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SLS in Madtown

In early November, I flew back to Madison, Wisconsin for the 27th AMS Conference on Severe Local Storms (or “SLS”, as we call it). For those who don’t know, I got my B.S. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science from UW-Madison. It’s been more than a decade since I packed up my research intern cubicle at SSEC, and I was excited to get back. Experiencing Madison from a high-star hotel within a block of the Wisconsin state capitol dome and State Street was quite a different experience from being stacked, cordwood-style, with other undergraduate students in Chadbourne Hall.

I was much more involved in this conference than I have been in previous ones. This was the first SLS conference on whose program committee I served. That meant I got to review nearly 50 abstracts, helping stratify them into oral and poster slots, and had input on the daily schedule. In addition to our professional contributions, my husband and I also coordinated the informal (and infamous) Video Night for the third time. The conference co-chairs elected to forgo a formal banquet in favor of a come-and-go icebreaker with heavy appetizers, a practice that I favor continuing, because it allows attendees to interact with more than seven people at a round table over the course of the evening.

Contentwise, this SLS conference program was as good as ever. A couple of the highlights:

A note to nonmeteorologists who are interested in severe weather research, particularly students considering a career in that area: Browse the conference program. Watch some of the talks.* Read the extended abstracts and examine the posters. A little more than a decade ago, it wasn’t possible for people outside the conference to access the research presented there (unless you could somehow get your hands on a limited-edition preprint volume). Now, almost the entire content of the conference is available online for public perusal. So, take advantage of it! Get a taste of what scientific research really looks like.

* Keep in mind that the talks are often a 12-minute summary of two or more years of research, coding, and mental exertion. Not all details, caveats, and nuances can be included. (That’s what seminars and peer-reviewed manuscripts are for!)

The Moore tornado doesn’t necessarily mean more tornadoes

During my interview blitz last week, I was asked by multiple reporters to tie the recent Moore tornado to a presumed overall upward trend in the number of U.S. tornadoes. This was a poorly posed query, for two reasons:

Firstly, it is illogical to conflate a single event (e.g., a car accident) with an trend in those events (e.g., an increase with time in the number of car accidents).
Person A: “I got in a car accident last week, therefore the number of car accidents each year is increasing.”
Person B: “I didn’t get in a car accident last week, therefore the number of car accidents each year is not increasing.”
Neither of these statements make any sense! You need at least two data points to begin to discern a trend, and many, many more to discern a statistically significant trend.

Secondly, although media coverage of tornadoes has undoubtedly increased in the last few decades, to the best of our (researchers’) knowledge, the actual number of tornadoes has not. When adjusted for population growth (read: more eyeballs looking for tornadoes), the trend since ~1950 is essentially flat. Here we see an example of what is known as the availability heuristic: People can more easily recall recent tornadoes than those farther back in the past, especially now thanks to saturation coverage of tornadoes. Viewers may reach an erroneous conclusion that the total number of tornadoes each year is increasing. I’d imagine the same holds true for shark attacks, child abductions, and deaths from falling coconuts.

My top three SLS talks

Proceedings of the recent 36th AMS Severe Local Storms conference in Nashville are now online. My new boss, Dr. Pam Heinselman, was one of the co-chairs. She never even broke a sweat!

It was a terrific conference. Highlights included:

  • Dave Lewellen’s ultra-high resolution simulations of tornadoes interacting with other-than-flat topography. Some of his simulations looked remarkably like my video of the 7 November 2011 tornado interacting with the Wichita Mountains!
  • Harold Brooks gave a “mythbusters”-style keynote talk about the 2011 and 2012 tornado seasons, and how the media hype (or lack thereof) squares with statistics. If you have 30 minutes, I highly recommend watching his recorded presentation. It’s an informative hoot!
  • Tim Marhsall, fresh back from surveying the dangling NYC crane from Hurricane Sandy, gave back-to-back presentations about his damage surveys of the 27 April 2011 Alabama tornadoes and the 22 May 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. He always makes me want to rip out the walls of my house to make sure they’re toe-nailed.

There were, of course, lots of other great presentations and posters, including a couple by yours truly, but these were my three favorite.

In addition to my professional contributions, I organized the traditional, less-than-formal “photo and video night” at the conference (with some help from Dan, Lou Wicker, and Judith Z. of the AMS staff). There were contributions ranging from all over the U.S. to Australia, Japan, and Germany. We noted sadly the howling vacuum created by the absence of Dr. Bob Schlesinger – a former colleague at UW-Madison – who is famed for the uniquely-styled presentations that he usually delivers at video night. A response to my inquiry at UW indicated that Bob was unable to travel to the conference because of health issues. I organized a get-well card for him, which was soon so densely scrawled upon by dozens of people that we had to resort to using the back cover. I certainly hope Bob comes back in 2014. It just wasn’t the same without him!

First chases of 2012

Southbound on I-35 after three straight days of chasing. The first two days (April 12 and 13) were busts. However, April 14 made up for them; I saw at least seven tornadoes today of all strengths, shapes, and sizes. I really need sleep tonight, but I can’t wait to make slew of photo- and video-laden postings tomorrow.

Dallas tornadoes have a lesson for chasers

Just after lunchtime yesterday, I was transfixed (as were many in the NWC) by live video of tornadoes near the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. I did not chase yesterday because (a) it was a work day and (b) every time I’ve tried to chase in the DFW metroplex, it’s been a spectacular failure ending in traffic gridlock. But the supercells riding the warm front meant business. I’ve heard enough nightmare scenarios about a DFW tornado strike from the emergency management community to pass my hand over my brow and be grateful that nobody was killed.

Anyway, I’ve been fascinated by this now-famous video – shot from a helicopter – of the tornado flinging tractor-trailer rigs (or “articulated lorries”, as the BBC calls them) through the air near Lancaster, TX. I don’t know how much these rigs weigh or whether they were empty or full, but I think it’s safe to say that they weigh more than my little Corolla, a substantial SUV, or a pickup truck. I hope some of the “yahoos” watch this video and remember it the next time they consider brazenly driving into tornadoes as though they were little more than glorified dust devils.

Tornado Alley (the IMAX film) arrives in Oklahoma at last

RaXPol demo at the OKC Science Museum
Here, I introduce visitors to the RaXPol radar during a public outreach event at the Oklahoma City Science Museum.
Last weekend, I took part in an outreach event for the opening of the IMAX film Tornado Alley at the Oklahoma Science Museum. RaXPol’s caretakers kindly put me on the insurance for one day so that I could drive it up to the east side of Oklahoma City and back. I was charged with standing next to a radar truck I’d never used, to promote a film I hadn’t seen yet. I had some compunctions about that arrangement, but we were promised a free screening in exchange, so I decided to go for it. (I probably would have seen the film eventually anyway, at my own expense.) I always enjoy a chance to show off my “woman-in-science” cred, especially to a crowd that I knew would include lots of kids.

Mobile mesonet, field command vehicle, and radar trucks parked outside the OKC Science Museum.
Mobile mesonet, field command vehicle, and radar trucks parked outside the OKC Science Museum.
Ironically, Tornado Alley only recently came to the Oklahoma market, despite being released over a year ago and featuring many Oklahoma “talents.” I tried in vain to see it in other cities during my travels, but was always thwarted by logistical impediments. That morning, the Science Museum staff kindly waved me and the other volunteers through the door into the 10 a.m. showing, free of charge. Don Burgess and Terra Thompson gave a brief introduction to the film before the lights went down. At the end, they did a Q & A, while we resumed our posts by our respective trucks, ready to answer questions. I parked down at the far end of the line, so I asked David B. to spin the RaXPol antenna periodically to draw people down my way. Former officemate Jeff S. joined me for part of the afternoon to help answer questions and talk about some of the data he collected in the 24 May 2011 tornadoes. And questions were plentiful; we had steady foot traffic of all ages, all day long.

Tornado Alley Poster at the OKC Science Museum
Tornado Alley Poster
Here’s my review of the film.

Tornado Alley is billed as Sean Casey’s magnum opus, the culmination of eight years of film-gathering in his Tornado Intercept Vehicle (“the TIV”). The film was partially sponsored by the National Science Foundation, who also sponsored VORTEX2. In the film, VORTEX2 mainly serves to provide a parallel story to that of the TIV crew, and that story is heavily CSWR-centric.*

Starting with the whale’s mouth swallowing the audience at the opening, Tornado Alley delivers the spectacular visuals that I’ve come to expect from IMAX. The filmmakers pack plenty of “torn porn” into 45 minutes. We see every frame of tornado footage they’ve got, and happily, they let the audience soak it in for 10-15 rapturous seconds before cutting back to the story. There’s a shot of a multi-vortex tornado that, in and of itself, is worth the price of admission. The IMAX format comes closest to capturing the all-encompassing experience of seeing a real tornado, minus the hours of driving, the bad food, and lightning danger.

Tornadoes with TIV near Stockton, KS, 2005
A frame grab from my video, taken near Stockton, KS, 9 June 2005. Two tornadoes, one light (left) and one dark (right, behind the white sign) can be seen in the background. Sean's head is sticking up out of the TIV's front "sunroof" as it turns left onto the gravel road. The resulting shot is used in the IMAX film, but, confusingly, is implied to be a tornado from 2009.
However, the narrative is a mess. The filmmakers try to squish together eight years’ worth of footage on the TIV side to parallel two years’ worth on the VORTEX2 side. I spotted tornadoes from 2004 through 2008 being passed off as tornadoes from 2009 and 2010. Goshen Co., WY makes an appearance a few moments after the 9 June 2005 Stockton, KS twins. (I was there. I even have video of the TIV turning down the road from which they got their shot.)

With regards to the science, the film punches far below its weight, especially so considering that it’s an NSF-funded excursion. We get a few minutes’ explanation of how a supercell, and then a tornado, form. They don’t quite dumb it down to the clichéd, “cold air mass + warm air mass = tornado.” But it’s not much better than that, not to mention that the animations accompanying the explanations look relatively crude for 2011. There’s almost no attempt to tie this rudimentary understanding to the story. At one point, Bill Paxton announces, “Sean Casey has picked the wrong storm.” In my mind, I immediately cried out, “Okay, why is it the wrong storm?” But hungry minds like mine are left wanting. The narrative is so jumbled that I can’t figure out what day it actually was. I can’t even go back into my own chase logs and look it up.

The climax of the film is supposed to be Sean Casey capturing IMAX film from inside a tornado. “The Shot” turns out to be a bit of a let-down, but I can’t say I was surprised. Every serendipitous film or video I’ve seen from inside a tornado has shown blinding rain, flying leaves and branches, and not much else. There’s no glorious, Twister-esque view up the tornado’s throat, no choral accompaniment, no dancing lightning bolts, no maelstrom of recognizable debris. I left as convinced as ever that there’s no point, visually, to driving into a tornado, because there’s nothing to see there. (In fact, I’m starting to think that Mr. Will Keller may have been full of it.)

To sum up, Tornado Alley contains a few truly delectable tornado morsels. But at the end of the film, I felt like I’d eaten a single buffet plate, not a three-course meal.

*Just in case you’re wondering: I’m not in it. The IMAX crew took one shot of my team in hurry-up-and-wait mode at a park in Kimball, NE, in 2010, but that shot didn’t make the final cut. The big group drive-by shot also cuts in just after Team Howie is out of frame. Drat!

The “no warning” libel

It happens without fail every year, sometimes several times a year. The world learns that a tornado has ravaged part of America, and it wants to hear more details about what transpired. Reporters swarm in, armed with colorful digit-bearing microphones, and ply the locals for their stories of heartbreak and heroism. Words and images are collected, spliced, and reassembled. A maelstrom of pallid, shell-shocked residents, insulation imitating Spanish moss, and neighbors embracing among splintered homes are beamed to orbiting satellites from dishes.

Whenever I sense one of these pieces is about to air on the evening news, I grit my teeth, as do many of my colleagues. Here it comes…

“There was no warning.”

It’s happened more times than I can count. Reporters seem to go out of their way to find someone, anyone, who claims to have had no warning. And often, they succeed. People gathering up scattered possessions in the wreckage of their homes and lives appear to blurt out, “We had no warning,” as though on cue.

It happened yesterday. During the overnight hours of 22 January, a tornado outbreak impacted “Dixie Alley” in the southeast U.S., and horribly, two fatalities were confirmed. The outbreak occurred overnight, compounding the difficulties in disseminating warnings. The following evening, Dianne Sawyer led off the ABC World News cast thusly:

“Something terrifying took the South by surprise last night. No warning. Twenty-five tornadoes striking in less than 24 hours, roaring through four states in the darkness. And this was the scene today in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, where entire neighborhoods were wiped out as families slept. At least two are dead, one hundred injured.”

“No warning” is such a familiar refrain, it’s practically a joke. Granted, we meteorologists are accustomed to being the butt of jokes. But “no warning” is worse than a tired tagline or an injurious cliché. It’s a libel that impugns the reputations of my colleagues in the National Weather Service (NWS).

Libel is not too strong a word, because in most instances, a claim of “no warning” (i.e., zero or negative lead time) is unequivocally false. For starters, look at the archived products from the Storm Prediction Center for 22 January 2012. Every Day 1 Convective Outlook issued from 1200 UTC (6:00 a.m. CST) on contains a moderate risk over the outbreak region, the second-highest category of risk and “tornado” appears in the discussion. Tornado watch boxes, many of which were tagged “PDS” (particularly dangerous situation), popped up across the region as early as 5:20 p.m. CST, hours before residents went to bed.

But those are large-scale outlooks spanning several states. What about warnings? The NWS office in Little Rock, AR issued 12 tornado warnings on 23 January (UTC time). The Birmingham, AL office issued 16. The list goes on. Informal accounts from colleagues within the NWS indicate that many of the tornadoes had 20 or more minutes of warning lead time. (The mean lead time for a tornado warning currently stands at 9.5 minutes; Simmons and Sutter 2005.) NWS personnel have no cause to lie or exaggerate on this point, because the warnings, watches, and discussions are all a matter of permanent public record.

But death sells. People die in a tornado, and survivors ask, “Why?” Is anyone to blame when such a violent, seemingly random act of atmospheric violence steals or maims a loved one? Appearing to malign the victims is not an option, even when, by all accounts, the victims are unable, unwilling, or simply too disengaged to even be cognizant of imminent danger. Neither is laying the blame on supernatural powers (for fear of rousing the ire of nonbelieving viewers) or pure chance (which it is not). Who’s left? The organization mandated to issue timely and accurate weather forecasts and alerts to the public: the NWS. NWS personnel are likely to be tied up in the immediate aftermath doing damage surveys and service assessments, and perhaps less likely to respond to such criticisms. So, falling back on the “No Warning” tag line is a safe choice. The viewer is left in a “No Warning” echo chamber. Outrage builds. Legislators demand answers. Something Must Be Done. Despite having carried out their duty to the best of their ability, NWS’s reputation can only erode in the face of such repeated, inaccurate reporting.

The NWS is not a faceless government entity. Flesh-and-blood-human forecasters and support staff work there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in largely invisible service to millions of people who will probably never thank them. I know a handful of these forecasters, many of them former classmates. Without exception, they are passionate about their work, despite meager pay, grueling hours, and routinely having to endure slings and arrows of misinformed public opinion.

As a consumer, I challenge ABC to publicly correct the erroneous “No Warning” newscast from 23 January. I would also like to challenge members of the media to verify claims of “no warning” before they are repeated in a national broadcast. Call the NWS office responsible. If you can’t get an answer, query databases of severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. Here’s one from the University of Iowa that takes only a few seconds to search. (Hint: the prefix for a tornado warning is “TOR”, Ctrl+F will get you a quick count.)

What alternative tack would I suggest? There were other likely contributing factors to the 22 January fatalities that could serve as a starting point for inquiries. For example, residents may not have been as tuned in to the weather as they would have been during the typical “Dixie Alley” storm season (roughly March through May). Nocturnal tornadoes are known to be a disproportionate source of tornado fatalities, because they catch victims in a diminished state of awareness (Ashley et al. 2008).

Remember that viewers at home are the other end of the weather information conduit. If they’re tuned out, all the warnings in the world won’t make one iota of difference. Hook viewers in and empower them with accurate weather safety information well in advance of storm season. Showcase weather radio and publicize severe weather preparedness events every year. Eventually, the defamation of “no warning” will ring as hollow as it truly is, and be replaced by, “Everyone did everything they possibly could have.”

Ashley, Walker S., Andrew J. Krmenec, Rick Schwantes, 2008: Vulnerability due to Nocturnal Tornadoes. Wea. Forecasting, 23, 795–807.
Simmons, Kevin M., Daniel Sutter, 2005: WSR-88D Radar, Tornado Warnings, and Tornado Casualties. Wea. Forecasting, 20, 301–310.

Happy New Year!

Yesterday, I closed out the year in which I earned my Ph.D., and in which the atmosphere reminded meteorological community, via new records for tornadoes and also tornado fatalities, that it still has a great deal to teach us.

Let’s face it, it’s winter, and there’s not much going on, severe weather-wise. The only new thing you’ll find here is a Favorite Links page (accessible via a tab above) that I finally got around to assembling. When I checked up on my fellow chasers’ blogs to make sure the links were still active, I found that many hadn’t been updated since early November 2011 (immediately after the Tipton / Wichita Mountains / Ft. Cobb tornado day), so I don’t feel too bad.

In truth, my last two months’ worth of writing energy was expended producing two manuscripts. However, I have numerous ideas for blog posts rolling around in my head. I’m planning a series of posts about peer review, along with a book review or two. And, of course, I eagerly await the meteorological smorgasbord and explorations that 2012 will surely bring!

A few words of advice for Ph.D. candidates

I’m thankful for having had the pleasure of watching several of my classmates pass their general examinations this semester. “The general” constitutes the last major hurdle before the dissertation defense, and a successful examinee becomes “A.B.D.” (all but dissertation). As a recent Ph.D. recipient, I have aggregated a few nuggets of advice for them. Some of these items may seem self-evident in hindsight, but may not be to those upon which the stress is piled higher and deeper.

  • No escaping it, the dissertation is a daunting undertaking. It can seem insurmountable. The key to getting it done is to break it apart and tackle each chapter, section, and subsection individually. As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? … One bite at a time.”

  • You must make dissertation writing a habit from now on. Set a writing schedule and stick to it. (For a scientific discussion of why this works, read Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, which I extolled in a previous post.)

  • Ultimately, your name will be the only one on the spine in gold leaf, but no one writes a dissertation in a vacuum. Keep a list of people who helped you and notes about how they contributed. This list will easily transform into your acknowledgments section. Speaking of which…

  • The acknowledgment section is the only section of the dissertation over which you have complete control, so have fun with it. Give enthusiastic shout-outs to those who made your journey smoother. Include photos, anecdotes, poetry, whatever you want!

  • Be defensive about your time. You need to maintain laserlike focus on your goal. In the semesters prior to your defense, reclaim your time by load-shedding, and don’t take on new commitments. Let others know that your availability will be limited in the coming months, so that they can adjust. This advice is particularly relevant to women, since we are conditioned to try to please everyone. Learn to say, “No.” Be polite and pleasant, but also firm.

  • Some of your biggest stumbling blocks may be internal. There will be days when you simply don’t feel like writing. You will suffer setbacks. There will be days you feel like throwing up your hands and walking away from the whole endeavor. Always remember that you are not the first Ph.D. candidate to feel this way (although many of us think we are). A support group that meets over coffee once a week can be beneficial for working through your issues. If your internal blocks are too great for you or your support group to bear, consider seeking help from your school’s professional counseling services.

  • Do what you have to do to maintain your focus. Close your office door. If you share an office, use a visual signal to communicate when you do not want to be interrupted. (In my case, I wore a pair of over-the-ear headphones to tell my officemates that I was “in the zone.” Another of my colleagues put out a black rose on her desk when she did not want to be disturbed.) I also made extensive use of overnight hours, when distractions were at a minimum.

  • Stay physically active. Writing a dissertation involves sitting on your butt in front of a glowing screen for long periods of time. If you don’t take care of your body, no one else will. Don’t neglect diet and exercise, even when it’s crunch time. Stick to your exercise regimen. If you get stuck on a paragraph, a simple 10-minute walk outside can be a great refresher.

  • Keep your right brain busy, too. Analysis, derivation, and logic all fall to our left brains, and its fruits are traditionally over-represented in the dissertation. Don’t let the creative, nonlinear strengths of your right brain fall by the wayside. Paint, draw, sing, play a musical instrument, write poetry, laugh. Would you work out with only half a barbell?

  • Keep copious electronic notes that are easy to search. Our parents’ generation used note cards to organize information. We now have electronic tools that can do many of the same things. In my case, I created a (private) blog on LiveJournal and documented everything related to my dissertation there, including my thought processes, conversations with others, small epiphanies, and even more mundane things like compiler options. I used tags to organize it so that I could quickly reference past entries, a practice that saved me a great deal of time when I had to retrace my steps.

  • When you dedicate yourself so completely to studying one topic or case, literally for years, your brain will naturally yearn to work on other things. You will have flashes of inspiration for projects that aren’t related to your Ph.D. research at all. When new project ideas come, write them down, and save them for later. I kept a document called “Future projects?”, and one of those ideas turned into my postdoc.

  • Be kind to yourself. Set attainable, bite-sized goals, and don’t forget to reward yourself when you reach them.

Remember, you’ve progressed further toward your dreams than 99% of the population. You are the cream that rose to the top. You are stronger than you think you are. Be proud of that fact.

Good luck!