Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Finding Hurricane History In The Trees

Long before weather satellites scanned the oceans looking for tropical systems, forecasters at the U.S. Weather Bureau had to find storms the old fashioned way: go out and look for them.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Air Force and Navy pilots would conduct daily patrols of pre-determined areas of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean searching for a tropical storm or hurricane. A lot of airplane fuel and coffee would be consumed on these ten to twelve hour flights that were required to keep meteorologists updated on the latest in the tropics.

Obviously, the patrols would miss a few storms, especially the systems coming off the coast of Africa or developing in areas outside of where the planes flew. How many storms actually formed during that period remains a mystery. In fact, one could argue that our knowledge of hurricane activity is truly only accurate during the past 40 years or so, the period of time when satellites photographed every square inch of ocean waters.

Understanding past hurricane cycles is vital to determine if our current period of above-average activity is a natural pattern or linked to human-induced global warming.

Now, scientists may have unlocked hurricane history in tree rings.

University of Tennessee researchers Claudia Mora and Henri Grissino-Mayer have discovered that rain from a hurricane leaves a chemical mark in the tissue of old longleaf pines, a common tree found in the Southeast.

The information may provide “a high-resolution, precisely dated biological archive that could be extended back for centuries,” the scientists wrote in the Proceedings of Natural Academy of Sciences.

Using tree samples collected in southern Georgia, the scientists first compared tree-ring evidence against meteorological records for the past 50 years. Mora said the tree rings produced hurricane “fingerprints” in 18 of the 19 years in which storms had been documented.

Taking their investigation even further back in time, Mora and Grissino-Mayer plotted tree ring data against the less than reliable historical record of the 18th and 19th centuries. The team discovered “a lot of hurricanes for which there was no historical documentation that a hurricane had ever occurred in that area,” writes Mora. The team believes the 1820s through the 1840s may have been a very active time for land-falling hurricanes in the southeastern United States.

While long-leaf pine trees can only live to be 200 years old, Mora and Grissino-Mayer have discovered long-leaf stumps left over from timber harvesting in the region also hold the “biological fingerprint.”

“We know we can push the hurricane record back to the 1400s,” Grissino-Mayer said. “With the collection of more tree ring samples, we are certain we can push the record of hurricanes back to at least the year 1000.”

Admittedly, the duo’s work would only count tropical systems that actually made landfall in the southeastern United States. Still, it would still give scientists a more accurate record of past storms in the region and, perhaps down the road, a clearer picture of our current hurricane activity.

It is truly an amazing discovery and like those pilots who flew for hours and hours across the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, Mora and Grissino-Mayer found the hurricanes the old fashioned way: they went out and looked for them.

Posted at 9:06 AM

Cold And Without Power

We feel their pain. If anyone can understand what folks around the country are dealing with following massive power outages because of a series of severe ice storms, it the residents of South Florida, who experienced similar woes following hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma.

In September of 2004 with Frances and Jeanne, and in late October of 2005 with Hurricane Wilma, nearly everyone in our area lost power. For some, the electrical outage lasted a few hours while others waited nearly two weeks before the lights came back on.

Of course, the big difference is the temperature. When we lost our electricity to the hurricanes it came during a warm period of the year. For the more than 300,000 homes and businesses in the South, Midwest and Northeast without power last week it came during the height of winter.

Hardest hit was the state of Missouri where emergency officials reported more than 170,000 people without electricity. When I talked with ABC’s Eric Hrong covering the story in Union, Missouri he said that most residents were staying home, doing what they could to stay warm even as the temperature inside their house dropped into the upper 20’s.

The ice storm that caused so many problems was the latest in a series of severe winter storms that have swept through the middle of the country. Still, as bad as it has been, the ice storm that crippled Canada nine years ago this month was even worse.

For nearly a week in January of 1998, freezing rain covered Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick with three to four inches of ice. Tree limbs and power lines came crashing down along with utility poles and even huge transmission towers. More than four million people were without power in what became the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history.

It started, innocently enough, on January 5 as Canadians were heading back to work following the Christmas holidays. Most ice storms in Canada last a few hours and that’s what people were expecting. However, this ice storm was different, persisting another 80 hours and coating everything in an icy glaze.

The heavy ice brought down 130 transmission towers, 30,000 utility poles and millions
of trees. Quebec’s famous sugar bush, used by the region’s maple syrup producers, was destroyed. It could be 40 years before syrup production returns to normal.

Canada’s dairy farmers were hit hard by the ice storm. With no electricity to run their milking machines, farmers used generators to keep their farms running. Most milk processing plants were shut down and around 10 million litres of milk had to be thrown away.

With the electrical grid so badly destroyed (a major rebuilding of the grid was required to fix the damage the storm produced), it took utility crews several weeks to restore power to everyone. In some cases, people were without electricity for more than one month.

Twenty-eight people died (mostly from hypothermia) while another 900 were injured. More than 600,000 residents were forced to leave their homes and live in shelters for weeks. Totals damages from the storm topped $5 billion.

I’ve experienced one ice storm in my life (in Topeka, Kansas more than 20 years ago) and it crippled the region. You are left with a feeling of helplessness as utility workers attempt to restore power while city crews try to clear the streets of ice.

It’s a lot like the days following Frances, Jeanne and Wilma with one big exception: the temperatures here were much warmer.

Posted at 9:01 AM

Monday, January 08, 2007

Forecasters Predict Above Average Storm Season

Just in time for the holiday season, Dr. William Gray and his group of researchers at Colorado State University have issued their first forecasts for the 2007 hurricane season.

Dr. Gray believes that next year is likely to be quite active in the tropical Atlantic, predicting 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three intense hurricanes. That is above the long-term average of 10 storms, 6 hurricanes and 2 major hurricanes and continues a trend of above average hurricane activity that began in 1995.

While those numbers sound a bit scary, it is important to remember that the good doctor is not always correct in his predictions. Take the 2006 hurricane season, for example.

Back in May, Gray and his young protégée, Philip Klotzbach, figured the 2006 hurricane season would be very similar to the record-breaking 2005 season. The Colorado State University team forecast 17 storms, with 9 hurricanes and five major storms.

A developing El Nino, an abundance of dry air along with strong upper level winds across the tropical Atlantic, combined to reduce the number of storms this season. Only nine named storms formed during the 2006 season with five intensifying into hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

Last week, the National Hurricane Center added a 10th tropical storm to the 2006 season when their routine post-season review of all storms discovered a tropical cyclone had formed around 240 miles southeast of Nantucket, Massachusetts on July 17. Originally classified as an extra-tropical storm, forecasters determined that it became a full-fledge tropical system when it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The storm never threatened land and was only a concern for shipping.

If Dr. Gray’s predictions for 2007 are correct it means that Bill Proenza will have a busy first year as director of the National Hurricane Center. Proenza’s selection was announced recently by Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Guiterrez, who predicted the new director would be a “calm and trusted voice in the eye of the storm.”

Proenza, who will replace the retiring Max Mayfield next month, has spent his entire career with the National Weather Service, including most recently as director of the agency’s Southern Region. In his current position, Proenza manages nearly 1,000 forecasters in 32 offices in Florida and nine other states.

“There is not greater government responsibility than the protection of its people,” Proenza told a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He said one of his top priorities would be to push for more research in predicting hurricane intensity to better warm the public of major storms.

Shortly after Proenza’s new conference he was gracious enough to jump in a cab and take a short ride to our Washington bureau to talk to Felicia Rodriguez and myself on our 4 PM newscast, Weather First at 4.

In a calm, measured voice that we are likely to hear quite often in the coming years, Proenza talked about his career (which began as an intern at the National Hurricane Center in the 1960’s and included riding through hurricanes as a Hurricane Hunter) and his goals for the coming season.

“We need a partnership with our fellow citizens,” Proenza told us. “We must all be key partners in this effort to maximize the protection of our people and support our nation’s economic well-being.”

It was Proenza’s first live television interview and he handled it with ease. In the coming year (especially if Gray’s forecast is accurate), Proenza will spend a lot of time in front of cameras answering questions about hurricanes and becoming the face of the National Hurricane Center.

“Bill Proenza has a proven record in this field and is a natural successor,” said Mayfield. “I can retire knowing that our hurricane forecasting system is in very good hands.”

Posted at 8:27 AM

Top Weather Story Of 2006: Nothing

Each year at this time news organizations take a moment to look back at the year’s top news stories, reflect on trend and events, and prepare readers for what may be coming in the new year.

Here in South Florida, the top weather story of 2006 was not what did happen with rain or heat but what didn’t occur: hurricanes.

For the first time in two years a hurricane did not slam into Florida. In fact, the entire hurricane season was something of a dud, with only ten storms forming and nearly all of them staying miles and miles away from the United States.

So, with very little to report on here in South Florida, let met share with you a few weather related stories from 2006 that you may not have read about.

Residents in Thailand discovered that a flood is not always a bad thing. Flooding in Prachaub Khiri Khan-described as the worst in 40 years- uncovered new sections of riverbanks. When the water receded, the riverbanks were full of gold. One family found close to $2,000 worth of nuggets.

In was too little water in England that led to a unique proposal in 2006. The country’s recent drought-the worst since 1995-generated a variety of unusual ideas to make sure residents have enough water. One of the strangest: toe an iceberg from the Arctic to London. An iceberg 1.6 km long, 300 meters wide and 270 meters deep would apparently contain enough water to supply 500,000 British families for a year.

Speaking of icebergs, scientists discovered that some icebergs could sing. German researchers were recording seismic signals to measure earthquakes and tectonic movement in Antarctica when they picked up mysterious acoustic signals. The scientists tracked the signals to a large iceberg that had collided with an underwater peninsula. The “singing” was created by water pushing at high pressure through the crevasses and tunnels in the ice.

Global warming received a lot of attention in 2006 thanks, in large part, to Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary of the former vice-president’s ongoing commitment to fight climate change.

The Bishop of London is doing his part to improve the climate telling folks in England that air travel for personal vacation is a sin because of the damage it causes to the environment. “Sin is not just a restricted list of moral mistakes,” said the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres. “It is living a life turned in on itself where people ignore the consequences of their actions.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is examining the role that men and women play in climate change. Some claim that men are bigger contributors to human-caused global warming and women are the ones who suffer the consequences. Others disagree arguing that nature does not discriminate between the sexes. Still, the UN is looking into the issue under the web site “Gender and Climate Change.”

In China, officials decided to create their own kind of climate change, albeit for a short period of time. In April, Beijing was hit with a sandstorm that left the city covered with 300,000 tons of sand and dust. Instead of cleaning up the sand the old fashioned way by sweeping it up, Chinese officials decided to fool with Mother Nature. Technicians fired seven rockets shells containing 163 pieces of “cigarette-like” sticks into the skies resulting in a heavy downpour of rain. The water soon washed the streets clean.

Finally, a story I’m not too happy to report. A Russian woman is suing weather forecasters in the town of Uljanovsk for allegedly destroying her camping trip. It seems the meteorologists predicted sun but, instead, it rained all weekend. Alyona Gabitova wants the forecasters to refund her travel expenses. Let’s hope this last story is not the beginning of a trend in 2007.

There were lots of weather stories in 2006, some you may have heard of like widespread drought and record wildfires and others, like the singing iceberg, that may new to you, but the big story in South Florida was what didn’t happen this hurricane season.

Posted at 8:14 AM