Lightning

Lightning is one of those amazing and scary phenomena that nature uses to try to keep equilibrium – in this case, to equalize the static charge between clouds and the ground (link to Wikipedia article). While the displays can be beautiful, the sound it produces (thunder) isn’t much fun for a lot of dogs (and a few cats), and lightning causes on average around 30 deaths a year in the US. It also causes something on the order of two billion dollars in damage, a number that is increasing. No, not because of climate change, but because of all the electrical stuff we have today. Modern electronics is sensitive to both the static charge and the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a nearby strike.

Nicholas can’t see or hear too well, he doesn’t like the thunder. Ok, this photo is pure clickbait because my silly FB post yesterday about Google’s cat paw app got 5x the normal views. Sigh.

Lightning damage is often strange. This weekend we had a strike hit a power pole a few hundred feet from the office. Why there, when the office has a big metal tower that sticks up at least as high, not to mention lots of higher trees and nearby cell towers? Probably something to do with the way the power lines are run in this neighborhood and the fact the cap wasn’t grounded on the pole. In any event, despite being on a different circuit than the hit pole, I had a lot of damage, all of it seems to be from EMP (the exception is the geophone in the seismometer). Essentially every Ethernet card with a cable run over 10 feet or so was damaged. For systems with embedded Ethernet ports that’s fatal. The numerous radios and antennas were not impacted at all as far I as I can tell, but they all have special protection, and of course the cluster computer uses high speed optical fiber so it’s ok. In any event, still sorting out the damage and figuring out what to do next. A bigger problem than the cost and paperwork hassle is the layout and design. While my systems were cutting edge a few years ago, it certainly isn’t what you would implement today given the changing pace of technology. So just replacing stuff isn’t really smart or even practical – I do have some spares but not enough to replace all that was damaged. But the core monitoring systems are hardened and generating data, so here’s a tropical update.

As expected, the strong tropical wave coming off the coast of Africa is not being tracked as Invest AL97 (or 97L). NHC gives it a 40% chance of developing before it encounters unfavorable conditions in a a few days. It looks to stay north of the Caribbean Islands, nothing to get excited about yet unless you’re on TV and need something to talk about 😛

Raw spaghetti. Cook prior to consumption. Most of these tracks are for subtropical lows or depressions, even if it does organized enough for NHC to initiate advisories it probably won’t get very strong.

Tropical wave coming off of Africa today (Sunday 7 Aug 2022)

Nothing to worry about. What, you want more? Sigh. Ok. The US National Hurricane Center has put the orange X of doom on its Tropical Weather Outlook this morning (link) marking a system they tag at a 40% chance of becoming a tropical system. Here is what it looks like on satellite:

IR (cloud top temperatures, colder=stronger thunderstorms) on left, visual on right, 6:20am ET Sunday. Wave of interest is the cluster of orange on the right.

The reason for NHC’s interest is the global forecast models show this becoming a tropical low, and indeed a tropical storm, by the middle of the week. Here is what the GFS model is spewing out for Tuesday afternoon at 2pm ET …

GFS 850mb winds and heights for Tuesday afternoon, based on Sunday 2am forecast run.

Ten or 15 years ago a global model showing development like this would be viewed with a lot of skepticism. They had a bad tendency to “spin up” false vorticies. But they’ve gotten a lot better over time, and the current generation, while still far from perfect, should be taken seriously when there is “run to run consistency”. What does that mean? Every six hours weather station and satellite data is collected from around the world and a digital “snapshot” of what we think the atmosphere looks like is created. These are called initial conditions. The big global models are then run from that starting point. So one way of assessing the reliability of a long forecast is to see how similar they are. Since the last four GFS runs (and the European IFS as well) both show something spinning up in about the same location, we have more confidence it may really happen. Because the GFS and IFS use somewhat different assimilation processes of the raw data, when they agree that’s a further boost to confidence. Of course, the problem is that data over the oceans is sparse, and the atmosphere is really complex (not to mention the ocean, and the interactions between the two!). So models can be “consistently wrong” for a variety of reasons.

Any local weather dude or dudette talking about this is wasting their time at this point – they could be doing a “heartwarming human interest” story 😛 . Any national weather channels who says much more than “there is a wave coming off of Africa and we are watching it for development” without being very clear that it’s far from threatening anybody. and the global forecast models are indicating it a fish storm staying north of the Caribbean is either filling time or fear mongering. It isn’t even an invest area yet, although I expect it will get tagged as one by tomorrow at the latest.

Doomwatch and Geopolitics (Ukraine, Taiwan) Notes, 5 August 2022

In the natural disaster world, the big news items are the slow motion events like floods and droughts. That’s an area I’m doing some active work and research, so will try to do a more specific post in upcoming days. The usual suspects (NOAA and Colorado State University) have issued their mid-season forecasts. Here’s the NOAA update (link) – bottom line is an active season is still in the works, even though the next week looks quiet both in the Atlantic and West Pacific. The activity in the East Pacific has been staying offshore. Here is this morning’s tropical analysis: notice how quiet the Atlantic is compared to the East Pacific.

Tropical Surface Analysis from TAFB/NHC, Friday Morning 5 August 2022

Continuing to watch the spectacular new volcanic eruption in Iceland (link to live TV). But as has been the case recently the big news is what Humans are doing to each other, rather than what nature is up to.

The grind towards a likely Russian liberation/occupation (depending on your perspective) of most of eastern Ukraine continues. Your perception of what is going on depends entirely on your information sources, and all of them are either biased, incomplete, or most commonly just outright lying, so multi-source integration is essential. Amnesty International has come out with a controversial report that has annoyed the supporters of the current government of Ukraine, saying that Ukrainian tactics deliberately put civilians in danger. This supports what I’ve been saying since the beginning (and that’s 2014, not this February): Ukrainian government forces are using civilians as human shields, as well as deliberately targeting civilians in pro-Russian areas. While it has largely gone unreported in the western media, there is hard evidence over the last few days that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are deploying banned artillery delivered anti-personnel mines in to civilian areas well behind the the front lines. It’s a nasty business. To repeat myself, this is really a civil war where two parties (NATO and Russia) are supporting the two sides as proxies in their own conflict. I wrote a long piece three years ago on the background to the conflict in Ukraine that I think holds up well – please read it if you aren’t familiar with how we got here (or if you’ve only heard the prevailing narrative).

Other than revising the timeline, I don’t have much else to add with respect to the progress of the conflict in Ukraine from what I wrote last April. This probably won’t be a popular comment, but I think to a neutral observer the economy of force and attempts to avoid civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure that Russia is using in this conflict is interesting as compared to the US way of doing business. For example, power, water, and communications are still on in most of the country. Compare that with the deliberate strikes against purely civilian infrastructure by NATO in Yugoslavia. Or with the horrific impact on civilians that are routine used by the West, most of the impact of which falls on vulnerable populations and are designed to cause social unrest. That’s not to say the Russian invasion isn’t messy and brutal, but simply to provide context. The full economic ramifications of the conflict haven’t hit yet – this winter could be a long one for Europe, and those impacts will be felt here in the US as well unless some accommodations are made. And my sense is that Vladimir Vladimirovich specifically and Russia in general aren’t a forgiving mood these days.

But the bottom line is, as it has been since 2014, the situation in Ukraine is tragic, avoidable, and in the end horrific for the people caught in the middle.

Of course Ukraine isn’t the only conflict in the news. Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has triggered a major crisis that isn’t likely to calm down any time soon. Unlike Ukraine, I can’t really say too much about the specifics with any authority – China/Asia was never in my portfolio. It feels to be a similar situation to Ukraine in some ways – an ongoing civil war, albeit currently not a hot war – and yet the US is on the “other” side. It seems a bit hypocritical to support the right of determination for the people of Taiwan yet not support the right of the people of Donbas to do the same. My sympathies are somewhat with Taiwan, but it is a complex situation and I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to take a firm stand.

Taylor’s “The Generalissimo” is a good background on all this. Even though Bǫðvarr Bjarki was bored.

What is almost certainly similar is that the US is approaching the crisis with the neoconservative theory of American Exceptionalism. The whole way the trip was announced and implemented was incredibly provocative and dangerous. It didn’t have to be that way – there were many ways Pelosi could have done this, even travel to Taiwan, that would have been less provocative. If it was planned, it was a stupid plan, but I suspect like most US Foreign Policy actions it was less planned than just happened as politicians make short term, selfish calculations and the professionals are left scrambling to mitigate the consequences.

So that’s a quick review of where I think things stand. Any of the above (except Taiwan) could be a full blown post or five, but I have work to do before the height of the storm season hits …

An update on SARS-COV-2 mortality

We are now in to the third year of dealing with this virus and pandemic, so we’ve got some long term trend data to digest despite the fact our real time surveillance and monitoring is terrible. It is amazing that in this technically advanced country it takes over a month to collect and collate reliable mortality statistics. But that said, here’s a go at a summary of where we stand. Note that the CDC mortality statistics are compiled on a weekly basis, which makes sense as day to day variations and record keeping anomalies like holidays and weekends get smoothed out. Here I’m looking at “excess mortality” – people who died in any given week who probably would not have if it had not been for COVID. Also note that the typical course of the disease is that death occurs 2-3 weeks or so after infection, so the “death” curve lags the “infection” curve by around three weeks.

First, we have to pick a “start date.” For that we can’t use the calendar year because in the US the pandemic really didn’t get going and become widespread until the end of March or early April. So let’s use the 13th week of the year, March 28 2020 as our reference. That means year one is from March 28 2020 to March 26 2021, and year two is March 27 2021 to March 25 2022, and we are now about 17 weeks into year three. Here is a plot of excess deaths due to the pandemic by week. The blue line is the first year, the orange line the second year, and the yellow line is this year so far. I’ll explain the green line further down.

Click to see full size.

The blue line, 2020, clearly shows the initial wave (with the sharp rise as the disease spread and vulnerable populations fell) as the infection spread across the country. The “summer peak”, which is unusual for a respiratory virus, is also clear, and happened between mid June and early September. Then the big one, the massive winter wave of 2020 between weeks 30 and 52 (early November to early March). Enter 2021 (the orange line). Here we have three factors: first, the various masking and social distancing measures were in full force, and second vaccination was kicking off. By week 1 of year two (first week of April 2021) 25% of Americans were “fully vaccinated” (the initial two dose sequence), and there was no spring wave or early summer peak as seen in 2020. Unfortunately by Summer 2021 restrictions were being lifted, and there was still a significant population that was either not exposed and unvaccinated. So the delayed summer peak hit with almost as many deaths as the initial wave in the spring of 2020. By disease week 40 62% of the population had been vaccinated, so perhaps 80% of the population had some kind of immunity from either having COVID or being vaccinated. So why was there a sharp uptick in the orange line? The third factor: variants like Omicron. While technically not as deadly, the variants spread more easily than COVID Classic. But, as the graph shows, the peak was not as high, and not as many people fell sick and died. So how bad was the first year? We lost 555,242 people who would not have otherwise died. SARS-COV-2 had a whole population mortality rate of 0.168%. The 2017 Flu season had a whole population mortality rate of 0.0187%. So it was far worse than a normal influenza epidemic, almost ten times as bad. However, it wasn’t as bad as the Spanish Flu of 1918, which had a rate of around 0.3%. The two year rate for Spanish Flu was 0.65%, SARS-COV-2 was 0.30%. However, a caution, in that the full story of COVID has yet to be told. Spanish Flu went away, and immunity was long lasting. it doesn’t look like this new virus is going to go so quietly.

Where do we stand? At first things looked pretty good this year. The mortality trend was going down. But the new variant (BA5) is more easily transmitted and appears to be more deadly. Starting at the end of March, the death rate in 2022 became higher than in 2021 – and the trends aren’t good. The yellow line is reported, but as noted above there is a problem. It takes at least a month for all of the mortality data to come in. Even so what we have the line is above 2021, and if we estimate statistically what the line might look like when all the data is in, we get the green line. I sure hope that’s wrong, but in any event it does look like we might be in for another wave.

One last note of interest, the consensus computer models (not the extreme ones that got all the attention in public) at the end of February 2020 estimated the mortality in the US for the first year of the pandemic at 0.1326%. That’s not too bad given what was observed (0.168%).

Caveats: this isn’t a formal scientific study, just a brief overview. I think it’s pretty close, it’s just plotting processed numbers so not terribly complex, but obviously not peer reviewed. The primary reference data for this analysis is the CDC’s Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19 data set (link to CSV). Vaccination data also from CDC is located here (link). Both are raw data sets, be sure to read and understand the technical notes before you do any number crunching – like hurricane track data, spaghetti must be cooked before consumed 😛 .

Roost Rings

The Charleston SC Doppler radar (really located south of Hampton, SC) picked up something that, if you’ve never seen them before, might send you scurrying to the news to see if something blew up, or the nearest UFO meeting to see what you missed:

Radar from KCLX (“Charleston” radar), Saturday Morning, 23 July 2022

Here is one frame zoomed in on the source, which seems to be east of Columbia, near Irmo, SC …

And here is what is there on Google Earth:

Click any graphic to embiggen.

So what is going on? The lake is a strong clue. It is a “Roost Ring”, radar returns from massive numbers of birds leaving their roosts to head out to forage for the day. Here is an article from the National Weather Service with more details (link). In this case we are seeing Purple Martins leaving Lake Murray, which holds the largest sanctuary in North America, Bomb Island, home to something like one million of these birds.

The above radar images are reflectivity (strength) on the left, and direction of motion relative to the radar station on the right. Green means it is moving towards the radar station, red away. On the zoomed in view, that “arrow” pointing towards the station is an artifact of the earth’s curvature, the height the birds are flying, and the scan angle of the radar. Another neat thing to see is that thunderstorm cluster that flared up over Myrtle Beach, visible in the top animation which covers from 5:30 to 7:30 am. At 6:15 it was nothing, by 7am it was a strong, 50dBZ return. That goes to show that this time if year it doesn’t take long for an innocent looking cloud to turn into a dangerous thunderstorm, so boaters and aviators beware! Just because the radar is clear now doesn’t mean it will be that way in 20 or 30 minutes.

FYI, there’s no threatening activity to speak of in the tropics anywhere in the world. JTWC is watching a weak circulation south of Japan, and NHC is watching activity in the Eastern Pacific, but staying offshore of Mexico and fading out before nearing Hawai’i, so no big risks there. No major earthquakes recently, and the situation in Ukraine continues to be Russia methodically working their way towards their objectives, not that you’d know that from Western media. The COVID pandemic is entering a new phase, with lots of interesting research and much better understanding of both the virus and how the vaccines interact. Unfortunately the data collection system and advice for the public, over two years after the virus appeared, is still substandard, with many states (like Georgia) not having updated their public data pages since April, and the news media jumping from issue to issue with no consistent coverage. The environment is so hostile for rational discourse that it’s hard to get the energy to write up something on either of those topics, but maybe I’ll give it a go next week.

#Europe and the UK on Fire

Temperatures in the UK and Europe are on track to set all time records today. Headlines on BBC are “Warnings of Heat Apocalypse (link)”, which for once are actually not far off …

Click to embiggen. Expected high temperature in degrees F for the ignorant colonists.

France has been suffering for several days, with not just high temperatures but extensive fires in the Southwest of the country. Portugal and Spain also have extensive fires, here is one as observed by the EU’s Sentinel satellite system:

European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery of Castilla y Léon , in western Spain.

London is under its first ever “Red Extreme Heat Warning (link)” and is on track for records today. The overall high temperature record is the UK us 38.7F, or 101.7. That record will almost certainly be broken somewhere in southern England today. But records are broken all the time, given the fact our record of observations is relatively limited. So just how unusual is this? Let’s take a closer look.

The observatory at Greenwich has been collecting data since 1841. That’s a pretty good record, but it’s only 180 years. Using data from 1991 to 2020, the average high in July is 74.8F, the record is 95.5F, the all time record, set in August 2003, is 99.5F. The previous record was set in 1990 at 95F. So if the temperature does hit 106F as forecast then both the July and all time records will be shattered. So this is a pretty unusual event. Is it related to climate change? Well, that’s a more complicated question. The temperatures are likely higher due to anthropogenic (human caused) factors. Pointing the finger at any given day or event and screaming “J’ACCUSE!” is really tricky (and scientifically unsound). What we can say is that events like this are more likely, and we will see more of them going forward. That’s not a good thing.

Coastal GA/SC Rain 9-11 July

There has been an interesting (and needed) rain event over Coastal GA (Savannah) and the South Carolina Low Country the last few days. Here is the Multi Radar Multi Sensor (MRMS) 72 hour accumulation from 8am 9 July to 8am 12 July 2022:

Click to embiggen and see location labels

The gauge at the Enki office in Midtown Savannah is showing 5.99″, which is close to the MRMS estimate. Notice the very sharp gradient and the southwest-northeast line area of heavy rain running along the coast. This is caused by storm cells following roughly the same ground track during the big rain events the last few days. Saturday and Sunday night’s rain each of dropped over 2″, and 1.8″ another last night. So far in July our gauge is showing 8.08″. But compare that to the Savannah International Airport, located 8.5 miles inland, which has only had 2.15″ over the same period. For this weekend’s rain, rain totals varied from under an inch in parts of Pooler to over 6.5″ in parts of downtown, around 5.5″ midtown, 4.5 at Hunter Army Air Field, and over 5″ at Skidaway and parts of the Islands.

Rain is one of the hardest weather variables to forecast. This example shows why – sites located only a few miles apart (indeed, only a few city blocks apart) can show radically different rain totals depending on the exact track of thunderstorm cells. Winter rains (stratiform rain) tend to be more uniform. But summer rain, which is typically convective (produced by thunderstorms), can be far more localized.

Thing in the Gulf, First Webb Images

There is an area in the northern Gulf of Mexico being watched by the National Hurricane Center. If you like watching paint dry, you can too, otherwise, by far the most likely outcome is heavy rain along the Gulf Coast. Elsewhere, the only actual storm is Hurricane Darby, about halfway between Baja and Hawai’i. So you can relax and enjoy the first Webb Space Telescope images. As good as the Hubble images were, Webb is an order of magnitude better. Here is a comparison of galaxies seen in the first public image released yesterday:

Webb (left), HST (right)

To make this even more incredible, the HST images are from a 10 day (240 hour) exposure. The Webb images are from only a 12 hour exposure! More images are coming this morning … this is an amazing view of the early universe, and Webb should provide fertile ground for advances in many areas of astronomy and astrophysics.