Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bye-Bye Hurricane Season!

It’s not official, nor is it likely to be approved by the federal government anytime soon but for residents of South Florida, the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic states, November 30 should be a national holiday. It is the 4th of July, New Year’s Day and Christmas all rolled into one because November 30th marks the end of the hurricane season.

Thanks to an unusually quiet year in the tropics, this year’s observation went mostly unnoticed except by pilots at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. The pilots are part of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron better known as the Hurricane Hunters, the airplanes that fly directly into hurricanes.

In the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season, the Hurricane Hunters flew more than 1,500 hours into storms beginning in May with Hurricane Adrian in the Pacific and ending in early December with Hurricane Epsilon. The average mission lasts around 11 hours as the aircraft crisscrosses the storm and penetrate the powerful eye wall several times.

Flying through a 100 mph hurricane for half a day may seem crazy but, ironically, pilots say the stronger the storm the smoother the ride. Well-formed hurricanes produce very little wind shear resulting in a fairly easy ride as the Hurricane Hunters probe the storm, providing forecasters with invaluable information.

Ask a Hurricane Hunter to fly through a garden-variety thunderstorm and you’ll get a quick refusal. Thunderstorms are full of wind shear and, more importantly, lots of hail. Even small hail poses a significant threat to airplanes.

Charlie Summers knows all too well what hail can do to an aircraft. A research scientist for the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Charlie pilots the only airplane in the world capable of flying through thunderstorms.

“The hail gets pretty loud,” Charlie told interviewers from “It sounds like a hammer pounding on the windscreen.”

With armor plating on the wings and tail, Charlie’s T-28 trainer has made more than 900 penetrations of thunderstorms surviving updrafts of 115 mph, hail two inches in diameter and dozens of lightning strikes. Like the Hurricane Hunters who survey tropical systems, Charlie’s quick trek into thunderstorms (the average mission lasts about two hours) is all about gathering data.

“We measure the moisture content of the air,” said Charlie. “We also count hail, rain drops, ice particles and snow. We can also measure the electrical intensity of the storm.” The data help researchers gain a better understanding of thunderstorms in general, and of air motion and turbulence specifically.

After 37 years of service, Charlie’s plane is being retired. The aircraft will go on display at the Strategic Air and Space Museum at Ashland, Nebraska. The National Science Foundation has requested that a two engine A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft be made available as a replacement.

A two-engine aircraft is an excellent idea, according to Charlie, who has been forced to make several “dead-stick” landings on highways after lightning knocked out the power to the single engine of the T-28.

“The Super Cells (the strongest, most severe type of thunderstorm) are the most interesting,” said Charlie. “The lightning is pretty much like a strobe light with lightning striking us every two to three seconds.”

Flying through a thunderstorm or a hurricane is a special job for a handful of qualified people, men and women who help gather important information leading to a new understanding of the weather. Like the archeologist who digs through the dirt to discover the past, the scientists studying the weather need to explore thunderstorms and fly through hurricanes to figure out what makes these complex mechanisms tick.

Instead of a national holiday to mark the end of the hurricane season, maybe we should honor these men and women, the Hurricane Hunters of Keesler Air Force Base and pilots like Charlie Summers.

Posted at 8:56 AM

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cold Weather? Nah, Not A Fan

It was a clear, cool night in South Florida. Temperatures were in the 50’s and forecast to drop into the lower 40’s, easily the coldest weather of the season. The winds were a bit gusty, too (at times up to 20 mph) making the cool night feel even colder.

It was, without a doubt, my least favorite type of weather. And I knew, as I left the TV station following the late news, that there was work to do at home. A cool snap, you see, is my wife’s favorite type of weather.

Sure enough, as soon as I arrived at home I found all of the windows wide open, the chilly air spilling into the house. The thermostat indicated the air temperature inside my home had dropped to a nippy 65 degrees. I quickly closed all the windows, turned on heat and set the thermostat at a comfortable 71 degrees.

Still, I knew my greatest challenge was yet to come. Throwing on a sweatshirt and a baseball cap (they say you lose most of your body heat through your head) I worked up enough courage to enter the master bedroom (or as I like to call it Ice Station Zebra).

Not one but two fans were humming away as I walked into the bedroom, a ceiling fan set on high and a window fan pulling in the 50-degree weather. I was sure I saw my breath as I turned off the fans, closed the window and beat a hasty retreat to a warmer part of the house.

Obviously, I’m not a fan of chilly weather but for many others it is a welcome change to South Florida’s legendary heat and humidity. Like my wife, many people enjoyed last week’s cold snap (the coolest temperatures since February), giving folks the opportunity to wear sweaters and coats for the first time and embracing a significant change in our weather pattern.

And, thanks to a growing El Niño, fans of cool weather will be happy to hear that more chilly nights and cool mornings are in our future.

Meteorologists at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center issued their final winter forecast last week and reiterated once again that South Florida is likely to experience a cooler-than-average winter.

Forecasters says a strengthening El Niño will help to steer more frequent cold fronts through South Florida this winter dropping temperatures below average. Still, forecasters say, a freeze is not likely this year.

Those passing cold fronts will also generate showers and thunderstorms during the winter months prompting the NOAA meteorologists to predict above average rainfall for South Florida this winter.

Overall, winter is likely to be warmer-than-normal for most of the United States, especially the northern plains and the Northeast. “During moderate as well as strong El Niño episodes, an increase in the occurrence of extreme cold days, especially in the Northeast, becomes less likely," said Vernon Kousky, research meteorologist at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

The precipitation outlook calls for wetter-than-average conditions here in Florida and across the entire southern tier of the country. Drier-than-average conditions are favored in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, the northern Rockies and Hawaii.

It is important to keep in mind that the NOAA forecast is an average of temperature and precipitation patterns for the next three months. There will be exceptions to the rule, meaning powerful snowstorms will sweep across the country and bone-chilling cold will pour down from Canada. But, when the temperatures and precipitation reports have been added up next spring, this winter is likely to be remembered for its mild and dry weather pattern.

Still, for me, the latest winter forecast means more work to do when I return home at night.

Posted at 1:18 PM

Monday, November 20, 2006

Weather Woman

Marie Knott works 7 days a week, 365 days a year, hasn’t had a vacation in 48 years and is not paid a penny. And, she’s one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet in Hillsboro, Ohio.

“Vacation?” she asked. “I plan on seeing a job to the end.”

The “job” is keeping track of the weather in southwestern Ohio, something Marie and her late husband Tom have been doing for nearly half a century.

The Knotts are part of the largest volunteer weather observing organization in the country: The National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program. Founded in 1890, the program had two goals: define the climate of the United States and provide meteorologists with information for weather forecasts.

Today, more than 11,000 volunteers take daily observations of the weather on farms, in urban and suburban areas, national parks, seashores and in mountains. Every day these dedicated weather volunteers record their location’s high temperature, low temperature and any precipitation that may have occurred and, at the end of the month, mail the data to the National Weather Service.

Even with today’s sophisticated computers, satellites in space and high-tech Doppler radar, the Cooperative Observer Program plays a vital role in twenty-first century meteorology. The data are invaluable in learning more about floods, drought, heat and cold waves affecting the country.

Mary has experienced nearly every type of weather over her four decades as a weather observer, a job that began after her husband returned from World War II.

“Tom had enlisted in the army prior to Pearl Harbor,” said Marie. “He wanted to be an airline mechanic but was assigned to weather school. When he objected, they told him he could either be a cook or a weatherman. So, he became a weatherman.”

Tom spent most of World War II taking weather observations in Labrador, Newfoundland and Greenland. After the war, Tom returned to Ohio and, in 1959, was asked by Lloyd Seidel to take over his duties as the Hillsboro, Ohio weather observer. Tom agreed and provided daily weather data until his death in 1988, when Marie took over the duties.

Marie’s weather equipment has changed little over the years (although the mercury thermometers have been replaced with digital readouts). The manual rain gauge is the same used by Lloyd Seidel and her husband Tom. However, Marie does admit to one piece of “illegal” equipment: a hairdryer. She uses the hairdryer to melt snow and ice accumulated in the rain gauge “without losing a drop.”

Those observations are used for flood forecasting of the Ohio River and for historical records. Precipitation that falls at the Hillsboro station directly affects the Ohio River and other tributaries in the region.

It is vital information that Marie happily records each day continuing a tradition of weather observation over two centuries old. Vacation? Like Marie said, she plans on seeing a job to the end.

Posted at 8:51 AM

Friday, November 10, 2006

Global Warming: Fact Or Fiction?

Television viewers in Maine won’t be watching much coverage of global warming. The general manager of WVII and WFVX, the ABC and Fox affiliates in Bangor, has told his joint new staff that when “Bar Harbor is underwater, then we can do global warming stories.”

Michael Palmer was apparently upset over his station’s coverage of Al Gore’s movie on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” In a memo to his staff, Palmer said he wanted no more reports on climate change placing “global warming stories in the same category as the killer African bee scare.”

This head in the sand attitude in Maine is in sharp contrast to environmental leaders in England who recently proposed a 50-year, $1.2 billion plan to combat global warming. “We are talking sizeable expenditure in which we have no choice because climate change is happening and we have to defend ourselves,” said Environment Minister Michael Meacher.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair agrees with the proposal. “We are heading towards catastrophic tipping points in our climate unless we act," Blair wrote in an article for the London Sun newspaper. "Creating cleaner energy whilst using less has to be the key."

Using less, recycling more and planning for changes in the environment seems like a logical approach to the issue of climate change. But a German scientist has created quite a stir with a controversial plan for combating global warming.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, a researcher at the Max Plank Institute for Chemistry, says an “escape route” is necessary before global warming reaches irreversible levels. Writing in the August issue of Climate Change, Crutzen suggests that sulfur particles be injected into the upper atmosphere. He believes the particles would reflect sunlight and heat into space cooling the Earth.

Crutzen came up with his idea after studying the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. When the Philippines volcano blew its top thousands of tons of sulfate aerosols were emitted into the atmosphere. For the next year, global temperatures dropped by average of 0.5 degrees Centigrade around the world.

Crutzen says the sulfate particles act as tiny mirrors that deflect sunlight away from the Earth’s surface. He believes that a relatively small amount of sulfur released into the stratosphere (8 to 30 miles high) could have a similar effect as Mt. Pinatubo.

In his essay, Crutzen says the particles could be distributed by high-altitude balloons or by heavy-artillery shells, either of which would scatter the sulfur throughout the atmosphere. The cost of his idea: $25 to $50 billion.

As you might expect, Crutzen’s idea to fool with Mother Nature has been met with some skepticism. Some critics worry about the side effects of his proposal, wondering what changes in weather patterns (beyond the slight cooling of temperatures) the world might have to endure. Crutzen admits that his geo-engineering experiment could lead to the elimination of the ozone and a whitening of the sky.

And, by the way, not all scientists agree that Global Warming is even occurring. Hurricane guru Dr. William Gray, for example, has abandoned work on hurricane predictions and now spends his time trying to prove that Global Warming is a myth.

Gray and other scientists question the reliability of the computer modeling on which future assessments of the Earth’s climate are made. This modeling, critics say, has difficulty simulating important climate processes and should be treated with caution. After all, they argue, if a computer model has a tough time predicting tomorrow’s weather why should it be trusted to accurately simulate the Earth’s environment 50 years from now.

Climate change remains a controversial and contentious issue that will continue to challenge scientists and governments. Still, waiting to do something until “Bar Harbor is underwater” is obviously the wrong course of action.

Posted at 8:10 AM

Thursday, November 02, 2006

It's Called Weather Phobia

One of my neighbor’s children is petrified of severe weather. Every time the wind begins to blow, the rain starts to fall and, especially, when the thunder rolls through our neighborhood, this 11-year-old girl becomes very apprehensive.

I’m told that her heart pounds, her palms sweat and she has a feeling of helplessness. This severe weather fear is nothing new to my young neighbor and has only been enhanced by our recent visits from Frances, Jeanne and Wilma.

As it turns out, she is not alone.

According to a study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, as many as one in five people may suffer from severe weather phobia, a condition described “ as an intense, debilitating, unreasonable fear of severe weather.”

Researchers from the University of Iowa studied severe weather phobia symptoms in 139 people from central Iowa, a location where tornadoes and severe weather can be fairly common during the spring and summer months.

The researchers identified 13 differing symptoms that many severe weather phobia victims suffer from including dizziness, shortness of breath, heart pounding, sweating, feeling helpless and panic. The researchers found that around 25 percent of the people surveyed reported enough symptoms to be classified as moderately phobic.

“The most common behavior or symptom reported was to constantly monitor television, radio or the Internet for weather information,” said lead author John Westfield of the University of Iowa. With the advent of increased media coverage of severe weather, researchers found that watching television coverage of an approaching storm often increases the subject’s anxiety.

“It is important to emphasize that these phobics were very afraid of severe weather,” said Westfield. “Many of them described themselves as barely able to function prior to and during severe weather events.” Some people even moved to different parts of the country to get away from severe weather.

Westfield says that most people who suffer from severe weather phobias are embarrassed about their fears and were surprised to learn that others might also have the phobia. However, very few subjects sought treatment of any kind.

Westfield came up with an experimental therapy program where a meteorologist and a psychologist worked together with severe weather phobics to decrease their fear using a combination of psychological approaches and meteorological education. Westfield says six people participated in the initial workshop in Iowa City, Iowa

“The meteorologist educated participants about severe weather,” said Westfield. “He talked about risk levels, prediction of severe weather events, and appropriate action.”

The psychologist taught participants a variety of techniques for coping with storm anxiety, including relaxation training and several other techniques.

“This treatment process seemed to work well and may hold promise as a future intervention technique,” said Westfield.

One of the participants in the workshop was Zeus Flores who has created a support website for people who suffer from severe weather phobia. The web site,, provides readers with more information about severe weather phobia and a forum to discuss the issue.

Like my young neighbor, many of us here in South Florida have concerns about severe storms and hurricanes but, thanks to work by Westfield and Flores’ website, at least there is a place to turn when that fear of weather starts to overwhelm us.

Posted at 1:30 PM