Monday, January 21, 2008

Weather And Video Games

I'm supposed to be a grownup. After all, I'm over 50 years old, my hair is turning gray and I'm lucky enough to have a wonderful family. Yet, I'm still a kid at heart, which may explain my fascination with video games.

A few years ago a group of us at the TV station purchased the XBOX 360 video console and several games. Within a few hours, I was hooked, spending many more hours sitting in front on my television while madly pushing the "A", "X", "B" and "Y" buttons on the wireless controller.

One of the really neat aspects of the XBOX console is the ability to compete against video game enthusiasts around the world. With your XBOX 360 connected to the Internet, you can play games and have conversations with folks anywhere on the planet. It was a real hoot the first time I played the Tiger Woods golf simulation game with someone from Australia.

So, why am I writing about video games when I should be talking about the weather? Well, it's because video game programmers are including more real-world information (like the weather) in their games. And big companies, like The Weather Channel, are jumping on the video game bandwagon.

Take, for example, NCAA Football 08, a popular college football simulation game. Published by Entertainment Arts Sports (the same folks who make the top selling Madden NFL series). NCAA Football 08 captures the excitement and passion of college football. One of the game's newest features is a tie-in with the Weather Channel.

After choosing teams for the game, gamers can click on The Weather Channel Live Feed to receive the current weather at the stadium. Let's say, for example, that you picked the University of Miami Hurricanes to play the Florida State Seminoles in Tallahassee. After clicking on The Weather Channel Feed, your game will be played under the current weather in the state capitol, whether is sunny, wet, chilly or hot.

One of the most popular video games in history (it has sold more than 18 million games worldwide) is The Sims. Published by Electronic Arts, The Sims lets you create your own little world, an alternate reality of homes, businesses, neighborhoods and cities.

The most recent Sims game, SimCity Societies, even incorporates the effect of global warming. In the game, players build a community by placing roads, buildings and power sources throughout the region. The power sources range from options that emit high levels of carbon dioxide to more environmentally friendly alternatives like solar power and wind farms.

The game actually monitors the carbon released into the atmosphere as well as natural disasters like droughts, heat waves and powerful storms.

The video gamer is presented with a series of real-world issues that make the game seem more life-like than anyone could imagine.

"We have the opportunity to demonstrate the causes and effects of global warming," said Steve Seabolt of Electronic Arts. "We can educate players how seemingly small choices can have a big global impact."

Weather plays a big role in other video games, too. In Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 you need to calculate how gusty winds will affect your shot to the green. And, in MLB 2K7, a simulation of major league baseball published by 2K Sports, rain delays are part of the video game just as in real life.

The goal is make the game more realistic. The addition of real-world information-like The Weather Channel Live Feed or the impact of global warming-it would appear that video game programmers are succeeding.

I'd like to write more about weather and video games but that guy in Australia wants to play golf again. Like I said, I'm supposed to be a grownup.

Posted at 1:19 PM

Friday, January 11, 2008

2007 Storm Season In Review

The race was on. Was it going to become the last storm of the 2007 hurricane season (the name would be Pablo) or the first storm of the 2008 season (the name would be Arthur)?

That was the dilemma facing forecasters at the National Hurricane Center as the new year approached. An area of disturbed weather in the far eastern Atlantic Ocean was gaining tropical characteristics and might develop into tropical cyclone. But, when?

If the system was named before the clock struck midnight on December 31 st it would be called Pablo and be part of the 2007 season, and if it formed on the first day of the new year it would be named Arthur and be the first storm of the 2008 season.

"The system has been producing gale-force winds, mainly to the north and east of its circulation center," senior hurricane specialist Richard Knabb told the Miami Herald. "It could become a sub-tropical system."

As it turned out, the system fizzled and eventually fell apart meaning the 2007 hurricane season has officially come to a close. The final tally:

14 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

Still, not everyone agrees with those numbers.

"They seem to be naming a lot more than they used to," Neil Frank, a former director of the National Hurricane Center told the Houston Chronicle. "This year, I would put four storms in the very questionable category, and maybe even six."

Frank, now the chief meteorologist for a Houston TV station, says Chantal, Eric, Gabrielle, Ingrid, Jerry and Melissa may not deserve tropical storm status because each system had a relatively high central pressure. Each system did have sustained winds of 39 mph, the criteria to be classified as a tropical storm, but only for a brief period of time.

Frank told the newspaper that he prefers using the central pressure to measure the intensity of a tropical system, because it can be directly measured by aircraft dropping an instrument into a tropical cyclone. "In the past, we would have waited to see if another observation supported naming the system," Frank said. "We would have been a little more conservative."

Officials had the National Hurricane Center believe that wind speeds are the true indicator of a storm's status. "For at least the last two decades, I am certain most, if not all, the storms named this year would have also been named," said Bill Read, deputy director of the hurricane center told the Chronicle.

Thanks to new technology, like the QuickSCAT satellite, more accurate wind measurements are available. Read argues that it only makes sense to use the best technology to quickly determine if a system has reached tropical storm strength.

"An oncologist today would use the latest technology for determining and assessing one's cancer," Read said. "Would you use a doctor who only used X-rays instead of the latest MRI?"

Determining an accurate account of tropical storm activity is important in a number of areas. The insurance industry uses the numbers to help set homeowner rates, researchers need the data to determine trends in hurricane activity and scientists use the information to determine whether global warming is influencing hurricane activity.

Before the age of weather satellites, no one really knew how many tropical storms and hurricanes formed each year, especially in the far reaches of the ocean. Today, however, every suspicious swirl is closely examined, just like that disturbance in the eastern Atlantic last weekend.

Was it going to be the last storm of 2007, the first storm of 2008 or another candidate for controversy? Maybe it was a good thing it didn't develop after all.

Posted at 12:42 PM