The 2016 Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium, hosted by the Indianapolis office of the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Indiana chapter of the American Meteorological Society, provided a full day of interesting presentations. Below are a few highlights.
Squall lines made cooler
John Kwiatkowski of the NWS Indianapolis office provided a presentation on Quasi-Linear Convective Systems (QLCS). Early in his talk, Kwiatkowski explained that this is the same type of storm that meteorologist formally called a “squall line.” Kwiatkowski joked that the new name sounds much cooler and that using it will impress members of the opposite sex.
QLCSs are much more common in Indiana than are supercell thunderstorms. Yet, as Kwiatkowski explained, spotting a QLCS in the field can be more dangerous than watching a discrete supercell out in the plains. Part of a QLCS can produce very damaging straight-line winds without appearing any different to a field observer than any other part of the storm. It can also produce essentially invisible, rain-wrapped tornadoes which, while small and brief, can easily overturn a spotter’s car. Kwiatkowski advised staying home and reporting damage after the storm passes.
It’ll never happen to me (and if it does, I can handle it)
Dr. Laura Myers, a research scientist at the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, provided a presentation titled “Weather Psychology of the Public: Integration of Social Science Research Results in Products and Practice.” She pointed out a variety of issues regarding how (and whether) people respond to weather warnings.
Myers said that a significant challenge of the weather enterprise is to make people understand that the benefits of safe behavior outweigh the costs and inconvenience.
Among the many discoveries she presented were some that will likely surprise weather enthusiasts:
- Most people either don’t believe severe weather will ever affect them (it will always happen to someone else), or they believe that they are uniquely able to handle it.
- Not everyone has a single, good warning modality, but people should have more than two.
- Upon first learning of a weather alert, people often waste time seeking secondary confirmation, sometimes leaving insufficient time to take adequate shelter.
- Most people don’t know what county they are in, even if they live there.
- The tone, seriousness and message of broadcast meteorologists can make a difference in how people respond to threats.
- Words like “emergency” in weather communications prompt more action but must be used sparingly.
- During the 2012 derecho, severe thunderstorm warnings did not lead people to understand how dangerous the storm was. Many told surveyors that they would have behaved differently, had they known what the storm would do.
Storm spotters, chasers and other weather enthusiasts are in a unique position to help change how people respond to severe weather threats. As I’ve written before (see “Storm spotters as advocates“), we are often the trusted weather experts in our families and social circles. We can take advantage of that position to help those people understand how to stay safe.
Mobile home! Duck!
Well-known storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski discussed how he chased the 2013 El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. His presentation included a great deal of compelling video of the storm.
At one point during the chase, a mobile home flew over Piotrowski’s car close enough to knock off a roof-mounted camera and antenna. Piotrowski saw it coming just in time to tell his wife to duck.
Piotrowski told the crowd that second-by-second situational awareness — including looking at the sky, not just a radar — is the only reason he survived the tornado. He said that during a chase, he never shuts off his car’s engine. And he reminded the audience that debris can travel four miles from tornado.
A peek behind the curtain
NWS Meteorologists Amanda Lee and Marc Dahmer provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the their Indianapolis office works during severe weather, complete with entertaining video shot in the forecast office.
They showed how the NWS WarnGen software creates warnings based on choices the warning meteorologist makes.
They also showed how the general public can access data from post-event damage assessments, sometimes within minutes of data entry in the field. The public-view version of the NWS Damage Assessment Toolkit is at https://apps.dat.noaa.gov/StormDamage/DamageViewer/. It requires Adobe Flash, which makes it inaccessible on iOS devices.
Building a Weather-Ready Nation
Dave Tucek, warning coordination meteorologist for the Indianapolis NWS office, provided an introduction the the agency’s “Weather-Ready Nation” (WRN) initiative. His talk included information on severe weather climatology and the value of organizations becoming WRN Ambassadors. Although the Ambassador designation is not available to individuals, Tucek pointed out that “We all have a part in spreading the weather-ready message.”
No green screen
Chris Wright of WTTV TV-4, Indianapolis, spoke about his career as a weather broadcaster. Interesting tidbits from his presentation included:
- His station uses no green screen. Instead of chroma key, his weather graphics appear on a bank of nine video monitors.
- During severe weather break-ins, it’s not unusual for a superior to tell him to keep talking. Wright told the crowd that if they see a weather break-in that lasts for more than 30 seconds, it wasn’t the weather person’s decision.
- News anchors often don’t watch the weather segment of a newscast. That’s why the weather person recaps the forecast as part of his hand off back to the anchors.
- Social media has significantly increased the workload in TV weather departments. Wright said that keeping up with Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. sometimes requires having two people per shift.
At colleges, students aren’t always the biggest emergency management challenge
Carlos Garcia, emergency manager for the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis campus, talked about how the campus prepares for severe weather.
He said federal law requires universities to warn their communities of threats in a timely manner. He pointed out that college students are adults, who need to accept responsibility for their decisions in emergency situations. But he also indicated that students aren’t necessarily the biggest challenge with regard to appropriate response to notifications. That’s one reason the campus invested in software for all campus computers that can automatically display alerts. The software will even interrupt a professor’s PowerPoint presentation, displaying a notification to everyone in the classroom of the situation.
A gallery of photos of the event from Gregory Chaney is available on Flickr.