Monday, October 10, 2016

Why LSU fans aren't buying what Foley, Sankey are selling

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.

That idiom has reverberated in my mind for several days now as the drama unfolded surrounding the fate of the LSU-Florida game. In this case, it sure felt like there was some 'ducking' going on in Florida.

I was very vocal last week about the obstacles Hurricane Matthew would present to playing the game at its scheduled time in Gainesville. As early as 3:35 Monday afternoon, I expressed concern about the possible impacts of Matthew to Gainesville.

We all know the end result by now. The game has been 'indefinitely postponed'. I was ready to jump out of the debate until I read a couple of things this weekend. Frank Frangie with Gridiron Now penned a piece saying LSU media was embarrassing itself with coverage of the decision, calling out seasoned reporters Glenn Guilbeu & Ron Higgins, among others. Then I read an article by Dennis Dodd with CBS Sports saying reaction to the game postponement has been appalling, with much of his disdain seeming to point toward Baton Rouge.

In a situation like this, it's no surprise that people in Baton Rouge are seeing things very differently from those in Gainesville. And if we're all being fair to each other, both sides likely have some valid points. However, for those in Florida and the rest of the country who think we are insensitive to a major hurricane striking the Sunshine State, let me outline a few key points, followed by a detailed timeline of how the weather threat unfolded.

Key points from the LSU fan side:

  1. A realistic threat to Gainesville from Hurricane Matthew became apparent as soon as Monday afternoon, or 5 days before the scheduled game. Shouldn't that have provided plenty of time to work on contingency plans?
  2. Contrary to popular belief, this was not a selfish ploy by LSU fans to have the game moved to Baton Rouge. The majority I know simply wanted it played. Whether that was in Gainesville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Mobile or here in the Red Stick. Home field advantage if the game was moved here? See the South Carolina game from the 2015 season when LSU was undefeated and had the Hesiman front-runner. Paid attendance was 42,058 and most believe the actual attendance was quite a bit lower.
  3. Florida's stubbornness and flat out arrogance with the "game will not be moved out of Gainesville" message certainly didn't go over well here. 
  4. LSU is a program that moved a game to Arizona State in the wake of Cat. 3 Hurricane Katrina, delayed a game until Monday night after Cat. 3Hurricane Rita, and pushed up the start time of a game before Cat. 2 Hurricane Gustav.
  5. Louisiana people are absolutely not insensitive to what Florida residents were facing. We've been through it multiple times. Baton Rouge and surrounding areas went through hell this summer (Alton Sterling shooting, shooting of multiple law enforcement officers, biblical flooding). We get it.


4 PM CDT Monday (5 days until scheduled game, 4 days until predicted impact)

Gainesville falls within the forecast cone of Hurricane Matthew for the first time. That should have started to sound some alarm bells. 

Forecast track for Hurricane Matthew issued at 4 PM CDT, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016.

10 AM CDT Tuesday (4 days until scheduled game, 3 days until predicted impact)

The National Hurricane Center says the probability of Gainesville experiencing sustained tropical storm force winds is 49%. That was a significant increase from the 31% probability given in the 4 PM Monday advisory.

4 PM CDT Tuesday

The official forecast track shifts closer to Gainesville. In fact, it's roughly 100 miles closer than 24 hours before, indicating a major hurricane just east of Gainesville within 24 hours of the scheduled kickoff. Again, this is TUESDAY.

In this same advisory, the National Hurricane Center warns for the first time of the challenges in forecasting a storm that is expected to parallel the coast. In my mind, the added uncertainty is all the more reason to make a contingency plan for the game.

4:47 AM CDT Wednesday (3 days until scheduled game, 2 days until predicted impact)

Tropical Storm Watch issued for Gainesville. This is a heads up that there's a very realistic possibility of tropical storm force winds within 48 hours.

10:30 AM CDT Wednesday

Florida Head Coach Jim McElwain, appearing on the SEC weekly teleconference with coaches, jokes about hosting the game at their indoor facility when asked about possibly moving the game. Forgive LSU fans if they found it a little disingenuous 24 hours later when McElwain and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley were justifying the decision to cancel by saying it was done out of concern for their people. The tone coming out of Gainesville in the early part of the week didn't seem to be one of concern; it came across as arrogance.

11:10 AM CDT Wednesday

Florida announces in a tweet there is still no change to the status of the game. I really thought the Tropical Storm Watch would force a decision by this point. I was wrong.

3:50 PM CDT Wednesday

The University of Florida announces campus will close on Friday due to Hurricane Matthew.

4:00 PM CDT Wednesday

Florida defiantly announces, "The game will not be moved out of Gainesville." This announcement is made 10 minutes after it is announced campus will be closed on Friday. It's also announced at the same time a new forecast is released by the National Hurricane Center. That forecast calls for a Category 4 hurricane to be just southeast of Gainesville by Friday afternoon.

So the threat is real enough to close campus but not real enough to make a decision on a football game? It was clear that the window to consider alternate scenarios for playing the game was quickly closing, if not already closed.

10:37 PM CDT Wednesday

Tropical Storm Warning issued for Gainesville, indicating that tropical storm force winds are likely. Check out the National Weather Service forecast for Friday, indicating "strong and damaging winds...gusts up to 65 mph". And at this point, Florida was telling everyone they still planned to play football in Gainesville less than 24 hours later. Again, can you blame LSU fans for questioning the sincerity of Jeremy Foley or the leadership (lack thereof) of Greg Sankey at this point?

2:50 PM CDT Thursday (2 days until scheduled game, 1 day until predicted impact)

The SEC releases a statement announcing that the LSU-Florida game is postponed. In it, Commissioner Greg Sankey states,

“The developments of the hurricane in the last 24 hours, the projected magnitude of its impact and the unknown aftermath of this storm have resulted in this decision to seek another date to play the LSU-Florida game. We have to be sensitive to the possible imminent disruption to the state of Florida and in particular the Gainesville and surrounding area.”

What developments in the last 24 hours? At this point, the forecast had been pretty steady for 3 straight days in forecasting a major hurricane near the Florida coastline on Friday. The differences in the tracks shown below are minor when margin of error is considered.

Comparison of official forecast tracks for Hurricane Matthew from the National Hurricane Center.

Sankey went on to make a similar statement about changes in the forecast in a phone interview with Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson on Saturday. Come on, man. This is about as consistent of a forecast as you will get with a hurricane.

All along, I was absolutely in favor of the game not being played in Gainesville on Saturday. And while Baton Rouge certainly could have hosted, if that was off the board, an alternative neutral site certainly could have done the job. But if none of those options, why not push the game back to Monday in Gainesville and if things end up worse than expected, cancel the game at some point over the weekend?

Here's one other thing to note, you've heard LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva be pretty adamant in multiple interviews that they bent over backwards to offer as many options as possible to play the game with Florida. Have you heard anyone on the Florida side or with the SEC deny anything Alleva has said?

So, I'll say it again.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Early Thoughts on Tropical Storm Matthew

The strong tropical disturbance we've been tracking in the Atlantic since this past weekend achieved sufficient organization to be classified as Tropical Storm Matthew on Wednesday morning. It made a quick leap from tropical wave to strong tropical storm as the Hurricane Hunters discovered maximum sustained winds around 60 mph. No change in strength was noted with the 4 p.m. advisory.

Tropical Storm Matthew advisory from 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28.

What We Know

While the eastern Caribbean is known as a bit of a death bed for developing tropical systems, it appears that won't be the case this time around. Conditions appear favorable for gradual strengthening and the official forecast calls for Matthew to become a hurricane by Friday, potentially strengthening further to a Category 2 (or stronger) over the weekend.

Most of our computer model guidance is in agreement with this line of thinking, showing steady strengthening through the next 5 days. Note that there are several models indicating the potential for Matthew to become a 'major' hurricane (Cat. 3 or stronger).

What We Don't Know

Most of you are probably wondering if Matthew will make it into the Gulf of Mexico. That is a key point that we cannot make any conclusions on yet and likely may not be able to for at least another couple of days.

If you simply looked at the so-called 'spaghetti plots' available on a number of sites online, you might think the Gulf of Mexico is in the clear.

The problem with these spaghetti plots is that they do not include one of our most reliable models, the European. It's also a lot more difficult for the average person to get a look at the European ensembles because much of the European model data is only available through sites that charge a fee.

What are the ensembles? The European is one of a few global models run at a high resolution. At the completion of each run, it's then run an additional 50 times at a slightly lower resolution with small adjustments made to the starting conditions in the atmosphere for each run. The advantage to ensemble forecasting is that it gives us a much better look at the range of possibilities and uncertainty for a given storm.

In this case, the ensembles of the European model paint a much different picture, with many indicating the potential for Matthew to move into the Gulf of Mexico by the mid to latter part of next week. The tweet above from Meteorologist Ryan Maue with WeatherBell shows how the possible tracks for Matthew are all over the board from the Euro ensembles. Consider each cluster of red concentric circles as a possible track from Matthew. This is likely a result of what is expected to be a complex steering pattern that develops by next week. In simple terms, subtle changes in the steering mechanisms or the strength of Matthew could have big impacts on the track.

Bottom Line

It is still very early in the game for Tropical Storm Matthew. Forecast confidence is pretty high through the next 3-4 days, but drops off considerably as we head into next week. The majority of the guidance keeps Matthew on the Atlantic side of Florida, but the well respected European gives us reason to pay attention.

Stay tuned, and as always, make sure your hurricane plan is in place just in case Matthew or anything else should decide to head our way.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Dangerous close call with lightning for fans in Tiger Stadium

The headlines following LSU's victory over Jacksonville State last Saturday were all centered around the quarterback change, but lost in the mix was what I saw as a dangerous encounter thousands of LSU fans and students had with lightning before the game even began.

Storms quickly developed in the Baton Rouge area around 5 p.m. and persisted long enough to delay the scheduled 6:30 kickoff for almost an hour.

Radar snapshot from 5:40 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10 showing storms with plenty of lightning extending from the LSU campus northward through downtown Baton Rouge.

During the delay, SEC Network cameras were rolling as LSU students and fans filed into Tiger Stadium. A still shot captured from the video feed showed a vivid lightning strike perilously close with several thousand people already milling about the stadium.

This is clearly a close call for those in the stands. TOO close. Just how close was that lightning strike? I did a little digging to see if I could figure it out.

I obtained a lightning report from the U.S. Precision Lightning Network (USPLN). It shows a total of 171 cloud-to-ground lighting strikes within 5 miles of Tiger Stadium beginning at 5:04 p.m. and ending at 6:14 p.m. EACH one of those strikes is dangerously close. Lightning has been known to strike 10+ miles from the parent thunderstorm and can often occur even when it is not raining in a given location.

Map of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes detected within 5 miles of Tiger Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016.
Lightning data and map from the United States Precision Lightning Network (USPLN), courtesy of The Weather Company, an IBM Business.

After exchanging messages with Brandon Zimmerman, the person who tweeted the photo, he stated the strike by SEC Network cameras was precisely at 5:30 p.m. Sure enough, the lightning report shows the closest strike to Tiger Stadium occurred right at 5:30 and was only 0.8 miles (+/- 250 meters) away.

In other words, a little worse 'luck' on Saturday and we could have been dealing with a mass casualty situation at LSU. That may seem like hyperbole to some, but I think it's a harsh reality given the amount of lightning in the area on that day.

Think it can't happen? Check out the video below in which a single lightning strike injured several soccer players in the midst of a match.

So are officials at LSU blame? From what I can tell, probably not. It's my understanding that announcements had already been made over the public address system prior to this strike warning fans to seek cover. Associate Athletic Director Michael Bonnette had this to say when asked for comment:

"We make every attempt to let people know that there is inclement weather in the area and to seek shelter. When there is weather in the area, fan safety and well-being is our primary concern. We put a graphic on all of the video boards in the stadium alerting fans to the inclement weather and to seek shelter. We also have continuous reminders about the weather in the area and to seek shelter with public address announcements in the stadium."

My take is that there are three issues that need to be addressed. 

  1. First, despite constant reminders from meteorologists, I still fear that many in the general public don't truly grasp the full danger of lightning or that strikes can occur several miles away from the parent storm, potentially while it's not even raining overhead. 
  2. Personal responsibility. Too many of us rely on someone to tell us what to do when we should be taking responsibility ourselves for our own safety.
  3. The student section. The photo showing the lightning strike clearly shows that the majority of those in the stadium at the time were in the student section. Some of that may be attributable to youthful carelessness, but I suspect it has a lot more to do with kids fearing losing their spots in the student section if they seek shelter. It may be time for campus officials and Student Government to examine how to handle this issue going forward.
Louisiana has already seen 4 fatalities this year resulting from lightning strikes. We also rank 6th in the nation for number of lightning fatalities since 1959. This is an issue that everyone needs to understand and take seriously.

2016 lightning fatalities by state as of Sept. 16. Credit: NOAA.

With a very real threat for more lightning on Saturday as tens of thousands head to the LSU and Southern University campuses, please be weather aware and have a way to track radar and lightning strikes, such as with our free weather app. And most importantly, know where to go should lightning develop over either campus while tailgating or during the games.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Invest 99L down but not quite out

The saga that is Invest '99L' continues as we move into the weekend. The system that appeared to be on life support on Thursday has shown some signs of coming back to life today. But wind shear and dry air continue to make it an uphill battle for '99L'.

We've got a pulse

We were almost ready to announce a time of death for '99L' on Thursday, but 18 years in this business and even more tracking systems like these have taught me things can change in a hurry in the tropics. We didn't see '99L' blow up into a tropical depression or storm today, but after a day devoid of any nearby convection (t-storms) on Thursday, blossoming t-storms on the eastern side of the system let us know it still has a pulse and a chance.

Satellite image from 2:30 PM Friday afternoon shows developing t-storms associated with 99L, primarily on its eastern flank (east of the 'L' on the map).
 The developing t-storms today are likely a sign that wind shear is lessening a bit in the vicinity of '99L'. Remember, when talking about wind shear, we're referring to strong winds in the mid and upper levels of the atmosphere that tend to rip apart tropical systems. While wind shear is lower today, satellite animations and other analyses indicate it is still very much a factor and hasn't gone away. That, combined with continued dry air west of '99L' mean that conditions are still far from ideal for strengthening in the short term.

Model guidance: not so fast, 99L

If you've followed this saga through the week, you know there's been quite the battle among our computer models, particularly the GFS and the European. While the European outperforms the GFS as a whole, the GFS appears to have scored a victory over the last couple of days as it showed little becoming of '99L' even as it neared Florida.

The last few runs of the European model have now come much more in line with the GFS and essentially keep '99L' as a tropical wave moving into the eastern Gulf and then have it drawn northward without much fanfare.

Morning model runs from Friday, Aug. 26 valid for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30. Top panel (GFS) and bottom panel (European). Credit: WeatherBell

Forecast uncertainty

I've struggled with two aspects of this forecast all along through the week. First, I couldn't understand why the GFS and then the Euro didn't have much becoming of '99L' even once it entered the Gulf of Mexico where conditions appeared to be more favorable for development. While it may not be the lone factor, additional analysis I've done today leads me to believe dry air on the western side of '99L' may continue to be a factor.

The other thing that bothered me was this forecasted turn to the north once it entered the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Most guidance was showing a fairly potent ridge of high pressure centered over the Southeast U.S. which would tend to keep the system trekking farther westward into the Gulf. However, I'm starting to believe the models are seeing a developing upper-low near Bermuda as a feature that will drift westward, weaken the ridge, and essentially help '99L' turn northward. This is a complex interaction for sure, so I still wouldn't take it as a given.

Bottom line

The latest outlook from the National Hurricane Center as of 1 p.m. Friday still gives '99L' a 60% chance of development within the next 5 days. Do not let your guard down. The good news is that most of our reliable guidance keeps '99L' to our east even if it does develop.

Please remember that forecast errors at 4-5 days and beyond can still be quite high, so this is not an all clear. It's just to say we're liking the trend for now but will continue to monitor its progress through the weekend.

A final note

For the last couple of days, I've seen many of my colleagues in the weather business calling any mention of '99L' hype or referring to it as the most hyped tropical disturbance in history. Yes, there are a few who have gotten out of hand, but for the most part, the amount of attention devoted to this underachieving tropical wave has been warranted.

Remember, we had very reliable guidance indicating the potential for a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, with some model runs indicating something close to a major (Cat. 3 or stronger) hurricane. I think it would be negligent on our part not to discuss the possible scenarios, particularly given the state that our region is in right now. I can promise you I will always discuss events like this in detail, with special attention paid to not over-hyping or unnecessarily scaring anyone.

The important thing is that we put everything in a proper context. Not only can this provide some useful information to you at home, but discussions like these can help spark good dialogues within the weather community on systems like '99L' that prove elusive to forecast.

Stay safe and here's hoping that the GFS and Euro are both right with not much becoming of '99L'.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Invest 99L: the trend is your friend

If you've been tracking Invest '99L' with us over the last several days, you know it's been quite the roller coaster ride. Today has been no different.

Morning scare

We woke up to a new suite of model tracks with many showing a significant westward shift in the Gulf of Mexico. Note that the plot below represents models run on Thursday morning. The westward shift really rattled some fragile nerves locally.

Time to exhale

Then the latest GFS (American model) run started to roll in and it was sticking to its guns showing little becoming of '99L' even as it entered what many, including myself, saw as more favorable conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here's where the trend becomes your friend. The big news came early this afternoon as the revered European model came in and was seemingly starting to fall in line with the GFS. It showed little becoming of '99L' as it approached and moved near/just south of south Florida. But a key difference is that this latest run of the Euro still does at least develop a tropical storm in the eastern Gulf before moving it northward toward the Big Bend region of the Florida panhandle.

Current state: hot mess

The most likely reason the models have backed off on development with '99L' today is its current state of affairs. It's essentially a 'naked swirl' of clouds near the Turks and Caicos Islands with no organized convection (t-storm activity) found anywhere close to its center. Wind shear and probably more so dry air have led to its demise.

While wind shear and dry air are taking a toll right now, most guidance indicates shear will let up and dry air will become less of an issue into the weekend. That's something to watch.

Why you should still pay attention

'99L' is on life support. Most of the more reliable guidance keeps it to our east. So why are we even still talking about this pitiful looking swirl of clouds? Here are 3 reasons to keep up with '99L':

  1. IF, and it's a big 'IF', it manages to hold together for another 48 hours, conditions should gradually become more favorable for development.
  2. I still think computer guidance may be underestimating the strength of high pressure over the southeast U.S. Stronger, more persistent high pressure would result in a more westward track.
  3. Many of you will be extremely busy this weekend trying to recover from the recent floods. Should '99L' get its act together, it's possible some could wake up to a 'surprise' tropical storm on Monday morning in the Gulf of Mexico. At that point, we may only be 48 hours or so from a landfall.

Bottom line

The trend is our friend right now. The longer '99L' struggles, the better the chance that it will never recover and have the opportunity to organize. Much of our model guidance is now following this train of thought, making '99L' a non-story.

But do not let your guard down. Uncertainty continues to be very high on both the track and intensity of this system and we still need to monitor it closely since it will likely move into the Gulf of Mexico by early next week in some form or fashion.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Model dance continues with tropical disturbance '99L'

A city and region on edge in the wake of historic flooding has quickly shifted focus to possible developments in the tropics over the last couple of days. We don't want another major weather event. We simply can't handle any more rainfall.

I've been flooded with questions about the future track of this disturbance passing through northern parts of the Caribbean as of Wednesday afternoon. Let's see if I can answer some of those questions and maybe even alleviate a little fear for those trying to recover.

Current State of '99L'

The Hurricane Hunters flew through '99L' for several hours this morning, finding tropical storm force winds in several spots. However, winds alone are not enough to upgrade a disturbance to a tropical depression or storm. By definition, there must also be a well-defined center of low pressure at the surface. The Hurricane Hunters were unable to find one. Satellite imagery has hinted at a center just northeast of Puerto Rico this afternoon, but even if that's the center, there appears to be a mid-level center (several thousand feet above surface) well to the southeast. And the main area of convection (t-storms) is separated from both centers. In short, '99L' is a bit of a mess right now.

Where is '99L' headed next?

Even though it's a bit of a mangled mess of clouds right now, forecast guidance is in pretty good agreement that '99L' should be somewhere in the vicinity of the central or northwest Bahamas by Saturday.

From there, the forecast gets a bit more hazy as models wrestle with the strength of high pressure to the north of '99L' and the intensity of the system itself. A sampling of the numerous models we look at appears below.

Looks like everything keeps it east...why are we even worried?

Yes, the vast majority of model guidance available as of Wednesday afternoon does keep '99L' and whatever it may become to our east. However, one thing that has given us reason to pause is the usually reliable European model; it has been bouncing all over the Gulf of Mexico with possible tracks in its recent model runs.

The animated gif below shows the last 4 runs of the Euro model. Notice how the forecasts went from the eastern Gulf in one run to Mobile in the next to the LA/TX border in another and back to the eastern Gulf in the latest. When models are behaving like windshield wipers, that decreases our forecast confidence.

One other thing I would tell everyone to watch. IF '99L' is able to get its act together around the Bahamas and south Florida, the models may be underestimating the strength of high pressure that will be to its north. Weaker high pressure allows the system to turn north sooner while a stronger high would keep it going west longer. As tropical systems intensity, they can sometimes 'feed' high pressure systems or make them stronger than anticipated.

Bottom Line

As it stands as of 3 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, the overall threat to our area is still pretty low. I've seen some meteorologists saying that posting model runs or discussing scenarios is reckless at this point and just scares everyone. I see it differently.

We are a region that is limping along right now. While the threat is low at this point, potential impacts from this system are now less than a week away should it decide to head this way. Everyone should be prepared just in case and given what we're going through right now, I think an early heads up is needed now more than ever.

Stay safe...stay calm...and we will keep you updated on '99L' which could become Hermine in the coming days.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Gulf hurricane talk: fact vs. fiction

A category 5 social media storm hit the internet on Tuesday compliments of a singular run of the European weather model. The run in question shows a likely tropical storm hitting south Florida over the weekend before moving into the Gulf of Mexico and strengthening into a significant hurricane.

Credit: WeatherBell / valid Mon. PM, Aug. 29, 2016

Fact: All we have right now is a poorly-organized tropical wave

The model is developing a hurricane from what stands today as only a very poorly-organized tropical wave with a broad, ill-defined circulation. The Hurricane Hunters confirmed this with a flight on Tuesday, but truthfully, satellite told us all we needed to know about the system at this point.

Fiction: We are certain that the system will develop

The National Hurricane Center is currently giving the disturbance, deemed Invest 99L, a 60% chance of development in the next 5 days. Those are relatively high odds but also represent a 4-in-10 chance that nothing happens with this through the weekend. In the short term, 99L has to fight off wind shear and some dry air. As it eventually gets closer to the Bahamas late in the week and into the weekend, conditions look as though they may be more favorable....IF it survives that long.

Fact: Tropical systems are notoriously difficult to forecast in their formative stages

Until we have an organized area of low pressure with concentrated t-storm activity, take any model projections you see online for 99L with a BIG grain of salt. Models are notoriously bad with both track and intensity in the early stages of development. Michael Lowry with The Weather Channel tweeted a great graphic from the National Hurricane Center that supports this point. 

Credit: National Hurricane Center

The graphic above is limited to systems that have at least become a tropical depression or stronger, so you can imagine with a poorly-organized tropical wave like we have now the error only grows.

Fiction: If 99L does develop, we know where it's going

Most of our forecast guidance is in agreement that 99L should be somewhere in the vicinity of the Bahamas by late this week or this weekend. But while the European model shows a strengthening tropical storm, the GFS never really develops the disturbance.

Should it develop, the European model suggests strong high pressure along the East Coast would leave 99L with little choice but to head westward toward the Gulf of Mexico. However, if we look at the European ensemble forecasts -- 51 runs of the European model with slightly different starting conditions in each run -- you see there's quite the spread on where the center of low pressure associated with 99L may actually go.

Credit: WeatherBell / valid Tues. PM, Aug. 30, 2016

In the map above, each red 'L' represents the forecast location of the low pressure center from a single ensemble member of the European model. Note that the possibilities extend all the way from the Carolinas to Mexico. When we see a map like this, it's an obvious cue that forecast confidence is fairly low at this point.

Bottom Line

Given the historic flooding we've experienced over the last couple of weeks, it is completely understandable that any talk of a tropical system in the Gulf would put us a bit on edge. And, in fact, we all should keep a close eye on 99L in the coming days.

But understand that we are in the formative stages right now and uncertainty is very high on both the future track and intensity of 99L.

In a worst case scenario, impacts to our area would be roughly a week away. However, please remember that odds of this system heading our way are still quite low at this point. Stay alert and follow us in the coming days for additional updates.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

S. Louisiana Radar Vulnerability Revealed Again Last Week

For the second time in less than 6 months, much of south Louisiana was left without reliable radar coverage in the midst of an ongoing severe weather event last Thursday, August 4th. Big storms rolling through the region delivered a lightning strike to the National Weather Service Doppler Radar in Slidell that took it out of commission for more than an hour.

I previously wrote a detailed post in the wake of the record tornado outbreak in late February about how poor radar coverage and a lack of redundancy may be putting lives at risk in parts of south Louisiana. In the midst of that historic outbreak, a lightning strike also took down out the radar in Slidell. After reading that post, Congressman Charles Boustany and his staff drafted legislation that would attempt to give metro Baton Rouge and much of south Louisiana better radar coverage.

3:18 PM -- Radar down

The National Weather Service sent out notice at 3:18 p.m. on Thursday that the radar in Slidell was down until further notice. While the message below doesn't state it, forecasters quickly let us know in a closed chat room (open to media, emergency managers, etc.) that the culprit was lightning.

~3:30 PM -- Funnel cloud/tornado reported in New Orleans

Roughly 10-15 minutes after lightning took out the radar in Slidell, images and videos quickly started surfacing on social media showing a funnel cloud and possible tornado over New Orleans.

3:35 PM -- Severe T-Storm Warning issued for New Orleans

Minutes after pictures of the funnel cloud and tornado started circulating on social media, the first Severe T-Storm Warning was issued for New Orleans.  In other words, it appears as though the first warning came after the tornado had already touched down and done its damage. And it wasn't a Tornado Warning, but rather a Severe T-Storm Warning relaying the potential for 60 mile per hour winds.

To be fair, post-storm surveys rated the tornado an EF-0, the weakest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale, with maximum winds estimated around 80 miles per hour. These tornadoes are generally brief and small and can easily escape radar detection. However, I think it's fair to consider whether the radar outage in Slidell hampered the ability of the National Weather Service forecasters to issue warnings in a timely fashion on this storm.

Forecasters were likely monitoring a less powerful terminal Doppler Radar in St. Charles Parish whose primary mission is to cover weather around Louis Armstrong Airport in Kenner, but it's unclear what, if anything, that radar was detecting at the time of the New Orleans storms. Otherwise, the next best view would have come from a radar roughly 125 miles away in Mobile versus 25 miles away in Slidell.

4:12 PM -- Severe T-Storm Warning issued for East Baton Rouge

This one I've referred to as the bogus warning of the day. That's not a slam on my colleagues at the National Weather Service. Rather, with the radar outage in Slidell, there simply is not a good backup view of what's happening here in Baton Rouge. The terminal Doppler Radar in St. Charles doesn't have the range to cover our area. The next closest radars are 120 miles (Fort Polk), 130 miles (Lake Charles), and 180 miles (Mobile, AL) away from downtown Baton Rouge.

Forecasters admitted on that day that the warning was issued out of an abundance of caution given what had already occurred with the severe weather in New Orleans and other storms on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain that had produced wind gusts of 55-65 mph. As it turned out, it was more of a garden-variety type storm and I strongly believe would have never received a warning had the radar in Slidell been functioning.

4:39 PM -- Radar returned to service

Hats off to the technicians at the National Weather Service in Slidell who were able to get the radar back online less than 2 hours after it took the hit. However, at this point, the severe weather was essentially ending around the area, meaning the radar was out of service when it was needed most. And at least it was restored quicker than the February 23rd lightning strike which had the radar down for the better part of a day.

But we're back to what I posted about in the wake of the February tornado outbreak. Metro Baton Rouge and much of south Louisiana have relatively poor radar coverage and once the radar in Slidell goes down, forecasters are almost flying blind. That's a scary thought for an area prone to so much active weather.

I hope that this will once again draw some needed attention to our radar vulnerability and help garner some additional support for Rep. Boustany's bill that would attempt to fill in this coverage gap here and elsewhere around the country.

You can track the progress of Rep. Boustany's 'RADAR Act' by clicking here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Monitoring Flooding & Severe Weather Potential for Later in the Week

The First Alert Storm Team is continuing to monitor the potential for flooding rains and severe weather later in the week. A slow-moving, potent storm system already producing flooding rains and severe weather in parts of California is the one that could be problematic for us in the coming days.

Here's what we know: parts of the Southern Plains and northern Gulf Coast are all but certain to receive excessive rainfall in the coming days. The devil lies in the details. It's difficult, if not almost impossible to pinpoint which areas will be hardest hit but we're gradually getting a better idea of where the greatest threats may lie.

Locally, we can expect scattered showers and a few t-storms to arrive by Tuesday afternoon, but neither flooding rains nor severe weather is anticipated in this initial round of wet weather. Those threats should remain to our west on Tuesday.

Our latest model runs have even started to indicate a somewhat slower arrival of the most active showers and t-storms, perhaps holding off until late Wednesday or even Thursday. It's during this timeframe though that severe weather appears to be possible along with our first real threat of locally heavy rains. The Storm Prediction Center does have areas from near Baton Rouge westward under a 'Slight Risk' of severe weather during this time, with a lower 'Marginal Risk' east of Baton Rouge.

The biggest threat to the greatest number of people during the remainder of the week will be heavy, potentially flooding rainfall. In a modestly encouraging trend, our last couple of rounds of computer model guidance have trimmed back forecast rain numbers. However, we still think widespread totals of 3" to 6" will be common in the WAFB viewing area through Saturday, with the potential for much higher amounts in localized areas. As it stands right now, a greater threat appears to be for areas near the Louisiana/Texas line extending northward to the ArkLaTex.

While the greatest threat does appear to be to our west, the weather pattern expected later in the week will favor the development of 'training' bands of t-storms -- clusters of storms moving over the same areas like train cars moving along a track. Anyone unfortunate enough to caught underneath one of these bands could easily pick up rains in excess of the 3" to 6" we're currently forecasting on average across the area.

With the expected heavy rains, we'll also have to monitor rising river levels later in the week. Additionally, persistent southerly winds mean that coastal flooding could be an issue in spots. Those southerly winds would also result in water backing up in the lower reaches of the Amite and Tickfaw river basins, slowing the ability of rain water to drain into Lake Maurepas.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Commentary: Is a gap in south Louisiana radar coverage putting lives at risk?

The final numbers are in -- 12 tornadoes touched down on what was a terrible Tuesday, February 23rd for south Louisiana. Included in that count were some monster twisters like the EF-3 from northern Assumption Parish that went on to devastate the Sugar Hill RV Park in Convent as an EF-2, leaving 2 dead and as many as 75 injured. Let's not forget the EF-2 that injured 17 in LaPlace or the EF-2 that plowed through Livingston with one woman hanging on to her bathroom door for dear life as the entire top of her home was sheared off.

Leveled home near Willow Street in Livingston. (Source: WAFB)

It appears to be the worst tornado outbreak on record for south Louisiana in records that date back to 1950.

Map of the 12 confirmed tornadoes in south Louisiana on Feb. 23, 2016.

And it could have been worse, much worse, if not for the heroic efforts of forecasters at the National Weather Service New Orleans/Baton Rouge office in Slidell issuing rapid-fire warnings for the tornado-producing storms on Tuesday.

But I noticed something on that day that most of you probably didn't. There were a few tornadoes that got very little warning and at least one that got none at all. That particular storm actually fell under the warning responsibility of the National Weather Service Lake Charles office.

But let me be clear: the lack of warning is by no fault of forecasters with the National Weather Service.

The issue, I believe, stems mostly from poor, if not unacceptable radar coverage for parts of south Louisiana.

The Problem: Poor Radar Coverage

The map below shows National Weather Service NEXRAD (Next-generation Radar) Doppler radar coverage at 4,000 feet and below (green), and 6,000 feet and below (yellow). Earth's curvature and the fact that radar is tilted a minimum of 0.5° above horizontal while scanning mean that the radar beam gradually gets higher and higher the farther it gets away from the radar site. What stands out is that because of the curvature and tilt issues, areas from Baton Rouge to Lafayette southward to the coast and northward toward Natchez, Mississippi have no radar coverage in the key atmospheric levels needed for tornado detection. The nearest NEXRAD radars to Baton Rouge are 80 miles to the east in Slidell and 120 miles to the west in Lake Charles.

Radar coverage at ≤4,000 feet (green) and at ≤6,000 feet (yellow). (Source: NOAA/NCEI)

A wider view of the same map shows that Baton Rouge appears to be the second largest city anywhere in the southern U.S. without reliable NEXRAD radar coverage, with only Charlotte, NC having a larger population of people with such poor coverage. Later in this article, you'll see how meteorologists and leaders in Charlotte have taken action to address that problem.

Radar coverage at ≤4,000 feet (green) and at ≤6,000 feet (yellow). (Source: NOAA/NCEI)

If we look at areas with radar coverage at 6,000 - 10,000 feet (blue in map below), metro Baton Rouge finally gets into the mix, but there are still portions of south Louisiana left out. Much of St. Mary Parish remains without good radar coverage even at this level, including areas around Franklin and Baldwin. And as it turns out, that's one of the areas where a tornado was missed on Tuesday. No warning was ever issued, but an EF-1 touched down in that area according to the National Weather Service Lake Charles. Two businesses and 28 homes were damaged, along with 20 telephone poles being snapped.

And, oh by the way, it was this same severe thunderstorm that went on to produce an EF-3 tornado near Paincourtville and EF-2 damage and casualties in Convent. I don't think it was coincidence that the St. Mary Parish tornado came and went without a warning.

Same as above with coverage of ≤10,000 feet added in blue. The location of a confirmed EF-1 tornado in St. Mary Parish is shown, clearly in an area with poor radar coverage. (Source: NOAA/NCEI & Steve Caparotta)

Secondary Problem: Little Reliable Backup

In another illustration of our radar coverage vulnerability in south Louisiana, a lightning strike took down the National Weather Service Doppler radar in Slidell just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday as severe weather was ongoing. The map below shows that there were 2 active Tornado Warnings in southeast Louisiana at that time in addition to ongoing Tornado Watches. The radar wasn't restored to service until late the next day, meaning the National Weather Service in Slidell had to rely primarily on the radar in Mobile, Alabama to issue warnings for southeast Louisiana and south Mississippi.

There is also a Terminal Doppler Weather Radar (TDWR) located in St. Charles Parish that can supplement coverage as needed, but it's much lower power than the NWS NEXRAD radars and has a much shorter range. It does NOT provide reliable coverage of Baton Rouge or much of the area in south Louisiana's radar gap. The TDWR located in St. Charles Parish was installed primarily to aid in wind shear and heavy rain detection for Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner.

Radar from 4:50 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016 with current watches and warnings overlaid. (Credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet)

Now imagine this nightmare scenario. That same lightning strike happens 2 hours sooner and meteorologists are left 'flying blind' (or close to it) as the powerful EF-3 tornado strikes Assumption Parish and continues as an EF-2 into St. James killing 2 and injuring dozens more. Several people in those areas have credited the warnings for saving their lives. Had the radar in Slidell gone down just a little earlier, those warnings may not have been issued and the casualty numbers could have been much higher.

The Solution?

Chances are if you've made it this far into the article, you now understand and agree that south Louisiana needs better radar coverage. So why don't we have it? As is the case with so many things in life, much of it boils down to dollars and cents.

The installation cost for a new Doppler radar runs into the millions of dollars and some estimates indicate annual maintenance and upkeep can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Additionally, you need a team of qualified personnel both to operate and maintain a radar at any given location. That's why our nation's Doppler radars are most often collocated with National Weather Service offices.

In the wake of an undetected tornado near Charlotte, NC in 2012, a bill was introduced in Congress that would require a radar within 55 miles of cities with a population of at least 700,000. If passed, that solves Charlotte's problem, but certainly not ours in south Louisiana.

I do think our Louisiana congressional delegation should lobby for a new NEXRAD installation near or around Baton Rouge, but if that doesn't occur or fails to gain traction, there are other possible solutions.

The University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) recently completed installation of a Doppler radar that was funded by a $3 million grant through the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP). That radar is set to go online any day now.

New Doppler Radar at ULM. (Creidt: ULM)
ULM's radar is a great step forward and one that I believe was needed in northeast Louisiana. It also gives an added boost to ULM's Atmospheric Sciences program which has produced a number of very talented and successful meteorologists through the years.

But what a shame that an area centered around our state's capital has some of the poorest radar coverage in our state and is also among the poorest in the U.S. What a shame that an area that houses so much of the state's industry and its 'chemical corridor' -- an area that one could argue is very vulnerable to severe weather -- has very little reliable coverage.

The map below shows the number of lightning flashes per square mile from 2005-2014. If lightning is assumed to be a rough proxy for 'active' or potentially severe weather, it becomes clear that one would be hard pressed to find an area anywhere in the U.S. more in need of better radar coverage or where there would be better bang for the buck on a new installation.

Number of lightning flashes per square mile, 2005-2014. (Credit: Vaisala)

The way I see it, there's a real opportunity for our local and state leaders to lobby hard for an installation near or at LSU. The state's flagship university is home to a long-standing, well-respected Geography Department that houses a number of faculty with weather and climate backgrounds. I am currently a graduate student in that department pursuing my Ph.D., having already completed my master's degree at LSU in 2008.

LSU is also home to both the Louisiana State Office of Climatology and the Southern Regional Climate Center, an agency that collects and disseminates weather and climate information for multiple states in the South.

I believe a joint effort by the Dept. of Geography, the climate centers housed at LSU, LSU President F. King Alexander, the National Weather Service, and our congressional delegation could go a long way in trying to secure a badly-needed radar for Baton Rouge and surrounding areas. Not only could it be a life-saving device, but also an invaluable recruiting and research tool for multiple programs at LSU.

I know money is tight, but let's get moving on this. Lives could depend on it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Strong to Severe Storms Possible Today

A Tornado Watch has been posted for much of the WAFB viewing area through 6 p.m. this evening.

An approaching cold front will produce numerous showers and t-storms today, with the main action expected to arrive in metro Baton Rouge near or shortly after lunchtime. You can see that computer model guidance is in good agreement with this scenario, showing the main line moving into Baton Rouge roughly around 1 p.m.

The primary threats from any strong storms will be large hail and damaging winds, but an isolated tornado can't be ruled out.

Storms should end from west-to-east by late afternoon into early evening as the cold front moves eastward.

Stay with the WAFB First Alert Storm Team on air and online for updates as needed through the day. If you witness any severe weather, relay your reports to us by sending pictures and/or video to or through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Blizzard of 2016 -- could it ever happen here?

The Blizzard of 2016. Snowmageddon. Snowzilla. Jonas. That thing that made the U.S. House of Representatives cancel all votes for an entire week. Call it what you want, but the winter storm that raked parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this past weekend was a beast.

Widespread snow totals of 1 to 3 feet were recorded, with the largest daily snowfall on record measured in New York City's Central Park (26.6"). Record and near-record snows were also measured in other major cities, including Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

Snowy scene from Central Park in New York City posted by Instagram user @ozgurdonmaz

So could a winter storm of that magnitude ever occur here along the Gulf Coast?

No way, right?

You might be surprised.

On the 14th and 15th of February 1895, Mother Nature produced a snowstorm in the Deep South that seems inconceivable to those of us who have spent our entire lives along the Gulf Coast. One to two feet of snow fell in many spots around south Louisiana, including a still standing record of 12.5" here in Baton Rouge. And in the "Frog Capital of the World", Rayne, LA, a city used to dealing with frog-strangling rains instead was buried under 24", or 2 feet of snow. Coming in a close second was Lake Charles with a total of 22".

Selected snow totals from February 14-15, 1895 was published in Monthly Weather Review.

What makes the 1895 event even more impressive is that the next biggest snowstorm in Baton Rouge produced 6" of snow in 1914, or a half-foot less than that record value. Further examination of the biggest snow events for Baton Rouge shows that we've recorded no more than 3.5" in a single storm since World War I.

How do we know about the 1895 snowstorm along the Gulf Coast? Information is limited, but a brief account of the impacts in Louisiana can be found in the American Meteorological Society's publication Monthly Weather Review:

My favorite line from that summary is this:

     "Within a week after this extreme cold the ground was covered with a mantle of snow to a depth from a few inches at the Mississippi jetties to as much as two feet in southwest Louisiana."

In other words, the snow extended all the way down to the mouth of the Mississippi River. And "mantle of snow" is a phrase I'll have to tuck away in my back pocket for future snowstorms.

I've been able to dig up just a couple of pictures from the historic event, one out of New Orleans and the other from Lake Charles.

Canal Street in New Orleans during the February 1895 snowstorm.

Lake Charles family in the snow from February 1895. Courtesy: McNeese State University.

The few accounts of the storm that do exist point toward low pressure moving eastward through the Gulf of Mexico as the likely culprit behind the record snows. That fits what we most often see when there is a threat of ice and/or snow along the Gulf Coast.

The "Daily Weather Maps" produced by the then U.S. Weather Bureau show a low headed toward the Florida Peninsula by February 15, but the maps likely underestimate the intensity of the low due to the sparsity of weather observations.

Daily Weather Map from the U.S. Weather Bureau for Feb. 14, 1895.

Daily Weather Map from the U.S. Weather Bureau for Feb. 15, 1895.
So could this ever happen again? Sure. 

Is it likely? Not very. 

We've been through 21 Baton Rouge mayors, 29 Louisiana governors and hurricanes such as Audrey, Betsy, Camille, Andrew, Katrina, Rita and Gustav in the time since we last saw a blockbuster snowstorm in south Louisiana. 

But, hey, the Saints also won a Super Bowl during that stretch. Who ever thought that would happen?