then only be a couple of weeks away from our first Atlantic storm. We have two more weeks left in April…let’s use this time wisely so that when the hurricane season jumps up and says, “I’m here!” we won’t be surprised. Even better, we’ll be ready.

Contact me if you’d like more information on our EHPP. Each presentation is about 50-55 minutes and covers topics such as building an emergency kit, what to do in power outages, personal safety in a disaster area and more.

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How Mighty El Nino? What it Means to You

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This is the time of year when El Niño, or lack thereof, makes a lot of press. Just in the last few days there have been several online articles that caught my attention, but if you do a Yahoo! or Google search on “2014 El Niño” more than 24 million hits will be returned. Is it that big of a deal?

Actually, yes. It is that big of a deal. Perhaps, “El Niño mas Grandé” might be a more appropriate term because it’s not just “the child,” but the child who is so big he reaches out and touches almost every human on the planet. Especially considering that the 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season is on the near horizon and El Niño can be an influencing factor, all eyes are on this cyclical — and potentially dominating — weather feature.

When viewed from space, the Pacific seems mild and tranquil. However, warmer than normal water temperatures just below the surface can impact climate from one side of the globe to the other.

When viewed from space, the Pacific seems mild and tranquil. However, warmer than normal water temperatures just below the surface can impact climate from one side of the globe to the other.

Let’s make sure we’re all understanding just who this kid is and what he does. El Niño (in Spanish, the child (masculine)) signifies an unusual warming of the eastern Pacific surface and near-surface waters. Warmer waters effect the lower atmosphere above it, allowing more instability which in turn allows more rainfall and more thunderstorm activity. This translates into more clouds that, thanks to the prevailing westerlies, travel eastward and tend to cloud-over the Caribbean, the southern United States and the Equatorial Atlantic resulting in cooler water temperatures. At least one result in the Atlantic is the likelihood for a somewhat reduced hurricane count.

Not to belabor the back-story of El Niño, but any student of atmospheric dynamics or physics knows that one can’t have cause without effect, or warming without cooling, or wetting without drying. A warmer eastern Pacific means a cooler western Pacific, a cooler western Pacific means a cooler and drier eastern Australia, as an example. A warmer eastern Pacific even changes the abundance of fish and therefore has an affect on the fishing industry. We’ve barely touched on the consequences of El Niño, yet we’ve touched everyone from Australia to the U.S. and even to Europe and Africa. “El Niño mas Grande?” Sure!

Skipping right past a moderate or weak El Niño, one article I read the other day wondered just how mighty the 2014 El Niño would be (“¡El Niño Poderoso!”). While some articles wonder if there will be an El Niño, others attempt to gauge its strength and still others are beginning to trend it downward from previous estimates, this article asked “How mighty?”

There are lots of players on this field, but the biggest would have to be NOAA. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center weighed in yesterday: “While ENSO-neutral is favored for Northern Hemisphere spring, the chances of El Niño increase during the remainder of the year, exceeding 50 percent by summer.” Government-speak headlines are not always the most elegant of prose, but their point is clear — they’re not yet leaning strongly one way or the other. (Read their six-page report here.)

The opposite of El Nino, La Nina, brings cooler-than-normal waters to the eastern Pacific. In turn, this brings an abundance of sealife to feast and frolic.

The opposite of El Nino, La Nina, brings cooler-than-normal waters to the eastern Pacific. In turn, this brings an abundance of sea life to feast and frolic.

I still like “mighty.” ImpactWeather’s long-range expert, Sr. Meteorologist Fred Schmude, lays it out thusly: risk of El Niño, near 100%; risk of moderate El Niño, 90%; risk of strong El Niño, 70%. (Fred correlates “moderate” with a +1.0C anomaly and strong with a +1.5C anomaly.)

What’s this mean to you? Right off the bat (all other things being equal), I’d take a storm or two off the usual total for Atlantic Basin tropical storms. Fewer storms, less rainfall; more clouds, cooler temperatures from Central America to the Atlantic. Cooler waters in the western Pacific should translate into more stable conditions — drier and cooler for Australia. I’d up the temperatures for the west coast of South America as those warmer EastPac waters shut off the more typical cool upwelling. I’d also up the rainfall across the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and with a more active southern jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere, I think more rain across the southern U.S. should be considered. Additionally, as computer models are suggesting El Niño will continue into the fall and winter, wetter and cooler conditions should prevail across the southern U.S as we push toward the New Year.

All this rain — might it be a drought-buster for California? There should certainly be more rain and at times heavy, flood-/landslide-inducing rain, but the drought is extensive — much of California today is classified as severe and extreme drought, with central California classified as exceptional. Flooding and landslides aside, El Niño conditions should bring abundant rain to this area, and how much remains to be seen. However, it will likely take ongoing El Niño conditions to bring significant relief.

The mighty El Niño’s reach is far and its effect is much greater than “simple” warming of the eastern Pacific. Where will this episode of The Child rank? Will it be mild or extreme? Will he be pouty or outright naughty? Time will tell, but I already think we need a way to send this kid to time-out.

 

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The Polar Vortex Isn’t Going Away

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I’d like to nominate polar vortex as Meteorological Term of the Year. It wasn’t too long ago that you couldn’t watch the evening news or visit your favorite online site and not see the term polar vortex. Not only that, but it was usually followed by “and if you think this one is bad (cold) wait until next week!” If there was a comments sections to the article, somebody would invariably ask, “What’s this polar vortex?” while somebody else would comment, “Global warming!”

The first day of spring is less than 10 days from now, yet there's a significant snow storm underway today in the Northeast.

The first day of spring is less than 10 days from now, yet there’s a significant snow storm underway today over the Great Lakes and it will move to the Northeast tomorrow. Yet another storm is possible for the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic by the middle of next week.

How have we arrived in 2014 without already learning of the Polar Vortex (read with deep, booming voice)? Must be some new thing, right? Truth be told, it’s always been there. It’s not a function of global warming or climate change, it hasn’t been caused by the pollution over eastern China and it’s absolutely not responsible for Sharknado! However, there are a few things related to this past winter season that perhaps should’ve shared the media spotlight with the polar vortex. The first would be La Niña and the second would be the pronounced and long-lived North Pacific blocking ridge. Before we begin with those two items, some background on the polar vortex might be helpful.

The Polar Vortex, as we came to know it this past winter, was a brutally cold outbreak of Arctic air, descending from the main vortex while plunging much farther south than usual. Since we’d not heard of it before and it had to do with crazy weather, naturally it was assumed the polar vortex (or, P-vo, as I like to call it) was a new feature and had to be the result of climate change. Alas, it’s not nearly that sophisticated.

Since the world began spinning, there’s been a polar vortex. It looks like the first Wikipedia entry on the subject was in 2005, but the spinning planet predates that by several years. And it’s not a difficult concept to grasp: Put yourself at the very top of the world and stand so you’re facing west. Without any weather system to otherwise alter the wind and assuming no sources of friction like mountains or skyscrapers or trees, you’ll have a wind in your face from the west. That wind is, generally speaking, the polar vortex (Dictionary.com defines polar as pertaining to the North or South Pole and vortex as a whirling mass of air, especially one in the form of a visible column or spiral, [such] as a tornado). That’s P-vo. During the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the incoming rays of the sun and shrouded in darkness, the vortex is at its strongest.

What of the blocking Pacific ridge? That’s the real story. With the strong blocking ridge taking the shape of an amplified Omega, unusually warm air (on warm ocean currents) drifted north. The strong ridge displaced the typical center of the vortex about 10 degrees farther south than normal. And since an Omega block is difficult to displace, it seemed the vortex settled into the new neighborhood with no intention of returning home. On several occasions (and for extended periods) this past winter, Houston was colder than Anchorage and Alaska set records for the third warmest January of all time (since records have been kept). As ImpactWeather’s MarineWatch Manager, Joe Basciani, said earlier today, “What goes up, must come down” — if unusually warm air is moving northward someplace, then there must be unusually cold air moving southward someplace. As it turns out, that someplace was the eastern half of the United States.

In the shape of the Greek letter Omega, an upper-flow pattern such as the one above is difficult to break. Warm air off the mild Pacific easily streamed into Alaska, while frigid air sourced from Siberia and northwestern Canada plunged into the Midwest, the Deep South and the eastern U.S. Image: ImpactWeather

In the shape of the Greek letter Omega, an upper-flow pattern such as the one above is difficult
to break. Warm air off the mild Pacific easily streamed into Alaska, while frigid air sourced from Siberia and
northwestern Canada plunged into the Midwest, the Deep South and the eastern U.S. In the meantime, California stayed unusually dry – another La Nina characteristic. Image: ImpactWeather

And we have to consider La Niña in this broad, global pattern. The cooler-than-normal central Pacific waters which indicate the presence of La Niña, tend to enhance the high pressure over the central and eastern Pacific. In turn, this helps anchor the Omega block.

Without the Omega, the vortex wouldn’t have been displaced. Without the Omega, Alaska wouldn’t have been so warm. Without the Omega, Houston (and so many other places) wouldn’t have been so cold. Without the Omega, California wouldn’t be in the midst of this generational drought – wait, that’s a story for another time.

As for the history of P-vo, why have we not heard of this before? We have actually, if not in name then at least in symptom. For that, we’d have to go back to the 1970s for a similar weather pattern. Like a new generation raised on the coast without ever experiencing a hurricane (and thinking, “No big deal,”), today’s casual weather-watchers aren’t quite as tuned in as they should be before declaring something as “new.” We’d have to go to our grandparents to get the true take on this past winter, and maybe their parents or grandparents for the previous occurrence of the polar vortex and its unusual push southward.

As with many things concerning the weather, rarely is an event truly localized or truly isolated. It’s all global, of which we only see our one small part. The sun, the atmosphere, the oceans are all driving factors that simply can’t dish out the brutal winter to Secaucus in New Jersey, without reversing the situation in, for instance, Homer, Alaska.

Our ImpactWeather team of meteorologists is equipped to see the big picture. Our StormGeo family of companies has 25 offices in 14 countries and meteorological offices in key locations across the globe. Our forecasts for ships, aircraft and onshore facilities have to consider every aspect of any blocking ridge, as well as unusual temperatures brought about by La Niña and/or El Niño. The polar vortex is an intricate and related piece of all the global weather patterns — it’s always been there and it’s not going away any time soon.

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