Tag Archives: hurricane

Hurricane Maria also becomes Category 5 storm, threatens more destruction

With winds of 160 mph (260 km/h), Hurricane Maria tears through the Caribbean area, likely moving on to wreak even more havoc.

This graphic shows an approximate representation of coastal areas under a hurricane warning (red), hurricane watch (pink), tropical storm warning (blue) and tropical storm watch (yellow). The orange circle indicates the current position of the center of the tropical cyclone. The black line, when selected, and dots show the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast track of the center at the times indicated. Image credits and more information: NOAA.

This year’s hurricane season has been unusually powerful, especially in the Atlantic. After Harvey, Irma, and Jose, Maria has now grown to the highest classification possible, a Category 5 hurricane.

Maria formed on September 16 out of a tropical wave that was monitored by the National Hurricane Center starting on September 14. At 23:30 UTC on September 18, Maria strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane, making 2017 one of only six years to feature two or more Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic in all recorded history.

The Caribbean island of Dominica, home to over 77,000 people, is first on the list for Maria. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit posted on Facebook that the storm has already off his roof and he was “at the complete mercy of the hurricane”.

“My greatest fear is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury, possible deaths … Come tomorrow morning we will hit the road in search of the injured and those trapped in the rubble.”

“Winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with.”

“My focus now is rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance. We will need help of all kinds … Dominica needs support from friends for helicopter services to get around the country [and] determine what’s needed.”

Maria seems to have the same trajectory as Irma. Image credits: NASA.

Unfortunately, Maria seems to be having a very similar trajectory to that of Irma last week. If this keeps up, it means that many of the areas just now recovering for Irma will have to brace for another impact.

Hurricane warnings remain in effect for:

  • Dominica
  • Guadeloupe
  • Montserrat
  • St Kitts & Nevis
  • US Virgin Islands
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques


UPDATE: Hurricane Maria has now dipped slightly to a Category 4 storm. The winds have decreased just a bit, from 160mph (260kmh) as it crossed Dominica to 155mph (250kmh). However, it remains an extremely dangerous storm as it heads through the Caribbean and towards Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Irma: 90% of the buildings on the Caribbean Island of Barbuda “destroyed by storm”

At least one person was killed, though the real number might be much higher.

Image credits: NOAA.

As Hurricane Irma became one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history, the Caribbean braced — but there was not much it could do. Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that the winds of 185 mph are unprecedented and that they left the island barely habitable.

“The entire housing stock was damaged. It is just a total devastation,” Mr Browne told local news station ABS. “This rebuilding initiative will take years,” he added.

“I have never seen any such destruction on a per-capita before as I saw when I was in Barbuda this afternoon. The telecommunications system is totally destroyed, we have seen cell towers snapped in two.”

“Barbuda now is literally rubble,” he summed it up.

Thankfully, at least some of the island’s buildings have survived, but things are not looking good. Around 60% of Barbuda’s 1,600 residents have been left homeless, and it’s unclear how they will manage to find shelter, as another hurricane might threaten the island. Hurricane Jose is fast approaching, and apparently also picking up steam.

Other parts of the Caribbean are also reeling. Approximately 95% of the buildings on the French part of the island St Martin have been destroyed. As Irma seems to be headed for Florida, a state of alarm has been declared for the state. Florida’s governor Rick Scott has urged coastal residents to heed evacuation orders. There are approximately 80,000 inhabitants in the southern parts of the Florida Keys area, which is also a touristic hotspot.

It remains to be seen what the hurricane’s direction will be. Satellite monitoring and computer models help us predict this movement and prepare for it — something which President Trump has already slashed funding for. Meanwhile, Trump rushed to Twitter (where else?) to reassure people that “great teams of talented and brave people” are “already in place and ready to help”.

Amazing timelapse video shows Harvey flooding a parking lot

We all know just how devastating Harvey was, but seeing it in a video is still impressive. Footage starts at approximately 9:30 pm on August 26th and ends around noon on August 27th. Things get crazy around 00:20, and stay tuned to see one car going bananas and someone attempting to take their vehicle out of the parking lot through the flood.

Hurricane Harvey was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the US since 2005, and it left a big scar. At least 64 people were killed, though that number is expected to rise significantly. Over 30,000 people had to be displaced, 300,000 people were left without electricity, and billions of dollars of property damage was sustained. Moody’s Analytics has estimated the total economic cost of the storm at between at $81 billion to $108 billion — or more.

It’s not clear whether or not this is even connected to climate change. Global warming itself doesn’t affect the incidence of hurricanes, but certain parameters of these storms are affected. It seems highly probable that this warming exacerbates extreme events. In a briefing, the World Meteorological Organization stated that the quantity of rainfall from Harvey had very likely been increased by climate change.

Hurricane Matthews exposed a trove of Civil War cannonballs in South Carolina

Hurricane Matthews unearthed an unexpected trove of Civil War cannonballs on a beach near Charleston, South Carolina when it hit the state. An US Air Force Explosive Team was deployed this weekend to dispose of an unexpected threat.

On Sunday morning, a Charleston local reported finding 16 Civil War cannonballs on a Folly Island beach near Charleston, South Carolina which were exposed by the passing of Hurricane Matthews. The site lies just 20 km (12.8 miles) off of Fort Sumter in Charleston, a place of historical significance. This is the place where the fist recorded shots of the Civil War were fired, at the First Battle of Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861.

An US Air Force team was dispatched to the area and detonated most of the 150-year-old ordinance on-site with a small amount of explosives. The rest was transported to a local navy base for disposal.

“We had to wait until after 7[pm] for the tide to go down,” Watson told Mary Bowerman at USA Today. “When the tide receded, our guys and members of the US Air Force explosive team used a small amount of C-4 to detonate the cannonballs.”

“We call it ‘rendering safe’, and we did that right there on the beach front,” Eric Watson, a spokesman with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office told the press. “They’re putting the dirt from the detonation back in the hole and they’re transporting the device to [Joint Base Charleston].”

Folly Island is an 18-square-kilometer (7-square-mile) stretch of land which was used as a Union fort and staging area for attacks on Confederate strongholds during the Civil War. So it’s not surprising to find artifacts from that era here — in fact, in 1987, construction workers stumbled upon the remains of 14 people here. They were later identified as soldiers from the 55th Massachusetts regiment of the US Coloured Troops. What was most disturbing about the find was that most of them were missing their heads.

“What was odd about the bodies discovered on the island was that 12 of them didn’t have skulls and were also missing other body parts,” says Wheeler.

“And, more importantly, they showed no signs of battle injury, according to an account in an official history of Folly Island. What happened to these men was then and still is a mystery.”

So Hurricane Matthews has been doing some archaeology itself. Who knows how many other artifacts are waiting to be found, unearthed by the storm?


U.S. economic losses from hurricanes fueled by climate change

A recent U.S. study shows how the upward trend in economic damage from hurricanes correlates very closely to the influence global warming has on the number and intensity of hurricanes. Published in Nature Geoscience, it concludes that the commonly cited reasons for growing hurricane damage — increases in vulnerability, value, and exposure of property — don’t stand up very well to scrutiny.

Coastal damage following Hurricane Sandy.
Image via livescience

Over the past decades we’ve seen a rise in economic losses and loss of life from natural disasters, in particular hurricanes. However, there has always been a tendency to pin the blame on socioeconomic factors, such as increases in wealth and population in coastal regions or an unusually high number of extreme weather events.

Wanting to get to the bottom of it all, Francisco Estrada and co-authors used a statistical system that minimized the risk of introducing artificial trends to analyze the economic losses caused by hurricanes in the U.S from 1990 to 2005. And part of the rising trend can’t be explained by other factors than the increase in number and intensity of property-damaging hurricanes hitting the country — an increase fueled by warmer climate

The authors estimate that $2-14  billion (2-12 percent of total) of U.S. hurricane losses incurred in 2005 may be attributable to climate change.

“We should not be worried about the frequency of hurricanes; we should be worried about the frequency of intense hurricanes,” said Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not part of the study. “Climate change is causing a greater number of intense storms. The total number of storms has remained constant, but the proportion of high-intensity events has gone steadily upward in most parts of the world. Scientific models and real-world observations both suggest that the frequency of intense storms is going up,” he added.

Climate change might increase the chance of ‘Grey Swan’ storms

A new studied explore the possibility of unprecedented catastrophic storms – storms so bad that there’s no recorded precedent in the past 10,000 years. According to the study, the chance for such an extremely rare event to occur in this century are drastically increased by climate change.

The 1921 Tampa hurricane compared with two grey swans. Image credits: Lin and Emanuel, 2015.

‘Black swans’ is an umbrella term for every event that is extremely unlikely and impossible to predict. ‘Grey swan’ is, similarly, a term used for events which are again extremely unlikely, but might be predicted based on an analysis of past events. A new study takes this concept into the realm of weather and climate, finding that global warming might sharply increase the odds of grey swan hurricanes over the 21st century. The results are in accordance to previous studies which found that tropical cyclones (hurricanes) will become more severe as the planet heats up.

None of the recent storms, bad as they have been, compare to the type of storms they analyzed. Katrina, Sandy, Haiyan, had massive impacts, but they wouldn’t qualify as grey swans. Ning Lin, a civil and environmental engineer at Princeton University, and Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane and climate researcher at MIT wanted to look at bigger storms, and they set out to calculate the odds of storms that don’t appear in the record for a given location, but which could theoretically appear based on the local conditions. This is how they defined grey swan storms.

It’s an interesting perspective, one that hasn’t been discussed in previous literature.

“I think it’s a great, great question to ask,” Jim Kossin, a hurricane-climate researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who wasn’t involved with the study, said.

They used a model pioneered by Emanuel which places a high-resolution hurricane model inside a coarser general climate model and runs it several thousand times to see all the storms that could theoretically take place there. They focused specifically on some places: Tampa, because of its large population; Cairns, Australia, because it is in a cyclone-prone area and in the Southern Hemisphere; and the Persian Gulf (with Dubai), where no hurricane has ever been observed.

What they found was that general warming drastically affects the odds of such a storm happening. For Tampa, even moderate warming increased the likelihood of such a storm happening from once in 10,000 years to once in 2,500 years (or even once in 700 years, depending on how much the planet warms). The Dubai case was even more surprising: even though there was never a massive storm in recent history there, if the planet continues to warm, a storm with up a surge up to 23 feet could take place (though the odds still aren’t very likely, it becomes a plausible possibility).

“Those results are quite surprising,” Lin said, given that no storm has ever been observed in the Persian Gulf “and we got very intense storms there.” (While the Gulf’s waters are very warm, a boon to hurricanes, the area’s low humidity and high wind shear aren’t conducive to storm formation.)

These are quite alarming results, but they are still results which may help officials better prepare for such possibilities. When we consider that they didn’t even use rising sea levels in their models (which also increases the likelihood of violent storms), things become even more threatening. There’s always an uncertainty when working with climate models, but we can draw a line and clearly state that global warming will certainly make freak storms more likely, and that’s not a good felling.

Journal Reference: Ning Lin & Kerry Emanuel – Grey swan tropical cyclones. Nature Climate Changedoi:10.1038/nclimate2777


New simulation lab will help researchers better understand hurricanes

A lab from the University of Miami will be able to reproduce hurricane conditions on demand, empowering researchers to study hurricanes in a novel way.

Hurricane Isabel, as seen from the International Space Station in September 2003. Image via Wikipedia.

A tropical cyclone (popularly referred to as a hurricane) is a rapidly rotating storm system characterized by a low-pressure center, strong winds, and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms that produce heavy rain. At sea, tropical cyclones can cause large waves, heavy rain, flood and high winds, disrupting international shipping and potentially causing shipwrecks; on land, they can take an enormous toll in lives and personal property but they may also be important factors in the local climate, bringing much-needed precipitation to otherwise dry regions. All in all, they’re important players for global climate, and understanding them is key for not only for forecasting, but also for climate models.

For this purpose, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science developed the Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction, or SUSTAIN. The lab features a clear acrylic tank about 75 feet (23 meters) long and 6.5 feet (2 meters) high. Inside, all hell can break loose: 38,000 gallons of seawater can be whipped into waves using a 1,700-horsepower fan that can create Category 5 conditions, with winds topping 157 mph. Satellite sensors were mounted on the lab’s ceilings to fine-tune existing satellites watching real storms. Lab director Brian Haus explains how this works:

“The satellites, even though they see a really big area, they tend to be sensitive to really small things on the surface. We don’t really know, when you get into extreme conditions, what the satellite is seeing — whether there’s a spot reflecting off sea spray or bubbles or short waves,” Haus said.

The SUSTAIN lab. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Researchers are also testing tiny drones to fly down into those dark and stormy places, while a variety of other sensors and tools fit for stormy recon. Predictions of storm behaviors have improved dramatically over the last few years, but there is still a so-called “cone of uncertainty”. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami believes the SUSTAIN lab will be crucial for further improvements:

“Intensity forecasting, especially rapid intensification and especially when that happens near the coastline — that remains our highest priority forecast improvement need,” Knabb said.

NASA Puts Files For 3D Printable Model of Hurricane Julio Online

Hurricane Julio. Image via NASA.

The immense growth of the 3D printing industry is simply mind blowing – I just love how people are starting to apply the technology to more and more innovative areas (just a few examples: cranium replacement, 3D printed skin, tattoos, fossils, entire rooms). Now, it’s time for nature to be 3D printed: after Doug McCune 3D printed the USGS Earthquake Data from last month’s quake in the Napa Valley, NASA released, for free, 3D printing files of Hurricane Julio, as seen from outer space.

Francis Reddy, a science writer who’s on contract with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has 3D printed a hurricane, then shared his work so that everyone can do this at home. The process was not simple, as he himself explains.

“The time-consuming thing was finding the right set of image,” explained Reddy to 3DPrint.com. “You want flat lighting because in this technique the gray value of the pixel is translated to height, so highlights from sunlight striking the clouds at an angle create false elevations. The infrared image doesn’t have this problem, but the visible image, which reveals the most detail, does. Once I found what I was looking for, I merged the images in a way that was pleasing to me, generated and simplified the mesh, and sent it to the printer.”

Reddy’s model has been provided to NASA, who has responded by allowing the public to download the .stl file free of charge. The two images used were taken at a near perfect angle by the GOES 15 satellite.

Julio was a Category 2 storm that threatened to hit Hawaii, but stayed North of the island, sparing the island from disaster.

800,000 Evacuated as 140mph Cyclone Hits India’s East Coast

Improved disaster preparedness and early warning systems in the region greatly reduced the number of casualties caused by “Super Cyclone” Phailin – no less than 800.000 people were evacuated to shelters set up in temples, schools and government buildings to avoid the path of the 140mph cyclone. Phailin resulted in 23 casualties; a comparable cyclone, Orissa, claimed 10.000 lives in 1999.

The predominantly precarious infrastructure in the area was greatly damaged – roads and railways were flooded, trees and power lines were leveled, and some areas are still expecting aid, with the situation being unclear at the moment. As for the low rate of casualties, we have to take it with a grain of salt.

It’s hard to estimate the true number with accuracy, as the Indian government has little or no information from some areas; also, they are notoriously slow in reporting news, sometimes taking them a few days to give out clear statements. The cyclone hit an area inhabited by 12 million people, in some of the world’s most densely populated and underdeveloped areas.

Just as a reminder, extreme weather events don’t only affect the US.

NASA Satellite Reveals Tropical Storm Andrea’s Towering Thnderstorms – Tropical Storm Warning in effect

andrea storm

Towering thunderstorms are a bad sign, often announcing a strong tropical cyclone – and NASA’s satellites observed just that. The TRMM satellite spotted thunderstorms reaching heights of almost 9 miles high within Tropical Storm Andrea, while the Aqua satellite provided an infrared view that revealed very cold cloud top temperatures that coincided with the towering thunderstorms that TRMM saw.

Subtropical Storm Andrea was the first named storm and first subtropical cyclone of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season. The storm produced rough surf along the coastline from Florida to North Carolina, causing beach erosion and significant, but not massive damage. This year, things can be much worse.

A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for the west coast of Florida from Boca Grande to Indian Pass, from Flagler Beach, Fla. to Cape Charles Light, Va., the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, and the lower Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort, Va. If you’re in one of those areas or nearby, or you have loved ones living there, check the National Hurricane Center web page at: www.nhc.noaa.gov.

andrea 2

Andrea is expected to head to the North East after it goes through Florida, powering through the American coast on June 8.


Hurricane Sandy storm surge makes its way through Atlantic City, N.J. (c) 6abc Action News

Bigger and meaner hurricane surges expected in the future due to climate change

Hurricane Sandy storm surge makes its way through Atlantic City, N.J. (c)  6abc Action News

Hurricane Sandy storm surge makes its way through Atlantic City, N.J. (c) 6abc Action News

An extremely worrisome climate model predicts, based on current global warming projections, that storm surges – the most damaging and dangerous part of a hurricane – are set to increase in frequency and magnitude by as much as ten times by the turn of the century due to climate change. The scientists involved in the study warn that based on their findings, we’re already starting to pay our dues for XXth century warming as storm surges the size of Katrina are now at least twice as common as they were a century ago.

Storm surges are deadly and devastating walls of water that roar ashore during hurricanes. It was storm surges that caused most of the $125 billion in damage and killed 1,800 people when Katrina hit. Last year, Sandy storm surges killed dozens of people and caused roughly $50 billion in damage.

Climate scientist Aslak Grinsted of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, along with colleagues, analyzed storm surge records from six tide gauges along the southeast coast of the US, which extend back to 1923. These were used in conjunction with modern, high-detail observations to perform a statistical projection of how powerful and frequent these storms might be in the future, both on average and extremes.

Bigger and meaner hurricanes

The researchers conclude that there will be tenfold increase in frequency of storm surges if the climate becomes 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer – a Katrina magnitude surge every other year. Current global warming scenarios have mean temperature rise anywhere from 2.0 to 5.2 degrees by the end of the century. The main driver for hurricanes is warm water , and coupled with rising sea levels, things aren’t looking too bright for coastal residents.

While these predictions are extremely worrisome (can the US handle a Katrina every other year or so? I don’t think so…), it’s important to note that even to this day hurricanes are poorly understood. Moreover, the data sets the researchers gathered and analyzed from the the turn of the last century are minimal and poor in details compared to current modern day satellite observations, and as such do not provide a reliable foothold. Sure, they’re alright for estimating and correlating, given we don’t have anything better at hand, still reality might differ from their predictions.

Is the study flawed? Maybe, but here’s something worth considering: when the researchers looked in the past, not in the future, they had something locked in right – “we have probably crossed the threshold where Katrina magnitude hurricane surges are more likely caused by global warming than not,” the researchers note. To be more precise, Katrinas are twice as likely to happen that a mere century ago.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Potential gap in weather satellite coverage could lead to (even) worse weather forecasts

If you think weather forecasts are bad enough as it is, then I’ve got some bad news for you – according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the weather monitoring network is in a lot of trouble.

sandy hurricaine

The main concern is that U.S.-owned satellites are aging, and there are serious concerns about their replacements being ready in time. J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and a professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, explained that the replacement system – Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) – has suffered from budget cuts, mismanagement, and political wrangling. All this internal struggle will likely lead to a gap in coverage.

According to the report:

“[..]potential gaps in environmental-satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings—including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—will be less accurate and timely.”

It’s still not clear just how big this gap is going to be, but even the most optimistic estimates are not really optimistic.

“But even a 17-month gap, [the shortest estimate for a potential data gap], dramatically affects weather forecast ability, which could lead to challenges to protecting life and property,” Shepherd said.

The main concern is that without this information, big climatic events such as hurricane Sandy will be much harder to predict and model; their evolution and path will be all but impossible to predict, so this is a big deal. Hey, and the problem isn’t that the satellites didn’t last enough – not even close. They lasted (in some cases) way more than anticipated. The problem is that really, the replacements are not done yet.

NOAA is currently working on a plan to bridge any gap, should it occur, in data from their satellites. But as it stands now, the situation is pretty dire.

Via National Geographic

Microbes thrive in high altitude stormy clouds – could play role in global climate

It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! No, it’s… microbes ?! High up in the atmosphere, 10.000 meters above ground, researchers have found over 100 species of bacteria doing just fine in stormy clouds.

The eye of Hurricane Earl in the Atlantic Ocean, seen from a NASA research aircraft on Aug. 30, 2010. This flight through the eyewall caught Earl just as it was intensifying from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane. Researchers collected air samples on this flight from about 30,000 feet over both land and sea and close to 100 different species of bacteria.

The eye of Hurricane Earl in the Atlantic Ocean, seen from a NASA research aircraft on Aug. 30, 2010. This flight through the eyewall caught Earl just as it was intensifying from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane.

Each year, hundreds of millions of tons of dust, water and man-maned pollutans make their way into the atmosphere, often traveling between distant locations or even between continents on jet streams. Of course, along with these massive quantities, some microbes get sucked up too – but even though bacteria have been known to survive in the most extreme environments, researchers weren’t expecting them to do so good high up in the air. It’s suspected that some of them are able to feed up there, creating a thriving ecosystem 10 km above our heads.

The discovery came up rather accidentally; a team of scientists based at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta hitched a ride on nine NASA airplane flights aimed at studying hurricanes. Previous studies had identified some microorganisms in those environments, but no attempt had been made to catalog and understand them – especially while driving your plane through a raging hurricane.

But despite extremely dangerous conditions and several other practical issues, scientists are a sturdy bunch; they managed to collect thousands upon thousands of airborne microorganisms floating in the troposphere about 10 kilometers over the Caribbean, as well as the continental United States and the coast of California; no difference was found between microbes above air or land.

The first surprise was to see that over 60% of the samples they collected were still alive; they cataloged a total of 314 different families of bacteria in their samples, but it’s not yet clear if any of them are pathogens. This research seems to back up the idea that storms act as “elevators” for microbes, plucking them off Earth’s surface and carrying them high into the sky, says Dale Griffin, an environmental and public health microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg, Florida, who was not involved in the study.

soil and sky

What’s interesting is that 2 of the 17 most common families of bacteria in the upper troposphere feed on oxalic acid – one of the most common chemical compounds in the sky, raising a pertinent question: is the high atmosphere actually an ecosystem?

“That’s a big question in the field right now,” Griffin says. “Can you view [the atmosphere] as an ecosystem?”

We shouldn’t jump to conclusions too soon though warns David Smith, a microbiologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He has studied bacteria in the air above Oregon’s Mount Bachelor in a separate study, and found that they hibernate during their long, aerial trip.

“While it’s really exciting to think about microorganisms in the atmosphere that are potentially making a living, there’s no evidence of that so far.”

Even if they spend their atmospheric trip in dormancy, they could still play a key role in climate. How so? Well, most microbial cells are the perfect size and texture to cause water vapor to condense or even form ice around them, which means they could actually “seed” clouds, having a substantial effect on weather and climate.

Via ScienceMag

Weather satellite

Aging satellite fleet could leave weather forecast in the dark

In the wake of the Sandy hurricane, which is currently still sweeping through North America’s east coast, weather forecasting has suddenly become a subject of major interest. It shouldn’t take natural disasters, which are getting more and more frequent unfortunately, to spark interest in this matter of grave importance. Despite this, funding for space geosciences, mainly responsible for launching and operating weather satellites, has been drastically cut down in the past decade. The effects are starting to show now as NASA’s weather satellite fleet aged. Experts warn that some weather observations could be become at best incomplete in the coming years if the current trend is maintained.

Weather satellite GOES-East, short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, and its companion GOES-West survey over the two halves of the U.S. in fix points since their orbits match the rotation of the planet. Recently, however, right in the peak of a hurricane season GOES-East starting giving out erroneous readings, whether they were actual images or inaccurate temperature and humidity measurements. Fortunately, NASA and NOAA had a back-up GOES parked in orbit nearby, which they swung in proper place. What if this back-up as well would’ve been offline? Well, a good chuck of North American would’ve been left with incomplete forecasts or worst yet, completely in pitch black.

Terribly underfunded, offline weather satellites could leave parts of the world in the dark

In 1992 NASA’s budget for geosciences was $2 billion, ten years later, despite inflation, its budget is currently $1.5 billion. Currently, a collective of 90 Earth-sensing instruments are part of the of NASA’s weather-forecasting fleet. That number could fall to as few as 20 by 2020.

It’s not only about forecast. Weather satellites are crucial to gathering data for complex climate and weather models, which help pinpoint  and predict storms in advance. Such models, for instance, picked up on what Sandy was going to do 8 or 9 days in advance. Typically hurricane models can predict them with about 5 days in advance, a huge leap from 3 days in advance a decade ago.

Sure, weather satellites are still being launched, the best example being the recently orbiting Suomi  National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (or NPP), but still not frequent enough. While the advancements top of the notch instruments like those on the NPP are invaluable, the truth of the matter is weather satellites have a short life-span and cost a lot of money to maintain, despite representing a fraction of the cost that goes into a spaceship launch.

[facts sourced from TIME]

Talk about hurricanes, ignore climate change

Hurricane Sandy continues to ravage North America, going strong at 150 km/h winds, and is expected make landfall near the New Jersey-Delaware border Monday night, threatening the entire Eastern Seaboard, with numerous people already being evacuated or preparing for this dire event. Before discussing matters further, I’d just like to express my entire sympathy to all the people in danger or who have loved ones in danger – my best wishes go out to you!

No coincidence

Just two weeks ago, Muncih Re, one of the biggest reinsurance firms in the world conducted a study of their own, called “Severe Weather in North America”. Don’t let the fact that this is a private organization fool you – reinsurance studies are extremely serious, well documented and thorough, because if they’re not, they lose money. What they concluded was bad news for Americans:

“Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America.”, they wrote, related to “weather-related loss events”

Over the last three decades, this number has increased by a factor of 5, making North America the most prone area for this kind of disaster; while this growth can be attributed to a number of other factors, such as a rise in the number of people living in threatened areas, the main culprit is another old “friend”: global warming.

“Climate change particularly affects formation of heat-waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.”

No surprise

For the general public, this hurricane’s impact came as a shock; it’s late October, the hemisphere should be breezing towards a winter chill – so what is a super hurricane doing in the United States? This is a very valid question.

For climate researchers, the hurricane came not as a surprise, but rather a confirmation of dire theories.

“Folks, this storm is exactly the sort of thing climate scientists have been worried about for years,” wrote Amanda Staudt, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. “Global warming is putting hurricanes on steroids and we’re beginning to see the effects.”

So can you draw a line between human activity and hurricane activity? The answer is yes… and not. Rising sea levels, warmer waters and overall hotter temperatures all work together to amplify the damage hurricanes do and extend their season. However, a study conducted by World Meteorological Organization, published in Nature (paper here) came to some interesting conclusions. Here they are, summed up:

  • There is some evidence that hurricanes will produce more rainfall in a warmer world.
  • After studying past and present hurricane data they did not conclusively find any detectable human influence on hurricane activity.
  • Studies indicate more likely than not an increase in the numbers of the more intense hurricanes globally, perhaps 2 to 11 percent by 2100.
  • Scientists also found increased evidence that, globally, the number of tropical storms is likely to decrease by 6 to 34 percent by 2100.

So how does this apply to Sandy? Well, there is almost a general consensus that it is, at least partially, fueled by waters with a warmer temperature; if it weren’t for those extra degrees, we would probably see a much smaller impact. But the thing is, hurricanes are complicated, and we still don’t understand them fully yet. There are a lot of factors that affect them, and the relationships between these elements are often hard to pinpoint, but it does seem pretty clear that global warming isn’t helping out.

Deadly tornadoes continue rampage, killing over 150 people

Deadly tornadoes are rampaging the United States, killing an estimated number of 193 people in five states already, and showing people that this is just a taste of what’s to come. The majority of deaths (128) has been in Alabama, and authorities seem pretty unprepared to takek care of the situation.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said officials plan to tour the hardest hit areas this morning.

“There is some massive devastation out there. We have some people that are hurting. We’ll be out in just a few minutes of all Northern Alabama looking at this,” he said.

Officials states that they expect the death toll to rise, especially as the tornadoes have just begone ravaging the country.

“It’s been a devastating blow to the people of this community,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox this morning. “We need men, materials and equipment. Our system is overwhelmed. The tornado took out a major nerve center of city, our environmental services department which is how we pick up debris, trash. It’s gone and the fleet that we have, the vehicles are gone,” Maddox said.

At least a dozen cities remain unpassable, and there have been reports of destroyed fire stations and communication plants.

“We have way over 100 injuries throughout the city of Tuscaloosa,” Maddox said Wednesday. “We have hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed and hundreds more damaged.”

The National Guard has already been dispatched and it’s on its way to salvage what can be salvaged from the tornadoes, but in the state of Alabama at least, the damage has already been done; but that’s not to say help is not much needed !

The tornado destruction is heading from Alabama to New York, where dozens of cities are already unrecognizable due to all the damage. The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant about 30 miles west of Huntsville lost offsite power but there is no risk of the situation escalating further, while in Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of severe tornadoes and had to take shelter from the devastating storms:

“We have to take shelter just like the rest of the people,” said meteorologist Chelly Amin, who wasn’t at the office at the time but spoke with colleagues about the situation.

You can follow a live update of the disaster at the CNN blog and we will keep you posted with the situation.

NASA images show devastation in Myanmar



Every once in a while, we are reminded that we live on this wonderful planet but that can sometimes display an impressive amount of destructive force. This year, from the first cyclone of the 2008 season in the northern Indian Ocean we were reminded how frail and easy to destroy are the lives of people.According to reports from Accuweather.com, Cyclone Nargis made landfall with sustained winds of 130 mph and gusts of 150-160 mph, which makes it a a strong Category 3 or minimal Category 4 hurricane. Of course, that doesn’t make it quite easy to understand the full implications; let me put it this way: several thousand people have been killed, and thousands more were missing as of May 5.

NASA’s Terra satellite made those two photos, using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) which relies on a combination of visible and infrared light to make floodwaters obvious. Water is blue or nearly black, vegetation is bright green, bare ground is tan, and clouds are white or light blue.

Another bad thing is the fact that many more regions are not prepared to handle this kind of hurricane, and with the rainy season just starting… the future doesn’t sound that great. The entire coastal plain is flooded in the May 5 image.