A Pastime That Can't Be Postponed Due to Weather

by William Hooke, Director, AMS Policy Program. Excerpted from a post on the AMS project, Living on the Real World.
Google the expression “Weather-Ready Nation” and you’ll see a rich set of offerings. That’s because the National Weather Service is using this label to describe a comprehensive initiative to make America safer in the face of weather hazards. Recall that America has what is arguably the most hazardous weather on the planet – as many winter storms as Canada, China, or Russia; as many hurricanes as southeast Asia, Japan, etc.; and a virtual lock on the world’s store of tornadoes. Nine separate weather disasters each totaling over a billion dollars in losses this year alone. So a Weather-Ready Nation? No trivial ambition.
But weather doesn’t have to be severe to be high-stakes.
The latest example? Yesterday’s decision by Major League Baseball to postpone the sixth (and possibly deciding) game of the World Series, originally scheduled for last night in St. Louis, until tonight.
Baseball games – even World Series games – have been called on account of rain before. What makes last night’s call unusual was that it was made several hours before game time, while the field was still dry – based on a forecast, rather than an unplayable fieldper se.
The sports press has been full of this story. Want a sample? You can find St. Louis coverage here and national coverage here. Discussion of the possible consequences, and the range of implications, has been extensive. Here’s a sample.
Some saw the decision to postpone this way: as diverting a potential disaster for Fox, the network carrying the game. A rain delay, and a game which might possibly decide the Series (the Texas Rangers are ahead of the Cardinals 3-2 in games) being concluded late, with trophies awarded only in the wee hours of the morning, after viewers had gone to bed, would not be Fox’s preferred outcome. Others noted that the one day delay expands the pitching options available to both managers; their starters have all gotten an additional day’s rest. Cardinals have had one more day to brood about the mis-communication between dugout and bullpen that hurt their chances in Game 5. The Texas Rangers, undoubtedly eager to wrap things up, have had to pace their hotel rooms an extra day.
It’ll be difficult to assess the impact of the decision; the World Series is not part of a controlled experiment. [We didn’t get to clone the teams and explore alternative universes, one in which they tried to play the game last night, and another when they played this evening.] But this Series has been so close that a one-day delay may well be seen to matter in hindsight.
And the funds at stake are substantial. The difference to individual players on the winning and losing teams amounts to something like $100,000 apiece. Team revenues for the Series also vary. But the real stakes become apparent the following year. The winners can look forward to increased season ticket sales, higher advertising revenues, a larger fan base and other economic plus-ups.
What’s striking in all this press coverage? No negativity about the NWS role. In fact, here’s a quote attributed to MLB executive vice president Joe Torre:  “It really wasn’t difficult because every single weather report that we’ve had for about three days has predicted rain during the game,” he said on MLB Network, adding that a good forecast for the next two days helped influence the move. “If we’re not right (with the early postponement), we wanted to make sure we were doing it on the safety side,” he said. “That’s why we called it so early.”
This takes us back to all that discussion over the summer about the importance of NOAA’s polar orbiting satellites to the day-to-day consistency in forecasts of approaching weather for decision-making. [You can find material from this blog here.] Note that baseball executives made the call based not just on the forecast for last night’s weather, but the outlook for St. Louis tonight and tomorrow night, in case a Game 7 is required.
This particular forecast was relatively visible nationally, but the fact is that our country uses National Weather Service forecasts to place multi-million-dollar bets every day. The smart money doesn’t wait for the weather to change. They’re acting on the forecasts of that change. Utilities forecast energy demand, not just for the country as a whole but region by region and metropolis by metropolis. Airlines are cancelling and rerouting flights based on weather predictions. Water resource managers are looking ahead to demands and stresses on their watersheds. Agribusiness is constantly adjusting its decisions on when, what and where to plant, the application of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and how to hedge against sudden changes in international market supply and demand. The lists and the stakes are growing. The Nation grows more weather-ready by the day.
Play ball!

Shovels, Cleats, and Fabrics: Just Another Snow Story

The Minnesota Vikings are hosting football outdoors for the first time in 29 years in their hometown, thanks to the collapse last week of the fabric roof of their home, the Metrodome. Last Sunday the football team decamped to a dome in Detroit, but tonight they’re expecting six inches of snow in Minneapolis to greet the Chicago Bears (themselves no strangers to snow and cold, of course).
The weather story this time is not just the falling snow, but the valiant efforts of workers and volunteers who have prepared the University of Minnesota’s FieldTurf synthetic field for this Monday night game. Not only does the snow need to be cleared, but the frozen field needs to be warmed sufficiently to prevent a slew of injuries. One player called the surface “hard as concrete.” Unlike NFL stadiums, which deal with a season that stretches into December, the university’s field is normally shut down by now, and does not have heating coils underneath to blunt the effects of freezing air temperatures. In addition the stadium as a whole was “winterized,” or put in cold storage with pipes dissembled to withstand freezing, so reawakening the facility for the game was quite a process.
The conditions of the game make one appreciate the need for a dome for winter sports in Minnesota, but last week’s spectacular roof collapse raises the architectural question: how to design a large roof for Minnesota’s famously varied climate.

The keepers of the Metrodome have good reason to believe that, an occasional roof collapse aside, fabric is still the right answer. The extremes of temperature in Minneapolis stretch and contract any covering, so in fact a flexible roof is ideal. And the maintenance of a fixed structure also means significant snow removal costs which may outweigh the occasional rip and fix for a fabric roof. (Thanks to the forecasts for heavy snow, workers were on the Metrodome roof trying to clear and melt snow last Friday before retreating in a lost cause .) The main downside of fabrics these days is the energy cost of the air pressure between the two sheets of the dome to keep the roof inflated.
Here’s a radio press conference discussing the climatic considerations of the stadium after a previous collapse of the Metrodome roof, also due to snowfall, back in 1982.

It takes a particular kind of storm to damage the roof. The design calls for warm air forced between the outer and inner layers to help melt the snow, but particularly cold storms can overcome that defense, especially if coupled with sufficient water content for a heavy accumulation and winds to drift the snow and cause particularly devastating loads in particular spots on the dome. Apparently even in Minnesota this doesn’t happen often enough to make other roof solutions less expensive or more convenient.

You Weren't the Only One Who Mist This Game

Football is tough enough to play when the visibility is good; when you can’t see your own teammates, it’s a whole lot tougher.
In the infamous “Fog Bowl” on 31 December 1988, the Philadelphia Eagles somehow managed over 400 yards of passing. Then again, the game started out sunny and unseasonably warm, perfect for the Eagles’ flashy offense. But thick fog soon rolled in off the lake and onto Chicago’s Soldier Field until visibility was less than 20 yards, making passing a precarious proposition and helping the defensive minded Bears grind out a 20-12 victory with their strong ground-based attack.

Last Friday two Michigan high school football teams topped that NFL classic with an even thicker fog-bound playoff game of their own. At least, it looks like they did…through practically no one actually saw what was happening on the field. Rub your eyes, clean your computer screen, and check out the video highlights here.
Host Bedford-Temperance High School built a two-touchdown edge over Grosse Pointe South High School under the Friday night lights, but gave the ball away four times and saw their lead evaporate in a series of miscues. Twice the Grosse Pointe defense scooped up fumbles and returned them for touchdowns when the Bedford-Temperance quarterback couldn’t find the teammate he was supposed to hand off to in the mists.
The game came down to a last-second Grosse Pointe kick that, according to the referees, split the uprights for a 44-42 victory over Bedford-Temperance. This was one game where the guys in the striped shirts really were the only people in the stadium in a position to know for sure.