Dreaming up Weather 2.0

Various weather factoids, babble and blather…..

Thanks to MinnPost’s Dave Brauer for forwarding an e-mail from Luke Shocker:

I meant to send this to your MinnPost colleague Paul Douglas, but couldn’t find an e-mail for him on your site. His blog comment (Monday) about ‘at least we don’t name our storms here’ reminded me of an effort years ago where the Grand Forks Herald began naming blizzards that rolled through each winter. I have no idea if it caught on or if they still do it, but I thought it was pretty amusing.

Thanks Luke, I agree – it does bring up some fascinating scenarios. Winter Storm Thor. Spring Flood LaShonda. A particularly intense Alberta Clipper named Mona. A nasty November ice storm named Bubba. Would the public stand for this? When I wrote my book, “Restless Skies”, I talked to the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, who told me that there was a period of time (70s) when the newspaper did, in fact, name big blizzards after famous locals, hockey players, politicians and luminaries. There was concern that this might be hard to sustain, and come off as a gimmick. To the best of my knowledge they are no longer naming blizzards, but I will double check, just to make sure.

What do you think? Yeah – YOU! The one slumped over, hiding behind your screen. I can just make you out. Granted, there is a monstrous difference between a hurricane and a questionable winter storm. Especially since many/most winter storms have an uncanny tendency to fizzle before ever reaching us. This could only ever work for the really BIG storms, the major blizzards, ice storms, spring floods. But who decides? The local NWS isn’t going to touch this, that’s for sure. This also requires everyone agree (in advance) that a particular upcoming storm is going to be severe, a headline-grabber, the Big One. With a tropical storm or hurricane you have that automatic cut-off & criteria. What if there is wild disagreement over a particular upcoming storm. Weatherguy #1 is predicting 6″ of snow. Weathergal #2 is forecasting a meager 2″. Will it even be a name-worthy storm? Should we try it one winter and see what happens? Just coming up with interesting names would be the most fun. I could use them in this column, give credit where credit is due, then refer to them during our 3:00 to 5:00 video updates during the day on MinnPost.com and Conservation Minnesota. Think about it – we have a couple of months to mull this one over.

That’s the beauty of life and attempted innovation. You can always say or do something at least once…..


Random Thought. No earthquakes, tsunami (tidal waves), volcanic eruptions or hurricanes in Minnesota, right? It gets cold in the winter. SO WHAT!!! Yes, we have to slap on a few extra layers from December through March. At least a 20 foot wave won’t push my home into the next zip code. That makes me happy.

Disconnected, Disjointed Weather-Musing. The hurricane season has begun (almost like turning on a switch). Last week: nothing….all quiet in the tropics. This week: Ana, Bill and Claudette. Some of the names are kind of funny, they sound more like punchlines than names. Meteorologists from the National Weather Services of countries worldwide get together in Geneva, Switzerland every 10 years at the WMO, the World Meteorological Organization. They go through books of names (I’m not making this up, really!) They agree on names for each year, one for every letter (expect the rough ones, like Q, X and Z), alternating between Anglo, Hispanic and French, reflecting all the countries and cultures impacted by hurricanes. Particularly rough/damaging/deadly hurricane names are “retired”, never used again. There will never ever be another Hurricane Andrew or Katrina or Hugo, for example.

Freaky Fact for Dedicated Weather Nerds: did you know that the whole naming hurricane thing got started in WWII, in the Pacific. Air Force Reconnaissance pilots (looking for Japanese warships and planes) also kept an eye out for typhoons (same thing as hurricanes, only in the western Pacific). Get this, the first aviator to spot the outer fringes of a typhoon got “naming rights”. That’s right, there were no weather satellites, usually the only way they knew a typhoon was lurking was to either float into it on a warship or destroyer OR fly into it, again, accidentally. So that first proud pilot or navigator had the dubious honor of naming the developing super-storm after their girl friend, significant other (or wife!) back home. Yes, I’m (still) telling the truth. This is too bizarre to be made up! I’m just not that creative…

B-29 SuperFortress Bombers saw lot’s of action in the Pacific theater during World War II and the Korean War. These high-altitude bombers often flew (unknowingly) into typhoons, hurricanes in the western Pacific. Keep in mind the first weather satellite wasn’t launched until 1961 (“Tiros” back in 1961). Now we rely on weather satellites to give us a continuous fix on the location and derived intensity of hurricanes around the planet. During WWII Air Force pilots who first spotted typhoons had “naming rights”, able to name the storm after girl friends or wives back home.

Tiros 1 Weather Satellite. Launched into low orbit about 435-460 miles above the Earth on April 1, 1960, Tiros 1, the world’s first weather satellite, lasted only 78 days. But it was able to capture imagery of clouds below, including this crude, grainy image of a tropical cyclone, a developing hurricane.

So, eventually the NWS began naming all the hurricanes in the Atlantic/Caribbean after female names (instead of Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc) in the 1950s because using real names made them more MEMORABLE to Americans. Hurricane Charlie is easier to remember than Hurricane Foxtrot, right? But in the 1970s the NWS got into trouble from woman’s groups claiming this practice was sexist and unfair. They had a point. Why only female names for the most destructive, hideous, pain-inducing storms on the planet? So in the 1970s the NWS began alternating between male and female names, spreading the notoriety (and pain) around more fairly.

If it hadn’t been for those brave Air Force pilots flying missions in the Pacific we might still be using “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…..(yawn)….”

Last Thought: what’s next? We’re going from a speech (TV newscast, newspaper, etc) to a conversation (Twitter, Facebook, blogging commentary, etc etc). What’s next for weather? I like the idea of a central repository of information, a place to post the latest model data, the sites, graphics, maps that best tell the weather story, and a place where weather enthusiasts (ie YOU!) can send in photos, video clips, observations, musings, snow depths, severe thunderstorm commentary, anything and everything.

But it can’t be edited in the traditional way. That might have been the case 2 years ago, but no more. Weather fanatics need to be able to get to the weather information, separate wisdom out of raw data (easier said than done), share information, not only pull stuff out that helps you plan your days/weekends, saving you time and money, keeping your family safer, but also contribute content.

Here’s what I’m trying to say (poorly, I fear). Right now there are some 80-100 automated airport weather instruments. They report the weather every hour, temperature, dew point, wind direction and speed, whether it rained during the last hour, some can even estimate how high the clouds are overhead. They can operate without human intervention….little automated weather robots. Pilots and meteorologists rely on these ASOS and AWOS sites around the state, around the nation. To be able to predict the weather we have to first know, and appreciate, what’s happening RIGHT NOW. Ground-based observations, radar, satellite imagery, weather balloon reports twice a day, “Profiler” data (think Doppler Radar pointing straight up) to tell us what winds and temperatures are doing high overhead over time.

But there should be a smart way to tap social networks and allow consumers to contribute, not only raw data (3″ of snow out at my home in Maplewood, Paul) but commentary, insightful observations that really help to put the weather into perspective. Stuff like “robins just arrived, 2 weeks ahead of schedule here in Golden Valley” or “Prior Lake down 4 feet, dinged up my third propeller on my pontoon today – dammit!” That, plus sending in photos of the sky, unusual clouds, strange formations. Imagine how cool it would be to see a storm, of any scale, from hundreds or even thousands of unique angles, and then piece them all together….to see weather unfolding in a way that hasn’t been possible up until now with even the most sophisticated Doppler. People – contributing content with their own local technology, cameras (rulers!) and words – from thousands of unique vantage-points, would be doing what no Mega-Turbo-Doppler will ever be able to pull off. That’s the direction I think we’re heading. Maybe we can give the future a little nudge…..

There is a “social weather” service cooking in my brain, a newer, better, more democratic, more personalized, interactive, high-tech AND high-touch way to approach weather. Again, I do not have the answer key. So much of this will be trial and error, and error….and error. Did I mention error? But we’re at that stage in the devolution of media: slap stuff against the wall and see what sticks? Anyone who claims to have the answer is either a sage or a fool. Probably the latter. An amazing transition is underway – traditional media is dying before our very eyes, something new (and I still think – ultimately – better) will take it’s place, one that requires input from all of us to be as good as it can be.

Weather 2.0

Please don’t be shy. If you have some strong ideas, thoughts, suggestions – share them. What do you think a typical weather presentation will look like in 3 years? Will people still want a 2-4 minute narrative, an explanation of what is happening, and why, along with some perspective, explanation and analysis? Or is it just “give me the 7-Day Paul, and shut your pie-hole….don’t need to hear any long-winded explanations or alibi’s!” That sounded like my wife of 25 years, by the way. She pops into my head at the damdest times….

I’m done. Ranting is over. But sometimes I’m just not satisfied with status quo. I’m easily bored, which is both a blessing and a curse.



GFS Extended Outlook for St. Cloud. This “Meteogram” is fairly intuitive. The blue line is predicted temperature, day-by-day, going out through next Tuesday evening. The highest “POP” or probability of precipitation comes Thursday afternoon (85%) But Wednesday afternoon looks showery and unsettled with a 63% “POP”. As you can see the GFS model dries us out and warms us up as we sail into the weekend. For the very latest GFS model output for St. Cloud click here.

Weather Scenario:

Today will rub you the right way, weatherwise. A weak bubble of high pressure donates blue sky, highs in the mid to upper 70s, light winds and low humidity. You’ll be staring out the window A LOT later today.

QPF for the next 5 days. Note the track of ex-tropical storm (Claudette) pushing northward across Alabama towards Louisville, Indianapolis and Cleveland. The approach of a cooler front may squeeze out .5 to 1″ of rain on much of Minnesota Wednesday and Thursday.

The approach of a reinforcing cool front will set off a fairly significant period of rain Wednesday into Thursday; showers and thundershowers will be widespread both days. Computer models print out anywhere from .50″ of rain in the Twin Cities to over an inch for St. Cloud by Thursday evening. No need to water again this week. Temperatures may be stuck in the 60s (for highs) Thursday, by the way. A hint of late September/early October is 48 hours away, but it will be fleeting….for now.

We dry out Friday as sunshine returns, I’m still cautiously optimistic about the weekend weather, sunshine both days, highs near 80. Yes, it will be a good weekend for the lake or pool. We slowly cool down next week, back into the 70s for daytime highs, maybe some cool 60s up north. No, I don’t see a run of 90s for the opening of the Minnesota State Fair, when all bets are off in the weather department. As we know all too well, ANYTHING can happen during the Great Minnesota Get Together.

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