Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Blizzard of 2013 Part III

After I posted all of the details on how well some of our weather forecasting and analysis tools functioned before and during the Blizzard of 2013 I decided I should post about some of the systemic failures when it comes to American weather as well. It's only fair to mention some of the gaps we have in meteorological science in this country as they are extremely relevant to conservation issues. Apart from public health and safety, being able to understand, predict, measure, and record our weather is important in monitoring climate change, from temperatures to tides, the impact of increasingly severe storms in the northeast, and to analyze in concert with data on our flora and fauna. All of the Connecticut Audubon Society Conservation and Management Plans include details on climate and weather for the specific areas being reported on to foster better understanding of what has occurred and what should be anticipated for the environment of a given region.

There is a misconception in the United States that we have various commercial entities to provide us with all of the weather data and information that is needed. Some ignorant politicians have even said in the past few years that we should get rid of the National Weather Service - we can just turn on The Weather Channel after all, right? The problem behind that theory is that The Weather Channel and every other weather entity uses all of the data that we fund as taxpayers. Those are our radar towers, our computer models, our weather balloons, our servers, our monitoring stations, and our employees providing all of this information that they simply dissect and analyze for your information (and increasingly for your entertainment). In many cases we have government employees doing the analysis part as well and often far better than those you find on television because they are focused on nothing except getting the forecast correct for the region they work in every day. It is absolutely vital that we fund such essential systems in order to keep our country functional on the most basic levels. It saves thousands upon thousands of lives every year as well.

The leader of the National Weather Service's Southern region was recently fired for allegedly legitimate reasons that seem a little suspicious as you can read in this Washington Post article. William Proenza had planned to limit radar usage on sunny and calm days in order to cover budget gaps and it seems the NWS did not particularly care for that idea. The piece highlights the $85 billion cut the NWS is going to be hit with. In my opinion, considering the cost of cleaning up after the parade of historic storms that has hit this country in the last decade (not to mention all of the lives lost and countless saved) it seems impractical to make such drastic cuts even in this financial climate.

Apart from not cutting technology coverage, employees, or services, the NWS could really use an upgrade and expansion in many areas. The Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) is the primary method we use to record climate data, and while these stations are useful, they are severely limited during extreme weather conditions. They failed repeatedly during the Blizzard of 2013 whether it was frozen instrumentation falsifying wind speeds (at many places but even Boston's Logan Airport hitting around "100MPH") or stations recording incorrect basic observations (light snow and freezing fog during the true blizzard conditions at the one at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford). When it fails this regularly what are we supposed to use as baseline data? I am sorry to say much of what is recorded by the ASOS is highly suspect to me. While we can weed out the obvious mistakes they make what we miss while these errors are occurring is the real data we need.

Another tremendous failing is some of our modeling as the American computers, like the Global Forecasting System (GFS), cannot compare to the famed European model. This is not an arbitrary or subjective statement as you can see by looking at the graphs of Numerical Weather Prediction Model Verification here presented by Environment Canada. The ECMWF leads the way as usual with the ETA (North American Model or NAM) sticking out like a sore thumb in the worst way possible. Just days ago on The Weather Channel Meteorologists Chris Warren and Jim Cantore discussed the failings of the GFS and how much we rely on the Euro to correctly forecast the weather for our nation over our own products as the GFS failed once again with another storm on the east coast.

As they mention we will hopefully move in a better direction in terms of modeling soon with changes in leadership and new directives. My last and most maddening point brings us back to the Blizzard of 2013 and depicts both the internal struggle that occurs within the National Weather Service and some of the antiquated methods and systems we have in place in America. The Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale was created by Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini and presented in Northeast Snowstorms in 2004 in order to ascertain the effect a system had on the nation and its people as it utilizes population and area to gauge and rank snowstorms. This is all well and good but take a look at this NOAA map and tell me what's wrong with it.

No, those numbers are not off by 10 each - this is the real map! The one red dot of 30 inches in Connecticut is centered on KBDR (Bridgeport's climate station which is actually in Stratford at the Sikorsky Memorial Airport but is measured by an individual who is a few miles north of Long Island Sound - how utterly ridiculous is that in itself?) as apparently none of the state received over 30 inches of snow. We all know this is not true, but for "official" purposes thanks to the lack of stations in the area, poor measurements, and too few resources, we end up with this atrocity. Look, I am all for standards and practices that need to be repeated through time and completely comprehend why we cannot take random numbers people measure and send in then put them as official data forever into eternity, but I am also for accuracy. This is far from the historical representation we need, and if our system works this poorly, it is time for a tremendous change.
On the other hand Brandon Vincent of NWS Raleigh, North Carolina, put out this unofficial storm total snowfall accumulation map which fits in closely with the reality we had in Connecticut.

Thank you, Brandon, for helping to keep a little sanity in the weather archives of the NWS. I hope the past few years of difficult and severe weather helps to spur some meaningful change in America's stagnant and often archaic meteorological bureaucracy and we can avoid harming it further.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

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