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Severe Storms & Fire Risk – Highlights of Latest National Climate Assessment

Extreme heat, heavy downpours, and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, air and water quality, and more. Climate change will also exacerbate a range of risks to the Great Lakes.” – from the latest National Climate Assessment, details below.

From Theory to Reality

You don’t predict the weather, you live it. It’s the rough equivalent of getting undressed – in public – every day. Over time you develop an appreciation for the rhythm of weather patterns; the natural ebb and flow of the elements.

In the late 90s I noticed changes in Minnesota’s weather: more summer downpours & humidity, erratic winters and stupefying examples of whiplash – going from one extreme to another, in an impossibly short period of time. I started talking about it at The Star Tribune & WCCO-TV. Some found the message threatening, and pushed back hard. I doubt it helped my on- air career, but reporting observations and trends shouldn’t be a popularity contest.

The data is the data and the science is clear: our climate is changing. Symptoms are already showing up in our weather; sea levels are rising. More details on the latest National Climate Assessment below.

Storms brush southern Minnesota this morning; a better chance of strong to severe storms Thursday afternoon as readings spike into the upper 70s.

Yes, it would be nice to have a warm front without the sirens singing in unison. We salvage some sun Saturday before the next round of stormy weather arrives early next week.

* image above: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation.

Understanding The Latest National Climate Assessment. In today’s editions of Climate Matters I take a look at the 4th National Climate Assessment, which doesn’t pull many punches. Climate change has gone from theory to reality, and symptoms ofincreased climate volatility are showing up in increasingly extreme episodes of violent weather and rising sea levels. Summer rains are falling with greater intensity, especially from New England to the Great Lakes and Midwest, but dry areas over the western half of the USA are getting drier. Welcome to the United States, the Super Bowl of Weather, and the World Series of Weather Whiplash.

NEXRAD Doppler Radar “Holes”. NEXRAD radar technology is a huge step forward, but there’s no question that coverage, and the ability to see extreme weather, including tornadoes, is degraded with distance. Because the Earth is curved (really!) Doppler radar routinely overshoots the ground the farther away you are from the radar site. By the time you’re 100-200 miles away the beam is 2-4 miles above the ground – it’s impossible to detect weather signatures (or tornadic rotation) in the lowest few thousand feet of the atmosphere, which is problematic when tracking severe weather and attempting to issue credible warnings. Iowa State has an interesting graphic that shows where these coverage “holes” are. In Minnesota they include Morris, Wadena, Brainerd, Detroit Lakes and Alexandria. The problem is considerably worse over much of the western USA.

Evolving Severe Risk. NOAA SPC has issued a slight risk across a narrow sector of the central USA Wednesday and Thursday. There is a nearly 1 in 3 chance of “significant severe weather” (EF-2+ tornado and 2″+ hail) within 25 miles of any location from central Texas into western Oklahoma Wednesday. On Thursday that same level of (significant) severe storm risk shifts into Wichita, Kansas City and Des Moines, where a few large, violent tornadoes can’t be ruled out.

* I expect severe storm, possibly tornado watches, to be issued as far north as Minnesota and Wisconsin by Thursday afternoon.

Thursday TPI. Alerts Broadcaster’s proprietary Tornado Potential Index shows an enhanced risk of severe storms, including isolated tornadoes, from near St. Cloud to theTwin Cities, as far east as Green Bay by late afternoon Thursday. Graphic: HAMweather.

Extreme Fire Danger. The same atmospheric conditions that sparked large fires north of Oklahoma City Monday linger into Wednesday over the southern Plains. The highest threat includes southwestern Kansas, the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles and northeastern New Mexico.

Ripe For Severe Storms. NOAA’s 12 km NAM model shows strong to severe storms spinning up along a slow-moving frontal system later today into Friday; the atmosphere still cold enough for a few inches of wet snow over the western Dakotas. Good grief – what a spring. Animation: NOAA and HAMweather.

Budget Cuts Mean Weather Forecaster Shortage in Tornado AlleyNBC News has the story – here’s the introduction: “With tornado season underway the National Weather Service is short nearly 200 meteorologists, including vacancies in Tornado Alley and at the office responsible for predicting tornadoes, according to documents obtained by NBC News. NBC owned and operated station KXAS in Dallas/Ft. Worth has acquired union documents showing as many as 500 vacancies at NWS offices around the country, including nearly 200 unfilled jobs for front-line meteorologists….”

Read a full report at NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth

Weather Quiz: Which state has the highest density of tornado touch downs?

Oklahoma           Texas         Kansas         Florida

Scroll down for the answer (which is definitely non-obvious).

Trained Weather Spotters Play Critical Role Across Minnesota. KSTP and KAAL-TVhave a video on the critical importance of trained weather spotters and the role they play, especially spotting and tracking severe weather; here’s a clip: “…Spotters report to the Skywarn network, and the information is quickly passed to the news media and public safety officials to give people in the area of a dangerous storm as much time as possible to get to shelter. Krause says spotters play a major role in that process, “The weather spotters in the field are the ones that confirm that tornado is there, and when you have confirmed tornados, people are much more likely to get to shelter…”

Will We Ever….Control The Weather? The short answer is no, at least not on a massive scale. On certain rare occasions we can tip the weather in a specific direction, but the amount of energy required to nudge the atmosphere on a large (synoptic) scale is staggering. The BBC has an interesting read, including this response to the notion of hurricane control: “...For Hugh Willoughby at the Florida International University in Miami, though, plans to tame hurricanes are pie in the sky. “Nearly all of the schemes are utter nonsense,” he says. Draining the energy out of a hurricane is a tall order, because the storm systems are a lot more powerful than people realise. “They release heat at a rate equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes.” Using oil to nip hurricanes in the bud before they form won’t work either, he says, because it’s impossible to predict which of the many storm disturbances seen in the ocean will actually become a hurricane…”

Quiz Answer: Florida. “When it comes to counting tornadoes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks every single one, big or small, enormous damage or none. By that count, Florida (and not its blustery neighbors on the Great Plains like Oklahoma) has the highest density of tornado activity in the United States. The state averages nearly 10 tornadoes per year, per 10,000 square miles (which puts the total density of tornadoes in the state at nearly twice the levels found in places like Oklahoma and Texas).”
Quiz courtesy of

The Disruptive Technology of Drones in Newsgathering. Will we have airspace battles – which station or network will have rights to fly above the scene of breaking news or the aftermath of a natural disaster? Seems like The Drones are coming, according to this video at TVSpy; here’s an excerpt: “In the 50′s and 60′s we were promised a helicopter in every garage. Obviously, that never happened. While Ian Hannah from the Professional Society of Drone Journalists stopped short of predicting a drone in every newsroom during last week’s TVNewser Show, he did talk about the confusion over regulations and added that unmanned aerial vehicles may soon be “very common” in newsrooms. Watch the film.”

KATV Stands Behind Its Use of Drone Video. We’ve gone from theory to reality, with recent coverage of tornado aftermath in Arkansas. TVNewsCheck has the story – here’s a clip: “…KATV’s broadcasting of drone footage, which it has done periodically for the last six months or so, came to the attention of the FAA last week after the station aired video showing the destruction caused by tornadoes on April 27. Lynn Lunsford, the FAA public affairs manager who made the call, says he learned KATV aired the video from an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper reporter. Lunsford can’t elaborate on what transpired, saying only that he gave Gentry information on the agency’s regulations prohibiting the use of drones by news outlets…”

Drone footage shot by Brian Emfinger.

Drones May Help Predict Tornadoes In The Future. The march of technology is inevitable, but this will bring up some interesting (new) problems and challenges. Courier-Post has a fascinating story – here’s the intro: “Fourteen minutes is how much time a city or town has between a tornado warning and when a twister touches ground, according to the national average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that warning time could increase to an hour with the help of data from unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, according to Jamey Jacob, an aerospace and engineering professor at Oklahoma State University…”

Photo credit above: “University of Colorado-Boulder unmanned aerial aircraft and graduate student Kevin Rauhauser on June 17, 2013.” (Photo: University of Colorado-Boulder).


Climate Stories….

National Climate Assessment. Over 114 NOAA scientists contributed to the latest National Climate Assessment; details below.

Climate Change Study Finds U.S. Is Already Widely Affected. Justin Gillis summarizes the latest National Climate Assessment at The New York Times; here’s an excerpt: “The effects of human-induced climate change are being felt in every corner of the United States, scientists reported Tuesday, with water growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains increasing in wet regions, heat waves becoming more common and more severe, wildfires growing worse, and forests dying under assault from heat-loving insects. Such sweeping changes have been caused by an average warming of less than 2 degrees Fahrenheit over most land areas of the country in the past century, the scientists found. If greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane continue to escalate at a rapid pace, they said, the warming could conceivably exceed 10 degrees by the end of this century…”
* Observed Changes in Very Heavy Precipitation (1958 to 2012) courtesy of the latestNational Climate Assessment.

Climate Assessment Report: Midwest. Here are specific ways a changing, more volatile climate is already impacting weather patterns across the Midwest, courtesy of the latestNational Climate Assessment: “The Midwest’s agricultural lands, forests, Great Lakes, industrial activities, and cities are all vulnerable to climate variability and climate change. Climate change will tend to amplify existing risks climate poses to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Direct effects will include increased heat stress, flooding, drought, and late spring freezes. Climate change also alters pests and disease prevalence, competition from non-native or opportunistic native species, ecosystem disturbances, land-use change, landscape fragmentation, atmospheric and watershed pollutants, and economic shocks such as crop failures, reduced yields, or toxic blooms of algae due to extreme weather events. These added stresses, together with the direct effects of climate change, are projected to alter ecosystem and socioeconomic patterns and processes in ways that most people in the region would consider detrimental.”

Highlights of the National Climate Assessment, courtesy of Climate Nexus:

FLOODING – Large-scale flooding can occur due to extreme precipitation in the absence of snowmelt, for example, Rush Creek and the Root River in August 2007 and multiple rivers in southern Minnesota in September 2010. These warm season events are projected to increase in magnitude. (Image: AP).

INCREASED TEMPERATURES, EXTREME PRECIPITATION EVENTS – The rate of warming in the Midwest has markedly accelerated over the past few decades. Between 1900 and 2010, the average Midwest air temperature increased by more than 1.5°F. Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average. This increase has been greatest in the Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains – more than 30 percent above the 1901-1960 average.

THREATS TO INFRASTRUCTURE – Water infrastructure for flood control, navigation, and other purposes is susceptible to climate change impacts and other forces because the designs are based upon historical patterns of precipitation and streamflow, which are no longer appropriate guides. (Image: Media Matters).

AIR QUALITY – In the Midwest region, including Minnesota, in 2008, over 26 million people lived in counties that failed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Since many air pollutant emissions are enhanced by warmer temperatures, warmer temperatures will lead to worsening of air quality. Degraded air quality due to human-induced emissions and increased pollen season duration are projected to be amplified with higher temperatures, and can harm human health.

Not Your Imagination: Allergy Season Really IS Longer. The Culprit? Climate Change. Here’s an excerpt from a story at Rick Kupchella’s “Ragweed pollen season has lengthened by 24 days in the Minnesota-North Dakota region between 1995 and 2011. In other parts of the Midwest, pollen season has gotten longer by anywhere from 11 days to 20 days. These are just two of the many findings in a new federal report, called The National Climate Assessment, which analyzed regional and state-level effects of global warming…”

Climate Change Report: Iowa Vulnerable to more Floods, Droughts. Here’s an excerpt from a story at The Des Moines Register: “A national report today says climate change will amplify existing risks to Iowa’s urban and rural residents, including intense heat, flooding and drought. Residents in Midwest cities could see some of the greatest impacts. “Increased heat wave intensity and frequency, increased humidity, degraded air quality, and reduced water quality will increase public health risks,” the report from President Barack Obama’s Administration said…”

* Changes in Precipitation from 1901 to 2012, from the latest National Climate Assessment.

** Stanford University to Purge $18 Billion of Coal Stock. The New York Times reports.

Americans Are Outliers In Views On Climate Change. But if it ever interferes with the NFL or Netflix God help us. Here’s a clip from The New York TImes: “…Perhaps more than people in any other rich nation, Americans are skeptical that climate change is a dire issue. In Pew Research Center surveys conducted last spring, 40 percent of Americans said that global climate change was a major threat to their country. More than 50 percent of Canadians, Australians, French and Germans gave that answer. More than 60 percent of Italians and Spaniards did. And more than 70 percent of Japanese did…”

Graphic credit above: New York Times, Pew Research Center, June 2013.

Extreme Weather Is Coming To A Coastal City Near YouForbes has the story – here’s an excerpt: “Trillions of dollars in assets are located in huge coastal cities like New York. But plans for flooding have been minimal. Recent disasters in the U.S., including Hurricane Sandy in 2012, have vividly revealed how unprepared we are for floods. Population density in coastal flood zones is expected to grow 25 percent by 2050; at the same time, climate change means the sea level will rise. So: more people will be affected by more floods. What do we do? A group of researchers, led by Jeroen Aerts at VU University Amsterdam, used New York City as a test case. They used computer simulations to create more than 500 possible storm surges, that varied intensity from low-probability extreme events to more frequent storms…”

If You’re Concerned About Climate Change, You Should Support Nuclear Power. (Full disclosure: my company does some consulting work for Excel Energy, which has nuclear interests). That said, my moderating views concerning nuclear power arose long before this recent business opportunity. I think I have a unique perspective on this. I grew up 23 miles downwind of TMI, Three Mile Island, outside Harrisburg, PA, the nuclear plant that suffered a catastrophic accident and partial meltdown in 1979. I was there for the partial melt-down and scare regarding a hydrogen bubble breaching the containment shell. Our bags were packed, we were ready to evacuate. My father told me that we would be alright, that he had a job lined up in California. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was scheduled to be 1 way, 4 lanes of traffic heading away from Harrisburg and the TMI nuclear plant. You can only imagine the impact that had on me (and on everyone else in the path of potential radioactivity). I marched against nuclear power in Washington D.C. in 1980 and produced a 10-part series on nuclear safety at a previous TV station, WNEP-TV. But my views have changed in recent years, as the gravity and full extent of the climate change threat has become increasingly clear.
I’m all for renewables, and I hope and expect there will come a day when most of our energy comes from clean sources. But short-term wind, solar and even cleaner-burning natural gas can’t provide the scale we need to keep the lights on and the energy powered up. I realize this is a sensitive subject for many environmentalists, but I’m not sure we have any other viable, short-term options. That said, we need to find safer, smaller, cheaper, more sustainable forms of nuclear power that address the long-term waste challenge head-on. Here’s an excerpt of a recent story at Forbes that resonated with me: “…I used to be anti-nuclear.  But, several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately  then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources. As a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator and former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, I have long championed clean air and the need to limit the dangerous pollutants that contribute to climate change.  In doing so, I have come to fully appreciate the role that our current nuclear energy facilities play in meeting our energy needs without increasing carbon pollution…”

File photo: CNN.


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Welcome to the WeatherNation blog. Every day I sift through hundreds of stories, maps, graphics and meteorological web sites, trying to capture some of the most interesting weather nuggets, the stories behind the forecast. I’ll link to stories and share some of the web sites I use. I’m still passionate about the weather, have been ever since Tropical Storm Agnes flooded my home in Lancaster, PA in 1972. I’ve started 5 weather-related companies. “EarthWatch” created the world’s first 3-D weather graphics for TV stations – Steven Spielberg used our software in “Jurassic Park” and “Twister”. My last company, “Digital Cyclone”, personalized weather for cell phones. “My-Cast” was launched in 2001 and is still going strong on iPhone, Android and Blackberry. I sold DCI to Garmin in 2007 so I could focus on my latest venture: WeatherNation. I also write a daily weather column for The Star Tribune And if you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me @pdouglasweather.


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