House Calls

You never think it’s going to be you…until it’s you

Roughly two minutes after the tornado had passed, stunned victims overlook the far east side of Fairdale, IL.

Roughly two minutes after the tornado had passed, stunned victims look over the east side of Fairdale, IL.

One of the things that makes an Emergency Manager or a meteorologist want to bang their heads against a wall about is one phrase, explicitly said or implicit in one’s behavior:

“It can’t happen to me”.

I work behind the scenes on nights and weekends here at AllisonHouse, grabbing new data sources, and making sure the ones we have now are stable. But here’s a confession, which my boss Tyler probably could easily have guessed, but here’s a public confession:

With only a few brief exceptions until April 18, I haven’t been on duty at AllisonHouse. Why? Am I a lazy slacker? Hardly.

9 days ago, I watched people die in front of me. I didn’t see people die, but I had a very strong hunch at least one did. Based on the tornado I saw…it left me with little doubt.

At my main job at a major University, I was protecting them from a large, violent tornado. None had happened since 1990…and the prevailing attitude around here to a large extent was…it won’t happen again. August 28, 1990…that was a fluke. Even among some emergency folks, it was almost unthinkable that something so bad could happen here, or nearby.

But April 9, 2015 changed all of it, in an hour of rampage.

That’s when a supercell thunderstorm formed late in the afternoon near Annawan, in north-central Illinois. Moving northeast, it followed a warm front, but one that was reinforced by a previous supercell north of it that caused even more wind shear along the front. And then the sun came out, making the atmosphere more unstable. For me, it was like April 20, 2014, when a strong tornado hit Utica, IL, as the storm “rode” along a warm front. It was deja vu all over again.

I notified my employer of the tornado developing over Franklin Grove, and then took off from my house. 20 miles away, just after I left my subdivision, I could see it. I get on the phone with my employer, and I notified them about the tornado. I notified my city. Then, I blasted west, going behind hills and dips until finally, west of Malta, IL, I could see it 7 miles away to my west-northwest. It was big. One of the biggest I had ever seen…now nearly a half-mile wide, and growing.

It had just hit Kings, IL, and a restaurant called “Grubsteakers” at the northeast corner of state route 64 and U.S. Route 251. And now, it was making a beeline for either Kirkland, or Fairdale. At first, it looked like Kirkland would take a direct hit. But as I headed north to Esmond Road, and got north of Esmond, I watched Fairdale largely disappear in front of me, with some of the fastest, most violent rotation I had ever seen in 26 years of storm chasing.

I reached Fairdale less than 2 minutes after it hit. The scene was shocking to me, even though I have seen towns devastated by tornadoes before. The overwhelming smell of broken pine and other trees, mixed in with a little propane or natural gas odor, is one that is repeated in every town just hit by a tornado. I hate that smell. I hate it even more today.

I blocked off the road as aloof travelers were trying to get through. I called 911, offered to help those who were emerging from a collapsed shed, and then called my city to let them know what happened. A few minutes later, as EMS personnel began to arrive, I let them do their work. As volunteer fire crews were arriving in Kirkland, I let them know Fairdale was mostly gone.

I now know that one of the fatalities and several of the 22 injured were preventable: they ignored the warnings they received, or didn’t act on them properly.

A week later, after working late into the night every night, answering phone calls, emails, media interests…it struck me again. You can have GRLevel2, 3, Analyst, Earth, RadarScope, PYKL3, and AllisonHouse Maps…or other products we produce or serve…and ignore the warning. Or, you see it, you call friends and family, and they blow you off. Can I give you a little advice?

Take care of that issue RIGHT NOW.

Use our products to help you understand what’s going on, to pass to your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your city. And make sure YOU understand it. Because when it comes to weather, the atmosphere could care less about you. It just needs to equalize the imbalances in the atmosphere. When that happens over you or those you care for, be ready.

Because you never think it’s going to happen to be you…until it’s you.

My prayers continue to go out to the injured and the other victims of this terrible day in northern Illinois.

The danger of meteorological cancer, and the wonder of meteorological diagnosis

An accurate weather forecast begins with an accurate analysis and diagnosis. A simple surface plot with satellite and radar overlaid, here using AllisonHouse Maps, reveals critical weather features to help you make an accurate forecast.

An accurate weather forecast begins with an accurate weather analysis and diagnosis. A simple surface plot with satellite overlaid, here using AllisonHouse Maps, reveals critical weather features to help you make an accurate forecast.

At AllisonHouse, we have a wide variety of customers with varying degrees of knowledge about the weather. Some are degreed meteorologists. Some are storm chasers. The most enthusiastic of our customers tend to be the latter and both! And all have seen an amazing transformation in our industry over the last few decades.

The technology revolution has spilled over into revolutionizing weather data and how it is displayed and analyzed. In the late 1980s, there were few ways, for example, to see a surface map or radar: on broadcast TV, during newscasts, and that was about it. Unless…if you were really fortunate…working in a National Weather Service office, a University with a weather or research program, or a private weather company. Growing up as a kid, I remember one television station in Chicago that had a live color radar display of our local Marseilles, IL WSR-57 radar. Just to see the “base reflectivity” product at 4 zoom levels of the company choice cost the station $20,000 per month! And people saw those images for less than 2 minutes in a 24 hour news cycle…and only when there was “good stuff” happening! Every bit of data was cherished. Model data was the LFM, the NGM, and, toward the end of my college tenure, something excited called the “ETA” was coming that would blow both models out of the water. And those models were seen only on paper printouts, quite a while after they had been run! When the “Aviation” model came out, you didn’t see the morning run until about 3 PM Central time!

So now, we fast forward to 2015. Computing power has increased light years over the past several decades. There’s a TON more data and model output available. Unfortunately, a disturbing trend as part of the revolution of data and models in meteorology has professors and us older meteorologists very concerned. And, it’s been coined by a very dark term: “meteorological cancer”.

That’s a rather blunt and nasty phrase, isn’t it? Cancer, in the human body, is horrible. It destroys cells, and can leave the patient suffering terribly, or dying a slow death. But the reason why it’s called this awful name is that we can see something horrible coming, and in some cases, already here: meteorologists and forecasters who rely on model data and only cursory analysis of weather data, which leads them to make bad analyses and forecasts. In the long run, they will face the death of their careers, and I believe, without exaggeration, an industry. And, for storm chasers, it can mean that you miss out on a historical event because X model said this…and a simple analysis of current weather data, even by a non-meteorologist, would reveal that the model was going to be wrong. Even emergency managers can easily be misled by pretty looking images on their computer monitors.

Let me be clear: I’m not model-bashing here. In fact, quite the opposite: if we, as meteorologists are not cconssistently better than the models, which are now shockingly good and getting better all the time, we’re in big trouble, without exaggeration. As storm chasers or weather spotters, burying our heads in a model display very frequently instead of looking out the window or at a surface map makes us miss very vital clues as to what the atmosphere or a thunderstorm is doing, or about to do. And, as a member of the general public or an emergency manager, failure to receive emergency or urgent weather information and be able to understand what it means can cause substantial and unnecessary worsening of life and death situations.

Here at AllisonHouse, we provide the data and tools you need to diagnose and forecast the weather, and to keep you on top of dangerous weather situations. Make no mistake about it: we think we do the best at providing you with the best diagnostic and forecasting tools through AllisonHouse Maps, GRLevelx and our other partner products at a great price. But let me be blunt: it does us, and you, no good if you can’t understand what you are looking at. And, if you just mostly look at the models to tell you what may happen, you WILL succumb to meteorological cancer, relying on output on a screen instead of *complementing and enhancing* what you are seeing out your window, and in the atmosphere RIGHT NOW. That’s the key: understand the reality first, then use models as guidance to forecast beyond what the data tells you. You can become a good weather analyst and forecaster without being a meteorologist, though the latter, when done right, will consistently be able to do both better due to better training and education. Even so, you, as our AllisonHouse customers, should strive to be the best weather *analysts* you can be, so that you can become good short-term forecasters. How do you do that? Here are some suggestions:

1. Display what’s going on NOW before looking at ANY models. If you don’t understand what an 850 MB, 700, 500 or 250 MB map is, don’t worry yet. Get the SURFACE right first. Start simple: on AllisonHouse Maps, for example, bring up surface observations, and overlay them with satellite and radar. This lets you see the big picture, which, in turn, will help you to better understand what is happening on a smaller, and more local, scale. Sometimes, weather instruments are are broken, or out of error tolerance or needing calibration. Does a southeast wind at one location mean a significant meteorological boundary is there if all other winds nearby are from the northwest, or is the instrument broken? If you keep doing good analyses, you’ll figure that out quickly, even as a novice. At smaller airports, weather stations have somewhat lower instrument accuracy thresholds than at major airports, and they tend to get somewhat less maintenance annually than the ones at larger airports. But even the weather stations at big airports can sometimes go bad. Anything that looks out of the ordinary should be questioned in your mind.

2. Diagnose what’s going on before looking at ANY models. Models *generally* won’t (not yet, at least) pick up on outflow boundaries from thunderstorms, or other small-scale features. Understanding that these boundaries are there, and where they came from, will help you understand how it will affect the atmosphere in the hours ahead, even without looking at the models.

3. Look at the models with an eye to reality. If they start out bad, they might get a forecast right, but for all the wrong reasons. Models are guidance, and not truth; models are fantasy, not reality; models do an amazingly good AND bad job at forecasting the weather. The more complex or dangerous a situation, the more likely it is to be wrong. By knowing what is going on now, you can see many model errors that occur with each model, in each run, and more or less account for that. Or, throw the model out altogether as being flat wrong.

4. Keep analyzing what is going on with real-time data throughout the day. The atmosphere is always changing; it is never constant. Is your forecast going as expected? If not, why not? It means something is changing now that will be affecting what will happen shortly. And if you see something now that you didn’t before, does that mean you need to change your ideas as to what may happen in the future? Above all: don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong. The faster you do, the better it will be for you and everyone else. The best forecasters, analysts and meteorologists sometimes aren’t the ones who get forecasts mostly right. The best are the ones who learn from what they are doing wrong, or diagnosed incorrectly, and make corrections as needed promptly. Then, and only then, they look at the models and see if they support their thinking.

By doing these things, you won’t drool at the supercell with the big hook echo on the HRRR 6 hour model forecast. You’ll have done that earlier in your analysis, making a good diagnosis, prognosticate the short-term conditions based off that, and realize that supercells in the area are expected, and the HRRR or other models are merely confirming it. Otherwise, you’re getting meteorological cancer, which is deadly to the career of a meteorologist, and to the industry. And as a chaser, emergency manager or forecaster, you’ll miss great storms or opportunities to serve your community most effectively. Always remember: data, and an excellent analysis/diagnosis of the weather are your best friends. That’s one reason why, at AllisonHouse, we emphasize data in all our product offerings…which ultimately helps you make an accurate analysis and short-term prognosis. And that makes you a good forecaster, or an emergency manager well-equipped to understand the impacts of what you are seeing. Because if you live by the models…you will die by the models. Stomp out meteorological cancer!

On the hazards of posting model imagery to social media

This month, we’re going to look at something that happens every winter. And I’m not talking about snow, shoveling, or snowball fights. While those are fun, I’m talking about…posting GFS, NAM and other model imagery of forecast snowfall on social media.


Now, you’re thinking: I’m violating copyright laws by doing that, aren’t I? Actually, if you post still shots or even animations of an event online, it can be very instructive. Posting our satellite, radar and upper air images and animations of an event, along with a good explanation, is something I like to see! Go ahead and do that, with credit to AllisonHouse for the imagery.

But… problems occur when model data is posted without any interpretation. It becomes a real problem… especially in life-threatening, or life-altering situations, when the model (NOT data!) is only going to get it right out of, more than anything, luck. And more often than not, beyond 48 hours, it frequently blows the forecast.

Now: I’m not talking about posting an upper level map of a hurricane’s 850 MB winds posted 12 hours before landfall, with an explanation of what the map is about, and that those winds are aloft. No, you know what I’m talking about:

I’m talking about posting GFS and European model output of snowfall totals of a potential storm system 3 days in advance or more. Without context, without explanation, or even worse: “look what this storm is going to do to (insert area in question)!”.

But why? Isn’t the European model the greatest thing since sliced bread? And since the GFS got upgraded early in 2015, didn’t it nail the big ones so far this year? Isn’t it now doing the strut down the road to the Model Hall of Fame?

Not really. You see: 3, and especially 4 days out and more…those systems, more than likely, are somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean. And all that is there are usually two things for the models to use, to try to figure out what is happening: satellite data, which is of coarse or low resolution, and…ship reports.

That’s it.

That’s like blindfolding someone and walking them to a zoo, and then having them feel an animal, and have them try to guess what it is, and how old it is, with one touch in one area of the animal!

Which is why it is remarkable that the models do as well as they do. Sure: I’ve seen the success stories where a model, 7 days in advance, predicted that storm X was going to produce a swath of heavy snow across part of the country. And it did just that…but was many miles off where the model said it would be. And even if you are only 20 miles off, it can mean the difference between 4″ of snow, and 12″. That’s the difference between everything shutting down, and a somewhat slower commute into work. What that does is when you post that model image without understanding its limitations, is this:  it quickly ruins your credibility, it scares people unnecessarily, and more than likely, the amounts and the path of the heavy snow will be wrong…many times, horribly wrong. And that causes a lot of unnecessary and sometimes very serious problems.

Don’t get me wrong: this extends into the spring, summer, and fall as well. The HRRR model, which you can see via AllisonHouse Maps and GRearth, are of such high resolution that they will resolve a supercell, or rotating thunderstorms, right down to the “hook echo”, like it’s on radar. If you post one of those maps with a supercell over town X, without an explanation, non-weather weenies may think that will hit THEM, when the model is merely suggesting a *general area* for the development of storms, and the model “thinks” that supercells are *possible*.

It doesn’t stop there. Model precipitation totals in the spring, summer and fall are often wildly exaggerated due to a phenomenon called “convective feedback”, where the model mishandles the amount of warm, moist air once thunderstorms develop. Usually seen on days 2 and beyond, but it can be seen even in the first 12 hours: when this happens, the model causes predicted rainfall areas and rainfall rates to go bonkers…without a corresponding and appropriate loss of overall instability, reducing the amount of time a storm spends in one area, or the intensity of the precipitation. The result is wildly over inflated precipitation “bullseyes”, where rainfall amounts are way higher than what one would expect, given the amount of instability and moisture available. As a result, people thinking this would bust a drought they are in would be disappointed, and those in areas where everything is saturated or where flooding is already occurring could be freaked out. And believe me, I have seen that happen many times.

So what, then? Should I never post any model graphics? Of course not. But, if you do, you need to do it wisely. Here’s some guidelines I have learned over the years to help you to do just that:

1. Any graphic you post on Facebook could be shared by others, and frequently, the explanation gets erased as the graphic is shared. That actually happened to me, and I got rightfully yelled at for posting a model snowfall graphic on there. Although Facebook has gotten better about it, they now only show the top 160 characters or so of what you share, and then the rest you have to click through to see the description. Some people won’t do that, or don’t know how, and that causes problems. And yes, it IS your problem when that happens. Scaring people with dangerous weather possibilities is NEVER a good thing to do.

2. European model forecast snowfall graphics are not legal to post publicly on social media! I don’t care if you get it from Accu-Weather, WSI, WeatherBell…or if you got it from someone else. It’s not legal…period! And the ECMWF folks are now taking a dim view of Americans sharing it online, and are starting to come after some people. This is why that data is not found in a lot of places: it’s very expensive, and it’s for personal use only.

3. All other models: don’t post them on social media unless you are 48 hours out or less, and you have reasons why the model is right, or wrong, using sound scientific reasoning. DO NOT say, to the effect, “you’re all in big trouble in this area” or even “well, this model is out to lunch, LOL!” UNLESS you have valid scientific reasoning to support such a claim.

4. IF YOU MUST post about model data showing 12″ of snow for you 7 days out, post it on a private weather forum, along with the questions and concerns that you have. Post the questions (but not the graphic itself) to the National Weather Service social media sites. They’ll get back to you…though it may take a bit, as they have many duties that they must perform. Hang in there, and be patient!

But…I want to warn my neighbors! That’s great! Share current NWS graphics/website links instead, or current data/radar images from AllisonHouse (but tell people what TIME this is occurring; weather information gets dated very quickly!). One of the things we’re learning about in the meteorology world is that one of the best ways to share forecast uncertainty to the public is via the web. You know what: I bet your neighbor or friends would like to know that the NWS is forecasting 8″-12″ of snow, starting tomorrow evening, but the forecast confidence isn’t good. Or maybe it is good. Either way, share their graphics and link to their website. That builds YOUR credibility, and that of the NWS as well.

AllisonHouse is always to be used in conjunction with information, alerts and discussions supplied by the National Weather Service. If you don’t know of an atmospheric phenomena you see on radar, satellite, or a METAR/mesonet site, and it’s happening right now, do ask on the NWS or your favorite social media pages. But, again, putting our forecast snowfall forecasts from the GFS model and saying “SNOWMG!!!” on your Facebook page? You’ll just cause trouble, rather than inform and help your readers.

What we at AllisonHouse want to do is take the weather data and information we receive, put it in your hands in an organized and very helpful way, help you interpret the information as easily as possible, and then make sound decisions from it. If posting one of our graphics (or someone else’s) doesn’t fall into that genre, you may cause unnecessary angst or concern, and bad decision making by people you care for, or even don’t know! Remember: information is not power; the wisdom to use it well is. And we hope by this post, you can be responsible and help others understand what’s heading their way…without causing undue concern and alarm.