Monday, March 5, 2018

Spirituality and loss of self

After some discussions with friends over the weekend, I was reminded of very profound events that have occurred during storm chases, and during the pursuit of my scientific understanding of the world.  The essential element in this is what I refer to as "loss of self" that can occur when your ordinary life with its concerns about yourself and your needs or obligations fades away and is replaced by a peaceful surrender to what is happening around you.  Your ego disappears and you experience a feeling of merger with what you are experiencing.

During storm chases, this can happen when you find yourself confronted with something much larger than yourself that's just so awe-inspiring you may be "thunderstruck" (pun intended) - your jaw drops open and you're mesmerized by what you're seeing.  A chaser might well be so absorbed with what she's witnessing that cameras are just hanging in her hand by her side, unraised and unused.  The majesty of what you see can be so overwhelming in its majesty and power, you can become completely absorbed in the event.  The "self" has disappeared, in a flood of astonishment.  Such moments are unpredictable (as are the events that create them) and are always unexpected.  These examples are relatively easy to explain and are understandable to most people.  This part of storm chasing is often described by storm chasers in their accounts of their adventures.  It leads to such adjectives as "incredible", "awesome", "jaw dropping", and so forth - terms that in my opinion are both overused and somewhat misleading.  They seek to describe the triggers for this loss of self.

When Al Moller and I intercepted the 08 June 1995 tornado in Pampa, TX, about halfway through its life cycle, we stopped and got out of our chase vehicle to continue our photography and videography of the tornado.  When the tornado finally dissipated, I discovered that my mouth was completely dry.  Perhaps this was because of adrenaline, or the fact that my jaw had dropped open and stayed that way, or both.  Regardless, it's somewhat amazing I managed to continue operating my video camera during this time of loss of self.  I was transfixed with the spectacle.  It felt like waking up from a dream when the last remnants of the rope-out faded away.

There's another way I've had this loss of self during chasing.  I've developed a serious love affair with the U.S. central and high plains and the people who live there.  In the process of a chase, there can be a certain amount of down time and I often try to use that down time to capture images that convey the emotional content of my feelings toward the plains.  Yes, I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to those oceans of seemingly empty real estate.  What I see clearly is influenced by the light we encounter (photography can be thought of as "capturing the light"), by the dramatics unfolding in the sky, by the flora and fauna of the plains, by the wistful character of weather-beaten human structures and the stories they can tell, and so on.  When we get out of our cars and walk into the landscapes of the plains, I can find myself in a very spiritual state where my self vanishes.  For instance, many of the beautiful wildflowers of the plains are at the end of relatively long stalks, so they're prone to flailing about from the action of the virtually inevitable plains wind.  To capture what we envision, we may have to wait for that brief moment when the wind calms down and we can capture that moment.  Ordinarily, I can be impatient and not want to spend time essentially doing nothing.  But I find I can call upon something in those moments that lets me wait, silent and immobile, for just that brief instant, for many minutes, if need be.  When my self disappears, I'm able to wait, like a spider, to capture my "prey".  I experience in a first hand way something akin to what that spider in her web experiences.

In becoming totally absorbed in doing my science, the effort to concentrate on what I'm doing becomes easy when I'm so wound up in my work that time and seemingly boring, repetitive simple tasks become important only as the means of reaching my goal of following some new insight.  What might look to someone else as a task both tedious and trivial is, for me, a transcendental experience.  The passage of time is not noticeable.  I can immerse myself in this for hours without difficulty, as I'm so fixated on finishing the work.  Most of science seems boring to non-scientists but in my world, it can be transformed into a deeply spiritual adventure with the potential for something really exciting at the end.

I often tell people that the plains can elicit spiritual experiences, but in order to experience them, you have to slow down, go to quiet places in your mind, stop talking, and focus deeply on what's going on around you.  The light, the wind, the sky, the life of the plains can transport you to a world you can experience at the the deepest levels of your conscious mind.  Such moments can't be summoned on command.  You don't reach them simply by willing them to happen (although you can put yourself in situations that might lead you to them).  They come on without you being aware of their approach until you realize you're in them - a timeless state of union with the world around you and the universe.  As Robinson Jeffers wrote:
Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken. 

Man, a part of that, not man apart from that.  Your self disappears when you have that deep sense of being a small part of the majesty and glory of the natural world.  The feeling that we dwindle to insignificance is by no means negative when we feel we've somehow merged with those majesties.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Boomer Sooner?

I've spent more of my life in Oklahoma than anywhere else.  I like the weather here, given my passion for severe thunderstorms.  I like the physical geography of the state, with its large contrasts from east to west.  I was rather satisfied with the education I received here at the University of Oklahoma (OU) and had some great mentors who were OU faculty and staff.  However, recent postings on social media have raised a point of concern with regard to the University's "mascot" - the Sooners.  The school's fight song is "Boomer Sooner", composed by Fred Waring (!). 

 Many people are unaware of the origin of the term Sooners - it's tied to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.  The "Boomers" were settlers who tried to grab parcels of land blatantly in the so-called "unassigned lands" (that was home to Native Americans) before the official starting date of 22 April 1989.  The US Army removed as many of them as they could.  The "Sooners" were people who sneaked into the unassigned lands early but kept a low profile, hoping to make a legal claim after the official starting date.  Both Boomers and Sooners were, effectively, cheaters seeking to grab the land of the Native Americans before they were allowed to do so.  These are not exactly the sort of folks that one would choose as a role model and certainly should be somewhat embarrassing to the University.  But I have my doubts many associated with OU ever give it any thought.

We already have seen a growing chorus of discontent by indigenous people with using Native American-associated terms for sporting team and Universities.  Recently, the 'mascot' of the University of North Dakota was changed from "The Fighting Sioux" to "The Fighting Hawks" in response to many protests by the Sioux tribe.  The controversy there was long and bitter.  There also has been concern about the Kansas City Chiefs, the Florida State Seminoles, the Washington Redskins (!), the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, and many others.  Not surprisingly, there's been considerable pushback from those who rationalize such uses of these nicknames and logos.  I'm not about to enter the morass of that debate, but I do generally believe that our use of such cultural icons for our own purposes is disrespectful to Native Americans and their cultures.  Obviously, there are those who disagree.

Here at OU, the mascot is even worse than the preceding examples, because it honors those who participated in the plundering of Native American lands by white settlers.  The Boomers and Sooners grabbed their parcels of land by illegal means.  The Native Americans were the ultimate losers, sadly.  The whole of the lower 48 states represents the home of Native Americans who were here long before any white European settlers arrived to claim all those lands (except for reservations of generally worthless land assigned to those Native Americans who were not killed).  The indigenous people of the Americas were subjected to various forms of genocide and destruction of the original environment on which they depended.

Our treatment of indigenous people is shameful and it continues right up to this very day!  Anyone with a conscience should be deeply ashamed of this aspect of our national history.  As usual, the rationale for this history has been based on viewing them as primitive savages who were not even qualified as human beings with unalienable rights.  I have little expectation that OU will be changing their mascot any time soon.  White privilege is alive and thriving here in Oklahoma, and that isn't likely to change in the foreseeable future.  But I don't have to like that situation, and I don't have to support robbing Native Americans of their cultural heritage.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Thank you for your service"

On this Veterans Day, I once again have to confront the gulf between combat zone military veterans and those who have never served in a combat zone. Being in the military means that you've accepted the status of being willing to sacrifice anything and everything, including your physical and mental health, right up to and including losing your life. You've given your nation a signed blank check and they can write in the amount.  For those veterans serving in combat zones, and especially those who actually participated in combat, it's difficult to try to communicate their experiences to those who haven't so served. I've described my experiences here.

On one day per year, we see lots of messages of gratitude to our veterans, and that's nice, but what about the other 364 days? What are we doing to provide help to veterans who have returned from combat and been struggling to cope with their endless nightmares? No one who participated in combat ever returns to become the same person they were before. I was extremely fortunate - it only took me a year or so to return to something close to my former self after leaving the military, but even then, I was forever changed by my military experiences.  Some of those changes in my life were positive, and some were negative.  I was blessed with good fortune, for no obvious reason.  It could have turned out very differently.

I really do value the sentiments expressed by those who offer gratitude for my time in service, but I'm concerned for those veterans who need so much more than words from their nation. Our nation should show their gratitude in their actions as well as mere words, when it comes to our combat veterans. Some of our veterans reach a time when they just can't deal with their devils created by the horrible things they've experienced - too many suicides, broken families, homeless vets, drug addictions, etc. I feel unworthy of gratitude for my time in the military, when I think about those who have suffered so much and been unable to find any peace in their minds.  And this says nothing about those who have had life-changing physical injuries to try to overcome.

We ask young people to serve and protect our freedoms, but we sometimes send them to fight in unwinnable wars on foreign soil for no good reason. Vietnam was such a war, and our so-called "war on terrorism" is another example.  How do you win a war against a tactic?  How do you define what is a "win" in such a war?  We had a similar problem in Vietnam - it was a war against an economic and political ideology in a far away land.  We never found a meaningful exit strategy in Vietnam, so we just left and all that followed showed that our involvement in Vietnam was pointless.  Millions died for nothing.  The young men and women serving in combat have to make hard choices about what to do in hostile circumstance and, if they choose incorrectly, we punish them harshly. We're getting better about trying to help veterans with PTSD and such, but we still have a long way to go.

Don't ever thank veterans for their service but then turn around and ask someone else to risk everything without a damned good reason!  Don't be so eager to support military actions to back up political positions.  Don't send our young men and women into combat and then oppose aid for those who manage to survive.  I saw somewhere that about 9,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since they returned - they actually died in Vietnam.  I think their names should be added to the wall at the National Vietnam Memorial as combat fatalities.  They're not on that wall only because their injuries required more time to take their lives.  That raises the Vietnam toll of American combat deaths from 58,000 to 67,000.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Empathy for women, now!

I've long been an advocate for the cessation of discrimination against, and the abuse of, women in our society.  Progress has been made, but there remains a long way to go.  In the past several days, FaceBook has seen numerous posts of "Me, Too" from women, about having been harassed and/or assaulted (including rape).  The sad fact is that most women will be harassed or assaulted at some time in their lives - likely, repeatedly.  The awful part of this is that most of the crimes against women are not reported.  Why not?  Unfortunately, our culture seems all too inclined to blame assault victims for being assaulted!!  And all too inclined to allow the perpetrators to get away with it, either being let off scot-free or given a very mild slap on the wrist.  And all too inclined to provide little or no support for the victims, in terms of helping them seek justice or in terms of providing care for what many women experience as PTSD as a result of these attacks. "Well, the way she was dressed, she was asking for it!"  "Well she should have known better to be in that place at night!"  "It was just boys being boys!"  Bullshit!!  There is no excuse for harassment and rape, and the blame rests solely on the perpetrator, never the victims.  If we want to stop these crimes, we must teach our boys not to commit violence of any sort against women.  "No!" means no, damn it!

It may surprise some that many such incidents also occur to men.  I was molested (raped) by a neighbor when I was a boy.  I was so humiliated and shamed by it, I didn't tell anyone (except for my very best friend at the time), for decades - certainly not my parents!  This pedophile got away with it, as it seems many do.  Rape is not a sexual act - rather, it uses the apparatus of sex as a weapon to degrade and humiliate the victims in what is an act of violence, rather than sex.  Pedophiles - a subset of sexual assaulters - often commit assaults on either boys or girls.  And it often succeeds in silencing its victims, as it did with me. 

My wife tells me that most rapists have committed their crime many, many times, and almost certainly will never stop hunting for new victims unless they're incarcerated ... or die.  The actual frequency of rape is not known, owing to the underreporting issue, but I'm pretty certain it's much higher than the actual numbers will show.  I know of no other rapes by the man who did it to me, but it seems unlikely to have been an isolated event in his life.  His name is Paul Newton, and he lived on our block in my home town in the Chicago suburbs, 3 houses south.  I'm sure it's well beyond the statute of limitations, but I hope some other victim had the strength and courage to report him.  But probably not. 

Another disgusting incident of a different nature occurred when I was working at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.  A very famous and honored meteorologist was invited to be a consulting senior scientist there by the Lab Director, Dr. Jeff Kimpel, and it turns out he was sexually harassing women who worked in the lab.  After I was made aware of his disgusting behavior, I was going to report him, but one of his victims there begged me not to do it.  She felt that reporting him would only make things worse for her!!  Reluctantly, I did as she asked, and never reported the evil bastard.  She was probably right about the outcome, and that makes me very sad when I think about how many women have gone through this, and been powerless to obtain justice.  From everything I've heard during my time there, at that time, the overall treatment of women at NSSL was pretty poor, with an atmosphere of "Boys will be boys" at high levels in the management, despite all the safeguards that had been put into effect.

Fortunately, I've been able to overcome the shame of my molestation and now realize I wasn't to blame in any way.  If there can be said to be a "benefit" to being molested, it's that I've experienced what many women have experienced, so I have a sense of what they must go through.  The "Me, too!" campaign on FaceBook is allowing many people to come forward and say they, too, have been through harassment/assault.  Stories are optional.  Our society has looked the other way for far too long and the time has come to seek justice and provide consistent support for the victims.  It's time to take a stand against the injustices we've inflicted on victims for too long.  If you've never been a victim, just try to imagine how awful it would be.  Then use that understanding to get up and speak out against crimes of sexual violence - against women and men, girls and boys!

Me, too!!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trump is just a symptom of a greater malaise in America

There's an insidious illness that has infected the USA, causing our culture to evolve in ways that will eventually end badly for us.  It has become widespread and malignant - like a cancer, it comes from within rather than a foreign invasion.  The election of the incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic, racist, misogynist, corrupt clown that only a minority of Americans voted for in last year's November election is but a symptom of the problem.

The founders of this nation, as imperfect as they were, began what is often called "The Great American Experiment in Democracy".  The experimental aspect of how our nation was created by those founders, was expressed eloquently by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The Civil War was a rigorous test of those principles, and the nation managed to stay together, sort of.  Given that the Confederate battle flag known as the "Stars and Bars" has become symbolic of, not just the Confederacy, but more so of the racism that caused the Civil War in the first place.  That racism (not limited to the Southern states), like the HIV virus, clearly lives on to this day within our nation.  It has gained widespread support and its persistence is a poison to the principle of equality for all humans in our nation.

Many of these issues surfaced again during the turbulent era of US involvement in Vietnam.  Similar divisions were present in the 1960s that had been around during the Civil War.  And those same divisions in our society plague us today, without the benefit of the spirit of compromise upon which our nation was founded.  Political parties have become a corrupting influence on us, where party loyalty is more valued than service to the American people.

The founders of our nation fell quite a ways short of living up to their own principles, of course.  That shortfall is still obvious today in many Americans.  Equality for all people actually never has been achieved in America, and we have made at best only slow and erratic progress at making equality a reality for everyone.  Women have been given the vote, but they're still being discriminated against in the workplace (and elsewhere) and subjected to sexual harassment and assault (including rape).  Justice for the perpetrators of harassment and assault against women remains elusive - power and money buy such criminals a free pass, despite our ideals.  Women actually are blamed for these crimes, rather than those committing them.  In the face of such inequality, most of the discrimination and the crimes against women are never reported, and in the rare instances where they are reported, that often backfires on the women, not the perps.

After slavery was abolished, racial inequality remains a fact of life experienced on a daily basis for most non-white Americans.  The police are charged with enforcing the laws of the land, but some of the police are simply brutal thugs, free to attack and even kill without being held accountable.  And the police commit such crimes disproportionately on non-white Americans.  Every black family must have "that conversation" with their children to make them aware that justice isn't equal in America.  The default assumption among many whites is that non-whites match the stereotypes projected on them by white Americans (who live in an invisible "bubble" of white privilege), and so many whites are completely unaware of the reality of discrimination against non-whites.

Non-christians in America are widely despised by the "religious right", especially Muslims and atheists, these days.  Christian notions of morality are being forced on all Americans on a daily basis.  I'm not going to go off on a rant against all religion, but here in America, creeping theocracy is generally associated with conservatives, who yearn to impose a mythical vision of America as they imagine it "used to be" when religious discrimination was not being opposed by those who believe in real freedom, not only of, but also from religion.  The "Establishment Clause" of the 1st Constitutional Amendment is constantly under attack by the religious right.  When people believe their god is on their side, they think that means they can fight for a theocratic USA by any means necessary.

Science and the tools of science - education, logic, evidence - are now widely mistrusted by many Americans.  There is a deep thread of anti-science and anti-intellectual thought that has always existed in America, but it seems to be growing more popular.  Public education is being threatened by siphoning even the diminishing taxpayer support for education into religious schools via the so-called "vouchers".  Too many Americans are monumentally ignorant about science, history, geography, mathematics, civics, and more.  Democracy depends on being supported by educated voters, so the attacks on public education are actually attacks on our democratic principles.  To make voting decisions in the modern world dominated by technology requires people who understand how things in our society work.  Otherwise, they are too easily led astray by would-be dictators.

Many politicians are being corrupted by large corporations pouring vast amounts of money to buy special favors for such companies, at taxpayer expense.  The "Trust Busting" era when Teddy Roosevelt broke the power of the corporations, is little more than a distant memory.  The Republican party has been taken over by the far right wing of their party and now supports tax breaks for big corporations while taking resources away that have been providing support for indigent people who need external help just to survive.  The indigent suffer even as the rich get richer.  Income inequality is a capitalist form of slavery and could eventually result in a violent revolution, with the indigent protests likely to be slaughtered by the very police who have pledged to serve and protect them.  Look at recent events for small-scale examples, such as the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux.

The trainwreck that is the crypto-fascist regime under Trump and his GOP supporters is simply a reflection of the decay from within that is infecting our nation.  Most Americans don't exercise their right to vote, and that tendency is at least part of the reason we have been saddled with this regime.  By not voting, Americans are giving up on the American Experiment and our democracy is being threatened by the drift toward fascism.  The right-wing extremists seem more interested in voting than the moderate center.  What is considered "left-wing extremism" is what used to be considered "liberal" while the true extreme left-wing is left out of the political picture altogether and so is reduced to protests and occasional violence.  No one in America wants it to become Communist, and the Communist threat pretty much disintegrated in 1989.  Disenfranchising Americans (limited predominantly to those who would cast a "liberal" vote) is also a terrible stain on the democratic experiment here, and the GOP has mastered the tactic.

Our current regime has dedicated itself to erasing any remnant of their sworn enemy - Barack Obama - as if all of the vitriol poured on him during his time as our President were actually true.  This is causing the US to lose its role as the world leader.  We are alienating our allies and encouraging our enemies.  And we have a childish psychopath with his finger on the thermonuclear trigger!

We seem to be tending toward going down a road to total collapse of liberal democracy, unlikely to be identical to, but also not unlike, the experiences of the moderate provisional government in Russia before the revolt by the Bolsheviks that put them in power, and that of the moderate Weimar Republic in Germany before the triumphs of the Nazis.  The different ideologies mask the many similarities between the Bolshevk and Nazi dictatorships.  History shows us that extremists can win, even when they only represent a small minority of the people in a nation - and we are not immune from having something like that happen!  The signs of our willingness to slide toward fascism have been apparent from the start of the 2016 election.  Extremists have a clear picture of what they want and are willing to do whatever it takes to "win", no matter how much suffering they create in achieving their cause.  Moderates often are paralyzed with indecision about what to do and how to do it - they talk, while extremists act.  Are we seeing the last days of the Great American Experiment?  American "exceptionalism" is a nationalist myth.  There is nothing inherent in American Democracy that will enable it to survive - the testing of its ability to endure has been ongoing since before the Civil War!!

Now we are engaged in a struggle about whether our nation, so conceived and dedicated to the principle of equality for all its people, can endure as a beacon of democracy and freedom.  It is altogether fitting and proper we should do this.  On this struggle hangs the outcome - whether or not this nation shall have a new birth of freedom so that our government of all its people, by all its people, and for all its people, shall not vanish from this Earth.

Friday, September 8, 2017

We've never experienced anything like it!

I write this as Hurricane Irma bears down on South Florida, with the potential to be up there with the worst ever disasters from a hurricane in Florida.  I also hear some people saying they have ridden out other hurricanes and so are planning on riding out Irma.  This ridiculous notion deserves some consideration ...

In my tornado research, I spent decades becoming familiar with the climatological record of tornado occurrences in the USA.  In the process, one can't help but observe that really big, bad tornadoes are but a small minority of the 1000 or so tornadoes that hit the USA every year.  In 1998, a tornado rated F3 hit Gainesville, GA in the early morning, killing 12 people in an event that was unusual in that it was not warned-for in advance.  In the wake of that event, my colleague Dr. Harold Brooks was talking via the phone to an emergency manager in the Gainesville area and she told him (I'm paraphrasing) that she had no idea things could get that bad in Gainesville!  Clearly, she didn't know anything about the last single tornado in the USA to kill more than 200 people - the tornado that struck Gainesville, GA on 06 April 1936 (part of a two-day outbreak including a single tornado that killed 200+ in Tupelo, MS the day before).  If a "generation" is roughly 30 years, this means that the institutional memory of that awful day in 1936 had been mostly lost in, even in an agency about being prepared, within roughly two generations!  My experience says that's pretty typical.  After a big disaster, awareness is high and people are receptive to the call for preparation.  But as time passes, people move away, people die, new people move in and the local memory of disaster fades all too quickly.  Resources for event preparation are re-allocated to other projects.  Complacency grows.  All too soon, the disaster is mostly forgotten.  But the weather data base doesn't ever forget.

Studying the climatology of hazardous weather gives researchers a mental model of dangerous storms that isn't widely known in the "general public".  While I was visiting Australia in 1989, it turned out there was a flash flood event in Melbourne while I was there.  It wasn't a major event, being confined mostly to urban flooding.  I watched a TV interview the next day with a couple living in the area hit by the flash flood, and they said "We've lived here for 9 years and we've never seen anything like this!"  So they apparently believed that living in Melbourne for 9 years was going to representative of all the possible weather in Melbourne for all the rest of eternity!  And this relatively modest event was a big deal for them!

It's understandable that non-meteorologists would fail to have an accurate understanding of the occurrence of rare events.  I'm not sure how to go about fixing this shortfall in our communication of science, but here, today, with the landfall of Irma in South Florida likely in the next two days, the complacency associated with people's flawed understanding of what is "typical" for their area seems to be influential in the choices some people are making.   Ignorance of such things almost never implies a blissful outcome. 

Immediately after a major storm disaster, people are likely to want to think of what happened to them as a "freak" weather event:  something unprecedented and very unlikely.  Being hit by a major storm is a relatively rare occurrence, but calling it a "freak" event is misleading and counter-productive.  If you're familiar with the climatology of tornadoes, someplace (and possibly someone)  is going to be hit by a violent tornado virtually every year!  Violent tornadoes are rare in any one place, but they aren't "freak" events, somehow outside the range of our human experience.  Of course, they likely are outside of your own personal experience!  You could live in central OK and not be hit by a violent tornado in 1000 years; on the other hand, Moore, OK has been hit by violent tornadoes in 1999, 2003, 2010, and 2013!  The distribution of tornadoes has all the signs of being "random":  being truly random doesn't mean the events are spread irregularly but more or less uniformly.  Instead, random spatial distributions have both clusters and voids.  If we had enough data (at least 1000 years worth), we might have a very clear picture of the climatology of violent tornadoes, at least in central OK.  But we don't have that much reliable data on tornadoes before, say, 1953.  The more rare the event, the more data are required for a meaningful analysis of the danger.

It's also likely that our knowledge of Cat-4/5 tropical cyclones is similarly flawed.  A much longer period of record is needed for an accurate picture to emerge.  The climatology of major events determines such numbers as the "return period" for these events.  The more data one has, the greater the number of major events in the database and the "return period" calculation is less about iffy extrapolation and more about reliable information.  The notion of "return period" is widely misunderstood by the public but that (obviously) is off-topic for this blog.

Folks, it's just not helpful for you to have faith that your personal experience with storms includes all that could possibly happen to you.  When the storms become more intense, the less useful your experience is.  This affects the decisions you make in advance of being hit by a particular storm, and your decisions will determine such issues as whether you live through it or not.  Your choice will affect your family and perhaps even your friends.  Don't trust your knowledge of the past to be helpful - listen to what the forecasters are saying and take it seriously!  Lives hang in the balance!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Tropical cyclones pose multiple hazards

The slow-developing situation involving Hurricane Harvey has caused me to contemplate just what our weather forecast message has to be in order to be effective in mitigating the threats.  As I write this, the death toll is less than 10 people.  Every casualty is a tragedy but things clearly could have been a lot worse.  However, that isn't what I want to consider here.

There's been an effort in the last few years to try to help people understand that there are three different primary hazards posed by landfalling tropical cyclones

1.  the very strong winds near the eye,
2.  the "storm surge" of ocean water pushed onto the land by the storm's winds and low pressure, and
3.  the extreme amounts of rain.

Some hurricanes also produce tornadoes in their outer rainbands.  This event (Harvey) was forecast pretty well.  The rapid intensification was anticipated but it likely exceeded most expectations when Harvey became a Cat-4 hurricane (on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity) just as it was making landfall.  Evidently, the storm surge was not a very big factor in Harvey.  What was really well-anticipated was the extreme rainfall once Harvey came on shore.  This was the highlighted threat in most of the forecasts by both public and private sector forecasters, days in advance.  Arguably, in this event, it was the most important hazard, and it seems it will have become a rainfall event that, if not unprecedented, is on the extreme end of such hazards.

Every hurricane making landfall will offer some combination of these three main hazards.  Each of them carries with it a certain potential for damage and loss of life.  The actual evolution of those hazards in a particular event depends on a several factors that govern the dangers from storm winds, storm surge, and heavy rainfall.  What the storm will actually produce in terms of damage and casualties is not necessarily easy to predict with high confidence, but Harvey's main threat was forecast to be the heavy rainfall;  that was the gist of the forecasts, and that's pretty much how Harvey has evolved.

Our challenge as forecasters is to try to anticipate the hazard level for each of the three elements and seek to pass that information on to the users of our forecasts so they can make informed decisions.  In this event, as is common, some people did well in preparing themselves for the anticipated hazards, but others, not so much.  A big challenge to our forecasting community is to try to convey to the public that the windspeeds, which are the basis for assigning the Saffir-Simpson intensity category for the storm, are not always the main threat from the storm.  A weakening tropical storm may not pose much of a wind or storm surge threat but it still can be quite capable of producing copious rainfall, with its associated potential for both damage and casualties.  Although the wind threat is declining, the storm can remain seriously dangerous!

A big challenge with the threat from heavy rain is the question of what people can do to prevent becoming victims of flooding.  Obviously, flood damage is unavoidable if you live in a location vulnerable to flooding during a heavy rain episode - you can't move your home out of danger.  Many people have little or no knowledge of the actual flood threat in their particular location.  Even more challenging is what people in an area subject to flooding in extreme rainfall can actually do to protect their lives.  Evacuating the area might be effective in saving lives, but when people delay an evacuation decision to the 11th hour, then the roads will be choked and people trapped in their cars can be killed by rising floodwaters.  Some people may not be able to evacuate under any circumstances.  If you're going to evacuate to be safe, do so early or not at all!  If you choose to ride it out at home, you should have a plan regarding what to do if the waters rise high enough that even your roof is no longer safe from the rising water.  Not much you can do in that case if you don't have a boat!

Flooding is one of those hazards that if you find out you're not safe in your location, it may not be safe anywhere within miles of where you are.  By the time you figure out your life is in danger, there likely will be few, if any, good options.  Protecting yourself from flooding is not the same as protecting yourself from wind or storm surge.  What you need to do for your own safety depends on the nature of the threat, and most people have no idea how to deal with rising floodwaters.  This was the case with the awful tragedy of Katrina (which evolved very differently from Harvey) and it resulted in an awful death toll.

Frankly, most people are blissfully ignorant about how to use weather forecast information to help them make good choices.  That ignorance means they don't have the information they need to maintain situation awareness in what might be a fast-changing situation.  To rely exclusively on your own personal judgement in a complex weather scenario is to risk your life and those of others around you.  You may think you have a good bead on how to handle the situation, but you stand a good chance of being tragically wrong.

I don't believe in some magic bullet we might put into our broadcasts of weather information to cause everyone to make the right, life-saving decisions.  Essentially, everyone's situation is different - what works in one household may well fail in a different household.  We meteorologists agonize over the wording in our broadcasts of weather information but I don't think the answer to potential weather disasters lies in some magical turn of phrase.  Dealing with weather hazards involves (a) inevitable uncertainty about how the weather will actually evolve, (b) recognizing the threat early enough to take effective actions, and (c) knowing what actions will be effective in your own personal situation.  If you choose to be safe instead of sorry, you may waste some time and effort needlessly at times, but you'll be alive and well should the situation ever become life-threatening.  The choice is yours, actually.  You need to accept responsibility for your own safety and that of your friends and loved ones - learn and be prepared before the threat appears on the horizon!