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).

AWSSI-DTWthr

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.

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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.

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“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.

ApparentT21_uppermissvly

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

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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.

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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)

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A blizzard AND tornadoes…in October?

A month ago, on October 3-5, a strong storm system brought blizzard conditions to western South Dakota and significant tornadoes to eastern Nebraska and northwest Iowa.  There are many stories to tell on both the warm and cold sides of the storm, but I’d like to get to a few of them here.

—–

Tornadoes in the fall months are not quite as common as the spring, even though they are sparked by similar ingredients:  deep storm systems, which bring warm and moist air up from the south and combine it with strong wind shear, along with frontal boundaries that provide a focus for thunderstorm development.  Tornadoes can and do happen in the fall months.  They are, however, rarely as violent as the EF4 tornado recorded in Wayne, Nebraska.  That tornado was the first October tornado anywhere in the U.S. that was rated EF4 or stronger since October 3, 1979 (Connecticut).

EF4 tornado in Wayne, Nebraska.  Photo by Simon Brewer, via KTIV.

EF4 tornado in Wayne, Nebraska. Photo by Simon Brewer, via KTIV.

My friend Scott has video of the tornado here, and there are a number of others online.  Due to some other obligations that tethered us closer to home, hubby and I chased the birth of a different tornado that day, one that started in northeast Nebraska and hit the town of Macy, Nebraska, before continuing on into Iowa.  While the final count is still being tallied, it seems likely that over a dozen tornadoes touched down on October 4th alone, with a few other tornadoes on October 3rd, as well.

—–

As strong as the warm side of the powerful storm system was to produce those tornadoes, the cold side was just as vicious.  Up to four FEET of snow fell in southwest South Dakota, with a swath of snowfall that reached into Wyoming, western Nebraska, and western North Dakota.  Driven by winds up to 60 to 70 mph, blizzard conditions hit southwest South Dakota hard.  The system was well forecast, and people had lots of time to stock up on groceries and stay safely home during the storm.

Cattle, however, did not have enough time to prepare.  If there is a common thread from the blizzards of the 1880s to today, it is the vulnerability of livestock to a prolonged blizzard.  With cattle out in their summer pastures, there simply was not enough time to herd them all into the more sheltered winter pastures.  South Dakota lost many tens of thousands of head of cattle, up to 20 to 50 percent of the herds in the affected region.  A month later, the deaths and costs are still being tallied.  Please take a moment to read the stories linked here and think about those who have been affected by this natural disaster.

Rapid City Journal
CNN
KBHB Radio

blizzard

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An October blizzard foreshadowed a long, hard winter for the Ingalls family in DeSmet.  Are we heading into another Long Winter now?

October blizzards aren’t all that rare, actually.  South Dakota is touched by an October blizzard every few years (I don’t have the actual numbers handy, but I’m working on it!), though this year’s was exceptional for the amount of snow and its early timing.  There isn’t a correlation between wintry conditions in October and severity of the full winter season.  In other words, an October blizzard doesn’t help us know if we’re in for a long winter.

Signs aren’t too strong for forecasting how this winter will be, so we’ll have to keep watching for what develops.  (Here is my take, in the meantime.)

 

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A Flood of Thoughts

I have so many thoughts about the flooding in Colorado.  So much empathy for those who are affected.  So much awe at the power of water.  So much fear for the people who live there.

The weather conditions that came together to produce the record rainfall are not much of a mystery.  Moist tropical air has been carried up from the south, with flow pointing upslope along the Rockies, providing lift.  The amount of moisture in the air was record-setting by itself, and the atmosphere was primed for a heavy rain event.  The weather pattern is slow-moving and stagnant, so the same moisture and the same lift have been in place for days.  The result is day after day of copious rainfall.

2013, highest, lowest, and average annual rainfall in Boulder, CO.

Precipitation so far in Boulder, CO, in 2013 (green), along with the highest year on record (1995, blue), the lowest year on record (1954, red), and the average yearly rainfall (brown).

A head-spinning number of weather records have been set during this event.  Boulder set an all-time record for highest rainfall in a day at 9.08 inches on September 12, blasting past the previous all-time record of 4.80 inches set on July 31, 1919.  Three days in September 2013 already reside among the top 10 wettest September days on record there.  September is already the all-time wettest month on record in Boulder at 14.75 inches as of this morning, with more rain already falling today and half a month yet to go.

With record rainfall comes record flooding.  Record highest water levels have been recorded on numerous rivers around the Colorado Front Range, including the notorious Big Thompson Creek.  The record there was previously set during a devastating and deadly flash flood in 1976 (for more information, head here.)  The water is making its way down the South Platte River across northeast Colorado and into western Nebraska, where it will produce flood-level water along its reaches.  Flooding has obliterated roads, homes, businesses, and lives across a wide part of the Front Range.  It’s not just one creek, or one canyon, or one city.  It’s a region.

I can’t bear to post any pictures of the devastation here just to “juice up” the blog, but there are a number of pictures and videos out there, with mile after mile of damage.

Meteorologist Barb wants to take this moment to talk about flood safety.  And for that, I’ll start with what not to do… from our favorite little risk-taker:

This was not like wolves or cattle.  The creek was not alive.  It was only strong and terrible and never stopping.  It would pull her down and whirl her away, rolling and tossing her like a willow branch.  It would not care.

Oh, Laura.  Never step into a flooding waterway!  It only takes 6 inches of moving water to knock you off your feet.  While we’re at it, please don’t drive into one, either.  It only takes 12 inches of water to relocate a car.  As a friend of a Facebook friend put it, “Don’t go all Oregon Trail here and ford the river.  You’ll lose your oxen.”

Don't ford the flooded river!

Look out for the dreaded river ford…

On top of that, let’s talk for a minute about what’s in the water.  It has flooded through homes, sewage treatment plants, kerosene tanks, unknown chemicals in fracking liquid, manufacturing plants, feed lots, and gas stations.  The debris in the water includes dead animals large and small, chunks of buildings, pieces of trees, and mud.  Don’t touch the sludge-water.  If you have to touch the muck that it leaves behind, wear waterproof protective gear and wash up and disinfect afterwards.

Climatologist Barb wants to talk about things like how rare this event is.  Numbers like “1000 year flood” get tossed around, so let me break down what that means.  A 1000-year flood means that there is a 1 in 1000, or 0.1%, chance of that flood happening in any given year.  The language is misleading because it sounds like once an event like this happens, it shouldn’t happen again for 999 years.  But that’s not the case.  It might just be that we didn’t have a long enough record of precipitation to see too many of these events before, but maybe they’re more common than we thought.  Wild cards like climate change can make events like this more or less likely, too.  (In this case, it’s probably closer to the “more likely” side as our climate continues to change, as Colorado sits in a region that is more likely to see fewer precipitation events but more extreme ones when they do come.  And for the record, we aren’t able to say yet if this event has a fingerprint of climate change.  But we can say that it is in line with what we expect to happen in the atmosphere in a changing climate.)

Writer friend Sandra Hume asked me for my thoughts on how rare this event is, and I answered her with this (and I tend to be an under-hype rather than over-hype kind of person):

This is an extreme event… a once-in-a-career event, right up there with the Big Thompson Canyon flood of 1976. It’s the kind of event that kills people and causes major damage no matter how good the warnings are. It’s the kind of event that will get studied for years, both on the weather side (which ingredients came together, and can we learn anything about predicting it better in the future?) and on the response/impacts side (how well did people listen to the warnings? how did people die, and what are some survival stories?). I’m sure someone will look at whether there is a tie to climate change or other climate patterns, too (though those are always hard to peg for weather events like this). People will tell stories about it. It will set a new bar for flooding. It will inspire some children to become meteorologists, hydrologists, or swiftwater rescuers. It’s that big of an event.

I can’t do a better job than colleague Bob Henson did in describing the rarity of this event, so I’ll take you right to his words on the UCAR web site.

My heart goes out to everyone who is affected by these floods — a great many friends and colleagues are in the path of the deluge, and it hurts to see the impact to them as well as to the beautiful landscape of this piece of Colorado land.

The creek would go down.  It would be a gentle, pleasant place to play in again.  But nobody could make it do that. Nobody could make it do anything.  Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody.  But the creek had not got her.  It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry.

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Modern Pioneers of the Stormy Roads

Pa itched to follow wagon trails to new adventures, and while he dropped roots in De Smet, his heart still looked toward the west.

Laura, ever Daddy’s little girl, slid along the imaginary and infinite moon-path… at least until a wolf turned her back.

I get it.

The Ingalls family was a pioneer family.  Laura and Pa were not only pioneers — they had pioneering spirits.  They wanted to start a journey and not know the end destination.  They longed to indulge their senses just beyond the next hill, or just across the next river.  They edged close to dangers ranging from raging flooded creeks to loads of hay between blizzards.

The spirit is in me, too.

Obligations like career, house, and family have anchored me to Omaha, much as Laura and Pa were anchored to De Smet.  Once a year, though, hubby and I break our fetters.  We load our wagon, feed and water the horses (and by that, I mean gas up the car), and set out across the prairie for a week or so of freedom.  For that week, we follow our moon-path.  We push ourselves to the next hill, the next river.  We edge just close enough to danger to smell it without entering its grasp.

Our goal, in the end, is to see storms.  But it’s also so much more than that.  We love the rush of passing towns we have never seen before, taking in scenery that is new to us, and traveling roads less traveled.  Ghost towns and abandoned houses provide mystery, with the secrets of who lived there and why they are gone.  We parallel railroad tracks for miles, and in my head, I always hear, “One-two-whoop-three!”  Our food can range from something barely better than a skillet johnny-cake to a feast fit for a Wilder farm. We pack what we’ll need for the week, our complex lives boiled down to the essential apparel, gear, and maintenance items.  Our wagon crosses paths with other trail riders who are in their itching their wandering feet, often bringing us to meet the same old friends year after year.

When we’re chasing, we do occasional stumble upon a wolf or a bear — not the literal animal, but the beast of a storm that is awesome in its beauty and chilling in its danger.  You’ll even hear storm chasers talk about the “bear’s cage” — the core of the supercell thunderstorm beneath the rotating updraft, where a tornado will form if the thunderstorm is so inclined, where the danger is greatest and the power of the storm is most evident.

Supercell thunderstorm with a rotating wall cloud, not too far southwest of Topeka, Kansas, on May 21, 2011. Photo by Josh Boustead.

For 51 weeks of the year, I am a planner, an organizer, a goal-setter.  I live through my calendar and lock in to a crazy but predictable rotating shift schedule.  But for that one week in the spring, I am a free spirit, unleashed onto the Plains to ride in our modern covered wagon and touch the edge between Nature and civilization.

Until next spring, fellow trail riders!

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Storm Chasing: Faced with Tragedy, Will Chase On

By now, many have heard or seen the toll on storm chasers from the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado on May 31, 2013.  Tim Samaras, a longtime veteran researcher and chaser, was killed along with his son, Paul, and his chase partner, Carl Young.  Mike Bettes and the Weather Channel crew were rolled off the highway and lucky to escape with minor injuries.  Brandon Sullivan was whacked with debris and barely escaped.  Reed Timmer’s supposedly untouchable “Dominator” lost its hood.  Veterans and rookies, cautious chasers and hot doggers, all in harm’s way.  (There are links aplenty on some of those near misses, but I refuse to add to the YouTube hits by linking them here.)

Why do we chase at all?  What is the benefit, and is it worth the cost?

I have a lot of emotions right now that range from disgust to rage to sadness to shock.  I also still have the feelings of awe and inspiration, which I will reserve for another blog on another day.  Right now, a lot of people are questioning those of us who seek out storms, and I want to take a moment to share my concerns as well as my defense of this strange hobby.

Not all chasers are alike.  There are a few categories, with varying amounts of risk among those in each category.  Research teams, like Samaras’s TWISTEX and the VORTEX2 campaign, spread out to collect data on storms from ranges of miles away to the deploying of instruments within the expected path.  Pseudo-celebrity chasers like Reed Timmer and Sean Casey have made a career of bigger/faster/closer encounters that are made for TV drama and entertainment.  Reed Timmer copycats stream toward the core of tornadic storms, cameras pointed inward toward their own faces as well as outward toward tornado destruction, looking for YouTube gold.  Meteorologists stream in to capture development and structure, and a glimpse of a possible tornado, for the sake of reporting as well as understanding storms.  Some chasers simply feel the call of nature, much like someone who scales rock faces or skis off trail, to get as close to nature’s beauty and power as possible.

Some chasers plaster their cars with logos and lights, their goals to see tornadoes evident in bright colors and in-your-face graphics.  Others chase in nondescript cars, hoping to evade the appearance of a spectacle.  Some are extraverts who love to engage locals who have questions, while others prefer to shy away from interaction and focus inward.  Some of us hate the label “storm chaser”, while others embrace it.  Chasers are no more of a homogenous group than rock climbers, skiers, or any other hobbyists/enthusiasts.

Some chasers take too many risks and get too close, to the derision of the chasers who prefer to keep their encounters more low-key.  The consequences of such risks had not been truly felt by anyone among chasers.  Until May 31, nobody had paid a price worse than minor injuries, car damage, and pride.  On June 1, that world changed.  And I am angry, and sad, and shocked.

It is indeed possible to pursue storms, photograph them, appreciate their majesty and power, and remain relatively safe – in the same way that it is possible to climb rocks and mountains relatively safely.  But chasing a powerful storm is inherently risky, as are many encounters on the fringe of nature.  It’s rare that the tornado itself is the biggest hazard.  I worry as much or more about impediments like lightning, flooded roads, hail, strong non-tornadic winds, and other cars on the road (chasers and locals alike).  In recent years, that last one has become a bigger concern than all the rest, as roads near storms are now often congested with a dangerous mix of chasers making illegal and unsafe maneuvers to get closer, locals puttering around with their dogs in the back of the truck and their kids hanging out the windows to see what the fuss is all about, and inexperienced chasers who stop on the road, stand on the road, leave their car doors open, and otherwise create obstacles.

Count me among those who turn a nose up at the bigger/better/faster chasers among us.  I’ve seen dangerous behavior increasing with my own eyes over the last several years.  I don’t know what, exactly, has caused it – perhaps people have lost their healthy fear of storms due to saturation of videos of close encounters.  Perhaps too many kids and thrill-seekers are attempting to chase unguided, without experience or education to help them.  All I know is that it was going to reach a breaking point someday.  We all assumed it would be when one of those kids got killed.  Who would have ever thought that the first chaser fatality would include one of the best?

Tim Samaras’s work was dangerous, but it was a calculated risk.  His mission was to deploy instrument probes in the path of a tornado, then get out of the way while it hit the probes and collect them afterwards.  If this sounds a little like Twister, then you’re actually not too far off.  Getting in front of a tornado is always, always risky.  It requires planning escape routes in all directions, and it requires anticipating the storm’s movement.  Disruption to either of those could be, and was, deadly.  His death is stunning and saddening because he has been in those positions before and did not pay such a price. What was it about this tornado that his experience could not escape?

The close encounters of Mike Bettes and Brandon Sullivan were less defensible, because they did not involve research.  They were for the purposes of selling coverage to gain viewers and getting video for personal attention, respectively.  (And if either of them argues they were there to spot storms or to take pictures or for public safety, I will argue right back that an in-vehicle inward pointed camera on their faces has nothing to do with public safety or storm photography.)  They were in terrible positions even for a tornado whose path wasn’t as unusual as the El Reno tornado, and in both cases, it caught up to them.  I’ll believe the apologies and mea culpa when I see changes in actions in subsequent chases this year and next year.  Their highly visible recklessness makes me angry.

We were one of the dots on the map, one of the chaser teams around that storm.  Why am I even there, with such a danger around me?  How can I defend being a chaser?

Chasing began for me back in the late 1990s, when I spent a summer in Oklahoma and met a person who had experience chasing and could take me.  (That person is now my husband and always my favorite chase partner.)  The magic of seeing a storm from birth through maturity and to demise is humbling, breathtaking, and transcendental in the same way that many awesome experiences in nature can move the spirit.  Additionally, seeing storms with my own eyes makes me understand them better.  As a meteorologist and a forecaster, it makes me better at my job to understand storm behavior, to see a storm that is in a volatile environment but can’t get its act together enough to produce a tornado, while others drop tornadoes even when some ingredients seem to be lacking.  I can understand and talk to storm spotters about what they’re seeing, because I’ve seen the same features with my own eyes.  I can see a storm on radar and have a clear idea of what it probably looks like from the ground, and I can understand how the same storm can look very different to observers from different angles.  We relay our reports to NWS, and we do our very best to stay out of harm’s way.

I’ve never been so close to a tornado that I found myself in its damage path, in a position to provide assistance rather than chase on.  I’ve never had a tornado bearing down on me and not known where I would turn.  But I’m also not error-free.  We drove way too close to the back side of a rain-wrapped tornado just on this year’s chase trip, though the combination of what radar told us and what our eyes and gut told us were enough to turn us around before we drove into harm.  We’ve had lightning hit within a mile of our car while still taking pictures, prompting a fast dive into the car for the rest of the chase.  Our car has been rocked by strong rear-flank downdraft winds that wrap around behind and to the south of tornadoes and strong supercells.  We’ve been pelted by up to tennis ball size hail when we drove into a storm that we thought was weakening at the end of a chase day.

In short, we take calculated risks, too.  Our behavior during chasing is on the low end of the risk scale, with our worst offense probably some of the speeding we’ve done to get to a storm target, rather than anything near the storm itself.  You won’t find insane video of houses being torn apart among our reels because we’re usually not close enough, and if we are, we’re driving too hard to get away.  I’ve learned that Nature doesn’t care if I want to see a storm, or where… that storm will develop or not develop, a tornado will or won’t form and hit things, and it has nothing to do with me.  All I can do is maybe be in a position to watch it and learn from it.

We will continue to chase, though perhaps not within a county of a major metro like Oklahoma City.  The communion with Nature is not lessened, even now.  If anything, I need to get back out there even more now.  I want to see the majesty of supercell genesis and remember that it is still as humbling as ever.

Above:  The El Reno tornado, May 31, 2013.  Photo copyright Barbara Boustead.

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Violent tornadoes strike: How to help and how I feel

In May of 1999, I was a 22-year-old college girl heading to a summer internship in Norman, OK.  The summer was a huge one for me, including such milestones as meeting my future husband and being mentored by some of the greatest minds in weather.  A couple of weeks before I arrived, on May 3, a series of violent tornadoes raked Oklahoma, including an F5 that crossed the Oklahoma City metro area.  One of the first things we did after a few of us summer interns met each other was examine the damage path in Moore and surrounding areas.  I had never been around real tornado damage before, despite having followed tornadoes for years from a distance.  I was simply stunned by the blocks and blocks of scrubbed foundations, debris piles, mangled cars, bits of insulation and nails and wood splinters, and mud.  Seeing that devastation firsthand, and standing in the midst of it, is humbling and frightening and emotional in a way that I still struggle to put into words.  Every storm I have chased, every warning I have issued, I have always kept that picture in my mind of what the worst looks like.  This is why I do what I do — to give people a chance to get somewhere safe when the worst weather is approaching.

At about 3pm CDT today (May 20), my husband burst into the bedroom.  I was at the tail end of a deep post-mid-shift sleep and a little groggy when he apologized for waking me up, then flipped his laptop so I could see the screen and said, “This is in the Oklahoma City metro.  Right now.”  My sleepy brain was trying to sort out whether he was looking at footage from tornadoes just the day before or live, new footage.  I hoped for the former, but it was the latter.  Between the live coverage of the tornado as it spun across Moore and eastward and the live coverage on CNN and local Oklahoma City TV stations from that point onward, we were transfixed.

It’s hard to describe the range of emotions I felt while watching that coverage of this year’s probable EF5 hitting Moore.  Again.  I shed tears over the images of the elementary school where many children survived… and many did not.  My heart lifted with a picture of a dog who survived the storm and sank with a story of a horse farm that lost almost all of its horses.  My gut wrenched with the images of block after block of exposed foundations and shredded lives.  I got angry at the CNN anchor who harped on an erroneous bit of information about the amount of warning that folks in Moore had, and felt vindicated when she was corrected by a congressman and a lieutenant governor who praised the meteorologists. I burst with pride as my cohorts at NWS Norman, some of whom I know personally, worked their tails off despite knowing that their own homes and friends and colleagues may have been impacted by the tornado.

Norman, Oklahoma, and its surroundings will always be close to my heart.  Seeing another violent tornado strike the area feels like reopening a wound.  My heart goes out to those who were in and near the damage path… to the first responders who are saving lives while witnessing unspeakable horrors… to the meteorologists who put the needs of the citizens ahead of their own needs and work their tails off to give the best possible warnings for events like this… to the medical staffs trying to heal and comfort the injured… to the volunteers who are giving up time in their own lives to aid those in need… to the region that is bearing the brunt of the third violent tornado in 14 years.

In the early wake of the latest weather tragedy, I have a few thoughts and points I want to make.

1.  Preparing for the worst weather is the only way you can survive it.  Wherever you are, know what you would do if a tornado (or hurricane, flash flood, blizzard, or other weather hazard) threatens you.  Know your geographical location by both city and county so that you’ll know if you’re in the path of a storm — and be sure you know these when you’re traveling, too.  Know the escape routes if you have enough warning to get out of the way.  Pay attention to updated weather information (I, of course, am biased toward NWS as an information source).  Own a NOAA weather radio, keep it plugged in with fresh backup batteries, and activate its settings to alert you when warnings are issued.  Download weather applications to your smartphone that warn you of bad weather.  Once those warnings hit and you hear about them, vow to heed the warnings and take immediate action to save the lives of you, your family, and if possible, your pets, rather than waiting to “see it for yourself”.  Know where the storm shelter is, and USE IT!

2.  Leave the storm chasing and picture taking to the people who have the meteorological training to understand and anticipate storm behavior.  Stay in safe places during stormy weather, and don’t try to join the masses of people who grab their smartphones and head out to get pictures of the “big one”.  Get off the roads, or at the very least, if you’re driving to get out of the storm’s path, keep driving until you’re well clear of it.  No picture or video is worth your life.  Cars are sitting ducks during tornadoes, and once you’re threatened while in your car, there’s no truly safe escape.  Never, ever park underneath an overpass for shelter.  Never, ever stop your car on a road or block an intersection — get into a parking lot (or driveway, etc.) or all the way off the road if you’re stopping.

3.  I’ve seen a lot of people post something to the effect of, “All I can do is pray.”  That couldn’t be farther than the truth.  Pray or reflect or send good thoughts, if it brings you comfort, but also take action to bring assistance and relief to the victims of these weather tragedies.  Donate money to the Red Cross or other reputable relief organizations.  (You can donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999, or $10 to the Salvation Army by texting the word STORM to 80888.  Monetary donations are always the most needed type of help after a disaster.)  Donate blood, especially if you’re in the region and have time in the next few days.  Start an item donation drive at your local workplace/church/community center/etc., and donate needed items to the victims (most of the time, the local Red Cross will post lists of needed items like clothes, baby supplies, food, etc. – just be sure that the items you’re collecting are items that were requested by local relief organizations).  Join a volunteer effort to rebuild homes.  Don’t just pray — act!

I don’t have a lot of Laura in this post.  Just a desire to help stricken neighbors and be prepared for next time.  Which maybe is a lot of Laura, after all.

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