Illuminating the Shocking facts about Lightning

This is a 3-part blog on lighting.  The first will be general information, the second on what creates lightning and the third on lightning protection. 


Florida is the lighting capital of the United States and second to equatorial

Africa in the world,  with four times as much lightening than any other state. Although lightning is a year-around event, the number of strikes peaks during the summer months with the  summer sea-breeze induced annual (life sustaining) rains.  Of the approximately100 annual deaths due to lighting about 10 are from Florida.  But what is lighting and what causes it and how can you do to protect yourself?


Of course lightning occurs in thunderstorms, but it also occurs in volcanic eruptions, nuclear bomb denotations, and forest fires.  Lightening, as we most commonly know it, comes from thunderstorms. In fact, it is not a thunderstorm if it doesn’t have lightening. Lightning can be from cloud-to-ground (CG), in-cloud, cloud-to-cloud (IC and CC), and from cloud-to-space).  Heat (or sheet) lighting is usually observed in the evening and is from a storm that is about 30 miles away.  It is called heat lightning because it is usually clear and hot and in the evening when you see it.


The earth is like a giant spherical capacitor, with the surface containing a surfeit of negative charge and the ionosphere (30 - 50 miles up), having a net positive charge. If it weren’t for lightning, the stream of electrons going up (the fair weather current) would discharge this capacitor in about 45 minutes. This layer of positive charge is very important as it allows for long range communication, and also protects us from damaging radiation from solar eruptions.


Each second there or about 75 CG strokes or about 1.4 billion flashes per year. A single storm could produce tens of thousands of flashes.  Actually each flash could contain multiple flashes.  Usually there are 3 to 5 but as many as 40 have been recorded.


Most lightning channels are at least 2 miles long, but one CC was 100 km or 62 miles long.


The temperature of a lightening bolt is 5 times hotter (54,000 degrees F) than the surface of the sun. The bolt has a diameter of about and inch and a half.  The thunder arises because of the nearly instantaneous expansion of the air because it is so hot.  It produced a shock wave, just as a chemical explosion (firecracker) does by producing a large quantity of gas very quickly.


You can tell the distance by counting the seconds between the flash and when you hear the thunder and diving by 5.  (Sound travels at a rate of about 5 sec per mile).


When lightening strikes the desert, fulgurites are formed.  The lightening bold melts the sand and it forms a hollow glass tube that is the replica of the flow of the dissipating lightening strike.  The longest one found was more than 16 feet long.


Other forms of lightening, such as “ball lightening”  are rare and amazing but are not well understood.

Hurricane Kate

Hurricane Kate, the “pick-up-sticks” hurricane.

I arrived to Tallahassee from Oklahoma in July 1985, leaving being the acting Deputy Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) of the movie “Twister” fame, to become a Professor of Meteorology at Florida State, where 12 years earlier I had earned a Ph.D. degree.  I was looking forward to studying hurricanes in addition to tornadoes, hail, and lightning.  I didn’t have long to wait for on November 16, 1985 Hurricane Kate formed near  the Bahamas and continued to strengthen.  After visiting Cuba, she (I guess we can say that) entered the Gulf and continued to intensify, becoming a category 3 hurricane.  A trough steered Kate to the north and Kate made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane near Mexico Beach late on November 21 (the first hurricane to make landfall on the Florida Panhandle since 1975). Kate then headed northeast, weakening, Kate passed 40 miles to the west of Tallahassee.  90% of the 80,000 people living in Tallahassee lost power.

 But the big story about Kate was all the fallen trees.  They were EVERYWHERE.  It was very much like a giant game of pick-up-sticks.  There were many blocks with 10 or more pine trees across very impassible roads. Unfortunately one person died in Tallahassee when a tree fell on his vehicle.  Overall, five people died from Kate.

There is a common misperception that Tallahassee experienced the hurricane force winds of Hurricane Kate, and that hurricane Kate hit Tallahassee.  It is not the number of downed trees, but the maximum one minute averaged wind speed at 30 feet above ground that defines a hurricane.  The fact is: the strongest sustained winds in Tallahassee were 46 mph, which is equivalent to a weak Tropical Storm. 

There certainly was damage to homes, but none of the widespread structural damage and loss of shingles common with hurricanes.  Kate may have spawned a number of small tornadoes and for certain there were many strong wind gusts.

Remember that storm winds are measured 30 feet above the ground, and that many trees were as tall as or higher than 100 feet.  The winds increase dramatically with height and no doubt the winds aloft were near hurricane force.  Many mature pines and other trees were not strongly rooted to the soil.  Foliage high in these mature trees provided a tremendous moment arm (leverage) and acted as a sail and pushed the trees over.  This also happens on a smaller scale in the summer with our summer thunderstorms all the time.  However this time, it was all over the city. 

The last hurricane thought to have hit Tallahassee was on September 19, 1873, so it can happen, rare as it is. In the 1870s there were less than 2,000 whites and non-whites outnumbered the whites by about 3 to 1 in Tallahassee.  You would certainly recognize the names as well as the streets named after some of these prominent early citizens (and slave owners).

Did you know Florida is the lightening capital of the USA, and 3rd in the most tornadoes per square mile, and yet a lot more people die in floods each year that die from hurricanes, tornadoes and lightening combined?


Katrina Risk

HURRICANE KATRINA – A tragedy for New Orleans/Atlantis that could have been avoided.  - A history of bad risk analysis.

New Orleans/Atlantis was originally founded in 1718 on high ground.  As the Mississippi river’s path was reengineered to make the waters more navigable, the city began to sink.  Now parts are six feet below sea level and SINKING.  This is also happening around coastal US and at a rate far faster than sea level rise from global warming.

New Orleans/Atlantis is in a bowl between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

Events surrounding Hurricane Katina resulted in Katrina being considered it being the fifth deadliest (1,833 deaths) hurricane in US history. The deadliest was from a Category 4 hurricane that struck Galveston Texas where between 6,000 and 12,000 people died. The year 2005 had three of the seven most intense hurricanes ever recorded:  #1(Wilma), #4 (Rita), and #7 (Katina). Damage was 4 times greater than Hurricane Andrew. A record year. 

 At one point in the Gulf , Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane as it approached New Orleans/Atlantis.  But as it approached, Katrina weakened to a Category 3 and made a turn to the right avoiding hitting New Orleans.

The forecasts for Katrina from NHC were quite good and only a bit slow just before landfall in picking up on the favorable changes in intensity and direction for New Orleans/Atlantis

 I remember seeking Katrina jogging to the right and weakening and thinking  -- prematurely as it turns out.  -- that New Orleans/Atlantis had just dodged a bullet.

 Katrina made three landfalls -- all them to the east of New Orleans/Atlantis.  A reasonable estimate of the MSW (maximum sustained winds) in New Orleans is about 90 mph or a strong Category 1 hurricane.

All this left the citizens of New Orleans/Atlantis two choices.  

People leaving New Orleans in the face of an approaching hurricane Katrina.

Rescue of New Orleans flooding victim in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina who didn’t leave.

The big problem for New Orleans/Atlantis was not the winds, but the surge which was generally less than 12 feet in New Orleans/Atlantis. The storm surge was at much as 28 feet in along the Mississippi coast. The real problem for New Orleans/Atlantis was flooding caused levee failure. The reason is a perfect example of Weather Russian Roulette.

 In 1965, after Hurricane Betsy, congress appropriated 85 million for the Army Corps to design and rebuild levees or flood protection from Lake Pontchartrain. Much of the monies that were and could have been made available were not because of other preferences. Over the years, Federal and State money were diverted to other priorities and there was also a loss of  Federal monies as money that was originally intended for the levees was diverted to help cover the costs of the Iraq War.  

Subsequent to Katrina, it was found that 1) the levees were poorly, designed (the actual words were “profoundly incorrectly designed”) and 2) that they were incorrectly built, not just poorly built, and not even to the level of the incorrect specification. The storm surge did NOT top the levees.  It was a failure of the levee design and horrible construction and the failure over decades to correct known deficiencies that lead to the disaster. New Orleans/Atlantis could have only been a footnote on the story of Katrina. Katrina could have been all about Mississippi and Alabama.  A bad case of Russian Roulette and “the odds are it won’t happen this time” mentality.

In additions, every mile of wetlands reduces storm surge 3-8  feet.

Wetland south of New Orleans/Atlantis have been disappearing at the rate of 60 sq km (23 sq miles)  per year because the Mississippi river is prevented from building wetlands.

And, New Orleans/Atlantis is not alone in sinking.  Houston is sinking 2 inches per year, Norfolk, Va and in fact most of the east coast is sinking. New Orleans is sinking ¼ inch per year and is already  6 feet below sea level.

The levees are now rebuilt to, you guessed it, to withstand another Category 3 hurricane.  Another options would have made them to withstand a Category 5 hurricane or to have the Dutch (who know something about levees) to help, but their offer was refused.  Instead, the task went to those who did such a marvelous job before.

Lesson for life: Don’t wait for a disaster to prepare or prevent.  If the probability is not zero – it will happen and not when you are ready.  Remember the story of the grasshopper and the ant.


Hurricane Related Decisions

When faced with hurricanes,  many decisions must be made.  Often they embrace hard to quantify choices, yet a choice is ALWAYS made, even if it is to do nothing (that is a choice).   Some examples of choices are:

·      Do  we bother to put up storm shutters? Do we buy a generator?

·      As a trucking company do we send a million bottles of water to Panama City as a storm approaches?

·      How much plywood should be sent to a building supply company?

·      Should Grandma come from Panama City to Tallahassee to ride out the storm?

·      Should the nursing home evacuate residents?  Three will die in evacuation,  while if no evacuation and a surge of 7 feet comes, then 10 patients will die.  On the other hand, if there is no more that 5 feet of surge, everyone will live.

·      Should we take the boat out of the water? Inland?

·      Should the Keys be evacuated?

Forecasters know that the public will more readily forgive an exaggeration of the threat than an underestimate of it -- just as long as your cry of “wolf” isn’t excessive. This is a “Risk Adverse” forecast.   The public is just not forgiving of an unanticipated (not forecast) bad outcome, while they will more readily accept a forecast error if the outcome is more favorable. 

 Remember Hurricane Floyd when the Keys were evacuated to Miami, then Miami was evacuated to Orlando, then Orlando to Georgia, and Floyd never made landfall in Florida or Georgia.  It was the largest peacetime evacuation ever in the U.S. with over 2.6 million people evacuated.  The Hurricane Floyd forecasts represented a series of risk adverse forecasts.

In a similar vein, forecasts for rain, on the average, underestimate the probability of rain just as the forecasts for no rain overestimate the probability of rain.  The average is biased toward 50%, or no clue. It is a fact that rain/ no rain is a binary event (one or the other), and probabilistic forecast is an expression of the uncertainty in the forecast.

My recommendation is that is if you live in Tallahassee you don’t necessarily need to evacuate, and you don’t need hurricane shutters, you might need a generator and a grill with a propane bottle. Of course, storm shutters do not hurt, and if you live in a mobile home anywhere in Florida, it must be tied down and all homes should have hurricane clips on the roof.  Flashlights and enough of your favorite beverage are always good to have.  If you are able to handle it, a chain saw could come in handy as well as an adventurous positive attitude. The danger that this immediate area would likely face is flooding and falling trees. The armpit of Florida should be prepared for another Dennis (2005), Fay (2008), or Kate (1985). These three are the types of storms that represent the most likely threats this immediate area should be prepared for.

 If you live on the coast, then the risks are higher and more precautions are appropriate; including evacuation, hurricane shutters and, if you live in a mobile home, get out!

 Next week, Risk and Hurricane Katrina – bottom line.   Then, Global Warming – the Real Story (A lot of heat, and little light).



More on choices and risk

 We have address the disparity between cost and benefit.   Often that relates the value of human life and money.  Just to let you know what you are worth, not to your friends or enemies, but to a cold hearted businessman or businesswomen.  Most insurance companies use a number of $50,000 as the international standard.  Stanford economists argue the figure should be much higher, or nearly $130,000.  The EPA puts it at 9.1 million and the FAA has raised it to 9.2 million.  You may think life (and in particular, yours) is priceless. I am sure you are right.  Lets hope those have power of attorney for you agree. 

 Putting value on life has many practical consequences.  For example, the FAA weighs the benefit of mandatory upgrades to aircraft to their value in saving human lives.  If the recall is more expensive than 9.2 million dollars times the projected number of lives it would save, then they do not consider it “cost effective”.  That is “risk assessment” and “cost – benefit” analysis for  you.

 We know that “people kill people”, but they do it more effectively with guns. Remove either of those elements and it would solve the problem.  I am not sure the framers considered AK-47 with huge clips, or the most powerful standing army by far in the world.

 However the argument is not that guns are ineffective, but that the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights states that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Clearly some of those clauses get less attention,  and certainly conditions were much different in 1780 than now. However, this amendment is essentially reduced  to  “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  And that trumps all.

 As a small child I thought this meant people could have massive hairy arms with claws on the end, and we couldn’t or shouldn’t tease them about it. 

 However, on the side of gun owners, there is something more honest about growing your own food, and killing your own meat. 

Two hundred years ago there was no Publix, and if you wanted a steak, you had to go get it yourself.  I am sure there would be a lot more vegetarians or Pescetarians if we had to slaughter your own dear, turkeys, cows, pigs, chicken etc. 

 The bottom line is sometimes the risk is weighed by a highly valued principle that is held akin to a religious belief.  Then there is usually no compromise possible.

But think also of Eisenhower and the plan or decision to invade Normandy and the inevitable loss of many thousands of lives, or the Sargent who sends out a patrol in Fallujah, Iraq to clear a building.   Think of the heroes who defy the risks to save someone else’s life, and often at the expense of their own.

 The great French philosopher and scientist, Blaise Pascal, is reported to have said he believed in God because the rewards were so great if there was a God, even if he believed the probably was low. And there was no risk in believing in God if there is no God. On the other had, if there is a God and you don’t believe, you risk going to Hell. So, by believing in God, there was no way to loose.  A perfect risk assessment.


Consciously or unconsciously, we all, every day, make a calculation of the RISK FACTOR in most of the things we do.  And those decisions define who we are.


Risk Analysis

This is first of a multi-part series to examine how we react to weather (and other) threats.  More generally, it is how we make decisions in all aspects of our life. Surrounding events such as the decision to evacuate in view of an approaching hurricane, or even in preparations for a possible hurricane, a number of decisions are made. These mirror the multitude of decision we all make every day.  There are many treatises on the theory of decisions making, risk analysis and cost benefit analysis.  Indeed they would fill many library shelves. But we are going to apply Occam’s razor or the colloquial KISS system, and consider only the basics. 

 Decisions can be rational, or irrational, the distinction being that rational decisions follow a logical analysis, consciously or subconsciously. We will consider only rational decisions and acts, as irrational ones defy analysis of the type we consider here.  However, we all make both types.  For me, the irrational decision are either very good or very bad, often the later.  Love is often irrational, unless you are Donald Sterling’s wife or girl friend.

 Secondly, decisions can be either binary, or where the course of action is the optimal choice, and is not an either/or choice.  Personally, I really like optimization problems.  In every case, the choices made require the decisions to me made by using the same units. In business it is usually cost, or dollars.  In many other situations, it is very difficult because the cost and benefit may be in different units, such as human life, dollars, time, belief system, etc.

 In the final analysis, a decision that relates dollars and human life, for example, can actually end up putting a dollar value on human life.  And that can be almost anything. Very often these decisions are incredibly agonizing to make.  Yet, we make them, and even in refusing to make them we in fact do make them.  There is no escape.

 All decisions go through a process we can call an algorithm, whether it is to optimize a variable (such as profit) or to make a binary decision (such as to bring an umbrella).  It may be a conscious decision (such as making a list of pros and cons) or it may be less reasoned, such as when and where to cross a street.  The collection of choices and decisions we make, go a long way to defining who we really are. 

 As we will see in the next installment, the decisions we make in the approach of a hurricane are VERY dependent on the accuracy of the forecast.  But first, let us consider the process that we might use to make a thoughtful and thought-out decision in the preparation and response to an event such as a hurricane.

We have an input, an algorithm, and an output, which is the decision. The algorithm, as we have called it, is the process we use to make the conscious decisions. There are many definitions of the word “RISK” and the etymology is fascinating and shows the migration of meaning, as often happens with words.  But I want to propose a particular definition that I think fits many applications today.  This is because “Risk”, and our assessment of it in a “cost benefit analysis”, governs our behavior, even our every day decisions and actions.    Central to this quasi-analytical approach is the fact that even if we can quantify risk, each of us will have a different approach to it, and different responses to it.

 Often the probably of a good out come is 1 minus the probability of a bad outcome.   In this formulation, zero risk is break even, and negative values portend, on the average, a gain.  It all depends on the probability and the potential costs or gain. The problem with this is that the although the risk can be extremely high if the probability of winning is low and the cost is high, but the probability of a “profit” (negative values)  is limited to a value of one.

 A bet on head or tails would be at zero risk in the long run since the probability of heads or tails is the same, and if the payoff of winning is the same as the cost of loosing, it is a toss up.  However if it the winning side payoff is 2 dollars and loosing costs only 1 dollar, then the risk is a - .5., or little risk at and, in fact, a winning strategy.

 “Opportunity” could be defined the same way, by flipping the fraction.

 Cost - Benefit analysis, or Benefit – Cost analysis, is simply weighing the benefit to the cost. In a binary decision it is (employing the same unit of measure) the benefits of an action vs the cost of the action. We do this all the time, many times a day.  This can also be applied to an optimization problem.  It can be expressed as a fraction, or as the difference.

 We make list of “pros” and “cons” to help us make some decisions.  More that the length of the columns, it is the process of developing that list that helps clarify the decision.


We will go into the application of these methodologies and how we either consciously or subconsciously employ them in both big and small decisions every day.  Also how does this relate to our decisions surrounding hurricanes or other weather hazards.



Storm Surge


The term “Storm Surge” is often used to describe the height of the water caused by an approaching hurricane.  While related to this, it is not actually correct.  We will look at what the storm surge is, what causes it, and what is the actual extent of the inland water rise.  First what metrological features cause it are simply 1) the “sucking up” of the water by the lower pressure associated with the center of a hurricane. This effect however, is much smaller that the “piling up” of the water being pushed ahead by the blowing wind.  So, 2)  the wind speed blowing around a hurricane,  is critical, but to this we must also consider the additional contribution (positive or negative, depending on the side of the storm you are on) of 3) the forward motion of the storm.  On the right side of the storm, it will add to the speed of the circulating storm. This will create larger waves.  The surge is not the peak or the trough of the wave, but average height.  In addition, 4) the angle of approach and 5)  the radius of maximum winds is also a factor. However, how far inland and how high the storm surge is critically depends on two geographical factors, 6) bathymetry, and 7) coastal conformation or shape. Bathymetry is the slope and width of the underwater land or continental shelf.  The smaller the slope, the greater the surge. This makes a great difference.  If the coast line is such that it would tend to funnel the water to a smaller area, then the surge will also be greater, often much greater.  So, the same storm will have a widely varying surge depending on where it make landfall. The same factors have the same effect for tsunamis, by the way.

 But that is not all.  All this must be added to 8) the height of the astronomical tide. The total effect is the combination of the storm surge (which can be pre-calculated for all the coast line for a variety of storm strengths)  and the astronomical tide.  But that is still not all (does this begin to sound like an “infomercial”)?  If you want to know if water will reach you or how high up the beach the water will reach, the high water mark, you have to add 9) the height of the breaking waves (remember the surge is the average water rise). Wind driven waves on top of the surge can add as much as another 40% to the height of the water reaching the shore, thus extending the inland high water make further. Usually this will add additional feet to the height of the water coming ashore.  Along the Gulf coast, storm surges have approached 30 feet for some historical storms. The record was in Australia and was 43 feet.  Often surges will go (funnel) up rivers with disastrous effects that extend far inland.  This is common along the Gulf coast.  Historically, there has been a tendency to significantly underestimate surge height in key locations.

NHC/NOAA has promised improved surge and maximum height plots for particular storms this year.  These maps, if accurate, will be a great help to shore and maritime interests.


Hurricane Predictions

There is a fascination with a forecast of what to expect for the next hurricane season.  And we turn to meteorologists to make these predictions.  However predictions are  really only educated guesses.  In truth, there should be little emphasis on “educated”, and a lot of emphasis on “guesses”.

Most notable are the seasonal predictions of  Drs. William Gray and Phillip Klotzbach of Colorado State University. In 2013 Klotzbach and Gray predicted 18 named storms, 9 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes. Hedging their bets, NOAA called for 13-20 named storms, 7-11 were expected to become hurricanes with 3-6 major hurricanes There were actually14 named storms  and only 2 hurricanes and no major storms..   Klotzbach called it the biggest forecast bust in 30 years.  Hardly. 

In 2005 there were 28 named storms, 15 hurricanes, and 7 major hurricanes.  Gray predicted 13 named storms, 7 hurricanes  and 3 major hurricanes.   NOAA’s NHC prediction for 2005 was  12-15 tropical storms, 7-9 hurricanes with 3-5 major hurricanes. The preseason hurricane forecasts have been demonstrated annually to show virtually no mathematical skill and value, except to satisfy a public curiosity.  And NOAA has actually funded these forecasts.

The long-term average is 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes and 3 major hurricanes.  We are under the influence of an El Nino which suggests fewer that “normal” might be expected.

However, since 1995 we have been in a more active period.  For the 2014 hurricane season, some predictions follow.

Drs. William Gray and Phillip Klotzbach of Colorado State University predict 9 names storms, 3 hurricanes and 1 major hurricane.  Now this group has in the past adjusted their predictions as the season progresses so by Nov. 30, they are spot on.

The Weather Channel predicts 11 named storms, 5 hurricanes and 2 major hurricanes.

The Hurricane Center decided to hedge it bets and give a range estimate with so many escape clauses as to make them as useful and they are comprehensible. They predict a 70% probability that there will be 8-13 named storms, 3-6 hurricanes and 1-2 major hurricanes.  How can they possibly be very wrong with these guesses?  I would even be please is NOAA would say, for example, we are 5% certain that there will be 12 named storms, 5 hurricanes and 1 major hurricane.

I can do better.  I predict with 100% certainty that there will be 1-30 named storms and 4 - 18 hurricanes and 0-5 major hurricanes. Now, I know I have to be more specific than NOAA and really go out on a limb.  So here are my guesses: There is a El Nino and we are near the end, I believe, of a 20 year active period,  so I will go with 12 named storms, 5 hurricanes and 2 major hurricanes.

To be more relevant.  It isn’t how many or even how strong, but where it hits.  One storm early in the hurricane season, August 2, 1002 changed everything. IT ISN’T THE NUMBER – IT IS THE LANDFALL LOCATION.   LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.  Fortunately for Tallahassee, we are well protected.  In that respect will go further than others and predict 2 land-falling named storms, one of which (at least) is a hurricane. If a hurricane makes landfall in  Florida, it will be in the Keys or in the Panhandle.  Of course I hope this forecast is an over estimate, and it will may be since I believe the steering currents this year will be much as they were last year during which no hurricanes made it to landfall – but part of the credit for that were the currents and southerly frontal systems, and part of it was just luck.  Again, I believe from all that I can tell, that the steering currents will remain much the same.


PS: I have always wanted to have a prediction contest, maybe someday I will if I can determine it is legal.

Tornado Chasing and Chasers

I must first make clear that the loss of life is tragic!  Whether a victim of violence, illness, terrorism, being a hero, protecting our country being a hero, or old age – all are inconsolable losses to a mother and father, spouse, children and friends.  So, whatever else, I too morn the loss of those who for whatever the reason, have lost their life, even in chasing their dreams. I know this first hand having worked for 12 years at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Oklahoma where I was Chief of Meteorological Research.  So, I am familiar with the science and the sport of tornado chasing.  I am going to say things that some will strongly disagree with.  Maybe they are right (as they would protest) and maybe they are wrong.

There are a handful of people who have or are participating in tornado chasing who are very competent scientists.  Yet the practice has become too much of a sport and it is out of hand.  While I do not think it can be easily regulated or stopped, but it should be understood for what it is.  Back in the “old days”, Dr. Robert Davies-Jones of NSSL competently lead our effort.  Back then, the wind speed of tornadoes was very poorly established. This was important, for example, because the nuclear power industry wanted to be sure that nuclear power reactors would be built strong enough to survive intact a direct hit from a tornado (think of Fukushima or Chernobyl) if reactors weren’t constructed to survive a direct hit from a tornado). Work and observations by Texas Tech and others, suggested Tornadic winds might be 500 miles per hours, or even close to the speed of sound based upon straw and 2x4s being embedded in trees and telephone poles and trains being moved around.  Dr. Davies-Jones and Dr. Ted Fujita (of the Fujita Scale) at U. of Chicago used careful analysis of film (movies) to track debris and cloud fragments to estimate the wind speed.  The numbers thus established have pretty much stood the test of time.   However, even then there were (mainly) OU students who went along either independently or caravanned, and I think there was a death of a student due to swerving to miss a rabbit in the road -- not tornado related, but certainly a loss to that family.  Professor Howie Bluestein was hired at OU.  He is a very competent scientist and MIT graduate and he assumed at least some leadership in probably the OU involvement and no doubt coordination with NSSL.  I really do not know much of that relationship, but I do respect his interests and abilities.

But, after the horribly inaccurate movie “Twister”,  it seemed chasing tornadoes became incredibly more thrilling and more glamorous to some.  It became an industry with paid tours being offered by some!  Other brought their classes from schools near and far, and became, in effect, “hangers-on”.  Recently, Discovery Channel created celebrities and those who may have had genuinely strong personal scientific interest, but not the science background, became “personalities” and stars.  Car or trucks were built to look amazing, and instruments sprouted out of them.   Their excitement was palpable, sometime juvenile, and it made, I suppose, really good reality TV.  But I am not aware of any significant science that couldn’t or wasn’t otherwise provided.

Let’s be honest. We are all creatures that share more than we like to admit.  We go to Wild Adventures, Six Flags, Sea World, Bungee Jumping, etc. because many of us like to

(safely) cheat death.  To be thrilled or frightened.  Me too !!!  And many of us go to Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon to marvel on the wonders and the powers of creation.

It is so awesome.  I still remember seeing for the first time rapids in Northern Minnesota on a camping trip lead by my friend’s, Gary Wulfsberg father.  It was incredibly awesome to see and feel the power of Nature.  These are all legitimate, normal, and wonderful motivations, but only if we admit their power over what we do.  And to be on TV, and have admiring fans – I don’t know what that is like, but I think I would like that too.

Now, some real hard-to-swallow stuff.  I think there was a time when scientific observations of tornado were very important as led by people like Drs. Davies-Jones and Bluestein.  That time has passed.  Now it is dominate almost entirely by those are going for the thrill or notoriety, under the false guise of science, and people are dying and more will.  Unless you have an M-1 tank, you are not 100% safe – period – and they better know that.  Taking data from either too far away, or stupidly too close, and hoping someone can make use of it is not much more than stupid.  To say that this will lead to any significant increase in tornado lead times is a lie.  Heck, the tornados that recently killed chasers in Oklahoma were or could have been anticipated two days in advance. Is that not enough?  Doppler radar properly used, has given all that want to be prepared enough time to seek shelter if they want to.  Lead times are typically 20 to 30 minutes.

I am not aware of one single recent scientific advance of significance that has come from the race of tornado chases all striving for the pole position and to get the best (whatever that is) data, presumably closest or IN the tornado – a la “Twister”, the play book.

The proper response when you hear a tornado is coming is NOT to get into your car and 1) chase it or 2) try an out-run it.  The proper response is to have been prepared and seek shelter.   Now, MY opinion on shelters.  The only good shelter is underground.  It could be small but with a sliding door.  Don’t need much in the way of provisions; a bottle of water might be nice, a flashlight and cell phone.  Only need to be there for minutes, maybe 30, plus or minus. No tornado will suck you out, and debris can’t be blown in to you.  Above ground shelters might work sometimes, but to make one that would work all the time would cost more than digging that smart “man cave”.  More properly named, the smart shelter.

If you disagree with this, fine.  It’s your life. Just remember, your life may mean more to someone else than it does to you.

My Trip to China

China makes more steel than anywhere else in the world.  China generates more electricity from wind power than anywhere else in the world.  China generates more electricity form solar power than anywhere else in the world.  China has the world’s fastest train and the world’s fastest computer. We have some catching up to do, and the longer we wait to start, the more we will fall behind. I departed for China on August 11th and returned on the 20th.  It was not my first trip to China, I have been to china maybe 8 times before, but the last time I was there was 16 years ago, and 500 years ago in other respects.  Yes, the hospitality and food were the same, and unlike Paris, there still is not a MacDonalds every other block.  The valuable advice of “don’t drink the water” is a way of life there and many places in this world.  We are lucky we can just go to the tap, and yet what we spend our money on is often essentially tap water in a bottle, and we pay more for it than if it were gasoline.  Ah, and who says marketing doesn’t work?

Back to China.  I have been to so many places in China, the Great Wall 3 times, the Terracotta Army in Xian, The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, over the Gobi Desert, Shanghai, etc. etc. that this trip I wanted to focus on science even more.  I was there to give two lectures.  One Lecture I titled,  “Key remote sensors, their capabilities and limitations” and the other:   “The future of  remote sensing and the solution to challenges” . In it, I addressed the science of data initialization and data integration by infusion, with emphasis on new ways of using data from remote sensors to correct forecast “on the fly”, without having to reinitialize them.  Also, I highlighted emerging novel ways of using remote sensing.  My host was Dr. Li Bai, Deputy Director-General of the Meteorological Observing Center. He was exceedingly gracious.

Upon my arrival I knew I had gone through a star-gate, or back-to-the-future vehicle or something. The airport was 100% thoroughly modern and as clean as any I have ever seen.   After being picked up, I was driven to my hotel on a highway, interstate, that was as if you were in Dallas or Atlanta, except all those big green signs had strange writing to me.  The hotel was very clean and nice with an Internet connection that was simple to use.  Much like a new Holiday Inn.

The last time, I was there, the streets were filled with bicycles.  But  now, cars, cars everywhere, although traffic moved smoothly.  And no smog. No bicycles – I see more in Tallahassee.  People do not have an aversion to walking either.  Now, this was Beijing, which was certainly “cleaned up” for the Olympics, and can not be generalized to the whole country, of course.  But with Beijing, and so many other cities being now modern cities, more will follow.

After my first talk, they decided I needed an interpreter – good move. I got very insightful and knowing questions from some members of the audience after both talks.

I was impressed by their knowledge and how up to date they were.

I visited their data center.  It is very impressive.  They have approximately 135 first-class radars in China for meteorological operations.  And thousands of stations, many with instrumented towers, etc. The network is as good or better than in the USA and definitely state-of-the-art.

I got the impression that many of the upper administrators and key scientists received their PhD degrees in the USA or Canada or Europe.  However, the return of such bright students will ensure that they can produce “top notch” home grown scientists as well.

I was hosted for most meals.  In every one, the common feature was – no rice, but a huge variety of every imaginable delicacy.  I discovered what I perceived to be several “missing links” in the theory of evolution.  All were local delicacies and much appreciated.   Of course there was that special liquor for toasting, many times. And Gan Bei  was a frequently used and appreciated expression when used properly.  I always had the honor of sitting to the right of the host, the honored position. And that is reflected in the demeanor of the meal, and the interactions between me and the host, and the other guests.  I think you can score big points or look pretty awkward and silly if you do not follow protocol.  I do NOT consider my self an expert, just a survivor who has made many new friends.

It was a great trip, and I hope to go back and work with their established and emerging scientist on topics I think I can contribute to their science.

Finally, it is wonderful to visit other cultures and learn new things, to visit old friends and make new friends, but as any traveller knows, the best feeling is coming home, coming home to family, familiar food  and friends. The challenges you left await you upon your return.

Next I give you some pictures with a brief comment on each.

What I did not get a picture of was another entertainment; an amazing dance and pantomime with a man elaborately costumed and with a series of masks which he changed faster than you could blink an eye. No kidding, it was instantaneous. Don’t know how he did it, but he was in character and it also was more than fabulous.

Of course there are more pictures and many more that I wished I had taken, and can now only reside as memories, an abundance of memories.


Storm Surge

We will restrict this to the Storm Surge caused by a Tropical Storm or Hurricane, although the principles are generally applicable.  The term is often used to describe the height of the water caused by an approaching storm.  While related to this, it is not actually correct.  We will look at what the storm surge is, what causes it, and what is the actual extent of the inland water rise.  First what metrological features cause it are simply the “sucking up” of the water by the lower pressure associated with a hurricane. This effect however, is much smaller that the “piling up” of the water being pushed ahead by the blowing wind.  So the wind speed blowing around a hurricane,  is critical, but to this we must also consider the additional contribution (positive or negative, depending on the side of the storm you are on) of the forward motion of the storm.  On the right side of the storm, it will add to the speed of the circulating storm. This will create waves.  The surge is not the peak or the trough of the wave, but average height.  In addition, the angle of approach and the radius of maximum winds also are factors. However, how far inland and how high the storm surge is critically depends on two geographical factors, bathymetry, and coastal conformation or shape. Bathymetry is the slope and width of the underwater land or continental shelf.  The smaller the slope, the greater the surge. This makes a great difference. If the coast line is such that it would tend to funnel the water to a smaller area, then the surge will also be greater, often much greater.  So, the same storm will have a widely varying surge depending on where it make landfall. The same factors have the same effect for tsunamis, by the way.  

But that is not all.  All this must be added to the height of the astronomical tide. The total effect is the combination of the storm surge (which can be pre-calculated for all the coast line for a variety of storm strengths)  and the astronomical tide.  But that is still not all (does this begin to sound like an “infomercial”).  If you want to know if water will reach you or how high up the beach the water will reach, the high water mark, you have to add the height of the breaking waves (remember the surge is the average water rise). Wind driven waves on top of the surge can add as much as another 40% to the height of the water reaching the shore, thus extending the inland high water make futher. Usually this will add another feet to the height of the water coming ashore.  Along the Gulf coast, storm surges have approached 30 feet for some historical storms. The record was in Australia and was 43 feet.

Global Warming ?

I  have decided that I will here present the case for global warming at such an alarming scale that it warrants unprecedented action by all nations to mitigate a climate and social disaster.   Then I will present the case for no reaction.  To the best of my knowledge I will stick to the facts and be unbiased.  Finally, I will present my own analysis based on these facts.  Then (or before) you are invited to weigh in and express your views, analysis, predictions, etc. Hopefully at the end, we will all be a little better educated as to the facts and how we should interpret them.

There are many causes for the earth's atmospheric temperature to change: orbital changes, changes in the gasses in the atmosphere, solar influences, etc.  For the last 150 (since the industrial revolution) the average earth's temperature has increased something like 4 to 6 degrees. What are the reasons?  On such a short time scale, it is unlikely to be orbital effects.  Also, solar activity changes on a quasi periodic scale with predictable results.  From  uncertain modeling results, and possibly because not much else is left, the change in composition of anthropogenic gasses, most notably trace "greenhouse" gasses seem to be the culprit.   If this is the case, then we can probably expect a continued rise in temperature, particularly if the concentration of these gasses continues to increase.

Some scientists and non-scientists have claimed that that the increase in temperature will cause the sea levels to rise and the amount of severe weather to increase.  It is certain that there will be changes and that there will be an increase in the sea level.  However, as they say, "the devil is in the details".    One thing for sure is that the oceans will respond more slowly to the change in atmospheric temperature (except for changes in salinity) because of its high heat capacity.  But as the oceans warm, they will continue to release heat fort many, many years as it slowly releases the heat that it has gained.

The major greenhouse gasses and the contribution to the greenhouse effect are i) water vapor (36-70%) and this does NOT include clouds, carbon dioxide (9-26%). ,methane (4-9%), and ozone (3-7%).  It is also true that with respect to carbon dioxide, the anthropogenic (as a result of human activity) contributes a small fraction to the total amount of carbon dioxide.  We might as well also note that methane is more effective than carbone dioxide.  Rotting organic matter and cow “exhaust” are a major contributors to the production of methane.  So, we could eat fewer beans  and beef for the sake of our environment.  Killing all those buffalos in the late 1800s no doubt had a salutary effect on global warming. Burning fossil fuel has contributed ¾ of the increase in carbon dioxide.  Presently there are about 385 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide and it contributes to only 0.003% of the earth’s atmosphere.

Warm air can hold more water vapor than cold air.  As the air warms, its ability to hold more water vapor increases and since water vapor is an powerful greenhouse gas (even more than carbon dioxide) , the warming accelerates.  There are other both positive and negative feedback mechanisms.   The bottom line is that the temperature will increase/decrease until there is radiative equilibrium.

Climate models have sought to forecast the apparent warming trend.   Forecasts are extrapolations and inherently unstable in time.  (How good do you think forecasts are for the next week or two or month?  Now, how good do you think they are for 100 years, or 1,000, or 10,000 years).

Who is most responsible for the warming, and what can/should we do about it.  Do nations have a responsibility or is it everyone, regardless of political boundaries, or nations?

What is the meaning of 30% chance of rain?

The Tallahassee Weather Service Office (NWS) is responsible for forecasts and warnings for 48 counties spread across north Florida, southwest Georgia, and southeast Alabama. We start with where precipitation is measured.  The official rainfall record in the Tallahassee area is taken at the Tallahassee Regional Airport.  An official measurement of rain occurs when 0.01 inches of rain is recorded at the airport.  The NWS office produces a map of the Probability of Precipitation, or POP, for every 2.5 km within its 48 counties of responsibility, but the forecasts are verified only at six specific locations:  Tallahassee airport, Panama City, Cross City, Valdosta, Dothan and Albany.  So for this area, it is what happens at the airport that counts in terms of determining forecast skill.  It could be raining cats and dogs all over town, but if not at the airport, then – no official rain is recorded.  During the passage of Fay, the official record was something like 11. 89 inches spread over 5 days, although many places east of town got nearly 20 inches or more, because many of the heaviest cells went east of the airport in eastern Leon County and Jefferson County.  The average amount for the city was probably somewhere between these values. The NOAA NWS Office uses several pieces of information to formulate their rain forecast.  They know the climatologically expected amount of rain for the month, and they know from years of personal experience about the local character of rain in their forecast area, and they also receive computer model and MOS (Model Output Statistics) products, one of which is the POP the Probability Of Precipitation).   Using all the information above, the forecasters at the Tallahassee office draw a map of POP, on a 2.5 km grid that is representative of areas that might cover, say, several counties, but the validation is only at the airports mentioned above.  But they have the flexibility to have the areas be as big or small as they think is correct for that probability and weather situation.  They do this for the entire 48 county area that they are responsible for.

But why say 70% chance of rain instead of 100%, and when should you carry an umbrella?   Experience shows that most people think a 70% chance of rain indicates that rain is almost certain and expect rain, while a POP of 30% or less is taken as a “no rain” day.   But what 70% really means is that for each point where the weather service says that the chance of rain is 70%, that  7 out of 10 days it will rain.  Generally, the probability of rain is the same over a wide area, so that a 70% chance of rain at the airport is also a 70% chance of rain at the courthouse in Monticello and at my house or yours.  And while not officially measured, it is probable that on 7 out of 10 days at your house when the forecast is for 70% chance of rain, it will rain, and three days it will not.  Those 7 days do not have to be the same 7 days that it rains at the airport, although I suspect they usually are.  Remember, this has NOTHING to do with how hard it will rain.   And it does not mean that it will rain over 70% of the area.

So, the next question is, how well does the NWS do?   To examine this, I looked at the forecasts for the month of June, 2008, a month where it rained some days and not others.     The verification conducted is either 0% or 100%; that is, either it rained or did not rain.  A standard way of assessing forecast skill is the Brier Score, which is the square of the difference between the forecast percentage and the verification expressed as a decimal.   Thus a perfect forecast of rain or no rain (100% or 0% respectively) would yield a zero error as the Brier’s score.  Conversely if you were wrong every day, the average would be 1; so the range is between zero (perfect) and one (worse than poor).  The Tallahassee office got a score of 0.166. To put this in context, we can look at several other scenarios.  If they had used climatology, the score would have been 0.267 (not as good).  If they went out on a limb and said it was either going to rain (a POP greater than 50% becomes a POP of 100%) or not rain (a POP less than 50% become a POP of 0%), the score would have been an intermediate 0.233, which is not as good as a more refined estimate – so hedging your bets works.  It they had used persistence, that is, forecast rain if it rained the day before, and no rain if it did not rain the day before, then the score would have (coincidently) also been 0.233.  If they had just guessed 50% chance every day, then the score would have been 0.25.  The last three numbers require no skill, so the value of .166 is an indication of skill.  The forecast scores will vary from month to month and from forecast office to forecast office; just think how “difficult” it would be in Phoenix where it rarely rains.  Our office does well in one of the more challenging forecast areas of the country.

However, I really don’t like the squaring of the difference, and prefer just taking the absolute value of the difference between what happened and the forecast, and computing the average error.   Then the average forecast error (properly stated) was 35%, and if you use as “yes/no” forecast it would have been 23% (which is better, but no hedging your bets).  The error using climatology would have been 50% (not good).  Further analysis showed that for this month, on the average, they were 10% too optimistic for the occurrence for rain.

If you want to check what the POP or any other forecast variable, you can go to their website, ,  and check the forecast by clicking anywhere on the map on the front page, and find the POP (and temp, winds, clouds) for a specific location.

Hurricane climatology

Today’s topic is Climatology.   How many named (Tropical Storms and Hurricanes) will there be?  My (hopefully intelligent) GUESS is 14 named storms,  7 hurricanes and 4 major (Category 3 or greater)  Hurricanes and 2 that will make landfall in Florida.  However, your intelligent (don’t pick a number less than 1 or with 3 digits) is as good as mine, or anyone else.  The truth is, with or without a PhD, and despite howls of protests and gesticulations, there is no present science that can accurately predict these numbers.  Some gurus even use numbers like 7.8 hurricanes, a number that might make statistical sense, but makes no physical sense – that is, real  world sense ( it is either 7 or 8 – there is no such thing as a fractional event).   Who would have predicted the 2005 hurricane season  with  28 named storms,  15 hurricanes and 7 major hurricanes with the most rapidly intensifying hurricane on record, Wilma.  I heard no one, with or without a PhD get even close, and they were even wrong at the end of November when the final guesses came in. So far this year we have had 6 named storms, 2 major hurricane and 1 regular one.   From NOAA statistics, climatologically, we would not have 5 names storms before September 5, and 2 hurricanes before August 30, and a major hurricane a major hurricane before September 3.   The climatologically progress is illustrated  below

The official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin (the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico) is from 1 June to 30 November. As seen in the graph above, the peak of the season is from mid-August to late October. However, deadly hurricanes can occur anytime in the hurricane season.  We are almost 2 weeks ahead of the climatological average and nothing

special for an active season.


So, you can see it is the time year when the likelihood of tropical storms and hurricanes is on the rise.


Mobocracy or “rule by the mob” is considered to be a degenerative form of democracy.   Democracy is a form of governance which protects all, or almost all.  Its strength, in its purest form, lies in the equal weight of each person, and the whims of a few can not dominate the course of action.  That is the upside. The downside is that the will of many can and do dominate over the will of the few.  I think an awareness of this contributed to the first 10 amendments to the constitution.  Unchecked, democracy can and does degenerate to mobocracy.  Only laws and our constitution protect us from that.  The assumption that all votes count equally rests on the principle of the strength of collective judgment.  That in turn rests on the assumption of an aware, good (whatever that means), intelligent, educated, and principled electorate.  Do we have that? I think the fact is much less so than we would like to imagine.  When a quarter or so of the electorate think that Obama is Muslim, that he was born outside the US, don’t know their senators or congressman by name, don’t know why we have seasons, can not locate states, much less know their capitals, don’t think we have been on the moon, don’t know the difference between fission and fusion, don’t know fractions or percentages.  Think of the level of campaign rhetoric, the appeal to emotions over reason, for short-term solutions to systemic change.  But what many do want is lower taxes, less regulation, and more services, much more services.  This is a toxic brew.  Many say they want a balanced budget, but not more taxes or less services.  We want free trade (cheaper items at Walmart), but also manufacturing jobs in America.  Our government is not failing on everything, but it is on some very important issues.  Social Security, for example.  Easy to fix with minimal pain now.  Impossible without crippling pain later.  Seems like mobocracy (which is an old term for opinion-pole driven decisions) says: let’s wait for later.   A less democratic decision would do what is not 100% popular for the known good in the long term.  Not going to happen, since we are crisis driven. But does democracy always fail.  No.  The more informed the population, the better it works, and it can work, and in some instances it does work.  It also works in nature.  Bees depend on communal living and everyone working and communicating.  Ants also make decisions en-mass.  Species of some fish, schools of fish survive by collective decision making,  so some fish and insects actually think as a democracy and survive by it. The best part of mobocracy, a democracy.  And it would seem it is certainly prudent to have too much participation than risk having too little.

What can we do?  Be informed, insist the candidates talk intelligently about issues, participate, call, write, email offices, hold office holders accountable, raise the discussion above grade school level and name calling.  Issues, whatever your persuasion from the far left to the far right - you are entitled.  Understand issues and think long term.  And VOTE

Global warming, hurricanes and weather related topic to follow - I promise.


When we think of tribes, we might think of the Apache, Sioux, Seminole, Cherokee etc,  or we might think of the different Ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazaras, etc, or the Sunni and the Shi’a in Iraq, the Jews and the Palestinians, etc.   We implore, “Why can’t they just get along?” I take a rather pessimistic view.  They can’t.  Large groups, like oil, find it difficult to be homogenous.  It is socially, structurally, unstable  for people, and the whole animal kingdom. Think of it, lions have prides,  shrewdness of apes, and chimps have gangs of chimps, birds, a murder of crows, school of fish.  We have fraternities, and denomination in faith.  But the question resounds: “Why can’t they just get along?”

And if the Indians of yore did,  the religious sects in Iraq did, and the tribes in Afghanistan did, the world would surely be a better place.  But they don’t and I believe that they never will, except superficially, at best.

But before we are too hard on them – over there, lets look at ourselves. (always a good idea  - you know -  take the log out of your own eye first thing).

We are governed by two political parties that seem to largely agree on one thing, to disagree.  Sadly, very sadly, most are Republicans  first or Democrats first, and Americans second.  That is a very harsh condemnation.  For to disagree on issues genuinely is commendable, but to disagree uniformly on the basis of party affiliation and the quest for more personal power is deplorable. It is both parties. It is important to note not every elected official is that way, only most.  Most politicians must be aware of the apparent fact that if you are not that way, your term in office is usually short.  There we get at the motivational factor of observed behavior – career politicians.

Fore example, what is being done about Social Security before it is a HUGE crisis. Nothing.  Yet the solutions NOW are relatively painless, and later, truly painful.

What is being done about immigration reform and border protection.  Words, words, words, and nothing. Why?  Because both sides really like the mess it is!  The Democrats like the prospect of a largely favorable Latino electorate if there ever is amnesty or an easier path to citizenship.   The more the merrier, so open up the borders.   The Republicans like the cheap labor illegal immigrants provide to businesses.  If I were wrong, then solutions would be found, such as controlling our borders and an orderly process of work visas, but instead we get a lot of posturing and minimal efforts to appease a snookered public, crafted so as to not interfere with what both sides really want, the status quo. The driving force of policy is either money or votes.  The Democrats win, the Republicans win, and America looses.

In the mean time, brave, super brave young men and women are dying is Afghanistan so that our well-fed leaders can safely pontificate and accomplish little on the many very crucial issues that desperately need action.

Tropical Storm Bonnie and the Deep Horizon Well

My understanding is that pretty much all activity around the Deep Horizon Well has ceased, and most if not all ship have reported to port and safe harbor.  Now that the well has been capped, the impact of this is pretty much just to delay the final "kill" by a few days.  I presume the reason for this has to do with the sea state.  That is, the higher the winds in a storm the bigger the waves are likely to be.  And large waves and ships do not go together well.   Wave height is the difference in the height of the wave trough to the wave height.  Given my projected wind speeds of 40 to 45 mph, I would expect waves heights to be in the 20-25 foot range, clearly quite rough seas.    While big ships can survive such waves, it would be nearly impossible to conduct meaningful operations. On the ocean floor,  what is going on at the surface can be felt but the effect is much muted and should not have any effect on the well head.

Florida should not get more oil from this, since what is more likely is to push what oil there is more into Louisiana and at this point, to  do a thorough job of mixing the upper layers of the ocean/oil mix.   Natural processes of eliminating the oil have had almost a week now without the addition of more oil.  This is a good thing, even though the deleterious effects of the oil maybe felt in some cases for several years.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Let us consider Risk and Motivation. There are many definitions of the word “RISK” and the etymology is fascinating and illustrates the migration of meaning, as often  happens with words.  But I want to propose a particular definition that I think fits many applications today.  This is because “RISK”, or our assessment of it governs our behavior of extreme weather events.    Central  to this quasi-analytical approach is the fact that even if we can quantify risk, each of us will have a different analysis of it.

For and event, “E”,  I will define the RISK FACTOR as

E =  (probably of a bad outcome X cost of the bad outcome) / (probability of good outcome  X value of the good outcome)

The MOTIVATIONAL  FACTOR might be formulated as  1/E, or 1/(RISK FACTOR).

In other words, a very low RISK FACTOR  would yield a high MOTIVATIONAL FACTOR  for a particular course of action.

Let us examine this.  If the bad outcome is really bad (like death), then, even if it is improbable, most of us are really cautious, and the risk would be high and the motivation for that behavior very low.   An example of this would be “Russian Roulette”, no matter how many chambers the gun has.   Now,  what lowers the Risk FACTOR is the potential benefit or a decrease in probability of a bad event.  We cross the street, drive a car, fly in an airplane because getting from point A to B is of sufficient value to us that we risk the possible accident.  During the earliest days of the AIDS disease, when the perception was that it was a certain death sentence, and that unprotected sex with an unknown partner could put you had high risk, then the health community was somewhat effective in modifying behavior because the RISK FACTOR was presumed to be high.  More recently, more complacency  may have developed, not because the denominator has changed ( the motivating factors), but because the disease is perceived to be better controlled and the probability of a bad outcome has been reduced.

Recent events with Toyota and unintended acceleration also illustrate the point.  The ratio compares good gas mileage vs  crashes.  The company’s advertising is directed on shaping public opinion that the probability of the bad outcome is next to zero now, the the RISK FACTOR is low.

When an oil company prospects for oil, they explicitly evaluate the above formula, each term.  Whether they drill or not may be if the RISK FACTOR is .5 or lower.

We can figure out exactly what the value of the RISK FACTOR is and some of us would buy a Prius and some of us would not, depending out what level of RISK FACTOR each of us accepts.  I would go into a hurricane or tornado – others would not.   However, neither of us would accept being struck by a lightning bolt, but there are those (dearly departed) who willingly accepted that known RISK FACTOR.

Let us examine this in light of hurricane evacuation notices, and how we respond to them.  It runs the spectrum.  There are those who leave with no prompting, just to avoid ANY chance of something bad happening.  It comes, however with a cost.  Their lives are disrupted; it costs money to leave; their homes are unprotected, etc.   BUT, they will not get washed away, for sure.

Then there are those would never leave.   They believe the bad outcome is either exaggerated or that the likelihood is exaggerated.   The government has a RISK ASSESSMENT factor that is employed, and it, as often the case, is focused on the numerator.  The Government simply put, has a very low (relative term) RISK FACTOR tolerance.  I believe this is because people are even relieved if they evacuate and nothing bad happens.  This is compared to if they are not warned, and something bad happens, then the only happy people are lawyers.   But they and we all make MANY decisions every day based on an innate or conscious calculation of  RISK FACTORS.

These are serious assessment we make in life.  When to drink, how much to drink, etc.   In the event of a hurricane, it is, for example, a nursing home that believes that they would lose 3 patients if they evacuate everyone,  and if they do not evacuate and the storm surge is bad enough,  they could lose 3 or 10 people.  If no surge, then zero.  Does it make a difference if the loss is 3 or 10, or zero if they do not evacuate?  These are real decisions.  This actually happened in New Orleans, and in at least some cases, the decision  not to move was the wrong one.

My point is that often unconsciously, we all, every day, make a calculation of the RISK FACTOR in most of the things we do. The choice of the things we do (motivational factor) is becasue the benefit we perceive is enough greater than the cost (in terms of time, money, effort etc).