Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Strange Lines: What are They?

Yesterday, something seemingly very strange was found in the visible satellite imagery over Washington. Curious lines extending from major volcanic peaks.  Let me show you.

First, at 8 AM (1500 UTC) there were no lines over the Cascades, but a band of high clouds was moving over western Washington.  You can see snow over the Cascades and the volcanic peaks (like Rainier) are evident as isolated areas of snow.

But then something strange happened.  As the high clouds moved over the Cascades (10 AM), a strange line formed, extending to the east-northeast of Mt. Rainier, with weaker lines associated with Mt. Baker and Mt. Adams.

By 11:45 AM (1845 UTC), the Rainier and Mt. Adam's lines were half way across eastern Washington.

 But then something strange happened.   As the high clouds moved eastward the strange lines disappeared!

Want a better view? Here is an image from the high-resolution MODIS Terra satellite around noon.

And here is a MODIS close up of the lines extending from Rainier and Adams.

So what is it?  Alien spaceship tracks.   Government topic secret program?  Chemtrails?

Nope...there is another answer.

 The winds aloft yesterday were generally from  the west at roughly  10,000 ft (700 hPa ) and west-southwest higher (see radiosonde sounding at 5 PM yesterday).  In the upper troposphere (from 15,000 ft to 30,000 ft) the air was near saturation in this sounding (the temperature--red--and dew point --blue--were close together).

A band of high clouds moved over the region during mid-day.   These thin high clouds indicated that the atmosphere had reached saturation at some upper levels, producing extensive ice clouds.   But something supercharged the high clouds, making them far whiter downstream of the mountains.

The probable cause?  Vertically propagating mountain waves!   Some mountain waves stay low and produce mountain wave clouds over and immediately downstream of mountains near crest level.   But when the conditions are right, the mountains produce waves that move (or propagate) upwards, with their maximum upward velocity well above and somewhat downstream of the mountain (see figure).  In such a wave, the cloud can start downstream of the mountain peak and extend downstream a considerable way.

So we started with a thin veil of clouds...a layer of ice crystals.   Then extra upward motion produces enhanced cooling and production of even more ice crystals. The cloud became whiter.  These ice crystals were not evaporating downstream since the air was generally saturated.   So a long line formed downstream of the mountain.

Later, when drier air moved in, the lift of the mountain waves were not enough to produce ice crystals and the air cleared.   

Could we model this using computer simulation?   You bet.  Here is the UW WRF cloud fields at noon on Monday.  Look carefully and you can see enhanced lines embedded in a general mass of upper clouds.  We have come a long way!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lunar Eclipse Weather

A total lunar eclipse will begin tomorrow (Monday) night.  The moon moves into the earth's shadow (see schematic) at 10:58 PM, with the total eclipse occurring between 12:07 and 1:25 AM PDT early Tuesday morning.

As we will discuss later, there will be considerable cloudiness during the period, but I suspect several of you will be to view parts of the eclipse.

An interesting aspect of total lunar eclipses is that the moon is never completely blacked out, even though shadowed by the earth (see picture from an earlier eclipse below).  Frequently, the moon takes on an orange or reddish color during totality.

But why does the moon not go completely dark?   The reason:  the earth's atmosphere!

Some of the sun's light is refracted or bent by the earth's atmosphere towards the darkened moon (see figure).
But why is the moon often reddish during a total lunar eclipse?  The atmosphere tends to preferentially scatter and remove the shorter wavelengths of light, like blue and green, leaving longer wavelengths like red.  That is why sunsets are red.

Some eclipses are redder than others.  If the there is a substantial volcanic eruption that injects large amounts of particles into the atmosphere, more of the shorter wavelengths are removed resulting in a darker, redder moon during the eclipse.
So will you see it?  Let's take a look at the latest WRF model forecast for 12 AM Tuesday morning. This figure shows the predicted cloudiness, which unfortunately is considerable, with the suggestion of a convergence zone over central Puget Sound.  But there are some gaps over the northern coast of western Washington and some thin clouds over eastern Washington.  Open around Vancouver and in portions of the Willamette Valley.
 Looking at the 9 AM visible satellite image, one can see that the weak front approaching the Northwest is not very impressive...and quite broken up.  This bodes well for some of you seeing at least portions of the eclipse.  So don't give up!
Now if you miss this eclipse because of clouds, don't worry, this is the first total lunar eclipse in a series of four, also known as a "tetrad", with follow-on eclipses on October 8, 2014, April 4, 2015, and Sept 28, 2015.

There’s an interested lecture series starting this week:  Our Global Ocean: The Ultimate Planetary Life Support System--New Approaches to an Old Ocean. A much better title would be 20,000 Gigabytes Under the Sea. The speaker, UW professor of oceanography John Delaney, is leading the team of scientists and engineers at the UW who are building the world’s largest underwater cabled observatory off the coast of Oregon to better understand the complex ocean system that modulates climate.  Lectures will be at 7 pm in Kane Hall on April 15 and 29, May 6 and 20. This event is co-presented by the UW Alumni Association and by Seattle Arts and Lectures. Register and buy tickets through the SAL website here

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Great Sea-Tac Temperature Mystery: Is it Solved?

A great mystery has engaged the local weather community for over a year now:  the Seattle-Tacoma Airport warm anomaly.

Day after day Seattle-Tacoma Airport's temperature gauge was warmer than observations in its neighborhood.   Was it the impact of the third runway?  Or the nearby concrete and gravel?

A National Weather Service field trip to the temperature sensor, using a carefully calibrated temperature standard, suggested that the sensor was fine (at that time).  And how would the runway warm the temperatures at night?  My friends in the National Weather Service wanted to ensure the temperatures were correct, but what was wrong?

The mystery grew. The game was afoot.

And then on 15 March 2014, the Seattle-Tacoma Airport temperature sensor went crazy, reporting a high temperature of 76F while four nearby observing sites had highs of 58, 59, 60, 61.  The next day the NWS meteorological technicians replaced the temperature sensors and some of the electronics, and guess what happened?

Much of the warm bias disappeared.

Here is a plot of the difference of the temperature between Seattle-Tacoma Airport and a nearby weather site (Weatherunderground SEAT4, see map below, that station is SW of the Sea-Tac observation--the one with the cloud).  The vertical red line shows the day the equipment was replaced and the horizontal green lines show the average temperatures before and after the switch.  UW's Mark Albright produced this plot. There is clearly a significant drop in temperature after the sensor replacement.

Further evidence is provided by plotting temperatures at Seattle-Tacoma Airport and at nearby Tacoma Narrows Airport in Tacoma. Before March 16th, Sea-Tac has a higher maximum temperature than Tacoma Narrows (TIW) nearly every day, but after the repair they were consistenly very similar.

Is this an isolated incident?  Unfortunately not.  I can give you a long list of airport weather sensors that were reading warm, and then cooled considerably when they were replaced (e.g., Douglas, Arizona).   Or sensor that began reading warm when their fans failed or slowed.   The trouble is that most failures seems to lead to warmer, not cooler temperatures.   Thus, problematic sensors and equipment are contributing a warm bias in official temperature records.  How big a problem is this?  I am not sure we have any kind of handle on this.

And there is another problem leading to unrepresentative warming:  urbanization and development around temperature sensors.  The Wenatchee temperature sensor, part of the Historical Climatological network, is shown below as an example of poor exposure--with a hot parking lot nearby as well as nearby buildiing.

We are fortunate to have a number of meteorological sensors that are less prone to such problems (e.g., satellites), but their records are quite short compared to the surface instrumental record.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Weather Forecasting Improvement Acts Passes the House: What are the Implications?

A most extraordinary thing has happened:  the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that recognizes that the U.S. has fallen behind in weather prediction and proposes to do something about it.  The implications of this legislation are huge for the nation, NOAA, and the weather community.

Let me tell you the story.

On April 1st, the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act (H.R. 2413) was approved by voice vote in the U.S. House of Representatives and has now gone to the U.S. Senate. The principal sponsor is Congressman Bridenstine of Oklahoma, with 19 other sponsors, including some Democrats (such as Congresswoman Bonamici of Oregon).

There are some very good things in this bill, but some key problems were missed and the bill is far too detailed and prescriptive in many places.  The folks who wrote the bill were trying to do the right thing, but they clearly were not meteorologists and did not know where some of the skeletons were located in government closets.  So in this blog, I will go beyond critiquing what the bill does and tell you what the bill should have done, but didn't.

Let's face it, the existence of this bill is a real embarrassment for NOAA management. They have allowed weather prediction in the U.S. to degrade to such a obvious degree that Congress has felt the need not only to intervene, but to micromanage what NOAA/NWS should be doing to repair the situation.

The goal of the bill is stated up front:

To prioritize and redirect NOAA resources to a focused program of investment on affordable and attainable advances in observational,computing, and modeling capabilities to deliver substantial improvement in weather forecasting and prediction of high impact weather events, such as those associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, storm surges, and wildfires and for other purposes.

And to make it perfectly clear about priorities:

...the Under Secretary shall prioritize weather-related activities, including the provision of improved weather data, forecasts, and warnings for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy, in all relevant line offices

The intention of this language is clear:  weather prediction should be the highest priority of NOAA

There are some folks that are uncomfortable with this language, arguing that weather and climate are interrelated and that climate research could be weakened.  Personally, I am sympathetic with this emphasis on weather prediction.  For too long, NOAA has  provided insufficient support for weather prediction, while dispensing far greater research and computational resources for climate studies.

Improved weather prediction can save lives and enhance economic activities now and in the future if the climate changes. There is no better protection from extreme weather that might accompany climate change than better weather prediction.

NOAA Bureaucracy:  Before I describe the rest of the bill keep in mind that NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is an agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce.  The National Weather Service (NWS) is found within NOAA.   Atmospheric research is mainly NOT located in the National Weather Service, but rather in NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) and particularly in its Earth Sciences Research Lab (ESRL).   In this strange organization, the head of the National Weather Service or the head of operational weather modeling in the NWS  does not control the research supporting their operational mission.  As I will point out below, this has produced a dysfunctional and wasteful system, which Congress needs to change.

Back to the bill...

In the next section (3), the bill calls on the Assistant Administrator for NOAA OAR to conduct a research and development program to improve weather forecasting.  And the language is amazingly prescriptive (boundary layer processes, phased array technologies, cloud-resolving models, and more).   Quite honestly, too prescriptive.   And NWS  personnel are not involved in making the decisions of what research is to be done to SUPPORT THEIR MISSION.   Bad approach.

And then the bill does something wonderful: it calls for OAR to use not less than 30% of the allocated funds for extramural (outside of NOAA) research.   This is important.  In the past, NOAA has kept nearly all available research and development funds to use in-house, starving research in universities and the private sector.  A good example of this is the U.S. Weather Research Program (USWRP), which never succeeded in including the university community because NOAA would not supply sufficient funding.  Good for our Congressmen, this is one skeleton in the closest they knew about.  NOAA needs fresh ideas from the outside community and extramural research support is a key tool to secure it.

In the next two sections (4 and 5), the bill establishes a Tornado Warning Improvement and Extension Program and a Hurricane Warning Improvement Program.   You won't find much detail in these sections, except for a very aggressive goal of predicting tornadoes beyond one hour in advance.  Folks, we don't know if this is even possible.  And the Congressmen did not seem to know that we ALREADY have a hurricane improvement program on which they have spent tens of millions of dollars:  HFIP (the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program).

Section 6 calls for Weather Research and Development Planning that requires that the Assistant Administrator for OAR will issue a research and development plan to restore and maintain U.S. leadership in numerical weather prediction and forecasting.   

Can't argue with that, except it is exceedingly strange that this is not being run by National Weather Service management.   As far as I can tell, there is no such plan in existence at this point.  Try to find a strategic plan for NWS numerical weather prediction over the next five years.  You can't, which is pretty amazing.  The Canadians have a detailed plan, so do the Brits.  We don't. 

In the next two sections (7 and 8), the Congressional gloves come off for an area in which NOAA has been dragging its feet for decades:  Observing System Planning

The U.S. spends billions of dollars on weather observations, and particularly satellite observations.   There are also weather radars, aircraft observations, surface observations, radar profilers, buoys, and much more.  Huge, expensive infrastructure.  You would think NOAA would design the observing system in a rational way to optimize quality of observations and reduce costs.  Think again.  They haven't.  And Congress is very frustrated about this.

There are technologies that are available to to such planning, one being Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSEs) in which one simulates an artificial, but realistic, atmosphere and samples from it as if you were taking observations.  Then you use these observations in a simulated data assimilation and forecasting system.   At a hearing, two years ago, a Congressman asked the NOAA Administrator about this approach (not the current administrator) and she never even heard of OSSEs. Ouch.

Anyway, these sections demands the NOAA begin using OSSEs and other approaches to design a high quality and cost effective weather observing system.  It even cuts off funding for high-ticket observing systems unless they do it.   Good for Congress in pushing this issue and a real slap on the wrists of NOAA administrators. 

Section 9 of the act warms my heart.  It calls for Computing Resources Prioritization Report, which would would describe how NOAA would establish state-of-the-art computer facilities for weather prediction.  Congress is right. NOAA has been content to allow U.S. weather prediction facilities to deteriorate to a state that we have fallen out of numerical weather prediction leadership.  But Congress needs to do more than ask for reports and plans.  It needs to provide funds for supercomputers for weather prediction.  For the price of one jet fighter, the U.S. could improve weather prediction enough to save billions of dollars and protect American lives and property.   Real defense for Americans.  And remember Congress gave NOAA enough funds for a major computer and it hasn't been ordered yet because of NOAA's dependence on one vendor, IBM.

The next section (10), dealing with commercial weather data is a bit more controversial.  It gives NOAA a push toward taking more advantage of weather data provided by commercial providers.  NOAA already purchases some weather data from private companies (e.g., lightning data and some surface observations), but it needs to be more aggressive.  For example, NOAA is not purchasing extremely useful data from short-haul commercial flights (TAMDAR), data that is proven to improve short-term forecasts. It should.

But NOAA needs to be careful.  There are companies that are lobbying heavily to get NOAA to support their efforts when lower-cost options exist.  For example, some companies, like PlanetIQ, want to get into the GPS-occultation satellite business without investing in it themselves--looking for NOAA to front the investment by guaranteeing purchase of their data.  They are lobbying heavily to stop U.S. investment in the proven COSMIC system, for which other countries will pay at least half the cost.   Congress needs to learn the facts about such companies before they push NOAA to use their services.

Section 11 establishes a weather research and innovation advisory committee that will represent the national weather community, providing advice to NOAA on weather prediction technology and application.  A very good idea.  The NWS has resisted creating such a committee even though it has been recommended by many U.S. National Academy reports.  NOAA/NWS management clearly needs to be pushed on this.

Section 12, 13, 14:  Interagency Weather Research Coordination, Visiting Fellows at OAR and the NWS.   Certainly good ideas. 

This bill calls for expenditures of roughly 100 million dollars a year to fix problems, but does not provide new resources.  The question is where NOAA will secure the money:  reducing climate work, improving efficiencies, or some other approach?

My Take on This Legislation

As my analysis above indicates, there are many good aspects to this legislation, not the least of which is that it lets NOAA management know that inferior weather prediction for the U.S. in unacceptable and they need to make weather forecasting a national priority.

But unfortunately, this bill does not take on the true core problem in NOAA, the fact that the organization of  NOAA weather research and operations is basically flawed.  And until that is fixed, the U.S. will always lag behind in weather prediction

To move forward in weather prediction, research and operations must be integrated and coordinated.  This is what the highly successful European Center for Medium Range Forecasting does.   NOAA lacks this structure.   Operational numerical weather prediction is in the Environmental Modeling Center (EMC), a part of the National Weather Service.   Weather prediction research is mainly in NOAA's  ESRL lab, which is in NOAA OAR.   The head of EMC or his/her superiors in the NWS DO NOT CONTROL THE RESEARCH DONE TO SUPPORT THEIR MISSION.

The results of this structure has been a disaster for the country.  NOAA ESRL develops models that are never used by the National Weather Service, wasting substantial resources.  NOAA ESRL does some research that never has operational impact.  Don't get me wrong:  there are some extraordinarily talented scientists in NOAA ESRL and some of their work does get into operations (like the wonderful Rapid Refresh short-term forecasting system), but a huge amount of work goes no where. For example, NOAA ESRL is developing global models (NIM and FIM) that folks in the NWS assure me will never be applied operationally.

Boulder, Colorado  
Center of U.S. Weather Research

I got a taste of this a year and a half ago after I did a blog on improving the computer resources for the NWS.  The head of NOAA ESRL called me into his office and told me I should not work to get NWS better computers; rather,  I should work to secure them for NOAA ESRL!  That we would set up an essential real-time forecasting capability separate from EMC.  And he made deprecatory comments about his NWS colleague's technical abilities.  Folks, this is a very broken system.

So what should Congress do?   They should combine U.S. government operational numerical weather prediction and research into one entity.  Specifically, they should combine:
  • The NWS Environmental Modeling Center (EMC)
  • The NOAA ESRL Global Systems Division
  • The NWS Meteorological Development Lab (MDL)
into one entity, headed by one person.   MDL does model post-processing (statistically improving model output).   I suspect the best place for this combined unit would be in Boulder, Colorado:  NOAA ESRL is there already and Boulder is the home of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) .  In fact, some portions of NCAR, like the Developmental Testbed Center, could be entrained into the new national forecasting entity. Boulder is the center of U.S. weather research and also a very pleasant location that is attractive to visitors.

The creation of such a new entity, the provision of large supercomputer resources,  ensuring sufficient funds for extramural, weather-prediction related research , and developing an approach for coordinating the huge research/development weather capabilities of the U.S. would rapidly improve U.S. weather prediction in NOAA.  But only Congress can make this happen...NOAA management never will.  And these issues extend beyond NOAA:  there is a huge amount of weather research and operations in other agencies, including  the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Interior, NASA and elsewhere.   There is considerable redundancy, duplication of effort, and lack of coordination between these weather forecasting groups.  In the end, the problem is not resources, its lack of coordination and cooperation.  And we haven't even talked about the capabilities of the U.S. private sector.  What a mess.   And only Congress or the leadership of the U.S. Executive Branch can fix it.

The legislation now goes to the Senate and I hope they will make some of the above suggested changes in the bill.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Math Books for Seattle: Will the District Make a Wise Choice?

Seattle Public Schools is in the home stretch of picking new K-5 math textbooks and if you live in Seattle you can have a voice in the decision.  See below how you can make your opinions heard.

As I have described in several previous blogs, Seattle is now using a terrible math series for K-5: Everyday Math.  It has undermined the math learning of Seattle students for too long.

After lots of complaints and the evident failure of Everyday Math, the Seattle School District began a selection process for a replacement, managed by a Math Adoption Committee.  After some deliberation and limited input from the community, they have narrowed the field to three books:
  1. Math in Focus - The Singapore Approach pub. Houghton-Mifflin
  2. enVision Math   pub. Pearson Education
  3. Go Math!   pub. Houghton-Mifflin
Math in Focus is clearly the best of the lot.  enVision Math is far better than Everyday Math, but a step down.  Go Math is the weakest.  Here are a few comments on these books.

Math in Focus

Math in Focus is the Americanized version of the highly acclaimed  Singapore Math program (Singapore students have some of the best math performance in the world). 

Reasonably clear exposition of elementary math in a solid, well-designed package.  Highline Schools adopted Math in Focus a few years ago, with substantial improvements in standardized math tests.  A NY Times story on Singapore Math, including its MIF version, is very positive, with parents suggesting it to be far superior to Everyday Math.
EnVision Math

EnVision is lacking in depth in many topics (e.g., multi-digit addition and subtraction) and does not
provide adequate practice to ensure procedural fluency. The exposition ranges from barely o.k. to downright awful. 

Go Math

Busy, graphics-heavy layout. Distracted presentation, jumps from foundation to skill to application and back again without giving a student time to master anything, just running in place. Too many of the assessments were multiple choice. 

The Seattle Math Adoption Committee will be considering public input, and quite honestly they really need the input form parents and the community to ensure a mistake is not made again.  You can either do this in person at several school libraries or provide your comments online/mail..

In person viewing and commenting can be done at  five school libraries during school hours:
  •    MAGNOLIA: Catherine Blaine K-8, 2550 34th Ave W, 252-1920
  •    RAVENNA: Bryant Elementary, 3311 NE 60th St., 252-5200
  •    NORTH END: Northgate Elementary, 11725 1st Ave NE, 252-4180             
  •    WEST SEATTLE: West Seattle Elementary, 6760 34th Ave SW,  252-9450       
  •    RAINIER VALLEY: Wing Luke Elementary, 3701 S Kenyon St., 252-763
School libraries are only open during school hours, usually around 8-3, but are also open some evenings for special programs. All schools Closed for Spring Break: April 12-April 20.

 Or come to the Douglass-Truth Public Library, 2300 E Yesler Way, 684-4704 during open hours:
Mon-Thur 10AM to 8PM, Fri-Sat 10AM to 6PM, Sun 1PM to 5PM

You can also view the books online and download an evaluation form.  If you do this, please take some time to provide independent comments on the official form.

In order to view the books on-line, follow the instructions on this page.  The form you must fill out to provide comments is available on the committee website, here, along with the address to send it to at Seattle Public Schools you can mail it to (or you can email your filled in form).

We have come a long way and with strong community support, Seattle Schools can move from one of the worst K-5 math textbooks series (EveryDay Math) to a good one (Math in Focus).