Predicting Snow Is the Hardest Part

For some people, the biggest pain of a winter storm may be having to shovel the driveway. Some may say traveling in it is the worst thing to do. As for meteorologists, the biggest pain of a winter storm is forecasting it. Specifically, forecasting the snowfall totals.

“Sometimes you think you’re getting so good at forecasting snowfall totals. Then a winter storm comes along and humbles you,” said JD Rudd, meteorologist at KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kan. “The bottom line is you’ll get to be pretty good at it most of the time. You’re not going to be able to nail the totals for every storm, though.”

One of the main reasons predicting the snowfall totals for winter storms is tricky is the track of the storm. Even if the storm’s path deviates just 50 miles from the model predictions, that could spell the difference between a major snow event and hardly any precipitation at all. For example, if the center of the storm goes to the north of a location, that location will see only rain. If the center tracks right over a location, there will be rain turning over to snow. But if the storm’s center tracks to the south, heavy snow is to be expected for that place.

“One of the things I try to focus on is where most of the cold air will be and where will the moisture will be, too,” Rudd said. “Obviously, there can’t be snow without cold air and moisture. So another hard part of the forecast is figuring out where – if any – dry air will be coming into the storm.”

Recently, a snow storm impacted portions of the Great Plains, including Kansas and Missouri. Snowfall totals around the Kansas City area were anywhere from eight to ten inches, including reports of six to seven inches in Lawrence. Overall, the snowfall projections for this storm were fairly accurate.

“I’m actually pretty happy with how the snowfall projections lined up with the actual totals that we saw,” said Bryan Busby, chief meteorologist at KMBC-TV in Kansas City. “I was a little worried when we received some thundersnow, but it’s not every day you get to say you validated your snowfall prediction.”

A meteorologist validating a snowfall forecast is an impressive feat all on its own, but what makes it even more impressive this year is the extreme lack of snowfall forecasting that had to be done last year. Kansas City only saw 3.1 inches of snow – way below the 30-year average of 14.8 inches.

“I’ll admit, at the start of this winter, I thought I was going to be a little rusty in my snowfall forecasting,” Busby said. “But it’s just like riding a bike. Sure, we didn’t do it last year, but all those previous years of training will never leave you.”

Atmospheric Science Students Prepare for the Chase

Every year as the snow melts and the days start to get a little longer and warmer, people realize spring is almost here. But spring isn’t the only season that is fast approaching. For a select group of students, a much more exciting season is almost upon them – storm chasing season.

The atmospheric science students at the University of Kansas (KU) get prepared every spring to go and chase storms in hopes of getting to see a tornado. They know it can be dangerous and don’t go out chasing haphazardly. Recently, the KU chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) held a storm chasing safety talk.

“We thought it would be a good idea to go in detail about how we chase and what kind of precautions we take before, and during, our chases,” said Prescott Bishop, president of KU’s chapter of AMS. “Overall, we think it’s important to continue to stress the safety aspect of chasing the most.”

Storm chasing can be dangerous not only from the violent storms, but from the other chasers. Bishop says he’s seen some people chasing by themselves and checking their phone or computer while driving down the road. This can lead to dangerous driving and even traffic accidents.

“It’s always better to chase with at least one other person in the car,” Bishop said. “Then you can have one person whose sole duty is to drive and watch the road. We usually have three to five people per car when we chase so we can be constantly checking radars or maps.”

Not only is it an adrenaline rush to go chasing twisters, but it can also be beneficial. It gives an opportunity for the students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real life. For some students, chasing provides even more experience.

“I learned so much about forecasting and other aspects of meteorology when I would go out chasing,” said Mike Robinson, a KU atmospheric science graduate. “It’s really great to be able to pull off the experiences you and the other students in the car have from past chases.”

Not only is it beneficial for the students, it can be beneficial for the National Weather Service (NWS). Chasers can call into the local NWS office while out chasing and report any funnel clouds or tornadoes they see. However, they prefer you go through storm spotter training first.

“It kind of stinks that even though we’re atmospheric science students, sometimes the NWS won’t take our calls as seriously as some random guy that sat through an hour and a half long lecture,” Bishop said. “The only way to really get over that is to go sit through the lecture ourselves.”

Even with the spotter certification, it can be hard to call in reports to the NWS in a timely matter. Most of the time, chases take the students into portions of states with little or no cell phone signal coverage.

At the end of a chase though, the students are usually glad they went.

“Sometimes when you have high hopes and you don’t see a tornado, you can come away dejected,” Robinson said. “But even then, you had a good time driving around with your friends cracking jokes. And hell, sometimes we have fun just skipping class.”

Recent Storms Help Midwest Drought

Recently, many cities in the Midwest were hit hard by multiple winter storms. In the span of eight days, some areas received more than 18 inches of snow. While this may have inconvenienced some, it was especially good news in terms of helping the drought-stricken area.

However, many locations are still in a very severe drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a good chunk of Nebraska and portions of western Kansas and Oklahoma are listed in the highest category of drought (exceptional). Broadcast meteorologist Mark Bogner says there has been some slight improvement in some areas the past week.

“We improved a notch in south-central and eastern Kansas,” Bogner said. “But the entire state is still in the top three levels of drought.”

This is evident on the Drought Monitor’s website. The most recent release shows an improvement in the Topeka and Lawrence areas, as well as in southern Kansas counties within the past week. This also correlates well to where some of the heavier snowfall totals were recorded. Bogner says the last two storms were essentially just a few drops in an empty bucket.

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Drought Monitor from February 19, 2013 showing an the drought status in the Midwest before the winter storms

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Drought Monitor from February 26, 2013 showing an upgrade in drought status in portions of the Midwest.

“We are just so far in the hole, it would take 20 of those storms to get us even close to where we need to be,” Bogner said. “But I honestly think it saved (winter wheat) crops in this part of the state.”

Kansas is one of the largest winter wheat-producing states. The recent drought has hurt crop production for many farmers. In a recent interview with Insurance Journal, Don Keeney, a meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather, said Kansas would need anywhere from four to six inches of rain to get rid of the drought status.

Bogner says the best way to get rid of the drought status is to have a slow, soaking rain. For this part of the country, you need to have a slow-moving system sit over an area for an extended period of time to get those types of soaking rains. Tropical storms are great for doing this. But Bogner says we aren’t in the proper season for tropical storms. Spring time in Kansas is usually characterized by fast-moving, violent systems. There can be exceptions, though.

“Currently, we’re tracking a storm for this weekend,” Bogner said. “Hopefully, this storm will bring us some good moisture. Sure, I expect the models to change about 20 times between now and then, but I’m very hopeful right now.”

Winter Storm Blasts Great Plains States

Parts of Kansas and Missouri were crippled by a potent winter storm system that moved into the area at the end of last week. The storm shut down airports around the region, caused motorists to abandon their stuck cars along highways and interstates while giving students two days free from the confines of school.

Kansas City International Airport set a new daily record for the amount of snow that fell on Thursday with 9.2 inches. The previous record was 5.1 inches set back in 2010. Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport also set a new daily record on Thursday with 6.2 inches of snow (the previous record was 5.2 inches in 1912). Wichita also broke the record for most snowfall in a month with 21.0 inches. The old record was 20.5 inches set back in 1913.

One of the hardest parts of forecasting this winter storm (dubbed Q by The Weather Channel) was figuring out where the most snow would fall. JD Rudd, meteorologist with KSNW-TV in Wichita, said this storm had some additional factors making snow total forecasting difficult.

“Most of the time, we can figure out where the heaviest snow will fall with a system,” Rudd said. “But with this system, we not only had those heavy snow bands we usually see, but we also had areas of thundersnow dumping vast amounts over a widespread area.”

Thundersnow is essentially a winter thunderstorm that drops snow instead of rain. These events are generally rare, but when they do happen, they can produce massive snowfall rates of many inches of snow per hour, accompanied with lightning and thunder. Rudd said the thundersnow played a pivotal role in the massive snowfall amounts seen across central and eastern Kansas.

“Early Thursday morning, we saw some thundersnow in Wichita that moved right up the turnpike and affected both Lawrence and Kansas City,” Rudd said.

According to the automatic weather sensors at the Lawrence Municipal Airport, the thundersnow started falling Thursday morning at 7:35. Heavy snow continued to fall for the next three hours. In anticipation of this heavy snow, schools around the area cancelled classes, including the University of Kansas (KU). It was the first time KU had cancelled a full day of classes since 2008.

Another aspect of the storm that contributed to the lofty snowfall totals was the track of the actual system. Rudd said there are three different scenarios that can play out.

“If the center of the system goes to your north, you’ll only be pelted by rain,” Rudd said. “If it tracks right over top of you, you’ll see the precipitation start out as rain, then switch to a mix and finally turn to a little snow. But if it tracks to your south, that’s when you get into the really good snow.”

Going into more detail, Rudd explained for Kansas and Missouri to see a lot of snow, the “sweet spot” for a storm to track would be right near the Kansas/Oklahoma state line. When a storm is positioned there, the air is cold enough to sustain snow and is heavy enough to cause substantial accumulations.

“We don’t generally see snowfall amounts of that magnitude in this part of the nation in such a short period of time,” Rudd said. “But it can – and did – happen. It looks like we may start getting into that sort of pattern. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again before the winter is over.”

Tornadoes Seem To Be More Frequent, Stronger

Every year – around the end of March – Mark Bogner gets mentally prepared for some potentially long nights. Bogner, a broadcast meteorologist at KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kan., knows severe weather season is almost here. And with the severe season, comes tornadoes.

“It can be pretty brutal sometimes,” Bogner said. “You can get called in by your colleagues on your day off or on a weekend. Or if it’s on your shift you may have to stay well over 12 hours. And it seems like it’s happening more and more often.”

Bogner may have a point. Seemingly, there seems to be an increase in the amount of tornadoes that are being produced by thunderstorms each year, as well as an increase in the intensity of the tornadoes. In his blog on the website wunderground.com, meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters put together a bar graph tallying up the number of tornadoes that occurred each year from 1950 through 2009. There are years where there was a decline in the number of tornadoes, but the overall trend seems to show an increase in the frequency of tornadoes. Bogner thinks there might be “several factors” involved in this increase.

“I believe tornado detection and reporting has just increased by leaps and bounds over the last 10 to 15 years, Bogner said. “With all the storm chasers out there, the spotter network and then the density of the radar network, you get much higher detection rates.”

“But even if you take out the human factor, there still does seem to be a statistical increase in the number of tornadoes that we are getting, and in the number of significant tornadoes.”

According to data from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), there was a peak in the number of strong to violent tornadoes in 1974 – only three years after the Fujita scale for measuring tornadoes was implemented. Since then, there has been a slight to steady increase in the number of strong to violent tornadoes – even after the Enhanced-Fujita scale went into effect in 2007.

What could be the reason for this increase in tornadic frequency and strength? Some people think it’s a result of climate change affecting thunderstorms and making them produce more tornadoes. Bogner isn’t so sure.

“From all the studies that I’ve done of climatology, there is not the ability to make a direct one-to-one correlation with an increase in global temperatures and an increase in the number of tornadoes,” Bogner said. “It’s much easier to do that with hurricanes, but tornadoes and thunderstorms themselves have somewhat of a cancelling out factor that happens when you warm the atmosphere.”

Bogner instead personally thinks the increase in strength and frequency is just a matter of “dumb luck.” Drought and tornado cycles seem to follow a 20-year cycle, Bogner said. There were horrible tornadoes in the 1950s and 1970s. But ever since the 1990s, we’ve been in a pretty active pattern.

“Some of it just seems to be a cyclical thing,” Bogner said. “I believe there are several factors at work and it’s a very complex question for which there is no easy answer.”

One of those other factors that could play a part in tornado frequency and intensity is El Nino. El Nino is a global weather pattern where the equatorial ocean waters off the coast of South America are unusually warm. El Nino can affect global weather patterns and help to alter and steer storms, even in North America. Bogner believes El Nino can – and has – played a role in tornado formation.

“As we have refined our ability to measure the atmosphere, we have come to find (El Nino) steers our jet streams, which are vitally important for tornado formation, location and intensity,” Bogner said. “I think that is probably the strongest indicator of why we are seeing more tornadoes.”

A Seven-Year Old’s Dream: Profile of Meteorologist Mark Bogner

Sometimes, as a child, you fall in love with a certain event or aspect of the world. You become obsessed with it and want to learn more about it. In certain, almost fairy tale-like cases, you eventually end up getting a job that deals with your obsession from those bygone childhood days.

This holds true with Mark Bogner. Bogner, a broadcast meteorologist at KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kan., can vividly remember the day he became so intrigued and interested by the weather, that he wanted to become a weather man.

“It was the summer before my second grade year, and a big storm moved through our farm right at harvest time,” Bogner said. “It picked up and blew combines and trucks, blew down tree branches and just did some incredible damage. Something about that storm really sparked my imagination and from then on, I couldn’t learn enough about weather.”

It was this drive to learn even more about weather that led Bogner to his decision to attend the University of Kansas and major in atmospheric science. Just like in any other field, obtaining a job after graduation can be difficult. Some factors in determining if you get a job include who you know, if you take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you, as well as luck. Thankfully for Bogner, a very good opportunity popped up his senior year.

“During our (climatology) class, we had a visit from different professionals in different fields that came and talked to the class about what their field of meteorology was like,” Bogner said. “A private industry guy from Wichita came through and he talked about what private meteorology companies do. At the end he said they had an opening for two internships over Christmas break. I booked it down to the front of the classroom as soon as he was done talking.”

Bogner ended up getting one of the internships the company offered. After it was finished, the company told Bogner he could have a job there after he graduated in May – assuming there was an opening. But over spring break, Bogner went back for a visit. While there, another opportunity presented itself.

At this time, the company was short-staffed and asked if Bogner would like to start before graduation. Bogner accepted, and the company paid Bogner to drive a rental car down from Lawrence to Wichita and work for them every weekend.

But what about the broadcast side of things? This was a private company making forecasts for other companies and for local events. They didn’t go on air and present the weather.

“Part of their job was to sub-contract out their meteorologists to the local NBC affiliate, so that’s how I actually got into the TV side of things,” Bogner said.

Eventually, the private company outgrew their office. Instead of building a bigger office on the side of the TV station, they moved five blocks away. Since they were moving, they decided they needed somebody “in-house” to do the weather. The company hired two full-time meteorologists to work at the station. Bogner was still sub-contracted to be the weekend meteorologist. But that soon changed.

“It became obvious pretty quickly that two full-time (meteorologists) was not enough to cover weather in Kansas – especially during severe weather season,” Bogner said. “They asked if I would be interested in coming over full time.”

Bogner took them up on that offer and hasn’t looked back since. He says he enjoys being able to go on air and sell his forecast to people while keeping them informed and warned of possible severe weather at a given time.

“Working for the private company was great,” Bogner said. “But I’ve enjoyed my time here. Sure, it’s stressful sometimes – mainly during severe weather season – but it’s great talking with the public, telling them what you do and maybe inspiring some other second grade kid to do what you’re doing.”

Did Climate Change Affect Nemo and Sandy?

Every year, there seems to be at least one storm that ends up turning into a “poster child” for climate change. People will jump up and say that storm is proof climate change is affecting our weather while another group denies such a claim.

Everyone (seemingly) has an opinion when it comes to climate change that can be placed into one of two categories. The first category is full of people who emphatically believe climate change is making the current weather more severe and extreme. The other category claims climate change plays no role in current weather and we shouldn’t be alarmed. Bryan Busby, chief meteorologist at KMBC-TV in Kansas City, Mo., says there’s a fine line to walk regarding climate change.

“When people or groups ask me to give lectures on climate change, I try to be as impartial as I can,” Busby said. “Even if you’re talking to a group who strongly believes climate change is influencing weather, it might still be a good idea to show them the other side of the coin.”

Recently, the east coast was battered by a powerful nor’easter that brought more than 40 inches of snow in some areas. Some experts believe climate change increased the power of the storm dubbed “Nemo” by The Weather Channel.

In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Kevin Trenberth, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), said warmer sea surface temperatures due to climate change could affected Nemo. Trenberth also said the best temperature for a blizzard to happen is just below freezing. There, the water can turn into snow, but it isn’t so cold that moisture starts decreasing.

“In the past, temperatures at this time of year would have been a lot below freezing,” Trenberth said.

However, climate change may also harm the strength and formation of future powerful blizzards and nor’easters. A warmer climate would mean a shorter season for intense snow storms. This may not be a good indication of climate change.

The idea that the effects of climate change can help intensify storms a little is an intriguing idea – especially for hurricanes. In an October interview with NPR, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, said the main factor that determines a hurricane’s strength is how warm the ocean water is. If the ocean water is warmer, a hurricane has the potential to become much stronger than a system over cooler waters. So if the planet is warming, then sea surface temperatures are also rising – including along the coast where Sandy struck.

“As the planet warms, ocean temperatures have also been warming,” Hayhoe said. “So when any given hurricane comes along, on average there’s warmer water than there would have been otherwise, which gives it more energy and gives it more strength.”

People who think climate change is happening now believe Hurricane Sandy is a great example of a stronger storm resulting from warmer ocean waters. From a meteorological aspect, what made Sandy so impressive was the fact a hurricane was interacting with an in-land winter storm system. In an October interview with the New York Times, Martin Hoerling, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said this was just a rare, non-climate-related weather event.

“In this case, the immediate cause is most likely little more than the coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm,” Hoerling said. “Both frequent the west Atlantic in October…nothing unusual with that. On rare occasions their timing is such as to result in an interaction which can lead to an extreme event.”

One of the other reasons people cite Sandy as being a result of climate change is the amount of economic and property damage it did. However, this could just be a result from the time and age we’re currently living in.

“In this day and age, our cities are becoming more populated, they’re growing bigger, and more structures are being built,” Busby said. “Obviously, a storm hitting New York City today will do more monetary damage than one striking the same area one hundred years ago. So in essence, we have more things that are worth more money today being destroyed by storms that may – or may not – be intensifying.”