Thursday, March 08, 2012

Geomagnetic Storm? Solar Flare? Sunspots? What Are These and Why Should I Care?

NOAA's Space Weather Update on what could happen during the current Geomagnetic Storm. At this point, not much of an event but great Northern Lights. For more explanations, read the rest below...

What is the Earth's magnetic field?

The earth is surrounded by a magnetic field similar to a magnet in your house. Remember back in grade school when the teacher would shake some iron filings on a sheet of paper placed over a store bought magnet?  The shape the iron filings made was determined by the magnetic field around the magnet.  It looked something like this

What is a "solar flare"?

Before we answer this, we need to understand the sun's behavior a little better:  The surface of the sun go through cycles of high and low levels of activity.  These are called solar cycles which change every 11 years or so.  We are entering in an time of elevated activity.

Higher levels produce more sunspots (areas of lower temperature on the sun's surface) which produce more solar flares. 

Recently, research of the dynamically processes within the sun have revealed that these solar cycles are driven by a process called "Magnetic reconnection" or the changing of the magnetic field within the sun. This changing of the magnetic field results in a tremendous amount of energy release on the surface which can create solar flares.  Scientists can detect the beginnings of sunspots by "listening" to the "noise" produced by the motions within the sun.  The sun's turbulence creates a sound that can be detected before the sunspot forms. Currently, the sunspots are producing a flare that will impact the earth's magnetic field. 

Why do we care here on earth?

The earth's magnetic field is very similar to the magnet from grade school science class except MUCH STRONGER.  When a solar flare is ejected from the sun, it shoots out highly energetic particles that react with the earth's field.  These particles are like the iron filings your grade school teacher spilled on the white sheet of paper described above.

These particles stimulate the earth's magnetic field which can interrupt communications if the flare is strong enough and at the right angle.

One large geomagnetic storm occurred in 1989 that knocked power in parts of Canada

For sure, expect some great northern lights in Canada and in the higher latitudes and maybe here in Northeastern Ohio if the skies clear out. Below is a photo taken from the International Space Station as it passed near the highly energized atmosphere producing an awesome Aurora!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Too Many Deaths in Friday's Tornado Outbreak

It's still hard to watch the video of the cataclysmic damage in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama realizing that lives were lost. A total of 71 tornadoes touched town according to Dr. Greg Forbes of the Weather Channel. As i write this, a confirmed 45 tornadoes from the National Weather Service which will probably rise as damage assessments continue. Here is a nice blog post from "everythingwx" that summerizes the confirmed tornadoes by state

The horror families go through after losing a loved one prematurely to a twister like what happened Friday HAS to be one of the most emotionally draining experience for a human being to endur.  I can't imagine finding the body of an 15 month old as the sun is shining the following day.  My jaw is still on the floor.

After tragic weather, I often look back at the days and hours leading up to event(s) to see if people were warned in a timely manner with appropriate information necessary to make the right decisions to stay out of harm’s way. I don't know the circumstances of these deaths.  I’m not here to judge the specifics. Not enough information is known as I write this. Yet I can't help but think that some of these deaths could have been prevented if 1), the public knew the proper terminology that describes severe weather alerts, 2) the public took the severe weather risks more seriously.

Let's first address storm alert terminology:

SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WATCH means that conditions are FAVORABLE for severe weather. This does not mean that there is a severe storm currently.

SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING means that a severe thunderstorm is occurring or is imminent based on doppler radar information. A severe thunderstorm becomes "severe" after it meets one of two criteria. Hail that is dime size, 0.75 inches in diameter or larger, and/or wind gusts to 58 mph or more.

TORNADO WATCH means that the potential exists for some of the severe thunderstorms to produce a tornado

TORNADO WARNING means that either a tornaado is occurring (on the ground) or the tornado rotation is detected on doppler radar. You should take cover immediately.

All severe storm watches are issued by THE STORM PREDICTION CENTER in Norman, Oklahoma.  All warnings are issued by the respective National Weather Service office covering the specific area. Northeastern Ohio is covered by the NWS office at Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

Friday morning before sunrise, the SPC issued a "moderate risk" then expanded the risk area and upped it to "high risk" which only happens maybe once a year. 

The warnings were out there early on. They were on television, the internet, Facebook and Twitter. Yet people died. 

What can we do?

I think the answer is twofold. First, educate yourself on the differences between a “watch” and a “warning”! This thing called GOOGLE is great. Use it and look up the difference. I just typed in "watch and warning difference". The 5th entry in the list is what you want. I screen captured it so you can see two things: The first is the entry that explains the difference. The second is how long it took me to find the answer circled in red at the top. 0.19 seconds!  We might not have lots of time in our busy lives but we have 0.19 seconds.

If you don't have internet access, talk to your kids. I would bet a nice dinner that your kids know the difference if you don't. This difference is taught in grade school science classes as early as 1st grade in some school programs. It bothers me that many adults have no idea what the difference is between a WATCH and a WARNING. Most third graders know the difference. An adult has ABSOLUTELY no excuse. Your Life; your family’s life is worth your time and effort.

Yet there exists this mentality that quickly diminishes the severity of these warnings.  Maybe it is denial. People think that it won't happen to them. Maybe people today are inundated by information so much so that the "true, lifesaving" information gets lost or watered down in the mix. Just scanning the comments on Facebook and twitter after weather events shows how much negativity the public has toward these warnings during harsh weather.

The meteorologists in the areas hit by the tornado Friday did an exceptional job in getting the necessary information out to their viewers. This saved lives! Facebook and Twitter were lit up with information from credible sources on the tornadoes on ground. Hats off to you all. Severe weather coverage on LIVE tv is a lot harder than it looks.

The bigger question we need to address long term is how do we change the public’s perception of severe weather. A big step in the right direction would be for some television stations to rethink their coverage philosophy. I am lucky enough to work at a station where we DO NOT believe in breaking into a television show unless the weather situation ABSOLUTELY warrants it.  If a TORNADO WARNING is issued, we go LIVE. No questions asked.  Other stations feel the need to "break into programming" during any garden-variety thunderstorm. This "crying wolf" coverage creates a false sense of security.  So when a real event does occur, people think "no big deal. It won't happen here" and continue with their afternoon or evening activities.  Television stations cannot continue to cry wolf! They need to remember that their primary objective is to INFORM THE PUBLIC WITH QUALITY, SEVERE WEATHER INFORMATION as its defined by the National Weather Service and SPC not by management!

Viewers need to WANT TO BELIEVE what they are hearing yet they’re conditioned to doubt that very same information.  Television stations need to remember this and focus on their primary objective. That is to INFORM THE PUBLIC WITH QUALITY, WEATHER SEVERE INFORMATION.  No over hyping and no "crying wolf". Television stations are a conduit of information. Information is power. If that power is used incorrectly, the harm to the public can be irreparable.  I just hope the damage isn't as great as I fear it is.