Thursday, April 26, 2007

Conserving Water

To celebrate Earth day and to conserve water during South Florida’s drought, my wife announced the other day that we would be taking Navy showers in the future. Worried that large men in bell-bottoms would be hanging out in my bathroom, my wife assured me that a Navy shower is a unique method to conserve water.

To take a navy shower, you turn the water off while you are soaping up. My wife took this idea one step further by placing several buckets in the shower stall to soak up the excess water during our showers. Once the buckets are filled, the extra water would be used to irrigate flowers, plants and trees in the yard. My wife’s simple bucket brigade and the navy showers will help preserve water, at least in a small way, until the rainy season begins in late May.

Small efforts often have big results, which is a common theme in this year’s 2007 Environmental Awards announced last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The annual awards commemorate Earth Day by recognizing individuals and organizations that volunteer their time to help NOAA carry out its mission. NOAA established the Environmental Hero awards in 1995, and agency employees submit nominations.

“There are thousands of volunteers who give their time to help NOAA do its work, and the NOAA Environmental Hero award is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to some individuals and organizations each year,” said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. “Each year, I am impressed by the efforts of the Environmental Heroes, who serve as inspirations to us all.”

A new category was introduced this year, the Long-Time Achievement Award, to periodically honor NOAA-related accomplishments. Jack H. Elrod, Jr. the creator of the Mark Trail cartoon strip was the inaugural winner for showing his readers the dangers of tsunamis, the treasures of the ocean and mysteries still to be solved about our planet.

Nolan Doesken of Fort Collins, Colorado was honored for organizing a network of citizen volunteers to measure and report precipitation from their homes following a flash flood that killed five people in Fort Collins in 1997. Starting with a few volunteers in 1998, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) network involves thousands of volunteers in 17 states, and enhances the forecasting and warning capabilities of the NOAA National Weather Service.

Daryl Herzmann set up a similar program in Iowa when he created the Iowa Environmental Mesonet, a “one-stop-shopping” Web site for current atmospheric and hydrological observations, weather, roadway pavement data, agricultural soil information and climatology.

Not every Environmental Hero has to be an American. For example, one of the winners this year is third-generation lighthouse keeper Oskar J. Sigurdsson, of Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. Oskar has been making atmospheric measurements of carbon dioxide and other trace-gas measurements at the Storhofdi Lighthouse for the past 15 years.

Bruce Popham of Marathon is a champion of the Key West marine environment, leading volunteer efforts to protect the waters around the Keys, while Charlie Campbell of San Angelo, Texas helped National Weather Service weather warnings reach isolated areas of West Texas.

All of these environmental heroes began with small efforts that ended up producing big results.

Posted at 3:01 PM

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What If A Tornado Hit A Heavily Populated Area?

The photograph is unforgettable. Captured by a businessman on his way back to the office after lunch, the picture clearly shows a tornado in downtown Miami. It was May 12, 1997, the day a twister dropped out of the sky and into the history books.

According to a National Weather Service report, the tornado developed just southwest of Miami touching down in the Silver Bluffs Estates a few minutes before 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Moving east northeastward at around 20 mph, the tornado crossed I-95 sweeping through downtown Miami before entering Biscayne Bay near Bicentennial Park. The tornado continued northeast crossing the MacArthur and Venetian causeways before weakening over Biscayne Island.

Described as “a significant F1” tornado, the weather service estimated the twister’s wind speed at 100 to 110 mph. Even though it cut a 150-yard path, eight miles long through the heart of downtown Miami, the storm only caused minor injuries (mostly cuts from flying debris) and no deaths. Damage was estimated at a little more than $500,000.

Thousands of people witnessed the event with many snapping photographs of the tornado as it danced among the city’s skyscrapers. The Miami tornado made newscasts and headlines around the world, marking the first time a twister had hit a major metropolitan area.

Still, the people of downtown Miami were lucky that day. The tornado was weak and only last a few minutes. What would happen if a much more powerful tornado had hit the city, a tornado with winds of 300 mph and a width of over one mile?

Sound crazy? Don’t tell that to Joshua Wurman and Paul Robinson, two scientists from the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colorado. Wurman and Robinson are convinced that someday a large, intense and long-track tornado will impact a densely populated urban or suburban region.

That worst-case scenario almost happened in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on May 3, 1999. More than 70 tornadoes touched down in the Central Plains that afternoon including the last F-5 twister recorded in the United States.

The National Weather Service reported that the F-5 tornado had winds of 300 mph as it tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. The powerful storm destroyed more than 10,000 buildings, produced $1.1 billion in damage and claimed 36 lives.

Wurman and Robinson wanted to know what a similar tornado would do if it hit a heavily populated urban area. Using computer models and data from past tornado outbreaks, the two scientists created a large, powerful simulated tornado hitting Chicago, Illinois.

The result of such an event would be catastrophic. Wurman and Robinson, writing in the Journal of the American Meteorological Society, say that such an event “could cause widespread damage and loss of life on a scale that has not been observed historically with tornadoes.”

Wurman and Robinson’s computer model suggests that a powerful tornado, like the one that hit Moore, would “destroy structures across more than 50 miles, killing perhaps 10% of the residents in these structures, resulting in as many as 13,000 to 45,000 deaths in densely populated cities like Chicago.”

The scientists recommend that emergency managers in highly populated areas have contingency plans for such an event. While admitting that a powerful tornado striking a major city has not occurred, Wurman and Robinson say such an event is inevitable. Through increased awareness, preparation and reliable weather warnings, the impact of a powerful tornado hitting an urban area may be reduced.

Posted at 9:24 AM

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

National Hurricane Conference Is Underway

The annual National Hurricane Conference is underway in New Orleans, returning to the northern Gulf Coast for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005.

This year’s agenda is full of speakers and programs addressing Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi, the ongoing recovering efforts in the region, and the threat another storm would pose to the area.

While most of the attention will be focused on the nation’s costliest hurricane, attendees will also take their first measure of the new director of the National Hurricane Center.

Bill Proenza, 62, took over one of meteorology’s most highly visible posts in January replacing Max Mayfield, who had held the job for the past six years.

Proenza, a career employee of the National Weather Service who most recently served as director of the agency’s Southern Region, is no stranger to hurricanes. He began his career more than 40 years ago flying through tropical storms and hurricanes with the Hurricane Hunters.

Proenza will review the relatively quiet 2006 hurricane season and look ahead to what many experts believe will be a more active 2007 hurricane season.

Proenza is also expected to talk about technology, specifically a weather satellite called QuikScat that could play a pivotal role in the upcoming hurricane season. In an interview with the Associated Press a few weeks ago, Proenza saaid hurricane forecasts could be up to 16% less accurate if the aging weather satellite, which is already beyond its expected life span, suddenly stops working.

Just hours before Katrina made landfall near New Orleans in August of 2005, the QuikScat satellite mapped the huge storm’s wind speeds, helping forecasters pinpoint Katrina’s impact in public information bulletins.

Launched in 1999 by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the QuikScat satellite was an experiment that was supposed to end in 2002. “It is currently in its seventh year of operation and was expected to last only five years,” said Proenza. “It is only a matter of time until it fails.”

Without the QuickScat satellite, Proenza said the two and three day forecasts of a storm’s future track would be affected. The two-day forecast could be off by ten percent, while the three-day forecast could be affected by 16 percent.

“That could mean that longer stretches of coastline would be placed under warnings,” said Proenza. “More people than necessary would have to evacuate.”

Solving the problem would take money and time. Proenza said that government, university and private-industry hurricane researchers need to get together to push for additional federal support for hurricane research.

“We have to argue, as a strong-cross section of the federal government, that this is indeed a high-priority program that needs support,” said Proenza. “It’s a big funding issue and it involves significant dollars that I alone do not have access to.”

The National Science Foundation agrees. In December, the Agency issued a report called: “Hurricane Warning: The Critical Need for a National Hurricane Research Initiative.” The report recommended a new research program with an annual budget of $300 million. President Bush’s proposed fiscal year 2008 budget calls for just $2 million to be spent on hurricane research.

Florida’s two senators, Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, have proposed spending $4.3 billion dollars over a ten-year period for hurricane research. Their proposal is currently under consideration in the Senate.

People attending this year’s National Hurricane Conference will spend most of their time looking back at the power and devastation of Katrina and, if Proenza has his way, looking ahead toward a new era of hurricane research.

Posted at 2:26 PM