December 26, 2015

When Storms Threaten Lives, Words Matter

News outlets have to follow a certain narrative in order to cover certain news events. The necessity of driving traffic to rake in advertising money often outweighs the urge to accidentally commit journalism, requiring the development of a sort of prefab narrative when covering the news. Political reporting often uses the "horse race" narrative in order to cover elections, whether or not the opponents are actually running close to one another. Sports media goes weak at the knees for an underdog. Once a news outlet sticks to The Narrative long enough, it turns into an unbreakable habit. When it comes to the weather, this particular narrative is that the weather forecast was wrong, no matter what, and that the victims of a disaster were taken off-guard by the disaster, no matter what.

The myth of the dumb, lying weatherman is so deeply woven into the American tapestry of falsisms that it's not a matter of if it's claimed lives, but a question of how many people have died because they thought they knew better than their friendly neighborhood meteorologist. We encounter this kind of ignorance in everyday conversation—you're bound to engage in small talk with someone who eventually talks about the weather forecast, concluding with the trusty ol' line "but they don't know what they're talking about, so who knows what's going to happen."


This was a bad week for severe weather in the United States. Destructive storms are bad any time of the year, but it's even worse during the holidays. Millions of people travel during this one week of the year, visiting unfamiliar areas of the country in order to enjoy the time they have off from work and school. Even worse, we're approaching the middle of meteorological winter, a time when more people are concerned about roads icing over than they are about a tornado sweeping their house away. People simply not paying attention to forecasts of severe weather make tornado outbreaks in December even more dangerous than they'd be in a "normal" situation, if there is such a thing.

The severe weather outbreak on Wednesday, December 23 saw 348 reports of damaging winds, large hail, or tornadoes come through to the Storm Prediction Center. Of those reports, 51 of them were for tornadoes, and many of these tornado reports were for the same long-track tornadoes. The most significant tornado occurred across northern Mississippi into southern Tennessee; a preliminary EF-3 with maximum winds of 160 MPH, the tornado stayed on the ground for two and a half hours, traversing 145 continuous miles and reaching a maximum width of 0.75 miles. The tornado killed at least seven people.

Meteorologists began talking about the threat for severe weather on Wednesday as early as a week before the event, and the Storm Prediction Center officially included the area under a 15% risk for severe weather in its day four outlook on December 20:

On December 21, three days out, they included the area under a slight risk for severe weather:

On December 22, two days out, this slight risk was upgraded to an enhanced risk, a three on a scale from one to five:

At 7:00 AM CST on December 23, the day of the outbreak, the agency issued a moderate risk for severe weather due to the increasing threat for tornadoes, outlining the area under a 15% risk for significant (EF-2+) tornadoes.

At 11:55 AM CST on Wednesday, December, 23, the Storm Prediction Center issued a Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) Tornado Watch for the Mississippi River Valley from Louisiana north through western Tennessee. A "particularly dangerous situation" is enhanced wording attached to a tornado watch when numerous violent, long-track tornadoes are possible. PDS watches are reserved for the most dangerous severe weather days, and before December 23, the last PDS Tornado Watch issued by the agency was in June 2014 in Nebraska.

The EF-3 tornado that tore through northern Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee that afternoon touched down at 2:58 PM CST, according to the latest report from the National Weather Service office in Memphis. The first tornado warning on this particular storm was issued at exactly 3:00 PM CST—two minutes after the tornado touched down according to the preliminary storm survey—and the storm was continuously warned over the initial tornado's 145-mile track, continuing on until the storm lost rotation over the Nashville metro area. This supercell was tornado-warned from 3:00 PM CST until 7:47 PM CST, providing five hours of continuous notice for people in the path of the storm's strong rotation.

This weekend, People Magazine posted an article on its website with a headline exclaiming that an "unexpected" tornado outbreak claimed seven lives in the South and Midwest on Wednesday, December 23. This kind of dramatic language is what blogs thrive on—The Narrative, after all, is that meteorologists don't know what they're talking about, so even when they get it right, they were somehow wrong. The headline was corrected after widespread condemnation on social media. The headline still went out to tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people before it was corrected, so the damage is done, and thus the myth of the dumb, lying weatherman guessing at a wrong forecast chugs forth unrestrained.

Just one day after the People incident occurred, television meteorologists like James Spann posted screenshots of one social media attack after another, launched his way by irate viewers who were ticked that his station, ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama, preempted a basketball game in order to cover widespread deadly flooding and a handful of tornadoes that plagued central Alabama on Christmas Day, claiming multiple lives, washing out major roads, and destroying dozens of homes and businesses.

This is also nothing new. There's a long, ugly history of television stations and broadcast meteorologists receiving vitriol—up to and including death threats—when they have to break into regular programming in order to cover severe weather. I used to cover this over on The Vane (see here and here), and Dr. Marshall Shepherd added his desire for viewers to crack this ugly habit to his list of New Year's resolutions over at his blog on Forbes.

When the People Magazine incident occurred, meteorologists and weather enthusiasts weren't completely in lock step on how to handle the situation. On one side, many folks (myself included) were pissed off that they chose to categorize a well-forecast severe weather outbreak as "unexpected," likely in some misguided attempt to drive traffic by feeding into the myth of the lying weatherman. James Spann tweeted that he would argue with these "jabronis" if it wasn't Christmas Eve. For every four or five messages lambasting People for publishing a crappy headline, there were a couple of tweets saying that we should ignore it and that the reaction is overblown. "It's just a tabloid!," I saw multiple folks exclaim, pretending like they don't know that People Magazine's audience is likely to believe everything People Magazine writes.

Ignoring crappy statements like the one People tried to pass off this week is exactly the kind of behavior that allows people to delude themselves into thinking that every tornado warning is crying wolf, that every forecast is an uneducated guess designed to drive ratings and traffic to the station's advertisers, and that meteorologists are lying or making things up. After all, it's the only job where you can be wrong all the time and not get fired!, says the worst person in the room.

Words matter. Even some tabloid like People has a reach that far exceeds what many of us are able to accomplish. A lie or myth or hoax can travel around the world a hundred times before a weather geek can turn on his or her computer. People who read weather blogs or follow weather geeks on social media already have a pretty solid idea of what goes into a forecast and what to take seriously. People Magazine reaches a demographic that largely couldn't care less about the weather. I ran into that problem all the time writing about the weather for Gawker—their audience, mostly "the average person," isn't tuned in to the weather and mostly couldn't care less.

When we pretend that words don't matter, we get people who send meteorologists death threats for covering a tornado 20 miles away instead of airing a sporting event or popular television show. When we pretend that words don't matter, we get people who ignore tornado warnings thinking it's another false alarm, only for their life to end in a ditch half a mile away from their living room. When we pretend that words don't matter, we wind up watching the news as they show tornado victims shouting "WE HAD NO WARNING" and baffled reporters saying it was completely unexpected, even though they had days and days to prepare.

Words matter, and we need to do our very best to make sure people know when to take threats seriously and stop brushing it off. The myth of the lying weatherman has and will continue to cost lives—we'll never be able to completely prevent death or ignorance, but we have a responsibility to try like hell.

[Maps: SPC | Radar: Gibson Ridge | Tweets: People Magazine, James Spann]

December 21, 2015

Typical! Self-Absorbed Millennials Don't Remember This Thunderstorm From March 1996

We all know that one special millennial who's so wrapped up in their overwhelming magnificence that they can't stop to marvel at the world that revolves around them. One of the greater tragedies of this generation that failed us (because society certainly didn't fail it!) is that they don't remember this particular noteworthy day in Metroplex history.

Kids these days are so wrapped up in their smartphones that they didn't even notice this thunderstorm northeast of Dallas, Texas, in the early afternoon hours of March 5, 1996. The subsequent line of thunderstorms would go on to produce numerous tornadoes in the hours to come, but ask a millennial that, and they'll just ironically shrug at you!

If you can drag them away from their phones for just a couple of minutes, they might be able to tell you where they were the day of the strong thunderstorm in eastern Prince William County, Virginia, on September 16, 2008, struck, but boy howdy, if you try to hold a discussion about this great storm that developed on the border between Collin and Hunt Counties on the extreme northeastern suburbs of Dallas, they give you a vacant stare while their Twitter notifications tick ever upward.

This generation is definitely not [one hundred emoji]. For shame.

November 30, 2015

Top Ten Warmest Novembers in the Future, Ranked

If you live east of the Rocky Mountains, you don't need me to tell you that it was a warm November. Frankly, it's been a warm fall overall, and with the way things are going, we could have a similar conversation come the end of December. What's it going to be like in the future, though? I've compiled a list of the ten most memorable warm Novembers from the future.
  1. November 2015—A string of winter storms plagues the Plains as unusually warm weather bathes the East Coast.
  2. November 2017—After a long streak of 70°F+ weather, Winter Storm Crème Fraîche drops 13" of snow on New York City the day before Thanksgiving.
  3. November 2019—United States celebrates as nice weather prevails and country experiences only 620 mass shootings, the lowest monthly total in almost four years.
  4. November 2020—Kanye West wins a closely contested election, barely unseating incumbent President Jim Webb in a 271-267 race.
  5. November 2044—Puerto Rico's newly-installed Congressional delegation proves crucial in passing landmark climate change legislation, only to be inexplicably filibustered by longtime Senator Alvin Greene (D-S.C.). 
  6. November 2063—The less you remember about November 2063, the better.
  7. November 2091—First warmest November in six years after atmosphere recovers from long-awaited eruption of Yellowstone caldera; History Channel goes off-air after discovering it now has nothing left to talk about. 
  8. November 2302—Kale and quinoa, traditional Thanksgiving staples, in short supply due to record drought.
  9. November 5281—Walt Disney World Iqaluit opens to treat guests, still bitter about Florida's retreat into the Atlantic, looking for a sunny winter getaway.
  10. November 5,400,000,000 AD—Sun's expansion causes Earth to warm beyond capability of remaining microbial life; Jim Inhofe, unconvinced, holds up a glass of yet-unevaporated water to disprove the red giant theory.
[Image: NASA]

November 27, 2015

Now That's What I Call a Cold Front

Some cold fronts sweep through virtually unnoticed. Others crash through with the ugly blow of someone ripping the covers off of you in the morning. That is to say, rude.

Winds swirling around a low pressure system up near the Arctic Circle and a broad area of high pressure near the Rockies on the international border are forcing (relatively) frigid air from Canada to filter south across the western and central United States. The cold front is moving slowly and it's one of those fronts that has an incredible gradient over very short distances—at 8:00 PM CST, it was 68°F in Dallas and just 39°F in Oklahoma City. When it passes through, you know it passed through.

These dramatic fronts often have severe weather along the leading edge, as the powerful lifting created by the cold air colliding with the warm, moist air is usually enough to trigger an intense line of thunderstorms, but we don't have that today. The front is moving slow enough that a broader area of heavy rain and thunderstorms has set up along the boundary, and even without destructive winds or photogenic tornadoes, it's creating some pretty big issues on the Plains this holiday weekend.
On the warm side of the front, folks are dealing with very heavy rainfall that will almost certainly lead to flooding issues under the heaviest precipitation. Thursday night's forecast from the Weather Prediction Center showed a huge area of more than half a foot of rain falling on the southern Plains and portions of the Deep South, with the heaviest rain concentrated over Texas and Oklahoma.

A few hundred miles deeper into the cold air, though, it's a wintry disaster. The cold air is dense and hugging the ground, so it's undercutting the warmer air as it slides south and east. A few thousand feet above the ground, it's not raining, it's snowing! As the snowflakes fall into the warmer air, however, they start to melt. If the layer of warm air is thick enough, the snowflake will completely melt into a liquid raindrop before falling back into sub-freezing air.

This newly-formed liquid raindrop falls into the air that's below 32°F, causing it to cool down to freezing. Since it doesn't have a nucleus around which it can refreeze, the temperature of the water continues to drop below freezing, becoming a supercooled liquid. Once this supercooled drop hits just about any exposed surface—trees, roads, sidewalks, railings, cars, lights, gutters—it instantly freezes into a layer of ice.

It usually takes about 0.25" of ice accretion to start causing damage in the form of downed branches, limbs, and power lines. Accretions greater than one-quarter of an inch can cause even greater damage, and once you get above half an inch, it can turn into a disaster. Significant damage to trees, power lines, and even large structures like transmission towers can snap or crumple under the immense weight of the ice, affecting the area for weeks (or even months) after the ice storm.

As of late Thursday night, local National Weather Service offices predicted more than a half an inch of ice across the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma, and more than a quarter of an inch of ice from eastern New Mexico through northwestern Missouri.

This is bad news any day of the year, but especially so during the extremely busy Thanksgiving travel period. It's possible (to an extent) to drive on snow, but even the most experienced drivers driving the most well-equipped car can't drive on roads encased in solid ice. We're going to see widespread power outages just about anywhere the freezing rain falls, and if people don't heed the days of advanced warning they've had, we'll see large numbers of car accidents.

It's just the start of what could be an active winter. It should be a fun one.

[Temp. Map: Author | Rain Forecast: WPC | Ice Forecast: NWS EDD]

November 25, 2015

Major Hurricane Sandra Breaks Two More Records, Ocean Just Showing Off Now

Hurricane Sandra became a major hurricane today—as I figured it would, but who's keeping score—packing winds of 115 MPH at the 2:00 PM MST advisory. The storm broke the record for the strongest hurricane we've ever seen so late in the year in the eastern Pacific, and it's the eighth major hurricane in that basin this year, which is also a record. It could get just a bit stronger before it begins a steady weakening trend as it hangs a right and heads toward Mexico. Its moisture will continue streaming into the United States over the next couple of days, exacerbating heavy rain and wintry precipitation over the central part of the country.

Nobody likes a show-off, Pacific Ocean. We get it, you're warm. Give it a rest.

[Satellite Image: NOAA]

November 19, 2015

Winter Storm Skittlebip IV Promises Many Inches of White Doom to the Midwest

Many have asked what Skittlebip means. The legend of Skittlebip is that its legend is never fully formed. It is an ever-lasting and frequently evolving storm, a skittleblip on the continuum of time and space partially consumed by the media's insatiable appetite for every storm to be worse than the last. Perhaps by Skittlebip XVII we will have a better understanding of its deeper metaphysical position on the hierarchy of doom, but for now. it is time to deal with The Fourth One in the Midwest.

November 18, 2015

Tropical Depression Attempts to Bribe Santa, Probably Not Successful

It's satellite images like this that spawn conspiracy theories about our ability to control the weather.

Strong Fall Storm Spawns Tornadoes, Snow, Floods, General Malaise

A large storm system that continues to crawl across the United States this afternoon—officially known as Winter Storm Skittlebip III by the dennismersereau dot com naming and brunch committee—will herald the end of our unusually warm fall, bringing in colder temperatures to bathe the tornado debris, flooded roads, and generally miserable people.

You Don't Need a Vane to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

It's strange knowing that, for the first time since my last semester of college, I don't have to get out of bed and scour the skies for some interesting weather blurb to share with a few thousand of my closest friends.