Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Empathy for women, now!

I've long been an advocate for the cessation of discrimination against, and the abuse of, women in our society.  Progress has been made, but there remains a long way to go.  In the past several days, FaceBook has seen numerous posts of "Me, Too" from women, about having been harassed and/or assaulted (including rape).  The sad fact is that most women will be harassed or assaulted at some time in their lives - likely, repeatedly.  The awful part of this is that most of the crimes against women are not reported.  Why not?  Unfortunately, our culture seems all too inclined to blame assault victims for being assaulted!!  And all too inclined to allow the perpetrators to get away with it, either being let off scot-free or given a very mild slap on the wrist.  And all too inclined to provide little or no support for the victims, in terms of helping them seek justice or in terms of providing care for what many women experience as PTSD as a result of these attacks. "Well, the way she was dressed, she was asking for it!"  "Well she should have known better to be in that place at night!"  "It was just boys being boys!"  Bullshit!!  There is no excuse for harassment and rape, and the blame rests solely on the perpetrator, never the victims.  If we want to stop these crimes, we must teach our boys not to commit violence of any sort against women.  "No!" means no, damn it!

It may surprise some that many such incidents also occur to men.  I was molested (raped) by a neighbor when I was a boy.  I was so humiliated and shamed by it, I didn't tell anyone (except for my very best friend at the time), for decades - certainly not my parents!  This pedophile got away with it, as it seems many do.  Rape is not a sexual act - rather, it uses the apparatus of sex as a weapon to degrade and humiliate the victims in what is an act of violence, rather than sex.  Pedophiles - a subset of sexual assaulters - often commit assaults on either boys or girls.  And it often succeeds in silencing its victims, as it did with me. 

My wife tells me that most rapists have committed their crime many, many times, and almost certainly will never stop hunting for new victims unless they're incarcerated ... or die.  The actual frequency of rape is not known, owing to the underreporting issue, but I'm pretty certain it's much higher than the actual numbers will show.  I know of no other rapes by the man who did it to me, but it seems unlikely to have been an isolated event in his life.  His name is Paul Newton, and he lived on our block in my home town in the Chicago suburbs, 3 houses south.  I'm sure it's well beyond the statute of limitations, but I hope some other victim had the strength and courage to report him.  But probably not. 

Another disgusting incident of a different nature occurred when I was working at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.  A very famous and honored meteorologist was invited to be a consulting senior scientist there by the Lab Director, Dr. Jeff Kimpel, and it turns out he was sexually harassing women who worked in the lab.  After I was made aware of his disgusting behavior, I was going to report him, but one of his victims there begged me not to do it.  She felt that reporting him would only make things worse for her!!  Reluctantly, I did as she asked, and never reported the evil bastard.  She was probably right about the outcome, and that makes me very sad when I think about how many women have gone through this, and been powerless to obtain justice.  From everything I've heard during my time there, at that time, the overall treatment of women at NSSL was pretty poor, with an atmosphere of "Boys will be boys" at high levels in the management, despite all the safeguards that had been put into effect.

Fortunately, I've been able to overcome the shame of my molestation and now realize I wasn't to blame in any way.  If there can be said to be a "benefit" to being molested, it's that I've experienced what many women have experienced, so I have a sense of what they must go through.  The "Me, too!" campaign on FaceBook is allowing many people to come forward and say they, too, have been through harassment/assault.  Stories are optional.  Our society has looked the other way for far too long and the time has come to seek justice and provide consistent support for the victims.  It's time to take a stand against the injustices we've inflicted on victims for too long.  If you've never been a victim, just try to imagine how awful it would be.  Then use that understanding to get up and speak out against crimes of sexual violence - against women and men, girls and boys!

Me, too!!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trump is just a symptom of a greater malaise in America

There's an insidious illness that has infected the USA, causing our culture to evolve in ways that will eventually end badly for us.  It has become widespread and malignant - like a cancer, it comes from within rather than a foreign invasion.  The election of the incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic, racist, misogynist, corrupt clown that only a minority of Americans voted for in last year's November election is but a symptom of the problem.

The founders of this nation, as imperfect as they were, began what is often called "The Great American Experiment in Democracy".  The experimental aspect of how our nation was created by those founders, was expressed eloquently by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The Civil War was a rigorous test of those principles, and the nation managed to stay together, sort of.  Given that the Confederate battle flag known as the "Stars and Bars" has become symbolic of, not just the Confederacy, but more so of the racism that caused the Civil War in the first place.  That racism (not limited to the Southern states), like the HIV virus, clearly lives on to this day within our nation.  It has gained widespread support and its persistence is a poison to the principle of equality for all humans in our nation.

Many of these issues surfaced again during the turbulent era of US involvement in Vietnam.  Similar divisions were present in the 1960s that had been around during the Civil War.  And those same divisions in our society plague us today, without the benefit of the spirit of compromise upon which our nation was founded.  Political parties have become a corrupting influence on us, where party loyalty is more valued than service to the American people.

The founders of our nation fell quite a ways short of living up to their own principles, of course.  That shortfall is still obvious today in many Americans.  Equality for all people actually never has been achieved in America, and we have made at best only slow and erratic progress at making equality a reality for everyone.  Women have been given the vote, but they're still being discriminated against in the workplace (and elsewhere) and subjected to sexual harassment and assault (including rape).  Justice for the perpetrators of harassment and assault against women remains elusive - power and money buy such criminals a free pass, despite our ideals.  Women actually are blamed for these crimes, rather than those committing them.  In the face of such inequality, most of the discrimination and the crimes against women are never reported, and in the rare instances where they are reported, that often backfires on the women, not the perps.

After slavery was abolished, racial inequality remains a fact of life experienced on a daily basis for most non-white Americans.  The police are charged with enforcing the laws of the land, but some of the police are simply brutal thugs, free to attack and even kill without being held accountable.  And the police commit such crimes disproportionately on non-white Americans.  Every black family must have "that conversation" with their children to make them aware that justice isn't equal in America.  The default assumption among many whites is that non-whites match the stereotypes projected on them by white Americans (who live in an invisible "bubble" of white privilege), and so many whites are completely unaware of the reality of discrimination against non-whites.

Non-christians in America are widely despised by the "religious right", especially Muslims and atheists, these days.  Christian notions of morality are being forced on all Americans on a daily basis.  I'm not going to go off on a rant against all religion, but here in America, creeping theocracy is generally associated with conservatives, who yearn to impose a mythical vision of America as they imagine it "used to be" when religious discrimination was not being opposed by those who believe in real freedom, not only of, but also from religion.  The "Establishment Clause" of the 1st Constitutional Amendment is constantly under attack by the religious right.  When people believe their god is on their side, they think that means they can fight for a theocratic USA by any means necessary.

Science and the tools of science - education, logic, evidence - are now widely mistrusted by many Americans.  There is a deep thread of anti-science and anti-intellectual thought that has always existed in America, but it seems to be growing more popular.  Public education is being threatened by siphoning even the diminishing taxpayer support for education into religious schools via the so-called "vouchers".  Too many Americans are monumentally ignorant about science, history, geography, mathematics, civics, and more.  Democracy depends on being supported by educated voters, so the attacks on public education are actually attacks on our democratic principles.  To make voting decisions in the modern world dominated by technology requires people who understand how things in our society work.  Otherwise, they are too easily led astray by would-be dictators.

Many politicians are being corrupted by large corporations pouring vast amounts of money to buy special favors for such companies, at taxpayer expense.  The "Trust Busting" era when Teddy Roosevelt broke the power of the corporations, is little more than a distant memory.  The Republican party has been taken over by the far right wing of their party and now supports tax breaks for big corporations while taking resources away that have been providing support for indigent people who need external help just to survive.  The indigent suffer even as the rich get richer.  Income inequality is a capitalist form of slavery and could eventually result in a violent revolution, with the indigent protests likely to be slaughtered by the very police who have pledged to serve and protect them.  Look at recent events for small-scale examples, such as the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux.

The trainwreck that is the crypto-fascist regime under Trump and his GOP supporters is simply a reflection of the decay from within that is infecting our nation.  Most Americans don't exercise their right to vote, and that tendency is at least part of the reason we have been saddled with this regime.  By not voting, Americans are giving up on the American Experiment and our democracy is being threatened by the drift toward fascism.  The right-wing extremists seem more interested in voting than the moderate center.  What is considered "left-wing extremism" is what used to be considered "liberal" while the true extreme left-wing is left out of the political picture altogether and so is reduced to protests and occasional violence.  No one in America wants it to become Communist, and the Communist threat pretty much disintegrated in 1989.  Disenfranchising Americans (limited predominantly to those who would cast a "liberal" vote) is also a terrible stain on the democratic experiment here, and the GOP has mastered the tactic.

Our current regime has dedicated itself to erasing any remnant of their sworn enemy - Barack Obama - as if all of the vitriol poured on him during his time as our President were actually true.  This is causing the US to lose its role as the world leader.  We are alienating our allies and encouraging our enemies.  And we have a childish psychopath with his finger on the thermonuclear trigger!

We seem to be tending toward going down a road to total collapse of liberal democracy, unlikely to be identical to, but also not unlike, the experiences of the moderate provisional government in Russia before the revolt by the Bolsheviks that put them in power, and that of the moderate Weimar Republic in Germany before the triumphs of the Nazis.  The different ideologies mask the many similarities between the Bolshevk and Nazi dictatorships.  History shows us that extremists can win, even when they only represent a small minority of the people in a nation - and we are not immune from having something like that happen!  The signs of our willingness to slide toward fascism have been apparent from the start of the 2016 election.  Extremists have a clear picture of what they want and are willing to do whatever it takes to "win", no matter how much suffering they create in achieving their cause.  Moderates often are paralyzed with indecision about what to do and how to do it - they talk, while extremists act.  Are we seeing the last days of the Great American Experiment?  American "exceptionalism" is a nationalist myth.  There is nothing inherent in American Democracy that will enable it to survive - the testing of its ability to endure has been ongoing since before the Civil War!!

Now we are engaged in a struggle about whether our nation, so conceived and dedicated to the principle of equality for all its people, can endure as a beacon of democracy and freedom.  It is altogether fitting and proper we should do this.  On this struggle hangs the outcome - whether or not this nation shall have a new birth of freedom so that our government of all its people, by all its people, and for all its people, shall not vanish from this Earth.

Friday, September 8, 2017

We've never experienced anything like it!

I write this as Hurricane Irma bears down on South Florida, with the potential to be up there with the worst ever disasters from a hurricane in Florida.  I also hear some people saying they have ridden out other hurricanes and so are planning on riding out Irma.  This ridiculous notion deserves some consideration ...

In my tornado research, I spent decades becoming familiar with the climatological record of tornado occurrences in the USA.  In the process, one can't help but observe that really big, bad tornadoes are but a small minority of the 1000 or so tornadoes that hit the USA every year.  In 1998, a tornado rated F3 hit Gainesville, GA in the early morning, killing 12 people in an event that was unusual in that it was not warned-for in advance.  In the wake of that event, my colleague Dr. Harold Brooks was talking via the phone to an emergency manager in the Gainesville area and she told him (I'm paraphrasing) that she had no idea things could get that bad in Gainesville!  Clearly, she didn't know anything about the last single tornado in the USA to kill more than 200 people - the tornado that struck Gainesville, GA on 06 April 1936 (part of a two-day outbreak including a single tornado that killed 200+ in Tupelo, MS the day before).  If a "generation" is roughly 30 years, this means that the institutional memory of that awful day in 1936 had been mostly lost in, even in an agency about being prepared, within roughly two generations!  My experience says that's pretty typical.  After a big disaster, awareness is high and people are receptive to the call for preparation.  But as time passes, people move away, people die, new people move in and the local memory of disaster fades all too quickly.  Resources for event preparation are re-allocated to other projects.  Complacency grows.  All too soon, the disaster is mostly forgotten.  But the weather data base doesn't ever forget.

Studying the climatology of hazardous weather gives researchers a mental model of dangerous storms that isn't widely known in the "general public".  While I was visiting Australia in 1989, it turned out there was a flash flood event in Melbourne while I was there.  It wasn't a major event, being confined mostly to urban flooding.  I watched a TV interview the next day with a couple living in the area hit by the flash flood, and they said "We've lived here for 9 years and we've never seen anything like this!"  So they apparently believed that living in Melbourne for 9 years was going to representative of all the possible weather in Melbourne for all the rest of eternity!  And this relatively modest event was a big deal for them!

It's understandable that non-meteorologists would fail to have an accurate understanding of the occurrence of rare events.  I'm not sure how to go about fixing this shortfall in our communication of science, but here, today, with the landfall of Irma in South Florida likely in the next two days, the complacency associated with people's flawed understanding of what is "typical" for their area seems to be influential in the choices some people are making.   Ignorance of such things almost never implies a blissful outcome. 

Immediately after a major storm disaster, people are likely to want to think of what happened to them as a "freak" weather event:  something unprecedented and very unlikely.  Being hit by a major storm is a relatively rare occurrence, but calling it a "freak" event is misleading and counter-productive.  If you're familiar with the climatology of tornadoes, someplace (and possibly someone)  is going to be hit by a violent tornado virtually every year!  Violent tornadoes are rare in any one place, but they aren't "freak" events, somehow outside the range of our human experience.  Of course, they likely are outside of your own personal experience!  You could live in central OK and not be hit by a violent tornado in 1000 years; on the other hand, Moore, OK has been hit by violent tornadoes in 1999, 2003, 2010, and 2013!  The distribution of tornadoes has all the signs of being "random":  being truly random doesn't mean the events are spread irregularly but more or less uniformly.  Instead, random spatial distributions have both clusters and voids.  If we had enough data (at least 1000 years worth), we might have a very clear picture of the climatology of violent tornadoes, at least in central OK.  But we don't have that much reliable data on tornadoes before, say, 1953.  The more rare the event, the more data are required for a meaningful analysis of the danger.

It's also likely that our knowledge of Cat-4/5 tropical cyclones is similarly flawed.  A much longer period of record is needed for an accurate picture to emerge.  The climatology of major events determines such numbers as the "return period" for these events.  The more data one has, the greater the number of major events in the database and the "return period" calculation is less about iffy extrapolation and more about reliable information.  The notion of "return period" is widely misunderstood by the public but that (obviously) is off-topic for this blog.

Folks, it's just not helpful for you to have faith that your personal experience with storms includes all that could possibly happen to you.  When the storms become more intense, the less useful your experience is.  This affects the decisions you make in advance of being hit by a particular storm, and your decisions will determine such issues as whether you live through it or not.  Your choice will affect your family and perhaps even your friends.  Don't trust your knowledge of the past to be helpful - listen to what the forecasters are saying and take it seriously!  Lives hang in the balance!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Tropical cyclones pose multiple hazards

The slow-developing situation involving Hurricane Harvey has caused me to contemplate just what our weather forecast message has to be in order to be effective in mitigating the threats.  As I write this, the death toll is less than 10 people.  Every casualty is a tragedy but things clearly could have been a lot worse.  However, that isn't what I want to consider here.

There's been an effort in the last few years to try to help people understand that there are three different primary hazards posed by landfalling tropical cyclones

1.  the very strong winds near the eye,
2.  the "storm surge" of ocean water pushed onto the land by the storm's winds and low pressure, and
3.  the extreme amounts of rain.

Some hurricanes also produce tornadoes in their outer rainbands.  This event (Harvey) was forecast pretty well.  The rapid intensification was anticipated but it likely exceeded most expectations when Harvey became a Cat-4 hurricane (on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity) just as it was making landfall.  Evidently, the storm surge was not a very big factor in Harvey.  What was really well-anticipated was the extreme rainfall once Harvey came on shore.  This was the highlighted threat in most of the forecasts by both public and private sector forecasters, days in advance.  Arguably, in this event, it was the most important hazard, and it seems it will have become a rainfall event that, if not unprecedented, is on the extreme end of such hazards.

Every hurricane making landfall will offer some combination of these three main hazards.  Each of them carries with it a certain potential for damage and loss of life.  The actual evolution of those hazards in a particular event depends on a several factors that govern the dangers from storm winds, storm surge, and heavy rainfall.  What the storm will actually produce in terms of damage and casualties is not necessarily easy to predict with high confidence, but Harvey's main threat was forecast to be the heavy rainfall;  that was the gist of the forecasts, and that's pretty much how Harvey has evolved.

Our challenge as forecasters is to try to anticipate the hazard level for each of the three elements and seek to pass that information on to the users of our forecasts so they can make informed decisions.  In this event, as is common, some people did well in preparing themselves for the anticipated hazards, but others, not so much.  A big challenge to our forecasting community is to try to convey to the public that the windspeeds, which are the basis for assigning the Saffir-Simpson intensity category for the storm, are not always the main threat from the storm.  A weakening tropical storm may not pose much of a wind or storm surge threat but it still can be quite capable of producing copious rainfall, with its associated potential for both damage and casualties.  Although the wind threat is declining, the storm can remain seriously dangerous!

A big challenge with the threat from heavy rain is the question of what people can do to prevent becoming victims of flooding.  Obviously, flood damage is unavoidable if you live in a location vulnerable to flooding during a heavy rain episode - you can't move your home out of danger.  Many people have little or no knowledge of the actual flood threat in their particular location.  Even more challenging is what people in an area subject to flooding in extreme rainfall can actually do to protect their lives.  Evacuating the area might be effective in saving lives, but when people delay an evacuation decision to the 11th hour, then the roads will be choked and people trapped in their cars can be killed by rising floodwaters.  Some people may not be able to evacuate under any circumstances.  If you're going to evacuate to be safe, do so early or not at all!  If you choose to ride it out at home, you should have a plan regarding what to do if the waters rise high enough that even your roof is no longer safe from the rising water.  Not much you can do in that case if you don't have a boat!

Flooding is one of those hazards that if you find out you're not safe in your location, it may not be safe anywhere within miles of where you are.  By the time you figure out your life is in danger, there likely will be few, if any, good options.  Protecting yourself from flooding is not the same as protecting yourself from wind or storm surge.  What you need to do for your own safety depends on the nature of the threat, and most people have no idea how to deal with rising floodwaters.  This was the case with the awful tragedy of Katrina (which evolved very differently from Harvey) and it resulted in an awful death toll.

Frankly, most people are blissfully ignorant about how to use weather forecast information to help them make good choices.  That ignorance means they don't have the information they need to maintain situation awareness in what might be a fast-changing situation.  To rely exclusively on your own personal judgement in a complex weather scenario is to risk your life and those of others around you.  You may think you have a good bead on how to handle the situation, but you stand a good chance of being tragically wrong.

I don't believe in some magic bullet we might put into our broadcasts of weather information to cause everyone to make the right, life-saving decisions.  Essentially, everyone's situation is different - what works in one household may well fail in a different household.  We meteorologists agonize over the wording in our broadcasts of weather information but I don't think the answer to potential weather disasters lies in some magical turn of phrase.  Dealing with weather hazards involves (a) inevitable uncertainty about how the weather will actually evolve, (b) recognizing the threat early enough to take effective actions, and (c) knowing what actions will be effective in your own personal situation.  If you choose to be safe instead of sorry, you may waste some time and effort needlessly at times, but you'll be alive and well should the situation ever become life-threatening.  The choice is yours, actually.  You need to accept responsibility for your own safety and that of your friends and loved ones - learn and be prepared before the threat appears on the horizon!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville - early blowback

The sickening, shameful parade of white supremacists in Charlottesville, culminating with the murderous assault by vehicle on the counter-protestors is probably too recent to have a clear perspective.  As more becomes known and more reactions accumulate, this very well could be a watershed moment in American history.  The Trump regime has fueled the racist fires in the hearts of many Americans, giving them what amounts to a green light to stop pretending they're decent human beings; they think the lid is off, allowing them to take violent actions against those who are the object of their evil bigotry.

I'm heartened to see how widespread the revulsion has become in the wake of this awful event.  Of course, there are those who aren't so open about their hidden racism, even now.  They secretly support the white supremacists and think the Trump regime is just their cup of tea.  The ugly stain of racism has been present in this nation throughout its relatively short history, its fortunes rising and falling over time.  To say that racism in the USA has ended is to contribute significantly to the problem we have in overcoming this persistent evil.  Trump and his minions have emboldened the racists to re-surface and give substance to their whining about "political correctness" limiting their ability to disrespect and discriminate against whomever they choose.

That our President and some other politicians have stopped short of condemning the Charlottesville violence by white supremacists is unconscionable.  The canard of "they all do it" is simply not true, especially in this case.  To condemn everyone for the violence and not call out the source of that violence in Charlottesville is to support the white supremacists.  Trump and others have shown the depths of their bigotry, as if any thinking person needed more evidence for that, given the last 6 months.

For many whites who repudiate racism but decline to take an open stand against it, I say the time has come for all who deny the validity of the racist hate be willing to reject white supremacy openly and with the courage of their convictions.  When you see racism being exhibited in your day-to-day world, don't just be a spectator:  support the victims of racism and let the neo-Nazis know that their bigotry is not shared by real Americans.  A world war was fought to prevent the Nazi racial ideology from prevailing; we opponents of white supremacy should be willing to do what it takes to prevent such evil from rising any further.

If you have non-whites in your circle of acquaintances, take some time to talk with them about their experiences.  Learn what they have to endure.  Understand the awful lessons about racism they must teach their children for the sake of their survival!  Listen to them so that you can understand what it feels like to be outside the bubble of white privilege.   You may even have a chance to see with your own eyes how the hatred directed at them causes justifiable fear for their safety.  Empathy is a process of trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes so that you can understand how they feel about being victimized by racism, and why they feel that way.

Racism has virtually no support from science.  The physical differences that separate one human racial group from another are of no more consequence than the color of one's eyes.  To focus on such superficial things as what separates the human race into certain "boxes" called races is to reveal profound ignorance about the human species.  If you decide to separate folks in such highly artificial boxes, you will find, perhaps, very small differences between the people in those boxes, but they are really of no consequence.  If women, on the average, are shorter than men, this doesn't mean that it's not possible for some women to be taller than some men.  If black men, on the average, are faster runners than white men, this doesn't mean that it's not possible for some white men to be faster than some black men.  It's time to move beyond ignorant stereotypes and recognize that all of us are essentially the same.  When you know nothing more about a person than their "race" you essentially know nothing meaningful about that person.  Get to know the person and then you can decide what sort of person they are if you wish.

The number of bigots participating in the demonstrations and violence represents only a fraction of the total.  No child is born a racist.  The young white participants in the neo-Nazi/KKK-type demonstration of bigotry in Charlottesville likely learned their hatred from their parents, either directly or through the intermediary of their friends.  The sad fact is that many of the parents of those white supremacists would be proud of the horrible actions of their children!
 
I hope that this awful event becomes a turning point in a denial of the validity of racism by the vast majority of Americans.  I want this to be the moment in history when we turn the corner on stereotyping and vitriol directed at those of us who live within different "boxes".  The stakes are very high; the future of the human species could well be threatened if we can't overcome this legacy of evil.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Construction practices going in reverse?

Recently, it seems that some politicians in the state of Florida are attempting to weaken the enhancements to building codes put in place following the massive disaster of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The hurricane revealed the vulnerability of homes built to low standards and the idea was to prepare for the inevitable return of a strong hurricane to Florida.  This current effort to weaken the codes is being led by the GOP, and it seems likely that the pressure to do so is coming from the homebuilders, who are essentially the only group that stands to gain from weakening the building codes.

Natural hazards like hurricanes and tornadoes have a tendency to fade from people's memories with time.  Immediately after a disaster, there's widespread support to do something to reduce the impact of the inevitable return of that hazard.  Sometimes, this is referred to as "closing the barn door after the horses have escaped."  Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the enthusiasm for preparing for the next hazard begins to fade.  Other ways to spend resources become a higher priority than hazard preparation.  In my experience (with tornadoes) the collective memory of disasters in communities virtually disappears within roughly 2 generations - about 60 years.  People live under the false assumption that what they've seen in their lifetimes in their location up to that point is pretty much how things will go for the rest of their lives.  Natural hazards are rare in any one place, but it's only a matter of time before they strike again.

For people who experience for themselves the horrors of a natural disaster, the memories often are still vivid decades later.  But survivors move elsewhere, older victims die, and people who move in afterwards generally haven't experienced with the survivors and victims experienced.  In our reanalysis of the Tri-State tornado, we found that the stories told by survivors are widely regarded locally as unreliable and exaggerated, whereas in our interviews with survivors, many of those stories could be corroborated by independent evidence!  I suppose it's something of an "inconvenient truth" to learn that the natural hazards can be so devastating in the place where you live.  The unpleasant reality is that if an event has happened at least once in some area, there's no reason to believe it won't happen again.  Low probability does not equal zero probability!

Interestingly, over much of Europe, building construction standards are substantially higher than in most of the USA.  This can be seen directly in the degree of damage when tornadoes in Europe hit human structures; equivalently strong tornadoes in Europe do less damage than in the USA!

Think about the relationship between construction practices and the lethality of, say, a violent tornado or a powerful hurricane.  What's responsible for most of the fatalities in a tornado?  It's flying debris ... broken 2x4s, shingles, tree branches, sometimes even cars!  There's a kind of mythology that says there's no point in strengthening building that might be hit by a tornado, because no affordable construction can withstand a tornado, right?  No, that couldn't be more wrong!

The costs to enhance structural integrity over the existing code standard of 90 mph in most of the USA, when amortized over the life of a 30-year mortgage is pretty small.  What the builders don't like is that it takes more time to build a better home, and that is what reduces their profit.  If they can build 10 shoddy homes in the time it takes to build 6 well-constructed homes, that's where they make their gains.

First of all, even in a violent tornado (i.e., one rated EF-4 or EF-5 on the enhanced Fujita scale), the most violent winds are experienced in only a small fraction of the total damage path of a tornado - typically less than 10%.  Those areas experiencing EF-3 winds or less would experience considerably less damage if their structural integrity would be enhanced over what is typical construction in the US.  Decreasing damage means less flying debris.  Shoddy construction increases the potential death toll, as well as increasing the destruction.  In most of the US, the building code requirements are such that the building should experience no structural damage at windspeeds of 90 mph or less.  The fact is that most wood frame homes built in the US are built below the code requirements, sometimes far below.  Code enforcement is pretty often woefully inadequate.  The cost of a home isn't a very good indicator of construction quality, unfortunately.  Local communities often give in to pressure from developers and homebuilders, passing laws to allow "exemptions" from code-prescribed building practices. 

When subjected to powerful winds, structural failures begin with the weakest component in the structure - often the attachments of the roof to the walls and/or the attachment of the walls to the foundation.  A 90-mph wind speed puts a tornado with that as its peak wind toward the bottom of EF-1.  Thus, even a weak tornado can cause structural damage under this building standard.  Once structural failure begins, further failures are likely - a home can be "unzipped" starting from one initial weak point.  Further, a 90-mph wind can push a home off its foundation when the walls are poorly attached - we call such homes "sliders" because they can be slid off their foundation and then utterly collapse.  Such a home can be totally wrecked by a 90-mph wind!

The building code requirements in Miami under the enhancements after Hurricane Andrew are on the order of 120 mph before structural damage will occur.  That wind speed falls about in the middle of the EF-2 category, such that much of the area experiencing EF-2 winds will have only marginal structural damage.  The area of EF-2 or less wind speed includes the majority of the damage path in even a violent tornado.  Even EF-3 winds will produce less damage with the enhanced code.

For Florida to weaken its building codes is to return to a time of lowered resistance to damage, likely resulting in more casualties.  That some of the politicians in Florida are seeking legislation to lower the standards is an indicator that the homebuilders are using their political influence to lobby the state government for the benefit of their profits.  Who else benefits from lowering the construction standards in Florida?  Weakening construction standards is an idea that should be nipped at the bud!

Monday, July 17, 2017

It struck without warning!

A recent fatal flash flood incident has led me to think over the topic of media coverage of weather-related incidents.  We in the "tornado community" frequently hear interviews with the public to the effect that tornadoes have hit somewhere "without warning" when the facts are that the National Weather Service (NWS) has indeed issued a warning.  Clearly, what this statement by some victim reflects is that she/he didn't hear that warning (or ignored it!) and then was unfortunate enough to be in the tornado's path.  I suppose they think that it was someone's responsibility to notify them personally that they were going to be hit.  First of all, it's not the responsibility of the NWS to notify personally everyone in danger.  Second, it's a fact that although technology might eventually make personal warnings possible, but at the moment, it's pretty much impossible to notify everyone who will be affected (and no one else).  The NWS might have the means to contact individuals with warning information, but the state of the art of forecasting simply doesn't permit 100% accuracy regarding who will and who won't be in the damage path of a tornado.

Most fatality-producing tornadoes these days have warnings issued at least a few minutes before someone is struck, and sometimes the lead times can be as much as an hour!  Is an hour's lead time too long?  This is a debate within the tornado community that's not yet settled and clearly requires the involvement of social scientists.  But just for the sake of the argument, let's consider some things about how warnings can be effective in reducing casualties:  for an issued warning to be effective, it requires a chain of events.  The user must

1. receive the warning by some means
2. understand what information the warning provides
3. know what to do with the warning information
4. believe the warning is relevant to him/her
5. take effective action based on the warning

All of the links in that chain must be met, or the warning will not be effective.  In the case of the recent flash flood, the people in the path of the flood evidently did not receive the warning.  It hadn't even rained at the location where the fatalities occurred - the rainfall was miles away upstream.  This is not uncommon when hiking and camping in the wild, away from TV and cell phone coverage.  If  people are to recognize the danger signs without benefit of hearing the warning, they must have experienced one or more similar events (unlikely) or have been given training in heavy rainfall situation awareness (also unlikely).  Flash floods have a special handicap relative to tornadoes:  most everyone has experienced heavy rainfall without a flash flood, whereas most people have never been hit by a tornado.  Rain seems "normal" and not very threatening, whereas a tornado is "exotic" and would automatically be seen as a threat.

A more extensive treatment of the chain of events needed for weather warnings to be effective can be found here.  There are many ways for this chain to be broken, often leading people to think that the event struck them without warning.  In the interest of their own safety, weather warning recipients should make it their personal business to learn situation awareness with respect to potential weather hazards.  The unfortunate part is that many users won't take the relatively simple steps necessary for their own safety, and seem to expect that it's solely someone else's responsibility to protect them from weather hazards.

And the fact that some particular hazard is relatively rare where the user lives and works and recreates, doesn't mean the threat is non-existent.  Tornadoes are infrequent in New England, for example, but violent tornadoes can and do occur there.  Though the danger is not high most of the time, sometimes violent tornadoes happen in New England.  Thinking it could never happen to you is the first step toward a personal disaster.  The weather is not malevolent or evil;  it's just indifferent to what we puny humans do or don't do.  At times, we find ourselves in the path of a potentially fatal hazard  Being prepared is a personal choice;  it's no one's responsibility but your own.  The NWS does its best, but there are still times when they fail to issue a warning, or issue the warning too late to be of much use to at least some people.  That's the state of the art and it should not require much to understand that a warning may not be issued sometimes.  Then, public safety depends on good luck and proper situation awareness;  i.e., recognition of danger signs even in the absence of a warning.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

What does "saving the Earth" really mean?

Some fraction of my readers will have seen this bit by the late comedian, George Carlin, about saving the Earth.  George's comedy often consisted of bashing one group or another, showing their hypocrisy or absurdity, and usually incorporated a host of valid points.  This comedy segment seems to make some valid points, but I want to discuss this as if George's monologue were a serious argument, not a comedy act.

When discussing topics related to "Saving the Earth", the meaning implied by environmental concerns is not to "save the planet" for the reason he gives: the Earth will continue, regardless of any damage we're able to inflict. The planet can and likely will "shake us off like a bad case of fleas".  But the human species is poisoning itself with the by-products of our industry, and our garbage.  Look around at all the threats to our environment:  greenhouse gases, oil and toxic chemical spills, release of radioactive materials, lost of habitat for non-human species, the danger to honeybees ... the list is long and diverse. 

If we manage to kill ourselves off by means of damaging the environment, then indeed life on Earth will go on without us, but it will be very different from life as we've known it.  Our absence will be a blessing to most of the surviving species on the planet.  We can't survive without them, but many of them will prosper after we're gone.  Our domesticated plants and animals will adapt to their life without us, or die.  In a few thousand years, most of human impacts on the planet will have crumbled to dust and be mostly invisible.  A new ecosystem will be established and little or no record will exist of all our accomplishments for good ... or that turned out to be harmful

What environmentally-concerned people really mean when they "Save the Earth" is something like "Save us from poisoning ourselves and destroying the ecosystem that sustains our lives."  It's clear that barring extraterrestrial or divine intervention, the only way we can be saved is by our own deeds.  Our children and grandchildren will have to deal with the mess we're leaving them as part of their inheritance from us.  What anger and frustration might they feel for our poor stewardship of what we inherited from our forebears?  We were given the gift of fossil fuels and we're in the process of squandering that legacy on self-indulgence and greed, and there are enough of us now that it's beginning to have an impact on the atmosphere and the world's ecosystems.  The military is concerned about that future world with anthropogenic global warming and its associated ea-level rise.  Many modern businesses have recognized the inevitability of transitioning to renewable energy sources rather than continuing the folly of our dependence on the finite quantity of fossil fuels that remain.  If these very conservative segments of our society are concerned, should we not be?

Yes, George Carlin, species have been dying out for so long as life has existed, but the present extinction rate is approaching that of an "extinction event" and, given the interdependencies we're just now learning about, this can have serious consequences for the human species. As we learn more about ecology, the continuing message is that it's not a choice between us and other species - we depend on them far more than they depend on us.  We don't know enough ecology yet to make detailed predictions, but if non-human species extinctions accumulate at an accelerating pace (which is evidently happening), the impact on humans may well become critically negative at some future tipping point.

If you're just not worried about these things, then you're contributing to the challenges to our very survival we confront ... together!  We'll either address these issues and work together to solve them, or we literally could die off together as a species.  Our transient impact on the planet will be erased and repaired in our absence over a geologically short time interval (a few thousand years).  All the things in which we pride ourselves will decay and disappear; the only evidence remaining will be a deposit of our trash and its decay products, not dissimilar to the thin layer of iridium that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods.  This thin layer rich in iridium in the geological record is evidence of a colossal extinction event that ended the dominance of the dinosaurs and allowed us mammals to begin to become the dominant animals.  Not all that far above the iridium layer,  a deposit of plastic shards, glass, concrete dust, metal oxides, and radioactivity will depict the end of our "rule".   Our exaggerated sense of self-importance may be the source of our downfall.  In this world, there are no guarantees;  our survival literally is in our hands.  Our instincts can betray us. Yes, George Carlin, I worry about a lot of things, and try to do what I'm able to do about it.  Our current corrupt and environmentally-destructive political regime should worry you, too.

I close with the following poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Friday, June 2, 2017

Turning our back on the Paris Accord

The withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Accord has drawn both criticism and support - from different segments of our society.  Many of us felt it was an important first step for the world to join together to do something about anthropogenic global climate change (AGCC).  What we American do or don't do affects everyone around the world.  What goes on in the rest of the world inevitably has impacts in the USA.  We're no longer isolated bands of hunter-gatherers, and so our species has become deeply interconnected and interdependent.  Agriculture set us on the road to this interconnectedness, and industrialization moved us more rapidly in that direction.  Electronic technology is now accelerating the pace of interdependence.  Our withdrawal from the Paris accord is a profoundly disturbing step backward at a time when moving ahead to mitigate AGCC is critical for the future of our nation.

Apologists for this move are saying it was a "bad deal" for the USA.  If global climate change is worrisome to the military in this nation, is it plausible to suggest it's a myth?  If many business leaders supported our being part of the Paris Accord, is it plausible to suggest it was going to hurt the USA economy?  The US military is not exactly a bastion of left-leaning tree-hugger libtards.  Business leaders don't advocate things that will be bad for their business.  There are abundant examples now showing that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will not bankrupt our economies, but rather will energize them.  As new technology is developed to replace the old, new jobs will be created and the economy should prosper.  In various places around the world, including American states, this is already happening.  The hard part is the transition period as we wean ourselves from fossil fuels.  To step backward away from the leadership of a movement to mitigate AGCC, will cost our nation in many ways, and is not the path to American "greatness".  It delays the inevitable transition, making the pain of transition last longer.

I'm not a climate scientist, so I have no evidence of my own to support or refute the reality of AGCC.  I defer to the consensus of my scientific colleagues who are doing global climate research.  Would you entrust your health care to someone not a medical doctor?  Would you entrust your safety to a person who has no pilot training or experience?  Why do you lend credibility to non-specialists in issues of science?  Why do you think you know as much or more about the global climate as the consensus of climate scientists?  On what basis can there be such intense political opposition to the climate science consensus about AGCC?  Insofar as I can tell, only a tiny fraction of global climate scientists are arguing the consensus is wrong.  The rest of the chorus of voices opposing efforts to do something about AGCC are not global climate scientists, but are mostly basing their position on propaganda, lies, distortions of the facts, and political machinations.  Opposition to the Paris accord is just another rearguard action against a future technology shift toward renewable energy sources that is already well underway, even here in the USA.  Opposition to progress appeals to those who feel threatened by global unity in the face of global challenges.

The current political situation in the USA is going to result in damage that will take decades to repair.  The regime in power is anti-science, anti-intellectual, supportive of creeping theocracy, contributing to the massive expansion of the income inequality gap, alienating our international allies, devastating our public education systems, encouraging xenophobia and bigotry, and on ... and on ... and on.  Each day, more damage to America is happening, so withdrawing from the Paris Accord is another step down a very destructive path for America. 

Some have said that politics is intruding into science and that isn't good for the science.  AGCC didn't become politicized by some sort of conspiracy among climate scientists.  It became politicized when it became clear that something needed to be done about the threats posed by AGCC.  There would be a price tag attached to any efforts at mitigation of AGCC, and where money is involved, there go some politicians and their corporate sponsors.  And many political conservatives wax eloquent talking of the doom associated with progress.  It's what they do - oppose progress.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Tornado chasing versus storm chasing

Now that spring is well underway, I've observed an increasing tendency for many chasers to be focused totally on tornadoes.  In a way, I can understand this obsession, as I've had a mild form of it all my life.  I wanted to see a tornado for many years before I saw my first on 30 April 1972, near Mangum, OK.  As a chaser, I've chosen not to keep count of the number of tornadoes I've seen.  I don't see the experience as a means to increase the number of tornado notches in my metaphorical gun.  One reason for my choice not to keep count is I detest the notion that one must compete in some sort of machismo contest about who's seen the most tornadoes.  There has always been some tendency for some chasers to seek some sort of mythical crown as the king of chasing.  But it's not my reason for chasing.

I also find that what I see in storms doesn't always allow some uncontestable enumeration of how many tornadoes I saw.  This may or may not be cleared up in a post-storm survey.  Given the vagaries of chasing, one doesn't always have the luxury of being close to the action for the duration of an event, so what may seem to be separate tornadoes may just be gaps between observations of a continuing tornado.  Or it may be a real gap between distinct tornadoes.  It's not always easy to be sure. Tornadoes change their appearance rapidly sometimes and their evolution can include such complications as rapid dissipation and re-forming, satellite tornadoes, etc.  I've discussed some of this here - storms can get complicated in a hurry, making tornado counts problematic.  Hence, when someone says they've seen XX tornadoes, I always have a nagging doubt about their numbers.  So I don't even try to keep track.  Or I just make my best guess in the complex situations, without necessarily having much confidence in the number.  If someone wants to brag about how many tornadoes they've seen, that's up to them.  It's not something I want to do, at least in part because I'm never absolutely sure how many I've seen (in multi-tornado episodes), and in part because it just doesn't matter to me.

Nowadays, chasers are so tornado-focused, they apparently consider any chase in which they fail to see a tornado to be a total bust.  Moreover, they go to extreme lengths to see a tornado - such as going into the "notch" of an HP supercell to check out the possibility of a rain-wrapped tornado, or "core punching".  Apart from taking what I consider to be foolish risks just to see a tornado, they often then proudly post shaky, poor contrast imagery wherein a tornado may be just barely visible, if at all.  Evidently, showing imagery of a tornado, no matter how amateurish it may appear to be, is the most important goal of chasing for some chasers.

Moreover, I guess I've seen enough tornadoes by now that I've become rather circumspect about my images.  A nearly monochromatic shot that shows a dark, backlit cone tornado certainly may document the event for a tornado-count person, but I find them pretty uninteresting.  Same goes for poor-contrast and/or blurry images.  They might serve the purpose of documenting the tornado count, but I just can't get all worked up about imagery of that mediocre sort.  I suppose I've become a bit jaded, at least in this limited sense.  If I see a tornado, even a non-photogenic one, I'm still excited about it, but if I'm going to show off my imagery, it's not going to be like a lot of what I see posted on social media - boring backlit silhouettes, shaky video, low contrast, etc.  In fact, if I don't see a tornado, but I'm able to catch a great lightning show, or see the dramatic structure of a striated supercell storm, I'm just as pleased as if I've seen a tornado.  [I also love images that draw attention to the setting where Plains tornadoes happen - chasing has given me a love affair with the plains and its people, even when there are no storms happening.]  And I don't experience any particular compulsion to court disaster by being as close to a tornado as possible.  Recognition that I'm in the path is virtually always a signal to me to move!  No tornado is worth my life or the life of someone chasing with me.

These days, in certain situations, the chaser hordes are a major concern.  Many horde participants are tornado-obsessed, so they want to get into the "bear's cage" to the maximum extent.  Therefore, one can reduce the impact of the hordes by staying back a few miles, which I usually try to do.  It's not so crowded and, many times, the structure of the storms is far more interesting (at least to me) than some non-photogenic tornado.  I'm no longer a tornado chaser, but a storm chaser.  I'll welcome any tornado opportunities, of course, but that's not my only reason to be out there chasing.  I've never felt the need to be the world's best tornado chaser, nor do I see it as necessary to chase every possible chase day in and near Oklahoma.  I suppose this is the result of 45 years of chasing.  My original goals as a chaser have all been fulfilled, and adding more layers of frosting to the cake doesn't necessarily make it better.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Earth Day and the March for Science

We didn't participate in the OKC March for Science - mostly because we're still recovering from our recent respiratory problems.  I'm pleased to know it was reasonably well-attended and our absence only subtracted a negligible portion. 

The widespread disrespect for science within the Trump regime and inside the halls of Congress is a component of a national malaise that didn't begin with Trump.  This trend could bring our secular democracy down.  If we lose interest in the facts, preferring lies, myths, slogans, and propaganda to a fact-based, logical understanding of the world in which we live, then our destiny is to become a second-rate nation, perhaps sliding farther toward third-rate, or worse.  A societal ambience that devalues education, science, and civil discourse is likely to fall prey to authoritarianism.  Facts will be ignored or distorted, as myths and superstitions will hold sway.

Contrary to what many people say, science is not a belief system, in the sense that science does not depend on a particular set of beliefs that are untestable and beyond question.  Scientific facts don't depend on anyone's beliefs;  whether you "believe in them" or not doesn't change the truth of their being facts!  Science uses logic and evidence to propose explanations for why the natural world is observed to be the way it is.  Experience has demonstrated repeatedly that logic and evidence work to achieve increased understanding.  Scientific explanations are always provisional, never final or "settled" in some way.  You don't have to accept them as a belief system, because they work!

Explanations based on evidence always are subject to re-evaluation and possible revision in the face of new evidence or when another explanation is proposed that does an improved job of explaining the facts as we know them at any given moment.  You certainly can choose to believe or not believe the explanations that science offers, but you can't choose to believe or not believe in the facts that were used to support an explanation.  If you disbelieve in a scientific explanation, what's your alternative explanation?  The more rigorously an explanation has been tested (often by collecting new evidence), the more likely it is to be an acceptable hypothesis.  Some ideas have been tested so many times and so thoroughly, the consensus among subject matter experts is that they go beyond a mere hypothesis to the level of a scientific "law" or "theory".  Note that the use of the word "theory" is not like some barroom conversation where someone says "I've got a theory about that!"  A scientific theory (e.g., Einstein's Theory of General Relativity or Darwin's Theory of Evolution) is a thoroughly vetted explanation.

Given those explanations of how things work, science permits the exploration of further ideas based on those explanations; if we accept an explanation, what other things can be implied using that explanation?  Validated explanations are the foundation upon which technology is built.  The fact that our technology works the way we have come to expect it to work is mute testimony to the solidity of that scientific foundation.  Our society has come, for better or for worse, to be based heavily on technology.  Those who deny the validity of science are, at their core, either (a) uncaring about the negative impacts of undermining support for science and more concerned about power or profit, or (b) they're so profoundly ignorant, they fail to grasp the significant parts of what science has given to us.  Possibly both may apply.

The evidence has shown that investment in support of scientific research is repaid many times over by the value created as a result of that research.  Yes, there are some scientific projects that seem awfully far removed from any practical application.  And no, not all scientific projects are destined to become important.  But overall, our position as a prosperous world superpower has been made possible in part by the large investments we've made over time in support of science.  Skeptics should review the book "Science - the Endless Frontier" written by Vannevar Bush after the end of WWII.  Sometimes, the most seemingly useless and impractical hypotheses can turn out to have some purely unexpected value that no one anticipated when the original research was done.  In some cases, it might be many years before some piece of research comes to practical fruition.  To limit science only to those topics that can be of immediate value is to cripple the science in the long run.  We as a nation have become obsessed with the short-term "profit and loss" analysis, and many topics that might prove valuable in the future are not being pursued for lack of funding.

Unfortunately, science is becoming a casualty in the political wars being fought over whose ideology is going to run this nation.  Topics like global climate change have become tainted with the miasma of politics, to the point where scientific facts are being denied or grotesquely misused to serve this or that political view.  This has put our nation's leading position in science at great risk.  If we fall victim to that apparent tendency, then we're doomed to fall from our world leadership position and slide down the slope toward scientific mediocrity and dependence on others to do our science for us.

This year's Earth Day March on Science around the nation is a reflection of the concerns within the scientific community for what we see happening to devalue science in our society.  Sure, it has some roots in concern for our jobs.  But of all the careers someone might pursue, I know of no scientist who chose to become a scientist purely for the profit motive, and most of use are not counted among the rich.  What we possess in abundance is a concern for the importance of truth and evidence-based critical thinking in the USA.  That's worth marching for and not based solely on our self-interest!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Wordsmithing the watches and warnings is not the path to improvement

Hard on the heels of some unnecessary storm chaser fatalities, now social media are calling into question the use of the "particularly dangerous situation (PDS)" wording in watches, and the so-called impact-based warnings (IBW) that use terms like "tornado emergency" in them.  I expressed my concerns about the initial IBW experiment a few years ago, here and here.  The juggernaut of IBW has rolled on, nevertheless.  A recent situation involved an event with a tornado headed toward a big city that triggered a "tornado emergency" warning, but the tornado dissipated soon thereafter, doing only relatively minor damage.  It's precisely this very uncertainty about tornado tracks and intensities that makes warning forecasters agonize over their decisions.  And people in the "general public" often get upset and some inevitably start whining about "crying wolf".  [I've never understood the mindset of people who become upset about not experiencing a major disaster!]

The big issue is now, and always has been, the challenge to convey uncertainty in a way that people understand the reality of the difficulties we face in issuing storm forecasts, so their decision-making actually will benefit from the added uncertainty information.  A major obstacle we face is that we as yet have no large dataset derived from interviews with a representative sample of the public.  In the absence of such information, we're reduced to guessing how to improve things.  NWS management feels the pressure to respond to the growing number of people who advocate the involvement of social scientists.  Instead of supporting extensive survey efforts to create that representative sample, all we get is hollow talk and ill-considered management decisions, like the IBW experiment.  There remain many questions to ask in surveys:  How is the current system working?  What do people consider to be a "false alarm"?  If we include uncertainty information, what's the most effective way for that information to reach and be understood by the most people?  What if we had a component in our watches and warnings that caters to reasonably sophisticated users (like emergency managers) and a different component to reach the broadest possible audience?  A watch or warning doesn't have to be either X or Y, after all - it could include a multiplicity of options.

Personally, I don't believe that wordsmithing watches and warnings is likely to be very productive.  Words have a nasty and virtually inevitable tendency to mean different things to different people.  No specific choice of wording is ever going to be universally accepted.  Even within a limited region of the nation, the diversity of the "general public" represents a serious challenge.  Further, constantly-changing technology within the "social landscape" causes that landscape to change constantly, as well.  What worked in the past may not work so well today or in the future.  This isn't a one-time challenge we can solve forever with one big push. 

We're beginning to realize that the use of PDS watches (and "tornado emergencis") may well result in people seeing "ordinary" watches as something less important than those given the PDS label.  The verification of PDS watches is somewhat better than that for regular watches - evidently there's some skill in making the choice to use (or not use) the PDS designation.  The "tornado emergency" form of the IBWs doesn't have a very good verification track record at all.  There are just too many storm-scale uncertainties for this product to exhibit much skill.  Its failures stir up controversy and there's no hard evidence to suggest that the IBW system has been a successful solution to conveying uncertainty.  What people like or don't like doesn't necessarily track with what actually works to bring about some desired outcome.

That brings up another challenge:  What's the outcome we desire?  Do we really want to be telling people what to do, and seeking a magic bullet to make people do what we want them to do?  Personally, I believe telling people what to do, say via "call to action" statements (CTAs) is not a good idea.  What people need to do depends on their specific situations, about which we as forecasters know nothing!  People should develop their own specific action plans to meet the situations they're likely to experience in a hazardous weather situation (at home, at school, at work, on the road, engaging in recreation, etc.) well in advance of the weather actually developing.  With severe convective storms, there isn't time to make such preparations when the storm is minutes away.

It's no secret that probability is the proper language of uncertainty.  It's the optimum mechanism for conveying confidence in various aspects of the forecast.  For an example of probability-based forecasts, I encourage people to review the "severe weather outlook" products from the Storm Prediction Center as an example of how to show what I call "graded threat levels" - the probability is derived subjectively and is associated with the confidence the forecasters have about their threat forecasts.  Big numbers imply high confidence, small numbers imply low confidence.  They actually have different probabilities for each of the three severe local storm event types:  tornadoes, hail, and strong winds, and they distinguish the cases with a threshold level of confidence for "significant" severe weather:  EF2+ tornadoes, hail 2+ inches in diameter, and winds of 65+ knots.  This is not just a black-and-white statement that some event will (or will not) happen - it's a complex picture that forecasters deduce from all the information they have.  There's a rather similar but less complex system for the severe thunderstorm and tornado watches.

This sort of product is what we need to develop for the short-fuse threats associated with warnings, but the difficulty I foresee with that is the rapidity with which severe convective storm threat probabilities change - they can increase or decrease markedly in a matter of a few minutes!  It would take a very close monitoring and updating procedure to capture the variability of the threat, and even if it's technically possible to do (say, using automated algorithms), with the threat changing so rapidly, would users find that helpful or simply confusing?  I suspect the latter.  The recent event referred to above exemplifies this challenge.  With a tornado headed toward a city, the "tornado emergency" call seems pretty obvious, but the reality is that the threat vanished in short order and the resulting forecast sure looks like a false alarm.  The threat was real, but it wasn't realized because of uncertainty in the storm.

We have lots of work to do, and are not well-served by hasty decisions made more or less in ignorance of the relevant facts, both in meteorology and in the social sciences.  The existing system has worked well for decades, despite its imperfections.  If we make changes, let us be confident we aren't making things worse, rather than better!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

More on "extreme" storm chasing, part 3

Another tragic storm chasing incident has occurred:  a traffic crash on rural roads in the Texas Panhandle.  There were three fatalities - 2 in a vehicle that ran a stop sign, and 1 in the vehicle into which they collided.  All three victims of this were storm chasing at the time.  I wrote about an eerily similar incident that happened in 2015, here.  The evidence is mounting that being on the highways is indeed the most dangerous threat to chasers (and others).  I wrote a guide to safe, responsible storm chasing decades ago, and I rated being on the roads as the #1 threat before anyone had been killed.  At least 7 people have died in road wrecks during storm chases, that I know of.  Additional fatalities are inevitable.  It only takes a few seconds of inattention to the task of driving to result in terrible consequences.

I am not somehow invulnerable to all this.  I could be distracted by something while driving on a chase and be responsible for a fatal crash.  Like the tragedy of the 31 May 2013 deaths of the Twistex team:  Tim and Paul Samaras, and Carl Young - bad things can happen to anyone, even someone trying their best to behave responsibly.  However, these recent traffic fatalities both involved a chaser running a stop sign.  It might be possible to do so in relative safety on a rural road, but even on rural roads, it's both illegal and foolish to do.

These are unnecessary deaths.  The so-called "chase community" (which really isn't a "community" at all, but rather a group of people with a shared hobby) needs to take a long look at their behavior during their chase activities.  If someone has done some irresponsible driving in the past, this might be a good time to resolve to discontinue such practices for good.  This is the 2nd recent wake-up call, folks.  The time is long overdue to get serious about ceasing illegal and unsafe driving during a storm chase [or any other time, for that matter!]  No one gets a free pass on the roads, and this includes people chasing for TV.

Supplement:   Some news media have gone into attack mode on storm chasers as "thrill-seekers" as a result of this tragedy.  If someone can witness the grandeur and beauty of the atmosphere and NOT get an adrenaline rush, I would have to wonder for what reason they're chasing.  I see no problem with being a thrill-seeker - as I noted in my 2014 talk at ChaserCon. That doesn't mean we all have a death wish or are intentionally putting ourselves in imminent danger.

The media narrative they always pre-suppose is that the people who do this are all crazy fools with a death wish. They struggle to grasp why people choose to chase and their pre-supposition blinds them to what chasers actually say. They look for a sound bite to support their already-written storyline about crazy storm chasers. Their usually crappy stories show they don't get it and likely never will ... see here

Friday, March 24, 2017

What does the public want from a weather forecast?

Note ... this is a slightly modified re-post of a guest blog here.

I’m among the first to complain about people offering their opinions about what “the public” wants from weather forecasts, rather than collecting evidence through a process of literally asking a representative sample of people.  However, the latter is not something easily done.  “The Public” is not a homogeneous block of people with equal needs and expectations.  Rather, it’s quite diverse and it’s not obvious to me even how to go about collecting a sample that might be accepted as representative (by those whose expertise is in doing such surveys).  There are some social scientists who have such expertise, I’m sure.  I might even know some of them.

Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and offer my unvalidated opinion regarding this issue, anyway.  I’m working with the notion that “the public”  in this context excludes all meteorologists and those who already are adept at using weather forecasts effectively.  My perception is that most people don’t pay much attention to the weather most of the time, and know little or nothing about how it works, or what we meteorologists can claim legitimately to know about the atmosphere.  When they hear a forecast, if they think it might actually matter to them on a particular day (for whatever reason), they want the forecast to be perfect so their lives will be spared (if hazardous weather is possible) and/or they won’t be seriously inconvenienced by the weather as they go about their business.

Regrettably, forecasters never know with absolute certainty exactly what’s going to happen – high uncertainty typically is present on a day when the weather is changing rapidly.  I’m not going to go into a long-winded discussion of the sources for weather forecast uncertainty, but they generally arise from the fact that the weather evolves from some starting structural state to some other state according to atmospheric physics that we know only imperfectly.  We don’t even know the starting point with absolute accuracy.  It’s sort of like putting together a complex itinerary for a trip, where we don’t know exactly where we’re starting from, and we have incomplete and imperfect knowledge of how the transportation system operates.  We will almost certainly wind up in a different place than what our original destination was thought to be, although in the case of weather forecasting, it usually turns out we come fairly close most of the time, despite being forced to use incomplete information.

Wanting forecasts to be perfect is natural and very understandable.  We think our own lives are too complex to be completely and accurately predictable, but if we can rely on the weather forecasts to be perfect, it makes our decision-making a lot easier.  Re-schedule that picnic if it’s going to rain.  Water your garden if it’s going to stay sunny and dry.  Go to the pharmacy to refill your prescription before the heavy snow flies.  In fact, this is just what's happening on most days as a result of the existing imperfect forecasting systems we use – people can and do make use of our forecasts for just this sort of decision-making despite the imperfections of the forecasts.  If someone makes a bad decision and everything goes bad for them because of the weather, they can always blame the damned forecaster!  Some surveys I’ve seen make it clear that many in the public know and understand our forecasts aren’t perfect, but still some people become upset when the weather doesn’t follow precisely what they heard in the forecast(s).  Note that in the real world, one thing forecasters do is to update their forecasts based on new weather information.  Hopefully, it won’t come as a surprise to most people that our forecasts get worse, the farther ahead they are predicting.  Conversely, we improve as the “lead time” gets shorter.  Don’t expect the forecast for weather a week in advance to have the same level of accuracy as one 12 hours in advance!

When the forecasts are changing frequently as a result of new information, this is usually because of large uncertainties on that day.  Not all days are equally difficult to forecast, of course; our forecast uncertainty is not a constant.  In fact, our uncertainty is also not perfectly predictable!

Let me tell a personal anecdote that I’ve used often to illustrate the value of knowing and using the uncertainty information in a weather forecast.  Some years ago, on a fall football weekend here in Norman, there was a slow-moving, strong front in the OKC area (about 20 miles north of Norman).  On the south side of that front, skies were mostly clear and temperatures were expected to rise into the mid-70s (in deg F) in southerly winds, while on the north side of that front, skies were overcast with low clouds and rain with temperatures in the upper 30s or so, and a strong northerly wind.  It was about equally likely the front would stay north of Norman or push a few miles south of Norman by mid-day (around the time the game kicked off).  The forecaster didn’t have the option of saying that the weather that day had about a 50% chance of either option, so the forecaster was forced to make a choice.  As it turned out, the forecast decision that morning was for warm and sunny, whereas the real weather turned out to be miserably cold and rainy.  Tens of thousands of football fans were caught in summer clothing because they accepted the forecast, and they were not happy!  Since I understood the situation, I dressed for the warm option, but carried cold weather rain gear in my backpack.  It was a simple matter to prepare for both possible outcomes!  I’ve often told this story and then asked the audience:  “Would you prefer to be offered the whole story of the forecast, including the uncertainty, or do you just want the forecast without any uncertainty information?”  I almost never get anyone who chooses the latter option!  Is that surprising to anyone?  Nevertheless, many people just want to know what’s going to happen, even though most of them understand the science doesn’t allow them to have absolute certainty.

Every forecast that doesn’t include uncertainty information is tantamount to withholding critical information from the public!  And the public needs to accept some responsibility to learn how to use that uncertainty for their own purposes – they have to set their own thresholds regarding uncertainty.  If the worst thing that could happen to you is getting a little wet, you can accept more uncertainty than if you stand to lose your life if some hazardous weather potential exists.  Unfortunately, low uncertainty, highly confident forecasts are just not possible in some situations.  We can’t predict precisely the path and intensity of a tornado, so a tornado warning generally always has relatively high uncertainty.  The same can be true for deciding just when and where winter storm weather will occur.  From a meteorological standpoint, getting the heavy snow band to within 50-100 km of its eventual location is an excellent forecast.  But that might mean the difference between heavy snow mostly in rural areas versus in a major metropolitan area.  Expecting that forecast to be perfect is just asking to be frustrated.  People can want a perfect forecast, but people in hell want a glass of water, too.  Are they going to get it?  Nope.  Likewise for perfect weather forecasts. 

C’mon people!  You know we can’t make forecasts with absolute certainty, so why keep complaining when it turns out we can’t make perfect forecasts?  The forecasts have been improving steadily, and are much better than we were even 10 years ago. The public is being well-served, as I see it.  Where we have a problem is communicating our uncertainty and the public is remiss in not working very hard in trying to learn how to use any uncertainty information we do provide.  It would be nice to figure out this bottleneck.  Sadly, I have no easy solutions to offer.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

My tribute to Dr. Edwin Kessler

Edwin Kessler came to be the first director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), when he was appointed to the posting by Robert Simpson in 1964.  He was a relatively young and inexperienced man for such a position, so for someone as distinguished as Robert Simpson (more well known for his work on tropical cyclones) to have such high confidence in him reflects his recognition as both a scientist and as a leader in the science of severe storms.  More information about the early history of NSSL can be found here and here.



I arrived in Norman in the fall of 1967 to begin my Master's degree studies with Dr. Yoshi K. Sasaki as my advisor.  This was during the time of the Vietnam war and shortly after beginning my grad work, the student deferment from military service was abolished for grad students and I became a prime candidate for the draft.  The Director of NSSL was impressive to me and Dr. Sasaki's support allowed me to add Dr. Kessler to my grad student advisory committee!!  I finished my M.Sc. in haste (3 semesters), owing to the imminent threat of being drafted.  Dr. Kessler asked some tough questions during my thesis defense in 1969, but I managed to pass it, and so began my Ph.D. studies the following semester.  I was drafted in the summer of 1969, while working as a student trainee at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) in Kansas City (for the 3rd consecutive summer).  You can read about some of my military experiences here.

Upon returning to my graduate studies in 1972, Dr. Kessler remained on my committee to the end of my student days.  He was responsible for delaying the completion of my doctoral program,  noting that he felt I had not done enough to satisfy his high standards for a doctoral dissertation.  I can't say that the additional requirements made me happy, but in retrospect, it was not a completely unreasonable request.  At my dissertation defense, he was satisfied with what I had done and I was relieved to be finished.  It was during my time at NSSL that I got the idea for my dissertation research.

I note that after I returned to the pursuit of my doctorate, Dr. Sasaki was leaving OU for a year of sabbatical leave, and he informed me I had to find a way to support myself for the year he was going to be gone.  In this 'crisis' I turned to NSSL and Dr. Kessler for help.  I applied for a part-time NSSL position and had the benefit of a military "veteran's preference".  I was hired for 30 h per week in August of 1974, remaining there until I graduated.  My supervisor was Dr. Ron Alberty, but it's clear that my opportunity was supported by Dr. Kessler.  He supported many other students and early career scientists beside me, of course.

After working again in Kansas City in the Techniques Development Unit of NSSFC for six years, I moved to Boulder and worked with the Weather Research Program there for four years, led by Dr. Robert Maddox.  When Bob moved to Norman to be the new NSSL Director, following Ed's retirement, I followed Bob soon thereafter.  I finished my NOAA career there in 2001.

It was after I moved back to Norman in 1986, that my path was crossed again by Dr. Kessler, who was now retired but who was very active in politics as a champion of liberal, progressive ideals.  Thus, we shared the experience of "living blue in a red state".  Ed and I both were not pleased with commercial weather modification, so on one occasion, he and I were partners in challenging a weather mod operation in west Texas.  It was a slam dunk for us to show the locals what a sham the cloud seeding operation really was, so the county voted afterward to cease funding commercial cloud seeding operations.

Then came the fiasco associated with state support for building the so-called National Weather Center (NWC) to house most of the weather-associated organizations operating in Norman.  I won't say a lot about this, but more information can be found here.  Ed and I were on the same side, opposed to the process as a matter of principle.  It was rather ironic that his memorial service was held in the NWC atrium, since he had been so adamantly opposed to the process by which the state found the money to live up to their part of bargain between NOAA and the University of Oklahoma by robbing the oil storage tank cleanup fund.

Ed Kessler and I were not what I consider to be close friends, and I didn't always agree with his professional decisions as NSSL Director.  Nevertheless, I can without hesitation say that I admired his work as a scientist:  his work presented in the AMS Monograph "On the distribution and continuity of water substance in atmospheric circulations" is pure genius in its use of simple mathematical and numerical models to explore an apparently simple topic in great detail.  It's now out of print, but it contains the essence of the so-called "Kessler microphysical parameterization," the pure simplicity of which has led to its extensive use in numerical convective cloud simulations for decades.

Not being a radar specialist, I won't comment much about Ed's massive contributions to the operational implementation and research use of Doppler radars.  He probably would chafe at the title given to him posthumously by some as the "Father of Doppler Radar" - he readily acknowledged the valuable contributions by colleagues and would likely argue that Doppler Weather Radar as we know it is the child of many fathers, not just one man.

I'd be remiss in not acknowledging his support during the early days of scientific storm chasing (see here and here for my perspective on that early time in chasing).  Like most of the senior science staff at NSSL in that era, he was pretty skeptical about the value to science of chasing storms, but he nevertheless supported the project with real resources, without which the project might never have gotten started.

Thus, although not a close friend, Dr. Edwin Kessler was a person who played a significant role in shaping my life and my attitudes.  He was a mentor rather than a friend, and I always valued and respected his professional (and political) perspectives.  He was a generous man who made a positive difference in many lives and championed causes that have saved countless lives from severe weather events.  No doubt he leaves this world a better place for his time here.

My condolences to his family and close friends.  Many of us are grateful for their sharing of this great man.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Democracy being legislated out of existence?

Recently, GOP lawmakers around the nation are introducing legislation to make many sorts of protest illegal. I have news for these lawmakers: making some action illegal changes nothing. If someone's concerns about the loss of our rights as American citizens leave them willing to be arrested for defying an unjust or unconstitutional law, this legislation has no impact. If someone is willing to let our rights be eliminated one at a time via legislation, then they'll have to bear a large share of the responsibility for the destruction of American democracy.

Protest is a time-honored tradition of the USA.  The Constitution's Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, due process, restrictions on search and seizure, etc.) became the law of our land because the framers of the Constitution were concerned about the tyranny of the majority.   If a sheep and two wolves vote, the majority will be eating mutton for dinner!  The real key to democracy is not majority rule - it's protection of the rights of minorities!  Peaceful protesters in our history have been attacked by police and police dogs, shot by soldiers, shot with water cannons, tear gassed, arrested, and sent to jail for their efforts.  As MLK has shown us, an unjust or evil law can and should be broken, to draw attention to the injustice being perpetrated.  This also reveals the evil that results in the injustice. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s eventually created enough national revulsion over the states with Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, the people of our nation seemingly repudiated that injustice.  Now, it seems, the Trump regime has "normalized" bigotry of all sorts:  misogyny, racism, LGBTQ persecution, discrimination against religions other than xtianity, discrimination against atheists, and so on.  The bigotry never went away - it was simply not accepted in public discourse for a while.  The very notion of a progressive, a liberal, has been demonized and vilified.  It seems that our painful progress in seeking equal justice for all of us in our nation is vulnerable to it being cancelled by hostile lawmakers.  Legislation embodying such discrimination is being proposed at federal and state levels.

There's no need to do anything more in terms of the law than enforce trespassing laws in many cases of protest if you just want to silence dissent.  There's this false notion that a peaceful protest should never include breaking any law.  That's actually contrary to the long tradition of non-violent protest in our democracy.  Yes, trespassing is a crime, but the bigger issue is the injustice against which protests are organized.  Remember that in our nation's history, slavery was perfectly legal at one time.  Aiding slaves in their attempts to escape was, in fact, illegal.  Antisemitism was the law in Germany during the Hitler regime.  Dissent in autocratic regimes like Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South African apartheid, etc. is often declared to be illegal.  Does this mean that protest about unjust laws is somehow tainted when laws are broken in a non-violent way?

A disturbing issue is the implication that some protests are being infiltrated by agents provocateur - people who either commit violent acts or try to induce others to do so.  This then is used to justify violent suppression of the protesters.  I don't know the extent to which this may be occurring, but it's an indication of profound evil whenever and wherever it occurs.  I also know that some people who join protests are not willing to play by the non-violent rules.  They may not be police agents but they are people whose agenda is not what the protests are all about.  Their actions also induce a violent response in some cases.

The Trump regime (including federal and state GOP legislators) has shown us strong evidence in its first month in office just what he and his cronies represent.  They're quite willing to trample on the principles and traditions of our democratic republic, inflicting harm on disadvantaged peoples, enabling the destruction of the environment we all must share, creating more and more income equality favoring the tiny, but wealthy minority.  This is an administration and Congress that may eclipse anything in our nation's history in terms of both incompetence and corruption.  They see the judiciary as their enemy, in blatant disregard for the checks and balances incorporated in the Constitution.  They see a free press as their enemy, ignoring its traditional important role in bringing attention to misdeeds by the government.  Dissent is deemed to be unpatriotic when in reality, dissent is one of the most patriotic things one can do in a democratic republic.

That so many Americans feel the need to protest this turn of events seems both natural and a positive good, even as the crypto-fascist oligarchy clearly pushes their personal greed out as their top priority and to hell with the needs of the rest of us.  How many protesters already have been arrested and detained in prisons?  What will happen if the chorus of dissent becomes louder and more vigorous?  Are internment camps and gulags and, yes, gas chambers in our future?  The current regime offers me no indication that they could not easily follow down a path that history has shown leads to cult-of-personality dictatorships, autocracy, oligarchy, and massive loss of rights by ordinary people.