Doomwatch, 15 July 2021

There’s lots of doom stalking the earth, but mostly of the “humans are their own worst enemy” variety. There is only one active tropical cyclone – Hurricane Felicia, off the west coast of Mexico and headed out into open water. The invest area in the Atlantic is nothing to worry about, probably just a bored forecaster. There is a more serious threat potentially developing in the West Pacific that some of the models forecast to be a major storm impacting Okinawa in four or five days before heading towards Mainland China. There has been bad flooding in Germany, and in the western US heat and wild fires continue to be a problem. And the usual scattering of earthquakes, including a swarm on the California/Nevada border, and a half dozen or so volcanoes spewing ash, but none causing significant damage. Here’s a map of natural doom:

Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Volcanoes, other severe weather zones (blue/yellow) this morning (15 July)

In the “doing it to ourselves” category the SARS-COV-2 pandemic continues to do a slow burn through the population lacking natural or artificial (vaccinated) antibodies. It’s hard to get a solid handle on just how dangerous some of the new variants are. The majority of infections are now the notorious “Delta” variant (B.1.617.2 – here’s more about variants then you want to know). It does seem to have a much higher transmission rate – the variants making the rounds last year and this spring had an R of around 2, “Delta” is probably well over 3. What that means is that for the original virus, one person would infect on average two other people. “Delta” seems that one infected person can infect between 3 and 4 people. Of course that doesn’t tell you anything about the consequences of being infected – as we know, a lot of people are asymptomatic, others crash. The statistics don’t seem to indicate that conclusively, but the virus seems to be spreading within younger populations. Of course, that can be an artifact of testing bias, and that a lot of older people have had more of an opportunity to be vaccinated (or survived the virus). The research papers I’ve seen are mixed; some indicate that existing antibodies/vaccines aren’t as effective, some say it’s no big deal. The truth is probably both 😛 – there is some reduction, but it’s not increasing mortality.

The media is of course excited about Delta. For Chatham County, Georgia (Savannah Area) a reporter was breathlessly saying the community transmission index “doubled since the end of June!” Technically true, it has gone from 50 to 98 between June 30 and July 14, but let’s put that in perspective: In January it was over 600 … so while the trend isn’t great as “delta” moves into the area with both cases and CTI, this isn’t something to freak out over. If you have natural or artificial antibodies, you’re in good shape. If you don’t and are an adult, you should get vaccinated unless you have a solid health reason that makes it risky. It’s as safe as any other vaccines out there (which are pretty safe all things considered).

There are a lot of unsettling geopolitical developments that do not bode well for the upcoming weeks. The situation in South Africa is out of control. This has huge implications across southern Africa, as some of the logistics and food distribution facilities looted the last few days are essential not just in South Africa but across the region. There is unrest in Cuba – how much is natural, and how much astro-turf from Miami, and where it is going is debatable. Haiti continues to be in turmoil, and the web of involvement in President Moise continues to expand. NATO continues the risky game of “poke the bear”, conducting provocative exercises across the Black Sea at the risk of goading the somewhat unstable Ukrainian regime in to taking another action in Eastern Ukraine that will result in Russia being forced to respond.

But at least Brittany now has her own lawyer now, so that’s nice.

#Elsa evening update

NHC is still tracking Elsa as a tropical storm, but there have been no tropical storm force sustained winds in the last few hours. The center is over southwest Georgia now, and rain bands are being pushed up in to Georgia and soon SC … here is the regional radar composite:

MRMS Radar composite; click to embiggen

And here is the GOES East satellite view:

Satellite view; Infrared is on the left, Visual on the right as darkness falls …

Nothing has changed with respect to the potential hazards this evening – if anything, the wind damage risk is probably lower from the middle GA coast northward to Charleston. Still some chance for heavy rains, but I suspect totals will be under 3″ in most places. That can still cause some flooding (especially with saturated soils) so be careful if you have to go out in the storm path (and don’t if you can avoid it).

There are scattered reports of damage across North Florida, including a couple of tornado reports. In Georgia there was a radar indicated tornado in Bulloch County Georgia (Statesboro) and a funnel cloud seen from the same thunderstorm cell near Portal (Candler County). The low level velocity tracks are showing rotation, so there is definitely the potential for additional tornadic activity, and there is a watch in effect, so keep your weather radios armed. Otherwise, the earlier advice and forecasts are holding up well … see you in the morning!

#Elsa impacts moving in to coastal #GA, #SC

Radar from Hampton, SC – reflectivity on left, rotation/velocity on right, red box is warning area at 4:04pm

There is a tornado warning (in this case radar indicated rotation) in Bulloch County, near Statesboro. The entire area is under a tornado watch. While the overall risk is small, please keep your weather radio on this evening. Conditions aren’t expected to be too severe – winds, rain, etc. but these do spin up sometimes …

One Percent

Here is one last rant and some additional perspective on the sensationalist, fear mongering reports in several USA TODAY network newspapers this week. In 2019, 42 people died from tornadoes. That same year 47,511 committed suicide. In other words, reducing suicides by JUST ONE PERCENT would have saved ten times as many lives (475) as completely eliminating tornado deaths. On average, there are 132 suicide deaths PER DAY – more than the last two years of tornado deaths combined (117), and nearly twice the average annual tornado death rate (69/yr). Now, given that perspective, is this front page justified?

To be sure, any premature death is a tragedy, and weather causes a significant amount of death and destruction, a lot of it preventable. But we have made tremendous strides in warning and mitigation, especially in the area of hurricanes. The articles had some good points – but the melodrama and fear overwhelmed whatever valid points were to be made. I’ve made it my life’s work to try to reduce the impact of natural hazards, so obviously I think this work is important and valuable – but you have to keep it in perspective. Consider: over 6,000 Military Veterans are thought to die due to suicide every year – at least eighty six (86) times the annual average deaths from tornadoes. If I had the skills and knowledge to help reduce that horrific figure I’d drop what I’m doing in a second and change careers.

It’s important to realize that the most insidious and toxic thing about this kind of “reporting” is that factually the article is almost entirely “true” – as noted in the previous post, tornado activity might be shifting, and “The South” is more vulnerable than the Midwest. It just the reports lack context. I can do a screaming headline about “Every Surface In Your Home Is Coated in Bacteria,” show gross pictures of people with necrotizing fasciitis accompanied by sob stories from their families, and without any falsehoods make you afraid to touch your kitchen counter. But in context, all that bacteria isn’t really a major problem for most people with some common sense. I could have used many other examples of things more dangerous or impactful on everyday life than tornadoes, but I just got a note on Veteran suicide so it’s on my mind.

The bottom line is that while tornadoes are scary, by any rational measure we’re afraid of and worried about the wrong things – and “journalism” like this a big reason why.

More severe weather across the South

There are already severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings across Tennessee and Kentucky this morning … that should spread south into Georgia, Alabama as the day goes on.

For those in coastal GA/SC, the severe weather should stay inland, but there is a slight risk of a few storms reaching the coast late this afternoon and evening, so worth taking a look after 5pm or so …

Severe weather potential in coastal GA/SC today (Sat Apr 24)

For those in the coastal Georgia and South Carolina Low Country, while there is some uncertainty there seems to be two bands of potentially severe weather on the way today. The first is a Quasi Linear Convective System (QLCS), which is a fancy term for a line of thunderstorms, interacting with a warm front late this morning. The second is a squall line that is shaping up to push through during the peak energy time, late this afternoon and early evening. Overall, heavy rain (up to 3″ in the Savannah area, maybe near high tide, so expect street flooding!), gusty winds, and according to the Storm Prediction Center a 10% chance for a tornado … so keep your weather radios on and be aware we could get some heavy weather today. You can see stuff shaping up to our southwest in this radar composite as of 7:30am …

Click to embiggen; severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings in southern AL this morning

Cold Hard Cash: #cost estimate for the big freeze in #Texas

I’m starting to see a few estimates on the cost of this episode in the media, for what it’s worth here’s the Enki estimate … there is probably going to be on the order of $30-35 Billion in physical damage across the Southwest and Midwest, mostly in the form of water damage from busted pipes, of which about $20 Billion or so will be covered by insurance, making this a big but not catastrophic event for the suits. The economic hit on the other hand is probably another $40 to $55 Billion, making this a $80 to $90 Billion dollar episode when you roll together the physical damage, economic impact, and government budget hits. When you consider that a few hundred million dollars of mitigation efforts (efforts that were recommended as far back as 1989) could have prevented maybe all but about $10 Billion of that, not to mention all the human suffering and even loss of life, there should be a serious reconsideration of priorities and some well deserved finger pointing …

Still snow on the ground in the midwest as of Saturday afternoon …

About the #Texas #Outages

Lots of misinformation and spin going around about the ongoing wave of power outages in Texas. The TLDR is that 1) the systems in Texas are not properly protected from winter weather that it should be able to handle; 2) it’s mostly a natural gas problem; 3) the fact that a nuclear plant is offline, and renewables (wind, solar) are also offline due to weather isn’t helping. Here are some details …

Another wave of cold weather sweeping into Texas, Thursday Morning, 18 Feb 2021

The Texas grid -managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT – has around 84 Gigawatts (GW) of power available to it; winter peak demand is expected to be 67GW, and the peak demand earlier this week hit 69GW according to ERCOT. On Tuesday 16GW of renewables and 30GW of “thermal” sources (mostly natural gas) were offline. The biggest problem is that the natural gas system wasn’t able to handle the weather.

Yes, it is cold – but we have had colder events in the past. My quick-look analysis shows this is maybe a 1 in 15 year event, in the southern part of the state 1 in 25 or so. For “lifeline” infrastructure like the power grid, it should be able to handle a 1 in 50 event with intermittent outages. In 2011 there was a cold weather event that caused widespread outages. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) wrote a report about it with recommendations on how to address the problems. The report is pretty blunt, saying

The experiences of 1989 are instructive, particularly on the electric side. … investigated the occurrence and issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization on the part of the generators. These recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011. … However, in many cases, the needed fixes would not be unduly expensive.

This 2011 report also points out “On the gas side, producers experienced production declines in all of the recent prior cold weather events.” and “It is reasonable to assume from this pattern that the level of winterization put in place by producers is not capable of withstanding unusually cold temperatures.

The report describes the causes and impacts of storms in 1989, 2003, 2011, and others. The 2011 report executive summary states:

This report makes a number of recommendations that the task force believes are both reasonable economically and which would substantially reduce the risk of blackouts and natural gas curtailments during the next extreme cold weather event that hits the Southwest.

Needless to say, this wasn’t done. Therefore it would seem that what happened in Texas this week was completely foreseeable, and not some freak of nature, but a direct consequence of natural gas providers and the electric utilities not taking recommended actions to protect the grid from infrequent – but not rare or terribly unusual – weather events.

Commentary: A lot of commentators and sources like those on Fox News with an ax to grind are saying that this is because the wind and solar sources are offline. True, that isn’t helping, and the increasing reliance of the grid on these sources will over time be problematic on a lot of levels. Likewise, CNN is actually blaming climate change! That too is a bunch of bull crap, even though anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem we need to deal with. But the simple truth is that the blame this time is firmly on natural gas providers being too cheap to winterize their equipment against an eminently foreseeable event. This can be attributed in part to deregulation, the way the capital markets work, and the prioritization of quarter over quarter profits against overall system reliability. There are other complexities here, such as the move to NG based electricity production to speed the shutdown of coal fired plants (a move pushed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is much more complex and less effective than policy planners want to admit). In short, this is an economics and political problem, not an engineering or mother-nature-sticking-it-to-us problem.

The bottom line is that for lifeline infrastructure like electrical power, the current system is unacceptable. The problem is, given the politics and economics, it isn’t going to get any better, and while not responsible for this particular disaster, the push for the “Green New Deal” and elimination of nuclear and fossil fuel based energy production will make it worse, just as the push to deregulate set up the current situation.

PS – for some great discussions about the energy industry, follow Art Berman’s twitter feed and if you’re in that world his blog and consulting resources are invaluable.

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!

So what’s the weather going to be on Thanksgiving?

This year people are more attuned to the weather – for good reason. Given COVID19, gatherings outdoors are far safer than inside, so the weather is a bigger factor than usual. I’m getting a lot more questions like “what’s the weather going to be like next St. Swizzen’s Day” – be it for a holiday, wedding, birthday gathering, protest march, golf game, or whatever. My usual reply is “I study disasters; if I can tell you then you probably don’t want to know” doesn’t make people happy 😛 Of course I’ve got the tools here to do pretty much any kind of forecast from “nowcasts” to climate, but how does the average person answer that question without annoying their favorite scientist/blogger? Which provider is best? As it turns out, that’s an easy question to answer. Your tax dollars have funded a really great organization, the US National Weather Service, and they have some nice on-line tools for planning your holiday. Virtually all the other providers – be it big companies, TV stations, whatever, are using NWS data and perhaps “adding value” (although in most cases I’d argue they are adding FUD, but that’s a different post). So lets walk through using the NWS web site to see what tools are available, and if you can hold that Thanksgiving gathering outside, or if everyone will have to stay home and use video …

The starting place is https://www.weather.gov. Here’s what the main page looks like. Any warnings will be color coded:

The map is clickable … click on the location you’re interested in; it doesn’t have to be perfect, you’ll get the chance to refine it. But for your home location, enter the place name you want in the box on the left. You can use a zip code or place name – for example, you can enter “Ardsley Park, Savannah, GA” and the system will give you matching names …

If you click “remember me” then whenever you go to weather.gov your local forecast will pop up on the left side. Clicking “Get detailed information” and you will jump to the point location forecast … here’s where you can really get into seeing what is going on:

The page itself is a nice overview, but if I’ve got family coming over at 4pm Thursday, with dinner at 6pm, and people will probably start to go home at 8pm. How likely is it that we can eat outside at the picnic table, or will I have to set up tables all over the house inside, or just cancel? Jackets, build a fire in the fire pit, or Savannah being Savannah will we need bug spray? If you scroll down and look under the map on the right there is a box called “additional resources” …

Click the graph and you get the hourly forecast data.

You can change the date to see up to a week in the future; in this case let’s set the start point at 12am (midnight) on Thursday. Click submit and you get:

So for Ardsley Park area in Savannah, the temperature should be 70 degrees, light wind, 31% Cloud Cover. The precip chance is 18% – but if you look at the graph, it never gets above 20%, and drops to only 8% by 7pm, so chances are this is not a sharp rain producing weather system. Now that you’ve tagged this as your “remember me” location any time you to to weather.gov on that device it will have your forecast on the main page – and you can easily get the very detailed details!

But what if you are travelling? Just click on the national map … it will take you to the forecast for that point. In this case, as noted on the first map I directly clicked on Andrews NC, then got the “additional details” to see the timing and intensity of any rain:

Looks like rain overnight Wednesday (80% chance at midnight!) and perhaps Thanksgiving morning, but will clear out and be nice overnight, with rain maybe coming back Friday night (back up to 30% chance) .

When planning an event, obviously the closer in time the better the forecast. By the time we’re within three days they are pretty good; 3 to 5 days are fair, over five days takes some interpretation. I’ll try to do some more posts on that in the future, but hopefully this will get you started …