Whats in a name: Gonzalo, Douglas, and TD8 (23 July 2020)

After a long boring spell, the tropics got “interesting” all of the sudden.  Two storms in the Atlantic, and one headed to Hawai’i, so will be lot to cover today! But first we’ll start with a brief overview of how storms are tracked and named.

Last night the US National Hurricane Center started public advisories on the suspicious (investigation) area in the Gulf of Mexico.  As a reminder, tropical systems (Hurricanes, Typhoons, Cyclones, etc) are given unique formal identifiers when the reach a certain level of organization and intensity.   The first two letters are the Basin (area of world’s ocean – AL for Atlantic, EP for east pacific, CP for central pacific/Hawaii, WP west pacific, IO Indian Ocean, SH southern hemisphere).  The next two digits are the storm number for that year, followed by the year.  Storms are also given informal names to help in public awareness and watch/warnings. The number codes (called ATCF identifiers) are important since names are reused unless a storm causes a lot of damage and the name retired.  In the Pacific it is also important since some weather agencies (The Philippines for example) use their own names that are different from the other regionally accepted names.  Investigation areas are given temporary storm ids  in the 90 to 99 range, which are reused during the year since most of these don’t spin up.  So the system in the Gulf that had been given the temporary ID of AL912020 now has the formal tracking ID of AL082020.  In advisories it is being called “Tropical Depression Number Eight or TD8.  If it reaches tropical storm force intensity, it will be given the informal name Hanna.  But you will always be able to find it as AL082020.

So what is TD8 up to?  I again want to push the NHC’s “Key Messages” summaries.  They are a great, minimal hype, one-stop official summary of what you need to know about a storm, at least in the National Weather Service area of responsibility (Atlantic and East/Central Pacific regions). They are also available in Spanish, for those serving  Spanish speaking communities.  TD8 still isn’t that organized, but conditions aren’t unfavorable, so NHC is still thinking it will become a minimal tropical storm  before landfall.  Economic impact/damage should be minimal as well, under $10 Million if this forecast holds.  The key question is if significant evacuations become necessary.  Only those at risk from flooding, or in weaker structures like mobile homes should be seeking shelter – we really don’t need lots of people congregating in Texas right now with the COVID19 causing virus in uncontrolled community spread … here’s the impact swath:

The second storm out in the Atlantic is Tropical Storm Gonzalo (AL072020).  Gonzalo has expanded and intensified, and is expected to pass south of Barbados and across the Windward Islands in about two and a half days.  It is forecast to become a hurricane by late this afternoon, and maintain that strength as is crosses the Islands.  After that is a bit uncertain – there is a mass of unfavorable dry air in the central Caribbean that should knock Gonzalo down pretty quickly before it reaches Jamaica.  Impacts are estimated at under $5 Million on this track.

Finally we have Major Hurricane Douglas.  Douglas is an impressive Category 3 hurricane, but fortunately no where near land at the moment.  It is forecast to hold this strength today, but should begin to decay as it approaches the islands of Hawai’i in about 3-4 days and should be just below hurricane strength as it passes over the islands.  Here is the TAOS/TC “plain English” impact map:

The main risks from Douglas at this point seem to be heavy rainfall, but winds could still be over hurricane force along higher elevations and ridgelines.  We’ll know more in a day or so once it starts to decay.

Geology and Meteorology tired of Biology getting all the attention (22 July Review)

We have small tropical storm in the Atlantic headed towards the Windward Islands, a  hurricane (expected to weaken) headed towards Hawai’i, and we had a big earthquake off the coast of Alaska last night, so finally something to discuss other than the pandemic (which has become a political story more than biology or public health at this point, but I’ve ranted about that enough already).

Let’s start with the earthquake.  There was a M7.8 Earthquake off the coast of Alaska overnight (and a bunch of aftershocks, which are always expected after a big quake).  Damage on land should be light, it did cause a tsunami warning that was later retracted.  Here’s a quick look map of the impact area:

The Atlantic has finally dusted itself off and figured out it’s hurricane season.  Last night NHC started tracking TD#7, and this morning it was organized and intense enough to get the name Gonzalo.  As of 11am they have started the key messages product.  Here is the impact swath from my TAOS(tm)/TC model:

NHC substantially changed their intensity philosophy as of the 11am advisory, and now forecasts Gonzalo to become a hurricane.  The guidance is split – the major global models like GFS and the ECMRWF models kill off the storm in a few days because there is some dry air ahead; specialized hurricane models like HWRF intensify it.  NHC is sort of splitting the difference with a bias toward the high end.

Economic impact should be in the low millions of US dollars, but as in many areas of the world, any economic stress is unwelcome at this point.  The Caribbean is especially dependent on tourism, so this hurts more than the raw numbers might seem.

Another island is at potential risk half a world away: Hurricane Douglas is strengthening in the open waters of the east Pacific, and on the current track should be passing near or over the Islands of Hawai’i as it decays.  If the current NHC/CPHC track holds, it might cause a few million USD of disruption to the big island.  Here’s the current forecast impact:

Last and probably least, there is an invest area moving into the Gulf of Mexico, bound for the Texas/Mexico border.  NHC gives it a 50/50 chance of becoming a depression or greater by then.  Given the spread of the virus in Texas, hopefully it won’t spin up and trigger any evacuations …



Likely new tropical depression in Atlantic

It is increasingly likely that the tropical wave in the central Atlantic is getting enough organization for the National Hurricane Center to start advisories on it as a tropical depression this afternoon or overnight.  Here’s the mid-day satellite view …

Since there is no official track yet we have to sort the pasta and look at the raw forecast track models.  They are pretty tightly grouped, with the dynamic models agreeing on two key points: it’s going to move across the Caribbean, and it’s not likely to get all that strong.  Here’s the model tracks available as of around 11am this morning:

Conditions further west, over the Caribbean, are not very favorable, so it’s not likely to spin up into a serious threat.  Here’s the impact forecast based on the GFS Ensemble track … impacts are minimal, mostly rain and some wind:

There is also a blob of tropical moisture moving through the Florida Straits into the Gulf (in the upper left corner of the satellite image above).  It might spin up in the Gulf before it moves ashore over Louisiana in 4-5 days, but conditions are not great, so most likely just rain.  We also have Tropical Storm Douglas well off the West coast of Mexico.  Fish storm,  not likely to make it to Hawai’i, so nothing to worry about.

Doomwatch, 20 July 2020 (Tropics and Pandemic)

There are a couple of weak tropical systems that the US National Hurricane Center is watching in the Atlantic and East Pacific, but nothing in the West Pacific this morning.   Here’s the view from GOES East of the Atlantic:

The only actual system (EP072020, East Pacific TD#7) is in the shadows as of 10am, off the Pacific Coast of Mexico, no threat to land.  The two “watch areas” have low formation probabilities; the mid-Atlantic invest area (AL99) perhaps a bit more, but still low over the next 5 days at 20%.  If you just need a spaghetti map, here’s an early look using the shallow (TABS) and mid level (TABM) steering currents, as well as some statistical models.

In viral doom, the data hasn’t really shifted that much over the last few days – as previously ranted, pandemics move slowly, with time scales in weeks.  Since we’re coming off a weekend and the data is catching up from that, I won’t post a plot, but the trends haven’t really changed much.  The precentage of people testing positive per test (the positivity ratio) as well as raw total positive patients showing up for treatment are still increasing far faster than anybody wants to see, mortality is up, not as much as the pessimistic predictions but worse than the optimistic scenarios.  Despite the Sturm und Drang, political posturing, and cultural gamesmanship, it is increasingly clear that masks outside the home are probably the best tool we have right now, especially if we want to resume something like normal lives.  So please just do it.

Mad dogs and Georgians going out in the midday sun …

Apologies to Noel Coward, but it works on so many levels.  The tropics are quiet, and there haven’t been any major earthquakes.  It would be great to discuss the “La Nina Watch” that long range forecasters have put out as well as some other climate research. There is cat business to report as well. But the US is increasingly in crisis, and a rant about Georgia’s response to the pandemic is required.  Long time readers will realize this isn’t political: to be clear, both dominant parties in the US utterly disgust me.  Both are acting irresponsibly with respect to the COVID-19 response. Of course individual politicians on both sides care. They aren’t stupid.  Partisans on both sides using inflammatory language to describe the other aren’t helping the situation.  But Politicians are so focused on proving the other side wrong, and not being wrong themselves, they can’t see through to doing the right thing.  And as a long time student of how societies function in response to stress and disasters (or, more often, don’t function), I’m increasingly concerned they are setting up American society for a major catastrophe.

To try to boil it down to the essentials, the US financial system is on the verge of collapse.  Forget the casino (aka Stock Market) – that has been disconnected from the real economy for a long time.  Small businesses, especially service type businesses, are defaulting on leases and mortgages at historical rates.  Economic activity is crashing, and the underfunded, short term band-aids like PPP are running out.  And money flow through the economy is declining.  Take one small indicator: the rate of approval of small business loans.  Institutional lenders were approving 66.5% of loan applications in February.   By April that was down to 18.1% – and the number of applications was a fraction of the amount two months earlier.  Banks are setting up huge reserves to prepare for loan defaults.  It’s an insidious catch-22: banks are reluctant to loan money that can keep a business going and recover because they are afraid that existing loans are going to default.  This is part of the circular firing squad is in play in the property markets: businesses can’t pay rent to property “owners” who really don’t own those properties; they need the rental income to pay their mortgages to the banks.  Who used those assets and and income in further complex financial instruments within the capital markets.  This is called leveraging.  So that small business going under and defaulting on $1000 of rent has the potential to unravel millions of dollars of related financial activity.  Throw in the social unrest and move to address some long ignored social fault lines, it’s a toxic mix.  People are scared.  They should be.

On top of all that, there is no doubt the spread of the virus is out of control.

What does that have to do with Georgia?  Everything.  We have a politically inspired catch-22 in play.  Republicans are focused on getting the economy back in operation, and demonstrating they are properly running their states (and via Trump the country).  Democrats are focused on the public health aspects, and demonstrating the Republicans are incompetent and should be replaced.  Each are playing power games and trying undermining the other, and are so focused on their own agendas they are ignoring the correct (in context) concerns of the other.

Enter the Governor of Georgia.  Yesterday Kemp issued an executive order that is one of the more irrational pieces of stupidity to come out of this episode – and that’s saying a lot.  The key bit of insanity is on page 32 that overrides any requirement for face masks put in place by cities and counties.  We’ve learned a lot about how the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 spreads. The initial fears about surface spread,  airborne transmission,  and so forth, have proved overblown. It is fairly clear now that the vast majority of spread is by droplets expelled during breathing/talking/sneezing/coughing.  Masks – even simple cloth masks – work.  Period.  In this report (link) …

In May, two hairstylists at a Missouri salon who had COVID-19 but wore face masks cut the hair of 139 masked customers for roughly a week, and did not infect a single client. They also did not infect any of the clients’ contacts or any of the other stylists in the salon, researchers report.

Yes, the order “encourages” the use of masks, but elsewhere it does a lot to undercut that message.  If Kemp really wants to get Georgia back to work and school, it’s simple: require everyone leaving their home to wear a mask.  Undermining that concept is irresponsible.  

In the “equal time equal stupidity” department, some states such as California are putting “shelter in place” restrictions and shutting down businesses again.  This, too, is irresponsible.  In the first place lockdowns won’t work at this point. The California Republic doesn’t live in a vacuum.  As soon as the orders are lifted, the virus lurking in neighboring states will come back and they will be right back where they started.  In a viral outbreak, you use a lockdown to stop the immediate spread, and use the time to put in to place the public health measures to control it – things like contact tracing, testing, research to figure out how to deal with it when you reopen.  Shutdowns only work if a) everybody does it, and b) you use the time wisely.  In the US neither happened.  So doing it again just won’t work and, now we just can’t afford it.  Another wide shutdown risks collapsing the economy (and its going to be damn hard to prevent that anyway).

During the Revolutionary War, Ben Franklin famously said “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”   To hang together in this crisis we all have to wear masks (to stop the virus), and we have to restart business and school (to save the economy).  Doing the first allows the second.  Doing one or the other in isolation won’t work – and will make things worse.

Georgia COVID deaths: the critical week ahead

Before we revisit the mortality projections, let’s take a look at the big picture. As I have said many times, each disaster has its progression in time.  Earthquakes are measured in seconds, hurricanes in hours to days, pandemics in weeks (and foreign policy or environmental disasters often in years to decades from their roots).  For example, while it might seem longer, the sharp rise in positive test ratios (again, not an increase in the number of tests, but the percentage of those tests coming back positive) in states like Florida, Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and to a lesser extent Georgia, began about 20 days ago.  If the pandemic follows the experiences in the Northeast and Europe, the upcoming 10 days will see a significant increase in mortality across these states.

Georgia is an interesting case.  If the data can be trusted (and I’m somewhat skeptical), Georgia was in a “slow burn” both during the “shutdown” (which was a bit porous), then opened earlier than other states.  Georgia’s mortality “curve” was not as flat as other states, but the increase in positives and hospitalizations has not been as sharp either.  Here is what the curves for positives looks like (again, we don’t have a good “case” count because of all the asymptomatic cases and lack of comprehensive, random testing):

And here are the mortality curves (remembering these tend to lag 20 to 30 days behind the positive curves):

If you blend in all of the various data (positivity rates,hospitalization rates, mortality rates, complications among those who have recovered, and so forth), what we are seeing is a mixed picture.

So let’s revisit the graph from about a week ago, with the forecast for deaths in Georgia.  I’ve added two other lines.  The first is an optimistic projection, in yellow.  While I never saw advocates of that position put their forecasts in to hard numbers, I used their stated assumptions (that the vast majority of new positives were among young people, and their mortality rates were uniformly lower based on the early mortality data among those groups).  The second new line, in green, is the pessimistic assumption, that the observed rates will persist as the virus expands into a younger population with only marginal improvements.  The orange line is the “balanced” projection based on the May 30th data and trends, the blue line are the reported deaths.

To state the obvious, the pessimistic line is way off.  Clearly improvements in treatment, as well as the increasingly younger patients showing up in the hospitals, has meant the mortality rate has come down.  Yet, not as much as the optimists (the yellow line) were arguing/hoping.  The “balanced” projection is doing better, but is still high, although the divergent trend in the last couple days might be due to the weekend.  The upcoming week is critical both from a policy standpoint as well as seeing into the future, as we see how the increase in positive tests 20 days ago (and increasing hospitalizations) translate into mortality.  Will it stay in that middle ground, increase, or decrease?  We should know in about 10 days (weekends screw up the data in Georgia and many other states due to reporting issues).

So what does that all mean?  From a personal action standpoint, not much.  Get a mask and wear it properly in the appropriate situations – inside with people outside your family, outside where close contact (less than six feet or so) is unavoidable. Keep in mind masks do you some good – but mostly prevent you from spreading if you have it – and remember you might be and not know it.  Use good hand hygiene.  If you think you might be sick stay home.   The same stuff that has been said for weeks.

From a societal standpoint it’s complicated.  Because the COVID19 data is mixed, and it’s not either an “in your face” catastrophe or an equally obvious “nothingburger”, it makes it easy for partisans to argue either way and pretend their policy options are “right.”  Compromise is essential – but sadly that doesn’t seem to be in the short term political interests of either side trying to create advantage for the upcoming election.  In my opinion reimposing shelter in place orders is not practical and is causing more damage than good.  The reason is that unless you enforce it uniformly across the country, there will always be brewing pockets ready to spread as soon as you release the restrictions.  The only way to beat this thing is by personal responsibility and encouraging, even mandating it, but figuring out a way to do it that without damaging our increasingly fragile civil rights.  What about schools?  That’s a really hard one. I think it is important to restart in-person instruction – most independent studies show virtual instruction just isn’t as effective as in-person classes.  But I don’t see how you can do it unless students are required to wear masks and aggressive steps taken to protect staff.  Ideally classes would be kept together, which is practical with elementary school but increasingly problematic in the upper grades.  It’s a hard problem, and public health and educators need to be working in close cooperation to figure out creative solutions.

In short, everyone needs to be reasonable and try to solve this rather than score points. You’re not being a sheeple to wear a mask and being careful; likewise, it’s not heartless to say we need to try to get our economic, educational, and social lives back to normal.  Balance.

Harbinger of Doom Appears in Morning Skies!

As any aficionado of the apocalypse knows, you can’t have a serious plague without a comet.  And the year 2020 does not disappoint – Comet NEOWISE (named after the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission extension; comets are generally named after their discoverers, in this case the satellite mission team) has brightened a lot over the last week or so and, with a dark sky, has a spectacular tail.  Visible in the northeast sky just before dawn, it is best seen in binoculars.  If you can’t get up that early, it will become visible in the evening sky over the next week.  In cities with the lights it can be a challenge to see, but worth the effort.  Here this messenger of mayhem can be seen lurking over Daffin Park in Savannah Georgia about 5:30am Saturday morning … click to muchly embiggen: Again, you really need a dark sky to see it well. The camera picked it up well before I did, and here in the southeast, the early morning haze and humidity (and gnats) made it harder to find but once you do, it’s a neat sight.  Comets are fascinating remnants of the formation of our solar system.  Once seen as harbingers of doom, in the 1600’s records of their motion, especially those compiled by Sir Edmond Halley of Halley’s comet fame, helped Sir Issac Newton formulate and refine the laws of motion and gravity.  Modern physics has made huge strides in understanding our universe with amazing precision.  As you look at this vaporizing ball of ice and dust think about how far we have come (and what an embarrassment our societies are in failing to appreciate the role solid, unbiased science can have in formulating good policy)


Fay Update (AL062020, Friday Morning 10 July)

Tropical Storm Fay is now off the DelMarVa Penensula as a low-end tropical storm.  It is not terribly organized, mostly a comma shaped band of rain with some gusty winds.  Here’s the satellite view  as of 7:20am … Infrared on the left, visual on the right, as always click on any image to expand.  Notice the lack of deep reds on the IR image, indicating a lack of deep convection.

The radar view confirms the picture …

Finally, here’s the damage swath. Landfall is expected tonight, but given shape of the storm that’s just a technicality.   Note the worst stays offshore; while there will be some rain and gusty winds, it is unlikely that Fay will cause much disruption aside from some scattered power outages, isolated flooding in areas that are vulnerable to flooding from a couple inches of rain, and maybe some damage from downed trees.  Given the density of infrastructure and people, economic impacts will likely be in the high tens of millions to perhaps just over $100 Million, which isn’t much for the US.


Tropical Storm Fay (AL062020)

NHC has started advisories on AL062020, Tropical Storm Fay.  The main threat is some localized flash flooding as it skirts the coast and moves inland over the next 36 hours.  Fay probably won’t intensify much – it’s too close to land.  Here is the forecast impact swath based on the 5pm Thursday 9 July official forecast track:

Economic impacts shouldn’t be severe, probably just over $100 Million.  Unfortunately most won’t be covered by insurance due to the named storm deductibles that are now on most homeowner and business policies.   It is unlikely that significant evacuations will be called for, which would play havoc with pandemic social distancing plans.

Possible storm forming on/near SC Coast

The system that meandered up from the Gulf of Mexico over Georgia the last couple of days (ID AL982020)  is now centered on the SC coast, although most of the convection is now well offshore.  NHC now gives it a 70% chance of becoming a depression and maybe even a tropical storm, and has even started a “Key Messages” product on it (link).  Here’s the current (2pm) Satellite view … InfraRed on the left, visual on the right, click to embiggen:

As you can see, not terribly organized. Here’s the obligatory scary 850mb wind and pressure height animation if you need a fix … click to animate.

It is forecast to hug the coast and go inland around the New York City/Long Island area, bringing gusty winds up the mid Atlantic and Northeast Coasts. Biggest problem is likely to be rain, but even that should stay mostly offshore:

Otherwise shouldn’t cause a lot of damage or disruption, so I’m afraid you’ll have to continue to worry about COVID19 and politics.