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Weather

Review: The new WUnderground beta site

So I finally caught wind of the new Weather Underground Beta page and provided them with some feedback, but I figured I could go into a more detailed review here. For this review I looked at the DCA (Ronald Reagan Washington National, DC) page. Keep in mind that this is a beta version and will be changed as time goes on. If you have your own feedback to give, please do so on their site.

The new beta version was announced on the Weather Underground Product Team Blog back on January 8th, though apparently with not much fanfare since this morning is the first I’ve heard of it. In it includes a description of how they’re going about this development phase, and like any other beta product, it is by no means intended to look like the finished product. My one gripe comes from what is said in the embedded video on the blog post, which states that their new forecast graph “tells a really clear and detailed story about the forecast in a way that hasn’t ever been done before.” I don’t know if they’re just talking about being able to move about the timeline of the graph specifically, but in a more general sense the graphing system (what meteorologists typically call a meteogram) is very similar to what the National Weather Service currently has, so I’m not quite sure what their interpretation of “hasn’t ever been done before” is.

They also discuss how much they want this site to have the same experience across all platforms, whether it be your phone, tablet, PC, etc. I don’t blame them for trying it, and it certainly has its advantages, but like the whole Windows 8 fiasco it may prove to be quite difficult to get something that someone can have an equally satisfying experience with when transitioning from say PC to phone (as I often do). I cannot praise nor condemn them for trying, but I do wish them good luck.

A lot of comments to their blog post talk about how much better the old version is at providing the most data possible. Yes, it is nice to have all that data, but they’re still adding these data as time goes on, so it’s hard to completely fault them for not having all of it up and displayed on the beta pages yet. I imagine some parts will be gone or simply just links to different pages in order to keep the more minimalist feel to the page and to allow for faster loading on mobile devices.

On to the main review!

current_and_topnav

The top navigation area with the Search & Favorites and the Recent Cities section is fine. It’s pretty hard to screw up this area, so in my book they pass, but it’s nothing that’s really praiseworthy to begin with. They really need to add the toggle option back for English SI/Metric units, though. I’ll assume that it is just missing because it’s in beta and will eventually be added back in.

In the Current Conditions section, we get most of the basic stuff we need right off the bat, but please give us the units! The temperature, feels like, and wind speeds are there, but their units are not explicitly expressed. For most people, it’s pretty intuitive that they mean Fahrenheit and mph, but really, the units should be on there. The expanded More Conditions area is good, though at the time of this post for some reason the temperature in the More Conditions section was not right. An easy enough fix, but again it’s in beta, so I will not fault them for that. I love reading the raw METAR data and am glad that they kept that around.

forecast

The forecast section looks excellent. I like the look and interactiveness of the hourly data, with the daily summaries above it. The default layout is very nice, and the customization features are great. The only thing I would like to see added is QPF and precipitation types. The Table and Descriptive tabs are also good, though in the Table tab I’m not sure why I have to scroll through the daily summary part at the top. The only difference that has from the similar one in the Graph tab is it’s bigger and has the POPs listed. If it doesn’t have to be there, take out the scrolling and make each day smaller or just leave it with fewer days, or maybe even give it two rows with five days in each row.

weather_map

The weather map is where you can really tell that this is more geared towards mobile/tablet screens rather than PC. To me, it is just way too stretched out with full width on PC, giving a huge bias to east/west but providing very little north/south data. It looks perfectly fine and square on my phone, but to keep a more even perspective on PC there should definitely be a limited width. Personally, for PC users I would stick it up in the Current Conditions section, which would help give it the more square appearance. It is “current conditions,” after all. I’ve always preferred the NEXRAD radar to their WunderMap, but it’s their main radar and I cannot blame them for prioritizing that over NEXRAD.

Actually, when it comes to the radar, I prefer using the classic page! When they moved to the current version, the options to toggle different radar features like SRV and VIL covers the ENTIRE radar, whereas the classic version just had a nice tab that left the radar area visible. The difference for me is keeping the radar area visible makes it easier to go back and forth between the different products to compare their location/overlay. I may or may not be in the minority with preferring the old radar product menu, but it’s really the only reason why I still use the classic page.

whats_missing

I would like to thank WUnderground for offering this beta and feedback option. Too often nowadays we are forced to just accept changes made to web sites *cough* Facebook *cough* Twitter *cough*. I appreciate having the opportunity to provide feedback, just as I hope they appreciate every bit that they get. It is not pictured, but like the header, the footer is good. Again, it’s pretty hard to mess that up.

Overall, the minimalist and full-width look of the site is nice and for the most part, it carries over to different devices well. I keep my browser on full width at home, and it is nice to be able to see as much data right up front as possible. The easy historical data look-up and the NEXRAD Radar are the two biggest (and almost exclusive) reasons why I visit this site, so for me it is pivotal that these are easy to access.

How do you revamp the warning system?

Over the past couple of years, the National Weather Service has begun a large undertaking in changing the way meteorologists communicate weather information to the public. We have seen extreme events such as Hurricane Sandy and the Joplin tornado that reveal gaps and inadequacies in the warning system. Those issues have been and are continuing to be addressed both by the NWS and social scientists, and progress is being made. However, while the implementation of the latest changes seems to be helping, there is certainly more that has to be done in the wording of the products and in the effective dissemination of the products to the media and the public. As it has been, this will be a slow, multi-year process undertaken with diligence and plenty of research.

Most of the scrutiny of the NWS warnings and other NOAA weather products has come in recent years as the way we communicate continues to distance itself from previous years where the NWS product formats were better suited. Like all other mass communication agencies, the NWS needs to evolve with modern culture, and thus far has struggled to do so. Most NWS offices have their own Twitter and Facebook accounts, but adding the individual offices has been a slow process, and not all offices are on social media at this point. This is important, as it now puts the official source for hazardous weather information in direct communication with its constituents. Before, most of the public got NWS information second hand through the TV or private weather sites. Now the NWS has unprecedented abilities to convey their direct messages with the public. Conversely, the public now has more opportunity to communicate with the NWS and provide feedback.

But here is where we run into a snag: The NWS warnings and discussions do not always efficiently and effectively communicate the hazards and risks directly to the public. Increased access and visibility of the NWS products in a way is forcing the NWS to change the way they write and format their products. Before the large leap in modern communication, the NWS mostly just had to worry about the meteorological aspects and communicating with other meteorologists, emergency managers and event coordinators amongst a select group of others. With everyone’s eyes now viewing the NWS products, changes have to be made.

Aside from the actual communication aspect, one of the hardest issues the NWS deals with is actually getting the public to REACT when a hazardous situation arises. For some people, it takes no less than a literal slap to the face to get them moving, and since the NWS obviously cannot do this, they still sometimes get blamed when people do not take action. The problem is, in order to properly word the warnings to get people to move, the NWS meteorologists sometimes have to stick their necks out by providing more stern, deterministic wording as opposed to the probabilistic, “cover your butt” wording that ensures minimal blowback down the road. Something more effective might include “If you are in the storm’s path, take action now. If you do not, you will be at greater risk of injury or death.”

This year, the NWS introduced more impact-based text into their products, which has helped some in getting more effective communication and understanding. However, this idea, while good in its own merit, is just tacked on to the regular products as an obvious afterthought. So, what has been proposed, and how can we improve it further?

One of the best ideas I have seen involves a clear, bullet-point discussion on the hazards and impacts. With warnings, time can be of the essence, so it is important to keep the information as concise and clear as possible while not losing vital details. Let’s take a look at an example warning just to see how it is laid out:

BULLETIN – EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE STATE COLLEGE PA
213 PM EDT TUE SEP 18 2012

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN STATE COLLEGE PA HAS ISSUED A

* SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING FOR…
EASTERN ADAMS COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
EASTERN CUMBERLAND COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
DAUPHIN COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
NORTHWESTERN LANCASTER COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
LEBANON COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
SCHUYLKILL COUNTY IN CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
YORK COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…

* UNTIL 315 PM EDT

* AT 206 PM EDT…NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A
LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS. THESE SEVERE STORMS EXTENDED FROM NEW
MAHONING TO PROGRESS TO CODORUS TO BRIDGEPORT…MOVING NORTHEAST AT
45 MPH. THESE STORMS ARE CAPABLE OF PRODUCING DAMAGING WINDS IN
EXCESS OF 60 MPH.

* LOCATIONS IN THE WARNING INCLUDE…
SKYLINE VIEW AND MANCHESTER…
BAINBRIDGE AND POTTSVILLE…
HERSHEY AND POTTSVILLE…
HARPER TAVERN AND ELIZABETHTOWN…
LAWN AND LOCUST LAKE STATE PARK…
ANNVILLE AND LICKDALE…

THIS WILL IMPACT THE FOLLOWING CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA INTERSTATES…THE PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 230 AND 280…I-78 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 0 AND 8…I-81 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 54 AND 139…I-83 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 4 AND 50…I-283.

THIS WILL ALSO IMPACT THE FOLLOWING MAJOR ROADS…THE HARRISBURG EXPRESSWAY…THE HARRISBURG AIRPORT CONNECTOR…STATE HIGHWAY 283…
ROUTE 11…ROUTE 11/15…ROUTE 15…ROUTE 22…ROUTE 30…ROUTE 209…ROUTE 322…ROUTE 322/22…ROUTE 422…STATE ROAD 61…STATE ROAD 94…STATE ROAD 97…STATE ROAD 309…STATE ROAD 501.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS…

THIS LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS HAS A HISTORY OF PRODUCING WIND DAMAGE. DO NOT STAY OUTDOORS.

A TORNADO WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FOR THE WARNED AREA. IF A TORNADO IS SPOTTED…ACT QUICKLY AND MOVE TO A PLACE OF SAFETY INSIDE A STRONG BUILDING…SUCH AS A BASEMENT OR SMALL INTERIOR ROOM.

SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS PRODUCE DAMAGE. MOVE INSIDE A PERMANENT BUILDING NOW TO BE SAFE FROM STRONG WIND GUSTS.

PLEASE REPORT HAIL…STRONG WINDS OR WIND DAMAGE TO THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BY CALLING TOLL FREE…1 8 7 7 6 3 3 6 7 7 2.

&&

LAT…LON 4030 7706 4033 7691 4036 7694 4037 7702
4044 7700 4047 7695 4052 7696 4066 7671
4080 7631 4088 7629 4095 7620 4091 7599
4074 7576 4064 7598 4057 7601 4049 7643
4030 7613 3972 7671 3972 7733
TIME…MOT…LOC 1812Z 217DEG 39KT 4086 7566 4033 7678
3984 7680 3929 7751

That message conveys all of the information you need, but just look at all that CAPS TEXT! Is the pubic going to bother with reading all of that? My guess is no. Well, it would not be prudent of me to knock their message without offering up an alternative, so here’s what I would consider to be a more effective warning:

BULLETIN – EAS Activation Requested
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING
National Weather Service State College PA
213 PM EDT TUE SEP 18 2012 UNTIL 315 PM EDT

* Pennsylvania central and south-central counties include:
Eastern Adams
Eastern Cumberland
Dauphin
Northwestern Lancaster
Lebanon
Schuylkill
York

* AT 206 PM EDT…POTENTIALLY SEVERE STORMS EXTENDED FROM
New Mahoning to Progress to Codorus to Bridgeport

* MOVING NORTHEAST AT 45 MPH

* HAZARDS
Damaging winds in excess of 60 mph.

* ACTIONS TO TAKE
Move inside a permanent building now.

* Locations in the warning include…
Skyline View and Manchester…
Bainbridge and Pottsville…
Hershey and Pottsville…
Harper Tavern and Elizabethtown…
Lawn and Locust Lake State Park…
Annville and Lickdale…

This will impact the following central Pennsylvania interstates…the Pennsylvania Turnpike between mile markers 230 and 280…I-78 between mile markers 0 and 8…I-81 between mile markers 54 and 139…I-83 between mile markers 4 and 50…I-283.

This will also impact the following major roads…the Harrisburg Expressway…the Harrisburg Airport connector…state highway 283…
route 11…route 11/15…route 15…route 22…route 30…route 209…route 322…route 322/22…route 422…state road 61…state road 94…state road 97…state road 309…state road 501.

A Tornado Watch remains in effect for the warned area. If a tornado is spotted…act quickly and move to a place of safety inside a strong building…such as a basement or small interior room.

Please report hail…strong winds or wind damage to the National Weather Service by calling toll free…1 8 7 7 6 3 3 6 7 7 2.

&&

LAT…LON 4030 7706 4033 7691 4036 7694 4037 7702
4044 7700 4047 7695 4052 7696 4066 7671
4080 7631 4088 7629 4095 7620 4091 7599
4074 7576 4064 7598 4057 7601 4049 7643
4030 7613 3972 7671 3972 7733
TIME…MOT…LOC 1812Z 217DEG 39KT 4086 7566 4033 7678
3984 7680 3929 7751

I have removed some of the redundant or otherwise unnecessary text, conserved ALL CAPS to highlight the most important areas and provided a more bullet-point style of displaying the hazards and impacts. The rest is secondary information that I left untouched, as it is not essential to communicate the warning.

A sample tweet might go something like this:

SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING in central and south-central Pennsylvania for damaging winds. More information at *LinkToWarning*. #PAwx

And that’s another thing: These IEMBot accounts the the NWS uses to automatically push products to Twitter. In my opinion, they would be more effective if the products were split into different accounts: One with warnings, watches and advisories, one with general forecasts and one for reports. This way people can choose which feeds to follow instead of getting spammed by NWS products. An example of what I’m talking about RE: the spam is the Blacksburg, VA NWS bot (sorry for singling you out, Blacksburg!).

From what I have seen, some of the NWS offices on Facebook have done a good job utilizing it. Compared to Twitter, Facebook is a completely different entity, and there is only so much you can do effectively on it. The best utilization of Facebook I have seen for the NWS is requesting and gathering reports from the public. It provides a good space for back-and-forth communication in a centralized location, with options to easily add photo or video evidence to support the report. It is slower-paced than Twitter, so information does not fly through the feed with the opportunity to get passed over. Also, there are no hashtags or anything to worry about when submitting a report to make it easy for the NWS to find.

The National Weather Service has taken the initiative to revamp the warning system in order to provide more efficient and effective communication, and it still has a way to go. But it is not a one-way street. If you have ideas on how to improve the warning system, contact the NWS and suggest them! There can sometimes be huge disconnects between what meteorologists think the public will understand and what the public actually does understand, and your feedback will help bridge this gap. Tell the NWS what might be confusing and what you would like to see changed. The NWS is here to serve you.

Tornado Outbreak ongoing in the Midwest and Southeast

Multiple violent tornadoes are tracking across the Midwest to Southeast today as this High Risk event gets underway.

CLICK HERE for an animated GIF of the long-track debris ball in southern Indiana (image size 3.28 MB).

Here’s the latest SPC outlook:

UPDATE (6:45pm): Another long-lived debris ball went through West Liberty, KY. CLICK HERE for the radar loop (another large image).

UPDATE (7:45pm): Yet another long-lived debris ball… this one went through Salyersville, KY. CLICK HERE for large image goodness.

Mid-Atlantic Discussion – Feb 29, 2012

We end the last day of meteorological winter not with snow, but with severe as storms threaten the region for the second time within a week.

Currently, there are two tornado watches active in the region… one that extends into most of WV, and another that encompasses extreme southeastern WV and most of western VA.

 
Both watches are set to expire during the first half of the evening. The main concern with these storms is damaging wind, with isolated tornadoes possible and a low risk of severe hail. The main cluster of storms is moving through WV/VA now, but another cluster of storms is expected in the same areas in the early evening. Both of these clusters are expected to weaken as they get east of the mountains in the northern areas, but a risk for severe will continue into the overnight hours in southern VA and NC.

Severe weather outbreak likely in the Southeast/Midwest

The SPC has released their first Moderate Risk for severe weather of the season for today:

The biggest risk will be for damaging winds along a squall line that is expected to form during the late evening to early morning hours just west and along the Mississippi River from southern Illinois southward into central Mississippi. 50-55 kt. winds in the 925-950mb level could mix down to the surface as the squall line pushes through. This is also a fairly good low CAPE/high shear setup for tornadoes, which could develop along the squall line.

The one thing to keep an eye on is the somewhat stable layer of air between the surface and 950mb, which will inhibit the potential severity for most of the storms except maybe in the southernmost areas.

I think the SPC prediction for today is fairly reasonable, but I will say that the northern extent of the Slight Risk and Moderate Risk could be cut back as the low-level air is forecast to be too stable north and east of southern Illinois. If the warm front associated with this system can get advected further north than forecast, then the SPC’s risk area could be justified. I could see that happening to a degree as the models often underforecast the northern extent of the warm sector in dynamically-strong cases such as this one, but I don’t think it will be as significant as the SPC appears to think it will be.

Widespread rain event over the next 5-7 days… some severe

An upper-level low is forecast to move into the Midwest tomorrow before cutting off from the main flow, which will allow it to linger over the Midwest and Tennessee Valley regions through around Monday or Tuesday before it lifts out of the eastern U.S. This has a couple of different implications for the region…

The most pronounced threat with the cut-off low is the potential rainfall, with widespread totals of 1-3 inches or more in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Normally 1-3 inches isn’t that critical, but when you add it to the recent record-breaking rainfall in these regions any larger rainfall potential becomes a significant event.

Here’s a look at the total rainfall and the percent of normal rainfall for the period starting August 1st and ending yesterday, September 19th:

With some areas with over 20 inches of rain in the last 45-50 days, anything over a couple of inches will cause some of the rain-soaked areas to flood once again. Right now it looks like the coastal areas are more at risk for heavy rain compared to the inland/mountain areas in the Mid-Atlantic.

In terms of severe weather, strong to severe storms will be possible Thursday through next Monday or Tuesday, depending on the position of the cut-off low. This complex cut-off will have a few pieces of energy floating around it (at least initially… some guidance suggests one of the pieces breaks away before it completely stalls):

Having 2-3 pieces of energy in this cut-off low will make the forecast very difficult as models struggle to resolve the complex mesoscale interactions between the different pieces of energy and what they’ll do in turn at the surface.

Also associated with this energy will be an upper-level jet streak out ahead of the trough, which will help enhance lift. The problems, at least initially, will be the fact that the energy is just a bit too far to the west to have that great of an impact on the Mid-Atlantic, and clouds and rain could inhibit heating and worsen the lapse rates. My main focus for severe is when the trough does finally push eastward over the region… hopefully the timing will be good and it could trigger some afternoon/evening storms over the Mid-Atlantic. Once it progresses into the region, the energy involved with it will cause greater lift and the lapse rates should improve.

Not getting my hopes up on severe yet, but at least it’s something to watch over the next several days.

Planning and Forecast for the Storm Chase Expedition

The start date for chasing is being finalized as I type this, but it looks like Jason, Ian (will be bio’ed later) and I will head out from Maryland on April 30th, with the plan to start actively chasing on May 2nd (so long as there are storms on that day). We be out chasing through the 13th, which will give us 12 full potential chase days before we have to start heading back to Maryland.

There’s a few things still left to buy, like a sleeping bag and duffel bag, but other than that there’s just prepping Jason’s car and finalizing the itinerary.

I will be posting a daily blog from start to finish for everyone to follow along and enjoy. It should be an interesting two weeks!

Looking at the climatological statistics and the teleconnection forecasts, it appears as though early May could be quite active in the Central Plains, Midwest and Tennessee Valley regions.

The NAO and PNA are forecast to be either negative or trending negative as we head into early May:


 
Below are the loading patterns (ridges/troughs) that correlate with the NAO and PNA in spring:


(The height anomaly maps are from the Climate Prediction Center)

 
The images are the positive phase correlations of the NAO and PNA. Warm colors indicate positive height anomalies, and the opposite is true for the cooler colors. If you invert the colors for the negative phase, you can see that the -NAO induces a trough over the Rockies and that the -PNA induces a ridge over the Southeast. Together, they help steer the storm track through the Central Plains and into the Midwest, as seen with the red arrows that are added to the images on the right-hand side. This track is quite favorable for severe weather.
 
Here is the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map:

 
It shows dry conditions over the Southern Plains and parts of the Southeast. I won’t go into it much, but I’ll quickly just say “drought breeds drought” in that the drier areas on the map will have a tendency to stay dry, which would indicate that most of the storms will form further north in the Central Plains and the Midwest/Tennessee Valley regions. In a hand-waiving manner, the drought conditions will help keep the storm tracks further north, which will help support the -PNA pattern.

We are also coming out of a strong La Niña winter into a weak Niña or neutral ENSO state, which is climatologically-favored to produce more active severe weather seasons.

The U.S. has been quite active with low pressure systems in recent months as pockets of upper-level energy that form these systems continually move onshore into the West every 2-4 days. All together, this should provide us with an active May pattern, with plenty of severe weather in the Central Plains and Midwest.