Space Weather

Why Earth’s rotation makes Jupiter’s Red Spot impossible here.

Did you actually think Sandy, Andrew even Katrina were bad? These hurricanes that caused widespread destruction to the U.S. are mere child’s play compared to some storms outside the Earth’s atmosphere. If you were sitting at home on your couch and your local meteorologist began to rant about the latest storm that will bring 400 mph winds and temperatures plunging below -250°F, you would surely think he is lying. Now imagine those conditions lasting for at least 400 years and counting. Well, although this sounds like the makings of a science-fiction movie, this storm does exist as the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.

All major storms on Earth usually have a large center of low atmospheric pressure with cyclonic motion (counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere). These cyclones dominate the Earth’s weather patterns and can cause significant destruction at the same time. However, interestingly, the Great Red spot in Jupiter’s Southern Hemisphere is actually associated with anti-cyclonic (high pressure) flow.

Although there are countless differences between the Great Red Spot on Jupiter and Earth storms, there are also some surprisingly striking similarities. All storms on Earth circulate due to Earth’s rotation.  This rotation deflects the direction of a moving object – a force known as the Coriolis. This deflection allows cyclones to rotate, giving them the ability to strengthen into powerful storms. Since all planets in our solar system rotate, the Coriolis effect is also present, ranging in strength due to size and rotational frequency of the planet. Since Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system and makes a complete rotation in only~10 hours, the Coriolis force has an exceptionally strong effect on the planet. This fast rotation is directly related to the strengthening of a storm and wind speeds resulting in a Great Red Spot that has winds up to 400 mph.

The strongest surface wind gust ever recorded on Earth was 253 mph during Cyclone Olivia in the late 90s. Winds at this strength have the ability to demolish almost all buildings in their path. By adding another 150 mph of sustained winds on top of this gust, there most likely would be no evidence that a structure ever existed. But before we put a category 20 hurricane on Earth, it is even possible for conditions like these to be on our planet?

Since, Jupiter rotates two and a half times faster than Earth, causing the stronger Coriolis force and winds, a storm like the Great Red Spot could not exist on Earth.  Thus, you don’t need to worry about a 400 mph storm busting down your door.  Just don’t let the people at the Weather Channel know how strong storms can get on Jupiter or they may have to come up with a whole new list of “storm” names.

Technology Weather Science

NASA’s RapidScat-ISS is a DIY dream

Republicans looking for “wasteful government spending” should look elsewhere than the team at NASA/JPL. When pressed to solve a problem, the engineers are perfectly ready, willing and able to put together old parts to make something new.

Case in point, NASA’s ISS-RapidScat system. Planned to be installed into the International Space Station in 2014, RapidScat is a scattetometer that microwaves to study the scattering patterns of wind. This new tool, aimed at studying oceanic wind currents and their effect on high energy storms like hurricanes, is being cobbled together from parts of another scatterometer, the QuickScat satellite that stopped working in 2009:

ISS-RapidScat will have measurement accuracy similar to QuikScat’s and will survey all regions of Earth accessible from the space station’s orbit. The instrument will be launched to the space station aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft. It will be installed on the end of the station’s Columbus laboratory as an autonomous payload requiring no interaction by station crew members. It is expected to operate aboard the station for two years.

ISS-RapidScat will take advantage of the space station’s unique characteristics to advance understanding of Earth’s winds. Current scatterometer orbits pass the same point on Earth at approximately the same time every day. Since the space station’s orbit intersects the orbits of each of these satellites about once every hour, ISS-RapidScat can serve as a calibration standard and help scientists stitch together the data from multiple sources into a long-term record.

The original QuickScat satellite stopped working in 2009, the new ISS launch is expected to last for two years, and next-generation equipment is being looked into for the next step.

Weather Science

The two forces that make #Sandy quite unlike Irene

Batten down the hatches; Mother Nature is about to unleash her wrath on the eastern seaboard Monday afternoon. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, meteorologists have predicted for many days that Hurricane Sandy was going to be be “the storm”. You know, that storm people will reference back to and compare every other storm to twenty years down the road. She will be strong, she will be relentless and she will be sure to leave her mark on the Rochester region.

Without a doubt Upstate New Yorkers have faced their fair share of powerful tropical cyclones, Hurricanes Bob, Isabel and most recently Irene to name a few. These hurricanes packed a powerful punch in terms of precipitation, closing down the Thruway and paralyzing small communities due to localized flooding. However, these three storms were not able to provide the wind Sandy is projected to produce.

This is because Sandy will eventually transition from a tropical cyclone into an extra-tropical cyclone. As Sandy moves onshore, she will become integrated into a deep trough and upper-level jet stream associated with the cold air present over the northeast. When she merges with the deep trough, her central pressure will drop, winds will strengthen and she will spread out over a huge area. Tropical-storm force winds will extend over 500 miles northward of the center of Sandy – an unprecedented size! As a result, Sandy will produce sustained winds over 40 mph and gusts exceeding 55mph in the Rochester area.

Hurricane Sandy is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern Jersey and Delaware around midnight Tuesday and dump anywhere from ten to twelve inches of rain in the area. Although Rochester won’t see that much precipitation, parts of Western and Central New York could see over three inches of rain from Sandy, more than enough to cause localized flooding.

That amount of precipitation has the ability to dampen the ground so that with the strong winds, trees could be uprooted. Given the counter-clockwise flow around Sandy, winds will be coming from the northeast, opposite the typical prevailing wind direction, which could put added stress on trees. A positive thing to note though is that most of the leaves have fallen off the trees, lightening their weight. Nevertheless, be alert if your house is situated near tall trees, especially if they have a weak root structure.

As if there is not enough to worry about, Rochesterians will have to pay special attention to Lake Ontario throughout the storm. Sandy’s winds will blow across the flat lake, causing over 20 feet waves, almost unprecedented heights for Ontario.

It’s fair to say that the hype Sandy has brought is nothing short of extraordinary. However we will have to wait to see if she puts her money where her mouth is. My guess is, Sandy is not fooling around and the 50 million people she is projected to impact should take the necessary precautions to stay out of harms way.

Weather Science

In the path: how Southern storms influence Rochester’s weather

Could it already be that time of year again? The end of August marks the return to school, retirement of beach towels and of course, the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season. That’s right, although the Atlantic hurricane season technically started on June 1st, early September is the activity peak. This season has been no different as Hurricane Isaac ripped into the Gulf of Mexico and made its presence felt from the Gulf of Mexico north into western and central New York.

For weather nerds like myself, the hurricane season brings anticipation comparable to Christmas, as any day during the humid summer months could mark the formation of a major hurricane.

As the summer has roared along, we have seen spectacular weather in the northeastern U.S. Strange huh? I guess meteorologists can breathe a big sigh of relief. We haven’t heard the public complain too much about “wrong forecasts” this summer, tough to mess up “Hot n’ Hazy”. But since we are in the brunt of hurricane season, there’s no telling when one of these storms will come our way.

National Weather Service graphic shows the path of Hurricane Irene, cite:

For instance, last August Hurricane Irene made its landfall on the Outer Banks of the Carolinas and proceeded to dump 15 inches of rain throughout parts of New England, causing flash flooding and fatalities. Wait, I thought hurricanes weren’t supposed to happen in the northeast, at least that’s what the weatherman said.. In the case of Irene, the storm followed the natural east to west movement in the tropics due to the easterly trade winds as it strengthened over warm ocean waters. However, as Irene progressed northward into our neck of the woods, the prevailing winds shift from easterly to predominately westerly, allowing for direct aim on the northeast.

National Weather Service graphic shows the path of Hurricane Isaac. Cite:

Hurricane Isaac followed this pattern into the Gulf, moving westward and making its long-awaited landfall just west of New Orleans. The Louisiana and Mississippi coasts took the brunt of Isaac due to their location in the northeastern quadrant of the hurricane. In any hurricane, it is common for extreme flooding in the northeastern quadrant of the storm due to its counter-clockwise rotation, pushing water on shore, resulting in serious flooding and storm surge. Isaac was also a slow mover, remaining nearly stationary for almost 3 days, exacerbating the flooding.

As Isaac progressed northward, weakening over land due to lack of moisture, (hurricanes need warm water to survive – it’s their fuel!) the mid-latitude westerly winds pushed moisture from Isaac to the northeast providing our region with crucial rain that helped alleviate our recent arid conditions. Let’s all face it, clear skies and 80 degrees everyday is pretty freakin sweet, but a little rain here and there is necessary. Besides, pretty sure the weatherman hit this one on the head, pretty sweet right?

Journalism Politics Science

Surge Overdrive: Storm Coverage, Balance and Hurricane #Irene

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Irene

Where hurricanes are common, particularly in New Orleans, I am told that there is a tradition of having “Hurricane Parties,” in which the hardy locals stay where the rest pack up, to confront the storm with gusto. It is, perhaps, a measure of the distance between those whose duty it is to warn society of the dangers of a storm and those who have to live in neighborhoods soon to feel the storm’s wrath.

I wonder if we aren’t beginning to see some of that same distance on a national level as harsher weather becomes more common. From monster winter storms to visitations in the North by hurricanes more commonly expected in warmer climes, there is no question that weather is changing. The dangers of serious weather conditions are inarguably real. But when one epic crisis follows the next, its hard to imagine that the coverage isn’t starting to get a bit overblown.

And if we are to be honest about the situation, we cannot ignore the fact that The Weather Channel’s huge uptick in viewership this weekend means that eyeballs that might have been on CNN were instead on TWC. CNN would certainly like those eyeballs and the advertising revenue they represent back, as would MSNBC, Headline News and your local stations. Of course economics have to play into the volume of coverage. And if not economics, at least lets admit that being the only girl dancing at your own party is lonely.

Irene was and continues to be every bit as devastating as the more sober assessments claimed it would be. To that extent, the media has been 100% right about this particular disaster, though we know its been wrong at least as often. The fair argument is that if these dangers were not made very clear to the public, worse things could potentially have happened. That is true, but here’s a question: what are the consequences when the viewing public stops paying attention and starts throwing nation-wide hurricane parties?

The Journo that Cried Hurricane

Jim Cantore is supposed to be waist-deep in water and getting pelted with hail. That’s what we expect of Jim Cantore, journalism and meteorology be damned. So when Jim is loafer-deep in heavy but not-unseen rainfall at Battery Park, it isn’t at all surprising that the audience greets him with disappointment and moves on. This is especially true when hours of coverage have been dedicated to the storm before it even arrives. The danger isn’t the story; the rain isn’t the story; the hurricane was never the story. Jim Cantore was the story, and he disappointed.

Do you see what happened, there?

With Katrina, the worst damage came not with the hurricane, but the flooding that happened later. Just like this storm. And just like this storm the audience had been bored by over-hyped cult of personality media coverage before the danger even started. We “dodged a bullet,” remember?

This time, the media appears to be itself disappointed by the lack of wiz-bang hurricane images of New York. This story refused to follow the traditional disaster movie plot line, where hours of anticipation precede a colossal storm and then its over and our heroes are safe to return to the studios. Instead, the real danger happens in all the boring bits that normally get cut off at the end of a movie to fit it into the neat two-hour package we expect.

And what about next time? Do media outlets offer the same level of coverage, only to be ignored? Or do they back down on their coverage, only to have the storm be taken less seriously?

Breaking the Narrative Trap

It seems like the biggest problem with news coverage of storm systems is just the sense I mentioned above, where the media paints a cinematic picture. There is nothing wrong – and everything right – about having reporters fanned out over a potential disaster area. Even if nothing happens, that you have reporters on scene to confirm nothing has happened is itself good coverage of relevant news, as weather patterns go. But it would be nice if the media did not spend three days in advance of a storm with wall-to-wall coverage, breaking news, live feeds and the like. Doing so only builds anticipation that probably will not be matched by the weather that follows.

And since it is weather we’re talking about, perhaps using the meteorologists is preferable to the second-hand coverage of an anchor on a desk. Everybody understands that the weatherman can be wrong – its a risk we all understand is a necessary component of weather. But when the anchors start discussing the same subject, its given a more definitive character that weather cannot live up to. Anchors need to be authoritative. Weathermen need to be analytical and circumspect. Its about using the tools you have effectively.

Warning citizens of a potentially life-threatening storm is a necessary function a media outlet. But doing so does not require a constant drum beat of coverage, in fact, such coverage does eventually get ignored by people trying to parse a dozen stories into useable content. Anything repetitive will sooner or later get ignored. Because we’ve seen this movie before.


The Sad Story of Galveston has an article by a former resident of Galveston, Texas on the state of that blighted city.  Things aren’t looking very good at all, in fact boats washed ashore in the storms remain there.  Are we seeing the end of an American city?