Wunderground Meteorologist Shaun Tanner

Plight of West Coast Forecasters

By: shauntanner, 5:06 PM GMT on October 29, 2009

I want you to feel sorry for me.

There is an inherent bias in the Meteorological world against weather west of the Rocky Mountains. As Rodney Dangerfield said, it gets no respect. Perhaps it is because all of the "exciting" weather happens in the East, be it tornadoes, hurricanes, Nor-easters, cold air damming, etc. Forget the fact that the regions west of the Rocky Mountains are home to the warmest ever temperatures recorded in North America, some of the highest annual snow-level depths in the country, Tule fog of the Central Valley, Chinook winds in Montana, and I could go on forever. Not to mention the fact that many of the storms that slam the East actually originate somewhere over the West.

I have lived on the West Coast almost my entire life. As such, I have a certain knowledge, a certain feel about the weather here. This experience allows me to out-forecast someone who has spent little time here. On the other hand, I have not spent much time on the East Coast, thus a forecaster who has spent more time on the East Coast would beat me in a forecasting contest on the eastern seaboard hands down. Every time. This is not to say I can't forecast for a place in the East, but rather a person with more experience there would do better. Make sense?

In fact, the East Coast is one of the few places I have little forecasting experience. I spent a couple years weather routing ships on the open water so I have a little bit of knowledge when it comes to weather in the South China Sea or Arabian Sea, for instance.

When it comes to forecasting, experience in a given geographical location is required to make accurate forecasts day after day. Sure, you will get it correct some days without experience, but in the long haul you are in for it. For example, it takes years of watching the fog roll over the coastal hills or through the Golden Gate to be able to say what it is going to do tomorrow. Likewise, I have never experienced a nasty Nor'easter so I would not be able tell you intricate details of an upcoming storm that will pound the Northeast.

Now, experience is not the only thing that forecasters use to look into the future. We modern meteorologists rely heavily on atmospheric models. These models do an enormous amount of computations and give us a detailed look of their opinion of what the atmosphere will look like at some point in the future. We spend a lot of our time determining if a model is telling the truth or not. If we feel that a specific model is out of whack, we ignore it or give less weight to it. So, in essence, we discriminate between models.

One of the most important things to do when evaluating a model is to make sure it was initialized correctly. Initializing a model simply means giving it correct current conditions. Once you give a model current conditions, it runs with them and creates its detailed atmospheric picture many hours ahead of the present. But think of what can happen if you give a model a bad initialization...a bad set of current conditions. It is like putting a blind marathon running at the start line and then pointing them in the wrong direction. What are the chances that the runner will find the correct path? More likely, the runner will continue to move away from the real path. Rather, he will find his way in some weird alternate universe. So, a good initialization is very important.

Now, in general, weather in the mid-latitudes (where most of the United States is) moves from west to east. From West Coast to East Coast. So, a good initialization requires a good set of current conditions to the west of where you are forecasting for. You don't really care what is happening downstream of you if you are fishing. You only care about what is coming from upstream at you. Likewise, I don't really care what is going on to the east of me when I am forecasting. Just look upstream.

The plight of the West Coast forecaster should be apparent now. To the west of the West Coast, well, is a giant ocean. As such, the only current conditions we have is from a sparse grid of buoys basically just off the coast. So, it is difficult to ascertain whether any given model has been initialized correctly. How do we know? So, experience on the West Coast becomes even more important.

This initialization process becomes increasingly more apparent when the weather is specifically moving west to east. For instance, Santa Ana wind events in Southern California can be forecast fairly accurately because these weather conditions move from the Great Basin toward the canyons of Southern California. Whereas, storms moving off the Pacific Ocean into the San Francisco Bay Area are often over- or underforecast due to this initialization conundrum.

Like, I said, feel sorry for me.

Updated: 5:35 PM GMT on October 29, 2009


January Vacation? Try Moscow

By: shauntanner, 5:04 PM GMT on October 27, 2009

Recently it has come out that the mayor of Moscow, Russia plans to prevent it from snowing in the huge city this winter. You can read the article here.

Basically, the mayor is dragging out the old idea of cloud seeding. In short, cloud seeding is a technique to make clouds rain or snow before they were supposed to (if they were supposed to precipitate at all).

The long version goes like this:
In order for water vapor to condense into liquid water, it needs something to condense on. For instance, the first thing water vapor condenses on in your bathroom when you have a hot shower running is your mirror. That something water vapor condenses on is called a condensation nucleus. Up in the atmosphere, condensation nuclei come in the form of dirt, soot, and other aerosols that become the middle of the rain drops that fall on your head. As water vapor continues to condense, the raindrop gets bigger. Once it gets so big that the updrafts in the clouds cannot hold it in the air anymore, it falls out of the cloud as a raindrop. So, the condensation nuclei is the thing that gets the process moving.

So, the mayor of Moscow has got the idea to "seed" the clouds of storms with condensation nuclei before the clouds reach the heart of the city. Thus, it will snow in the outskirts of the city rather than where most of the people live. This will mean less road cleanup, costing less money that the city would spend to actually clean up the streets after a major storm.

The most common chemical used to cloud seed is silver iodide. In fact, the city's plan is to use silver iodide as well as cement powder and dry ice.

This is not the first time cloud seeding has been used. In fact, this technique is more common than you might know. Most states in the United States have banned the use of chemicals for this purpose, but China threatened to seed clouds in the event of possibly rainy weather during the Opening Ceremony of last year's Olympics in Beijing.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is debatable. There have been numerous studies to determine is a particular seeding experiment has succeeded, but how can you be certain the cloud would not have precipitated without the seeding? In other words, to have a valid scientific experiment, you have to have a control. In a cloud seeding experiment, it is hard to define a control because you are playing with the atmosphere. Some studies have claimed up to a 30% increase in precipitation in winter-type situation. These studies have claimed a larger increase in warmer, summer-type storms. It is easier to force a cloud to precipitate when the cloud is made of up liquid water versus ice crystals.

If the mayor of Moscow gets his way, he will essentially be playing a God-like creature. I have major, major problems with his plan, however. It seems as though every time we, as animals with big brains, have a problem with Mother Nature, we try to get her rather than simply changing us. This mayor is attempting to change the climate of a city that he chose to govern. Go govern a warmer city if you want less snow.

The mayor's plan, if successful, will dump a lot of snow upwind of the city. He puts a warm, fuzzy on this by saying, "...outside Moscow there will be more moisture, a bigger harvest..." I don't see it as much of a warm, fuzzy because adding snow to a general region is not necessarily a good thing. Think of flooding, mudslides, and harm to the people living upwind. Also, think of the people downwind. If you are taking the moisture of a storm that was meant to fall over Moscow, then you are also taking moisture out of the storm that was meant for areas downwind of Moscow. These areas will suffer if the plan is successful.

Only time will tell if the mayor's plan will be successful, but I have a feeling that it won't be. The atmosphere is a massive petri dish where many things can happen if you disrupt just one thing. In other words, snow in the city may increase for any particular storm if cloud seeding is done. One just doesn't know.

I had a similar feeling when Bill Gates released his idea to slow down hurricanes. Without going into it too much, his idea was to churn the water ahead of a hurricane so that the cold water from the depths of the ocean is brought to the top. This would make less energetic, warm water available for the hurricane to strength with.

Why do we treat Mother Nature like an enemy? She is a finely-tuned machine that brings us life. Sure, she also is very powerful and can damage things that we build, but let's work with her.

Updated: 4:54 AM GMT on October 28, 2009


WU Products You've Never Seen

By: shauntanner, 7:25 PM GMT on October 22, 2009

Here at Weather Underground, we search for products that are not yet on the market and produce them, rather than look at our competitors for the next thing that should appear on our site. So, this entry is meant to introduce you to some products you may not have ever seen before. And, if you have seen some of them already, then get reacquainted because they may have been updated since the last time you used them.

Our site has many more pages than the city page that everybody uses to check their forecasts.

1. The WunderMap
Granted, this product has been promoted in several areas of the website and there is a good chance that you actually took 2 seconds to take a look at it. But there is an even better chance that you don't know all of its capabilities. When you first go to the WunderMap, the default layers that are chosen are weather stations and radar. But, that is just scratching the surface.

For instance, scroll down to the checkboxes and turn off the weather stations and radar. Then turn on the fire layer and click here. This will show you all of the active fires in the country. Zoom in on any fire and you will see more information. At the time of this posting, you can see a fire perimeter in Northern California here.

Of growing importance for this upcoming winter season is river levels. Click on USGS River to see the river levels in any area of the United States. Clicking on any icon will give you information about the river's current stage, percentile, flood stage, and other important goodies.

I can go on and on with this product. It really is as close to an all-in-one product as you can get with regard to weather. Other options include model data, tornado information, webcams, satellite,...

2. Trip Planner
Planning a wedding? Going to a reunion? Just wondering what the weather may be like in a certain area next year? Well, then you will want to take a look at the Trip Planner.

All you have to do is put in a location (New York, New York, for instance) and the dates you are interested in (March 21 - March 28, for instance) and click "Submit."

The ensuing page will tell you likely weather for your vacation to New York based on historical weather. For instance, the average high temperature for the past 13 years in March time period has been 52 degrees while the low has been 37. It never got above 78 degrees and never got below 21 degrees. Important information if you are planning your outfits. In addition, the average precipitation is 0.11 inches, meaning it is very likely rain during your stay. You can go down the list with humidity and wind.

As you can tell, this can be powerful information if you are planning a vacation and, especially, a wedding. It is a good idea to check out a few dates in your timeframe if you are worried about weather for your event. Just changing your event for a day can make a huge difference.

3. Weather History
This database is one of our most used and best kept secret. The database appears on every city page under History & Almanac. This database is extremely large, housing hourly data for every METAR station in the country. In addition, it houses hourly data back decades for each station. So, you can find out what the weather was like when you got into a accident, or how strong the wind was blowing during your kid's soccer game. Or, you can find out what the weather was like when you were born. For instance, if you were born in Los Angeles on October 22, 1975 (first of all, happy birthday), you can find out that the maximum temperature on your birthdate was 81 degrees and the minimum was 58 degrees. Sounds like a beautiful day!


How NOT to be a Meteorologist

By: shauntanner, 8:25 PM GMT on October 21, 2009

Such is the curse of being a meteorologist. Rugged good looks, boundless knowledge, your own blog. But, there are moments, if not days or years, where you don't want the general public to know that you are this Superhero. You need an alter-ego, a secret identity, if you will. But, how do we blend in when we have this, this vocabulary filled with Greek letters and acronyms that was pounded into our heads for a minimum of 4 years in college. Not only that, but most of us cannot keep from pointing out a cumulonimbus when we see one outside. How can we blend in?

Well, consider this your lesson. No longer will someone be able to point you out in a crowd and say to themselves, "I am going to ask that guy (or gal) what the weather is going to be like tomorrow." No longer will you have to explain to a complete stranger that virga is not the Greek goddess of Virginia. Just follow the steps below and you will be able to disguise yourself better than a nerd at a Star Trek convention, ur...something.

1. As Judge Judy always says, "Keep it simple, Stupid"
Throughout your years of college, you were assaulted with countless Greek letters (some of them were even used twice or three times for different things, come on!) and acronyms that you practically have your own language. And this does not even come close to mention the super- and subscripts. My god the subscripts! You were blasted so hard that you now walk around like a zombie speaking of AWIPS, alpha is albedo, GOES, T is temperature but t is time, etc.

Well, I am here to relieve you of all that. Your alter ego does not know what the NWS stands for and the only NOAA he or she knows is the one that made the Ark. Whenever someone mentions a corona, you will say, "sure, I would like a beer."

2. Clouds are...clouds
The general public does not know what an altostratus is and so therefore neither do you. See that thing in the sky that is puffy? It's not a cumulus cloud, it is a...cloud. That's it. There are no cirrus, cirrostratus, nimbostratus, or any other type of stratus. They are clouds. The only exception I can possibly make is fog. But, it isn't stratus, it is fog, nothing more, nothing less.

So practice with me. Someone walks up to you on the street points up to the sky at a stringy, high cloud and asks, "what is that?"

The correct answer IS NOT, "that is a cirrus cloud made up of ice crystals at a very high altitude."

The correct answer IS, "a cloud."

3. You have no idea where the closest NWS office is
For a meteorologist, being in a town with a NWS office is like putting a beer near an alcoholic. Just passing through a town where an office resides virtually requires him or her to visit said office. Not only that, but here is a fun party trick. If you are at a party with a meteorologist, ask them where the nearest NWS office is located. Trust me, he or she will know.

So, your alter-ego does not even know what a NWS office is, let alone know where the nearest one is. When someone asks you where the nearest office is, the correct response is, "I have an office in my house, does that count?"

4. Forget the urge
This might be the toughest one. It happens to me all the time. I am sitting in some public place or I am at a party when I overhear a statement. "No really, toilet bowls flush in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere." At that point, I cannot help myself. "No, actually there is no correlation between which way your toilet flushes and what hemisphere you are in." Then I HAVE to go into some explanation of the Coriolis force while the people I am talking to promptly fall asleep.

The public world of Meteorology is full of misinformation, but it is now not your job to correct the people who spread it. You can now sit idling by while the conversation goes on. Better yet, join in on the misinformation. "Yeah, I went to Australia and flushed really hard. It's true." That way, nobody will suspect that you are a Superhero. You have to immerse yourself in your disguise.

5. Become a Climate Change skeptic
An avalanche of Meteorologists and other environmental scientists have weighed in on the Climate Change debate. Their message is clear...Climate Change has been brought on at least partially by humans.

So, the next step is simple. Walk around shouting at the top of your lungs, "Glaciers are not retreating, they are advancing," "More coal factories!", and "Global warming? It's cold right now!" That ought to seal the deal.

Follow these steps and you will be set.

And then, when the world needs you, shed these above steps, take a step into the bright public spotlight and declare to the world, "inferior mirages are wonderful!"

Updated: 11:13 PM GMT on October 21, 2009


How to be a Meteorologist

By: shauntanner, 5:23 PM GMT on October 20, 2009

What does it take to call yourself a meteorologist? Nothing, really. By this, I mean, officially. Some Joe Shmoe walking down the street can feel an ache in his bones and say to himself and the world around, "Weather's a-changing. Gonna rain tomorrow." And heck, he might be right based on his past experiences. So, if that is the criteria you want to use, then go for it. As I said in a previous blog, everybody is an expert on weather. Everybody knows something about it.

The difference between that man and someone like me is that I have spent hard-earned money to be taught about the atmosphere and how to interpret it. That's...really...it. For instance, countless people here in the San Francisco Bay Area experience the seasonal fluctuations of the marine layer that basically dictate the area's weather pattern (a bit of hyperbole, I realize). So, each one of these people can have a specific guess (shall we say forecast) about what the marine layer may mean on a daily basis. But, a trained (or tuitioned) meteorologist can interpret the marine layer and its effects on the area, expect its inland penetration, and justify his or her forecast with sound evidence. That is, if you feel that "my knee hurts" is not justifiable evidence.

But, there is hope for you "un-tuitioned" meteorologists out there. For years now, I have made countless forecasts and have come to realize that there are some very simple things you can do to look like a trained meteorologist. You know, if you want to impress that gal or guy at your local bar.

1. Never look out a window
In the old days (I say this like I lived during the old days), meteorologists looked out a window or even (heaven forbid) went outside to actually see and feel what the weather is doing. Now, it is all available at the tips of your fingers. Thank...you...internet. Now, you can just sit in your nice comfy seat, checking what the weather is like just on the other side of the wall between playing tennis matches on your Wii.

Just the other day my wife was working at my computer while I went outside to dump the garbage. Upon returning to the house, she asked, "Seems cold outside, is it?" To which I promptly answered, "I don't know, check the weather station console in front of you." The console on the desk was connected to my weather station and displayed everything she needed to know. See, no reason she had to go outside!

2. Know some terms that no one else knows
Meteorology is more than just saying things like, "it's gonna rain," or "the humidity is killing me," or "how about that sea-level rise?" You have to know some actual terms that the general public has no idea about. Now, you may not know any in regard to meteorology, but you have an "in." Me. All you have to do is randomly put words in your sentences like "cumulonimbus", "graupel", "Bergeron Process", or "virtual temperature."

It doesn't even have to be used in the correct context because the general public doesn't know what you are talking about anyway. The only risk you run is accidentally talking to a "real" meteorologist. But don't worry, there is no fine for impersonating a weatherman. You can say things like, "wow, now there is an example of the Bergeron Process", or "the virtual temperature is really getting to me today," or "beware of graupel!"

3. Walk around with a green screen
The only meteorologist the general public knows is on their local TV station. Not only do they know them, but they feel comfortable with that smiling, happy face telling them what the weather is definitely going to be tomorrow. So, be that person. Get yourself a nice suit, go cut your hair, and put some foundation on. Then, go to your local photography store and get yourself a green screen, set it up on a busy corner, and just start giving out forecasts. Don't know what to say? No big deal, see Number 2.

You will soon see that people begin to trust you more than their own mothers and will return to hear your forecasts everyday.

4. Use terms that are ambiguous
Whenever you hear a forecast on TV or see it on a website, there are certain terms that you should be aware of and replicate. The best one is "mild". For instance, "tomorrow is expected to be mild." What does that even mean anyway? Who knows? Who cares? Warm and fuzzy, warm and fuzzy.

Another one is "pleasant." There is nothing like that word because it conjures up images of your nice old grandmother and a warm mug of hot chocolate. Mmmm, pleasant.

5. Never, ever say it is going to be sunny
The general public does not know that the terms "sunny," "mostly sunny," "partly cloudy," etc., actually have NWS definitions. So, if you say "mostly sunny" instead of "sunny", you are more likely to be correct even if your forecast is a little blown. In addition, say "mostly cloudy" instead of "cloudy" because the public will give you a pass if you are only slightly wrong. It's all about covering your bases.

I can go on and on, but if you follow these simple instructions, you will be a gloried meteorologist before long.

Updated: 10:39 PM GMT on October 20, 2009


It Smells Like...Rain

By: shauntanner, 7:56 PM GMT on October 14, 2009

Sorry I haven't updated my blog until now. I have not been in the office this week due to the fact that two of my family members have flu-like illnesses. Not fun. This is especially true since yesterday was the biggest California October storm since 1962. Usually, my daughter and I will go out and run in the rain when it is pouring like that, but she had a fever so it was sad on two accounts.

But, anyway, what a storm that was! It lived up to its billing and then some. It started raining about 2 a.m. Tuesday morning and kept on raining through 8 p.m. Tuesday night at the earliest. I searched my brain to try to remember a time when it rained that long consistently and I couldn't come up with one. It rained so hard and long that my backyard had to be pumped with this little submersible pump I have. So running in and out of the house doing that while taking care of my sick family made for an exciting day. Mining Ridge, right about this area received over 21 inches of rain from this one event. That is amazing for any location, let alone somewhere in California. Think about that, almost TWO FEET of rain fell in less than 24 hours. Amazing.

Remember those reservoirs I talked about in my last blog? Well, go ahead and watch them fill up some here. This storm did a lot to help the drought situation, but keep it coming. The ground was dry enough to soak up much of the runoff and other than some power outages and muslide potential in the areas hit by fire, damage was relatively minimal.

Sorry for the short blog and I hope to be back tomorrow.


Wicked Scary West Coast Storm

By: shauntanner, 5:56 PM GMT on October 09, 2009

Okay, so the subject line was more east coast terminology than west coast. Maybe it should have been something like "Awesome West Coast Storm."

Nonetheless, a major West Coast storm is set for early next week, so let's take a look at what the models are currently doing with it. Keep in mind I am writing this blog midday Friday, so if you are reading this sometime during the weekend, various forecasts will change.

I will take a look at the GFS for now because the storm is still too far out for the NAM to capture.

The current satellite image shows the storm in question well out in the Pacific Ocean and poised to strike like a snake in a couple days.

The thing I want to point out to you in the GFS is where the jet streak is in the 300 mb analysis for late Tuesday. The jet streak in this image is the greenish linear object pointed right at the San Francisco Bay Area. On the north side of the jet streak, targeted just north of the Bay Area, is called the left exit region. Wherever, this left exit region is targeted is going to get a lot of wet and windy weather. Take a look at the other, stronger jet streak north of New England. There is a left exit region there too, and that is where the most active weather will be for that storm.

This is set to be a major October storm, and as such, the NWS office in Monterey is excited. They have already issued a Special Weather Statement that states that 1 to 3 inches of rain is expected near the coast and in valleys, with higher amounts in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The heaviest rainfall is set for Tuesday and Tuesday night. The statement also points out that the recently burned areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains could also be prone to mudslides. So, residents in the Bay Area should be prepared for wet and very windy weather through the first part of next week.

Now, here is my disclaimer. This is a warning that I have learned over several years of reading NWS discussions and forecasts. This is the first real storm of the year. In the past, the NWS (and other giddy meteorologists) get very happy over the first storm of the year and often overforecast them. So, I would definitely not be surprised if the effect of the storm were much less than anticipated. That is, some rain, some windy, definitely an interesting October storm, but not on the scale of what it is being made out to be.

The models that I looked at yesterday were very aggressive with the storm in bringing it into the Bay Area and hammering the area. The models I looked at today showed a diminished storm. So, bottom line is that rain and windy is likely, but the extent is still very much up for grabs.

Keep in mind that ANY precipitation in the state is very much a welcomed thought. This is especially true if you look at the reservoir levels in the state. Many of these reservoirs are well below their average for this time of year. Just take a look and you will know what I mean.

In addition, another Special Weather Statement has been issued for the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In it, the NWS states that this is expected to be a warm storm with a very high snow level of near 8,000 feet. Flooding is not really a concern there, however, because dry conditions in recent months have left the ground parched.

Tim here with an update, Shaun is off today, though he may give you a more comprehensive post later on.
I just wanted to point out that at least one person thinks this storm will be a big one.

I ran into Neptunus Rex this morning on my bike ride to work. When I asked him why he was wearing a life jacket, he told me he was just getting ready for the flood. Hopefully we don't get that much rain, but if we do, at least Rex will be safe.

Updated: 5:03 PM GMT on October 12, 2009


My Two Cents (or Sense)

By: shauntanner, 5:09 PM GMT on October 08, 2009

I was hesitant to wade into the tepid pool of "Climate Change" overstatements and hype and my last blog was not meant to do that. It was meant only to produce a few widely distributed ideas to save some money while also saving some energy. Whether or not you agree with the whole "we are screwing up the planet thing", you cannot argue that some things we do as people are wastes of money.

Then, after I put my kids to bed last night and settled underneath my sleeping bag (much cozier than a blanket) with a medium-sized bowl of popcorn, I realized there was a simmer going on in my head regarding some of the comments from my last blog. So, wade I must. But I am only wading chest deep. After that, I am going back to shore.

After years of listening to the Climate Change debate I have come to the conclusion that there are two basic sides of the story.

The first side, let's call it side "A", is composed of people who are completely on the bandwagon that the climate is adversely changing (or will change) due to human-caused tamper. I am not going to write in depth about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but if you are here you probably already know about it.

The second side, let's call it side "B", is made up of people who simply say that we don't know what is causing climate change. This side claims that the climate may or may not be changing and the potential reasons for this said change may or may not be human-caused. The motif for this side can be summed up with one statement: "we don't know."

Now, there used to be a third side to the argument stood firmly on the stance that the climate changes according to natural cycles, it will come back around, and there is nothing to worry about. But, people on this side have smartly moved over to side "B" in the face of ample evidence that the climate and face of the Earth is, in fact, changing.

For the sake of this entry, I am going to take the side of the people in "B". That is, there are indeed many things in the Earth system that we simply do not understand and need a ton of new research regarding. That, I think, is something very few people can argue with. But, the view of the people in this group that we should continue to undergo this completely uncontrolled experiment on our most precious of belongings is bizarre. That is, every time people from group "A" say we should cut back on our plundering of the planet, people from group "B" say, "wait, we don't know what is causing this and that."

I wonder if the "B" side would also sanction coal miners entering a mine without proper air testing, NASA launching the space shuttle in uneasy weather conditions, or not earthquake retrofitting a building sitting on the San Andreas fault simply because "we don't know what is going to happen."

We, as people and humans, have always tried to err on the side of caution. We constantly monitor air quality, we take the doors off of unused refrigerators, and we recall foods when dangerous bacteria is detected even though nobody has gotten sick. So, why would we do any different with our home, our planet, or entire world?

I understand and sympathize with people who say that we cannot make blanket statements about our atmosphere because it is a vastly complex beast. I am reminded of that every time I make a bad forecast and wonder what went wrong. But that is not an excuse to not err on the side of caution. This is especially true when there are simple things you, as a person, can do without being "outed" as someone on side "A". Not to mention these things are easy on your wallet. To not do them is irresponsible for a variety of reasons.

Updated: 5:13 PM GMT on October 08, 2009


Climate Change Your Attitude

By: shauntanner, 7:59 PM GMT on October 07, 2009

"Climate Change" as a term has become as overused as other terms this past decade (weapons of mass destruction, Joe the plumber, health care overhaul, etc.). With that in mind, it is no wonder that people roll their eyes when they hear the term. Another reason is that the media gives the "naysayers" an abundant amount of air time to display their points. This may be in the effort to give all the viewpoints of a story regardless of the fact that the science is slanted towards one side like an avalanche.

I teach an introductory to weather and climate class at a university and I am responsible for introducing climate change to most of the students. I say introducing because most of the information they have on the subject prior to the class comes through the filter of the media. Before I start the subject, I tell the students simply that if they pay attention to only one lesson in my class, let it be this one. The reason is that this subject will affect their lives. Other potential catastrophes will not hurt them because they are too far into the future. For instance, the world running out of oil is still decades in the future. So, the potential for the climate to fail is not real to them. Under that pretense, it is no wonder that I still get students nodding off after I tell them that the power to stop the climate collapse is well within their reach. And I leave the class hopeless.

It is my opinion that the climate change battle should be shifted. As scientists, we have used the viewpoint that the general public will be swayed by the argument "if climate change is to happen, you and your family will be adversely affected." After producing all the compelling evidence to support our conclusion, the public still isn't doing very much turn the tide. We are still electing policitians that don't get it maybe because we still don't get it ourselves. Effects of climate change will not just happen tomorrow because they are happening today. Right now, glaciers are melting, oceans are rising in temperature and level, etc. See, I bet most of you just fell asleep reading that last sentence.

Here is the tactic we should be taking. Helping to curb climate change will pad your wallet. It is my view that many, if not most, people in the country will take action on any given subject should they think their bank account will be aided by it. And, there are plenty of things that can be done on a daily basis that will also put money back into your wallet. SO, FORGET ALL YOU HAVE HEARD ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE. FORGET ABOUT THE MELTING GLACIERS AND ICEBERGS, RISING SEA LEVEL, AND IMPENDING DOOM FOR YOU, YOUR FAMILY, AND THE GREATER GOOD IN GENERAL. INSTEAD, I HAVE AN INFOMERCIAL FOR YOU THAT YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PASS UP!

*******************Crowd Applause***********************

Hello and welcome to Wunderground's Climate Change special, where you can find ways to pad your wallet and improve your life at very little expense to the environment. Let's see what we have for you to buy today:

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs! These are not your grandfather's light bulbs. These light bulbs will pay for themselves in about 6 months because they use much less energy than a normal incandescent light bulb. A single light bulb will save you dozens of dollars over its life so just think about what several will do to brighten up your house. Basically what I am telling you is that once a CFL pays for itself, it will begin to print money for you! Think of the possibilities! Buy now!

Organic and Locally Grown Food: The benefits of eating organic foods have been somewhat debated for awhile, but the idea of a yucky pesticide-treated vegetable being just as yummy as an organic vegetable is just ludicrous. But, let me give you another idea. Buy locally grown foods. Locally grown foods can be put into your hungry mouth much faster than a same type of food shipped halfway across the country or world. Not to mention the greenhouse gases (BOOOO, HISSS, HISSS) that the atmosphere will be spared from that same process. But, be warned. Don't just buy a few of those locally grown fruits and veggies at your farmer's market. Buy a ton! Because what is better than one apple....two!!!! Many local grocery stores are also on the bandwagon with locally grown organic foods, so be sure to check them out as well.

I know what you are thinking! "But Shaun, locally grown food and organic food is more expensive!" Well, not anymore! (Cue the cheesy music) You know that old patch of dirt in your back or side yard that just sits there year after year? Well, it's sad and calling to you. Throw some soil down and plant a garden! Seeds are cheaper, soil is renewable, and water is recyclable! Suddenly that yucky patch of dirt is transformed into a beautiful, mega-producing garden! Have friends over to pick your bountiful harvest and still have plenty left over for yourself. And, and at much less the cost of buying the same food at a grocery store! Hmmmm, I can see that strawberry bush now.
Don't have a dirt patch, or do you live in an apartment? Find a friend with some space or build a co-op garden with neighbors.

Recycle Water: What's better than enjoying the water from that warm bath or shower? Enjoying it twice! Set up a rain barrel outside and pump that wasteful water directly into it. Better yet, collect rain from your house's gutters into the barrel as well. You can then use this recycled water to water flowers, grass, or other stuff that would normally get hose water. Hence, you are saving money again! Boy, you are on your way!

There are many things you can do to pad your wallet and save the planet. Because, afterall, it isn't just your planet, it's mine too! Bye for now

****************And fade to crowd noise***************

Anyway, really, there are a ton of things that you can do to save money while also saving the planet. It's in all of our hands.

Updated: 8:05 PM GMT on October 07, 2009


You're a Meteorologist?!

By: shauntanner, 5:37 PM GMT on October 06, 2009

It's happened to me numerous, if not many, times. I stroll into a party, BBQ, or any generic get-together and somehow strike up a conversation with someone new. Now, I am basically an anti-social person who generally enjoys people-watching and not people-conversing, so for me to strike up a conversation with someone new is a big deal. No kidding, I have like 3 friends and that is too many. So, in the course of this conversation with this new person, my career comes up.
"You're a meteorologist?"
"Yes." (I am a man of many words.)
"I am going to Cancun for a vacation in a couple weeks, what is the weather going to be like?"
This is when I usually give some generic or funny answer and then cut off the conversation.
Like I said, this has happened to me many times. This also happens to all meteorologists in the course of their careers and public life. But, why? Why is the general public stymied by the idea that someone could be a meteorologist? Then why does that mystification turn into a question that is so off base that I have to roll my eyes in the back of my head? I mean, I have been asked everything from what the weather will be tomorrow, to is climate change a conspiracy theory, to are you on television? Not only that, but there is a certain population of people that think they know everything about weather without actually being a meteorologist. So you have to sit there and fade in and out of the conversation as this person explains how the Bora in the Adriatic (look it up) affected his last vacation.
I was sitting in the back of a large van very late one night (or very early one morning) as an airport shuttle drove me home from a business trip. The driver, poor soul, had the incredible difficult task of driving strangers home to their residences in the Bay Area. As I was sitting in this van with just the driver, he tilts his bed back and asks,
"What do you do for a living?"
I answered with half-closed eyes, "I'm a meteorologist".
A moment of silence, then "Really? I hear there is a shower coming."
Not wanting to think about the weather, I answered, "I guess, it's that time of year."
"Yes, I hear it is supposed to be very active with many falling stars."
Then I realized he was talking about a meteor shower and I quickly faded into the night. What is it about this profession?
I think I know. Everybody gets to experience weather whether they like it or not. So, to some extent, we are all professional forecasters. It's just that some of us spent several years understanding the weather we see. How many other professions can claim that everybody on the planet has a least some experience in it. Probably a handful, and that's it.
Also, the name is funny. Not only is it difficult to spell and say, but the name "Meteorologist" conveys images of falling stars, bright meteors, and mystical occurrences. Truth is, the profession was given this name when a "meteor" was simply anything that fell from the sky. This includes rain, snow, hail, etc. Now, the profession is simply the study of the atmosphere and its natural phenomena.
If you are one of these hit-and-run questioners, just realize one thing. Meteorology is a difficult profession. What we are literally tasked to do is to predict the future by simply looking at a computer screen and recalling past experiences. In fact, my license plate rim says "Meteorologist predict the future" (My wife picked that instead of "Meteorologists do it with models"). Thus, to answer any forecast question adequately, we have to have a good understanding of what the atmosphere is at that time. This is because the atmosphere changes constantly and a forecast we give now may be different than a forecast we give for the same time period 30 minutes from now. We aren't "on" all the time. Sometimes, we just want to watch the sunset and not think about the scattering of sunlight (look it up).
Of course, my extended family does think I am mystical. Being the only "real-life" Meteorologist they know, I often get the age old question,"is it going to rain today?" from my various aunts, uncles, cousins. At one family event, I was asked that question and I simply threw out a time of 7 p.m. for the rain start time because it had been awhile since I had last looked in-depth at the forecast. It was a guess and I was more interested in returning to the plate of food in front of me than giving a long-winded answer. Well, it started raining at exactly 7 p.m. and while on my way home I received a call from my uncle that conveyed his amazement. "I am going to call you for every weather question I have," he says. Great, more questions.

Updated: 7:45 PM GMT on October 06, 2009


High Fire Danger! Do...uh...something!

By: shauntanner, 6:26 PM GMT on October 02, 2009

Below are my opinions. I am sure there are many people much smarter than me who have better ideas. But I have thoughts and a place to put them, so there!

I live in California. A natural part of that life around this time of year are the wildfires that grip parts of the state. Fire season runs from August through pretty much the end of the year, and it seems that every year there are multiple mega-blazes that cause states of emergency, cause billions of dollars in damage, and devastate thousands of people's lives. In the past several years, it seems as though these blazes are getting larger and more frequent due to a variety of reasons not the least of which is the dry conditions and drought that the state is dealing with.
To combat this ever growing natural and unnatural threat, the National Weather Service issues various Red Flag Warnings that progress down the chain from National Forest, State Parks, farmers, and eventually into your living room via the boob tube. These warnings are frequent in the western United States this time of year and are issued when low humidities combine with high heat. Throw some Santa Ana or other regional wind event into the time frame and you get a mix of extremely dangerous conditions that are capable of fanning an out-of-control blaze. Just look at Figure 1 below to note the current Severe Weather Map. Even at the time of this posting, there are Red Flag Warnings posted through central Nevada and in the hills of Southern California. The warnings in California state "Widespread single digit humidities will continue through late this afternoon. The light offshore winds this morning will shift onshore this afternoon...".
The reasons the NWS issue these types of warnings are multi-fold. First is to convey the dangerous fire weather conditions to the fire crews in the area. Doing this will allow these crews and authorities to divert resources into areas that are most likely to go up in flames. Second is to inform the public of the high fire danger so that people who live in the danger area can take special precautions like clearing the brush away from structures, delaying BBQ's, and listening for more information. Other reasons include informing parks and forest areas for obvious reasons. Local news outlets almost always pick up on these warnings and post them on websites and report on them in their daily newscasts. So, if you pay any sort of attention, you should know when a Red Flag Warnings is posted for your area.
But, is all of this warning, information, and preparation really worth it? The point of issuing the warnings (as stated above) is basically to raise fire crews and residents to an awareness such that they are ready when and if a fire does roar through their area. My contention is that is also allows would-be arsonists to be ready as well. For if I was sinister enough to have a thought in my head that involved setting a fire and watching it burn through people's property, all I would have to do is watch the 10 o'clock news and wait for that government issued Red Flag Warning. Then I would know exactly where and when to go about my destruction.
Rather, I suggest filtering the fire warning information down to the forest service and park service level. Down to the public level should be limited and only to people who are activity looking for it.
Let's take a look at this reasoning. The main sources of fire are lightning, powerlines, human (non-arson), human (arson), etc. A pie chart of causes can be seen here. According to the CDF less than 10 percent of the fires that occur in it jurisdiction are lightning-caused (Source). One can assume that these types of fires will be started regardless of the Red Flag Warnings. Instead, warnings for these types of fires are merely aimed at containing the blaze.
If you look at the 20 Largest California Wildland Fires (Source), 6 of them are human caused (4 human, 1, arson, and 1 vehicle). But, if you look at the 20 Largest California Wildland Fires By Structures burned (Source), then you will see that 9 of them are human-caused (3 human, 6 arson). And multiple of these fires are either undetermined or under investigation. In other words, arson as a cause goes way, way up when structures are involved. The first list (by acre), some of these fires are located in remote locations that are hard to get to by firefighters and thus allowed to burn longer and larger. Plus, you will see that many of the "by-acreage" fires were lightning caused. The fire service tends fight these less agressively due some natural fires are good for nature.
My point is this: some people are crazy. Some people are crazy enough to only need a reason, a path, to go out and cause major destruction. Why give them that reason, why give them that path? Think about it...handing an arsonist a Red Flag Warning explicitly stating when and where to start a fire is like leaving your house unlocked with a sign outside saying "High Probability This House is Unlocked and Unmonitored" while on vacation.
I can hear the comments now. "Residents do need fair warning if they live up in the mountains." Well, I am not suggesting to cut off the fire information from the public. Rather, simply make it less available. If you live in a high fire danger, you should be more motivated to find the information. Plus, if you are only motivated to clear brush away from your house during high fire danger you might want to rethink living in the mountains. Fires can start anytime, any season so that brush should be cleared away AT ALL TIMES!

Figure 1. Current Severe Weather Map


WunderTanner's Blog

By: shauntanner, 10:18 PM GMT on October 01, 2009

Hello everybody. Some of you may or may not have read some of my blogs before on Weather Underground, but my name is Shaun Tanner and I am a Senior Meteorologist. I have created this blog for those of you with a mild to moderate interest in meteorology. In it, I will attempt to help you navigate the confusing world of weather as well as bring to the forefront interesting weather headlines from around the world. Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions and I will do my best to answer them. I cannot guarantee that I will update it everyday, but when something exciting in the country happens with regards to weather, check back here.

Meteorology is an inexact science. As a result, much of what is running around in a meteorologist's head are just ideas about how that clouds above his head has formed, or what he is exactly seeing in a satellite picture. Many times, I find myself explaining weather terms with other real-life events so people outside the industry can understand them. For instance, I teach an introductory to Meteorology class whether I am responsible for introducing very new ideas to freshman/sophomore college students. One of the ideas is an overshooting top of a thunderstorm. To do that, I simply relate the idea of taking a rubber duckie to the bottom of a full bathtub and letting go. The duckie does not float to the top and stop. Rather, it floats to the top, then its momentum takes it up slight, gravity takes it back down, and it eventually evens out on top of the water.

I bring this up because throughout the life of this blog, I will try to relate Meteorology terms and ideas in ways that are easily understood. Because many people simply do not understand the atmosphere, this is a way of bring them into the fold.

The first topic I would like to discuss is the different sources of long term forecasts for this upcoming Fall and Winter. If there was only one source, that would make it a lot easier because this source would either be right or wrong. As it is now, there are many sources that are either right or wrong yearly. So, which one to believe? Chances are, none, all, or somewhere in between. Good luck with that.

I am not a person who believes that forecasts should be believed if they are given more than 7-day in advance unless there is ample evidence that multiple sources of the forecast agree. Heck, even 7 days is too far into the future sometimes. I have stared at many a model analysis that showed a major storm hitting my area in the 5 to 7 day period that just didn't materialize or hit sooner or later than "expected". It is no wonder the general public does not believe their local Meteorologist some of the time. For instance, look at the forecast for the 2009 Atlantic Hurricane Season. The original long-term hurricane forecast by Dr. Bill Gray of Colorado State University stated that this hurricane season was expected to be an average season. Dr. Jeff Masters reported on this back in March of this year. This forecast called for 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2 intense hurricanes. So far, we have had 6 names storms and 2 hurricanes. And we are past the normal peak of the season. Now, I am not calling these scientist out. I cannot begin to explain how much more they know than me regarding hurricanes. They are at the top of their field and their forecasts are extraordinary in their knowledge. However, I do mean to point out the pitfalls of long-term forecasting It simply is extremely difficult in many cases, and impossible in many other. But, when the public asks us "what is this upcoming winter going to be like", we are forced to give an answer. So, let's take a look at some of these answers.

The Farmers' Almanac has been around for centuries and is something people still take seriously (albeit a small population). For the upcoming Winter, the almanac is calling for a cool to cold winter for much of the country with a lot of snow in the Northeast. Wet weather is forecast in the Southern Plains, while dry conditions are expected for the Great lakes and the Southwest. Believe it? Let's move on.

30 and 90 day outlooks

The NWS puts out a 30 and 90 day outlook for the country monthly (if that makes sense). These maps give a general forecast for precipitation and temperature for 30 days out and 90 days out. But this is where they do something smart. Instead of giving a detailed forecast, the maps simply illustrate where there is going to be the best probability for above average, below average, and near average precipitation and temperature. For instance, for the October/November/December period, there is a good probability that the Gulf Coast will see above average precipitation. Same in the 30 day period. During the same 90-day period, there is a good probability of above normal temperatures in the entire western half of the country. Go check out these maps for more information on where you live.

There are, of course, pitfalls with this type of long-arching forecast. For instance, much of the West will undergo a severe heat wave next week. This will be due to a very large ridge of high pressure that will glide over the West Coast. This extreme event can skew the colors on the map toward the above average temperature range even though the rest of the period may or may not be average in temperature. Just like the person who ruins the curve in class and causes everybody else to have a lower score.

El Nino

El Nino is an event that gets a lot of press. If you want to know more about it and what causes it, go to that link. But, basically it is a water temperature anomaly that occurs with warmer than normal water temperatures along the west coast of South America. This causes weather changes throughout the world.

Well, the most recent SST Anomaly map shows that there is actually warmer than normal temperatures along the west coast of South America. And the discussion from the Climate Prediction Center regarding El Nino says "A majority of the model forecasts for the Ni�o-3.4 SST index (Fig. 5) suggest El Ni�o will reach at least moderate strength during the Northern Hemisphere fall (3-month Ni�o-3.4 SST index of +1.0oC or greater)." In addition, it goes on to say that many other models suggest a strong event. But what does all of this mean? Well, currently there is an El Nino Advisory, which is issued when that event is observed or expected to continue.

The effects of El Nino shows wide-ranging effects, but these effects may not even happen unless the even is get strong. Also, El Nino and its sister, La Nina, aren't even fully understood yet. So, are these things likely to happen this year? We may only know when we are in the thick of it.

I guess what I am saying is this: long-term forecasts are very difficult and can be frustrating. But, they can also be informative. For instance, in the on-going Climate Change "debate", the use of models to predict and warn about future climate change is imperative. Since these models are clustered close together in their predictions, we are forced to pay heed.

Updated: 10:25 PM GMT on October 01, 2009


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Wunderground Meteorologist Shaun Tanner

About shauntanner

Shaun Tanner has been a meteorologist at Weather Underground since 2004.

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