Thursday, September 24, 2020

Changing Narratives

There is a narrative that often appears after "natural" disasters (natural in quotes since some are quite unnatural or have a strong anthropogenic component) that our society needs to change, and that is saying that the disaster was unexpected or came out of nowhere.  

An example of this is provided by the tweet below saying that 2020 has been the year of the "unexpected."

Although we have suffered a series of challenges, none of these were really unexpected.  A short list would include the pandemic, earthquake, fires/smoke, and windstorm.  Perhaps I've forgotten something as the year's been a blur.

The coronavirus pandemic isn't the first nor will it be the last.  Although the timing and details of a pandemic cannot be predicted precisely, the threat posed by them has been known for some time and the subject of significant research.  Some countries have responded well to the coronavirus threat.  The United States has not.  Why this is the case is not the subject of this post, but let's not treat the coronavirus pandemic as a surprise or a one off because it isn't.  We need the be better prepared to take effective action for the next one.  

The Magna earthquake awoke or startled many at 7:09 am MDT on March 18, with noticeable aftershocks for weeks thereafter.  


Similar to pandemics, specific earthquake prediction is not possible except in some circumstances with very short lead time of seconds to minutes.  However, scientists have been aware of the earthquake potential in our region, especially along the Wasatch fault, for decades.  Here too, there are lessons to be learned to be better prepared to take effective action for the next one, even though we don't know precisely where or when it will hit.  

The western wildfires have destroyed communities in the Pacific states and led to poor air quality at times across much of the west.  Utah has not had an easy fire season, but we've been comparatively lucky so far compared to the disasters that have ensued in California, Oregon, and Washington.  Here too, scientists have warned about wildland mangement, invasive species, development patterns, and climate change as agents for exacerbating severe wildfire behavior.  Perhaps an individual wildfire can "come out of nowhere", but the fact that we are now seeing extreme wildfire intensities and spread is not a surprise.

Finally, we have the recent windstorm.  The National Weather Service issued warnings in advance for this event as well and three days prior to the event, I commented on the potential for "strong downslope winds along the Wasatch Front on Tuesday."  An argument might be made that the impacts were more severe than anticipated, but the event was not unexpected.  

We need to change this narrative because it is one that fuels a reactionary response to natural hazards rather than one in which we more proactively build resiliency to these hazards.  Natural disasters are not acts of god and in most instances they are not unexpected, nor do they come out of nowhere. 

Our vulnerability to natural hazards today strongly reflects the choices we have made as a society and as individuals.  Our vulnerability to natural hazards in the coming decades reflects in part those choices, but also the choices we make today and in the future.  

With regards to weather and climate hazards, I often say that we are not prepared for the weather and climate of the 20th century, let alone the climate of the 21st century.   We know that the trends we see happening today: higher temperatures, more severe and prolonged drought, intensifying wildfires, and more extreme precipitation events, will continue and potentially accelerate in the future.  

We need to adapt and prepare for this coming reality, which is going to be different from the one that human civilization has experienced in the last 10,000 years.  

Fool us once, shame on you.  Fool us twice, shame on us.  In some instances, we've been fooled many times.  Let's work to build more resilient communities.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

What If RBG Had Been a Scientist?


"When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?’ and my answer is: ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg

After the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, I found myself choked up.  It is the tough loss of a great woman who meant a great deal to many, including my young daughter as she has grown into a young woman.  

Ginsburg was an advocate for gender equality, an area in which the "STEM" disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has long lagged.  In high school, I did not have a single woman as a math or science teacher.  As an undergraduate student, I did not have a single woman as a math or science professor.  As a graduate student, I did not have a single woman as a math or science professor.  And, when I joined the faculty of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences at the University of Utah in 1995, I believe there were only two women on the tenure-line faculty.  

This is the male-dominated STEM world that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have fought through in about 1956 when she entered graduate school, 1961 when she would have completed her Ph.D., and 1962 when she would have joined the atmospheric sciences or other STEM department at some prestigious University.  Even today, women are underrepresented throughout the STEM pipeline and account for only 18-31% of faculty in STEM fields.  

Imagine if RBG had joined the STEM world and how she would have been an agent for change.  She would have fought against gender pay inequity and sexual harassment in all of its forms.  She would have been an advocate for a more diverse faculty and the elimination of gender bias in faculty recruiting, hiring, and mentoring, as well as the classroom.  She would have rewritten the policies uses for the retention, promotion, and tenure of faculty, eliminating gender biases and rewarding faculty for their efforts to promote of feeling of belonging in STEM not just for women, but all from marginalized communities.  

RBG would have surely been a great scientist, but I think we can all be grateful that she found her passion and calling.  STEM's loss is the country's and world's gain.  However, all of us in STEM can learn from the ideals she pursued and work to achieve them in our disciplines where we still have so much work to do.  

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Time to Vent

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they've tried everything else."
– Winston Churchill

I've always liked that Winston Churchill quote and I've used it often to try and explain America to my international friends.  It usually results in a good, disarming laugh that enables us to compare and contrast cultures and political systems.

What concerns me today is whether or not we can still count on the first half of that quote: America doing the right thing.  We face many challenges in which we've either tried everything else or have failed to accept what must be done, and yet we still are not doing the right thing.  

Let's use the western wildfires as an example.  The growing and multifaceted threats of climate change, forest (mis)management, development in the urban–wildland interface, inadequate community or infrastructure preparedness, and human negligence (e.g., target shooting and other human fire starts) have been recognized for years.  No reputable scientists considers climate change the sole "cause" of the western wildfire problem, but it also cannot be ignored as an important contributor to the lengthening wildfire season, severity of drought, and intensity of wildfires in the western United States and other regions of the world (e.g., Australia).  

How many people must die and communities destroyed before we finally come to terms with the reality that climate change is real and on a trajectory that will only continue to exacerbate this problem in the coming decades?  Scientists know what is happening, why it is happening, and that it's not going to get cooler, as suggested by President Trump this week.  We also know that "cycles of burning and regrowth" are natural, as argued by Senator Mike Lee, but also that these cycles have been altered by forest management AND climate change, contributing to extreme fire behavior.  

I suppose it is a naive and pollyannish view to say I grew up in a country that invested in science and desired to utilize it to advance the general welfare of humankind.  How have we gotten so far off the tracks?  The example above is just one of many whereby scientists and scientific understanding are being dismissed and disrespected, to the detriment of our country and its citizens.  

Naomi Oreskes, a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, has an opinion article entitled America's Devastating Divorce from Science on  In it, she writes:

"The unfortunate reality is that our elected government is increasingly populated with many men and women who do not merely ignore scientific facts, they appear to despise them and the people who produce them. They see science as something that stands in the way of their political goals, and therefore must be pushed out of the way.

The solution to this cannot be a call for more science or the restoration of "scientific integrity," whatever that is. We have tried that and it has failed. There comes a point when maybe one simply has to accept that the dream has died and it is time for a new one. I don't know what a new social contract for science would look like, but I am pretty sure it is time to start looking for it.

She is absolutely right that we cannot fix this with more science or more efforts to better communicate science.  Climate scientists are not the only ones confronting this fact this (ask a virologist or epidemiologist).  Where we go from here, I don't know, but the road is going to be rough if we continue to deny reality, fail to utilize science as a tool, and don't recognize that we've tried everything else and that the time is now to do the right things.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Cooler Weekend Ahead

Summer won't quit as we've had highs in the low 90s the past two days.  However, with the early sunset and long nights, I'll call the heat manageable as we haven't even thought of switching on the A/C as it's cooled off nicely overnight.  Last night the low at the airport was 60˚F, 32˚F lower than yesterday's high of 92˚F.  Wonderful sleeping weather.

If you can make it through this week, I'm pleased to report that the models are advertising that a cold front and upper-level trough will bring cooler air for the weekend.  The GFS forecast valid 0900 UTC 19 September (0300 MDT Saturday) shows the cold front moving through northern Utah with even a hint of rain.  

I'm not overly excited about that as most ensemble members are generating less than 0.1" and only a few members of the often too wet Canadian ensemble are generating more, but anything would be welcome.  

Really, a weekend of heavy rain would be great.  Not only could we use it, but it might keep the target shooters at home and spare us a few more human-caused fires.  

Monday, September 14, 2020

Lots of Hazards Out There

Although Utah was smacked by a severe downslope windstorm, cutting power for 170,000 (with 5,500 still powerless), we should perhaps feel fortunate as others are facing much more dire consequences.

This morning's satellite imagery is about as ominous as it gets.  Smoke from western wildfires has spread across much of the continental Unites States following both northern and southern trajectories.   We're in relatively clear air at the moment in northern Utah, although southern Utah is better.  Meanwhile, slow moving Tropical Storm Sally looms off the Gulf Coast, will likely intensify into a hurricane, and is expected to bring storm surge, flooding, and other impacts.  

Source: CIRA

Purple Air sensors show much of California, Oregon, and Washington is experiencing unhealthy air quality, with many areas hazardous.  Across the southern US, moderate air quality readings extend at least all the way to Texas due to smoke.  


I'm not going to try and summarize the direct impacts of the wildfires here.  I can't even keep up with it.  Lives have been lost.  Communities have been wiped out.  The situation is sad and tragic and my heart goes out to all affected. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

This Was More Than a Downslope Windstorm

The windstorm of 8 September featured a remarkable coverage of strong winds both along the Wasatch Front but also westward from the base of the Wasatch Range.  Although there was certainly an important downslope wind component to the event, with the strongest winds observed at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, it's important to recognize that the event was more than just a downslope wind event.

Before looking at what happened on 8 September, lets' take a look back at another event that occurred on 1 December 2011.  You may recall this event as it produced a 101 mph gust in Centerville, Utah and quite a bit of damage in the Centerville and Farmington area.  Power outages affecting 50,000 customers occurred along the northern Wasatch Front through North Ogden, but were somewhat more limited in the Salt Lake Valley, althouth there were some in Millcreek, Murray/Holladay, and Midvale.

Power Outages from the 1 December 2011 event. Source: Salt Lake Tribune

Analyses of the event show a very typical pattern for northern Utah downslope windstorms with a developing upper-level trough in northerly flow closing off and centering in the Las Vegas area as depicted below at 700-mb (about 10,000 feet, or crest level for the Wasatch Range).  This leads to easterly flow across the Wasatch Range.  If you were to average the pattern for many Wasatch downslope windstorm events, it would look a lot like this.  

In contrast, the 8 September 2020 event produced power outages for 170,000 people with tree damage well west of the base of the Wasatch in areas such as Rose Park.  It was much more widespread.  A nice graphic produced by the Salt Lake Tribune showing peak wind gusts based on observations provided to the National Weather Service shows the strong winds along the base of the Northern Wasatch, but also remarkably strong winds in other areas including 67 mph in the northwest Salt Lake Valley, 77 mph at the Salt Lake Airport, 74 mph near East Canyon Reservoir, 61 mph at Parley's summit, and 54 mph at Kimball Junction.  

Thus, this was a regional event.  the strongest winds were at the base of the mountains in a few locations, but strong winds were observed everywhere.

A look at the 700-mb analysis for 1200 UTC (0600 MDT) 8 September shows the closed low that was found in the 1 December 2011 and other events, but note its location is near the Utah Colorado border.  Additionally, a strong gradient wraps around the low across northern Utah and over the West Desert.  A look at the water vapor imagery shows unusually high "brightness temperatures" (indicated by purple color fill) on the back side of the low.  All of this is consistent with intense upper-level front development and mid-level cyclogenesis (i.e., low pressure formation).  

That closed low developed rapidly over northern Utah.  Understanding this event and its widespread coverage requires not only thinking about mountain wave dynamics, but also the role of the developing closed low and upper-level front in producing strong regional-scale winds across northern Utah.  

At least that's my hypothesis.

I need to go and teach class, so apologies if this post is a bit uneven.  I just wanted to get this out to illustrate that the widespread nature of this event requires avoiding what I call "mountain myopia" and also considering larger-scale processes.