West coast shout-out

I was interviewed about my tornado research for Shan Boggs’s blog Interesting People. Mrs. Boggs specializes in science journalism, and she was a pleasure to work with. She previously interviewed my classmate and colleague Dr. Matt Haugland about microclimates.

The radar data graphic included in the blog is actually a figure that was cut from our recently-accepted MWR article, showing the vertical extent of the WEH associated with the 2007 Greensburg, Kansas tornado. Since I spent a few hours putting it together, I’m glad it finally saw the light of day somewhere!

Inaccurate reporting of SPC products

Hari Sreenivasan reporting on the 14 May 2012 tornado outbreak

Hari Sreenivasan reporting on the 14 May 2012 tornado outbreak on the 16 April PBS Newshour.

I’m still working on my chase logs for the last few days (some video is already up on my YouTube channel), but I wanted to sound off about two inaccurate information nuggets I keep hearing in media reports of this past weekend’s tornado outbreak, including, unfortunately, on the PBS NewsHour, a broadcast I respect greatly.

1. I keep hearing the number “120 tornadoes” bandied about as though it were an official tornado count. I presume this statistic was gleaned from the preliminary SPC storm reports page for 14 April 2012. The problems lie with the words “preliminary” (self-explanatory) and “reports”, many of which may be redundant and still have to be reconciled. If there’s a burglary, and three people call the police to report it, you don’t count it as three burglaries! (Update: The most recent updated count from Greg Carbin is 60, meaning there were an average of two reports per tornado.)

2. A number of reports have cited NWS for giving “warning 24 hours in advance”. A 24-hour lead time on a tornado warning is simply not possible at present. The SPC did issue a High Risk Convective Outlook more than 24 hours in advance, but not a watch, and certainly not a warning.

That said, the media have done a decent job giving credit to the NWS for being on the ball with this outbreak. Bravo, NWS!

Another, more complete perspective on this topic can be found here.

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.”

References:
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.

Scientists are seldom baffled, actually

The type of headline I dislike

Although the headline implies defeat, the article itself conveys intellectual arousal.

This afternoon, I checked into BBC News, and found an intriguing science headline near the top of the page. The article briefly summarized CERN observations that – if confirmed – would show conclusively, for the first time, that particles can travel faster than light. The implications of this result are no less than staggering; warp drive would be a step closer to reality! Don’t look for Captain Kirk and crew to materialize overhead tomorrow, because the particles in question are sub-atomic particles called neutrinos. But how can anyone not react to such news with fascination and wonder?

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.

ASCENT to new heights

This past week, I was privileged to participate in the third annual Atmospheric Science Collaborations and Enriching Networks (ASCENT) workshop in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.* This workshop brings together female atmospheric scientists at different stages of their respective academic careers, about half of them recent Ph.D. recipients (junior scientists). Throughout the three-day workshop, the senior scientists shared their career stories and life lessons, while the junior scientists discussed their work via poster session and sought out collaborators. There was even a film crew – a media budget was written into the ASCENT grant – who documented the workshop, interviewed us, and shot tons of images and video that will soon be on the web for the world to see.

ASCENT Junior Scientist Poster Session

ASCENT junior scientist poster session

A room full of candid and intelligent women is a sight to behold. Everyone was so open, frank, and honest with one another. The vast majority of the attendees were atmospheric chemists. Their work on aerosols and pollution has implications that can potentially benefit millions of people, many generations into the future. I learned a great deal from them, and I hope they learned somewhat from me, the resident tornado geek, as well. I couldn’t help feeling like an odd woman out in the room sometimes. But I found a kindred spirit in Elissa E., a researcher from Los Alamos, who fires wired rockets into thunderstorms to trigger lightning flashes. People say that putting a radar in front of a tornado takes guts, but what she does is even more hardcore, in my opinion! Very modestly, she assures me that she launches the rockets from the safety of an underground bunker, and only after having been given the “go” by several assistants.

Storm Peak Laboratory in July 2011

Storm Peak Laboratory, on top of Mt. Werner, near Steamboat Springs, CO.

We also got to visit Storm Peak Laboratory, headed by Dr. Gannet Hallar (lead PI on ASCENT). After passing a sign that read “four wheel drive required,” and a tooth-chipping, 20-minute drive up a gravel road, we arrived on top of Mt. Werner to find the lab nestled among the ski lifts. The lab is about the size of a 3-bedroom house and accessible only by Snowcat for several months of the year. The link above goes to a great picture of the lab encrusted in snow and ice. They receive 500″ of snow annually, and researchers sometimes choose to spend weeks at a time at the lab in the dead of winter babysitting their instruments.

Dr. Gannet Hallar with aerosol monitor

Dr. Gannet Hallar describes an aerosol disdrometer to ASCENT participants

While the mountain vistas from the lab rooftop are breathtaking, and the lab has a full kitchen and numerous bunk beds, the researchers who work there are not vacationers. They are actively conducting experiments, installing and de-installing instruments, taking measurements and samples, and maintaining equipment year-round. They have documented the changing chemistry and aerosol content of the local atmospheric environment, giving the rest of us much-needed information about CCN concentrations and characteristics. I’m accustomed to dealing with cloud processes in terms of bulk microphysical parameterizations in NWP models; Storm Peak Lab actually gathers data that informs those parameterizations.

Doubtless there has never been a better time to be a female atmospheric scientist. Most of the overt barriers to women in science have been removed, thanks to laws (such as the Civil Rights Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act) that have been informed by science. I am happy to report that I have never experienced overt discrimination or harassment in my career – at least, not that I have been aware of.

However, when I walked across the stage at the OU School of Meteorology graduation ceremony this spring to receive my doctoral hood, I was the only female Ph.D. recipient out of 10. Why was I there, while my other female classmates chose to stop at the B.S. and M.S. levels? I’ve chatted with some of them informally; the familiar refrain is that they worry that they will not be able to sustain the energy level and workload required of an academic researcher. We see our professors come in late at night to slave away on grant proposals and papers. I must admit that the “lifestyle” doesn’t look all that appealing. Literature with titles like Where are All the Women Geoscience Professors?, Why So Slow?, and Why So Few? abound. I was saddened to learn that meteorology suffers from the lowest rate of female professorship among all the geosciences – In 2010, just a scant 12% of meteorology professors were women.

During the workshop, we shared strategies for coping with workplace issues that disproportionately affect women. There were plenty of horror stories from women who had suffered active discrimination, who were denied credit for work they did, who were rejected for positions on account of motherhood, and who had suffered resentment, harassment, or even assault by colleagues. But that was then; don’t we live in more enlightened times now? Not according to the statistics. It appears that many of the barriers left for us now are actually unconscious ones, either in our own minds or the minds of others. While many of us will swear to rejecting stereotypes of female scientists, our actions betray our unconscious biases. There’s the “bitch” dilemma – How does a woman assert herself without coming off as a bitch? (Consensus answer: “Be persistently pleasant.”) There are studies showing that women are held to higher standards of competence than men, women are less likely to negotiate for fear of appearing pushy, are pressed to do more service than men (“token woman syndrome”), and are more likely to have their credentials overlooked or questioned. We learned strategies for saying “no,” for compartmentalizing our time, for leveraging our institutions’ policies during demanding family times, for supporting other women (which is actually a major problem), and for gently reminding others of our need for space and respect.

Not all the strategies were abstract or hypothetical. For example, those of us who had not yet written grant proposals were invited by a participant from NSF to submit our names as potential proposal reviewers (thereby learning by reviewing what works and what doesn’t). I did not know that opportunity existed, because I assumed I had to submit a proposal before I would be asked to review, as in academic journals. (Major lesson: What you assume can hurt you! Always ask!) We were asked to participate in real-world research projects, select mentors, and continue correspondence after the end of the workshop. And of course, being a good science project, ASCENT included lengthy evaluation metrics and assurances that we will be checked up on periodically in the future to assess the impacts of the workshop.

As much as I enjoyed ASCENT, and as much as I can see the merits of gathering women in an all-female setting to share their strategies, I cannot help feeling that the very concept of “women’s issues” is still a major impediment. These are men’s issues, too. Men work and live with women. What good does it do women to gather and discuss ways to deal with the male-centric framework of scientific research, when it’s the framework itself that needs changing, and will require the involvement of men to change it? It’s not enough for a male scientist to simply say, “I’m not sexist, so I’m not part of the problem.” I once pointed out to my doctoral adviser that he now has a vested interest in ensuring a level playing field for me after graduation, because he has invested a great deal of time and money in my professional development. (To his credit, he has always let me have first authorship on papers I have written myself, and allowed me to present my own work whenever possible. I am shocked to hear that, even today, this is not always the case!)

My male colleagues should recognize that support for their female colleagues is not an accommodation that dilutes science, but a strategy for synergy and increased productivity throughout the whole of science. When the potential of half the scientist population is not being fully realized, that dilutes science. Happier, healthier, more productive colleagues (both male and female) will benefit everyone in the long run, and ultimately make our nation’s science stronger.

*I first heard about ASCENT through the Earth Science Women’s Network mailing list. ASCENT was organized by the Desert Research Institute, and funded by NSF. CAPS supported my travel to and from ASCENT.

Some of the statistics and publications to which I refer, as well as many more, can be found in this list.

In defense of Chris Novy

I first met Chris Novy upon relocating to Oklahoma back in 2002, first as the moderator of the wx-chase e-mail list, and later from his NSWW presentations on storm spotter safety. Chris is a multimedia wizard, an ethical chaser, and a tireless advocate for safe spotting. His video-rich presentations are always eye-catching, amusing, informative, and occasionally sobering. His message is always the same – no spotter report, no video clip, no smidgen of name recognition, is worth losing your life for.

Chris has gained some undeserved notoriety, chiefly for calling out famous storm chasers when they engage in unsafe and illegal behavior while chasing. Like a good journalist, however, he seeks to verify his sources, and often provides video evidence that he shot himself, unedited. Not surprisingly, his YouTube channel is stacked deep with abusive, ad hominem attack comments.

Chris was out spotting on Tuesday, 24 May 2011 in his car full of video gear, when he was manhandled by the titanic, rain-wrapped El Reno, Oklahoma tornado. By all accounts, this tornado was shrouded by opaque rain curtains, and so large as to be disorienting to those chasing near it. The way Chris tells it, he thought he knew where the tornado was moving based on previous radar images. But the storm hooked right and the circulation grew, dragging the huge tornado directly over Chris’ vehicle.

Please watch Chris Novy tell the story in his own words in an interview with our local Fox 25 affiliate, where he works.

The irony of the predicament was not lost on Chris – “Mr. Spotter Safety” got his butt kicked by a tornado. Instead of retreating in humiliation, he recognized the opportunity for a profoundly teachable moment, “a personal story to share with others in training.” Two of his in-car cameras survived and recorded the entire incident. He posted some of his dashcam video on YouTube and posted his gripping first-hand account on wx-chase. In doing so, he made a point that he himself likes to make in his spotter / chaser safety presentations: There is no point in getting right underneath a tornado to get a “money shot,” because you can’t see a damn thing!

Not surprisingly, Chris has endured no end of additional villification and judgment, particularly from those who were already angry at him for calling out unsafe chase practices of others. He’s been variously accused of exploitation, fame-grabbing, and outright hypocrisy. (Commentators appear to willfully forget that Chris is not making a penny off the publication of any of this footage, because YouTube is free. Not to mention that his primary chase vehicle, “pimped out” with camera gear, was totaled.) In contrast, I find that Chris has been tremendously humble about his “near death experience.” He endures the slings and arrows because he feels that the potential lesson he can bring to spotters and chasers across the country is worth the abuse.

I applaud Chris Novy for sharing his harrowing experience, and for doing so quickly and with humility and maturity. I’ve always made a point to keep a respectful distance from tornadoes, but I’ve certainly learned from his experience that tornadoes must be given an even wider berth than normal when they are large, rain-wrapped, and difficult to see. Tornadoes look contained, and perhaps even a bit tame, on a television screen, but Mother Nature always has the ace up her sleeve.

As my uncle says, “Spot safely; don’t be a spot.”

24 May 2011: Lengthy recap

I did not chase on 24 May 2011, a day that many Oklahomans will find difficult to forget. I had signed up months before for an NSF workshop entitled “Science: Becoming the Messenger.” My husband, in jest, admonished me for signing up for an all-day workshop in late May: “You just know there’s going to be a big tornado outbreak that day.” Of course, it was just as likely there would not be.

About week ahead of time, I could tell that an interesting weather scenario was, indeed, in the offing for 24 May. A trough was progged to slide out of the Rockies that Tuesday, and all the other parameters (shear, moisture, and lift) appeared favorable for a significant severe weather event. It looked similar to 10 May 2010, when a north-south oriented line of supercells swept across Oklahoma at ludicrous speeds (50-60 mph), forcing VORTEX2 teams to scramble to collect coordinated data sets. The NWS – WFO for Norman had been generating public information for days in advance advising people to be prepared for another tornado outbreak. With 10 May 2010 still fresh in the minds of many, and the tragedy at Joplin still in the headlines, Oklahomans took notice.

I am not one to cancel long-held plans based on forecast models for the next week; I’ve been burned more than once when such a setup unravels. In addition, one of the workshop presenters was Chris Mooney, one of my favorite bloggers and part-time host of the Point of Inquiry podcast (which I listen to with some regularity). In addition, I’d seen multiple tornadoes in southern Oklahoma the previous Saturday, a day when many others did not. So, I stuck to my guns and did not cancel my workshop attendance.

In the meantime, my husband was tapped to navigate the NOXP mobile radar for NSSL’s storm intercept team. (Don Burgess, the usual coordinator for that vehicle, was off delivering a keynote speech at the IEEE radar conference in Kansas City.) Before I left the house that morning, I left him a note on the mirror, wishing him good luck and many safe deployments.

When I arrived at the NWC, the NSF workshop organizers told us that the ~100 of us were going to learn how to craft messages for TV, radio, Powerpoint, blogs (hello!), and social media, including Twitter. Those of us with Twitter accounts were asked to “tweet” the workshop using the hash tag #nsfmessenger, which the organizers monitored from the front table. I’ve been using a Twitter accounts to reflect links to my posts on this blog, but on this day my Twitter feed veritably exploded with key points made by the organizers and presenters.

Just before lunch, a female researcher from Africa got up to practice her message that female African scientists are sorely in need of funding. She concluded with what she said was an old African proverb, “When you educate women, you educate a nation,” since women transmit their learning to their families and communities. I could not independently verify that this was indeed an African proverb, so I put quote marks around it before I tweeted it. The quote was re-tweeted, first by people within the workshop, and then by many more people outside the workshop. I got a few sarcastic tweets back to the effect of, “Umm, when you educate women, you only educate 50% of a nation, dumbass.” I chose to let these trolls stew in their own ignorance.

After lunch, awareness of the weather situation outside began to wax. I used the workshop hashtag to link other workshop participants to weather information. My attention became increasingly divided between the workshop presentations and radar images on my laptop showing a line of supercells taking shape in Western Oklahoma. The warning polygon colors quickly shifted from “severe thunderstorm” to “tornado” as spotters began peppering the maps with reports of wall clouds, funnel clouds, and finally tornadoes. Initially, all of the storms vectored past us to the north, but more convection took shape to our southwest, and one of the resulting supercells storms was aimed right at Norman One of the workshop organizers asked me if it would be safe for him to drive back to Stillwater. Initially I said yes, but after another KTLX volume came in, accompanied by a solid cluster of tornado reports crawling toward Guthrie and Stillwater, I changed my advice and told him to stay.

Mid-afternoon, I was astonished to receive an e-mail from Jon Hamilton of NPR, requesting an interview for a story about tornado safety. I e-mailed him back saying I was willing to do so, but that it would have to wait until tomorrow (Wednesday), and he agreed. (The interview took place on Wednesday and the resulting story aired on Thursday.) I’m just tickled that I was sitting in a workshop on how to communicate science to the media, and I got contacted by a member of the national media for an interview right in the middle of it! I did, indeed, fill out an “interview triangle” worksheet and had it in front of me while I was on the phone with Mr. Hamilton. I can only imagine that the workshop organizers were pleased to have this immediate feedback.

Around 4:00 p.m., the University of Oklahoma sent out a robotext to its staff indicating that the University was going to close at 4:30 p.m. Many offices, citing heightened awareness of the weather situation, had already sent their staff home. The workshop organizers suspended our activities. (I was just about to have a practice blog post vetted by Chris Mooney – darn!) Instead, I led Chris and some of the other NSF workshop participants up to the NWC observation deck to watch the storm move in.

There wasn’t much to see – just a boring gray veil of rain approaching from the west. I knew, based on RadarScope, that it presaged much worse things – like large hail. Then the tornado reports started materializing, some of which were from NWC staff and students out chasing. A tornado warning was issued that included the NWC, and the CSOs made a PA instructing everyone to move downstairs. I escorted some of the NSF workshop folks down to the first floor auditoriums, which I was astonished to find were almost entirely full already. People had brought in their families, dogs, cats, and even a few overnight bags to ride out the storm. Everyone had to sign in at the front door, per usual procedure. The rooms were orderly, but crowded.

Mast-cam image of Goldsby/Blanchard tornado

Image from a camera mounted on the mast of the National Weather Center, which I believe shows a dissipating tornado to the southwest, over Goldsby/Blanchard. Image courtesy of P. Laws, K. Keys, and the OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. Contrast has been enhanced to show the funnel.

Once the NSF visitors (many of whom were from Washington, D.C. and other less tornado-prone locales) were ensconced below ground, I went back out to the atrium. Reports began to come in via TV and ham radio of a tornado southwest of the NWC. I briefly considered chasing in my own personal vehicle, but reports of rain-wrapped tornadoes all over the metro area made me hesitant to chase without an experienced partner in the passenger seat. Looking out the windows in that direction, I could see a barber pole updraft approaching the NWC, and hail that I estimate to have been 1″ to 1.5″ in diameter began clacking loudly against the NWC windows and skylights. I yearned to go up a floor or two to get a look at the sky over the trees, but decided to be a good role model and not create any more headaches for the CSOs, who were having enough trouble preventing curious people from wandering around.

I took a peek back in the auditorium, which by then was stifling and malodorous from the wall-to-wall hordes of anxious people and wet dogs. When reports indicated that the tornado southwest of the NWC had dissipated, some people tried to leave, only to be corralled back inside because the circulation reorganized to spawn another tornado east of Norman, near Pink, OK. When the “all clear” was finally given, the mass exodus to the parking lot reminded me of that after a major league sporting event. I applaud the CSOs for their calm handling of the crowds.

Do I regret not chasing on a “no duh” day when almost all of my friends went out and saw tornadoes? Yes and no. Each tornado is unique, and you never get the opportunity to see the same tornado twice. However, it was also a day that challenged even the most experienced chasers. A friend of mine (who teaches spotter safety) ended up in an extremely hairy situation when he unintentionally strayed too close to the Hinton / El Reno / Piedmont tornado. He was uninjured (thank goodness), but lost his chase vehicle and a large amount of camera gear as a result of the too-close encounter. I can’t help thinking that it could just as easily have been me, especially if I’d gone chasing alone.

Once the danger had passed, I got a text message from my husband that the NOXP radar had made a successful data collection on the tornado near Canton Lake, OK. (Link goes to my husband’s video.) Later, I learned that Howie’s group, operating the RaXPol and MWR, both collected data on the Hinton / El Reno / Piedmont tornado. While great / unique data collection can never replace people killed by this tornado outbreak, I hope that the research that results from those data will help to redeem some of the tragedy. It may never be possible to reduce the tornado fatality rate to zero, but little by little, we unravel tornadoes’ secrets.

NPR tornado safety story

I “appeared” on NPR‘s Morning Edition in a tornado safety piece by Jon Hamilton. This is my first appearance ever on NPR, and I’m pleased with how the story turned out.

Mr. Hamilton interviewed me over the phone for about 10 minutes on Wednesday morning. I’m glad that he picked up on the highway overpass myth (which I mentioned almost in passing) and used that as a key point. A lot of the other sound bites I gave him (about situational awareness, weather radio, etc.) were not used, but perhaps will be touched on in future pieces.

There’s a story behind this appearance, which I’m still writing up as part of my “log” of yesterday. More later.

Japan: A few critical seconds

Today’s images of the earthquake damage and tsunami in Japan are gut-wrenching. By now, people around the world have seen the images of the wall of mud and debris sweeping unstoppably across the countryside in Sendai. I have relatives living in Japan that I have not yet heard from. Fortunately, they live on the island of Kyushu, far from the epicenter, so I feel reasonable hoping that they are all right.

On NHK this morning, I heard a Tokyo office worker complain that he felt “seasick” from so many aftershocks rattling his building. I can relate to the feeling, if not the magnitude.

In 2005, I spent an amazing summer in Japan working for WeatherNews, Inc. Every day, I reported to work at their headquarters in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo. On the afternoon of 16 August 2005, a 7.2 earthquake rattled our office building. A few items shifted around and fell off of desks, but the electricity stayed on, and the WNI team quickly resumed their work. For several minutes afterward, a peculiar sensation, as if I’d just stepped onto a gently bobbing boat, disoriented me. I found out later that most office buildings in Japan, including the one we were in, are built on “earthquake rollers.” The building literally floats in place as the earth moves beneath it, then distributes the shock of the quake out over time in order to minimize stress on the building.

Today’s quake, like that one, struck in the middle of the afternoon, when millions were at work. It shared its epicenter with the quake I experienced, just off the east coast of Sendai. Between that titanic jolt and dozens of aftershocks, the earthquake rollers certainly have their work cut out for them, and so far they appear to be doing a very good job.

Some dismiss Japan as a nation of superficial novelty – of Pokemon, Nintendo, and Pocky. Some (including myself) criticize its heavily engineered environment for the degradation of its natural beauty. But its people live on the spine of the Pacific, on a land punctured by volcanoes, shuddered by restless faults, and swept by typhoons and tsunamis. I’ve always been amazed at the ingenuity and resilience of Japan in preparing for and dealing with almost any kind of disaster. Billions of dollars and man-hours pour into preparing for those few critical seconds when the earth decides to vent some steam. It is thanks to fantastic engineering and disaster preparedness that the destruction will not be greater, and that the death toll will not be higher. That Tokyo office worker’s building is still standing, and he’s alive to complain about feeling seasick inside of it. I think that’s worth a tip of the hat.

Update: NYT posted some very similar commentary.

Update, 12 March: Good news; all my Japanese relatives are safe and accounted for!

On High Instability

The mp3 version of my 2 March 2011 appearance on High Instability is now available in their show archives (Episode #81). Topics covered include my dissertation work on the Greensburg, Kansas tornado, my exploits with the UMass W-band radar during VORTEX2, and (briefly) infrared thermal imagery of tornadoes. I even manage to get in a plug for this blog as the outtro music is playing. Hanging out with RJ, Gene, and Chuck is always a blast!