Tropical Storm Bill Threatens From Texas To The Midwest


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The forecast path of now-Tropical Depression Bill as of WEdnesday morning. Forecast courtesy of National Hurricane Center.

The forecast path of now-Tropical Depression Bill as of Wednesday morning. Forecast courtesy of National Hurricane Center.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC), a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), named Tropical Storm Bill early on Monday.

The call was late. Bill has not been much of a storm by traditional standards, but it has been, and continues to be, more of a threat than NOAA’s meteorologists have given it credit for.

Why Does The Hurricane Center Name Storms?

The United States Weather Bureau, predecessor of NOAA, began naming hurricanes in 1950, and tropical storms in 1954.

The official reason is: “Storms are given short, distinctive names to avoid confusion and streamline communications.” The statement is from the NOAA publication “Why do we name tropical storms and hurricanes?” and the bold is theirs. Yet nothing could be more confusing and less helpful with communication than the way they handled the naming — actually for the most part, not naming — of Bill.

On Sunday night, hurricane hunter aircraft had reported winds on the north side of the entity that wasn’t yet Bill of 40 miles per hour. This qualifies as tropical storm strength (minimum 39 miles per hour), but the Hurricane Center wasn’t satisfied with the shape of Bill, and so declined to name it.

For most of Monday, as the winds rose to 45, then 50, and even one report from the aircraft of 55 miles per hour, the agency refused to issue a name.

Finally, when it became obvious that Bill was a tropical storm (and had been for almost a day), NHC named Bill on Monday night.

Why Is The Name So Important?

Like the published explanation for naming storms says, names are important for avoiding confusion and aiding communication. NHC’s actions in this case accomplished the opposite.

Since warnings and watches cannot be issued unless there is a recognized (by the NHC) tropical cyclone involved, the citizens of Texas and Louisiana, who saw the winds rising to tropical storm force and beyond, went unwarned.

Didn’t This Happen Before: (?)Hurricane(?) Sandy

This is not the first time the Hurricane Center stood on ceremony and failed to act when action was sorely needed. The NHC refused to issue hurricane advisories as Sandy approached New York because it (the storm) had attained extra-tropical status: millions went unwarned.

The definition (NHC’s) of tropical cyclone includes the words ‘closed circulation.’ This is a mistake. If the cause of the wind and rain is a transfer of latent heat from the ocean to the atmosphere, and if the wind reaches 39 miles per hour or the rain can cause flooding, then the entity should be called a tropical “STORM.” That’s what it is, NHC; stop playing games with definitions.

Bill Comes Ashore

Tropical Storm Bill made landfall Tuesday evening on the Texas coast and is following a track that nearly matches the zone of maximum May flooding. As Bill’s rain shield traverses saturated ground and brimful lakes and rivers, additional flooding is assured.

Where Is Bill Going?

The precipitation forecast for Wednesday through Sunday indicates that more than five inches of rain could fall from Texas to Pennsylvania. Forecast courtesy of NOAA.

The precipitation forecast for Wednesday through Sunday indicates that more than five inches of rain could fall from Texas to Pennsylvania. Forecast courtesy of NOAA.

NOAA has missed the boat again. Bill will slowly trace an arc through Texas, Oklahoma, and into the midwest. Because of the large amount of moisture that will surge forward with what the NHC now calls Tropical Depression Bill and will soon downgrade to either the remnants of Bill or a post-tropical storm with no name, flooding will occur along its path.

Residents should be warned that this is still a Tropical STORM, not an ordinary rain situation.

Since Bill is no longer technically a tropical storm, NHC has stopped issuing advisories on Bill. The NHC website links to NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center (WPC). But WPC has not begun to issue advisories.

As in the case of Sandy, NOAA has created another inexcusable gap in communication with the public.

NOAA, whose meteorologists are some of the best, needs to stop splitting hairs over definitions and jurisdictions and do its self-defined job of communication. When citizens hear it’s going to rain, they think about finding an umbrella. When they hear ‘tropical storm,’ they’re more likely to listen closely and take action to protect life and property.

Already Two Storms In The Atlantic Basin

Almost all of the forecasts for this Atlantic hurricane season have been for below normal numbers of storms because of El Niño. Decoded Science has been the outlier, with a forecast of a normal season. The reasoning is that there are pools of warm water in the western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Each has now produced a named storm.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter how many storms there are, or even how powerful they are. Location, location, location is as useful a saying in meteorology as in retail sales.

The flooding in Oklahoma and Texas is a good example of the importance of location. Those states are close enough to the Gulf of Mexico so that large amounts of warm, humid air often surge over them. Couple the moisture with the trough of low pressure connected with Weather Pattern Government and you get a lot of rain. A weak tropical storm can also call upon the Gulf moisture to produce a lot more rain.

The Role Of Vertical Motion In Precipitation

Typical vertical motions in the atmosphere are on the order of one mile per hour. Yet this small movement of air, at least compared to horizontal motion which averages ten times as much, causes all precipitation. Rising air cools; cool air holds less moisture than warm; result: small liquid droplets form, coalesce, and fall as rain.

Civilization And The Weather

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there, then it doesn’t make a sound. If a storm rages where no people live, it doesn’t cause any damage.

Though there is convincing evidence that global warming is causing more extreme weather events, putting a lot of people and building inadequate structures in harm’s way are the biggest problems — at least for now.

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