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.
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 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.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!
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.
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!
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.
Here’s a lightning shot from the storm that delayed he OU-Texas Tech football game on Saturday:
This same round of storms had intermittent embedded supercells. One developing BWER appeared to pass right over our house. Farther northeast, a tornado was reported near Boley, OK. That tornado appeared to come out of a left-moving supercell. We were out of position to chase that one as it raced away toward the northeast along I-44.
I recently attended the 35th AMS Radar Meteorology Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This biennial conference gathers meteorologists and engineers to talk about recent advances in weather radar.
A key word at this conference was calibration. Dr. V. Chandrasekar (author of a primary textbook, Polarimetric Doppler Weather Radar) gave a passionate key note talk lamenting the lack of field-wide standards for calibration of polarimetric measurements. How do we know that what we’re measuring from hundreds of kilometers away is accurate?
I gave one oral and one poster presentation about my current work, and chaired a session of six talks on VORTEX2 results. While oral presentations get recorded, I actually prefer poster sessions because I get to interact one-on-one with other conference attendees and potentially find new collaborators. Of course, I love chatting with friends, as well!
We also got glimpses of the future, mostly in the form of prototypes and test data from new platforms. There were numerous talks about dual-pol, about phased array, and about dual-pol phased array. Several different groups are trying to tackle design issues inherent to a dual-pol phased array radar, including my engineer colleagues at UMass. My V2 engineer, Krzysztof Orzel, is part of one of these teams. His talk about their development of a mobile, dual-pol phased array system won him the Geotis Prize for the best oral presentation by a student. So, how soon can I put this new radar in front of a tornado? Krzysztof’s keeping mum on that point for now!
This conference also saw the “debut” of RaXPol data collected in the 24 May 2011 El Reno-Piedmont-Guthrie tornado. Dr. Andy Pazmany had the honor of presenting the banner data set from his “baby.”
If you look closely at the lower-right panel, you’ll see a “hole” in the ρhv field, indicating non-meteorological scatterers (debris) inside the tornado.
After shaking hands, sharing food, and pushing elevator buttons with dozens of my colleagues, some of whom flew here from Europe and Japan, it was no great surprise that I flew home with the first symptoms of a cold. To paraphrase one of my colleagues, Dr. Pam Heinselman, scientific conferences are great for the exchange of ideas, but also for the exchange of germs!
What raised my hackles was BBC News’ choice of headline: “Light-speed results baffle scientists.”
“Baffled scientists” headlines are a real pet peeve of mine. In 2007, I presented a lecture (okay, it was more of a rant) on this topic to my Severe and Unusual Weather class, just after Tropical Storm Humberto spun up to hurricane status a scant few hours prior to landfall. Generally, tropical cyclones weaken as they approach the shore, as part of the TC moves over land and the storm becomes partly cut off from its fuel source – the warm waters on the ocean’s surface. The spinup of Humberto (as was the overland re-intensification of Tropical Storm Erin earlier that fall) was unusual and noteworthy.
Annoyingly, the resulting headline on the front page of CNN.com the next morning was something to the effect of, “Forecasters baffled by Humberto’s sudden strengthening.” (The article no longer appears in the CNN.com archives, or I would link to it.) I posted this headline (along with some variants from other news sources) on my lecture slides, then had my students read the NHC forecast discussion for then-Tropical Storm Humberto that was issued just prior to landfall. It contains the following:
HOUSTON WSR-88D VELOCITY DATA INDICATE THAT HUMBERTO HAS INTENSIFIED... SOME ADDITIONAL STRENGTHENING COULD OCCUR BEFORE THE CENTER MAKES LANDFALL EARLY ON THURSDAY...AND WINDS COULD BE APPROACHING HURRICANE FORCE OVER A SMALL AREA NEAR HUMBERTO'S CENTER WHEN IT REACHES THE COAST.
The NHC forecasters were hardly “baffled.” In fact, they acknowledged that Humberto’s attainment of hurricane status was within the envelope of possibility. I challenged my students to reconcile the NHC discussion with the headlines, and we had an insightful in-class dialogue about it.
Scientists baffled? Experts baffled? Doctors baffled? In most cases, the choice of the verb “to baffle” is incorrect. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “to baffle” means “to defeat by puzzling or confusing.” It is the notion of defeat that I find offensive. Defeat marks the end of a battle. Is the “defeated” scientist going to stalk out of the lab, all time and effort spent for naught, hanging his or her head in humiliation, and grudgingly apply for a job at the nearest Burger King? Hardly. Puzzlement and confusion usually signal the beginning of a new scientific effort, not the end! Any scientist worth his or her salt will not throw up his or her hands in the face of compelling evidence that contravenes established understanding, but rather run to the nearest keyboard and draft up a new grant proposal or e-mail query to knowledgeable colleagues. That’s exactly what the BBC report describes – the CERN scientists publicized their finding in order to obtain a quick, informal, open-ended peer review. (Incidentally, peer review is a topic I plan to cover another day!)
Of course, “baffled scientist” headlines wouldn’t get so many clicks if they didn’t have such popular appeal. Readers evidently like to imagine that the relentless brainiacs they knew in high school, whose hands eagerly shot up to correctly answer every question the science teacher asked, and whose test scores they could never hope to exceed, are now utterly flummoxed by some data point that they can’t immediately explain. Granted, I identify more with the latter group than the former, but I still come away with the mental image of lab coat-clad eggheads scratching their greasy heads in humble astonishment. Those nerds aren’t so smart as they thought, eh?
Not only is “scientists baffled” a tired cliché, it is also a damaging one. Since many scientists are funded by public money (through NSF, NIH, and the like)*, reiterated messages about “bafflement” (“defeat”) can cause laudable research efforts to be cut by politicians (and voters) who erroneously believe that the scientists they support spend their time wallowing in befuddlement, rather than generating useful, applicable results. One could even conclude that all scientific results are too tentative to be acted upon (climate change, for example). In truth, puzzlement is an integral part of the scientific process. It leads to questions, questions lead to hypotheses, hypotheses lead to experiments, experiments lead to results, and, as often as not, the results lead to more questions. Vannevar Bush called this self-sustaining process of discovery “The Endless Frontier”; a concept that became the intellectual cornerstone for the creation of the NSF.
The next time you see the words “scientists baffled” in a headline, try replacing “baffled” with “surprised” or “intrigued.” (And to those of you who report on science, please grab a nearby thesaurus!) Understand that you are probably reading the first chapter of someone’s discovery process. The universe has no solutions manual; it is the solutions manual, and we’ve barely deciphered a neutrino-size part of it.
*Scientists even say, “Thank you,” sometimes.
As you may have inferred from my last entry, I recently took a vacation to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A sublime experience, and definitely worthy of inclusion on the Great American bucket list. After all, the park belongs to everyone, just like the weather.
Inside the bubbling, fuming caldera, Dan and I caught a few nice steam devils spinning off the park’s famous geysers:
I can only imagine they’d be better in the winter, when the temperature contrast between the geothermally heated waters and the overlying atmosphere is all the greater.
Going to a National Park is kind of like storm chasing… complete with chaser convergence. Just swap in bears for tornadoes as the primary photo/video quarry. Whenever a bear appears within sight of a road, everyone pulls their vehicles over, and tripods and telescoping lenses are deployed. We witnessed some rather silly behavior by people dodging in and out of traffic trying to get their “money shots.” But in the end, everyone was there for the same reason – to experience nature’s majesty first hand.