Friday, July 1, 2016

That Storm Did What?

One of the most rewarding, fun, and challenging parts of my job is issuing convective warnings. Now, I am no seasoned warning operator yet, but recent events have taught me a lot about convection. Knowing about convective environments, storm structure, etc is great, but interrogating storms for hours on end offers a unique learning opportunity that only adds to any working knowledge of thunderstorms. Storm behavior is a great teacher! I have also learned something else…the warning environment is full of surprises. Some of these surprises can be frustrating in the moment, but it’s hard not to look back later and just laugh. Laughter is so important in life, so I thought I would share a few of my surprises and I’m sure others can add to this list!

So there you are, keeping a close eye on a strengthening storm approaching Hail Town. You put out a SPS knowing it will likely continue to strengthen. And, sure enough, it does and you put out a SVR. Soon, you’ve got 50 dBZ up to the -50C level, 250 kt storm-top divergence, and a beautiful hail spike…and the storm is headed right for Hail Town. All of a sudden, it makes a right turn and misses the town to the east, but alas, there are a couple of random local spotters clustered right next to each other east of town (they appear to be close enough to be neighbors). As soon as the core passes, you call them up. “I’m sorry Ma’am, you said you only had peas? Is it possible there were a few baseballs mixed in with those peas?” I mean, the core had such a large area of 70+ dBZ, you are sure she is probably seeing 70 dBZ pixels in her backyard…and in high res mind you! You call up spotter two. “Sir, you say you had 30 minutes of baseball size hail and it looks like things have been tore up for miles? You know, your neighbor across the street only had peas…perhaps you should consider relocating.”

Then there is the, ‘that-storm-did-what?’. Storm Z0 approaches your largest city with 50 dBZ up to 500 feet and storm top divergence of 5 kt in an environment characterized by MUCAPE of 50 j/kg. Not even SPS worthy. Suddenly, 200 people call in reporting baseballs raining down on town tearing things up. Not to mention, since the storms had all dissipated, you let extra forecaster #3 go home an hour earlier...and now you are radar / switchboard operator. At the same time, a second storm pops up looking MUCH stronger than the storm that produced baseballs, so of course you put out a SVR on it. Spotter under the core then calls to report light rain and a few lightning strikes.

And then you have the storms that you are certain are terrified of spotters. “Hey Bob, it looks like this storm will go right over this clustering of 30 spotters in Quietsville. We should definitely get some reports out of this one. Wait, is that storm splitting?” Of course, the left-mover, which now certainly has hail, is going over a privately-owned 500 acre lake which means there will be no driving in behind the storm to see what fell. Here in the Great Falls CWA, spotters are mostly clustered in small towns with very few outside of town. In fact, if you scroll too far in, you might think that your spotter overlay hasn’t even been loaded. Storms love the open country apparently…that or they don’t want people to know what they are up to. Of course, when they do find spotters, it is the ones that have changed phone numbers or are on vacation for the next 3 weeks.

Of course, you cannot leave out the technology mishaps. Perhaps you’ve experienced some of these? “GR2 has encountered an error and must close”. Oh, yeah, must it? “DirectX not found…program will not open”. Hmmm…the program had no problem finding that yesterday. “Spotter readout unavailable”. E-gads, if the storms think there are no spotters, then they are sure to hit population centers. Someone needs to get the spotter readout turned on stat! “Windows just installed new updates, your computer will now run in sloth mode until you restart”. So, that’s what 14.4 modems were like. “This webcam is temporarily unavailable”. I swear, in the 12 years I’ve been here, that camera has never gone down!

Now admittedly, some of the issues above are exaggerated JUST a bit. Regardless, whether you issue warnings for the NWS, alerts for a private company, or simply call your parents when a storm is headed for their house, I’m sure many of you have run into a various assortment of challenges (some of which seem like they have been exaggerated, when in fact they haven’t). Warning people about severe storms is not always a clear-cut, easy task. There are events where for whatever reason, you issue warnings/alert others for hours on storms that have classic hail, damaging wind, and/or tornado signatures and no reports are received. Or maybe you are in the middle of an event when your office’s radar (or another radar you use) goes down. But, you go off what you know and your previous experiences and carry on offering the best service you can. I joke a bit about some of the challenges above because I think it is important to laugh at life sometimes, but in the moment, they usually aren’t funny and can even be frustrating at times. Did I mention it is important to laugh?

Meteorologists…we have a unique job and one in which I don’t think many people quite understand all that we do. But, it’s ok, because we know...or at least I hope we know. If you feel like you don’t, I hope this will be a reminder of the great opportunity we have to provide a valuable service in smooth and not-so-smooth times! I realize not everyone will issue warnings, alerts, etc. But, that isn’t the only challenge. This profession is full of applying scientific principles with a mix of gut feeling/experience thrown in during less than ideal situations. We often have to make decisions in real-time, and the flow of information isn’t always smooth. It’s those times that really try us as professionals…a little refinement by fire if you will. But, then, there are the times when everything just seems to work perfectly. Reliable spotters are calling in reports on every storm, you are fully-staffed, storms are behaving like you expect, and so on. I believe it is in those smooth events that we do even better because we’ve faced the not-so-smooth events/challenges. So, don’t let those frustrating and, in hindsight, humorous, issues during active weather get you down or discouraged. As I said in the beginning, storm behavior is an amazing teacher!

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