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The Weather Report for June 24-30, 2007: Everybody Talks About It....

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 17, 2007 | Professional Development

Top image: The National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

When you watch the TV weather report this evening, take a close look at the graphic weather being waved across the screen by the station's meteorologist. Pretty impressive stuff. But think past the clever animations to consider the information presented and the science that generated it. The handsome graphics represent some of the most complex, dynamic natural processes on the planet. Observing and understanding those processes is the realm of a host of governmental agencies, institutions of higher education, communication networks, and private enterprises. Weather is a big deal, especially in Norman, Oklahoma, known by many weather scientists as the meteorological capital of the world.

On Sunday, June 24, a small group of FOSS developers and middle-school science educators from around the country converged at the appointed hotel in Norman, Oklahoma. Terry Shaw, FOSS author/developer and professional development coordinator, described the high points of the FOSS Weather and Water Institute. The coming week promised to be a whirlwind of activities, featuring a complete training on the use of the FOSS Weather and Water Course, copiously enriched with presentations, tours, and field trips related to the research, acquisition, processing, and dissemination of weather.

Monday

22°C (73°F); Relative humidity 75%; Partly cloudy; Chance of thunderstorm 50%

The host institution for the Institute was the National Weather Center, a unique confederation of federal, state, and University of Oklahoma organizations that work together to advance the understanding of weather and improve the instrumentation and information systems that yield timely, reliable forecasts. The Center, a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, provided a hightech classroom for the week, access to many scientists, and the continuous support of Andrea Melvin, the Outreach Coordinator for the Oklahoma Climate Survey. The circumstances couldn't be better for an institute on weather.

We settled into our 5th floor classroom, and Terry led us through the first investigation in the Weather and Water Course, What is Weather? We saw an introductory video featuring some examples of severe weather, used that to define weather, and then took a mini-field trip to the grounds of the Center to measure weather variables: temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, and barometric pressure. Back in the classroom we started our science notebooks, recording the weather data as our first entry. It all seemed to add up to a perfect Oklahoma summer day.

Dr. Kevin Kloesel, Associate Dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, offered his welcome, and primed the group with a riveting introductory talk on the field of meteorology and the art and science of weather forecasting. After lunch, we again applied ourselves to the curriculum, becoming familiar with Earth's atmosphere, particularly the troposphere—the shallow portion extending from the surface up some 10–18 kilometers. This is the place where weather happens.

About 4:00 p.m. we were preparing to start the third investigation, Seasons and Sun. That's when we heard a tremendous explosion, followed by a short, insistent rumbling and thumping. After a brief moment of confusion, the automated emergency warning system started up with flashing strobe lights, sirens, and a voice urging us to evacuate the building. In moments the stairways delivered the denizens of the center to the first-level foyer, where we all congregated. A rumor, soon confirmed, ran through the crowd that lightning had struck the communication tower on the Center and the ground close by. The fire department arrived within minutes. The fire marshal was unhappy to see that the building had not been evacuated and ordered the Center directors to move everyone out immediately. The meteorologists resisted, pointing out that the safest place to be during a thunderstorm is in a protected building, like the National Weather Center. After a few tense interchanges, the building was evacuated for a minute or two, and then everyone was allowed back inside. Everyone's needs were accommodated. At that point we adjourned for the day, confident that we had started the institute with a bang.

As it turns out, this was the first time the Center had been struck by lightning. And we were there to experience the strike and see how the emergency procedure played out. We felt honored that the Center arranged this signature weather event for our benefit, but it was really not necessary. We could have had an excellent weather experience without being hit by lightning.

Tuesday

21°C (71°F); Relative humidity 72%; Cloudy; Chance of thunderstorm 80%

It rained hard last night. There was widespread flooding south of Norman. We resumed our curriculum work with Investigation 3, Seasons and Sun, in the morning, and Investigation 4, Heat Transfer, after lunch. Mid-afternoon we broke away from our academics to hear from Andrea about the Oklahoma Mesonet Survey, a model statewide remote monitoring system that sends continuous weather data from around the state to a central computer. Then a tour of a number of facilities housed in the Center, starting on the roof with a number of instrument installations. Here Dr. Bill Beasley, an authority on lightning, showed an experimental device that reads static electricity buildup, and discussed its potential as a lightning prediction tool.

He also launched into an impromptu discussion of lightning rods and how they work. He debunked the frequently advanced notion that lightning rods are designed to repel strikes, acting as a kind of shield. Quite the contrary, the rod actually produces static streamers that act as discharge attractors. When lightning does strike, the charge is directed to ground, where it dissipates without causing damage to the structure.

The tour continued to the regional National Weather Service Forecast Office. Here a handful of meteorologists monitor huge quantities of data and animated weather patterns on banks of monitors to keep a finger on the pulse of the regional and national weather. While we were there, a forest fire in South Lake Tahoe, California, had just exploded into a catastrophe, sweeping through thousands of acres of forest, and incinerating scores of homes. One of the monitors clearly showed a mass of unusually warm air flowing off the Pacific, across central California, and into the Tahoe area. This was the driving force behind the intensity of the conflagration, which blew the fire out of control. The monitor also showed a counterclockwise flow of cold air starting to invade the warm air mass. We speculated that if the developing pattern continued, the cold air might overpower the warm air and provide the firefighters with more favorable weather. This is what did happen. During the next two days the fire was brought under control, and a couple of days after that it was contained.

The next stop was the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Here in another data fortress, meteorologists were poring over information looking for the telltale indicators of severe weather brewing. It might be an intense region of thunderstorms with the potential to develop tornadoes, a cyclonic disturbance over the central Atlantic that might develop into a hurricane, or, like in California, wind and moisture conditions that signal a fire alert. This is totally serious science coupled with a tremendous wealth of experience and a measure of intuition. The consequences of their determinations have huge societal impact.

From there it was on to lighter business, a weather balloon launch. Twice every day, rain or shine, weather balloons are launched simultaneously at hundreds of locations around the world. In Norman the times are 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. A small instrument cluster, called a radiosonde, is tethered to a 1.5- meter balloon filled with helium or hydrogen. For the hour or so following the launch, radiosondes the world over transmit temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind data back to their home bases. These data are then forwarded to the National Weather Service for redistribution to all the forecast stations. These data form one set of anchor points for the weather forecast you and I will hear on the radio and TV tonight.

Wednesday

27°C (82°F); Relative humidity 100%; Cloudy; Chance of thunderstorm 80%

In the morning we heard about an experimental urban weather monitoring system, the Micronet. Local weather conditions in the artificial city canyons with their altered surfaces and human activities can be significantly different from the surrounding areas. A network of small, durable monitoring devices has the potential to provide specific meteorological information for urban health, safety, security, zoning, and a host of other purposes. After this interesting excursion, we returned to the curriculum and tackled Investigation 5, Convection, and in the afternoon we dove into Investigation 6, Water in the Air. This important topic filled the rest of the day.

I had to leave Wednesday evening, so I didn't have firsthand experience with the rest of the Institute. But I heard from Terry that...it rained. Oklahoma had a record June for rain. The ground was saturated. Additional precipitation remained on the surface and headed for lower ground, leading to flooding. But the Institute continued.

Particpants

First row: Andrea Melvin, Linda De Luchi; second row: Karen Mitchel, Deborah Mylott McKinnon, Susan Sowards; third row: Joe Sweeney, Carole Keil, Lary Malone, Terry Shaw, Bil Metz.

Thursday

25°C (78°F); Relative humidity 100%; Cloudy; Chance of thunderstorm 60%;

Friday

26°C (80°F); Relative humidity 90%; Cloudy; Chance of thunderstorm 80%

Thursday was spent on Investigations 7 and 8, The Water Planet, and Air Pressure and Wind. For scientific enrichment the group heard a presentation by Andrew Reader on the mix of atmospheric ingredients that leads to severe weather, and in the afternoon they heard a panel discussion on the coming advances in data-acquisition technologies, particularly radar-based instrumentation, and the advances in forecasting the panelists foresee when these technologies come online.

On Friday Terry completed the Institute with Investigation 9, Weather and Climate. To put a cap on the week, Andrea demonstrated a piece of weather visualization software, Rick Smith from the National Weather Service discussed severe weather and storm spotting, and Derik Arndt painted the largest, most pressing picture with a presentation on climate change.

That evening Terry and his wife Skye entertained the participants with a farewell dinner party. The participants graciously presented Terry with thank-you presents, a nice bottle of wine, a hibiscus, and a pond plant for the yard. They say, everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. Well, Terry has started doing something about it...he's introducing plants into his yard that are appropriate for the weather.