Category Archives: Hazards and Threats

Weather Wednesday – Spring Outlook

NOAA’s Climate Center has issued its 2015 Spring Outlook covering flood potential, precipitation, temperature and drought through the April-June period. The flood outlook is for mid-March to Mid-May.

FloodRiskOutlook_2015_610
NOAA Climate Center

According to the outlook, the greatest potential for Spring flooding is in the Northeast along with a portion of the lower Missouri River and other nearby rivers and streams in parts of southern Illinois, southwest Indiana and far northern Kentucky. The near term potential is being driven by snow melt. That melt will also influence the somewhat longer term in that soil moisture will be above average to far above average in those areas.

NOAA Climate Center
NOAA Climate Center

As for temperatures, much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation will experience near-normal temperatures with the West Coast being much above normal. Only portions of Texas and New Mexico are forecast to be below normal.

The outlook calls for above-normal precipitation in the Southeast and the Four-corners area with below normal precipitation in the Pacific Northwest and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The rest of the country will be near normal.

NOAA Climate Center
NOAA Climate Center

Drought conditions will continue or worsen in much of the western third of the country and drought may also spread from Minnesota into Wisconsin.  The drought will improve in eastern New Mexico and Oklahoma.  40% of California is already in an exceptional drought and the predicted hot temperatures and lack of precipitation will exacerbate that situation.

The precipitation and drought outlooks bode ill for the upcoming fire season.

As always, the long term outlook comes with a caveat that specific weather systems can always cause additional flooding and other impacts so readers should always stay alert.

Weather Wednesday – Flood Awareness Week

tile_flood

This week has been designated Flood Awareness Week by the National Weather Service. Each year flooding is responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in the United States and thousands worldwide.

2014 was a relatively safe year in the United States because of a lack of tropical storms and hurricanes, yet 41 people were killed by flooding. We’ve all heard the phrase “Turn around, Don’t drown!” That is well-taken advice because of the 41 fatalities last year, 27 were in vehicles. Just a few inches of water can sweep a car away. Never drive into a flooded area.Slideshow1 Even if you think you know the street or highway well, it is possible some of the pavement was washed away by the tremendous force of flood waters. Driving into water at night and during other periods of low visibility such as heavy rain is especially dangerous.

We’ll talk about preparation and recovery in later posts, but this awareness week is a good time to talk about protecting lives. The 2014 fatalities were fairly evenly split between areas east and west of the Mississippi River. More males than females died and Texas’ six fatalities were the most of any state. In the first two months of 2015, five people have been killed by flooding.

The National Weather Service has a robust flood safety web site.

There are three major types of flooding…flash floods, river floods and coastal floods. All cause fatalities each year and it would be difficult to consider one more dangerous than another, although, by its very nature, flash flooding can catch its victims unaware. The National Weather Service issues advisories, watches and warnings for each of the types.
During this time of year, river flooding is common and while it is usually well forecast and expected, the force of that flooding needs to be respected. River status maps such as the one below and forecast maps are available through the Weather Service.Clip1These maps are also part of a suite of tools available as part of the Next48 project of the Extension Disaster Education Network which was created by Tom Priddy and colleagues at the University of Kentucky.. You can customize the maps you want to see in your state by visiting the Next48 web site.

There are also special considerations for people living downstream from known hazards such as large dams and other types of impoundments. Be aware of these threats and know how local authorities intend to issue warnings should a dangerous situation occur.

There have been many tragic incidents over the years where campers and cabin dwellers have been washed away by flash flooding. Never camp in unapproved areas. It is tempting to set up camp along a river or stream. If you do, be aware of weather upstream that might cause a rapid rise in water levels. Have an exit strategy. Plan how to get to higher ground in a hurry. If authorities order an urgent evacuation, leave your belongings behind and leave immediately.

Slideshow2Floods are a known and common threat. With a little common sense and advance planning, you can avoid becoming a number in the 2015 statistics.

 

Weather Wednesday – Lightning

This is Severe Weather Preparedness Week in several states. Others may have just observed the week and still others may be doing so soon. Over the next several posts, we’ll cover several topics related to severe weather in greater depth.

NOAA
NOAA

As outdoor baseball and soccer practice, along other activities such as golf, gardening, boating will be on the upswing in coming weeks, we’ll start our coverage with lightning. Of course, the threat of being struck by lightning has been known for centuries. The History Channel recounts a particularly devastating lightning strike that killed 300 people.

The National Weather Service has a very good lightning resource page including actions you should take to protect yourself and others.

As our understanding of how lightning works, the different kinds of lightning and other aspects of the science involved improves, best practices have been refined and much more attention is being given to protecting participants and fans at outdoor sporting events.

NOAA
NOAA

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has developed some guidelines for when to clear the practice field and when to ask fans to leave a stadium. Some institutions have modified these to be even more conservative based on estimates of how long it would take to empty a stadium of fans and where the closest safer shelter is. During the 2014 football season lightning delays and even suspensions were fairly common.

Many states require the installation of lightning alarms at recreational facilities and sports venues. Participants and fans should follow the local guidelines when those alarms are triggered. However, as always, alarms are never a substitute for personal responsibility. There are a variety of smartphone apps that link to databases of recent lightning strikes. They can be a good tool, but be aware that there may be a delay in the process of detecting the strikes, assembling the data and posting in the app. So it is best to assume that the data may be a few minutes old and act accordingly.

As mentioned in the content in the links above, a good rule of thumb is that a 30-second lag between sighting the lightning bolt and hearing the thunder means the bolt was roughly six miles away. And at six miles, you should be headed to a safer place immediately.

Additional resources from eXtension.org are good reads.

Weather Wednesday: When the Great Lakes Freeze

Satellite image of Great Lakes February 2015. NOAA.

 

As of February 25, 2015, the Great Lakes are over 85% ice covered and the coverage is growing weekly.  glsea_curOther than the obvious impact to shipping, what does this really mean?

When the Great Lakes experience heavy ice cover as they have in the winters of 2014 and 2015 there are a multitude of impacts.  Some are beneficial and some are problematic and some are both.

For example, evaporation takes place over open water even in the winter time.  At least partially because evaporation was inhibited in the winter of 2014-15, Lake Michigan water levels last summer increased dramatically over the summer of 2013.  Some of the impacts included reduced usable recreational beach areas. On the positive side, the higher water levels mitigated some of the need to dredge channels and harbor entrances especially along the eastern shore of the lake.  As of February 25, the water level on Lake Michigan was a whopping 21-inches higher than a year earlier and was 8 inches higher than the long term average.  Snow melt and rainfall also are a factor, but the reduced evaporation plays a role. lighthouse

Snowfall amounts are also affected when the lakes freeze.  Lake Effect Snow basically shuts down once the lakes freeze over, a welcomed break for motorists in the Great Lakes snow belt areas.

Heavy ice cover also tends to influence spring and even summer weather in areas close to the lakes.  The temperatures in communities near Lake Michigan were noticeably cooler than inland communities in the spring and summer of 2014, far cooler than the usually welcomed moderating effect of the lake.  One benefit of the late spring is to fruit growers.  The cooler weather delays the blossoming of fruit trees to the extent that the threat of frost damage from isolated cold snaps is mitigated.  And the normal micro-climate of shoreline communities is more pronounced in years when the lakes are ice-covered.

Arcadia, MI. Cool summer of 2014. Author.

Long lasting ice cover also affects the water temperature of the Great Lakes.   Even the normally more moderate lakes remained quite cool for swimming and other warm weather recreation in the summer of 2014.  It is worth noting that there was still visible ice on Lake Superior into June of 2014 and some water temperatures in Lake Michigan were still in the upper-30 degree range on Memorial Day weekend!!  The reduced water temperatures impact how anglers approach their prey.  And the development of algae can also be affected.

It is likely that the ice cover of the lakes will continue to expand for at least a few more weeks this year.

Weather Wednesday: Just what the heck is going on with this winter?

first snow 2013 003The wild winter weather continues this week with snow and ice stretching all the way down into the Deep South.  Brutal wind chills have been common in many areas of the north.  Here in Champaign, we’ve had a fresh snow pack and because of that, little wind and clear skies, our overnight temperature fell to 12-below, 10 degrees below the forecast and 10-degrees below the previous record low for this date in late February.  So what’s going on?

Meteorologist Tom Skilling and his staff at WGN-TV in Chicago have been researching the topic and posted a rather extensive article, the link to which is here.

Skilling’s Facebook posts are always informative and, if you are a weather fan, you may want to like him on Facebook even if you’re not from the Chicago area.

Weather Wednesday: Freezing Rain, Ice Storms and Black Ice

precip_types
NOAA graphic

Winter weather certainly has remained in the news this post-Valentine’s Day week. It’s been another major snow event in the Northeast, heavy snow from southern Illinois and Missouri to the south into Kentucky and adjacent states and freezing rain and ice, especially in Georgia, North Carolina and other states in the southeast. Multiple highway fatalities have occurred and over 100,000 people have lost power, mostly due to ice. Bitterly cold temperatures are plunging far into the south on the date this is posted, February 18, 2015.

We’ve written about heavy snow several times and we’ll revisit the topic of how climate change may affect that snowfall, but today we’ll focus on freezing rain, ice storms and “black ice,” all of which are being experienced in parts of the south and southeast this week.

According to the National Weather Service freezing rain and sleet occur when raindrops in a layer of warm air well above the surface fall into a layer of freezing air at and near ground level. Whether the liquid ends up as freezing rain or sleet is determined by the thickness of the layer of freezing air. When that layer is thin, the raindrops don’t have time to freeze so the water freezes on contact with the surface, coating streets, sidewalks, power lines, tree limbs and whatever else is exposed and below freezing. Complicating the situation this week is bitter cold temperatures to follow the snow and ice.

A freezing rain event is escalated to an Ice Storm Warning when ice accumulations of ¼ inch or more are expected. The National Weather Service considers ice storms to be high impact events and if you’ve lived through one or more, you know that to be true. Ice storms can occur across a wide area of the United States and can be very devastating. The single most destructive weather event ever to occur here in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois was the Valentine’s Day ice storm of 1990. The 25th anniversary of the event passed largely unobserved last weekend. Seemingly no one wants to relive that week.

The storm began during a home basketball game at the University of Illinois and ice quickly accumulated. The lights in the Assembly Hall flickered, but stayed on. I was the public address announcer that night and I vividly recall being handed a series of announcements to be read if the main power went off. The final announcement I did read was that game attendees should expect that many traffic signals would be out of commission across town after the game. When I left the Hall I could see the flashes and hear the explosions as electrical transformers failed.

I drove the few blocks to the radio station where I worked at the time. It was operating on generator power. We started to cover the event and things just got worse during the overnight. At one point around 2:00AM I decided to go check on my family and home. I followed a snowplow down a main street as it pushed trees and branches out of the road so emergency vehicles could get through. I turned down my street as limbs were falling behind me and decided to just keep going back to work before the street was completely blocked. Some areas of town were without power for a week. Damage to utility infrastructure, trees, traffic signs and signals and buildings and homes reached into the millions of dollars not counting the loss of productivity and dumpster loads of ruined refrigerated and frozen food.

I relate that account not because it was unusual, but rather because it is typical of major ice events. They can be extremely destructive and expensive.

Finally today I want to mention “black ice.”Black Ice accident Black ice can be every bit as dangerous as a heavy snow or ice storm. It is a very thin layer of ice that is nearly transparent. It frequently forms on bridges and overpasses because that pavement temperature may be colder as the cold air circulates above and below the pavement. Black ice often occurs when snow melts during the day and then the water refreezes at night. Or the temperature drops below freezing after a rainy day. Unlike during an ice storm, black ice is a much greater threat to pedestrians and vehicles than to structures. Multi-vehicle accidents are common when the pavement refreezes and emergency rooms are kept busy treating pedestrians who slip and fall.

Ice storm threats include:

 

WEATHER WEDNESDAY: The Pineapple Express

With apologies to our friends in the Boston area, some of whom have faced snowfall totals of nearly 5-feet in the last two weeks, we turn our attention to the west coast this week. We’re adding the term “Pineapple Express” to our glossary which so far this year includes Arctic Clipper and Blizzard.

atmospheric-river-dec2014.sm
Atmospheric River from NOAA

A Pineapple Express is defined as a river of moisture fueling heavy rainfall and snowfall events in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. The atmospheric moisture often passes through tropical regions of the Pacific Ocean including Hawaii, hence the name, “Pineapple Express.”

In the past week leading up to this publication date, notable heavy rains have fallen in Northern California repeating a scenario from December of last year. Rainfall totals of in excess of four inches to as much as eleven inches were common in the latest multi-day event. And while some local reservoirs are seeing a positive impact, the snowpack was not significantly affected so the storms are not considered a drought buster by any means.

Technically, a Pineapple Express is related to the Madden-Julian Oscillation, a major weather influencer that scientists are attempting to more thoroughly understand. The “river of moisture” may actually circle the globe in a 30 to 60 day cycle. Scientists are unleashing the power of supercomputers to enhance their knowledge of this and other atmospheric patterns.

Some of the threats and challenges associated with the Pineapple Express as it impacts the west coast of North America include:

  • Heavy rainfall
  • Flooding
  • Landslide
  • High Winds
  • Snowstorms
  • Severe Weather including isolated small tornadoes
  • Travel disruptions

Weather Wednesday: Super Bowl Blizzard Edition

Snowplow clearing highway

Rick Atterberry, EDEN Immediate Past Chair, writes about the weather.

Last week we talked about the definition of a blizzard and the difficulties inherent in forecasting winter storms.  This past weekend provided another concrete example of both in the form of the Super Bowl Blizzard of 2015 here in Illinois and surrounding states.

National Weather Service forecasters started looking at the setup nearly a week out.  But the computer models upon which they depend were all over the place early in the week of January 26th.  A very complicated scenario was developing, but forecasters approached the storm with caution because of relatively low confidence in any one computer model through midweek.

By Thursday, January 29th, it was apparent that there would be fairly heavy snow across parts of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.  Initially, the thought was that the heaviest snow would be about 6 to 10 inches in an area north of Interstate 74 across the center of Illinois.  However, each ensuing model run moved the heaviest precipitation farther north.  Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that some of the area would see temperatures in the low to mid-30s during much of the event.  How much precipitation would fall as snow and how much as rain?  The forecasters were certain this would be an unusually long event.

Here at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign we had freezing drizzle and sleet followed by a period of snow followed by rain then more wet snow and finally drier snow overnight Sunday.  We ended up with about four inches of snow which quickly compacted to two inches during the rain and then added less than an inch as the event concluded.

The main snow event was located 100 to 130 miles north of us along the Interstate 80 and 88 corridors.   Each forecast from Saturday into Sunday added to the possible snow totals in the Metropolitan Chicago region.  By Sunday noon, the forecast called for 16 to 20 inches of snow in some spots and, indeed, that’s what happened.  In 30 hours between late Saturday night and early Monday morning, the official measurement at O’Hare Airport was 19 inches of snow…the fifth highest single event total in the city’s recorded history.  Thousands of flights were cancelled.  Chicago public schools closed on Monday.  Blizzard conditions…winds of 35 miles per hour or more and visibilities under ¼ mile…developed in the city and rural areas.

Here’s a time lapse video from Judy Hsu at WLS-TV.  Note the clock on the fence.

When the area of heaviest snow moved north to the Chicago area, Lake Michigan came into play.  When winds clocked around to the north-northeast, some snowfall amounts were enhanced by the lake effect.

“Heart attack snow”- Not only was the general snowfall in the region between 14 and 20-inches, the event began with heavy wet snow, the kind we call “heart attack snow” because of the physical demands of shoveling it.  Sadly, in DuPage County in suburban Chicago, three men died of heart attacks associated with shoveling the snow.  Cardiologists recognize the increased risk.

So, while it appears there were no fatalities from car accidents, falling tree limbs, structure fires, carbon monoxide poisoning or other threats often associated with cold and snow, heart attacks did claim lives.  Those of us who are 55 and older or with a history of heart disease need to proceed with caution.

Meet A Delegate Monday: Keith Tidball

Michelle Bufkin, AU Agriculture Communications Student/EDEN Community of Practice Social Media Assistant, recently interviewed EDEN delegate Keith Tidball.

1. How did you first get involved with EDEN? EDEN. Extension Disaster Education preparedness
I was approached in 2011 by the leadership of the extension service in New York. Our state program was in need of “tuning up” and I was asked because of my research and activities in the area of natural resources management in disaster. With my background as a leader in the military and later involvement as a USDA Foreign Agriculture Service international affairs specialist who dealt with disaster in the agriculture and natural resources sector, I jumped at the opportunity to engage with the NY Extension Disaster Education Network. After I attended my first national conference, I was even more excited and focused upon working to make the NY EDEN an example of what a state program can do if they take the ball and run hard with it.

2. What is your role for disaster preparedness within your state?
In New York State, we see the national EDEN as a platform upon which to build a highly effective and visible state program. In that sense, we work with our state agencies closely not only in preparedness, but in all phases of the disaster cycle. Thanks to the national EDEN, we can confidently say that we have the very best science from the best universities in the country, and we are ready to serve the public at all times. This we feel is in keeping with the land grant mission and vision, and is actually a way of reacquainting a whole new generation with the land grant idea and the idea of cooperative extension.

Our role is to work at all times with preparedness. We anticipate needs based on past experiences and future threats, and we either develop our own materials or publicize excellent materials from other land grants via our website, webinars, social media, and through traditional county cooperative extension channels. As a threat, hazard, or vulnerability emerges, we asses it, develop tailored materials to address it, and act upon it, using our cooperative extension networks and the networks of our partners to disseminate preparedness and readiness educational materials. Once a threat or hazard materializes, we then take on additional roles to compliment other state and federal efforts to prepare for and respond to an imminent event.

3. Can you explain your role with dealing with the recent snow and cave ins, in your state?
My role was to serve as the incident commander for the state land grant’s role in the event. As the event became imminent, I worked with the rest of our state EDEN program leadership to strategize for the event – this entails a quick anticipated needs assessment and a social media blitz of warnings and resources to get people ready to navigate the event as resiliently as possible. I make the decision to request activation of our relatively newly instituted Standard Operating Procedures for Disaster /All-Hazards Recovery which is either approved or denied by our state Director of Cooperative Extension. Once he or she approves this request, I implement a very involved set of actions that include experts on campus, liaisons to state agencies, and our regional and county extension personnel. Among many other things, we serve as the eyes and ears for the first hand real time ways in which the disaster is unfolding and having an impact upon the agricultural sector in particular. In this role, we work hand in hand with our state and federal agricultural agency partners to direct immediate assistance as quickly as possible to where it’s needed, and to assist with the longer term process of damage assessment and recovery.

So in the recent snow event in Western New York, we had 90 dead livestock animals,
80 damaged or destroyed green houses, 38 barns down or damaged, with over 65 total farms in 6 Western NY counties affected. Our Agriculture Sentinel capability was used to communicate emerging needs regarding snow loads, collapses, livestock in jeopardy in real time. We are never first responders, however, we are involved in communicating and disseminating information as it becomes available so that first responders can understand and react appropriately to unique ag related issues and emergencies. In one case in particular, I remember helping to direct New York National Guard to a barn threatening to collapse. Farmers often aren’t going to call 911 about these issues, but it is still an emergency, so we are a part of a coordinated state approach to fill this gap. We can help get information to the right people quickly. Meanwhile, our county extension leadership act as the field element in these cases and play a central role in initial situation reporting which is so crucial in these events, and of course later assessment once the actual event is over. I act to coordinate all of this communication, first and foremost to make sure our stakeholders get the service and assistance they need (an applied or engaged research and extension role), and secondly to position extension as a preferred source of evidence-based educational materials. A major extension education outcome of this work is educating policy makers and emergency responders in New York State about the agile, nimble state-wide system of cooperative extension that exists upon a foundation of extensive subject area expertise, all of which is an already existing and is an already paid for public good.

4. What advice would you give to people about disaster preparedness and recovery, after being involved in recovery from the November snow storm, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and other recent natural disasters?
My advice is to extension folks who either have not embraced the idea of disaster education as a role or niche for extension, or to those who may understand the role of extension in disaster so far as developing and disseminating fact sheets are concerned, but shy away from further involvement.

Think of getting your hands dirty in disaster response and recovery as project learning, an important and accepted component of extension education. Experts believe that what takes project learning to the next level is when it’s real. We pride ourselves in extension on solving real problems we face in our world — problems that make the news and that our stakeholders really care about, giving them the power to turn their knowledge into action. I think that though some project-learning activities regularly miss the opportunity to be real life-changing experiences for learners in the extension system, people who get involved in EDEN in their state, these folks will experience tremendous satisfaction in their work because they will see that the extension educators they touch, the community members, the agency folks, all will be impressed by the resources available and the responsiveness of the extension system. But more important than being impressed, they will learn about what they can and should do in all phases of the disaster cycle and how extension can help.

Weather Wednesday — The Blizzard of ’15

Rick Atterberry, EDEN Immediate Past Chair, writes about the weather.

The east coast blizzard that started Monday evening, January 26 and continued in some places into the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 28 provides us an opportunity to discuss a couple of related items.

145132096What is a blizzard?  Contrary to popular perception, the official definition of a blizzard has more to do with the wind and visibility than an exceptional amount of snow.   According to NOAA, a Blizzard Warning is issued when the following conditions are expected over a minimum three hour period:

  • Sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35 miles an hour or more along with considerable snow or blowing snow.
  • Visibility of ¼ mile or less in snow or blowing snow.

People in many parts of the country are familiar with a concept called a “ground blizzard.”  That occurs after a recent snowfall has ended but when the wind picks up and the snow begins to blow around to the point that visibility is restricted.  This blowing snow often causes as much traffic danger as the original snowfall.  In a ground blizzard you may actually be able to look straight up and see the sun while visibility in front of you is a near white-out.

Why was the specific forecast for New York City so wrong?  Well, it was and it wasn’t.  Veteran forecasters will tell you that winter weather, particularly snowfall amounts, is very difficult to forecast.  Specifically in this week’s scenario, the storm tracked farther east than had been anticipated moving NYC out of the heaviest snow. Although it should be pointed out that snow amounts reported in the boroughs ranged from almost 9 inches to about a foot, not an insignificant snowfall.  Out on Long Island, the weather did play out as forecast as it did to the north through Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.  Snowfall in excess of two feet was common.

One way to look at the difficulty of forecasting snowfall amounts is to consider a typical summer storm system.  Do you really notice much of a difference between a half-inch and an inch and a half of rainfall?  Unless it falls all at once, probably not.   Now, using the common moisture ratio of 10:1 that would mean a snowfall range of between 5 and 15 inches!   Most of us would find that an important distinction.  So, being able to accurately determine how much moisture is available in a particular location and the actual ratio, which varies widely, are key to nailing a snowfall forecast.  Add in the fact that this storm was pulling moisture from the open ocean waters and other variables such as “banding,” where heavy snow sets up in rather narrow bands, and you can understand the difficulties forecasters face.

This week’s storm had many of the characteristics of a classic Nor’easter.  Heavy snow, high winds and coastal flooding.   In fact, from early news reports, it is probable that most of the damage from this storm is the result flooding of homes, businesses and infrastructure.  Wind gusts of 70+ miles per hour were reported , including a few of hurricane strength.  At times, the monster waves created by this storm hit at high tide, greatly increasing the possibility of damage.

So the “Blizzard of 2015” had dangerous elements beyond just the snowfall…high winds, flooding, falling trees, etc.  Were the warnings overdone?  (I almost said overblown but that would be a very bad pun, indeed.)  I don’t think so.  People prepared.  They stayed off the roads which makes snow removal MUCH easier. Deaths and injuries were few.  In short, the warning system achieved its intended goals, protection of life and property.  I won’t quibble about precise snowfall amounts.  But if you’re interested, check out the New York NWS  and Boston NWS reports of storm totals and maximum wind speeds.