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.