31 July 2019, Blog No. 4
Throughout my childhood obsession with weather and my academic journey to attain my meteorology degree from NC State University, one word consistently stands out: impact. "Impact-based warning graphics," "a storm's total impact," "the weather's impact on holiday plans," "heavy rain will impact your morning commute," - the word is everywhere in weather foreacsts. This shifts the focus to not so mean what the weather will be doing, but how it impacts our lives on a daily, weekly, or perhaps on a long-term basis. Let's explore what I consider to be the three types or "tiers" of weather:
Figure 2. EF2 tornado2 damage to an outbuilding on a property north of Wendell in eastern Wake County, NC. Photo taken by me after scoping out damage after an unexpected tornado spun up and caused significant tree damage and some property damage as seen here.
Tier 2 is all about "close-calls," regarding the weather. When that tornado-warned storm passes just a few miles from home or when that bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning makes your heart skip a beat, or two. Being an amateur storm chaser (which is very difficult and unwise east of the Mississippi River due to foliage and lack of flat land) that now seldom chases storms for those reasons, I have had many Tier 2 weather experiences that have changed my perspective on weather safety and disciplined me to take more precautions and to never underestimate Mother Nature.
An example of this weather that changes your outlook is when I experienced a severe thunderstorm in 2014 when I lived a few miles southeast of downtown Winston-Salem, NC. It seemed like any routine thunderstorm late on an August evening, but conditions quickly worsened and soonafter the storm my doorbell rang and my neighbor notified me that a large maple tree was leaning upon the gutter and a portion of the roof over my parent's bedroom. We quickly took care of the tree and minimal damage was done, but this made me more cognizant that everyone is susceptible and thunderstorms often have a mind of their own - they can fluctuate in intesity rapidly. That tree, or any other tree, could have fallen on my home and caused injury or serious damage. Ever since then, I ensure the safety of my family, my home, my pets, and I when any thunderstorm approaches, because I now know their potential dangers.
This also reminded me to review basic, yet essential, weather safety guidelines such as "Turn Around Don't Drown," and "When Thunder Roads, Go Indoors," in addition to common sense tips like staying away from windows during storms, seeking shelter if outdoors, and staying off of electronics during excessive lightning. The weather is going to do what the weather does, and humans came well after weather was occurring - heed warnings and respect Mother Nature.
Most of us are lucky enough to ever endure the horrors of which Mother Nature is capable of producing. Though I have never experienced life-altering weather, we see it quite often in the mainstream news cycle and I personally feel tasked with telling the stories of those who cannot. As I once saw a colleague on Twitter remark, these events that I denote as Tier 3 weather are often "demarcation events," meaning that in the future, we will refer to periods before and after said event to understand the scope of its impact. Harvey, Katrina, Florence, the 2011 Super Outbreak, among countless others - all names of events that claimed numerous lives and forever changed the lives of those that survived.
Figure 3. A cloud-to-lightning bolt I captured on video in the summer of 2015 that was a bit too close for comfort! Always remember that lightning can and often strikes outside of where rain is falling and if you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be endangered by lightning.
Figure 5. Tweet from the National Weather Service's official account (@NWS) posted at 11:44 AM on 27 August 20176. Original tweet contained a rainfall forecast graphic that has been omitted for the sake of space on this blog. See full tweet linked in references below.
Figure 4. Devastation left in the wake of the EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, MO on the afternoon of 22 May 2011. Trees debarked, splintered wood scattered about the area, and no way to recall what the landscape looked like prior to the tornado. Photo from KPBS5.
Imagine: [you forecfully hammer the pointed stake into the summer, rain-softened earth, slowly stretch out the cold, steel, springloaded framework of the stand-up canopy tent you just purchased from the store, pinching a finger in the process, and proceed to declare victory over the thousands of mosquitoes listening as you will now have ample shade and relief from the sultry, summer heat and relentless, beaming sunlight. It's Independence Day and this cookout will not be marred by the July sun, it will be the best Independence Day cookout ev- "BEEP BEEP! - Severe Thunderstorm Warning for your area! - BEEP BEEP."] So much for all of that. This is a common scene in the summertime - weather changing your plans and forcing you to reschedule, redo, or run for cover. That's Tier 1
weather for you - weather that changes your plans. Whether winter is in full force and travel becomes treacherous, or early autumn showers dampen your day - we are accustomed to taking rain checks and altering plans due to the weather. But other kinds of weather rear their ugly heads and exploit just how vulnerable we can be to Mother Nature. This is where Tier 2 starts.
Photosensitive epilepsy warning! A flashing image of a lightning bolt is below - be advised.
The two events I experienced in the above photo and GIF are other examples of Tier 2 weather, where you ensure that you are a bit more careful the next time around and carry your experiences with you. In the case of Figure 2, an EF2 tornado2 damaged this outbuilding and surrounding property just about ten miles as the crow flies from my home. Luckily, no injuries were reported, but move that storm ten miles south and that could have been my or a neighbor's shed or home.
I've had many close calls with lightning, and the cloud-to-ground (CG) bolt shown in Figure 3 was no exception. I used to film CGs from incoming thunderstorms while standing outside. After too many close calls, I now only film lightning with my GoPro or a mounted camera through the windshield of my car with windows rolled up. So, while weather often forces us to change our plans, weather can also alter our outlook of certain weather events and can instill fear, elicit awe, or lead us to be a bit smarter when navigating all that Mother Nature throws at us. But alas, sometimes Mother Nature gives us more than we can handle...
Figure 1. A screenshot from RadarScope1 on 31 July 2019 in NC showing scattered afternoon "plan-altering" thunderstorms.
The EF5 tornado that ravaged Joplin, MO on the afternoon of 22 May 2011 resulting in 158 direct fatalities and injuring over 1,000 others3 is the most stark example of life-changing weather that comes to mind in recent memory. In a matter of minutes, thousands of lives were changed as a worst case scenario played out over a densely populated area. In Figure 4 to the right, you can see how photos likely don't do justice to showing the seemingly unbelievable damage and portraying the massive scope of this disaster.
Another example likely more fresh in your memory is Hurricane Harvey, which made an evening landfall on 25 August 2017 near Port Aransas, TX. Harvey produced over 50" of rain over a large swath of southeastern Texas, resulting in 68 direct fatalities, and accumulating over $120 billion in economic losses4. In Figure 5 below, the National Weather Service sent out the most ominous and profound tweet I have ever seen, remarking how Hurricane Harvey was unprecedented and impacts were likely to be beyond anything ever experienced. And that leads me to my next point regarding Tier 3 weather: you know it's coming.
The silver lining to forecasting weather that is apt to have significant impact on welfare, infrastructure, and the population as a whole is that big-time weather events take a copious amount of time to spin up, happen, and
dissipate. For instance, with Hurricane Florence last September, we were tracking and watching the storm here in the Carolinas for over two weeks before the first drop of rain fell in the Coastal Plain. It was a painstaking process akin to watching paint dry as we anxiously waited to learn our fate here in the Carolinas with what threatened to be the worst tropical cyclone the Carolinas had seen in decades. While the worst case scenario did not materialize, Florence was still a life changing event for those at the coast, while a Tier 2 of Tier 1 event for central NC and areas to the north and west. So, each significant weather event can look and feel a variety of ways to different people depending on location, past experiences, and overall attitude to weather forecasting and weather as a whole.
That is to say, as we and the weather enterprise continue on the journey to shifting weather prediction to primarly impact-based warning and communication, we must keep in mind that different impacts mean different things to different people. However, establishing a baseline characterization of the capabilities and worst case, potential scenarios that Mother Nature can pose to life and property is important to effectively communicating weather information to people.
Take this then as my proposition and initiative to communicate with impact and how the weather will affect people as the overarching theme to my weather communication. Why the weather is doing what it is doing can be discussed on Tier 1 weather days or when the weather is calm. Impact-based communication is more likely to resonate with consumers of weather information and pay dividends in building a weather-ready nation.
In summary, let's: 1) Embrace Tier 1 weather events, 2) Prepare for and study Tier 2 weather events, and 3) Prepare for and acknowledge that Tier 3 weather events will eventually happen - it's just a matter of time.
Figure 6. Table elaborating on my concept of tiered weather impact communication.