March 2, 2021

Today's Accidental Tornado Warning Is Exactly Why Officials Test Emergency Alerts So Often


Millions of people received a seemingly real tornado warning on their phones Tuesday morning during annual statewide tornado drills in Kansas and Missouri. The push alerts made no mention of the fact that it was a drill, causing widespread confusion on an otherwise clear and sunny day. The giant flub highlights exactly why officials test these emergency alerts in the first place.

The errant warning coincided with statewide tornado drills, a day devoted to making sure everyone and everything is prepared to handle the threat for tornadoes during the impending peak of severe weather season. Alerts issued during drills are clearly marked as drills so they don't freak people out.


The National Weather Service office in Wichita, Kansas, posted a screenshot on Twitter proving that the agency handled the test correctly on their end, reporting later in the day "that new software implemented last week mistakenly allowed the test to go out as an actual warning."

Incidents like Tuesday's accidental false alarm are exactly why local, state, and national agencies test these systems on a routine basis. With so many different points of failure possible between the alert's issuance and your screens, these systems need to be tested frequently to make sure they work. After all, if the system fails, you might not see a message about a tornado warning or any other dangers they can warn us about.

A Wireless Emergency Alert I received on my phone for a tornado warning on October 11, 2018.

These systems are surprisingly complex. The iconic screeches and pops that make the EAS so recognizable on television and radio are actually coded messages that are similar in purpose to the sound of a dial-up modem. Specially designed devices at television stations and cable providers listen for the sound of the EAS and interpret the message embedded within to know what kind of alert was issued and which communities need to see the alert.

Wireless alerts sent to smartphones are decidedly less entertaining—it's all computerized, and the recognizable screeching sound you hear is just an audio file on your device—but there are still multiple steps and multiple potential points of failure between the point of issuance and your screen.


While the greatest concern is the system failing altogether, we've seen plenty of incidents like today where a test accidentally reaches the public as if it was a real alert.

Back in 2018, an employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency improperly ran a drill that resulted in an erroneous "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII" message popping up on every smartphone in the state. The message was particularly stress-inducing due to the boiling tensions between the U.S. and North Korea at the time.

An employee in Connecticut's emergency management office entered the wrong code into the system ahead of a statewide test of the Emergency Alert System in February 2005, sending out an emergency alert on television and radio that told everyone to evacuate the state.

NORAD accidentally sent out a live code used to authenticate a real emergency message during a scheduled test in February 1971, causing at least one station—WOWO-FM in Fort Wayne, Indiana—to suspend programming and operate as if the Emergency Broadcast System had been activated for a national emergency. Audio of the false alarm is well-preserved on YouTube as the announcer stalled for time while the station sought more information.

[Top ImageStormless skies over the Midwest on March 2, 2021/NOAA]


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February 28, 2021

A Flash Freeze Will Chill New England on Monday Night And Tuesday


A brief but deep freeze will descend over New England on Monday night and bring the region a downright impressive temperature drop for this late in the season. Temperatures will swing more than 40°F between Monday afternoon's high and Monday night's low across parts of interior New England, with communities near the international border waking up to subzero lows on Tuesday morning.


A low-pressure system moving toward the Great Lakes today—part of the same pattern responsible for all the rain and thunderstorms down south this weekend—will strengthen as it heads into Ontario and Quebec on Sunday night and Monday. Winds wrapping around the low will pull bitterly cold Arctic air over New England as the cold front passes through on Monday evening. Temperatures will quickly fall behind the cold front, plunging into the teens and single digits across interior New England.

The greatest threat from this cold weather is a flash freeze, which occurs when standing water quickly freezes as temperatures drop. It's already raining, or will rain soon, across many of the areas expecting subfreezing temperatures on Monday night and Tuesday. The rapid temperature drop will set in before water on roadways and sidewalks has a chance to evaporate in the wind. 


The Weather Prediction Center's new-ish Winter Storm Severity Index highlights that parts of the region are at risk for minor to moderate impacts from a flash freeze. Travel on Monday night and Tuesday morning will be very dangerous in these areas due to the widespread potential for black ice. There are probably going to be a few accidents across the region as a result of the slick roads.

The sudden freeze on Monday night is the most pressing concern in the region from this week's weather. Tuesday should be the coldest day of the week. Temperatures will rebound a bit on Wednesday before falling back into "chilly for this time of year" territory through next weekend. 


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February 14, 2021

Snow, Ice, And Bitter Cold: This Is A Storm The South Will Talk About For Decades


The winter storm moving over the southern United States has all the hallmarks of one of those storms that people talk about for decades. The system will bring significant amounts of snow and ice to areas that don't typically see this kind of wintry weather, and the cold air that follows the storm is on a level the region hasn't seen in more than 30 years.

Meteorologists spent Sunday ogling at the National Weather Service's map of watches, advisories, and warnings across the country:
Source: NWS

That huge swath of pink is a winter storm warning. It covers the entire states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, along with most of Louisiana and Mississippi, and continues on into the Northeast. The criteria for a winter storm warning changes from one office to the next based on what a region is used to during a typical winter. Any amount of snow and ice warrants a winter storm warning in parts of Texas, while it takes many inches of snow to trigger the same alert up north. 

It takes lots of things going juuust right for such an intense winter weather event to stretch so far south. The cold air is rooted in the infamous polar vortex. I explained the process more in-depth last week, but a disruption in the polar vortex circulation over the Arctic allowed a piece of the vortex to break off and sit over the Upper Midwest. This disruption allowed cold air to flow straight out of the Arctic and park itself over the central United States for a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, an upper-level trough moving out of the Rockies led to the development of a low-pressure system over the southern Plains. Conditions are deteriorating across Texas tonight as the low organizes and snow, sleet, and freezing rain fill in. The low will strengthen and move northeast over the next 48 hours, bringing plenty of wintry precipitation from the Gulf Coast to interior New England.


Here's the National Weather Service's snowfall forecast through Wednesday evening. Widespread totals of 6-12" are possible from northern Texas to northern Maine and just about everywhere in between. Forecasters expect the greatest totals in central Oklahoma and central Arkansas, where some communities could wind up with more than a foot of snow by the end of the storm.

Freezing rain will fall closer to the track of the low. A significant ice storm is possible in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and along the Appalachians. Down south, this could be the worst ice storm in memory for many folks.
Source: NWS

Everywhere shaded red on the map above could see more than one-quarter of an inch of ice accretion. Some areas could see one-half to three-quarters of an inch of ice, which will cause significant damage.

One thing to keep in mind is that there really isn't much infrastructure in this part of the country to deal with significant amounts of snow and ice. This isn't a situation like North Carolina falling apart when it snows. We see snow and ice frequently enough that it's a shame we can't handle it better than we do.

This is all the way down south. They don't have many snow plows or salt/sand/brine trucks to go around. Most people don't have snow shovels at home or ice scrapers in their cars. You're lucky if you just happen to have sand or rock salt on hand. The region doesn't see winter weather enough to justify spending the money to have an infrastructure in place to deal with it. 

As if the snow and the ice isn't bad enough, tonight's cold is only going to get colder. This winter storm will drag the Midwest's frigid air all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, allowing temperatures to plummet on Monday and Tuesday.

Here are the National Weather Service's high and low temperature forecasts for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday:


Bitterly cold air will surge as far as northern Mexico, with low temperatures in the single digits approaching the suburbs of San Antonio. It hasn't been this cold across these regions since December 23, 1989, when it hit -2°F in Fort Worth, 0°F in Waco, 8°F in San Antonio, and a comfy 14°F in Houston. 

Between the snow, the freezing rain, and the surge in demand due to the frigid temperatures, the region will probably experience a tremendous number of power outages this week. Some communities will probably go without power for a week or longer in extreme cases. Trees in places like Louisiana and Mississippi aren't accustomed to the weight of ice on their branches and limbs. It won't take much ice—maybe not even one-quarter of an inch—to bring down limbs and cause trees to snap in half. 
I took this photo just a few minutes after a tree snapped and knocked out the power for 28 hours.

Don't take the threat for prolonged power outages lightly. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw that we were without power for 28 hours in my town near Greensboro, North Carolina, after about a third of an inch of ice overnight Friday into Saturday. I try to stay as prepared as I preach when it comes to having the supplies needed to get through an extended outage and it was still tough to get enough battery power and warmth to make it through more than 24 hours in the dark.

It's probably a little too late to get ready now, but if you're in a position where you still have time to prepare, make sure you've got enough batteries, flashlights, water, and non-perishable, ready-to-eat food to get through several days without power. Bottled water (or containers filled with water) are a mainstay on preparedness lists because municipal water treatment plants can lose power as well, potentially hampering their ability to treat or pump water out to you. (It's no joke. My town is under a boil water advisory for two days!)

Oh, and one more thing—if you live in an area expecting ice, stay away from parts of the house where trees and limbs could fall into the roof or walls. It's something people don't really think about until it's too late. Trees are heavy and houses are comparatively weak. Lots of injuries and deaths during ice storms are caused by trees falling into homes.


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February 11, 2021

We're Coming Up On This Winter's Roughest Stretch Of Cold And Snow


The next five days will see the roughest stretch of winter weather the United States has seen in quite a few years. Bitter cold will grip the center of the country while snow and ice fall on the Pacific Northwest, the southern Plains, and the Mid-Atlantic. The southern Plains could see some hefty snowfall next week if the forecasts pan out.

First thing's first, though, since I've seen (and experienced) some confusion about this. Winter storms aren't named in the United States. There's no such thing as Winter Storm Quavo/Boppo/Filbert or whatever you've hear on television or social media. The Weather Channel unilaterally names winter storms for the purposes of its coverage. The system is deeply flawed for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it doesn't work when hardly anyone else recognizes the names. Since the names are arbitrary, the DAMWeather Winter Storm Naming And Hot Wing Quality Assurance Committee voted 1-0 to name all of this year's winter storms Skittlebip.

There are plenty of Winters Storm Skittlebip rolling across the country this week. So many areas are at risk of disruptive snow and ice (and bitter cold) that it's best to break the threat down into three sectors: Pacific Northwest, the southern Plains, and the Mid-Atlantic. 

Since my computer has a case of the Mondays on this rainy Thursday afternoon, I'm not able to make a map of the National Weather Service's snowfall forecasts today. The snowfall graphic I usually compile and upload (like this) combines all 100+ snow forecasts issued by individual NWS forecast offices.


Given the issues I've had today, above is a hastily thrown together and ridiculously busy map highlighting the threats over the next couple of days.

This map combines the Weather Prediction Center's 50th percentile forecasts for snow and ice through Sunday evening. Some areas will see higher or lower snow and freezing rain totals than what's shown above, but this gives you a good rough idea of who could see significant snows or ice accretion from freezing rain over the next three days.

Pacific Northwest

Source: NWS Seattle

There's a pretty good chance of snow and ice along the I-5 corridor in Washington and Oregon through Saturday. If everything stays on track according to the forecast, the region is looking at a disruptive snowstorm over the next couple of days.

Seattle averages about 5 inches of snow in a normal winter, while Portland typically sees about 7 inches of snow each year. But those snowstorms aren't a sure thing each year—Seattle received hardly any snow last season, but saw 20 inches of snow the previous winter.

Through this weekend, Seattle could wind up with up to half a foot of snow by the time the storm is over, with higher amounts at higher elevations. Covered roads, cancelled flights, and delayed trains will make it difficult to get around the region for a couple of days. 

Farther south along the interstate, southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon will see a mixture of both snow and freezing rain. It's going to be a mess. Here's NWS Portland's helpful graphics highlighting the threat for wintry precipitation over the next couple of days.

Snow:

Source: NWS Portland

And the threat for ice from freezing rain:

Source: NWS Portland

The greatest ice accretion is possible in the mountains between Tillamook and Portland, where one-quarter of an inch of ice or more could bring down tree limbs and power lines. Freezing rain is possible in the Portland metro area as well, which is expected to see a couple of inches of snow right now. Any ice mixed in with snow makes it even more difficult to deal with.

Freezing rain is an ugly threat. It only takes a tiny amount of freezing rain to leave a glaze of ice on exposed surfaces, making it nearly impossible to drive safely—or even walk down the driveway. The threat of heavy snow and freezing rain in such heavily forested areas heightens the concern. If you live in an area expecting freezing rain, make sure you stay away from rooms in your house where large trees or tree limbs could fall through the roof or walls if they snap under the weight of the snow or ice.

Extreme Cold & Southern Plains Snow


Last week's cold didn't just stick around—it's getting worse. The heart of the much-maligned polar vortex will dip over the Upper Midwest early next week, sending subfreezing temperatures dipping as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. Tuesday looks like it's going to be the coldest day for the most people.

Low temperatures on Tuesday morning will dip below zero in northern Texas, with single digits likely in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Lows in the teens are possible as far south as Houston and San Antonio. Temperatures this cold diving this deep into the southern Plains will easily break daily record lows. Some areas could come within a few degrees of their all-time record low temperatures.

The all-time lowest temperature on record in Dallas is -1°F at KDFW in December 1989 and 0°F at KDAL in January 1940. The all-time record low in Houston was 5°F at KHOU and 7°F at KIAH, both also set during those two cold snaps in 1940 and 1989. While it seems unlikely these two cities will see all-time lows, one of their top-ten coldest mornings on record is certainly possible.

It's going to be even colder up north, with subzero temperatures firmly gripping Oklahoma and temperatures in the double-digits below zero the norm from Kansas northward. Folks on the northern Plains and Upper Midwest just can't catch a break from this stretch of cold weather. Minneapolis has recorded highs in the single digits and lows below zero every day since last Saturday. It'll get even worse, with forecasts showing the city dipping below zero this evening and likely not seeing readings above zero again until early next week. 

Wind chill values will come in even colder than the actual air temperature. The wind chill is what it feels like to exposed skin when you factor in the cold air and gusty winds. Higher winds efficiently presses cold air right up against exposed skin, which allows frostbite and hypothermia to set in faster when it's windy than when it's calm. It doesn't take very long for the cold air to take its toll when wind chills fall below zero.

If everything goes according to forecast, a developing winter storm will meet that cold air over the southern Plains and bring the region a hefty dose of snow and ice. It's still too early to talk about specifics, but the potential is there for a high-end and disruptive amount of snow and ice from freezing rain beginning on Sunday and lasting through Monday. Winter storm watches are already in effect in central Oklahoma and northern Texas to make people well aware of the event. 

Mid-Atlantic

Source: NWS EDD

The ongoing slog of rain moving across the Mid-Atlantic will pose problems in the overnight hours on Friday morning and Saturday morning as temperatures close in on the freezing mark. Lots of areas will hover right around 32°F, leaving some areas with ice-glazed roads and other areas just wet. This kind of borderline setup can lead to serious traffic accidents.

Greater ice accumulations are possible from the Piedmont Triad to the southern D.C. suburbs during a steady period of freezing rain on Saturday. Winter storm watches are in effect for parts of northern Virginia, with more alerts possible farther southwest as we get closer to the event. Some areas could see one-quarter of an inch of ice or more, which makes tree damage and power outages possible.


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February 7, 2021

This Weekend's Brutal Cold Snap Isn't Going Away Anytime Soon


Just stay home. It's a mantra we've lived by for almost a year now (oh good grief), but it'll take courage to even go check the mail for the next week. The coldest air of the season—the coldest air in the last several seasons—will make itself right at home over the central United States this week, sending low temperatures into the double digits below zero. Wind chills will dip even lower, posing a threat for serious injury if you're outdoors with exposed skin for any length of time.

After a few frigid days, lows sank like a rock on Sunday morning. Folks from eastern North Dakota to northern Wisconsin woke up to temperatures below -20°F, with the zero-degree line dipping into central Illinois and single digits approaching southern Missouri. That's pretty darn cold even for regions used to cold winters. Fargo's average low for February 7th is 2°F. This morning's low of -21°F is a full 23°F below normal there. 

Things are even colder across the border in Canada. Sunday morning's temperature analysis revealed lows below -40°F in south-central Canada. Saskatoon managed to reach -40°, which is the same misery in both °F and °C.


It's going to remain frigid across the north-central United States through next week. The animation above shows the National Weather Service's forecast low temperatures from Monday morning (2/8) through Saturday morning (2/13). When you factor in the winds, conditions in the coldest areas will allow frostbite to develop on exposed skin in as little as 15-30 minutes. The wind chill hit -34°F in Minneapolis around 2:00 AM on Sunday.

If current trends hold, towns on the Northern Plains and the Upper Midwest will struggle to climb much above 0°F the entire week. The deepest reserve of Arctic air should remain confined to the central United States. The Rockies will do a good job holding off the cold air for a while, but it's possible that even Seattle could see lows in the low 20s by the end of the week.

It's worth pointing out that:

1) the bitter cold could last beyond next weekend and into the following week, and 

2) there's some uncertainty right now about just how far south and east the cold air will slide this week. Don't be too surprised if forecasts shift over the next few days and that Arctic chill seeps farther than predicted right now.

P***r V****x

Why is it so cold? This is a part of the polar vortex. Yes, that polar vortex.

Any talk of the polar vortex sounds ominous because it's usually devoid of any meaningful context.

I intended to use this graphic back on The Vane a few centuries ago but never had the chance, so I recycled it for this Very Instructive And Useful Purpose.

The term "polar vortex" itself, though it predates us all, seems tailored to our modern attention spans. It's fodder for overly dramatic nightly news graphics and the perfect hook to tap into some of that sweet, sweet algorithm juice and help posts get around on social media. It's tough out there right now. I've been up against a traffic quota before. I don't really blame them. (Though it's annoying, and I totally blame them.)

But the polar vortex isn't scary. The skies don't fill with the hum of chanting aliens. The stratosphere doesn't crash down on Dennis Quaid while he hides in a cargo ship (or a hospital? a mall? I can't remember, I haven't watched that movie in forever). 

The polar vortex is a large upper-level circulation that sits over the Arctic. This circulation sort of acts like a moat that keeps winter's coldest air confined to the polar regions. As long as that upper-level circulation remains relatively smooth, conditions will remain stable and the coldest of the cold will stay far to the north.

Source: TropicalTidbits.com

It doesn't take much for a low-pressure system or a ridge of high pressure to destabilize that circulation. This instability results in troughs that swoop over lower latitudes and bring fleeting bursts of cold weather. Some of these troughs can break off and become cutoff lows that linger for days at a time. Frigid Arctic air follows these troughs and cutoff lows to the lower latitudes, which is what they're talking about when you hear "the polar vortex is coming" ahead of a cold spell.

Sometimes, like this week, the entire circulation is displaced by an upper-level ridge over the Arctic, which is what you can see in the model image above. This graphic depicts the height of the 500 millibar layer of the atmosphere on Tuesday.

The dark red over northern Canada shows areas where unusually strong upper-level ridging will bring abnormally warm weather to the Arctic. That ridge displaced the polar vortex circulation and sent it diving south toward us.

Source: TropicalTidbits.com

It's even easier to visualize this displacement when you look at surface temperature anomalies. The model graphic shows temperatures surging above normal in the Arctic while frigid air floods south toward lower latitudes over the United States and Russia. 

As long as that anomalous ridge lingers over the Arctic, the cold air will have no choice but to relocate itself, and the United States is in prime location to feel the chill. Bundle up.


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January 30, 2021

Oh No. Oh No. Here Comes The Snow.


A decent nor'easter will sweep across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast over the next couple of days, bringing heavy snow to folks from western North Carolina through Atlantic Canada. This could be the biggest snowstorm to affect the Washington D.C. area in two years. The storm will unfold in two parts, the first affecting the Mid-Atlantic on Sunday and Monday, with the stronger storm—and highest snow totals—sweeping across coastal communities of the Northeast on Monday and Tuesday.
Source: Tropical Tidbits

This bout of snow and ice is really two different storms creating one big mess. You can see the evolution of the two storms using the model image above, from Tropical Tidbits, which shows the GFS model's guidance from Saturday night through Tuesday evening.

The first low-pressure system moved across the Midwest and Ohio Valley on Saturday, bringing heavy snow to Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Some lucky folks (or unlucky folks, depending on your level of Winter Hatred) will see more than half a foot of snow by the time the precipitation ends. This system will slide into the Mid-Atlantic overnight Saturday into Sunday and produce ice over parts of North Carolina and southern Virginia while laying down a blanket of snow in the D.C. and Baltimore areas.

A pre-event band of snow already moved through N.C. and Virginia on Saturday evening, dropping a quick dusting to inch of snow across the affected areas before the main storm moves in later on. I took the pic at the top of the post just before publishing this. I stopped writing to go outside and sample the quality and purity of the snow. You know...for science.

That first storm will start to wind down as the upper-level trough sharpens over the East Coast. The resulting classic trough will generate a classic nor'easter off the coast of New Jersey. Snow will crank in earnest beginning on Monday morning as the low develops and takes over. Fairly heavy snow rates, possibly a few inches an hour, are likely across parts of eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, NYC, and Long Island as the nor'easter deepens. Snow will taper off on Monday night and Tuesday from south to north as the storm moves off toward Atlantic Canada.

Here's National Weather Service's snowfall forecast from Saturday evening through Tuesday evening, including snow from the first storm to the west and most of the subsequent storm back east:


There's pretty good agreement between the offices that the greatest snowfall totals will occur during the peak of the nor'easter. Someone will wind up getting a foot or more by the end of the storm. As always, tiny changes in the track of the storm could result in big differences in the final accumulations. If the storm moves a bit west or east, the axis of heavy snow will follow suit.

Ice will be a problem farther south. Winter storm warnings are in effect for freezing rain in southern Virginia and parts of the North Carolina Piedmont (which is where I live). It'll be cold enough at the surface for snow, but an intrusion of warm air a few thousand feet above the surface will force snowflakes to melt into liquid raindrops. These raindrops will fall into that subfreezing air at the surface and freeze on contact with exposed surfaces. Some areas could see as much as one-quarter of an inch of ice accretion, which could lead to tree damage and power outages.


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January 26, 2021

California Braces For Strong Adjectives As Rain, Snow, Wind Overspread State


A barrage of descriptive words will wash over California over the next couple of days as strong winds, heavy rain, and huge snows promise to do a number on the state's drought. While rain and snow are a  good thing, too much all at once can cause serious issues. Mammoth snowfall totals in the mountains will make travel impossible and lead to a high risk for avalanches, while heavy rain at lower elevations could trigger flash flooding and mudslides.

The Setup

A growing trough in the jet stream will continue to sharpen as it approaches the West Coast overnight into Wednesday. This trough, along with a cold front extending off a low-pressure system moving into the Pacific Northwest, will direct an atmospheric river right at California.
Source: Tropical Tidbits
Despite its name, an atmospheric river isn't something made up to sound good on a chyron. The term describes a narrow band of enhanced moisture in the atmosphere that flows from tropical latitudes to the middle latitudes. In this case, the atmospheric river will drag tropical moisture from the central Pacific and focus it over much of California over the next couple of days. 

The amount of moisture in the atmosphere plays a huge role in how much rain or snow can fall over a certain area. Rain showers, snow bands, and thunderstorms can tap into an atmospheric river like a reservoir and condense that rich moisture into a tremendous amount of precipitation.

The result will be impressive.

Snowfall


Source: NWS Sacramento

The National Weather Service's snowfall forecast for the highest peaks in the Sierra calls for 80 to 100 inches of snow by the end of the storm, with locally higher snowfall totals possible. Some areas could see more than 10 feet of snow by the time things calm down.

That much snow all at once will make travel all but impossible across roads that traverse the mountains, and it'll lead to a high risk for avalanches as much of the fresh snowpack will be unstable. It's not all bad, though. Mountain snowpack is a significant source of freshwater for many communities around California. This kind of snow will go a long way toward reinforcing some of that water supply after the region's slipped deeper into drought over the last year.

Rainfall


Lower elevations will experience rain—and plenty of it. Widespread rainfall totals of 3 to 6 inches are likely from western Washington straight down the coast through southern California. Higher elevations below the freezing line could see double-digit rainfall totals by the end of the storm. An inch or two of rain is possible all the way down in Los Angeles through this weekend.

This much rain falling this quickly will lead to a risk for flash flooding. The greatest risk for flash flooding will exist from about Monterey to San Luis Obispo, but a risk for excessive rainfall will exist from the Bay Area east to about Sacramento, and down the coast through Santa Barbara. 

Never try to drive across a flooded roadway. It only takes a couple of inches of fast-moving water to lift a vehicle and carry it downstream. It's impossible to judge how deep the water is until you're already in it. Sometimes, floodwaters can wash away the road and obscure the fact that there isn't a road there anymore until it's too late.

The risk for flash flooding and mudslides is greater around the region's many burn scars. Wildfires destroy the soil over which they burn, making the soil virtually impermeable. Since the water can't penetrate into the ground, it oversaturates the topsoil and triggers a mudslide. Debris flows, flash floods that carry ash, rocks, and burned vegetation, can destroy roads and buildings downstream from the loaded floodwaters.

Gusty Winds

If it's a storm in California, it's going to be windy. High winds are possible across much of the state through Wednesday. Wind gusts as high as 60 MPH in some areas could easily knock down trees and power lines, especially where heavy rain loosens the soil and makes it harder for trees and poles to stand up to the stress of the wind.

[Satellite Image: NOAA]


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January 20, 2021

A Sharpie Can't Cover Up The Last Four Years


Today is the first flash of warmth after a long, cold winter. It's been a...trying...four years. Even the weather didn't make it out unscathed. Storms played a role in shaping some of the most important events of Donald Trump's term in office, ranging from a white lie on the day of his inauguration to a simple error in a presidential tweet that launched a coverup that almost toppled the leadership of NOAA. 

The National Weather Service, probably the most agreeable federal agency in the entire government, became a focal point several times during Donald Trump's four years in office. The federal weather agency survived a drawn-out attempt to install a former rival as its leader, the threat of steep budget cuts, a lengthy government shutdown, and a brazen assault on the agency by the executive branch launched over two words in a tweet.

It's not a partisan statement to point out that Donald Trump lies frequently. The outgoing president told thousands upon thousands of lies during his four years in office. Many of the lies were intentional. Many of the lies were a case of an apparent misremembering of details or his characteristic embellishment and exaggeration. But Trump's most harrowing and consequential lies were told with purpose, and those were the lies that caused the most damage. 

Intrepid fact-checker Daniel Dale, who analyzed just about every public statement Trump made while in office, started his top-line review of Trump's lies with one succinct summary: "Trump began his presidency by lying about the weather." 

The Inauguration

Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017, is best remembered for the White House's weeks-long effort to convince the American public that the crowd on the National Mall was much, much bigger than it looked in photographs. The lie—which eventually snowballed into an order for the National Parks Service to stop tweeting after they contradicted the lie about the inaugural crowd size—wasn't the first lie told about the inauguration.

Before White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Trump's inauguration had the biggest audience in the history of presidential swearings-in, "period," the president himself told the audience at an inaugural ball an embellished story about how it didn't start raining until he had finished his inaugural address.

Except, it did rain during his address. We know it rained because there's video of it raining about a minute into the speech. There were raindrops on Trump's suit jacket and everyone started putting on ponchos behind him. But, there Trump stood, waxing poetic about how it didn't rain during his speech even though everyone could see it rain.

It was a tiny lie. But it demonstrated how even the truth about the small things, the demonstrably false things we all saw for ourselves and knew to be false, were up for grabs.

It was the tiny lies that paved the way for the big ones.

The Sharpie Map

In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already a category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!
Donald Trump mistakenly tweeted the morning of September 1, 2019, that Alabama was one of the states that would be hit "(much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian as the scale-topping storm came dangerously close to Florida.

The only problem was that Alabama wasn't actually anywhere near Hurricane Dorian's predicted path. This was the forecast map issued by the National Hurricane Center the morning Trump sent out that tweet:


After Trump's tweet, a flood of calls to the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, prompted the office to use its own Twitter account to say that the state was not in Hurricane Dorian's path. Even though forecasters didn't know Trump was the reason people started getting antsy, the administration took their statement as a direct slight against the president, sending the executive branch on an increasingly bizarre crusade to "prove" Trump right that ended with a threat to fire NOAA's leadership if they didn't issue a statement renouncing the forecasters' statement.  

It's going to be hard for future generations to understand how the Hurricane Dorian dustup came to symbolize Trump's sole term in office. The context is that Trump rarely admits when he's wrong, and hardly ever corrects smaller mistakes, because doing so would be a sign of weakness, and he will not say or do anything that casts himself in a weak light.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, his extreme aversion to using unfavorable words to describe himself resulted in an Arrested Development-like exchange when he told reporters that he'd "tested very positively for the coronavirus." After reporters pushed him for clarification, he backtracked by saying he "tested positively toward negative" to describe testing negative for the virus. The word "negative" was so...well, negative...to him that he couldn't even bring himself to say that he didn't have the virus.

Source: Twitter/@WhiteHouse

And to that end, in the aftermath of a seemingly simple error in one tweet, the administration stepped up and kept escalating the situation until Trump's mistake became truth in an alternate reality.

The effort culminated in Trump himself  scribbling on a three-day-old printout of a forecast map to crudely extend the forecasters' cone of uncertainty to include Alabama. The president's Sharpie-scrawled bubble, looking like an eye on a potato that sat in the pantry too long, was the perfect encapsulation of the mindset that drove these last couple of years: the truth is what Trump says it is.

The coverup and eventual fallout from Trump's mistake-turned-Sharpiegate competed against the fact that there was a major hurricane just a few dozen miles off the coast of the third-most populous state in the country. Forecast updates and preparedness information became sub-headlines to stories about the president forcing the government to help him avoid admitting he made a mistake in a tweet.

The administration's handling of Trump's tweet about Hurricane Dorian was perhaps the most telling incident of the entire presidency. A similar situation played out as the coronavirus pandemic tumbled out of control. Trump downplayed the virus at first, boasting to reporters that the virus would disappear after just a few dozen cases. Case totals and deaths continued to soar throughout the final year of his presidency even as he went out of his way to play it down.

NOAA Administrator

It wasn't just the campaign to preserve the president's self-image. The federal weather agency came under a political threat as well. The president nominated Barry Myers, then-CEO of AccuWeather, to become the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, or the administrator of NOAA.

AccuWeather employs many meteorologists who are genuinely good-hearted people who do honest work to keep their audiences informed and prepared. AccuWeather's leadership, unfortunately, has made some questionable decisions over the years, not the least of which was the company's not-so-subtle campaign to vanquish the National Weather Service as a competitor.

Pushback to Myers' nomination, which included concern about potential conflicts of interest as well as larger concern about the company's history of viewing the National Weather Service as unfair competition, was swift—and it actually seemed to make a difference. The Republican-controlled Senate never advanced Myers to the floor for a vote despite the president having nominated him three times: first in 2017, then on resubmission in 2018 and 2019. (Presidential nominations normally expire when the Senate adjourns at the end of each year.)

Myers ultimately withdrew his own name from nomination in November 2019, citing health issues that would make it difficult for him to serve in the role. The position was then filled by Dr. Neil Jacobs, who headed the agency as acting administrator. Trump's presidency was the first time since the position was created in 1970 that the Senate never acted to confirm an administrator for NOAA.

The Shutdown

There was also the time that National Weather Service meteorologists had to miss a paycheck because Trump wouldn't sign a bill to fund the government unless Congress paid for a wall along the border with Mexico.

The federal government ran out of money on December 22, 2018. Usually, if Congress can't agree on a budget, they'll pass a temporary funding agreement while they work on a deal. Sometimes, though, negotiations break down and the funding runs out. When the funding runs out, the government shuts down.

Historically, shutdowns only last a couple of days while Congressional leadership and the White House work out a deal.

But this one went on. And on.

And on.

When the federal government shuts down, most of the government's public-facing services grind to a halt. National parks close and more than 800,000 employees are sent home and told not to return to work until the funding returns. But there are so many essential employees who have to come to work every day during a shutdown without knowing when they'll receive their next paycheck.

The 35-day shutdown became the longest in American history. The shutdown dragged on for so long that essential federal employees—including forecasters at the National Weather Service—missed a paycheck. These hardworking people had to scramble to make ends meet while still working hard as ever to keep the public informed of hazards coming their way.

It never needed to happen. Funding bills passed the House and the Senate, but the president dug in and insisted he wouldn't sign a budget without full funding for a border wall. The standoff continued through the last half of January 2019, at which point the president relented, signed the bill, and the folks at the National Weather Service finally got the pay they worked for.

The 2020 Budget

The president's budget proposal for 2020 included slashing more than $75,000,000—seventy-five million dollars!—in funding to the National Weather Service. That's a lot of money.

Such a deep slash in funding would have kneecapped an agency that was already stretched thin by understaffing, making it that much harder to fulfill its responsibilities to the American public. The plan would have fired nearly 250 meteorologists, cut funding for weather stations and upper-air weather balloon launches, and ended a valuable research project to study tornadoes in the southeastern United States.

Thankfully, the cuts never came to pass.

Hurricane Harvey

It wasn't always a lie that caused an issue. Donald Trump issued a controversial pardon to the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, while Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas in August 2017. He announced the pardon as the hurricane made landfall because he "assumed ratings would be far higher" since people were already watching storm coverage on the news. Hurricane Harvey caused more than $100 billion in damages and killed nearly 70 people.

Puerto Rico

Donald Trump and his administration delayed meaningful aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The storm killed thousands of people and severed electricity to much of the island for months after the storm. The president said that he believed the death toll was inflated to make him look bad, conditioned billions of dollars in disaster aid on political goals like prohibiting the island from raising the minimum wage, and implied that further aid to the island was contingent upon the territory's political leadership showing "appreciation" for him.

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The weather for Trump's arrival in Palm Beach, Florida, will be sunny with a gentle breeze, low humidity, and a temperature around 70°F.

A little while later, Joe Biden will take office in Washington under clear skies and gusty winds. It'll be chilly, but warmer weather is right around the corner.

[Top Photo: Flickr/White House]


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