Some severe weather is expected in the US this afternoon – here is the warning graphic from the US Weather Prediction Center (WPC):
An active and dangerous day of weather is set to unfold across the Mid-South today, highlighted by a High Risk of severe weather issued by the Storm Prediction Center. The primary weather driver of this impending tornado outbreak is a strengthening area of low pressure out ahead of a sharp and intense upper level trough tracking into the middle Mississippi Valley and Ohio Valley this evening. Powerful thunderstorms are forecast to blossom in the South this afternoon and track into the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys tonight. These intense thunderstorms are may contain a myriad of hazards that include violent long-track tornadoes, damaging wind gusts, and large hail. In addition to the severe threats, hydrologic hazards are also a serious concern from northern Alabama and Mississippi to the Tennessee Valley and southern Appalachians. Torrential rainfall rates in these areas that also contain overly saturated soil is a recipe for flash flooding. As a result, a Slight Risk of excessive rainfall is in place with a Moderate Risk located over northern Alabama, northwest Georgia, and southeast Tennessee. Residents in these areas should have a plan of action if severe weather threaten their respective locations. In addition, high winds from the lower Great Lakes to the northern Mid-Atlantic Thursday night into Friday morning. High Wind Watches are in place for portions of these regions as strong winds may result in downed trees and power lines.
The initial model estimates seem a bit high – the median was $8 Billion – but I think the likely value is $1 to $4 Billion in total economic impact. There are power outages (some deliberate shutdowns), at least one injury. Damage reports are still coming in …
Also, ad update on yesterday’s eruption in Iceland:
The storm system that has already spawned tornadoes across the south continues to sweep eastward this morning …
Inland areas of Georgia are likely to see strong thunderstorms today, with the potential for more tornadoes. It’s going to be a busy weather day. But, being self centered, what about the coast? TLDR: be prepared, hopefully you have a weather radio handy for alerts. There is a good potential for strong winds and intense thunderstorm cells, and some potential for tornadoes. For Savannah/Hilton Head, arrival times look to be at 3pm, with the main line passing through Savannah around 4pm. Here is the latest (6am) High Resolution Rapid Refresh model forecast for 3pm EST:
The strongest storms should stay west (inland) of I-95, and there is an area to the north of the Hampton SC area that has some potential for stronger storms and tornadoes. In the above model run you can see that area of severe storms approaching stretching up to Walterboro. But the entire region should pay attention to this event and be prepared to take shelter from any tornadoes that form. Here are some tornado preparedness tips from FEMA/DHS.
As for the details, like most things it’s complicated. As a start, while forecasts are much better, with high resolution tools running hourly to update the forecasts, this is still a dynamic situation with some uncertainty. It seems the risk along the coast is lower based on the latest data, however, here is what the National Weather Service’s office in Charleston has to say:
IMPORTANT MESSAGE: After much internal collaboration with the SPC and neighboring WFOs this morning, the earlier “moderate risk” has been replaced with an “enhanced risk” for given the continued uncertainty on how stability profiles will evolve through the day. This action SHOULD NOT be misconstrued as a lowering of the severe risk for the area as conditions still remain favorable for a potential outbreak of severe tstms some of which could produce a few strong tornadoes. It is simply an attempt to better message the uncertainty with how widespread today`s severe weather will be. Media partners are asked to help convey this critical message today.
From NWS Forecast discussion as of 622 AM EST, Thursday 18 March 2021
It will be interesting to see how local media handles this request. Asking local weather forecasters to continue to push a message that things have the potential to be bad is likely to be successful 😛 . But … it also needs to be clear that despite the need for vigilance, these storms might well break up as they reach the coast. I’ve seen some comments that they never come here. Well, sometimes they do … so be prepared.
We’re starting to get enough data to draw some conclusions. TLDR: COVID is dangerous – 4.5 times more deadly than the 2017 Influenza strain, which was a bad one. With the caveat that the long term studies are still underway for a lot of at-risk populations, COVID itself is about 215 times more deadly than the vaccine. The COVID vaccine isn’t really significantly more dangerous than the Influenza vaccine. Here’s a bit more detail and context …
There is a lot of argument and discussion over the relative risk of COVID vaccines, especially in Europe with the reports of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine potentially causing blood clots in some people, and the Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) in the mRNA vaccines causing anaphylaxis (allergic reactions) here in the US. Both are concerning – and there is an urgent need to figure out why certain people are more vulnerable to adverse reactions than others. Certainly those with known allergies should be very careful to check the components of each vaccine before receiving it – the CDC publishes guidelines for this, and if you have sensitivities check with your Doctor before getting a shot (or any) procedure. This is the dilemma of vaccination: it’s best for the vast majority of people, but can be dangerous for a few. But care must be taken not to blow that true statement out of proportion.
Chances of dying from Influenza (2017 H5N1 strain): 1 in 740
Chances of dying from Influenza Vaccine: 1 in 100,000
Chances of dying in any Accident: 1 in 1,350
Chances of dying from Gun Violence (you are a criminal): 1 in 3,000
Chances of dying from Gun Violence (you are not a criminal):1 in 220,000
Chances of dying from a Weather or Earthquake Hazard: 1 in 2 million or so
So in context, the vaccines are not risky compared to the disease – and certainly not compared to dying in a car accident (1 in 6000 or so). There has been some reports and talk that the COVID vaccines are significantly more dangerous than the Influenza vaccines. That’s a bit hard to judge. For one thing, the COVID vaccines are being scrutinized in a way the Influenza shots have not been. But even given that, the raw numbers show that the potentially associated mortality rate is about 2.8 times higher. It’s likely that difference would disappear if similar tracking were in place, but even if true isn’t bad. So the “50 times more side effects” stuff you see circulating is overblown.
People often ask me where to find good information on various topics. Here are some thoughts on various sources of “news”, and a bit about how I assimilate and interpret them. Be aware that a couple of these sources are blocked by the social media watchdogs so you won’t find some links here – you’ll have to type them in. Note that citing a source or reading it is NOT endorsement or belief – in fact, a few of these are outright propaganda outlets (Xinhau as an example). In other cases, they may express views that are somewhat repugnant but are important to understand what the people who sponsor those sites are thinking, or to be able to have discussions with people who get their information from them so as to be able to discuss events with them and perhaps persuade them to reconsider their views.
For hurricane and earthquake hazard information it’s easy and not controversial: the US National Weather Service is the place to go. Few news/weather sources do their own global numerical weather modeling; the rest just regurgitate, interpret (sometimes badly), and dramatize NWS and other national and regional meteorological center data (like the European Center). So if you want solid, drama free forecasts, just go to the source – you already paid for it with your taxes anyway! For earthquakes, the US Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program is the ultimate source.
On the pandemic, it gets a bit trickier. Most of the sources are pushing an agenda and/or cheerleading (even if it’s an agenda that I agree with and is mostly “good”, I’m nervous that it’s sometimes driven a lot by politics), and the reliable neutral information is often technical and requires a lot of specialized knowledge, changes rapidly, and is occasionally contradictory. The best bets are the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). You won’t go much wrong following their guidance (THEIR guidance, not what some talking head tells you their guidance is!). I also check in on what the European Medicines Agency, National Health Service (NHS, the UK health system), and the German medical authorities are saying to see what their treatment guidelines are, and how/why they differ from US guidelines.
For other news topics, sadly, most of the time my answer to “what’s the best source of news” is “there isn’t one.” Almost every source has biases, distortions, and these days outright lies of both omission and comission. That situation has changed for the worse over the last 20 years and the balance has shifted from “biased within the limits of the facts” to “pushing a specific narrative with little regard for the facts.” However, as Garek, a character from Star Trek DS-9 would say: Knowledge is knowing someone is lying to you. Wisdom is knowing the truth in the lies.
Like a bad remake of Groundhog Day, it’s that time of year when the various research groups emerge from their ivy covered lairs and issue forecasts for the upcoming Atlantic Hurricane season. I used to play that game, with the annual press conferences, media interviews, and associated tabulation of number of articles and citations to go into the next annual report and round of funding requests. But the last decade or so I have given up on the annual media circus as NOAA has started issuing its own estimates, and our research has moved on to site specific seasonal impact estimates rather than simply counting the number of storms. After all, having 20 storms doesn’t matter if none of them hit you; likewise, one storm can ruin your decade. So while this post does end with a suitably depressing outlook for 2021, it is more about the influence of the big driver of storm activity in the Atlantic: the ENSO or El Niño cycle.
The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has a huge impact on global weather. Although the usual way of measuring it is in terms of East Pacific sea surface temperatures, ENSO is a complex phenomena that changes both oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns worldwide. The Wikipedia page has a nice overview of the system; what concerns us here is the impact on hurricanes. In the Atlantic, the warm phase of ENSO (El Niño) typically depresses hurricane activity; likewise, the cold phase (La Niña) tends to result in more and stronger storms. Periods in between are called “ENSO Neutral” or neutral. The reason ocean temperatures in the Pacific influences Atlantic hurricanes (in another ocean thousands of miles away) are complex, but mostly have to do with wind shear over the Atlantic and the so-called “steering currents” that push storms around as they move across the ocean. Don’t confuse these Pacific SST’s with ocean temperatures in the Atlantic – that is a separate cycle and phenomena. Normally we associate warmer oceans with more hurricanes, but in this case, a warmer Pacific during a El Niño phase means the Atlantic becomes less favorable (at least from a wind shear perspective)! The worst combination is a cold Pacific (La Niña) and a warm Atlantic: the cold Pacific is cold because winds are favorable over the Atlantic, and the warm Atlantic means more energy for Atlantic storms. Confused yet? Don’t be – in this case it’s simple, we’re just looking at how the three phases of ENSO correlate with hurricane landfalls and damage since it is such a big factor.
Let’s take a look at the peak of hurricane season, the month of September to see what impact the contrasting ENSO phases have on the number of storms, as well as on damage. Using data since 1871, it’s pretty even split between the two contrasting conditions. About 25% of Septembers are El Niño, 24% are La Niña, whereas 51% are neutral. But in terms of total numbers of storms, 30% occur in La Niña years, whereas 22% occur in El Niño. That doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but it actually translates in to a significant difference in the number of storms between the two years – an El Niño September typically has one third fewer storms than either a neutral or La Niña year. The number of people impacted by hurricane conditions also reflects this difference in a similar way. About a third fewer people are impacted by hurricane conditions in an average El Niño September than in other kinds of years. Damage basin-wide is not quite so dramatic, with damage during La Niña years only about 25% higher than in El Niño. But … there are regional twists to this story.
The biggest driver of the economic impact of hurricanes in the Atlantic is of course the mainland United States. The US experiences nearly DOUBLE the economic impact of hurricanes in an average La Niña September as compared to El Niño years (33% vs 17%)! This is partly due to the higher intensity, but more importantly due to the landfalls in La Niña years being closer to high value exposures (cities, or targets if you prefer 😮 ) in the Northeast and Atlantic coasts. Looking at the other two active months, La Niña Augusts tend to have more storms – but those storms stay offshore, so the damage actually tends to be less than in El Niño years, but in October the impacts are dramatic. A La Niña October tends to generate three times the damage as an El Niño year.
If you look at individual states there are also dramatic differences. In Florida, La Niña Septembers have generated FOUR TIMES as much damage as El Niño years! In New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts there have been so few El Niño losses the computer said “Fuhgettaboutit” when I asked, they are so rarely damaged during those years, and La Niña years are so bad. The Gulf Coast isn’t quite so dramatic, but still Louisiana has had just under twice as much damage during La Niña.
Another interesting area is the Georgia/South Carolina Lowcountry coast (south of Edisto Isl). The unusual shape of the coastline, combined with being at the latitude where storms begin to recurve to the northeast means that for hurricane damage, the difference between La Niña and El Niño isn’t quite so dramatic – only about a 30% difference. However, unusually, activity is depressed in ENSO Neutral years, and elevated in both La Niña and El Niño Septembers.
What can we expect for this year? The current ENSO forecast for August to October is that we will almost certainly be at least neutral, and there is around a 50% chance of being back into La Niña conditions by September, and a higher chance for that in October. While not as favorable as last year, that’s Not Good for hurricane season, as it means higher than average activity. Therefore, I expect the hurricane forecasts coming out over the next few weeks to reflect that. Not likely as many storms as last year, but very likely to have multiple threats over the season. But there are a lot of other factors that go in to how many storm form in a given year, much less where any individual storms goes once it forms. The atmosphere is a very complex beastie.
So let the scare mongering begin … or, you could just enjoy the beautiful spring weather, the flowers blooming, and consider that as bad as hurricanes are, and unlike tornadoes that give you little warning, or earthquakes that give you almost none at all, you can see them coming days away, and have time to get out of the way. So as a reminder, this is the time of year to revisit your hurricane plans, especially insurance. There is a “lock out” period for changes prior to a storm and if you wait until one is headed your way, it’s too late. Check out Ready.gov for checklists and advice.
Busy global map this morning … lots of earthquakes, four tropical systems …
Zooming in to just off shore from New Zealand, with hundreds of earthquakes along the Kermadec Trench boundary between the Pacific and Australia plates, just off the coast of New Zealand. Three of these were over magnitude seven, one being a magnitude eight that triggered tsunami watches as far away as Hawai’i … each icon represents an event that caused shaking at the surface (sea floor mostly in this case), most of these are M5 or greater events, the red aeras are areas where if you were standing you would have felt it:
Models estimate total economic impacts at just under $1 Billion USD. Before anyone asks, the earthquakes and cyclone are unrelated – although tropical cyclones have been associated with earthquakes due to the pressure of the storm surge causing a rupture, or in some cases infiltration of extensive rains perhaps triggering the earthquake. This is an area of ongoing research.
The other cyclones are well offshore, Cyclone Habana in the mid South Indian Ocean is a powerful Category Four (120kt) storm. The Southern Hemisphere season has been pretty active this year with several very strong storms. Naturally some are saying it is climate change related – and that’s very possible. Unfortunately our historical data sets for that region are spotty at best, so the arguments have to be largely theoretical. I hope to do a post on this at some point soon.
On the COVID front, the numbers continue to go up in some places, down in others, causing mood and behavior swings that means the pandemic continues to oscillate and travel in “waves.” Additional vaccines are being approved and distributed, based as much on politics and economics as efficacy and logistics. I find the “news” coverage in the US depressing on this topic (and, again, the real time death counters that CNN is running are misleading, BOGUS fear mongering – it takes weeks to get solid data on mortality). In any event, in big picture terms little has changed in terms of what the average person should do: continue with masking in public (despite what Texas and Mississippi are doing), distance as appropriate, if you are eligible and it makes sense for you specifically from a medical perspective get the vaccine, get it (in other words, balance the consequences of COVID, which are severe, with the unknowns and any specific vulnerabilities you might have, and your personal situation regarding risk – both higher and lower).
I had a great question come in from a reader about the difference between emergency use authorization (EUA) and the standard review and approval process. There is a big difference between “Authorization” and “Approval” in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) world. Here is a discussion with a former FDA official on the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health site. The short version is it is the difference between “might work and shouldn’t hurt” and “has been shown to work with acceptable side effects.” For the vaccines, the main differences are that the threshold for effectiveness is not the same as for an approved vaccine, and most importantly the long term side effect studies and studies on potential interactions and co-morbidity (reactions, impact on fetal or child development, and so forth) are not as extensive and have not had time to collect data. As I noted previously, there is a big difference between making a theoretical argument on those topics and saying “there is no evidence” based on a few months of results, and saying “we tried it, watched for five years, and there were no observed effects.” Given the medical and socioeconomic impacts of COVID, the FDA has made the calculation that the risk of being wrong about adverse reactions and efficacy is outweighed by the benefit of quickly getting a handle on the pandemic. I think they are mostly right about that (with a few reservations I’ve expressed previously). Again, for a lot of people, getting vaccinated makes sense. But everyone should understand the process and risks, free from either blind cheer-leading or paranoid fear mongering.
Fortunately these are offshore, and so far no tsunamis detected … the third one was about 2:28pm US East Coast Time, Magnitude 8.1 – normally there is only one 8 or higher in a year (as previously noted, 15 of M7 or higher), so this is starting to be unusual.
No significant tsunami expected from this one either. Normally there are about 15 Magnitude 7 or higher earthquakes in a year. In this case, the two lie along the Kermadec Trench, a plate boundary between the Pacific and Australia plates:
In other “Mother Earth Hates Us and Wants Us To Die” (and, seriously, who can blame her) news, there has been a number of earthquake swarms under the Reykjanes peninsula. There is an increasing likelihood this is magma moving around and the Krysuvik volcano …
… which is now code orange …
If you are planning a trip to Europe this year, keep an eye on this since if it blows the ash could shut down air traffic over the North Atlantic and Western Europe.