October 27, 2011

The Most Dangerous Weather Phenomenon in the Northwest

If you live in the Northwest, what weather phenomenon is the worst threat to your life?   What type of weather has the greatest chance of causing you bodily harm?

Floods?  No way...although they cause the greatest economic damage to the region.

Windstorms?  Not even close..although most major windstorms do cause a few fatalities and injuries.

Thunderstorm winds or lightning?  Nope--a minor issue around here.

 Give up?   I think the clear cut winner is ice on the roadway, often known as BLACK ICE, even though it does have to be black or invisible.

Pay attention to this blog--it could well save your life.

I got sensitized to the threat of roadway ice in the first years after I started at the UW.   On occasion I would do legal (forensic) consulting and I was surprised that most of the cases were associated with lawsuits dealing with roadway icing.  I was stunned by how many people were getting killed and injured....the WA State Patrol statistics were depressing--a dozen or so were losing their lives each year on State Highways due to icing, and hundreds, if not thousands were being injured.  The whole situation was made worse by the lack of knowledge by highway maintenance folks regarding the causes of icing and the primitive state of pretreatment of highways to prevent icing.  I decided to make a study of the subject and began working closely with Washington State DOT to improve the situation (and they have made a huge effort that has paid off in reduced deaths and injuries).

But State DOT folks are not everywhere at all times and many icing deaths and injuries occur each year on our roads (17 deaths in 2009 in WA aline from Federal online stats).  So let me explain how you can protect yourself and your family.

Roadway icing has two major causes:  frost and freezing fog, and the fog is the worse threat.   Frost occurs generally on cold, clear nights--the earth radiates heat to space and the earth cools to the dewpoint..and if the dewpoint is at 32F or less you get frost.  Frost can make the road slippery, but it produces a relatively thin layer, which allows the roughness of the road to still supply some traction.  Yes, you can be killed by frost, but you got to be driving really fast or make a big error.

The big threat is freezing fog.  Classic situation around here:  clear, cold night....the roadway temperature drops below freezing..perhaps a little frost... but nothing bad.  Near the road, there is a boggy or wet area over which fog forms.   The fog then drifts over the roadway and lots of the fog droplets freeze on the roadway, leaving a thick ice deposit.  Very dangerous.  If you are driving on a cold night when temperatures are in the 30s or below and fog is around..SLOW DOWN IMMEDIATELY.

Now lets talk temperature!  On cold, clear nights the road surface is often colder than the air above.   Official temperatures are measured at around 6 ft, and the road surface can be 2-5F colder than that on such nights.  You have a temperature sensor on your car?  That sensor is a few feet off the ground and could well be warmer than the road.  BOTTOM LINE?  If you car thermometer or reported temperatures reach the mid-30s, icing is quite possible on the roads.  Slow down.

Another major piece of advice--bridges and elevated roadways ice up first.  Why?  The ground conducts heat into the  roadway, especially early in the season.  Bridges and elevated roadways don't have this heat source and thus cool down faster than roads in contact with the soil.  Half the cases I have consulted on have been on bridges and elevated sections.

Bottom line--if weather is going to kill or seriously injure you, chances are it will be from roadway icing.  Slow down when the warning signs noted above occur.  Be sure to purchase a car with Vehicle Stability Control (many new cars have this now), which lessens, but DOES NOT ELIMINATE, skidding on icy roads.

If you want to learn more about this topic , check the webpage I have created here.

Seattle School Board Race News

The Seattle times published ANOTHER story today  about crimes and scandals in the school district: one of the individuals involved in ripping off the district had an escort service as well. 

Another Times story revealed that outside individuals...many connected with high tech and Microsoft...are sending large amounts of money to the incumbents because the incumbents are on board with "school reform." (mainly blame the teachers and judge their performance based on "objective" student evaluations, hire Teach for America applicants, etc.)  The great irony is these high tech folks are supporting the wrong people...school board members that have contributed to the degradation of math education in the district.  All the challengers want first-class math instruction with curriculum and books similar to those used in countries where the kids do well in math.  The incumbent school board folks have supported fuzzy math, with lots of calculators and group work, with very poor content.  The Gates Foundation, Microsoft millionaires and other supporting the incumbents are contributing to folks that are cutting off the supply of math capability students to the high tech industries of the area.

Most local community groups (e.g, Democratic party), unions, and local math-education groups (e.g., wheresthemath.com) support the challengers. So does the Stranger.  Pathetically, the Seattle Times supports the incumbents.  Here is what the Times editorial board said today:

"Board members and district officials also cannot escape blame for the thefts in the district's Regional Small Business Development Program....Blame must be shared again by the board and district leaders for allowing, tolerating, inviting — pick your verb — a district culture of indifference and dishonesty. Board members showed too much confidence, or a stunning lack of curiosity, about the superintendent's management." ...
In the upcoming School Board election, this page endorsed the incumbents...The Times believed the incumbents are most knowledgeable about the inner workings of the district and best able to repair the damage"

Can you believe this?  The school board incumbents have been entirely incompetent in running the district, but they should be retained, because they know how they screwed up and thus can fix the problems they created?  The Seattle Times editorial staff is very disappointing--such sloppy work is not what you would expect from the main newspaper in such a major city.

Support the challengers if you want improvements in the Seattle School District.


  1. I don't actually know why most, if not all the incumbents, want to be re-elected, as poorly as things have gone and as unpopular as they are.

    Agreed on the misplaced energy: it seems some people think change, any change, has to be good.

  2. I think the most dangerous NW weather is when it is overcast for days. How many people commit suicide as a result? I don't know,but I would wager it is more than are killed because of ice.

  3. When a scandal of this magnitude does not force the wholesale turnover of top level staff and the school board members who support them, something is amiss. When the Seattle Times endorses the very same people behind the dysfunction, it leads one to ask, "Cui bono?" For that, please go over to Denny Hall and ask Professor Clauss for the translation.

  4. Good information about roadway icing Cliff. I'd suggest that you add all season tires to the list of things that can help avoid losing control. They are not a cure but are better than regular tires in the ice. Studded tires are very helpful in icy conditions. I prefer not to drive without them. Unfortunately they increase stopping distances in dry weather and cause tremendous damage to our roads. I install mine if snow is forecast and remove them as soon as the threat is over. I only need to do this an average of twice a year so it's not a big ordeal. They are only on for a few days at a time. This provides safety in the ice and snow without causing too much road wear. They don't help in black ice conditions if they are in the garage though. Being aware of the danger of black ice is important. Learning to control your vehicle in a spin or skid is also important. I know that many deaths and injuries could be prevented if people were taught emergency maneuvers and vehicle control in unusual conditions.

  5. All this is very interesting Cliff.....but how about an update on your dog Leah.

  6. LOL on ponydogwoman's comment--I'm from Colorado and I have NEVER gotten used to the winter dark here. Seems like there are always a couple of weeks in December or January here in central WA where we won't see the sun. At all. For ten days or more. I know I sound like a whiner, but I agree--that lack of sunshine packs a huge wallop.

  7. Cliff - You have a great radio voice! Who woulda thunk it?

    Regarding black ice, we live on the Sammamish Plateau, which gets pretty darn cold on clear nights and has lots of bogs and holding ponds that create fog. Unfortunately, people do not always slow down on the roads, and I have seen far too many accidents. Some folks seem to think if their car has all wheel drive, they are somehow immune, but based on my observations, they are most definitely not.

  8. Right on! Last Saturday coming back from the East side I was on I-90 making the right turn onto the off ramp on ramp onto North bound I-5. You know just below the old Amazon headquarters. As I'm coming round the ramp which curves to the right heading North bound my sedan starts to drift. My rear end starts to slide out to the left and well it was a wake up for me at 45-50 mph. I bet the driver behind me took notice too. I remembered everything I learned from Doc. watching CARS with my son umpteen times and thanked God I did watch it so many times. I made the correct and the corner.

  9. I appreciate the continuing posts on Math education and the school board elections. But what about those of us who support school reform (charter schools, tenure reform) AND strong math education? Are there any challengers in the field that would appeal to us?

  10. PLEASE post temperatures in degree C as well as degree F. As you well know, degree F is nonsensical.... It's good for everyone to get used to a system that makes sense. :)

  11. We are in our second year using Math Expressions elementary curriculum in Tacoma, and I am so far very pleased with it. Our previous weird mishmash of Saxon Math and Investigations was confusing and totally inadequate.

    I am glad we moved away from fuzzy math (and whatever Saxon was supposed to be accomplishing, which from 2nd to 4th grade seemed like zero progress) and I hope politics won't intervene to change it.

  12. I tend to think the gifted math minds are left in the dust with today's math curriculum at most schools. I thought I was a good at math. 99th percentile on the SATs, College Math Minor, and graduate course work in differential equations, but I am stumped when helping the young ones with the math today. OK kids, let's memorize math facts.........

  13. I second William...and news about your girl?

  14. All...thanks for asking about my missing Dog Leah....she is still missing, but she was seen last week in Mountlake Terrace and tracker dogs confirmed that.
    Unfortunately, the town of Mountlake Terrace is pulling down all our signs, so people are not as aware she is there. If anyone sees her (she could have moved to an adjacent town by now)...please let me know...thanks, cliff

  15. Black ice on the road is my greatest fear when driving in this time of year. It makes driving excruciating.

  16. as a motorcyclist, I appreciate these comments about road icing. I use a small home based weather station (Davis) and if the temperatures are in the 30s, and the sky is clear, I won't ride. Since I live on Vashon, motorcycling to West Seattle, the constant temptation to use the bike for ease of commute must be tempered with the threat of disaster. I learned early on that a home based weather station (no, i do not sell or receive any funds from anyone) is crucial for my 530 AM decision making, as the weather obs from King 5, or SeaTac were just too unreliable. thanks for a great reminder regarding the dangers of black ice.

  17. I grew up and learned to drive in Buffalo, NY. Moving here not too many years ago, I laughed at the wimpy winters, until while trying to drive to work one cold icy winter day I ended up skidded down a slope and found myself totally stuck. Had to walk home. ..not exactly about black ice, but still, even for snow and ice experienced folks, Seattle offers some unexpected challenges.


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