US #Icestorm developing …

There is a huge frontal system slowly grinding to a halt across the US, with a low pressure system forming at the tail end over Texas. Here is the current synoptic weather map …

Synoptic weather map as of 7am ET with IR Satellite image

… and MRMS radar composite as of around 9:30am Thursday.

The low is expected to scoot up along the front, and over the next two days there is an increasing chance of a major ice storm event in an arc from Texas to the Northeast. In the this animation, the orange areas are areas where ice accumulation is possible:

GFS Simulated Radar and Precipitation Type for next couple of days (Thu/Fri/Sat). Click to embiggen.

Ice is a lot bigger problem than snow. Ice is a lot denser than snow, and tends to stick to and accumulate on things like tree branches and power lines (not to mention making roads just about impassible). The extra weight means branches and even whole trees breaking, and power lines coming down. So expect scattered outages across a wide swath of the US this New Years. The DHS/FEMA site has some advice on how to prepare for winter storms. So as you celebrate the new year, be careful!

Major #Earthquake in #Croatia

Over the last few days there have been a series of small earthquakes in Croatia. This morning US time (noon CET) a shallow M6.4 hit, and early reports are to have caused significant damage. At least one person has been killed, and the mayor of Petrinja reports โ€œThis is a catastrophe. My city is completely destroyed.โ€ It is likely the death toll will be higher as the day goes on.

TAOS/EQ simulation of 29 Dec 2020 Earthquake in Croatia

Initial economic impact estimates are $4 to $5 Billion USD, with some models as high as $8 Billion. There are about 1.5 Million people in the hazard zone, and upwards of 150,000 people living in areas with a significant risk of structural collapse.

Update on Various Stuff …

Doing some major end of year restructuring, with the ending of one era and the beginning of another and major changes in my funding and work environment coming to a head. Some announcements on that coming with the new year. While I think 2021 will present a lot of challenges for us all, and with the caveat to be careful what you wish for, a new year presents new opportunities …

Meanwhile, if you’re on twitter and not following #TarmacTheWeatherCat, you really can’t call yourself well informed about the weather.

#TarmacTheWeatherCat, resident supervisor at the Little Rock Weather Service Forecast Office (WSFO).

Funny, all of the chairs in my office look like that too … now Nicholas wants his own hashtag.

#CATastropheCatNicholas? Resident Deity at Enki Research …

In the TC world, there is a weak cyclone impacting Madagascar today, and there have been a few minor earthquakes around the globe, including a whole series of quakes along the south coast of Puerto Rico, causing some minor damage and a lot of stress in that hard hit area. Watching this carefully.

Severe weather approaching Coastal GA, SC

The Charleston WSFO has raised severe thunderstorm warnings for most of the area, and a tornado has been detected near Hampton SC. Here’s the radar at the moment (just before 6:30pm Christmas Eve) – the tornado is the bright white dot just north (up) from the black circle of no data over the radar station …

Make sure your weather radios are on, or your mobile phones have the emergency alerts active … could be a busy hour or so.

Jupiter and Saturn

Conjunctions (the close approach of two objects) happen fairly frequently on a cosmic scale – Jupiter and Saturn pass one another about every 20 years, but today Jupiter and Saturn are the closest they have been in the sky since the year 1226, almost 800 years ago! This is one of those events that sounds a lot more spectacular than it looks. What you will see is one bright and one less bright star-like object in the sky that are less than the width of the full moon apart. The real show was in slow motion over the last couple of weeks as the two moved closer to one another. Here’s the view on the 13th and 18th (same focal length lens, slightly different times and camera position as you can see from the Spanish moss hanging down …). You can grab the slider (<>) and move it from side to side to see how much difference a week made …

Jupiter and Saturn, 13th and 18th of December

Through a small telescope you can see that these are not stars but planets … here is a view using a 400mm lens …

Saturn (top) and Jupiter. You can just make out the rings of Saturn and the cloud bands of Juipter in a small telescope. Although not visible in this shot you would also see several moons of each planet.

The real magic in this event is that you are seeing something that won’t be seen again in several lifetimes. People today are less attuned to the sky, especially given the lights in most cities block out the stars. Besides the sun, the only object most people see is the moon – and that often only when it’s full. But our ancestors watched the sky carefully, and noticed that some of the “stars” moved, and thought them to be special, perhaps messengers of the Gods or even the Gods Themselves. Those who watched the sky and interpreted the motions of the sun, moon, and stars noticed that in the years leading up to the year 750 AUC (Ab Urbe Condita, after the founding of The City – Rome) that there were a series of conjunctions between Jupiter, Venus, the Moon, and Saturn in auspicious constellations that may well have indicated to them that a new King would be born in Israel. That is one theory as to what the Christmas Star might have been, but there are others. From a theological standpoint seeking a naturalistic explanation seems to miss the point a bit since it is one of those things that probably isn’t going to convince anyone one way or the other. Besides, the Nativity was almost certainly in the Spring anyway … In any event, if you are a Christian or not, this is a window to a past where the majority of humans lived outside and were much more connected to the sky and their environment. So take a few minutes right after sunset and try to imagine what it was like thousands of years ago with no city lights, watching these mysterious objects majestically dance through the heavens …

Cyclone Yasa and Fiji

While the snowstorm made headlines in the US yesterday, cyclone Yasa crossed the islands of Fiji yesterday …

TAOS/TC Impact estimate for Cyclone Yasa

Loss of life seems light, two deaths confirmed so far as of Friday morning US East Coast time, but damage is extensive. Fortunately the damage swath missed the more densely populated island of Viti Levu and main city of Sava, but it is still likely that Yasa caused upwards of $100 Million USD in damage. That may not seem like much, however for some perspective that’s around 1.8% of GDP, so it would be the equivalent of 360 Billion dollar storm hitting the US, or over three Katrina/Sandy class storms.

The Coming Storm

No, not that one. Or that one. I mean the literal one, this one, the first big winter storm of the season. Here is the situation as of this morning (map forecast for 8am ET Wednesday, the storm is the “L” off the Georgia Coast):

Winter storm forming over Southeastern US … GFS model of precipitation type and moisture transport.

Like hurricanes, winter storms have to have a mix of conditions come together to cause them to grow and evolve. The key to weather on the earth is the need to balance the warm, moist air from the tropics with the cold, dry air over the poles. This happens in a number of ways, but in the summer the most dramatic are of course hurricanes. In the winter, it’s nor’easters. A classic nor’easter starts out as a low pressure system just off the coast of the Southeast. It moves northeast along the coast, carrying with it the warm moist air of the Gulf of Mexico and Bahamas, pushing that air inland where it meets cold polar air. It is along that swath where the air masses collide that the potential problems for Humans comes in. The danger this morning lies Appalachians and western North Carolina where the precipitation may be in the form of freezing rain, as well as inland in Kentucky (on the map, the red/purple area). Here is what things should look like this evening around 7pm. Notice that the low is deeper (stronger), the blue moisture transport vectors are longer (stronger), and across the New York/Pennsylvania area snow will be falling. The zone of freezing rain will by then have shifted to western Virginia.

The situation tonight …

By tomorrow morning the Low should be more elongated and off the Massachusetts coast, still pumping moist, snow-laden are into the NorthEast. The storm should be off the Canadian Marine Provinces by Friday.

Thursday Night

In terms of impacts, again the big concern is the area where freezing rain and ice will be falling. For the Northeast, snow could be fairly deep in places – some forecasts are for up to 24″ – but it’s more likely to be disruptive rather than truly dangerous, and again conditions should clear out by this weekend. For the Deep South (GA/SC), this will be a rain event, even for North Georgia. As things continue to cool off with the approaching winter season, the risk for ice storms will move further south … but the impacts of this event will be in North Carolina and the NEUS. How should you prepare for winter storm season? Take a look at the FEMA/DHS Winter Storm page for tips …

The Vaccine question

My guess is every engineering student since the mid 1940’s has had to watch the video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. Other professions have similar cautionary tales of hubris, short cuts, innocent mistakes, misunderstanding of nature, and things that went terribly wrong. They are often clear in hindsight, but lost in the immediate noise and pressure of crisis decision making. Often progress requires risk – but the two require a rational balance. Now that a number of potential vaccines are approaching approval and distribution, everyone from government officials to individuals are soon facing difficult decisions: who gets what vaccine, when or if to take it, and what level of persuasion (or even coercion) should be used to get people to take them. Yes, these are difficult decisions, and to be blunt anyone who says it’s a “no brainer,” simple, or obvious is either fostering an agenda, being disingenuous, or doesn’t know what they are talking about. These questions are even more difficult because several of the potential vaccines on the verge of distribution are using technologies that have never seen wide spread distribution and use. Compounding that are issues of politics, National pride, and commercialism. The details are complex, and most of the simplified explanations I’ve seen (and more than a few technical ones as well) are biased either towards “trust us; don’t worry” or “it could be a beaker full of death.”

The answers to all of life’s questions may be found in Star Trek (the original, not the later crap).

As with most issues, the truth lies well within the extremes, but the the decisions are ultimately fairly straightforward. We have to weigh the consequences of COVID19 (to society and the economy as well as physical health) against the effectiveness and risks (known and unknown) of the various vaccines. Given the complexity, both advocates and detractors (some quite vocal) among the general public really don’t fully understand how any of the vaccines work or their implications. For the vaccines under development, there are four broad classes (link goes to Nature article with good graphics). The major vaccines that have been approved or are closest to certification are in three classes: killed virus (the Chinese Sinovac), viral vector, such as those based on the Human adenovirus (like the Gamaleya vaccine) or Chimpanzee adenovirus (AstraZeneca/Oxford); and those based on nucleic acid – the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna). The killed virus approach is how most current vaccines work. The viral vector vaccines are fairly recent, but there are a few that have been approved and in use for over a decade. The mRNA vaccines are substantively different. And it is here we have a bit of a problem.

mRNA vaccines and related technology have only seen small scale experimental use, usually in the context of cancer or other deadly diseases, and have never before been certified. In theory they should be safe, perhaps even safer than traditional approaches, but there are some potential risks and more than a few unknowns. At least some viral vector based technology has been around for 17 years and Gameleya, for instance, has a number of vaccines (including an Ebola vaccine) that have been approved and in use for years. For those vaccines there have also been long term studies as to adverse reactions. So while the actual vaccine for SARS-COV-2 is new (since, obviously, the virus is new), the vaccine methodology itself isn’t – in fact, one was in development after the SARS-COV-1 scare back in 2008. For the mRNA vaccines there have been no long term trials or monitoring, and no previous vaccines approved for human use based on these technologies. Another factor is that the various studies are not using consistent criteria and methodologies. This is a distinction lost on many in the media, such as the NY Times article last Sunday discussing the commencement of distribution in China (Sinovac), Russia (Gamaleya’s SputnikV), versus Great Britain (the Pfizer vax). The FDA briefing materials for the Thursday Pfizer approval meeting also glosses over this issue, but is clear there are a lot of unknowns.

With all of the vaccines, there are unknowns, and always some side effects. How effective is it in the real world? And by “effective”, be very careful how that is defined – some of the criteria in the current Phase III studies seem like pretty low bars compared to past studies. Do they minimize transmission, protect the person inoculated from getting sick, minimize (but not prevent) symptoms? How long does immunity last – and how do the inevitable mutations impact effectiveness? But the ultimate question is do the advantages in reducing the consequences of COVID outweigh the potential side effects of the vaccine – especially given the need for mass inoculations of 80%+ of the population? There is little doubt that the benefit/cost radio of vaccination will be in favor of vaccination if – and it’s still a big IF – they work as the early results indicate, and adverse reaction rates are similar to other vaccines. But can we assume that? Most advocates are. With the mRNA vaccines there are additional unknowns as to the long term impact of the underlying delivery methodology. Again, in theory it should be as safe, and perhaps even safer than more traditional approaches using a live, killed approaches. But we just don’t know. While the short-term impacts seem low based on the early trials, they are just that: short term, relatively small scale studies (weeks to months, thousands of people). No one knows what, if any, the long term consequences of this kind of vaccine as a whole might be when applied to the general population over time. It’s never been done before. There is no reason at the moment to suspect there is some hidden gotcha – but the designer of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge didn’t think it would rip itself apart either.

Opinion and Conclusion: As I have said before, COVID-19 falls in a gray area. If it were causing wide scale deaths across a wide range of groups, and mRNA vaccines were the only viable option, then maybe we would need to “roll the bones” with a new technology. And yet, COVID is bad. But for all the disruption and pain COVID has caused, it’s not smallpox or the black death, much less the FGC-347601 virus Dr. McCoy had to deal with (and recall in that tale, the disease itself was actually an unforeseen side effect of a noble original objective).

Make no mistake: mRNA therapies have the potential to be a major innovation in the treatment of all kinds of diseases from cancer to COVID. But while pressure often leads to rapid advances, we’ve also seen far too often in the history of technical advances that the temporal or economic pressure to do something now leads to catastrophe. Tacoma Narrows. Challenger. Mars Climate Orbiter. The pharmaceutical industry isn’t immune either: Thalidomide, or more recently Vioxx. Darvocet. That said, don’t fall into the anti-vaxxer trap of seeing every adverse reaction as evidence of a conspiracy. It’s painful to say it but a certain adverse reaction rate is acceptable in light of the impacts of the pandemic. And, yes, Big Pharma sees this as a huge money making opportunity, and that requires monitoring and regulation. But Pharma have done a lot of good work, and in the present system, being profitable is how things get done.

When you weigh all the factors, in my opinion it is simply too soon for the wide scale application of some of these vaccines in relation to the risk from COVID (again, not to minimize that risk). Much of the harm of this virus has been self inflicted – a coherent global response would have cut the economic impact five fold, and the death toll by a third in my estimation. If everyone would just behave responsibly, between mitigation and other measures we would have some time to sort this out. Let’s take a deep breath, proceed cautiously, roll out the various vaccines in a reasonable way and not get hung up on national pride (noting some vendors in China have an unfortunate reputation), or commercialism, while moving expeditiously to apply new technologies in parallel as they are validated. The rollout of the new, untested vaccines can and should be spaced over several years. Supply chain issues may force that in practice anyway, but that should have been the plan from the start. And foreign developed vaccines – properly vetted for safety, without nationalistic biases – should be allowed in as part of the mix. The Gamaleya vaccine is likely a prime example. But even the vaccines based on established methodologies need more testing.

I think it is reckless to push the wide spread distribution of novel vaccines on tens of millions of people until there is a longer safety and performance baseline. As noted above we have absolutely no idea what the medium term (2-3 years), much less long term (5-10 years) implications are with respect to adverse outcomes for some of these approaches. It is especially reckless where there are several candidate vaccines with more well understood risks. Maybe the mRNA based vaccines are fantastic, but not only do we not know, we don’t even have the data to know and won’t for several years. To coerce hundreds of millions of people to take these vaccines in an experiment of this magnitude is simply unethical. Should ever increasing numbers try it? Of course – with an appreciation of the risks, under careful supervision and long term monitoring. Those at highest risk? Absolutely – although I’d be careful with otherwise healthy members of the health care community upon which we depend. Tens or hundreds of Millions? It’s just too soon.

Don’t mistake this post as “anti-vax“. It isn’t. I got a flu shot back in September. I get other vaccinations and boosters as needed for travel, etc. For what it’s worth, I’ll try to get one of the vaccines based on established methodologies when available, or, as a number of biomedical researchers have said – usually privately but in this link one does publicly – wait a couple of years until there is a longer term baseline regarding both effectiveness and adverse reactions. The bottom line is that in every medical decision, you have to weigh the pros and cons. Primum non nocere – first, do no harm. Are we doing that by rushing out the novel COVID vaccines for mass vaccination? Needless to say, I’m concerned.

Addendum: I’m not a physician, but I do understand a lot of the issues surrounding this at a fairly detailed level More importantly, I am pretty knowledgeable (some would say expert) in emergency management decision making and how things go wrong in complex scientific and technical processes. To be absolutely clear, I’m not advising anyone not to get one of the new vaccines. I think a lot of people probably should get them. At the moment there is no reason to suspect there is anything wrong with them. In fact many if not most of the fears of the mRNA vaccines are way overblown. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t rational to have some concerns, and saying “we don’t have any reason to suspect there is anything wrong” is VERY VERY DIFFERENT from saying “here is a 5 year followup study that shows nothing is wrong”. Read the actual FDA briefing materials to see how often the word unknown is used. There are lots of competing blog posts and opinionating on all of this, and much of it lacks nuance. Don’t be stampeded into one position or another out of fear. Fear is the mind killer …

The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season

The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season has ended, and there have been much written about the record setting number of named storms. There are several issues with the numbers based on named hurricanes. The problem is that these are based on shifting criteria (naming) and technology (wind speed measurements) that tend, in my opinion, to make recent seasons (especially since 2000) look worse than they really are in context. While it was a very active season with significant damage and impact, the total number of storms is a bit exaggerated – several storms would probably not have been named using the criteria prior to the mid 2000’s. Here are a couple of other ways of looking at things to put the season in perspective.

One measure of the intensity of a season is the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index. It is summing the square of the wind speed for each storm at six hour intervals (recalling that the kinetic energy is related to the square of the wind speed). By that measure the 2020 season is the 13th most active since the mid 1800’s – with the caveat we know there is an undercount of storms, and likely an underestimation of intensity (by modern standards) as well, especially for storms that did not make landfall. So more than likely 2020 was still in the top 20, but probably not above 15th.

What about damage? By that measure, if we use the existing distribution of population and infrastructure for past storms, again we have a bad season (especially for the Gulf Coast and Central America), but depending on how you crunch the numbers far from record setting. 2020 just breaks the top 10 in total damage.

Estimated Economic Impact of Tropical Cyclones in the Atlantic

It does better if you use the criteria of the number of people who experienced tropical storm force winds, coming in at number two, but that is a bit misleading because many people are counted twice (or even three times) since Central America and Louisiana were hit by more than one intense storm. Taking the double counts out it drops to eighth (2012 is by far number one due to the broad Sandy wind field sweeping through the densely populated northeast).

Estimated population experiencing tropical storm winds or greater

So the official Atlantic season ended on November 30th. There is still an invest area in the far eastern Atlantic that has winds well above tropical storm strength, but it does not really have tropical characteristics so has not been named. There is a cyclone at tropical storm strength about to make landfall on Ceylon today, followed by southern India. And the southern hemisphere season is kicking off … the world keeps turning and the seasons change, but there are always weather disasters going on somewhere. For the Blog, will continue to report on cyclones and earthquakes of course, but will be posting more on winter storms in the coming weeks. Interestingly, for many years the biggest property insurance loss numbers come from broken pipes … and you haven’t really experienced terror until you’ve driven the perimeter in Atlanta (much less navigated Spaghetti Junction) with so much as a single ice crystal sighted in Marietta ๐Ÿ˜›