National Weather Service Communication Woes

Being a TV meteorologist in a small state covered by 3 National Weather Service offices can be challenging. Products issued at different times, inconsistent forecasts, and odd configurations of headlines are just some of the issues. An annoying mish mash of freezing rain advisories, winter weather advisories, and winter storm watches can make maps extremely confusing during the winter.

More often than not we choose not to show the NWS watches/warnings/advisories since they make little sense to a viewer. We focus solely on impacts and timing. Have you ever heard someone say “I didn’t leave the house tonight because there’s a winter storm warning for Middlesex County?” Probably not. Have you heard someone say, “I decided to stay in because the storm is supposed to get really bad after 10 p.m.?” Probably.

Over the last several days we’ve dealt with a heat advisory conundrum that is a symptom of a broader problem. Here’s the configuration of heat advisories this morning issued by 2 separate NWS offices. This is the way it was for about 4 hours.

WVIT Warnings CT

 

This “hole” would imply the excessive heat and humidity would be sandwiched around New Haven County. Southington gets a dangerous heat/humidity combo while Cheshire to the south doesn’t. Stratford – you’re getting high heat while Derby is not.

The 12 p.m. observed heat index across the state shows the folly of such an odd map with seemingly inadequate National Weather Service coordination between offices. The highest heat index values were OUTSIDE of the advisory area.

heat

 

Shortly after noon the heat advisory was expanded along parts of southern Connecticut. Ironically, however, the immediate shoreline was excluded even though the highest heat index in the state is at the Groton-New London Airport (with a hideous 87/78 temperature/dew point spread).

WVIT Warnings CT1

 

While better coordination with media and between offices is always ideal think this speaks to a larger point. Getting bogged down in headlines, specific advisory/watch configurations, and semantics is foolish. At the end of the day people care about impacts. Communicating impacts well is more valuable than quibbling over a degree or two verifying an advisory. The media and the National Weather Service can both do a better job at that and it’s something that we all need to work on!

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Sandy Semantics and Communication Confusion

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Prior to hurricane Sandy’s arrival in the northeast the National Hurricane Center decided against issuing hurricane warnings north of the mid Atlantic. Their reasoning was that the storm would be transitioning from a tropical system to a post-tropical storm.

Based on existing policy, once the storm became post-tropical, the NHC would have to drop all hurricane warnings and local NWS offices would need to issue a new set of warnings, statements, and advisories.

This is how the NHC described their decision (which was, apparently, not solely theirs but one coordinated with other NWS/NOAA entities) in their forecast discussions during the day on Saturday.

5 a.m. Saturday NHC Advisory

5 a.m. Saturday NHC Advisory

11 a.m. NHC Advisory

11 a.m. Saturday NHC Advisory

11 p.m. NHC Advisory

11 p.m. Saturday NHC Advisory

I haven’t commented on this decision on the air or on this platform up until today for several reasons. While some media outlets and blogs harped endlessly on the NHC decision to not issue warnings/watches immediately prior to landfall I thought it was best to ignore their decision not to issue, focus solely on the expected impacts, and call the thing a hurricane both on air and on the blog. After the fact, enough had been written about where I didn’t have a whole lot to add!

Far too much time was wasted by some explaining what the storm’s structure would be and what to call the storm during the time people were (or should have been) preparing or evacuating. Frankenstorm (which came from the NWS), superstorm, hurricane, or hurricane inside a nor’easter, etc. When communicating a major, historic, and dangerous weather event wasting any time on semantics is dangerous business. No need to make the message any more confusing than it needs to be!

Following the storm there was near constant chatter in weather circles (including from some in the National Weather Service) about the NHC decision. Very little of it was supportive.

I disagreed with the NHC decision. Strongly. Most tropical storms that impact New England are transitioning to extra-tropical or post-tropical by the time they reach our latitude. A combination of colder water and interaction with the mid latitude jet stream kick starts the extra-tropical transition (ET) process. Most storms (e.g. Irene, Floyd, Bertha, Gloria, etc.) weaken as they undergo ET. Sandy strengthened as it underwent ET.

Extra-tropical transition is not a binary process. It’s a continuum. There’s not switch that gets flipped that tells you “Yup, that’s it, this storm became extra-tropical at 7:33 p.m..” How the NHC knew the storm would be post-tropical with a great deal of certainty Saturday morning (48+ hours prior to landfall) is a mystery to me. While great strides have been made in ET research over the last decade (see research by Hart and Evans), it’s still a challenge to predict.

What made the National Hurricane Center’s decision so confounding to me is that for previous storms that were undergoing ET the NHC maintained them as “tropical” and kept tropical warnings up until the threat diminished for coastal areas. Those were for weakening storms undergoing ET! Why would they do it for a strengthening storm undergoing ET!?

One of the reasons, as mentioned in the NHC discussions on Saturday, was the possibility of the need to change from tropical to non-tropical warnings which, due to the inflexibility of the warning system, would have been time consuming for the already tightly staffed NWS offices and probably confusing to the end-user. The answer that makes the most sense to me would have been continuing to call the storm a “hurricane” until it had moved inland. There’s certainly an argument you could make that the storm was still a “hybrid” system that had both tropical and non-tropical characteristics like so many other hurricanes that impact this region.

Earlier today, Accuweather reported that the National Hurricane Center has already changed its policy for future storms.

An announcement that sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are expected somewhere within the specified area in association with a tropical, sub-tropical, or post-tropical cyclone. Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the warning is issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical-storm-force winds. The warning can remain in effect when dangerously high water or a combination of dangerously high water and waves continue, even though winds may be less than hurricane force.

The National Weather Service, according to the Washington Post, now denies this change has been made and says it’s a proposal that has not been adopted.

Regardless of what actually has occurred the interview with Accuweather by NHC Science and Operations Officer Chris Landsea was surprisingly frank and open.

“Sandy was not ideal, and the way we handled it was not right. But we’re fixing it,” Landsea told AccuWeather.com.

“We realize this was not satisfactory and we want to make it better for next year.”

The post-Sandy discussion, thus far, has been a bit bizarre. The National Weather Service ordered a service assessment to be co-chaired by Mike Smith of Accuweather then suddenly cancelled it (covered extensively here, here and here). Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that some in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration were throwing the National Weather Service under the bus for contradictory forecasts after the shocking decision to leave nursing home residents in their facilities located in flood zones.

Today, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, NJTransit threw the National Weather Service under the bus as well. Not surprisingly, that’s not sitting well with people at the local National Weather Service offices who did a phenomenal job when, in some cases, they had one hand tied behind their back by the NHC. Here’s how a meteorologist at the Mount Holly NWS office responded to the comments by NJ Transit on Twitter.

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I found the National Weather Service forecasts from our local offices (Albany, Taunton, and Upton) to be nothing short of perfect. We worked with them closely through the event and they couldn’t have been better. I’ve heard extremely positive things about the job the embedded National Weather Service incident meteorologist did with the Connecticut Office of Emergency Management prior to and during Sandy. While issuing a seemingly endless number of products, statements, and warnings they were responding to our questions within moments and we worked together to share thoughts and information on storm surge, wind forecasts, and other Sandy related issues. I couldn’t have asked for anything more, particularly from the Upton, NY office.

While the NHC’s decision to not issue warnings muddied the message in some cases, the message from the local National Weather Service offices could not have been any more clear. There were bigger issues than the lack of hurricane warnings, in my opinion. The lack of education and complacency in parts of New York and New Jersey was and is quite concerning. How much did Irene’s relatively minor impact around New York play into that complacency is unclear. How much Mayor Bloomberg’s initial downplaying of the storm on Saturday played into it is also unclear. How about New York City and New Jersey’s hurricane “drought” over the last few decades? Did people think they were “immune” from Sandy’s wrath no matter what the forecasts were?

It appears the NHC is taking steps to rectify their rigid rules and policies to become more common sense and practical. That’s good. Flexibility and removing barriers to effective communication is a good step to improving weather warnings in the future. The much larger issue, however, is figuring out how people best respond to weather warnings. In order to respond to a warning you need to know, and believe, that you’re in a vulnerable place. A warning people don’t listen to isn’t any good.

Final Report on Tropical Storm Irene Released

The Tropical Cyclone Report for Hurricane Irene was released this week by the National Hurricane Center. There’s not much in here we didn’t already know. Not surprisingly the New Jersey landfall has been downgraded from a hurricane to a 70 mph tropical storm (note: the highest winds were offshore and not on land).

What was a bit of a surprise to me was that Connecticut garnered just 1 mention in the body of the 45-page report. Besides the historic flooding in Vermont and the Catskills the worst impact from Irene in terms of wind damage and storm surge was here in Connecticut.  Here’s the closest reference to Connecticut about the surge that destroyed countless homes, businesses, and roads along our shoreline.

Glad that New York City escaped severe damage but why not mention areas that did experience severe damage?

Connecticut is covered by 3 National Weather Service offices. One in Albany, one near Boston, and one near Long Island. It’s easy to be forgotten here on the outskirts of the 3 service areas. It looks like even the NHC forgot about us too.

The National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts does a nice job including us in emails and communications. I can’t even remember the last time I heard from the other offices.

Disappointing News From the Weather Service

Unfortunately, the climate record for metro Hartford will be tainted again by bad data. This is nothing new. Meteorologists in Connecticut have complained to the Weather Service for years about bad, suspect, or missing snowfall data at Bradley Airport.

As most of us noticed there was an error in how the observers were measuring the snow at the Airport. According to the Weather Service the “snow board” was being placed improperly resulting in incorrect snowfall measurements. Instead of actually using surrounding sites to come up with an accurate estimate of what fell, the National Weather Service appears to have taken the easy way out and just thrown out the bad data as opposed to trying to replace it with something that makes sense.

The original snowfall total was 12.3″ on Saturday 10/29 and 8″ on Sunday 10/30. There was no question that the 8″ total was way too high for Sunday. I also have suspicions that the 12.3″ on Saturday may have been too low. Even though it was still snowing and accumulating (probably another 1.5″ or 2″) on 10/30 the NWS has just ditched the 8″ measurement and replaced it with a Trace.

A meteorologist at the NWS in Taunton emailed local TV meteorologists to say:
I should politely caution everyone that this was a one-time problem that has been corrected, but we must keep in mind that the people doing this had a lot of other issues going on at the time and they are doing the NWS a favor by continuing measurements for us at BDL.

Considering there is a “one-time problem” seemingly every year maybe there is a training issue, a communication issue, or some other type of issue between the NWS and the observers at Bradley. The folks at Bradley aren’t meteorologists so I assume that puts the responsibility to train the observers on the NWS. Maybe some of the blame should lie with them?

Unfortunately our climate record is becoming more and more compromised as the NWS moves away from human observation and toward automation. I treasure the climate record that we do have and believe it is very important. I hate to see it systematically dismantled by moving toward automation.

Several TV and radio meteorologists in the state brought the original bad measurement to the attention of the NWS. When I tried to follow up about why the snowfall that accumulated on 10/30 was just thrown out and replaced with a trace I received no answer. Frustrating.

Update to Bradley Snowfall Total

I’ve received some clarification from the National Weather Service about just how much snow fell at Bradley during the October snowstorm. Here are the snow measurements from the official snow board on 10/29 (through 1 a.m. because of DST):

  • 1pm – Trace
  • 7pm – 4.6″
    Midnight – 5.5″
  • 1am – 2.2″

The total for 10/29 is 12.3″ with additional snow after 1 a.m. on 10/30 that is still unclear. If I had to guess I’d say the 12.3″ measurement is a hair on the low side based on some problems with how the measuring was done.

The guys at Bradley do the best they can but unfortunately measuring snow properly is not easy. The additional snow from 10/30 will be added to the climate data in the coming days after the NWS does a bit more investigating. We will likely end up with an official total around 14″ though I think the actual total was about 1″ or 2″ higher.