SciTechBlog
September 1, 2008

Baton Rouge emergency responders on Gustav vigil

Posted: 11:53 AM ET

In East Baton Rouge parish, dozens of emergency operations personnel are hunched over their computers, looking at weather maps, power grids, and work schedules. More police are on the streets because all officers are now working 12 hour shifts through Gustav's rage.

East Baton Rouge parish officials wait out the worst blast of Gustav. Source: CNN

Power is starting to go out across this parish, as the number of outages in Louisiana has climbed past 368,000.

Once the winds hit a sustained 30 miles per hour, power crews and some emergency responders will hunker down until the storm passes.

"I'm never confident, I'm cautious," said Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden. He also wears the hat of president of East Baton Rouge parish.

Holden said Hurricane Katrina taught a lot of lessons, among them, urging citizens to take on a bigger dose of personal responsibility.

"We are stressing an ‘adopt a buddy' system, especially for folks who have elderly neighbors," said Holden. "We want them to check on them on a regular basis, to make sure they have food and medicine and make sure they are safe," he said.

Unlike the New Orleans area, this parish did not have any mandatory evacuations. But depending on the amount of flooding here, emergency personnel are gearing up for rescues after the storm passes.

The Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center is doing double duty. Along with its own fire, police, public works, animal control and other government departments, this very secure facility is also hosting some officials from nearby Jefferson parish, expected to get the full brunt of Gustav.

While first responders are on duty within Jefferson parish, other departments, such as personnel, legal, and environmental services are sharing space with their Baton Rouge counterparts.

"We're just behind the scenes here, trying to keep the government flowing," said Louis Gruntz.

-Marsha Walton, Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: hurricanes • Weather


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August 31, 2008

Opportunities missed in preparing for Gustav

Posted: 03:22 PM ET

If there were a Nobel Prize for “I told you so” it might go to Louisiana State University Professor Ivor van Heerden. He warned of the catastrophic consequences a major hurricane would have on New Orleans long before Hurricane Katrina.

LSU Professor Ivor Van Heerden foretold Katrina's damage.  Now he's pointing out missed opportunities to prevent a repeat of the disaster.

LSU Professor Ivor Van Heerden foretold Katrina

And as Hurricane Gustav approaches, he says there were many lost opportunities to strengthen the region’s defenses in the three years since Katrina and Rita.

Among them:
*state and federal officials could have done a lot more to assess the weak links in the levee system, from New Orleans to Morgan City, Louisiana.
*more of an effort should have been made to repair damaged areas on levees. In many places, he said, there is bare soil, no grass at all on the levees.
*both before and after Katrina, he said the Army Corps of Engineers has not allowed enough outside experts to work with them to make improvements

But perhaps the greatest neglect has been restoration of the wetlands off the Louisiana coast. It’s estimated that the cypress swamps and barrier islands are disappearing at the rate of a football field every half hour.

“For 14 years we’ve been trying to get the state to start a more large scale effort to rebuild the barrier islands,” said van Heerden.

These islands act as speed bumps with an approaching storm.

“If the existing barrier islands were a little higher and wider, it could knock two to three feet off the storm surge. It would have been about a $200 million dollar project, it could have been finished by now,” he said.

While coastal authorities in Louisiana did complete some restoration projects, van Heerden said bureaucratic snags kept many others from ever being started: everything from a limit of what companies could dredge in the Gulf, to the cutting and selling of cypress trees for garden mulch.

“This storm has the potential of being a huge economic blow to Louisiana, the United States and it will be felt internationally,” said van Heerden.

He predicted the price of gasoline could go through the roof because of the enormous oil and natural gas interests in the Gulf of Mexico.

But he said the human toll would be greater.

“Who is going to suffer? Not the decision-makers. It is the poor Louisianans. If the [weather] models are correct, Gustav will destroy what Katrina and Rita did not. This is going to be flooding of a much larger area than Katrina,” said van Heerden.

Marsha Walton Science and Technology Producer in New Orleans

Filed under: environment • Flooding • hurricanes • Severe weather • Weather


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August 28, 2008

Katrina again?

Posted: 09:33 AM ET

NOAA's 7am Thursday update shows Gustav taking aim at Jamaica

NOAA's 7am Thursday update shows Gustav taking aim at Jamaica

Wednesday morning, a groan went up in the CNN newsroom as several of us viewed the latest forecast track for Tropical Storm Gustav - projected to strengthen, possibly to a Category Three hurricane. Nearly three years to the day after Katrina flooded New Orleans and leveled much of the Mississippi Coast, we were looking at the possibility of Hurricane Gustav doing the same thing.

Gustav has brought heavy rains and floods to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba. Late Wednesday, the storm took an abrupt left turn. Instead of skirting north of Jamaica, Gustav could now score a direct hit on Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Next stop is the bathtub-warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico - 87 or 88 degrees Fahrenheit in some places. With precious little wind shear to knock the storm down, it's a recipe to cook up a major hurricane, possibly hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast by Tuesday.

If Gustav stays on its current track, it'll pass through the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil fields, offering a possible repeat of the damage and disruptions caused by Katrina, Hurricane Rita a month later, and by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Oil markets are already edgy, with a dollar-a-barrel jump on Wednesday blamed on the risk from this storm.

That's one thing. A repeat of Katrina's damage would be another. If this storm does indeed hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast, will it be a knockout blow for a struggling region? As of Thursday morning, the forecast track has shifted a bit to the west of New Orleans. Either way, it's time to say a prayer for the Gulf Coast, and for one of the most unique cities on earth.

There are two other tropical systems worth watching. A tropical depression, located about 400 miles east of Puerto Rico, could reach hurricane force and threaten the Bahamas next week. Another system could form in the mid-Atlantic over the next few days.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: climate change • environment • Flooding • hurricanes • meteorology • Oceans • Severe weather • Weather


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August 21, 2008

Scientists: U.S. not prepared for severe weather, climate change

Posted: 09:30 AM ET

Heavyweights in the scientific community are not waiting until the November election.

Tornadoes are forming at a record setting pace this year. This twister touched down near Hebron, Nebraska in 2004. Photo by Bob Henson, UCAR

They are warning the next residents of the White House and Congress that the U.S. needs to just about double its budget on weather and climate change research, research they say impacts everything from health and safety to transportation and national security.

Scientists cannot fully understand or deal with the impacts of climate change without the proper political leadership, and without funding for scientific observation and computing. That was the message from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, the American Meteorological Society, and the Weather Coalition in a teleconference with reporters today.

In a document aimed at the next crop of political leaders, the scientists said "Science is key to understanding these impacts, but weather and climate research and operations budgets have been flat or declining for years due to the budget wars in Washington."

John Snow, co-chair of the Weather Coalition and dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, said there may have been a lot of good intentions in Washington in recent years, "But the reality is they've been unable to deliver."

"The science budget has barely been keeping up with inflation, and in some cases has suffered actual cuts," said Snow.

The National Science Foundation got a 2% increase, not keeping up with inflation, and the weather and climate research got 0%, effectively a strong cut," he said.

The scientists are making five recommendations they say will improve the country's resilience to severe weather and climate change:

Observations: Fully fund the earth observing system from satellite and ground-based instruments.
Computing: Greatly increase computer power available for weather and climate research and predictions.
Research and Modeling: Support a research program in earth sciences to advance understanding of weather and climate and their impact on society.
Societal Relevance: Support education, training and communication efforts for the maximum benefit of society.
Leadership and Management: Implement effective leadership to ensure that these investments are done in the best interest of the nation.

The price tag? The group says lawmakers will need to add about $9 billion to the current $10 billion that is budgeted over the next five years.

Whether it is hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, snow, or drought, 75% of natural disasters around the world are triggered by weather and climate. That translates to billions of dollars in weather related losses every year in the United States.

"What we have put forward in the transition document is what we think is needed to prepare the nation for climate change, to be able to continue to improve our knowledge," said Jack Fellows, vice president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

"Frankly, we think this is one of the most pressing problems facing humankind, but it just happens to be on a longer scale than a lot of problems our country faces," said Fellows.

The other five organizations that wrote the document are the American Geophysical Union, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, and the Alliance for Earth Observations.

Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: climate change • environment • Weather


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August 20, 2008

Tropics thunder in the Atlantic and Pacific

Posted: 09:50 AM ET

The National Hurricane Center's forecast track for Tropical Storm Fay, as of 8am Wednesday.

The National Hurricane Center's forecast track for Tropical Storm Fay, as of 8am Wednesday.

As the odd, unpredictable path of Tropical Storm Fay crossed Florida and entered the Atlantic, a potentially more dangerous storm zeroed in on the Phillippines.

Typhoon Nuri tore through the northern Phillippines today with sustained winds of 87mph. The storm could impact Taiwan or the Chinese mainland later in the week. Nuri is the twelfth typhoon to hit the Phillippines this year (about 20 is a typical year). A June storm killed over 500 in the island nation.

In the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Fay crossed Florida and as of 9am Wednesday is headed offshore near Cape Canaveral. Defying the norm, Fay actually strengthened as it crossed the soggy land of south Florida and the Everglades, but it seems to have weakened near the Atlantic Coast. Concerns that Fay would increase to hurricane force as it re-enters the warm waters of the Atlantic have lessened. The official National Hurricane Center track still has Fay making another turn westward, coming ashore somewhere between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Forecasters say Fay will be a major rainmaker for North Florida, the Panhandle, and South Georgia in the next several days.

It looks like Jacksonville will continue its extraordinarily lucky record of dodging major hurricane damage. Hurricane Dora in 1964 was the last storm to score a direct hit on the city. Luckier still is Savannah, GA, a few hours' drive up the coast. Savannah hasn't experience major hurricane damage for over a century.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: hurricanes • Severe weather • Weather


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August 7, 2008

Beijing: Seeing, and smelling, a "good" air day

Posted: 11:48 AM ET

I laughed when I heard that the International Olympic Committee said that air quality in Beijing is not a problem. Well, I’m not a meteorologist but if I stick my head out the window and it gets wet I know rain is in the forecast. I’m also not an air quality expert but when I look out my 11th floor window each morning, I can see the smog smothering the nearby buildings.

An building in a murky Beijing on the eve of the Olympics

A building in a murky Beijing on the eve of the Olympics

I am amazed by the amount of gray choking the city. I swear I can’t see a quarter-mile. And at times there is a smell surrounding me that reminds me of a bus station.

As I said, I’m not keen to the science of the whole thing but our colleague at Sports Illustrated, David Epstein, has written on the smog in Beijing, and he explains why the conditions may last for a while.

The IOC laid some of the blame for the grey air on the humidity. But I have been here since Monday night and only once have I felt really uncomfortable (and I live in Atlanta, Georgia). That was the day we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and I was soaking wet after a few hours.

I’ve only seen two people wearing masks to cover their mouths – two members of the cleaning crew at one of the temples. I have been tempted to ask our guide if people are intentionally suffering to give visitors a better impression of their city.

It is the worst smog that I have ever experienced. Atlanta, which has some air quality issues, has never seen anything even close to this.

Now mom, don’t worry. I’m not constantly coughing, and my eyes are fine.

- Steve Almasy, CNN.com

Filed under: environment • Weather


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August 5, 2008

Hurricane forecasters: Who gets it right?

Posted: 11:58 AM ET

Tropical Storm Edouard came ashore this morning, a less-than-impressive storm that hopefully won't cause much more than inconvenience to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Also this morning, William Gray and Phil Klotzbach, the Colorado State University hurricane forecasters, issued their updated prediction on how this year's Atlantic hurricane season will turn out, raising their earlier estimates to a total of 17 named storms.

Hurricane paths from the record-setting 2004 season.

ALL OVER THE MAP: Hurricane paths from the 2004 season.

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Both the Colorado State team and NOAA's Climate Prediction Center issue annual predictions, and update them throughout the season. Let's take a look at how good a job they've done over the years. The numbers we're using here are the predictions issued each spring before the season gets underway. The teams predict how many tropical storms, hurricanes, and major hurricanes they expect:

In 2007, Dr. Gray predicted 17 named storms, NOAA called for 13 to 17. The actual number was 15. Gray said 9 of those storms would become hurricanes last year; NOAA said 7 to 10. We got 6.
Gray said there would be 5 major hurricanes of Category Three or higher; NOAA predicted 3 to 5. We got 2.

Both were fairly close with their 2007 forecasts. There were a few years - notably the monstrous 2005 season - when they weren't close at all. Here are the previous six years' predictions, and realities:

2006: Gray: 17 named storms; 9 hurricanes; 5 major hurricanes
NOAA: 13 to 16 named storms; 8 to 10 hurricanes; 4 to 6 major hurricanes
Real Life: 10 named storms; 5 hurricanes; 2 major hurricanes

2005: Gray: 13 named storms; 7 hurricanes; 3 major hurricanes
NOAA: 12 to 15 named storms; 7 to 9 hurricanes; 3 to 5 major hurricanes
Real Life: 27 named storms; 15 hurricanes; 7 major hurricanes

2004: Gray: 14 named storms; 8 hurricanes; 3 major hurricanes
NOAA: 12 to 15 named storms; 6 to 8 hurricanes; 3 major hurricanes
Real Life: 15 named storms, 9 hurricanes, 6 major hurricanes

2003: Gray: 12 named storms; 8 hurricanes; 3 major hurricanes
NOAA: 11 to 15 named storms; 6 to 9 hurricanes; 2-4 major hurricanes
Real Life: 16 named storms; 7 hurricanes; 3 major hurricanes

2002: Gray: 12 named storms; 7 hurricanes; 3 major hurricanes
NOAA: 9 to 13 named storms; 6 to 8 hurricanes; 2 to 3 major hurricanes
Real Life: 12 named storms; 4 hurricanes; 2 major hurricanes

2001: Gray: 10 named storms; 6 hurricanes; 2 major hurricanes
NOAA: 9 to 12 named storms; 6 to 8 hurricanes; 2 to 4 major hurricanes
Real Life: 15 named storms; 9 hurricanes; 4 major hurricanes

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech, & Weather

Filed under: hurricanes • meteorology • Severe weather • Weather


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August 1, 2008

Forecasting Olympic weather

Posted: 09:42 AM ET

Like anxious parents trying to make sure everything is perfect for their child's wedding... organizers of the Beijing Olympics are pulling out all the stops to put on a good show for the world.

Nowcasting is underway at the Beijing Meteorology Bureau. Photo courtesy National Center for Atmospheric Research

To help deal with the horrendous pollution of the Chinese capital, new subway lines have just opened, factories have been shut down temporarily, and commuters are being forced to drive only every-other-day.

There are even some attempts to control the weather, with cloud seeding and other methods of weather modification. But while influencing the weather is still considered somewhat dicey in the scientific community, Chinese forecasters are keen on, at the very least, knowing what the weather conditions will be for every sporting event.

So the Beijing Meteorology Bureau has called in the cavalry, in the form of scientists from NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

NCAR meteorologist Jim Wilson is working with Chinese counterparts to help them master the art and science of "nowcasting."

"All it is is zero to six hours," said Wilson. "We're not just talking about forecasting scattered showers, but forecasting that at 2 pm there will be a thunderstorm at such and such a location," he said.

And if the thunderstorm is forecast for the Beijing National Stadium with tens of thousands of spectators, an accurate forecast of severe thunderstorms with lots of lightning could be extremely important. While their work may not have the drama of an Olympic diver doing a reverse one and a half somersault with two and a half twists, their success could certainly play a part in how successful, or at least how comfortably some of the events play out.

Wilson has traveled to Beijing numerous times over the past few years, training forecasters on the specifics of the "nowcast." Radars, satellites, and other tools are used to try and improve short-term forecasts. Wilson is a radar meteorologist who has pioneered the "Auto-nowcaster," a technique that combines numerical models and observational forecasting.

"One of the biggest issues of a forecast is predicting, when will it stop? Can we keep going with this event until the rain stops?" said Wilson. Sometimes that becomes a safety issue, as in the case of a large stadium with thousands of spectators, or if the event involves water, such as sailing or kayaking events.

Wilson did similar work with an international team of weather forecasters in Sydney, Australia for the 2000 Olympics.

He's is headed back to Beijing July 30. He'll spend a week shaking down specifics with Chinese forecasters before the pressure hits for Opening Ceremonies August 8.

Nowcasting isn't just for exotic global events like the Olympics.

It was first developed for aviation, helping solve the deadly problem of forecasting wind shear.

"It was a natural extension to carry this on to other parts of society," said Wilson.

NCAR works with the National Weather Service to develop nowcasting techniques for them, helping meteorologists better pinpoint the precise times and locations of thunderstorms.

Marsha Walton– CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Weather


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July 22, 2008

Dolly heads for the border

Posted: 10:14 AM ET

Still at Tropical Storm status as of Tuesday morning, Dolly is beginning to kick up a breeze on Texas's South Padre Island. The National Hurricane Center track has the storm coming in midday Wednesday, probably as a weak hurricane. In its path are the cities of the Rio Grande Valley - McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico.

The real threat from Dolly may not be storm surge, though the Padre Island resorts are bracing for it. The inland border cities, as well as Monterrey, Mexico, could see flooding from heavy rains. Monterrey is an industrial city of four million an hour's drive from the Rio Grande.

Hurricane Emily hit the same area of the coast as a Category Three storm in July 2005. While Dolly will almost certainly not be quite as strong, Emily could be a preview of the potential for this storm.

- Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech, & Weather

Filed under: hurricanes • Weather


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July 11, 2008

The Woodstock of weather

Posted: 11:59 AM ET

Meteorologists around the world all have the same job…to forecast and explain the weather. But depending where you are, that can mean tracking tropical cyclones, predicting snowfall totals, reporting on the environment. Or if you are a meteorologist on CNN International, it can be all three in one day!

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 36th Annual American Meteorological Society’s Conference on Broadcast Meteorology in Denver, and I am very excited to share with you some of the highlights.NOAA\'s \"Science on a Sphere\" display

The conference was not only filled with lectures given by meteorologists around the world, but the best part, I thought was the field trips to the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Both of these research centers high on a mountain in Boulder, Colorado are researching weather to study climate, air chemistry, storms, the sun and its effect on Earth and the interactions of humans and the environment.

We had the chance to meet one on one with the top scientists in weather! Since my focus is Asia and Australia, I was very interested in the research being done for forecasting these regions. One of the things I learned is that NCAR works with their counterpart’s regularly in Shanghai and in Sydney, for example, to improve techniques in forecasting tropical cyclones and drought. Dr. Gregory Holland took the time to explain to me the topography of his homeland, Australia. The climate there is really fascinating: it’s possible to have drought and floods in close proximity. He described the winter in the Southeastern part of the country as wet and cold, similar to Great Britain at times.

At one point on the tour, a bunch of us went to a dark conference room and donned 3rd glasses (I am not kidding). We were literally wowed by 3-d animations of how wildfire grows and spreads. The animation showed the patterns and movement of fires and smoke plumes depending on atmospheric conditions.Wildfires have been in the news lately in California in the U.S. and in Greece.

The next stop on our field trip was literally down the mountain, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here we were treated to two amazing projects NOAA is conduction from Boulder.

The first is “Science on a Sphere”

Science On a Sphere (SOS) ® is a room sized global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a six foot diameter sphere, analogous to a giant animated globe. Researchers at NOAA developed Science On a Sphere® as an educational tool to help illustrate Earth System science to people of all ages. Animated images of atmospheric storms, climate change, and ocean temperature can be shown on the sphere which is used to explain what are sometimes complex environmental processes, in a way that is simultaneously intuitive and captivating. (NOAA)

For a meteorologist, its one think to look at a satellite image on a flat computer screen, but to see it all moving along overlaid on a huge globe of the Earth was especially cool!
Our guide was able to tilt the Earth model so we could see the North and South Poles clearly. We are also able to watch how warm water literally moves around the world. I was fascinated as warm water came into the Tropical Atlantic, for example, then “looped” into the Gulf of Mexico. That loop of warm deep water and the eddies that break off from it is one of the reasons we saw hurricanes like Katrina explode into Category Five intensity once they moved over this section of water in the Gulf of Mexico!

For all you space fans, our last stop will probably be your favorite to hear about. At NOAA in Boulder you will find the Space Weather Prediction Center.

Did you know that Polar Flights, international air travel that passes over the North and South Pole is dependent on Space Weather forecasting? I was fascinated by this and you will likely find me talking more about it soon on CNN Today Asia in my weather reports!

Some very cool images Space Weather Forecasters use come from Hawaii! From way a top the Mauna Loa Volcano.
The Mauna Loa Solar Observatory (MLSO) is located on the top of Hawaii's Mauna Loa Volcano.

Later back in Denver, we continued on in the coming days to talk about other topics: including Climate Change, Hurricanes, Tornadoes and communication tools to best display our reports, to you, our viewer.

I can tell you the technology that is coming is truly amazing and in the coming months, keep tuning into CNN International for the most interesting and cutting edge reports on the weather and environment!

It’s my pleasure and privilege to bring it to you weekdays CNN Today on CNN International and alongside my colleagues on Weather FX each month!

CNN Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider

Filed under: environment • hurricanes • meteorology • science • Severe weather • Tornadoes • Weather


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