Thursday, September 13, 2018

Can God Stop Florence?

Significant weather events always get me thinking...so much so, I had to find somewhere to put all these thoughts (the good, bad, and the ugly) - hence the creation of this blog. Tonight's "Masterpiece Theater" is Florence. Hurricane Florence is not only forecast to clash with the Carolinas, but also the Bible Belt.

Satellite image of Hurricane Florence (Sept 12, 2018)
Strong language has been coming from the Meteorology community with this one - words like "life-threatening" and "catastrophic". We all know hurricanes can be damaging near and just inland of a coastline - nothing overly new there regarding Florence. The problem with this storm, though, is the potential for it to slow down after landfall, potentially dropping one to two FEET of rain along its path as it takes a scenic trip around the Southeast.

Because of this potential, Meteorologists are encouraging "prepare, prepare, prepare". Meanwhile, the Bible Belt is encouraging "pray, pray, pray". So, should we pray? Should we prepare? Maybe a 60/40 blend of prayer and preparation? Slap up a piece of plywood, then pray for 5 minutes kind of a deal sounds good. But, what about those who don't believe in God? I suppose they'll have more boards on their houses...

I jest a little there, but seriously, what do we make of this? I personally find myself in a unique place because I speak from the Meteorology community and the Bible Belt. I am a firm believer in the Creator of this place we call earth, but I am also a firm believer in the science of this thing we call weather.

The bridge between the two is socked in with fog, making for some difficult unknowns.



Is there actually a God on the other side? And, if so, will he stop Florence in it's tracks? I have never walked through the fog nor crossed the bridge, but I believe God exists on the other side. I also believe the fog exists and, for whatever reason, is shrouding the view of what is or isn't on the other side.

I 100% believe God can stop Florence dead in its tracks. But, will he? I 100% do not know. As a Meteorologist who believes in God, I have to wrestle with this unknown all the time. I regularly encourage people to prepare...it's core to my job and passion to help people understand the weather. But also core to who I am is the belief that with God, all things are possible - I know, I know, the religious red flag just went up for some. Hang with me...

I don't know if God will stop Florence or not. But, maybe that's not the question we should be asking at a time like this. The better question may be, 'should I prepare?'. The Meteorologist and Bible Belt in me says, emphatically, yes! But, as LeVar Burton used to say on "Reading Rainbow", 'Don't take my word for it'...

"A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences." - Proverbs 22:3 (aka. the Bible)

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Target of Opportunity Trap

A buzz word/phrase in the NWS right now is "targets of opportunity". The idea is to find those areas of the forecast that need the most attention and where value can be added by the forecaster. Any part of the forecast not considered a target of opportunity can probably be left to the models to handle.

That last sentence can be a bit worrisome, though, because it seems to be the "beginning of the end" of the human element of forecasting as we know it. Whether it is or isn't, I don't know. What I do know is that the "end" has not arrived. My concern is that forecasters will let that last sentence be all they hear and start acting like the end has already come.

As Meteorologists, the support we provide to our clients, partners, and/or the public starts with a solid forecast...and a solid forecast starts with a sound, scientific approach. The models are certainly improving on the sound, scientific approach aspect, but they aren't perfect and there are times when the forecaster CAN add value. The key, in my opinion, is learning when to let the models do their thing and when to deviate. I believe finding this balance is in the best interest of those we serve.

While I support the target of opportunity concept, my concern, as mentioned earlier, is that it will have a negative impact on some forecasters. "If models are doing so well, why even bother anymore?" some might say. The problem here is that frame of mind can lead to missed opportunities to add value. Missing those opportunities may lead to a less-than-ideal forecast which could lead to a less-than-ideal service. Being a service industry means keeping the needs of those we serve at the forefront of what we do. Living in fear of losing our jobs to models, or assuming models are always best, can ultimately lead to a degraded service. The opportunity to add value may be lower than it was 5-10 years ago, but it isn't non-existent. Be intentional about finding those opportunities.

I believe keeping sharp on the science is one way to aid in finding those opportunities to add value. This can also help us as forecasters to know how much to deviate from the models and how to best message these impactful, or potentially impactful, periods/events.

One such target of opportunity I have often seen is with convection. Sometimes the models are spot-on, especially with all the recent CAM (Convective Allowing Models) development, but other times they are horribly wrong. When they are wrong, it is important to know why. Knowing why can help guide the forecast into later periods. Being intentional to keep up with the science can help answer the question 'why' and can provide guidance on the forecast. This, in turn, can lead to the best possible forecast and service.

At other times, a target of opportunity may simply be figuring out which model(s) handle certain impactful patterns/events better than others and leaning the forecast that direction. The various blends out there work great in many situations, but at other times, certain members of those blends out-perform the blend, itself. Learn when to deviate from the blends (research and model verification can help with this). 

I won't go into all the different targets of opportunity, but I strongly encourage anyone out there who is struggling with this concept to not let it become a motivation killer. Be intentional about finding that balance between model value and human value. Keep sharp on the science. Keep up with / research model performance/verification. With this approach, I believe we have the opportunity to provide the best service possible to those counting on us.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Probabilistic vs Deterministic Messaging

This past Winter, our office (TFX) participated in the NWS' prob snow experiment. For those who might not be familiar with what that is or what it involved, it was a way to experiment with utilizing snowfall probability information within operations and decision-support activities. Perhaps in another post I'll ponder the good and the bad about the experiment, itself. But, for now, I wanted to take it a different direction.

Related to that experiment, a question was posed...is probabilistic or deterministic information better when it comes to messaging? At its core, this question is part of a larger and ongoing debate related to the effective communication of weather hazards. That debate is a fascinating and challenging one, but is probably too long for one post. For now, I'll just address the one piece of the puzzle that focuses on probabilistic vs deterministic messaging.

When it comes to snowfall amounts, what do we often see? Ranges. And, we seem to gravitate toward certain ranges at that. 1-3", 3-6", 6-12". If you are one of those rebel types, you might even use 2-5" or 3-7". Oh the humanity...

The interesting (note I said interesting and not necessarily bad) part about the end-user's use of ranges is the seemingly automatic focus on the high number. Knowing the worst-case scenario isn't a bad thing in of itself, but how it's used can be. Just before a winter storm a couple months ago, a friend of mine texted me and said, 'Hey! I heard we are supposed to get 7" of snow'. The winter product from our office said something to the effect of 2-4" with isolated amounts up to 7", if I remember correctly. My friend read that as we are getting 7" of snow. I doubt he was alone in that assessment.

I often give ranges when messaging upcoming snowfall events and I am not here to argue against that. My end-game is to think through the different possibilities. Recently, I decided to give the ole probability method a try. Prior to a winter event, a caller asked how much snow we expected for her area. With experimentation on the brain, I boldly informed her that there was an 80% chance of exceeding 4" at her house. To which she replied, 'So, do you think we might get a foot?'.

The sample size on my little experiment is incredibly small. But, how much would you be willing to wager against her response representing a large part of the population? One thing that stuck out to me in her response was the 12" amount. After talking with her more, I got the sense that 12" is when she starts having problems in her world. It's the point when her daily plans change. I believe that is why her mind immediately jumped to a foot. For her, my arbitrary percentage-greater-than-x-amount didn't help. Now, had I given her the probability of exceeding 12", well that could have been a different story. Would she have been able to interpret it effectively? I don't know.

When it comes to the general public, the thresholds for when action is taken is all over the place. That lady's threshold was 12". A recent transplant from the South would probably have a different response. So where does that leave us as Meteorologists? In a very challenging position. We have a responsibility to message hazardous weather, but to a group of people who don't even share a common breaking point.

On the flip side, we have individuals or groups (DOT, emergency managers, etc) that often DO have specific thresholds that we can know. I watched an enlightening presentation recently that looked at the potential effectiveness of probability information for decision-makers like the DOT. I get the sense that probability messaging works great for them. Honestly, I believe it could work great for the general public as well. The challenge is our inability to know each and every person's breaking point.

One part of the prob snow experiment that I really liked was that it gave probability information for several breaking points (2", 4", 6", 8", 12", 16"). We may not be able to know all thresholds, but we can certainly try to cover as many as possible in our messaging, within reason. But, that's just snow. What about rain, hail size, tornadoes, tornado strength, etc? Do we say "this storm will produce up to golf ball size hail" or "there is an 80% chance of exceeding quarter size hail?". I'm not sure a warning product is the place to put a lot of probability wording, if nothing else but for the sake of time/understanding. Imagine The Weather Channel scrolling the probability of multiple thresholds, or hearing those probabilities being read over Weather Radio broadcasts/statements?

My answer to the question of probabilistic or deterministic? The verdict is still out, but I imagine it involves some sort of a mix that relates to the known users, the product, and the event. I don't know if there will come a time when all of our messages are completely understood, used correctly, and heeded, but working through and experimenting with this piece of the puzzle is beneficial to the larger discussion regarding effective communication. In the spirit of probabilistic messaging, I will inform you that there is a 100% chance that I will blog more about effective communication down the road...

Sunday, April 15, 2018

My VTEC Coding is Changing

Warming temperatures following an active and very snowy winter = flooding. I've put out more Flood Warnings in the past 3 days than I have the past 3 years. RiverPro isn't the most user-friendly product generator, which means a lot of extra QC of the VTEC coding. That got me thinking about the "VTEC coding" of my life and how it is about to be changed.

I recently accepted a position with the NWS office in Wichita, KS, so perhaps this would fall under the continuation (CON) category? It is quite the exciting change for my family and I. Career-wise, my focus in research, projects, etc has often revolved around convection, and what a great opportunity and location for continuing that! But, as exciting as this "CON" is, I would be remiss to not look back at the past 3 years. Just like when continuing a warning...you would be remiss to not look back at what the storm has been doing up to this point.

When I came to Great Falls, I could not believe how fortunate I was to get the opportunity to work for the NWS. I still look back on that time and am so grateful. When I walked through the doors of TFX 3 years ago, I had no idea what was ahead. In a few weeks, I will walk out the doors of Great Falls a changed man.

I know, I know, that sounds so cliche...and I am not a big fan of phrases like that. However, this one could not be more true. See, I came to Great Falls being very particular about many things, both in the field of Meteorology and in my personal life. Wow did I ever get punched in the face in that area! Some things are worth being more picky about, but it's just not healthy to pick every battle. I picked a lot of battles in the beginning and I regret that. But, through some coaching and tough experiences, I came to realize just how picky I was. It blew my mind. I never fully realized I was that way. So much so, I ended up apologizing to my family and close friends, many years after the fact, for how picky I had been. Have I perfected the issue? Nope. But, I am much more aware of it which has helped me to be more intentional about being careful to let some things go. Life is just so much less stressful when you can learn to let certain things go. It's worth the try...

Also, it turns out, I have struggled with communication, fear, and self-confidence issues. Some of those struggles I was more aware of, but didn't necessarily know the best way to address them. Let's just say the past 3 years have been like going back to college. Only this time my major was "Becoming a Better Man, Husband, Dad, and Co-Worker". Some of the courses were pretty intense, but SOOOO worth it. To...um...use another cliche phrase, my life will never be the same after my time here in Great Falls.

Being able to serve people through working with the NWS is a dream come true. Little did I know just how important this dream would be in my life. It has given me the opportunity to read more, to spend more time with my family, to be challenged and to grow as a Meteorologist, to be challenged and grow as a husband/Dad/co-worker, and also to cross paths with people who have had a profound impact on me.

As my family and I head to Kansas, I go there not as a perfected man. Rather, I go there with an improved understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and how to better address the areas where I fall short, while being humbly confident in the areas where I excel. Perhaps there were many different paths to ICT, and hindsight is 20/20, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Impact of an Active Pattern

WPC recently tweeted about one way to view the severity of a winter season. Notice on the map the "Severe" and "Extreme" categories showing up over Montana. The pattern we have been in lately and, seemingly, much of the winter has been very active across the state, including much of our CWA. I very much enjoy active weather patterns and I will venture to say that many others in this field do as well. But, extended periods of active weather can take its toll.

Our ongoing stretch of active weather more or less started back in early October when our northern counties were dumped on by a heavy, wet, and damaging snowstorm. We've had breaks, some longer than others, but then we'll get a barrage of shortwaves. The problem is that they haven't always come neatly spaced. In some cases, the lull from one round of precip to the next has only been 6-18 hours. Some have all snow, others mixed precip or even just plain rain. From a forecasting standpoint, alone, it has been very tricky at times, especially considering that from north to south, our CWA is about 2/3 that of the state of Alabama. That's a lot of ground to cover. Oh, and don't forget to add complex terrain to the mix.

But, it's Montana. It's winter. Winter = snow in Montana, so nothing new. Snow is as common here as severe weather is in Oklahoma. Common or not, if it all comes in waves very close to each other with little breathing room, it can become an impact for forecasters. As I mentioned earlier, I love active patterns, especially when convection is involved. Even active winter weather can be exciting. But, even your favorite weather patterns can be draining. At this past year's SECAPS conference in Mobile, Joey Picca (SPC) made a great point. He said, "We all get tired and need breaks, even from topics we love the most..."

Active weather can complicate messaging and open the door to more confusion than already exists. It can cause red and green pixels to start blending together after 12 straight hours on radar. It may be a struggle to issue YET ANOTHER Winter Weather Advisory, when it feels like you've already issued 5,000. Breaks are good. And when they don't happen, moral can get a bit sporty.


And, it's not just us. What about the snowplow drivers working countless nights or the emergency manager who can't remember when the last time he went a week without hearing a tornado siren going off? Locally, conversations within our office, with local partners, and with the public suggest that fatigue factor is kicking in some. Mike Rawlins (a local TV Met) said, "The hits just keep coming". People are beginning to ask if spring will EVER come.

I suppose in thinking through the impacts of extended periods of active weather, I'm not so much here to make some amazing point or observation. But, I feel that it is important to consider these factors when thinking about messaging, staffing, or purely from an empathy standpoint when a local partner asks when the pattern will break. Active weather causes a variety of impacts and they aren't just travel-related. This is something that has struck me more recently and is something that I believe is good for all of us to keep in mind for ourselves, those we work with, and those we serve.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Perspective on Change

In my nearly 3 year career with the NWS, I have seen a lot of changes, and the writing on the wall says more changes are coming. Some of the changes have been great, in my opinion, and some I am hesitant to get completely on-board with. Others seem to have that 'what could possibly go well with that' factor. Some seem to have the right heart, but not the best implementation. Meanwhile, others are a breath of fresh air after being discussed for months or even years. I recently wrote about Changes in the Field of Meteorology.

But, I'm not here to argue the good, bad, or the ugly of any change. Change is inevitable. What I believe is important is how we respond to change. Some change is worth fighting, some isn't. Think through it, discuss with others, but decide which battles to pick. And, no, you probably shouldn't pick them all. If a change you disagree with doesn't seem worth fighting, then let it go. If it helps, sing "Let it Go" from the movie "Frozen". If it is worth fighting against, do it diplomatically and always with an open mind. Not all change is good. Old doesn't always equal bad anymore than new always equals better. Some proposed changes are actually bad. Everyone agreeing with a change doesn't make it good. Stand up for what you believe is important, but know when to back down.

Most importantly, though, I believe we have to keep a good attitude. Change, if not handled well, can lead to resentment, grumpiness, negativity, or downright anger and frustration. I have dealt with every single one of these and I know it is easier said than done at times. I have watched negativity eat away at people (their passions, creativity, and zeal) and it breaks my heart. My plea to myself and to anyone reading this, for the sake of the Meteorology community, the people we serve, and our general well-being, be wary of falling victim to a negative mindset.

This community is full of very talented, highly-motivated, and super-creative people. But, we are also full of varying ideology and methodology. Change is born from these varying viewpoints and we won't always agree. My hope is that we can work together to find the best solutions to the various challenges we face. But, since we're not perfect, bad ideas will sometimes slip through the cracks in the form of a less-than-ideal change.

As Meteorologists, we have unique opportunities to serve people in ways that others only dream of. If a change is good, embrace it. If it isn't, find ways to deal with it or help make it better. Just don't let it steal your joy and passion. Stay motivated, my friends...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What Small Town USA Can Teach Us

Last week I did a spotter talk up in the far NE corner of our CWA...a rural town of just over 1200 people and located just south of the US/Canadian border (Chinook, MT). 1% of the population showed up. I would say most of our CWA is rural, with a handful of urban areas mixed in. Leaving that meeting, I started thinking about the needs of small town USA and, of all the things we do in the NWS, what is the most helpful for them.

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about picking your battles. Talking to the people in Chinook, I began to realize that I may be missing the point, or not focusing on the right things, with some of the battles I've picked. When you work in an office that is in a more urban setting, it can be easy to focus on the needs of the urban areas and forget the "little guys". I realize we can't hit every single need of every single person we serve. But, going out on outreach trips can sure be eye-opening.

For me, it was eye-opening in several respects. First off, small town USA doesn't necessarily mean the land of no cell phone signal and no WI-FI anymore. The sheriff had a fancy smartphone AND a cool-colored cover. The nearby fire chief also had a smartphone AND uses the mobile version of NWS' EDD. I gotta be honest, I didn't even know we had a mobile version of that site.

Then there's our products/services. The nearby airport manager said our DSS/partner emails we send out are the most helpful thing to him, not the TAFs. I thought it was cool that this small town airport even reads those emails. I mentioned to the sheriff that he could call us anytime for any weather-related help. He replied that after my spotter talk, he may have enough education to not have to call when the next storm approaches the town's summer fair. Does this represent all small towns? Probably not, but I'll bet it's repeated many times over. And, by the way, this is not meant to be seen as negatives about smaller towns, but as the reality of what's actually going on and what is used in smaller towns.

I guess the point is, we can fight all we want for what we THINK small-town USA needs, but after getting out and talking to the people, we may find we are fighting for the wrong things, at least as far as they are concerned. That's not to say that fighting for the needs of big city USA is wrong if it doesn't mesh with small-town USA. For me, small-town USA has simply helped keep things in perspective.

At the same time, this trip also helped me to see that there are things we fight for that I have always assumed were more helpful for larger cities (like the mobile EDD site). Who knew that working on that site, or something similar, may actually help big and small towns. And, while being available to provide support over the phone is great, maybe it's just not for some small towns. I believe our forecasts, warnings, DSS, etc is incredibly important to the mission of the NWS. But, what struck me that day is that all of that MAY not be what is most helpful for some small towns. Maybe outreach and education is our best service to them. Teaching the sheriff how to spot signs of rotation with an incoming storm might just be what helps him best serve his people even more than an email or phone call. When the sheriff said to me that he may not need to call us, it made me think of my kids. One day they will go to college and not have Mom or Dad right there next to them to help make a decision. That's when common sense and parental education comes in. Hopefully we will have taught them enough to make an informed decision. I hope my talk provided the sheriff enough info to make an informed decision whether he is able to reach out to our office or not.

Going forward, it will likely still be tricky trying to decide which battles to pick and which ones to let go of, but this recent interaction with the people we serve really gave me something to chew on. All of these ideas I've held dear may need a dose of ruralness (yes, I think I made up a word) to keep me in check!