Distant Early Warning

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"An ill wind comes arising" is the opening salvo from the 1984 hit from Rush, Early Distant Warning on the Grace Under Pressure album. The song is not actually about the approach of nasty weather but rather something more sinister. Still, it’s a stand-out tune from my younger years. As a meteorologist and, at the time, a military man, and even as a child of the later stages of the cold war, "Early Distant Warning" indeed is a term that will never be buried too far in my temporal lobe.

Album cover for "Grace Under Pressure" from Rush. Like so many rock albums of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, album covers demanded almost as much time to create as the music itself.

This time of year, "Distant Early Warning" takes on renewed meaning in conjunction with the approaching hurricane season. The beginning of the hurricane season is still five weeks away, yet already the first look at what the approaching storm season may have in store is being ironed out, filtered, sorted and digested. That’s perhaps an "early forecast," but I wouldn’t call it a distant early warning. For that, I turn to airborne reconnaissance, radar, satellite imagery and other weather-sensing equipment "upstream" from the United States such as the meteorology equipment in Cuba and the Caribbean.

In fact, Cuban meteorologists of the early 20th century were highly regarded and proved correct with their opinion as to the direction of the hurricane that would eventually strike Galveston on September 8, 1900 — the storm that, to this day, remains the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. While the U.S. Weather Bureau believed the developing storm would turn and move to the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., the Cuban Meteorology Institute was issuing statements that suggested the storm would continue moving west to the mid-Texas coastline. Distant Early Warning was a term not yet coined in the early 1900s.

Forecasters from Texas to Maine and into the Caribbean are beyond brushing the dust off their tropical forecasting skills that may have withered a bit over the winter months. Now is the time for scrutinizing water temperatures, analyzing pressure patterns and determining what phase El Niño will be in as the season reaches its peak in early September. It’s also the time for checking the tools that serve the distant early warning. As the words from "Distant Early Warning" go, "Cruising under your radar, watching from satellites, take a page from the red book, keep them in your sights" could very well indeed apply to approaching nasty weather.

Cuban weather radar installation. Image: Telepinar.

Artist’s conception of GOES 8 weather satellite in operation. Image: Wikipedia.

The USAF C-130H in flight. The C-130H, combined with satellite imagery is the definition of "Distant Early Warning" in the world of tropical meteorology. Image: Wikipedia.

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