Tacky Tornado Selfies

I’ve seen one too many of these this week, and I can’t keep my itchy feet off my soapbox any longer.

Stop taking tornado selfies. Just stop. They are tacky and tasteless.  They make a caricature of a harmful event and of you.  They are perceived as cheesy and thoughtless at best, selfish and arrogant by many, and downright rude and heartless to those whose lives are impacted by the tornado over your shoulder.

I am a storm chaser myself, and I appreciate the awe and majesty and raw power of tornado thunderstorms.  Chasing is hard, and I also appreciate the effort and achievement of creating a forecast and making driving decisions that come together to bring you to see a thunderstorm and then a tornado develop.  I get it.

Many of us celebrate in at least some small way when the forecast combines with our positioning to allow us to witness the birth, maturity, and demise of a (tornadic) thunderstorm.  What separates the classy from the cheesy/selfish/rude is how we celebrate and why.  I am never celebrating that a tornado strikes homes, cars, fields, lives. As I have said before, a tornado will form or not form regardless of whether I am there and whether I want to see it or not. But I do celebrate my ability to forecast a single thunderstorm within a drivable range of distance. That kind of pinpoint forecasting is difficult, and doing this as a hobby reinforces my ability to forecast storms in my job.

Public celebration of the occurrence of a tornado will always rub some (many) people the wrong way.  Jumping up and down, cheering, and yes, posing for pictures in front of it are all perceived as immature or disrespectful.  Like the good mentors say to guys scoring touchdowns in football, act like you’ve been there before and will get there again.  Call it storm chasing sportsmanship.

Yes, we have free speech in this country, but it does not free you from judgment based on your speech.  You can say or post whatever you want.  There is, however, a code of ethics and morals and conduct that govern us as a society and a smaller component of us who choose this hobby. You don’t block roads to take pictures, you don’t drive unsafely to get to a storm… and you don’t disrespect the weather event itself by being a cheesy smiling face in front of it.  If you do, I won’t be the only one who judges you.

How would you have felt if you took a smiling selfie of the El Reno tornado at the moment it was killing three of our own?  A moment like that could happen again, and you wouldn’t know it at the time you took the photo, perhaps not before you plaster it on Facebook.

When it comes to pictures, as in the treatment of Nature itself, please get out of the way of Nature. Show us the storm, not your smiling face in front of it.  (You’re blocking our view of the storm, anyway, and that’s what we really want to see.) Keep your selfies off of social media.  Show respect to the storm itself and the harm it can inflict.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Last Time We Nursed

(Written late September 2015, with a later postscript)

If I had known the last time you nursed would be the last time, I would have held you longer after you fell asleep.  I might have tried to take a picture.

Babies never self-wean before a year of age.  Knowing that, and knowing that my grace period for nursing and pumping would be difficult to extend past a year, I had been planning ahead on how to ease away from breastfeeding for that magic one-year mark.  I knew I would have to slowly ease away from the pump, dropping a session at a time.  I figured that we could still nurse occasionally, if you asked for it, but that I would be free of pumping baggage by that one-year birthday and hopefully down to just one nursing session a day, if you needed it, and easing our way to being fully weaned.

You’re a heartbreaker, though, and you’re as independent as your parents.  At just over 8 months old, you decided that you’re not a baby anymore and that it was time for you to move on from nursing.

It felt sudden at the time, but like most relationships that end, the signs were there before I could see them.  Your nursing sessions were shorter, and your attention to nursing was easily broken.  Daddy couldn’t even be in the room when we nursed most of the time.  Instead of your usual 20 to 30 minutes or more of nursing, we were lucky to get 5 to 10 minutes.  I blamed your age, with its distractibility, and my work schedule that kept us apart for many nursing sessions, including my favorite morning ones.

And then you got sick.  With a fever of 103 degrees or higher for three days, you again sought comfort at the breast.  As your fever broke and a rash broke out to replace it, you still were not yourself, and you clung to me and nursed more.  My nipples were raw from accumulated pump damage, but I gritted my teeth and let you have as much time as you needed, never showing you that soothing you was painful to me.

When you felt better, you literally hit the ground running, up on your feet and holding our hands to explore and expand your world.  I love watching you find something new, and your sense of adventure reminds me of my own.  Like a switch, when you felt better, you simply were not interested in nursing.  You turned away from the breast, arching or twisting your back, and whining or crying as I tried to coax you to take nourishment. I handed you to your daddy to give a bottle, while I left the room and cried so that you wouldn’t see me.

The less you nursed, the more I cried.  I can’t remember the last time I was so emotional, so devastated by a loss.  I simply wasn’t ready. I thought we had more time.  I thought I had some choice in the timeline.  I hadn’t realized how important our nursing time had become to me until that need was no longer fulfilled.

Your nursing strike went from days to weeks.  I consulted lactation experts and other breastfeeding moms in every venue I could find — Facebook groups, La Leche League meetings, calls to the certified lactation consultants.  They suggested everything from changing positions to holding you near the breast while feeding a bottle to making you uncomfortable during a bottle.  We spun in a chair and we bathed together, both of which were great fun to you but did not draw you back to the breast.

The last time I nursed you was on a Friday evening, September 25, when you were 38.5 weeks old.  My girlfriends were visiting, and Daddy was out of town, so I was giving the evening bottle.  A lactation consultant had suggested slipping you from bottle to breast as you were falling asleep at the end of that evening feeding, and I did. For about a minute, you latched and nursed yourself the rest of the way to sleep. In your sleep, you held on about a minute more.  Two minutes.  I held you close, not wanting to end the moment, afraid I would burst into tears and wake you up.  At the time, those were tears of relief that you might be ending your strike.  It turns out that you were saying goodbye.

Nobody writes songs or poems about this kind of heartbreak.  Few mommy bloggers talk about baby-driven self-weaning.  Nursing moms avoid talking about early self-weaning like they avoid contagious baby-kissers, as though acknowledging it could curse them into living it.  I get it; breastfeeding is hard enough without dwelling on all that can go wrong.  It would be reassuring, at least a little, to know that there are other mothers who have felt this way, other babies asserting their independence ahead of schedule.

Your pediatrician and our last lactation consultant both suggested what I feared and dreaded — that you were not the usual baby on a usual timeline. You were a toddler in a baby’s body, ready to eat solid foods and run on your unsteady feet, ready to be done with baby things like breastfeeding and tummy time.

I haven’t given up trying to entice you to the breast, but I have given up hoping that you will return and certain that you will spend enough time there to draw your nourishment.  It is a necessary step for me, so that I can move past the grief stages and into our next phase.  I imagine that I’ll continue to offer the breast as long as I’m pumping and lactating, because I know the milk is there if you want it.  It does make me wonder if you’ll forget how to nurse.  When does that muscle memory fade for you?

I feel cheated and robbed.  Our last few breastfeeding months were stolen from me, taken without warning. Instead of seeing your bright blue eyes and smiling mouth, I now stare down at the cold plastic pump that will help me nourish you for another few months.  I grieve the loss of our nursing relationship like no other loss I’ve felt before.

Nine months ago, I had to learn how to hold you to my breast to feed you life, to nurture you, to share affection. Now, I have to learn all over again how to feed and nurture and love you without nursing you.  I’m lost, but I suspect you’ll help me find a way.

— Postscript —

Sometimes, wishes are granted, even if it happens in the smallest of ways.  I continued to try to coax you back to the breast into October, never pushing, but always offering.  If I was giving you a bottle, I had a breast out. If I was rocking you to sleep, I kept you nuzzled to my chest.  On the evening of October 13, you were a little fussier than usual. I placed you in your favorite nursing position, got out the shield, and offered one more time. And you took it.  This time, however, I was prepared.  I took pictures and deep breaths, while trying to move as little as possible and being present in the moment as much as I could.  You nursed for five minutes, and then we let go.

This time, in my heart, I knew it was the last.  I offered less and less, and you never took the breast again (except for one vicious new-teeth chomp somewhere around 11 months old, but that hardly counts as nursing!).  You couldn’t give me back our nursing relationship, but you gave me a chance to say good bye and have closure with it.  You gave me what you could, and with all my heart, I accepted your gift.

Baby boy, I will cherish that five minutes forever.

The abrupt weaning taught me some valuable lessons that I hope I never forget as you grow older:  to be present and in the moment, to enjoy and find the best in each phase because it might pass us by soon, and to let go and let you grow when you are ready to move up a stage.

Breastfeeding good-bye

Waving good-bye to breastfeeding. Our very last session, on Tuesday, October 13, at 6:17 PM CDT.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Today I Comforted You

(Note:  I wrote this on June 29, 2015.)

Today I comforted you.

On the eve of your six month birthday, your evening routine is well established.  We go from play time and giggles quickly into pajamas and a book, because you will rapidly descend into hunger for your evening nightcap bottle.  You still are breastfed, but we’ve been giving you an evening bottle since you were about a month old, partly because Daddy wanted to help and partly because you sleep better.  Seven ounces later (your evening appetite is huge!), you doze off in Daddy’s arms, and he holds you maybe a minute or two longer than needed before tucking you into your crib in a loose swaddle.

This evening was different.  After your 7-ounce nightcap, instead of settling, you wailed.  Sometimes your cry means that your hunger wasn’t satiated, and we add a little more to your bottle to top it off.  But you wanted nothing to do with the topper; you rejected it and wailed.  Your trusty Wubbanub wasn’t comforting.  Daddy swayed with you held to his chest, facing out, the way you’ve liked to be held when you’re fussy since you were a newborn.  You paused, watched the dog, looked around, and wailed again.

I was in the kitchen getting ready to go to work, but hearing you cry so hard made my arm hairs prickle and raised a lump in my throat.  Mommy instinct got the better of me, and I ventured up to your room to offer my help to your daddy.  He said that the one thing he couldn’t try, the one comfort you might want, was to be nursed.

I held you to my chest.

And today I comforted you.

Nursing has always been a little more on the practical side than the emotional side for me.  The first few weeks were a struggle as we fought issues with latching and tongue tie and oversupply and satiating your hunger.  To this day, we still wear a shield to protect each other, a thin film of plastic between you and me that signals it is time to nurse.  The early struggles made me wonder where that magical glow of nursing was, when it would appear.

Mama and baby with a post-nursing snooze

Mama and baby with a post-nursing snooze, 6/27/15.

There are glimmers of that magic, though, as we grow together.  I see it in your smiles when you looked up at me from the breast.  I certainly see it in your sweet milk-drunk face when you nurse yourself to sleep, with a full belly and full lips and glistening cheeks and chin.  I even see it in the adorably vicious way you dive into and attack my chest when you’re hungry.

My favorite nursing session is the first one of the morning, when you’re smiling and eager to greet the day. My second favorite is any one after we’ve been apart from each other all day.  In the midst of those busy evenings, we slow down and reconnect, probably developing a good habit that has been a long time coming for this overcommitted working mother who is still trying to squeeze in extra deadlines.

When I transitioned back to work after 12 weeks at home, nursing sessions gave way as I developed a relationship with a cold plastic pump.  My milk is important to you, and I work hard for it.  On most working days, I only nurse you once or twice, and the rest of my milk comes to you in a bottle as you are in day care or daddy care or taking that last bottle of the day.  I find myself missing nursing, sad when I spend more time with the pump than with you.  I can tell you miss it, too, because you dive for the breast when we get home, even if you aren’t terribly hungry.

We relax together in those nursing sessions, after those early weeks of being tense and worried.

But today I comforted you.

Sure, you’ve comfort-nursed before. Those sessions started as a feeding, but the real intent masqueraded beneath the light snack, as you clung to the breast for my nearness, often alternating dozing and gentle suckling.

Today, there was no masquerade.  Your purpose was clear.  You took the breast with no intent of eating, just to hold me near.  Your cries quieted instantly, your eyes grew heavy, and your rapid clenching and unclenching of the cottony cowl-neck fabric of my shirt relaxed as your hands fell to your sides.  You were there only for comfort.

And today I comforted you.

I held you long past the point where you fell asleep, because I wanted to be sure you were completely soothed.  When I gave the nod, your daddy, sitting on the floor next to us to be of assistance at a moment’s notice, lifted you from me and tucked you into your crib in a loose swaddle.

We quietly faded out of your room and into the kitchen so that I could finish getting ready for work and he could get ready for bed. I floated down those stairs, and I’m sure that I was glowing.

Because today I comforted you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

They Who Dance Must Pay the Fiddler…

And pay the fiddler, we have!

Being the proud parents of a now one-year-old little boy, working rotating shifts now opposite of each other instead of aligned with each other, and balancing our new lives and responsibilities has cost my husband and me precious time.  We used to work for hours at home (either together or in parallel) on writing, research, and extra projects.  With the baby’s arrival, we lost our opportunities for those quiet times working at home, our arms now full of an energetic bundle of joy and drool and giggles and poop and milk.  They tell you that you’ll get that time back again, and they’re right.  They didn’t tell you that you won’t get your brain back – that the ability to concentrate and focus on projects is forever short-circuited by worrying about what the baby is eating and drinking, whether he will sleep, and if that cough or sneeze is benign or the beginning of a serious illness.

I’ve written some thoughts in the last year, despite the lack of time – really at the highest and lowest of some emotions.  I didn’t post them here because I was trying to keep this blog close to the topics of weather and Laura.  But if not here, then where?  This is my podium.  So, at least for a little while, I’m going to post a few things I wrote last year – out of the sequence of my current life, but things I feel strongly enough to express.

If you’re here for the Wilder and the weather, hang in there – this is me trying to get my brain and fingers back in shape for a little dabbling in writing.  If you’re here to get to know me better, you’re about to do just that.

Thanks for listening!

6-Month Family Photo

Family photo near the little guy’s 6-month birthday!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blizzard of Gaiety

Not a peep on the Wilder Weather blog for 6 months?  Where have you been?!

Laura had a whirl of gaiety in her Little Town days.  My last six months can be described only as a blizzard of gaiety – an all-consuming, sensory-numbing spin from major event to major event with hardly a gasp of air in between and very little ability to see from one CRASH to the next BANG into major life milestones.

In summary:

Graduation - PhD Hooding

Ph.D. graduation and hooding ceremony in August

1.  As of August, I am now a full doctorate, having completed my Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in Natural Resource Sciences with a specialization in Climate Assessment and Impacts.  Whew, that’s a mouthful!  Let’s just call it a Ph.D. in Applied Climate for short.  My dissertation is titled “The Hard Winter of 1880-1881: Climatological Context and Communication via a Laura Ingalls Wilder Narrative” and is available online.  It ranges from deep into the science of weather and climate to an historical analysis of the Long Winter to brushing on topics like storytelling and surveys.

2. Hubby and I are expecting our own little Almanzo early this winter!

A Rose in December is rare indeed

“A Rose in December (is) much rarer than a rose in June, and must be paid for accordingly.”

3.  I’ve had the opportunity at work to take a 3-month assignment that focuses more closely on climate and takes me off of forecasting.  The assignment splits my time among several locations while I am helping the National Weather Service get more climate information together that we can provide to our citizens.

4.  I have accepted a role as co-chair of the upcoming LauraPalooza 2015 conference!

I have a lot of topics percolating, and I’m so happy to have time here again!  Look out — I’m back!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Winter “misery” makes the news!

It turns out that people want to know when they’re surviving a Long Winter of their own.

My research into the weather and climate of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books has many facets.  I have focused extensively on The Long Winter, while dabbling in the events of other books and other parts of Laura’s life.  One of the big questions about the Long Winter of Laura’s experience was to answer this seemingly simple question:  How bad was it, and was it the worst winter on record?

To answer that, we have to be able to define “bad”.  A hard winter would have to be longer than usual, snowier than usual, and colder than usual.  It could be windier than usual, too, and maybe even have some ice mixed in with the snow.  Somehow, we have to take as many elements of a hard winter as possible, then wrap them up together into one convenient measurement and package it in a way that’s easy to understand.  It would have to be measurable, too, and not just opinion; in science, we call that “objective” when it’s measurable, as opposed to “subjective” when it’s open to interpretation.

No such measurement existed.  If I wanted to answer that question, I’d have to create the index that lets me answer it.

I found a colleague who was interested in this question, too.  Steve Hilberg, a climatologist and former director of the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, is a winter weather enthusiast who had been dabbling in his own winter index.  My graduate advisors steered me toward him as a possible resource of information.  We had a great conversation at a meeting of climatologists back in 2011, and we decided to join forces, put our best ideas together, and work together make this index real.

It’s a complicated problem.  We had to define what it means for winter to start and stop.  We had to figure out how to weigh big snows and sharply colder air, compared to the more mundane.  We had to figure out how to show that what counts as a severe winter in Minneapolis is very different from what’s severe in Atlanta, and the index had to work in both places.  We spent hundreds of hours refining formulas, testing sites, tweaking spreadsheets, and repeating the process.  We presented it to different conferences of our peers to get their feedback and ideas and to test their enthusiasm for its potential.  Science never progresses with a steady ramp upward from problem to solution; it’s done in fits and starts, with bursts of work and weeks of quiet, with big progress and small setbacks.

We dubbed it the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index (or AWSSI, pronounced to rhyme with “bossy”).

We use high and low temperatures, snowfall, and snow depth, assigning points based on thresholds of each of those numbers.  (Nobody has good records of icing, so we couldn’t include it in the index.  And wind information is both hard to find and hard to use, so we decided to leave it out of the index, too.)  We looked at a period from 1950-51 through 2012-13, when snow records are most reliable at the most sites.

Finally, in the fall of 2013, we landed on a formulation that we liked, and we started running a bunch of sites around the U.S. through the calculations.  It was and is a tedious, labor-intensive process, but it was a labor of love and devotion to demonstrate the utility of the AWSSI. We proudly exchanged our calculations with each other and started to show a few colleagues and coworkers.  The index was working!  It was showing us how severe a winter is as it is happening, and it was letting us compare this winter to the previous winters at the same location.  It was letting us compare the severity of the winter at sites like Detroit and Chicago.

And the winter kept on coming, and the AWSSI kept on ticking.  Through about mid-January, in most locations, there is not a lot of separation between the extreme winters and the mild ones.  But by around mid-January, a severe to extreme winter can start to pull away from the pack.  Omaha’s winter actually got closer to the middle of the pack in that time.  But in places like Chicago, Detroit, and Urbana, the winter started to pull ahead.  Running the AWSSI every few mornings was like opening a little present for us — we were that excited to see the results!

Somewhere, from a colleague to a friend, one media person on a public radio station in Chicago heard that we were able to track a winter’s severity, and he got interested.  He ran a little web story on it, and we thought that was pretty neat.  Then a public radio station in Michigan heard about it and wanted to have a little radio story of their own.  An esteemed colleague in the media, Andrew Freedman, picked up on the story and ran a longer feature in Mashable, and that drew the attention of the Associated Press.  When the AP ran its story, the AWSSI went viral, with stories running in national papers from USAToday to Yahoo to Time to NBC News, as well as in countless local papers.  Steve and I managed dozens of press inquiries.  I even got to be on CNN!  We’re still getting inquiries about the index and how it’s stacking up this year’s winter against the others.  And I’m even getting the occasional Laura-related inquiry, too, which always makes me smile and skip around a little bit!

And all because I wanted to know how bad Laura’s winter really was.

CNN posts the Winter Index

Steve and I are working on the last piece of the research that will let us answer that question.  The index right now uses temperature and snow data, but snow data doesn’t go back into the 1800s in most places.  So, we need to come up with a way to use temperature and precipitation (the melted-down equivalent of whatever fell out of the sky) instead, and calculate an estimate of snow.  It’s a little tricky to do that, and there is no perfect method.  But if we can at least get a consistent method (and we’re really pretty much there!), then I can run it on the sites that were near De Smet during the Long Winter.  I can see how high the AWSSI goes, compare it to what we know of AWSSI in those surrounding sites, and determine once and for all, mathematically correctly, if the Long Winter really was the worst winter since white settlers arrived in the region.

We are *this* close to answering my original question!  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, this is what an extreme winter looks like, at least in Detroit through March 5 (below).  The blue shaded curve is this year’s accumulation, and the faint blue bars are each day’s contribution.  The thick black line is the average, and the dashed black lines on either side are the most common 67% of years.  The other lines include last year’s accumulation, the mildest winter, and the 5 most extreme winters (before this year).


For those of you stuck in the hardest-hit areas this winter, remember that even the Long Winter ended!  The grass grew again, the snow piles melted, the waters thawed, and spring and summer came.  You’re nearly there!

     “It can’t beat us!” Pa said.
     “Can’t it, Pa?” Laura asked stupidly.
     “No,” said Pa. “It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up.”
     Then Laura felt a warmth inside her. It was very small but it was strong. It was steady, like a tiny light in the dark, and it burned very low but no winds could make it flicker because it would not give up.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Warning Is Only Good If You Respond To It! Atlanta and Other Warnings…

By now, you’ve all heard about the commuter crisis in Atlanta the day that they received snow (you can catch some highlights here, here, and here).  The story of Atlanta’s snow is the story of a successful forecast and failed preparation.  Let’s break down the major pieces:

Atlanta traffic

Atlanta traffic gridlocked after the snow

1.  The meteorologists in the area (scientific experts in assessing and forecasting weather), including the National Weather Service along with several private companies and TV meteorologists, forecast and communicated a potential for snow days in advance.  The details changed slightly, but the message was clear with plenty of notice that snow was likely to fall in and around the Atlanta metro area.

2.  The meteorologists are experts in the science of forecasting weather, and because of that expertise, they understand the potential impacts to traffic and schools that snow in Atlanta can cause.  They communicated these potential impacts across multiple channels of communication, hoping that their expertise would prompt organizations and individuals to take action.

3.  The forecasts were dismissed by public officials and leaders, who encouraged business as usual and took no preventative measures (such as pre-salting the roads).  Individuals, either dismissing the forecasts themselves or pressured to maintain business as usual because the leaders encouraged it, also largely maintained business as usual.

4.  The forecasts were correct.  By the time officials and individuals realized the threat, it was already upon them.  They took action too late, resulting in chaos, near-catastrophe, and even fatalities as people reacted to the threat that they had been warned to prepare for in advance.  Politicians falsely blamed the scientists; citizens blamed the politicians.  Corrective action costs were far greater than potential preventative measures would have cost.

A confident forecast for a high-impact event by experts was dismissed by people in positions of leadership as well as by individuals, with the event occurring and resulting in a major crisis instead of an inconvenient day.  Almost all of the impacts were preventable, if just two things had happened:  if the roads had been pre-salted, and if the city and state leaders had encouraged schools, businesses, and public offices to close.  All they had to do was trust the experts.

Also, individuals could have taken measures even without the leaders.  Sure, it would have been a risk to stay home from work or keep kids home from school based on a forecast.  Sure, one or two fewer cars on the road would not have made much difference.  But imagine if 20% of the population had stayed home… or even 50% of the citizens.  With half the cars, maybe gridlock would have been delayed, and maybe at least some people would have gotten home more quickly.  And those individuals would have been rewarded with their own personal safety and comfort, rather than being stranded themselves.

Abandoned cars in Atlanta

Abandoned cars litter the side of a highway in Atlanta.

To a meteorologist, it is frustrating beyond words to watch our citizens not react to a warning.  We cringe when we see people heading to the window instead of the basement during a tornado warning, and we groan in aggravated frustration when we hear of cars being stranded in ice and heavy snow when we’ve had the word out about it long in advance.  Sure, sometimes we miss an event, either by warning for something that doesn’t end up happening or by not warning for something that sneaks up on us.  Believe it or not, though, those misses are not terribly common, and we’re getting better all the time.

Climatologists face very similar frustrations when talking about climate change.  Let’s go through the steps above, but for climatologists and their warnings instead:

1.  Climatologists across the country and even around the globe (scientific experts in assessing and forecasting climate), including the National Weather Service (and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), NASA, and university researchers, along with several private companies and TV meteorologists, forecast and communicated a potential for climate change years and even decades in advance.  The details changed slightly, but the message was clear with plenty of notice that temperatures will warm, sea levels will rise, ice will melt, and rain and snow patterns will change.

2.  The climatologists are experts in the science of forecasting climate, and because of that expertise, they understand the potential impacts to homes, businesses, schools, and livelihoods that climate change can cause.  They communicated these potential impacts across multiple channels of communication, hoping that their expertise would prompt organizations and individuals to take action.

3.  The forecasts were dismissed by public officials and leaders, who encouraged business as usual and took no preventative measures (such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions and developing clean energy).  Individuals, either dismissing the forecasts themselves or pressured to maintain business as usual because the leaders encouraged it, also largely maintained business as usual.

4.  This step hasn’t happened yet in the world of climate change, but we’re on our way.  The forecasts will be correct.  By the time leaders and individuals realize the threat, it will be already upon them.  They’ll take action too late, resulting in chaos, near-catastrophe, and even fatalities as people react to the threat that they had been warned to prepare for in advance.  Politicians will falsely blame the scientists; citizens will blame the politicians.  Corrective action costs will be far greater than potential preventative measures would have cost.

We can still prevent the scenario in Step 4 from coming true.  Political leaders might take a while to come around, so it might be up to us individuals to take steps instead.  We can make changes in our own lives.  Sure, if only one or two of us do it, it won’t affect much.  But imagine if 20% of us do, or even 50%.  We might not offset all the chaos, but we might at least be able to say that we didn’t contribute to making it worse.

The experts are trying to help our citizens.  Please listen to them, and take their warnings seriously!

Retreat of the South Cascade Glacier

One of many examples of glacier retreat around the planet. This is the South Cascade Glacier in Washington.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“40 Below”: WWLIWD?

By my count, Laura Ingalls Wilder used the expression “40 below”, referring to temperatures, four times through her Little House book series:  twice in Farmer Boy, once in The Long Winter, and once in These Happy Golden Years.  (This was an extremely quick count, so if I am wrong, let me know in the comments and I’ll correct the post.)

Reading the entire series, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that temperatures around 40 below zero were fairly common in Laura’s childhood, especially in her DeSmet days.  In a way, that conclusion wouldn’t be wrong.  In Huron, South Dakota, since records began in July 1881, all of the years in the top 5 of most frequent temperatures of -30 °F or colder happened in the 1880s, and almost all of the top 10 were before 1950.  Similar trends exist at other cold-weather sites like Bismarck, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Fargo, or in other words, basically everywhere across the Northern Plains to Great Lakes.  It just is harder to get that cold as our climate changes.  But that doesn’t mean it’ll never get cold in the winter.


National Weather Service wind chill forecast for 6:00 AM CST on Monday, January 6. Forecast made on Friday afternoon, January 3.

With the Arctic outbreak coming this weekend into early next week (January 5-7), temperatures may approach readings that have not been seen in a decade or two in some locations.  A few sites might even set a record or two, although record cold temperatures are less likely.  The big story is with the wind chills, which are forecast to reach readings as cold as -50 to -60 °F in parts of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  We don’t have nicely collected, easily accessible wind chill records, like we do with temperatures and precipitation, to help us understand how frequently wind chills this cold happen.  But most of us who work in weather know that it has been at least several years, and maybe a couple of decades, since we felt wind chills this cold.

A colleague in weather and climate asked me the ever-present question:  WWLIWD?  (For those who don’t speak the lingo, this translates to “What would Laura Ingalls Wilder do?”)

Here is my top 5 “WWLIWD to Handle the Cold” list:

1. Bring the woodpile into the house.  Or, for those of us with modern heating equipment, make sure the heater is in good working order.  Also, check the batteries on your carbon monoxide detectors and fuel up your car.

2.  Make sure the pets have a cozy bed, and bring in the livestock to shelter with plenty of hay.

3.  Gather up provisions so that you don’t have to go out in the cold to forage.  Start a kettle of beans soaking now so that you have bubbling, warm bean soup during the heart of the cold snap.

4.  Share a blanket or sweater or coat or fur cape or mittens with the less fortunate.  Been holding onto a pile of clothes or bedding to donate to your local shelter?  Now is a great time to take those goods to those who are most in need.  Check on neighbors, friends, or family members who might struggle to keep their homes heated.

5.  If you must go outside — for example, to spend a weekend away from your host and his crazy knife-wielding wife — be sure to dress in lots of layers and cover all of your exposed skin.  Frostbite can begin in 10 minutes with wind chills around -35 to -40 °F, and as quickly as 5 minutes with those extreme -50 to -60 °F readings.

Seriously, don’t take a risk by going out in the cold for a prolonged length of time unless you absolutely must, especially when it’s windy.  Learn from Laura’s mistake.

All of that said, Laura might think we’re all being a little wimpy.  In These Happy Golden Years, she also used the expressions “only 15 below” and “only 20 below” while she was out riding cutters and otherwise enjoying the outdoors. And in Farmer Boy, Almanzo went sledding on that “forty below” day.  The last lesson we can perhaps learn from Laura:  don’t be afraid of the cold!  Throw your hands back,  inhale deeply, and feel the rush into your lungs!  (Then get back inside by the fire.)

Wind Chill Chart

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

A “Blizzard” by Any Other Name

Being both a sports fan and a weather weenie, I was especially excited about watching my favorite Detroit Lions take on the Philadelphia Eagles in what can only be described as a “Snow Bowl” on Sunday!  (Let’s not talk about the Lions’ outcome for now…)  Apparently, I’m not the only person out there who is a fan of watching football take place in heavy snow!  On Twitter, #DETvsPHI was trending at #2 for most of the afternoon, and #SnowBowl made an appearance on the trending list.  Three other games took place in the snow, as well (Kansas City Chiefs at Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers, and Minnesota Vikings at Baltimore Ravens), but the Lions-Eagles game took the prize for snow accumulation during the game!

Lions snowbowl

#81 Calvin Johnson with a helmet full of snow during the Detroit Lions @ Philadelphia Eagles game on December 8, 2013. Photo courtesy of G.Smith/Detroit Lions.

Much to my chagrin, though, the hashtag #BlizzardBowl also trended upward during the game.  To a meteorologist, using the wrong word to define a snowstorm is egregious as, say, yelling “fire” in a theater when someone lights a match outside its doors.  To us, it’s crying wolf, creating hype, exaggerating the situation.  We want the scientific facts to match the scientific terms being used.  Then again, even my favorite historical weather observer might have been using the word a little outside its meteorological definition.  But we’ll get there in a moment.

To a meteorologist, a snowstorm must meet a very specific set of criteria to qualify as a blizzard:

  • Snow falling and/or blowing that causes visibility to drop to a quarter mile or less;
  • Winds of 35 mph or greater (either steady or frequently gusting above that speed); and
  • These conditions lasting for at least three consecutive hours.

Meteorologists reserve the strongest wording for the most dangerous events, and we do it for a reason.  When we forecast a blizzard, we want people to know that conditions are beyond the usual snowstorm, that they are even more dangerous than a heavy snow by itself.  We as meteorologists hope that our citizens will prepare accordingly – the higher the threat, the greater the urgency in preparation.  If we seem a bit defensive about reserving the word “blizzard” for a storm that truly is a blizzard, it is because we want our citizens to not become complacent about what the worst can be.  That event in early October in western South Dakota was a true blizzard, and it has had lasting and widespread impacts to ranchers and farmers, at the very least, not to mention the folks who were stranded in their homes for days.

The snow falling in Philadelphia on Sunday was heavy, for sure, but it was not accompanied by very strong winds, and the low visibility did not last for three consecutive hours.  (For the weather-curious, the winds peaked at a mere 10 mph during the snowfall, the low visibility lasted for 2 hours and 37 minutes, and the lowest visibility and highest winds did not coincide.  The 8.6” of snow on December 8 was impressive, though.  You can look up the weather history at Philadelphia here.)  An 8-inch snowfall in a major city certainly has impacts, far beyond making a football game a little more entertaining, but it isn’t as dangerous as a true blizzard.

Coming back to my favorite weather historian… Laura used the word “blizzard” quite a bit in her books, especially during The Long Winter.  Were all of those true blizzards?

Likely, the answer is “no” – Laura probably did not account for wind speed, visibility, and duration criteria when she called those nasty snowstorms “blizzards” throughout her books.  She, like many of those who were on Twitter on Sunday, probably saw pretty bad conditions and used the word “blizzard” in a descriptive sense, rather than as a scientific definition.  Then again, Laura did live in a part of the country where true blizzards are much more common.  Her criteria for a blizzard was truly “impact-based”, to use a buzzword that we use in the meteorology community.  Laura’s blizzard definition might look more like this:

  • Cannot go to town, school, or anywhere (even travel across the street is not recommended);
  • Must use rope to move between house and barn;
  • Cannot see hand in front of face;
  • Cattle noses freeze to the ground; and
  • Lasts 2 to 4 days (usually 3 days).

Come to think of it, maybe she had the definition of a blizzard pretty well nailed, after all.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Books of My Youth

Facebook and Lauriati friend Sue Poremba inspired me to think about books from my youth that shaped who I am — books that I read up through high school.  I came up with a list of ten, and darn it, I’m proud enough of those books to post them!  You’ll find a mix of historical-based stories and pure fiction, as well as some non-fiction.  I did spend a LOT of time reading when I was growing up, and given enough time, I probably could make a list a mile long.  Whether you read my blog because you’re into weather or because you’re into Laura, I’d encourage you to read, to encourage your children to read, and to re-read books from your youth!

Little House books

1. The Little House book series (Laura Ingalls Wilder). I would have said this even before I researched them and crossed over into the scholar/ultra-fan world. I re-read them time and again growing up and, like many of my fellow Lauriati, took many of Laura’s life lessons to heart.  The classic stories of family, growth, perseverance, and resourcefulness are timeless, and their setting on a backdrop of the wild and rugged Plains just makes me glad that I live here now.

2. Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell). Growing up, I asked my mom to givGone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchelle me books that had a happy ending, which GWTW certainly does not!  This was, however, the first real adult-themed book that I read (I picked it up in 8th grade off one of those old book order sheets that we used to get). The book taught me much about making mistakes, seeing people around me (how could Scarlett not see how much Rhett loved her?!), appreciating what I have, and understanding the foundations of racism from a much different perspective than my upbringing in Yankee territory.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck3. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck). Steinbeck swept me away to a place and time that was so, so much harder than anything I could imagine.  His literary tools, interspersing the Joad family story with more broad descriptions of the Okies in the Dust Bowl era, really resonated with me. The book taught me about seeing people instead of their situations. It also introduced me to the human side of the Dust Bowl.


4. Those dozen or so tornado and hurricane books in the Plymouth (MI) library in the mid-1980s. I couldn’t name them specifically, though I can see the pictures in those books in my head, but I must have checked them out of the library a hundred times between 1st and 4th grades. Obviously, they made a huge impression on who I became!

5. IslanIsland of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Delld of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O’Dell). Something about Karana, a native Nicoleño Indian marooned on San Nicolas Island (off the California Coast) learning how to not only stay alive but also tame wild beasts and also find time for beauty, made me feel her strength and elegance.  Plus, I’m a sucker for stories based in truth, though what happened to her after she was rescued definitely did not make for a happy ending.


6. My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George). Kind of the same tMy Side of the Mountain, by Jean Georgehemes in this story, but with a little boy in the New York woods instead of a girl in the Pacific islands. Everything from the cool survival tools to the relationship with the animals (especially his peregrine falcon) struck me.  Unlike the book above, this work is fictional, but its setting was more familiar to me… familiar enough that I could replicate trying to fit into the hollow of a tree or live off the land.

7. Whatever biography of Christa McAuliffe I read for a high school biography report. I was inspired by her story to be a teacher, or astronaut, or teacher-astronaut.  This led me to get most of the way through the teacher education program in college before landing on meteorology without the teaching component.

Anne Frank:  The Diary of a Young Girl
8. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank). Her optimism in the midst of all the terror around her was uplifting. I was so sad to learn that she died in a Holocaust camp after her diary ended.  The union of history and literature rears its head again.

9. Our old Audubon bird book. I’d pull that thing out every time a saw a new bird and learn all about it. I think I had it memorized for a while, and I still remember distinctly my 4th grade science project on waterfowl in Michigan. It helped me learn to tune to nature, which is something I should go back to doing, especially since the birds in Nebraska aren’t the same as the ones in Michigan.

10. The Ramona books (Beverly Cleary). Seriously, wasn’t there a little Ramona Quimby in all little girls – especially those of us who are little sisters?

Ramona Quimby, Age 8, by Beverly Cleary

Runners up:  Trumpet of the Swan (E.B. White), The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig, written from her life experiences), Judy Blume books (especially Blubber, a great anti-bullying story), The Cay (Theodore Taylor), Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson), Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments