Investigating Tornado Fatalities

Men, particularly the elderly, die at a disproportionately higher rate than other population groups. It’s a well-known fact to those studying tornado fatalities, but what researchers are trying to find is a way to keep more of these high risk men responsive to alerts and therefore save lives.
Wednesday morning at the AMS Annual Meeting, several researchers discussed their research on tornado fatalities. The policy session, chaired by Kimberly E. Klockow of the University of Oklahoma, showed that social sciences and data collection methods are improving the way we can analyze deadly storms and adequately warn the public before these storms strike.
Amber Cannon of the University of Oklahoma started the discussion with a comparison of data from tornado outbreaks in Alabama on 3 April 1974 and 27 April 2011. She noted that, although more people died in the 2011 outbreaks than in 1974, the population density had increased during that time. As a result, the fatality rates very similar.
If the death rate isn’t going up, then maybe we can bring it down. Shadya Sanders, from Howard University, presented her research regarding the super outbreak of tornadoes in 2011. She found that, while a 45% tornado risk seems huge to a meteorologist, the average person may not see the gravity of such a situation. Her work with focus groups has shown the importance of education for children and risk awareness for adults.
Soon, according to Hope-Anne Weldon of the University of Oklahoma, there will be a “one-stop shop” for killer tornado information from the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center. Weldon spent an entire summer filling in gaps in data about tornado victims, clarifying tags of age, gender, and domicile in statistics for 1991-2010–in all 400 tornadoes killing more than 1,100 people. With more detailed data, she noted, social scientists will be able to draw even better conclusions.

NOAA's David Titley to Address Satellite Future in Uncertain Fiscal Climate

With dozens of presentations–and a handful of Town Hall meetings–addressing the early successes and possibilities of the new Suomi-NPP satellite, it is ironic that the intended successor missions are already in jeapordy two years before planned launch.
Last September NOAA released a report from a review panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin executive Thomas Martin that criticized the costs and oversight of NOAA’s upcoming operational polar orbiters (the Joint Polar Satellite System). Meeting the scheduled late 2015 launch is already iffy, but with the high cost of these multipurpose missions and low tolerance for Federal spending in general, the review panel findings pushed NOAA to look into trimming back the goals altogether. Among the alternatives would be to replace some of the sensors with older, less sophisticated equipment, or even to ditch some of the non-weather capabilities that serve the climatological community in particular
So while some attendees will be celebrating Suomi-NPP’s successes at a Town Hall (Ballroom G, 12:15 p.m.), at the same time (Ballroom A) other attendees will be contemplating the uncertain prospects for future satellite capabilities at a Town Hall on “The Role of Satellite Data in Environmental Prediction and the Challenges for the Satellite Programs in Today’s Fiscal Climate.” The presenter at the latter session is Dr. David Titley, Deputy Under Secretary for Operations at NOAA.

Dealing with Drought in the Heart of Texas

In 2011, Texas experienced its hottest summer on record along with a drought that has yet to let up. According to the state drought monitor released last week, sixty-five percent of the state was in severe drought, up from fifty-nine percent just a week earlier. As we head to Austin for the Annual Meeting in a few weeks the topic will be up front and center at a number of events planned.
“Anatomy of an Extreme Event: The 2011 Texas Heat Wave and Drought” will examine processes, underlying causes, and predictability of the drought. Martin Hoerling of NOAA ESRL-PSD and other speakers will use observations and climate models to assess factors contributing to the extreme magnitude of the event and the probability of its occurrence in 2011 (Wednesday, 9 January, Ballroom B, 4:00 PM).
On Tuesday, Eric Taylor of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service will speak on the “Drought Impacts from 2011-2012 on Texas Forests.” Taylor notes that the impacts of the 2011 drought on the health, biodiversity, and ecosystem functions will be felt for some time, but perhaps not in the way that most might think. During this session, he will explore the ways that the silvicultural norm practiced by private landowners affect forest health and the concomitant loss from insects, disease, wildfire, and drought (Tuesday, 8 January, Ballroom E, 1:45 PM).
The 27th Conference on Hydrology will cover a number of other drought issues both in Texas and beyond. For more information on drought and related topics, take a look at the searchable Annual Meeting program online.

Latest Evaporative Stress Index map from USDA/NDMC/NOAA, showing raised and lowered evapotranspiration rates indicating drought in the central U.S. Christopher Hain and colleagues will present on the development of ESI--which is based on GOES satellite imagery--in a poster Monday afternoon, 7 January, at the AMS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas.


TRMM Keeps on Truckin'

It’s been 15 years since the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite was launched. Over that time, TRMM has significantly advanced our understanding of precipitation through measurements of the global distribution of rainfall at Earth’s surface, the global distribution of vertical profiles of precipitation, and other rainfall properties. As a result, TRMM provides clues to the workings of the water cycle and the relationship between oceans, the atmosphere, and land. But the benefits of TRMM extend beyond the research community. The image below exhibits the kind of operational data TRMM can supply: it’s a rainfall analysis of SuperStorm Sandy that reveals the heaviest rainfall totals during the storm (more than 10.2 inches) were over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

TRMM rainfall analysis for SuperStorm Sandy, with the storm's track over the Atlantic Ocean overlaid in white. NASA image.

Despite its advanced age, TRMM continues to provide unique data; its enduring value is evidenced by the fact that more than 50 presentations at the AMS Annual Meeting in Austin are related in some way to TRMM and its data. A few examples: Yingchun Chen of the University of Melbourne will examine TRMM’s estimates of daily rainfall in tropical cyclones using the Comprehensive Pacific Rainfall Database (PACRAIN) of 24-hour rain gauge observations (Wednesday, 9:30 a.m., Room 10b). A poster presentation by Dana Ostrenga of ADNET Systems and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will review the recently released Version 7 TRMM Multi-satellite Precipitation Analysis (TMPA) products and data services (Monday, Exhibit Hall 3). Zhong Liu of George Mason University will present a poster on the TRMM Composite Climatology, a merger of selected TRMM rainfall products over both land and ocean that provides a “TRMM-best” climatological estimate (Monday, Exhibit Hall 3). In her poster, Hannah Huelsing of the National Weather Center will show how TRMM 3-hourly data were used to look at the spatial and temporal distribution of the Asian premonsoon and monsoon seasons in Pakistan during 2010’s severe flood year (Tuesday, Exhibit Hall 3).
As TRMM matures, it’s also broadening its horizons and crossing disciplines. Earth-observing systems are increasingly being utilized in the field of public health, and in Austin, the Fourth Conference on Environment and Health will include a themed joint session on this budding partnership. In that session, Benjamin Zaitchik of Johns Hopkins University will discuss the modeling of malaria risk in Peru (Monday, 5 p.m., Room 6b). Zaitchik and his colleagues modeled the influence of land cover and hydrometeorological conditions on the distribution of malaria vectors, as well as the relationship among climate, land use, and confirmed malaria case counts at regional health posts. In the study, meteorological and hydrological conditions were simulated with the use of observations from TRMM and other satellites.

Versatile VIIRS: Sandy Reveals More of Its Potential

The VIIRS instrument aboard the new Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite has a lot of jobs: among them, to measure cloud and aerosol properties, ocean color, sea and land surface temperature, ice motion and temperature, fires, and Earth’s albedo. Now, with the experience of Superstorm Sandy behind it, add tracking power blackouts to the list of tasks for this multifaceted instrument.
VIIRS–or more formally,  Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, is a  scanning radiometer that collects visible and infrared imagery and radiometric measurements of the land, atmosphere, cryosphere, and oceans. Its low-light sensor–known as the day-night band–can detect light from cities and towns in the absence of clouds. This function recently proved to be highly valuable when NASA’s Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center used data from VIIRS to assist disaster responses agencies (including FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) in identifying areas that lost power during Superstorm Sandy. Composites of VIIRS images taken before and after Sandy (see below for an example) pinpointed the blackouts.
This is just one example of the promising capabilities of VIIRS; and the growing awareness of these capabilities is why VIIRS is the subject of a town hall meeting on Monday, January 7 (12:15-1:15 p.m., Room 18B) at the AMS Annual Meeting in Austin. Forecasters, meteorologists, and other end users will discuss how they are utilizing the new VIIRS datastream and the critical role it can play in weather forecasting and in improving emergency preparedness and disaster response efforts.
A number of other presentations in Austin will highlight the versatility VIIRS. Jeffrey Hawkins of the Naval Research Laboratory will take an in-depth look at VIIRS’s day-night band and efforts to create enhanced products geared toward various nowcasting applications (e.g., dust enhancement observations, smoke and volcanic ash plumes, cloud properties, tropical cyclone structure, etc.) (Wednesday, 1:30 p.m., Ballroom G). Donald Hillger of NOAA/NESDIS will compare and contrast imagery produced by VIIRS with that from other satellites (Tuesday, 11:45 a.m., Ballroom G). And Jim Biard of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites will provide details on the VIIRS Climate Raw Data Record (C-RDR), including its contents and structure,  its production methods and process, and file access (Wednesday, 11:30 a.m., Ballroom G).
VIIRS is one of five instrument/sensor payloads aboard Suomi-NPP, which is the first of a new breed of satellites that will replace NASA’s Earth Observing System satellites. Launched in October of 2011, the progress and promise of Suomi-NPP and its new data applications will be explored at a town hall meeting on Tuesday (12:15-1:15 p.m.; Ballroom G).
Speaking of Superstorm Sandy, electricity outages, and town hall meetings, there are two related Town Halls of special importance Monday night at the AMS meeting: a wide-ranging meeting on the storm itself (7:30-9:30 p.m.; Ballroom E) and an exploration of the impacts of weather on the electrical grid (Monday, 6:30-8:00 p.m.; Room 14). More on this in future posts on The Front Page.

A composite image created from the VIIRS day-night band shows a portion of the Atlantic seaboard on November 1, 2012, just after Superstorm Sandy dissipated. The yellow regions indicate urban areas that had power before Sandy, but not after. From NASA SPoRT.

Atmospheric Rivers Go Mainstream

This week NOAA announced installation of four new special observatories in California dedicated to improving the understanding–and forecasting–of atmospheric rivers, the massive (but narrow) flows of tropical moisture aloft in the warm conveyor belt of air ahead of cold fronts.

Atmospheric river during 2010 Snowmaggedon storm. NOAA image.

The timing of the announcement could not have been better. Ocean-fed storms with the distinctive filaments of tropospheric moisture brought heavy rains to California and Oregon this past week. Lake levels in northern California surged by as much as 34 feet; rush hour in major cities like San Francisco were bedeviled with flooded streets and bridges blocked by overturned vehicles due to the high winds carrying blinding sheets of rain.
The timing was not just good from a weather point of view but also from the standpoint of public understanding. The announcement culminated the fast-track rise of “atmospheric river” from an obscure technical term to popular understanding. In anticipation of the weekend deluge (and the lesser encore Wednesday), media outlets from Oregon to Minnesota to Australia picked up the vibe and were talking about atmospheric rivers–and not just by the more time-honored and familiar regional name, “Pineapple Express.”
It was only 20 years ago the term “atmospheric river” was introduced in a scientific paper by Reginald Newell and colleagues; then atmospheric rivers got a brief spate of publicity during the late 1990s and early part of this century with airborne field projects over the Pacific Ocean, such as CALJET and PACJET. Attention ramped up again during 2010’s infamous Snowmaggedon on the East Coast.
So it goes with atmospheric sciences, where the prospect of applications can drive quick adoption of useful concepts: useful not just in forecasting but also in climatology. For example, at the upcoming AMS Annual Meeting, Tianyu Jiang of Georgia Tech will look at different resolutions of general circulation models to see how well they depict these detailed structures (as little as 25 miles wide) and linkages with East Asian Cold outbreaks in a Tuesday poster session (9:45 a.m., Exhibit Hall 3). In a Monday poster (2:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall 3) Nyssa Perryman of Desert Research Institute will explore how downscaling from a global climate model to an embedded regional climate model can affect the simulation of atmospheric rivers.
The importance of this relatively new concept is such that the AMS Education Program devoted several sections to atmospheric rivers and how they transport water vapor from the tropics in its newest edition of the AMS Weather Studies textbook. Released in August 2012 by the AMS Education Program, the book is currently being used by thousands of college students nationwide as an introduction to meteorology. A QR code was embedded in the text to provide readers with access to the most current forecast information and video loops available on the subject.
For more on atmospheric rivers, check out Ralph and Dettinger’s article in the June 2012 BAMS on the relative importance of atmospheric rivers in U.S. precipitation. Marty Ralph discusses the article in this AMS YouTube Channel video:

Policy Symposium Keynote to Focus on Tree-Climate Connnections

by Caitlin Buzzas, AMS Policy Program
The keynote speaker for the 8th Symposium on Policy and Socio-Economic research at the AMS Annual Meeting in January will be author and journalist Jim Robbins. The Montana-based science writer for the New York Times just wrote a book on the connection between trees, forests and our atmosphere, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet.
Robbins’ talk for our meeting (Monday,7 January, 11 a.m., Room 19a) is going to span many different aspects of our annual meeting including public health, climate, and weather. The topic, “The Few Things We Know and the Many Things We Don’t about the Role of Trees and Forests on a Warmer Planet,” could be of interest to just about every topic the symposiums cover.
If you want a preview, check out his TED talk on YouTube, where Robbins’ commitment to the science of trees in climate is explained:

They say that everyone must have a child, write a book and plant a tree before they die. But for the writer and freelance journalist of the New York Times, Jim Robbins, if we just do the last part, we’d already be off to a great start. The author of “The man who planted trees” tells how he became a rooted defender when he observed the devastation of the old growth pine trees on his property in Colorado because of climate change. For him, science still hasn’t studied deep enough about these beings that filer air, stop floods, recover desert areas, purify water, block UV rays and are the basis of medicines as well as decorate the view. Much beyond shade and fresh water.

The 2013 AMS Annual Meeting actually goes a long ways toward fulfilling Robbins’ vision of discovering more about trees in our climate, with dozens of related presentations. At Monday’s poster session (2:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall 3), for example, Juliane Fry is presenting lab findings that may eventually refine regional climate mitigation policies that rely on tree plantings to produce cooling secondary aerosols. Also, as victims of fire disasters, forests feature prominently in the Weather Impacts of 2012 sessions (Tuesday, 8 January, Ballroom E). Similarly, on Wednesday (2:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall 3) Anthony Bedel will present a poster on the connection between changing climate and increasing potential for forest fires in the the Southeast, due to thriving fire fuels.
Young scientists are also following this line of work: Sunday’s Student Conference posters (5:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall 3) include a presentation by Zeyuan Chen of Stony Brook on understanding airflow in a cherry grove to better help orchard managers save their trees from bark beetles. Another student, Meredith Dahlstrom of Metropolitan State University in Colorado, presents in the same session on interannual and decadal climate mechanisms related to fluctuations in the prodigious capacities for carbon storage in the Brazilian rainforests.