Denver/Boulder AMS Chapter - Colorado Climate Trivia Night!

The Denver Boulder Chapter of the American Meteorological Society proudly presents an evening of Colorado climate trivia with Colorado's State Climatologist, Nolan Doesken. Have you ever wondered where our historic climate data comes from? Do you have questions about how official records are compiled and what role volunteers play? Perhaps you already consider yourself a Colorado climate expert and want to use that knowledge to win prizes? Either way you can join us for Colorado Climate Trivia Night!

Denver/Boulder American Meteorological Society Event: Living in Methane Monsoons: the Bizarre Weather on Saturn's Largest Moon

The Denver/Boulder American Meteorological Society is having its second meeting of the year! Please join us as Author Michael Carrol, discusses the strange weather on Titan (with a quick survey of other outer solar system worlds), and how eventually, humans might live there. He will be selling books at cost for his author's discount of $20. He will also bring copies of "Drifting on Alien Winds", his non-fiction book about weather on other planets and moons. The novel, "On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea", has a section in the back called "The Science Behind The Story".

Mars Exploration

Topics:              Current and Future Missions to Mars

Discovering Water on Mars with the Mars  Reconnaissance Orbiter Team

Speakers: Christine Edwards, Lockheed Martin

               Adam Pender, Aerospace Company

When:      Thursday, November 12, 2015, starting at 6:30 PM

Denver/Boulder AMS March 19: Applying Climate Change for Planning Purposes

Have a need to plan for the potential impacts of climate change? Want to know what others are doing? Or have a general interest in climate change? Then this meeting is for you!

Come listen to a panel discussion titled 'Applying Climate Change for Planning Purposes' at the Denver/Boulder AMS March meeting.

When:  Thursday, March 19, 6:00-8:00

Where:  Large Auditorium in the NCAR Mesa Lab

Snowfall measurement: a flaky history

Matt Kelsch • January 28, 2014 | As this week’s blizzard rumbled toward the U.S. Northeast, many media outlets posted the top-10 snow events for major cities. An unusual number of snowfalls in those top 10 lists have been within the last 20 years, even in cities that have records going back to the 1800s. Why is that? Could it be climate change? Are other factors involved? Matt Kelsch has taken 6-hourly snow readings at the official weather station for Boulder, Colorado many times during more than 25 years of volunteer work as the NOAA/National Weather Service cooperative climate observer for Boulder. (Photo courtesy Matt Kelsch, UCAR.) As a hydrometeorological instructor in UCAR’s COMET program and a weather observer for the National Weather Service, I am keenly interested in weather trends. In this case, climate change is an important factor to explore, since we know that the heaviest precipitation events have intensified in many parts of the world (see related story: Torrents and droughts and twisters - oh my!). But when we turn to snowstorms in the Northeast, or elsewhere in the U.S., there is an additional factor at work when comparing modern numbers with historical ones. Quite simply, our measuring techniques have changed, and we are not necessarily comparing apples to apples. In fact, the apparent trend toward bigger snowfalls is at least partially the result of new—and more accurate—ways of measuring snowfall totals. Climate studies carefully select a subset of stations with consistent snow records, or avoid the snowfall variable altogether. Official measurement of snowfall these days uses a flat, usually white, surface called a snowboard (which pre-dates the popular winter sport equipment of the same name). The snowboard depth measurement is done ideally every 6 hours, but not more frequently, and the snow is cleared after each measurement. At the end of the snowfall, all of the measurements are added up for the storm total.  NOAA’s cooperative climate observers and thousands of volunteers with the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS), a nationwide observer network, are trained in this method. This practice first became standard at airports starting in the 1950s, but later at other official climate reporting sites, such as Manhattan’s Central Park, where 6-hourly measurements did not become routine until the 1990s. Earlier in our weather history, the standard practice was to record snowfall amounts less frequently, such as every 12 or 24 hours, or even to take just one measurement of depth on the ground at the end of the storm. You might think that one or two measurements per day should add up to pretty much the same as measurements taken every 6 hours during the storm. It’s a logical assumption, but you would be mistaken. Snow on the ground gets compacted as additional snow falls. Therefore, multiple measurements during a storm typically result in a higher total than if snowfall is derived from just one or two measurements per day. That can make quite a significant difference. It turns out that it’s not uncommon for the snow on the ground at the end of a storm to be 15 to 20 percent less than the total that would be derived from multiple snowboard measurements.  As the cooperative climate observer for Boulder, Colorado, I examined the 15 biggest snowfalls of the last two decades, all measured at the NOAA campus in Boulder. The sum of the snowboard measurements averaged 17 percent greater than the maximum depth on the ground at the end of the storm. For a 20-inch snowfall, that would be a boost of 3.4 inches—enough to dethrone many close rivals on the top-10 snowstorm list that were not necessarily lesser storms! Another common practice at the cooperative observing stations prior to 1950 did not involve measuring snow at all, but instead took the liquid derived from the snow and applied a 10:1 ratio (every inch of liquid equals ten inches of snow). This is no longer the official practice and has become increasingly less common since 1950. But it too introduces a potential low bias in historic snowfalls because in most parts of the country (and in the recent blizzard in the Northeast) one inch of liquid produces more than 10 inches of snow. This means that many of the storms from the 1980s or earlier would probably appear in the record as bigger storms if the observers had used the currently accepted methodology. Now, for those of you northeasterners with aching backs from shoveling, I am not saying that your recent storm wasn’t big in places like Boston, Portland, or Long Island. But I am saying that some of the past greats—the February Blizzard of 1978, the Knickerbocker storm of January 1922, and the great Blizzard of March 1888—are probably underestimated. So keep in mind when viewing those lists of snowy greats: the older ones are not directly comparable with those in recent decades. It’s not as bad as comparing apples to oranges, but it may be like comparing apples to crabapples. Going forward, we can look for increasingly accurate snow totals. Researchers at NCAR and other organizations are studying new approaches for measuring snow more accurately (see related story: Snowfall, inch by inch).   But we can’t apply those techniques to the past. For now, all we can say is that snowfall measurements taken more than about 20 or 30 years ago may be unsuitable for detecting trends – and perhaps snowfall records from the past should not be melting away quite as quickly as it appears. Update • January 29, 2015 | Thanks to thoughtful feedback by several colleagues, this article has been updated. Paragraph 3 now includes a description of how climate studies handle the data inconsistencies. Paragraph 9 was added to describe the pre-1950s practice, no longer in wide use, of recording liquid water content only, and not snow depth. Matt Kelsch is a hydrometeorologist in UCAR's COMET Program. He specializes in weather and climate events involving water, such as floods, droughts, rain, hail, or snow. Kelsch develops and delivers educational materials designed for both domestic and international groups including National Weather Service forecasters, the military, the World Meteorological Organization, university students and faculty, government agencies, and private industry.      

Flipping the classroom paradigm

November 18, 2014 | The urge to transform higher education through online technology is making its way into atmospheric science. Benefits as well as pitfalls came to light as faculty on the front lines of experimentation shared notes in a UCAR-hosted forum on October 16. The session was part of a two-day meeting of heads and chairs of departments of atmospheric science, an event cosponsored every two years by the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society. Part of the push behind the new techniques is to serve broader audiences. This is the prime motivation behind the massively open online courses (MOOCs) that have proliferated in the last three years across a wide a range of disciplines. But faculty are also trying new ways of connecting with in-residence students, as technology opens up possibilities well beyond the traditional stand-and-lecture model. The rise of MOOCs MOOCs typically allow students to sign up for free without prerequisites, with tens of thousands enrolled in the most popular MOOCs. In some cases, course credit can be earned if extra work is completed and tuition is paid. One of the key points emerging from research into MOOCs, and noted during the discussion at UCAR, is that technology is no panacea: careful design of meaningful learning interactions that take advantage of technology is still crucial for success. After an initial burst of interest and publicity, analysts have found that many MOOCs generate huge dropout rates and sometimes-mediocre learning outcomes. As noted in the New Media Consortium’s 2013 Horizon Report on higher education (PDF), some observers believe that the rapid growth of MOOCs has made it difficult to carefully analyze their impact and develop best practices. Clips from moderated panel discussions were a key part of the MOOC on climate science organized last summer by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. The 3- to 5-minute video clips originated from live webinars that included a chat function for viewer questions. (Image courtesy Anne Gold, CIRES.) “Time will settle those questions,” notes the report, “but there is no doubt that MOOCs have already had a significant influence on the future course of online learning, and deserve close attention, study, and continued experimentation.” Anne Gold (Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES) led a prototype team-based MOOC this summer, Climate Science Connections: Water in the West. The course drew an international group of more than 500 participants, said Gold, who’s also experimenting with other techniques to bring climate science to groups of varying sizes using a mix of technologies. “The variety of people who participate in a MOOC is incredible—it makes it very interesting to teach in this format,” said Gold. “We had teachers, graduate students, professionals, interested public, water lawyers, policy makers, politicians, and fishermen, among others.” A few atmospheric science departments have dipped toes into the MOOC water, mainly in the realm of climate. Coursera, one of the leading MOOC companies, includes several courses related to climate and Earth-system processes in its catalog. Among the atmospheric scientists involved are David Archer (University of Chicago), David Karoly (University of Melbourne), Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Richard Somerville (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), and David Schultz (University of Manchester). The CIRES course above will move to Coursera next spring. For faculty who might be toying with the idea of creating a MOOC, Schultz advises that it’s no cake walk. “I did not appreciate how time-consuming it was to build a MOOC,” he said. “I thought I’d throw my lecture material on camera and that would be it.” Smoothing the way was support from his university, including funding specifically for the MOOC that allowed creation of a virtual field trip via Google Earth. “It allowed us to take students to places in the world that support the concepts discussed in lecture,” said Schultz. Given the questions that global climate raises on environmental, societal, and political fronts, the topic seems ripe to draw the large enrollments expected in MOOCs. In contrast, Coursera doesn’t currently have a single MOOC on introductory meteorology, much less higher-level topics. (As one of the forum attendees put it, “I don’t see how you take a thermodynamics class and make a MOOC out of it.”) Eric Snodgrass (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is developing an online MOOC covering severe and hazardous weather. (Photo courtesy UIUC.) Meteorology’s first major MOOC could be the one now being developed by Eric Snodgrass, who directs undergraduate studies in atmospheric science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He created an online version of the department’s longtime course in severe and hazardous weather; it was named the nation’s best online course of 2012 by the University Professional Continuing Education Association. Snodgrass is now working on visualizations and short video-driven lectures for a Coursera version of the online class, with an anticipated debut date of fall 2015. There’ll be plenty of high-interest material, including El Niño, tropical cyclones, blizzards, droughts, floods, and tornadoes. The course will train students of all ages to use radar and satellite imagery and computer model output to both observe and forecast extreme weather. “My goal is not only increased awareness and understanding of severe weather, but also a new or renewed passion for studying our amazing atmosphere,” said Snodgrass. Doing the flip Attracting the bulk of interest and discussion at the Boulder forum was the notion of “flipping” atmospheric science courses, an approach that’s gaining currency across large swaths of academia. In a flipped course, lectures are consumed by students outside of class through videos that can be stopped and started as needed; the classroom itself is devoted to discussion and problem-solving, with faculty on hand to help. Online assessments ensure that students have absorbed the video content before they come into the classroom. Flipping appears to hit a sweet spot, as it takes advantage of the ubiquity of video on tablets and smartphones while retaining manageably sized classes and in-person elements. A flipped class also gives professors a chance to work more closely, and more often, with students. “When you think about flipping, you really need to think about it as a course redesign,” said Kevin Perry (University of Utah). In order to carry this out, Perry and others stressed the need for faculty to consult university offices that are dedicated to online instruction. Drawing on research-honed strategies, these are often the best experts on campus in how to create a flipped class. Wendy Abshire and Tsvet Ross-Lazarov (UCAR's COMET Program) shared their perspectives on online learning practices with university department heads at an October 16 forum hosted by UCAR. (©UCAR. Photo by Bob Henson.) Several meteorology courses have been taught in flipped fashion over the last few years at the University of Oklahoma, including experimental usage of an active learning classroom, said OU’s David Parsons. “The most successful flipped courses seem to be in the area of programming, where instructor-created materials can supplement high-quality tutorials already available online,” Parsons added. Nolan Atkins discussed several meteorology classes being flipped for the first time this fall at Lyndon State University, including remote sensing, dynamics, and physical meteorology. “Student reaction before the implementation was mixed,” said Atkins. A few weeks into the process, though, many students have come around, and Atkins is feeling encouraged. He noted that flipping a course requires student buy-in, high-quality video, and hard work from faculty. The potential gains include more in-depth coverage of the course content and increased student mastery. “We’re moving away from a ‘sage on stage’ to a ‘guide by the side’,” noted Tsvet Ross-Lazarov, an instructional designer with UCAR’s COMET Program, who joined COMET senior manager Wendy Abshire at the forum. This autumn the program is testing a unique blend of in-person and online lectures, videos, animations, and student-run weather briefings, as COMET staff member Andrea Smith teaches Millersville University’s synoptic meteorology course through UCAR’s UVISIT program. Results will be presented in January at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society. Daria Kluver, an assistant professor at Central Michigan University, teaches a flipped course on climate change. Key elements include the Blackboard learning management system, where lectures notes, assignments, and classroom work are posted, as well as a classroom tailor-made for interaction, where students can bring graphics for in-class analysis and interpretation. Web materials are also crucial for Keah Schuenemann (Metropolitan State University of Denver), whose students each analyze and write blog posts on the impacts that climate change is expected to bring to a particular nation. At Central Michigan University, students in Daria Kluver's "flipped" course on climate change take in video lectures on their own time and then meet to discuss course material in a high-tech classroom. (Photo courtesy Daria Kluver.) Kluver stresses the usefulness of CMU’s center for teaching, where she gained relevant expertise in both pedagogy and technology. She finds that a technology-rich workspace is vital in order to get the most out of flipped teaching, especially when you consider the background of today’s college-age student.“They’re millennials. They’ve spent their whole lives with gadgets in their hands.” Does it work? Flipping actually emerged from K-12 education (or “the swamp of practice,” as COMET’s Ross-Lazarov puts it, as opposed to the ivory tower of academia). The first well-documented flipped class took place in 2007 at Woodland Park High School near Colorado Springs. Does flipping make a difference? “The results from the K-12 world have been very encouraging,” says Ross-Lazarov. A report produced by Pearson, George Mason University, and the Flipped Learning Network includes several case studies hinting at increased engagement and higher test scores. However, the report acknowledges the dearth of rigorous, empirical research to date on flipped-learning outcomes. As for higher education, studies to date suggest that flipping might be best suited to smaller upper-level courses, where motivation and interest is high. “It seems that in introductory level courses, or in courses where there is little instructional need to flip the classroom, there were no significant differences between the mean test scores of students in flipped versus nonflipped classes,” said Ross-Lazarov. Given the right setting and the right material, he added, “flipping is an exciting development—it offers a lot of potential.” Dive Deeper Presentations at AGU/AMS Heads and Chairs Conference  Session 3: Best practices for balancing lecture-based, online content, flipped, online, and massive open online courses (pages 65–108). Download the PDF (large file, 13 MB) Writer/contact:Bob Henson, NCAR/UCAR Communications          

Get a first-hand scoop on flash flooding

May 7, 2014 | Flood waters are no abstraction to UCAR’s Matt Kelsch. As torrents cascaded through creeks and neighborhoods across the Front Range of Colorado last September, Kelsch slogged through ankle-deep water to officially measure the largest 24-hour rainfall in the history of Boulder: 9.08 inches. That’s nearly double the previous record. Matt Kelsch measures the historic daily total of 9.08 inches at Boulder’s official station on September 12. A hydrometeorologist for UCAR’s Community Programs, Kelsch took the measurement as part of his regular volunteer duties with NOAA’s cooperative weather observing program. (Photo by Bob Henson, UCAR. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) The flooding, which caused an estimated $2 billion in damage, produced a stream of interviews and scientific inquiries for Kelsch. He’s a nationally recognized hydrometeorologist in UCAR’s COMET Program, which trains a wide range of specialists on environment-related science. Two webinars: weather and water On May 20 and 21, Kelsch will present two webinars on the science behind flash flooding. The content is designed for people with some background in basic meteorology; the material is taught at a beginning undergraduate level but designed to interest a broad audience. Each webinar can be taken separately, and there are no specific prerequisites. The webinars are part of a new direction for COMET: offering pay-per-view content aimed at a broader audience than the program’s traditional clients (largely weather forecasters and other science professionals at government agencies in the United States and abroad). “We’ve found widespread interest in the Colorado flooding and on flash floods in general,” says Kelsch. “We created the webinars to respond to that interest.” The webinars are also designed to help COMET test a cost-recovery model in which students in some courses pay tuition to offset the expense of course development. Kelsch’s first hour-long webinar will examine the meteorology behind flash floods, including how forecasters watch for and diagnose the potential for major flood events. The second installment will explore where the water goes once it hits the ground, including runoff, land-use factors, and stream response. Registration is $79 per webinar, or $129 for both. The webinars were presented for the first time in March, but Kelsch is always ready to include recent material. “If a major U.S. flash flood happens between now and May 21, we’ll include it,” he says.  Studying weather in action Along with years of teaching flood-related material, Kelsch has a close connection to weather in action, through his role as Boulder’s primary weather observer for NOAA and as one of the pioneer coordinators of the CoCoRaHS volunteer weather observing program. More than 10,000 people nationwide now collect daily rainfall totals for CoCoRaHS from their homes and workplaces, providing invaluable data on heavy rain and flood events. Kelsch has joined colleagues at NCAR and Colorado State University to examine the Front Range flood in detail for an overview paper now in the works, coordinated by NCAR’s David Gochis. In his webinars, Kelsch will illustrate a conceptual model of flood evolution by drawing on a wide range of noteworthy U.S. flash floods over the last few years, including the 2013 Colorado disaster as well as examples from California, Kansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Virginia. With strong interest from developing countries, COMET is pondering a follow-up set of flood webinars designed for regions with distinctly different needs and infrastructures. “Some of these areas have no weather radars and limited observation and forecast technologies,” says Kelsch. In addition to webinars, COMET’s acclaimed MetEd website offers more than 750 hours of free online content that has drawn more than 330,000 registrants to date. Writer/contactBob Henson, NCAR & UCAR Communications Lead scientistsMatt Kelsch, UCAR/COMETElizabeth Page, UCAR/COMET  Find out more Registration details for May 20 and 21 webinarsMetEd: Teaching and Training Resources for the Geoscience Community

Government budget cuts force leading meteorological training program to seek donations

BOULDER -- The main source of online weather training for hundreds of thousands of forecasters, emergency managers, and others in the United States and abroad is turning to donations from users in order to try to stay in service. The COMET Program, managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), is taking this unprecedented step in the face of a funding shortfall of nearly $2 million. The deficit reflects this year’s government sequestration as well as further federal budget cuts anticipated in fiscal year 2014. More than 275,000 meteorologists, pilots, firefighters, emergency managers, other professionals, and students rely on COMET's MetEd website ( The courses, which are offered for no charge, offer job-focused training that goes into far more detail than typical university classes on subjects such as marine winds and waves, aviation ceiling and visibility, forecasting for wildfires, and more. They help users better predict potential threats to society, including hurricanes and severe storms, aviation hazards, tsunamis, and emergency responses to hazardous releases. Rich Jeffries (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for nonprofit and media use.) Budget cuts have forced several of the government agencies that sponsor MetEd to reduce, delay, or eliminate funding for the program’s base expenses. The cuts are a last resort by agencies that continue to view MetEd as an important resource but are dealing with sequestration and a future of continuing budget cuts, says COMET director Rich Jeffries. “Meteorologists who provide critical prediction services for the nation's weather services and the U.S. military, as well as pilots and emergency managers, rely on MetEd to stay up to date on forecasting research and technology,” Jeffries says. “Without MetEd, the ability of these forecasters and other professionals to keep their skills current and provide needed predictions of potentially dangerous weather events would be seriously impaired.” Leading military officials say the classes are vital for their operations. In the U.S. Navy, for example, such specialized training is essential to meet the needs of a wide range of scenarios in violence-prone regions. “COMET modules are instrumental to meeting our mission," says Rear Admiral Brian Brown, commander of the U.S. Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command. "They provide our sailors an additional layer of highly-focused training and education. We call them 'just in time' training. For example, when sailors deploy to the Middle East, they use COMET modules to learn forecasting techniques for dust storms.” COMET's online training modules cover a range of critical topics, from severe storms to tsunamis. A major cost savings MetEd has saved the U.S. government millions of dollars over the last few years by providing virtual training and online modules in lieu of traditional in-person classes, which involve considerable travel and housing expenses. In just one case, federal, state, and local users have saved millions of dollars through online access to an intermediate wildland fire behavior course that was officially certified in 2010. “With all the threats that extreme weather events pose to our nation, U.S. forecasters cannot afford to lose their edge as a result of inadequate training,” says UCAR president Thomas Bogdan. “MetEd is a remarkably economical way to provide high-quality training at no cost to users.” The service is also a powerful way to bolster the skills of forecasters in developing countries, where other sources of training may be sparse or absent. Improving meteorological expertise is critical as these nations seek to expand airports and make travel safer for visitors from other countries. Jeffries estimates the value of the entire MetEd website at more than $70 million, an investment that would be jeopardized if the system cannot be maintained. COMET has set an initial target of raising enough money—$400,000—to keep the current MetEd site operational through this fiscal year, if no additional modules are created. This translates to just less than $1.50 per MetEd user. “We think that $1.50 per user is an amazing bargain, considering the wealth of material that MetEd provides,” says Jeffries. Providing free and open access to users from all over the world has been a priority for COMET since it launched the MetEd website in 1997. With more than 480 modules online, MetEd offers more than 700 total hours of training, all available at no cost to users. In addition to meteorologists and other professionals, students in many disciplines at more than 1,600 universities worldwide use MetEd modules as a key part of their education in the geosciences. Among COMET’s major honors for MetEd are the American Geophysical Union’s Excellence in Geophysical Education Award (2006) and the 2009 Public Education Award from the National Weather Association. MetEd users and others interested in supporting the service can donate at the website. In addition to soliciting donations from users, COMET is seeking support from foundations and other potential sponsors. Private meteorologists said they are hopeful that the training will continue. "MetEd is by far the best way to learn to be a better forecaster," says Dan Satterfield, chief meteorologist at WBOC-TV in Salisbury, Maryland. "Thanks to their modules, I can do a much better job alerting our viewers to major storms, protracted cold spells, and other potentially harmful weather events."

Tim Spangler: “It’s been an amazing ride”

February 1, 2013 | One of the world’s foremost programs for meteorological training has been led by the same person for most of its existence. Today, UCP/COMET director Tim Spangler retires from his longtime post after more than 20 years at the helm.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” he says.

Making the U.S. tornado-ready

February 6, 2012  •  Imagine your cellphone going off at midnight, with this message blinking on the screen: Between 1:00 and 1:30 a.m., there is a 50% chance that a tornado will pass within two miles of your house. The National Weather Service can’t offer that level of precision right now. But an NWS project gaining steam could bring us considerably closer to longer-range, probabilistic tornado warnings by the year 2020. The tornadoes of 2011 extended into autumn: a series of twisters struck the Southern Plains on November 7, including the one pictured above near Manitou, Oklahoma. Later that day, the first November tornado in state history to be rated EF4 destroyed an Oklahoma Mesonet station (pictured below) near Tipton. (Wikimedia tornado image by Chris Spannagle; damage photo © Oklahoma Mesonet.) Such warnings are now issued when a tornado is present or imminent, based on radar signatures and/or naked-eye reports. The name of the ten-year Warn-on-Forecast project signals a paradigm shift: the idea that some warnings could be issued via high-resolution computer models that would predict a thunderstorm’s evolution down to the fine-scale development of a twister itself. Conveniently, it’s the most destructive and deadly tornadoes that could lend themselves best to the Warn-on-Forecast approach, because they emerge from the kind of well-organized, long-lived supercell storms that models are increasingly skilled at depicting. Yet it’s far from clear how best to turn the coming wealth of data into words, numbers, and images that will grab the eyes and ears of the public and motivate people to act. “Warn-on-Forecast is the way to a safer future if we can figure out how to implement it,” says Tim Spangler, director of UCP’s COMET program. Spangler was one of nearly 200 professionals who spent three days exploring the perils and potential of new warning approaches for severe weather on December 13–15 at a meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, coordinated by UCP’s Joint Office for Science Support. It was the first in a series of “national conversations” being conducted by NOAA as part of Weather-Ready Nation, an initiative launched last summer in the midst of 2011’s varied weather disasters. These included the deadliest single U.S. tornado in more than 60 years (the Joplin, Missouri, twister on May 22 that killed at least 158 people) and the most prolific one-day tornado swarm ever recorded (the 2011 Super Outbreak of April 27, which produced around 200 tornadoes in 24 hours). Eleven themes from the December workshop for improving the effectiveness of tornado warnings Integrate meteorology and social science Foster physical science improvements Address dissemination issues Ensure community resilience Address warning performance issues Improve the forecast process Increase standardization Improve public education Clarify hazard communications Strengthen collaborations Address human concerns “If there is one word to describe Weather-Ready Nation, I would say it is a mindset,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco in a message to workshop participants. “Do people hear and understand the information we think we’re providing? And do they respond in ways that protect themselves and their property, whenever possible?” The December workshop drew an uncommonly wide range of experts. A large contingent of social scientists was on hand, along with meteorology researchers, communication specialists, emergency managers, private weather forecasters, and others. “It was the first meeting that I’ve attended where physical and social scientists were on equal footing,” said NCAR director Roger Wakimoto, a longtime tornado researcher. “Indeed, the social scientists dominated the discussion at several of the sessions I attended. This was both refreshing and important if we want to achieve a weather-ready nation.” The eleven themes emerging from the meeting were equally wide-ranging (see box). “There were many good ideas in each category,” said John Ferree, severe storms services leader for the NWS and one of the workshop organizers. Scenes from the workshop:  (top) a journalist interviews John “Jack” Hayes, director of the National Weather Service; (middle) Russell Washington (Federal Emergency Management Agency) addresses a breakout group; (bottom) physical and social scientists joined forces with public safety specialists and others for plenaries and breakouts. (Photos by James Murnan, NOAA Weather Partners.) One message, many actions Just as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina was well forecast yet catastrophically deadly, the tornadoes of 2011 killed hundreds despite the NWS’s best efforts. Everyone in the path of the most violent twisters had been alerted via a tornado watch as much as six hours in advance. And in each case, warnings were issued as much as 30 minutes or more ahead of the tornado’s arrival. What went wrong? Bad luck was partially to blame. Last year’s tornadoes were exceptionally strong and numerous, and many happened to strike populated areas. However, post-storm surveys confirmed a longstanding finding: many people don’t take cover right away upon hearing a tornado warning. Having seen other watches and warnings come and go without incident, they may choose to wait until the alert is confirmed in some other way—the blast of a siren, a call from a neighbor, or a glimpse of the tornado itself. An NWS assessment found that many residents of Joplin postponed action until the massive tornado and its 200-mph winds were only moments away. Many of the ideas discussed in Norman involved using GPS-based technology to make warnings as specific and coordinated as possible, thus reducing the false-alarm impression that lulls so many into danger. The NWS already uses an automated system that extrapolates the motion of high-risk storms to give an initial estimate of the area at risk. This area is then edited by the warning forecaster and disseminated as a polygon that identifies the locations in its path. These polygons, often shown on weathercasts, are converted into the text-based, county-oriented warning statements read by radio hosts and scrolled across TV screens. Instead of this “on or off” approach (you’re either in a warning or you’re not), the Warn-on-Forecast method would assign probabilities, with the greatest risk toward the center of the area and decreasing probabilities outward from the center. These would be calculated with the help of storm-resolving computer models—some with resolutions of 250 meters (810 feet) or less—that will soon be practical for everyday use. Such models would also assimilate up-to-the-minute data from radar and other sources. In the conceptual model of Warn-on-Forecast, a tornado warning might include probabilities (shaded) that a tornadic signature on radar will affect a particular area, as well as the timing of greatest risk (dashed lines). (Image courtesy Warn-on-Forecast.) Tornado science may be outrunning society, though. Even today’s less-complex warning messages aren’t getting to the public in a consistent way. Municipal sirens are sounded by city staff based on funnel-cloud sightings and other cues that may not match NWS warnings. An increasing fraction of the public doesn’t speak English. And the poorest Americans, those most likely to live in mobile homes and other high-risk structures, are also least likely to carry the smartphones that could be the favored warning delivery devices of tomorrow. As one workshop participant put it, “We can’t pass a law that requires everybody to carry a smartphone.” Among the many ideas floated for addressing these and related problems: using the wide variety of NWS offices and locales to explore different warning strategies taking advantage of social media for storm reports and warnings (the NWS launched its first Twitter feed in 2011, and many tornado damage reports came in through NWS Facebook pages) crafting wording that conveys a spectrum of risk, including the “tornado emergency” tag now used for the most dire threats considering incentives for better home construction, such as a “storm-worthy” designation along the lines of Energy Star efficiency ratings for appliances using GPS-oriented warning data to trigger municipal sirens and other devices, as is now done with NOAA Weather Radio embedding social scientists and stakeholders in NOAA testbeds and inviting forecasters and social scientists to shadow each other Next steps “For me, a large outcome of the workshop was the recognition that in order to save lives, many of the primary actions needed are outside the purview of the weather community,” said economist Jeff Lazo, head of NCAR’s Societal Impacts Program. SIP’s Julie Demuth agrees: “I’m optimistic that we may be seeing the beginnings of a true paradigm shift.” The dialogue launched in Norman will continue at a town hall meeting in January at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), where participants will be briefed on key priorities identified at the workshop. NOAA will also hold additional symposia, town halls, and other events in 2012 under the Weather-Ready Nation umbrella. “Social science is not a quick fix, and our work takes time and other resources,” noted Heather Lazrus, an environmental anthropologist now on a postdoctoral appointment at NCAR. “We need to understand better how people communicate, understand, and evaluate risks and how they make decisions that may keep them safe.” Lazrus and others, including AMS senior policy fellow William Hooke, emphasized the need to build on existing social-science efforts such as SIP. “We need to strengthen the think tanks we’ve got,” he said. NCAR’s Morris Weisman, who has studied tornado dynamics since the late 1970s, came away from the December workshop encouraged. “We’ve made amazing strides in the science of tornado forecasting and warning. But even if reliable one-to-two-hour forecasts become a reality, it’s not clear how society can or should respond to such information. This meeting was by far the most comprehensive and constructive attempt I’ve experienced at highlighting and promoting such issues.” Video from plenary sessions is available on the workshop’s website. This “word cloud” was created by Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center, to summarize key themes from the closing break-out sessions of the Weather-Ready Nation meeting held in December 2011. (Image courtesy Greg Carbin.)


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