Wilma Makes An Impossible Move

I have been looking at the latest satellite images of Hurricane Wilma. The storm is directly over Cozumel. If you could have placed it by hand you wouldn’t have been able to be this precise.

Think of the tourists who flock to Cozumel. You’re in a foreign country, away from home. Winds blow to 140 mph with higher gusts… and then calm. You can’t go out, because before long the wind will be just as strong, but from the opposite direction.

I still don’t think we know when this storm will hit Florida – or at what intensity. The computer models have been clueless. Early next week is likely, but it’s not set in stone.

Rita Gets Stronger

I’ve just looked at Hurricane Rita on radar. This looks like an illustration in a textbook. It is pure symmetry – meaning there are no outside environmental forces acting against it.

Rita will intensify, probably rapidly and strongly over the next 18-24 hours.

We haven’t seen what happened today in Key West, but I am already dwelling on what could happen to Houston if Rita hit the Galveston area and moved inland. Tall buildings and hurricanes don’t mix.

When we talk about a hurricane’s sustained wind speed, that’s near the ground. At 300 feet, the wind can be 30-40% stronger. And there are also the effects brought on by a big city’s skyscraper canyons.

It’s all very troubling. For the next few days we’ll all be on the edge of our seats. You will see lots of satellite images and other weather maps. It will look scary.

It is scary.

Where Do I Go To Get A Life?

As I begin to type this, it is 2:26 AM. I am sitting in front of the computer, as I have for the past few hours. Earlier, I was playing poker. Now I am just killing time, waiting for the 00z run of the gfdl to come in so I can see the latest on Hurricane Frances&#185.

This run should be somewhat telling, because there are signs the track of the storm might be changing… or at least the forecast signs are changing. Some earlier models tonight, models that aren’t especially good with hurricanes, brought Frances farther up the coast before landfall.

It’s in.

Yes, the guidance points further up the coast for landfall – maybe the border between the Carolinas.

My friend Bob, who I’ve been talking to much of the night on Instant Messenger, pointed out what a nightmare this could be for FEMA. With landfall anywhere along the East Coast, hundreds of miles and millions of people will need to be warned. Hopefully the track will become more well defined with time.

Hurricane forecasting is incredibly imprecise. These are tiny storms compared to the typical low and high pressure systems we track. And they spend much of their lives in an area with little in the way of steering currents.

Still, for me, they are fascinating to watch as they develop.

They are beautiful to see on satellite images (Frances is still too far from land to be seen on radar). The laws of physics define their shape. Though nothing but clouds and water vapor, they are real objects with mass and momentum. When you stop and think of it, the energy necessary to move that much ‘stuff’ around that quickly is immense.

By the time I get up the computers will have crunched the numbers again with another imprecise solution. I will be drawn to it like a moth to flame.

&#185 – Weather wouldn’t make sense unless everything was synchronized. You’d like all readings to be taken at the same time. Of course, there are better than two dozen different time zones! So, to keep everyone on the same page, we use Universal Coordinated Time and abbreviate it “Z”. 00Z is midnight Universal Coordinated Time, or 8:00 PM EDT, on the preceding day.

Gfdl refers to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, where this model was born.

Hurricane Isabel

Unfortunately, when this website crashed and took over a week’s worth of entries, much of the back story on Hurricane Isabel disappeared too. It has been squarely in my sights for over a week now, and as I type it is about 200 miles from the North Carolina Coast.

A little hurricane background might be helpful here. Though hurricane season begins in June, the ‘real’ season doesn’t get going until the end of August and September. Take a look how long it takes to get to the third named system, and how little time it takes to get three more.

Table 1. Progress of the average Atlantic season

(1944-1996). Date upon which the following number of events

would normally have occurred.

Number Named systems Hurricanes Category 3 or greater
1 July 11 Aug 14 Sep 4
2 Aug 8 Aug 30 Sep 28
3 Aug 21 Sep 10
4 Aug 30 Sep 24
5 Sep 7 Oct 15
6 Sep 14
7 Sep 23
8 Oct 5
9 Oct 21

Throughout the season, as conditions change, the favored locations for storms changes. So, it’s no surprise that Hurricane Isabel is going to hit the coast 2/3 of the way through September, or that The Hurricane of ’38 did too. It’s climatology.

With climatology in mind, and with this system in the far Atlantic about a week ago, I started talking it up on the air. There is a fine balance you must walk with these storms. There are two possible outcomes of a busted forecast and neither are pretty.

If you say a storm is coming, and make a big deal of it, people take their time forgetting. On the other hand, if you don’t predict a storm and it comes, someone will get hurt… maybe killed.

Then, Isabel blossomed. All of a sudden, the storm was classically shaped and drawing in winds of 160 mph with gusts to 195, a true Category 5 hurricane.

People come up to me all the time and say, “You must love hurricanes (or tornadoes, or snowstorms, or anything strong weatherwise).” No! I don’t. First, I always see the potential for damage and injury. Then, I see the potential for a blown forecast. I don’t want to be wrong.

As late as last weekend, the forecast models, and climatology, said Connecticut could be a target. By early this week, it looked less likely. I started lessening the potential on the air. Still, it stayed in the back of my mind that it could be tragic to have the wrong forecast.

Now the national media started to kick in. Isabel was the big story on the cable and broadcast networks. And, some others in Connecticut continued to hang with the ‘what if’ scenario. My forecast became more confident, but not without qualms. I began to reinforce my belief that it would be windy and rainy… dreadful… but not a hurricane.

It was something we could handle with little inconvenience. There might be power outages and minor coastal flooding and little else.

Now, we wait. Within the next 24 hours I’ll know how I did. There’s no doubt, the satellite images show Isabel a shadow of her former self. The Hurricane Center is officially saying 105 mph, but their technical discussions say they think it’s less.

I’m sure at some point someone will accuse me of hyping the storm, though I’ve done everything possible to keep it in perspective. That comes with the territory.

Last thing before I go. In the past, I have been critical of The National Hurricane Center. Not so with this storm. As far as I can tell, I give them an “A” on forecast track and a “B” on intensity forecast.

Phony Northeast Blackout Image?

Right after 9/11, a photo circulated on the Internet showing a man on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, facing a camera. Behind him, a plane flew directly toward the building. It, of course, was a fake.

In fact, tools like PhotoShop make it incredibly easy to turn the unreal…real. Such is the case with a satellite image making its way across the world, mostly through email. It has been resized and had the levels tweaked a bit, but it’s the same image.

So far, I have gotten this from my father, my friend Howard, loads of viewers and other well meaning people. If it were true, it would be a pretty spectacular shot.

The real photo is actually a montage of a number of satellite images from a Defense Department Weather Satellite (DMSP). In order to get a fully clear view, and cover the whole country, the actual time frame of the image is Oct. 1, 1994, to March 31, 1995.

Few people look at visible satellite imagery at night, because all you can see are city lights… and normally that’s not very helpful.

If you really take a good look at the phony image, it’s done in a ham fisted way. The areas of removed light shouldn’t resemble a black hole, but should be shades of dark gray. After all, there was some illumination from the moon. Also, there were pockets of lights still working, even within the blackout area. And, though wire reports implied otherwise, most of Connecticut was powered up and good to go.

When I first saw the photo, I knew it was wrong because I know the original very well. It’s a classic. But, I also knew this satellite doesn’t see the whole country at once, nor is the whole country ever cloud free.

There are before and after images from the blackout, and they are pretty amazing. Unfortunately, fact isn’t quite as glamorous as fiction.