Teacup in a Tempest: the storm over Trump, NOAA/NWS, and Hurricanes

Among the many topics I really don’t want to comment on, but will anyway, is “Sharpiegate”.  To say that the US President is divisive is an understatement, and the sad fact is that American Politics in general has become so insanely partisan that it is almost impossible to comment at all without being accused by one side or the other of being in league with evil – evil being defined as “the other side”.  So there’s probably no upside to commenting on this.  However, there are some important points to be made, if they could only be heard over all the noise.  And sometimes you get lucky and manage to irritate both “sides”. So let’s try that.

I don’t know what was said in the briefing that resulted in President Trump tweeting that Alabama was potentially going to be hit by Dorian.  I’m assuming that seed was planted on Thursday the 29th or Friday, 30 August, based on the “cone of error,” a product few really understand how to apply and I think everybody who really understands hurricanes hates, but hasn’t figured anything else out yet.  In fairness to the President, like the blow-up over nuking hurricanes, I can see how someone might think Alabama was at risk.  People see a track forecast and often ask “what will happen next.”  And given the uncertainty in the five day forecasts, I can see how a briefer might have said “on that track, then in 6-7 days, or if the storm is at the outer edge of the cone, yes Alabama might be at risk.”  The tweet that started the firestorm came on Sunday, but by then the tracks and models had shifted.  This happens all the time – as a track shifts, people get an earlier forecast stuck in their mind and keep repeating it to others long after it is stale, causing confusion.  Since it was the POTUS doing the repeating, this put the NWS WFO in Birmingham in a tough position that, again, all of us in this business get put in all the time: I’d guess for every “you’re doomed and gonna die” I have to dish out, there are twenty “no, you are not at risk from this storm, that’s an old forecast.”  It does raise questions as to how often the President is briefed and, perhaps, his attention span.  But, objectively, this shouldn’t have been much of a big deal had everyone been reasonable.

Thursday Evening Forecast

Forecast Sunday Morning

This could and should have been quickly defused, but the US President and his team are “doubling down,” while the opposition is pushing this as a catastrophic failure indicating various psychological or character flaws.  Modern political leaders have an extraordinarily difficult time in admitting they were wrong, some (most?) to the point of pathology.  And their opponents love to take innocent or common mistakes and blow them up for short term advantage no matter what the long term institutional costs. Now both pro and anti Trump sides are blowing this up for their own political reasons because they think it gives them some tactical advantage.  Real problem or manufactured political fight?  Probably both in this case, but that’s not my point here.

What *is* my concern in this is the continuing corruption of science in policy debates and public safety.  I find it ironic beyond belief that many major news networks who don’t hesitate to use one-off long range model forecasts that go well beyond the NHC forecasts, sowing fear and confusion as they go, are now piously condemning the US President for doing what they themselves do virtually every 5 minutes during a storm. The sheer hypocrisy of this is staggering.  Equally odious is putting your scientific (not to mention intelligence agency) staffs in the position of having to back your political positions and cover for your mistakes.  It is something most administrations do.  It’s always wrong, and while both parties do it this administration seems to be taking the practice to new extremes.  It’s a dangerous trend.  If you want to say “they” are worse than “we”, I might not argue, but like the saying goes, if you choose the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil …

I’m also concerned that some scientific organizations, and some individual scientists and meteorologists, are now jumping into this debate in a way that is starting to feel, or is rapidly being turned, into partisan attacks.  The problem isn’t so much that they are wrong (many are in fact right about how this is evolving, and the potentially dire implications for government sponsored research and science applications), my problem is that they haven’t called out previous administrations for their abuse of the science because they agreed with the the politics of those administrations, or maybe they felt it just wasn’t bad enough, or both.   Unfortunately, like the climate change debate, this is dragging scientists (some willingly, most probably not) into political crap flinging that diminishes public trust in all of our institutions.

So for what it’s worth, here’s the TL;DR …

  1. That the President thought Alabama was at risk in the future, on Thursday or Friday, based on the Thursday/Friday forecast doesn’t bother me too much.
  2. That he was still saying it Sunday bothers me a lot: by then he should have had a fresh briefing. If not, that’s a problem. If he did, and was still saying it, we have another problem.  Either way, not a good situation.
  3. Attacking WFO/BHM is scary: they were doing their job.
  4. The media is being utterly hypocritical and self righteous over this – they extrapolate beyond the NHC forecast all the time, sowing fear and confusion.
  5. Scientists should vigorously defend the science, but tread carefully over being perceived as overly partisan.  Especially in the climate debate, some have already crossed that line, advocating specific politically based solutions rather than sticking to underlying problems, and evaluating the effectiveness of proposed solutions.  That kind of advocacy hurts credibility in situations like this.

Science is the only credible tool we have for understanding how the world works, and should be the underlying basis for devising policies that address the problems our society faces.  Once that credibility is lost, we are in fact doomed.  This whole debate, especially how it is evolving, is destructive and does not bode well for the future.

Global TC Review – Monday, 9 September 2019 (and Dorian wrapup)

We have five active systems and three potential (“invest” areas) that forecasters are tracking worldwide.  Most of the active systems have already hit land and are moving out either into open water or are no threat.  The only interesting active storm is in the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Gabrielle.  The remnants will likely pass over Ireland and the (at the moment not very) United Kingdom as an extratropical system in about four days.  Here’s the Atlantic Infrared view this morning …

There is a system north of the Leeward Islands that I’ve heard some talk about.  It’s not in a favorable environment for becoming a storm, but in a few days, when closer to The Bahamas, conditions are a little more favorable.  NHC has it at a 20% chance of formation in the next 5 days.  It’s not likely to form a storm that will cause damage, but the rain will add to the misery and difficulty of recovery.

Over the weekend we had several landfalls, including a stronger than expected Dorian hitting eastern Canada. The primary impact seems to be widespread power outages (thousands are still out as of this morning), with lots of trees (and a construction crane) down.  Right on the coast high waves also caused significant damage (but nothing like the Bahamas of course).  Further south, the flooding in NC is going down but damage otherwise is relatively light (big picture wise – if it’s your house the tree fell on your perspective is of course different!).  Those who stayed on Ocrakoke Island in the Outer Banks got a scary lesson as to why you should evacuated from water.  Fortunately no one lost their life.  And of course the scale of the devastation in The Bahamas is becoming clearer.  The current official death toll in the 40’s is certainly going to continue to rise in the next week.

The Koreas were hit by Typhoon LingLing.  There was damage in the South along the western coast, and fatalities and potentially severe flooding and damage in the North, but given the closed nature of the PDRK, it’s hard to know the actual impacts. It likely hit major agricultural areas, and has the potential to worsen already severe food shortages there.  Typhoon Faxai hit the Tokyo area, causing some damage and extensive power outages.  So it’s been a busy week …

Dorian (still!) and Canada, Saturday 7 September 2019

After causing a lot of flooding along the North Carolina coast, Dorian is rapidly moving north of off the coast of New England early this morning, and is on track to make landfall again in Nova Scotia today.  Winds on the immediate shore will likely be right at minimum hurricane force, and just under hurricane force sustained winds around 100kph (65mph) inland.  The track takes the storm right over Halifax, with storm surge potentially in the 2 meter (6ft) range on the immediate coast due to wave setup.  Newfoundland will likely see somewhat less wind and surge on Sunday as the storm decays and loses all of its tropical characteristics.  Here’s the swath of impacts …

There’s other stuff going on with Gabrielle (maybe hitting Ireland!), LingLing making landfall in North Korea as I write this, Faxai headed to Japan.  Will try to post on those in a bit (lot of backed up work ignored over the last week for some reason!).

Dorian, and Global Hurricane/Tropical Cyclone Update (Friday Morning 6 Sept)

Dorian has made landfall in North Carolina overnight – well, at least the northern eyewall did  – and is now moving off into the North Atlantic.  Here’s the radar scan from Wilmington NC at landfall, and the current MRMS composite with various warnings overlaid:

It seems that like Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, the hurricane force winds are staying offshore, although NC is seeing high sustained tropical storm force winds. The biggest risk right now is flash flooding, as indicated by the red boxes above.  Heavy rain bands will continue to inundate NC and southern Virginia today as the storm moves away.

There are currently six active tropical cyclones/hurricanes in the world.  Aside from Dorian (AL052019), Gabrielle(AL082019) has been wandering in the mid Atlantic.  While it has deteriorated into a post-tropical system, it is expected to reform in the next few days.  There is also a system in the Cape Verde islands, being watched as AL942019, that has some potential to spin up into a tropical storm in 3-5 days.

In the East Pacific, Julliette (EP11) is in open water, while Akoni is well south of the islands of Hawai’i.

Finally, two tropical cyclones are threatening land in the West Pacific.  Faxai is forecast to hit Japan as a hurricane, and given the track is over Tokyo could cause a lot of damage and disruption (although Japan is well equipped to deal with these things), while LingLing is on track to hit the Koreas and may hit North Korea rather hard (and the PDRK isn’t equipped to deal with it) …

Thanks to everyone for the kind words about the Dorian commentary.  I hope it was helpful.  At this point, returning to less frequent posts concentrating on policy, research, as well as posts about other stuff I’m working on (including a long-delayed rant about the INF and other arms treaties 😛 ).

Dorian update Thursday Evening 5 September 2019

I could basically copypasta this morning’s post.  Dorian continues to skim the coast of SC/NC.  Those along the Outer Banks can expect about the same as those in SC have seen before them – rain, tropical storm force winds.  But the duration will be shorter as the storm accelerates towards the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  It may not technically be a hurricane when it gets to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, but the winds, waves, and storm surge will feel like it …

Those of you interested in contributing to relief efforts in The Bahamas may want to look here.  Thanks for any help you can offer …

Dorian mid-day Thursday 5 September 2019

The official forecast changed very little at 11am.  The Dorian eyewall is just offshore from Bulls Bay/McClellanville, SC …

The edge of the cloud shield is just south of Savannah, and the sun has been sneaking through the scud clouds …

I think everything else was said in the earlier post … for Savannah area still gusty but that should die down this afternoon.

Dorian and the Carolinas (Update for Thursday Morning)

Dorian is finally picking up speed and “recurving”.  At 630am the eye is right off of Savannah …

As forecast the storm had a very steep gradient of rain and impacts.  Here is the storm total precipitation map for the last day or so, from the Charleston (actually, Gray’s SC) NEXRAD radar.  In Savannah there was on the order of 1 inch, whereas it seems over 2.5 inches at Tybee.  Further north the totals increase, and the Charleston area has seen upwards of 5 inches.  A reminder you can click to expand any image in the blog.

For the big picture, intense rain bands are battering the NC coast …

As for what’s next, here is the latest impact map.  With the focus on the US Coast, please don’t forget the devastation in The Bahamas.  As noted previously, the economic impacts are sure to be in excess of $5 Billion. The death toll is growing, and won’t be known for many days yet.  US economic impacts are likely to be on the order of $8 Billion – of which nearly half are indirect impacts due to evacuations and the disrupted Labor Day weekend across Florida.  My new Stribog/Domovoy modeling system estimates the evacuation disruption to Chatham County Georgia (Savannah) alone are over $130 Million dollars.

The Savannah/Hilton Head area are now on the back edge of the storm.  Conditions should improve pretty rapidly this morning, and by afternoon this will be over for Georgia.  Winds have reversed, and it looks like the peak from Dorian at the Fort Pulaski tide gauge was yesterday afternoon’s 9.55 feet; in other words, less than the unrelated high tides over the Labor Day weekend. This lower peak was because the storm was slower, had a different wind field geometry, and was farther offshore than forecast.

For the Charleston area, the next few hours are critical.  As noted in the rain and STP displays above, Savannah’s wicked stepsister has received on the order of 5 inches of rain. and more rain bands and onshore winds will be sweeping across the city until late afternoon.  Winds are a bit tricky, but more likely will be in the strong tropical storm range, with hurricane force winds possible more northward.  Dorian is moving faster and should accelerate today, so by tomorrow will be past South Carolina and will be off of Jacksonville (NC, not FL!).  By Sunday it is forecast to be losing its tropical characteristics, and hitting Nova Scotia and Newfoundland with hurricane force winds.

Dorian update 5pm Wednesday 4 September 2019

Dorian has been tracking to the right of the forecast path all afternoon, and the heavier rain bands have also been staying off of the Georgia shoreline.  Winds at the Georgia stations have all been below tropical storm force.  Here is the satellite and radar views at around 4:30pm … as always, click to embiggen.

From a forecast standpoint … not a lot changed with the 5pm NHC forecast, or in any advice or recommendations.

For Georgia and the Lowcountry of SC, we are still in for a blustery night. There is still the potential for some strong cells to come onshore, and everything is scarier in the dark (especially if the power goes out!).  There is some tornado risk, but that is probably more of an issue as the storm further north.   I think the flood risk is a bit less now for Chatham/Beaufort area, gauges are currently running about a foot below the forecasts from even this morning. That’s still above flood stage, so the “usual suspects” are still at risk of some flooding.  If you are in coastal Georgia or the Lowcountry, you might as well stay put at this point unless you are in a flood prone place or mobile home very close to the coast. Further north towards Charleston and above the flood and wind risk is higher.   The big question now is how the storm moves and turns towards the northeast, and if it manages to avoid a brush with the northern South Carolina and North Carolina/Outer Banks area.

Dorian Update Wednesday 4 Sep – rain

Dorian continues to brush the coast, with the majority of the damaging winds remaining just offshore Florida.  That trend is expected to continue until the storm reaching the mid South Carolina coast, where stronger winds may come onshore. The storm is being pretty well behaved with respect to motion.  Here’s the radar at just before 11am, with the 5am track (brown line).  As you can see, it didn’t deviate much (click to embiggen).

The 11am track didn’t change, so neither does the discussion from earlier today.  A key question for coastal georgia and the lowcountry at this point is rain.  Here are two models showing the expected rain distribution as the storm passes nearby:

There is a very sharp gradiant with respect to rain.  The NOAA/NWS forecasters at WPC are currently predicting between 4 and 6 inches along the Georgia coast, with 6 to 8 as you move in to the Lowcountry of SC.  From Charleston north it could reach the 10 to 15 inch range.  As for winds, in Georgia still expecting tropical storm force on the immediate coast, lesser (but still blustery) inland.

Hurricane (and Tropical Cyclone) Update, Wednesday Morning

Although people in the US are focused on Dorian, there are currently seven active tropical systems and a couple more “invest” (potential) areas.  In the Atlantic, we have Dorian, Fernand (no “oh” at the end) is a weak tropical storm making landfall near the Mexico/Texas border.  Gabrielle, also a tropical storm is in the mid-Atlantic, and is not forecast to be a threat to land.  Here the big picture .. can you identify which are the storms and which are just blobs of clouds ?

Then there’s Dorian … here is the 542am scan from Melbourne, Florida …

Dorian is now a Category 2 hurricane, with 105mph winds.  A lot is being made of the fact the storm is “bigger”, and I’m hearing on the radio that “tropical storm winds are extending 175 miles!”  Let’s take a look at that statement, which while true, is also misleading.

The left side of the storm is the weaker side for a storm moving south to north.  The definitive NHC product is the “Forecast Advisory.” For Dorian, the current NHC advisory is  that on the west side of the storm, tropical storm winds are extending between 100 and 140 nautical miles, or 115 to 160 miles.  Only in the stronger NorthEast side of the storm do the tropical storm force winds extend as far as 175 miles. But here’s a key missing piece of the puzzle: that is over water.  Over land, winds decrease significantly due to friction between the air and land.  A rule of thumb is that over land winds will be about 20% lower than over water, so while the winds over Tybee might be 50mph, by the time you get to downtown Savannah they are only 40mph.  And remember that wind energy is proportional to the square of the wind speed, so a 40mph sustained wind has far less damage potential than a 50mph wind (a 40mph wind has 64% of the energy of a 50mph wind, to be exact). While watch and warning areas are based on tropical storm force (40mph), significant damage to a normal home such as roof damage really starts to pick up at 50 to 60 mph sustained winds. So from a risk standpoint, and given that forecast track errors for a storm like Dorian are far more likely to be to the right than the left, the situation of the Georgia Coast, while the situation is hazardous, is not as dangerous as one might think unless you are in an area that floods.

To wrap up, here’s the obligatory impact map based on the official forecast track:

In the Coastal Georgia and Lowcountry of SC area, nothing much has changed.  The storm will be traveling parallel the the shoreline.  The barrier islands will see tropical storm force winds, and high tides will be about 3 feet above normal with perhaps some spots a bit higher; in other words,  more than likely a foot or so below the worst of what was seen in the storms we have seen in the last two years.  Inland winds will decay rapidly.  There will be some rain bands, there is one parallel to the shore right now (6am) that will drift through the area.  But all in all, aside from the usual impacts (power outages, limbs down, a few random trees might blow over) unless something breaks that shouldn’t that should be it.  Conditions will deteriorate this morning, be crummy this afternoon and overnight, but by noon Thursday the sun will probably be out and it will all be over.  If you are in a sturdy structure that doesn’t flood, you are likely to ride out this storm fine.  Those in areas that flood, or in manufactured homes within 10 miles of the coast should seek better shelter.  If you are not comfortable where you are, the time to leave is now – after noon, travel will likely become hazardous and you will be better off staying put.

Further north, from Charleston to the Outer Banks of NC, things will be progressively worse.  Myrtle Beach, Wilmington NC, and the outer banks to Cape Hatteras will likely see minimal hurricane conditions and should prepare for that and, if in areas in danger of flooding, evacuate now.

As we watch the impacts on the Mainland US, please don’t forget The Bahamas, which has been devastated.  It will take a decade for them to recover from this storm, which in the course of 72 hours wiped out half a year of their entire GDP.