Fermilab Severe Weather Seminar: Dr. Louis Uccellini on Superstorm Sandy

This is the first in a series of reviews on the featured speakers at the  33rd Annual Fermilab Tornado and Severe Weather Seminar  hosted by WGN Chief Meteorologist, Tom Skilling.  Video clips of the presentations are available on wgntv.com.

How better to start off the  Severe Weather Seminar than with the most extreme weather event in recent memory, Superstorm Sandy?

Dr. Louis Uccellini is the newly-appointed Director of the National Weather Service. Prior to his appointment, he was the Director of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and he was the man on the job when Hurricane Sandy turned into a Superstorm last fall.

While the main focus of his presentation was Superstorm Sandy–a combination of a tropical hurricane combined with a midwest winter storm–Dr. Uccellini also discussed the developments in weather forecasting leading up to the state-of-the-art methods that made such advance prediction  possible.

Did you know that Alfred Nobel did not consider meteorology a real science? Did you know it was Edward N. Lorenz, a meteorolgist at MIT,  who developed chaos theory,  a study of nonlinear dynamic systems–like weather?

What about “the butterfly effect?” According to Wikipedia, it comes from the title of his paper in 1972—“Predictability : Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?”

 See, there’s poetry in this, too.

Chaos theory made possible the complex computer modelling we have today. In the early 1970’s, forecasts were fairly accurate maybe 12 hours in advance. Today, NOAA has a Global Observation System (satellites), for the atmosphere, oceans, land and ice conditions. They use supercomputers (with back-up systems) incorporating data and modelling science that can predict developments 16 days in advance.

Dr. Uccellini explained how they tracked the storm, and how Superstorm Sandy combined the worst elements of a tropical storm and a winter storm. It was the first time severe blizzard conditions were combined with hurricane-force winds, complicated further by the block in the jet stream, and  rising tides caused by the full moon.

Because of that Omega block, the storm moved inland instead of out to sea, and raged for days along the Jersey Shore.  There were widespread power outages. Subways flooded in New York City.  Effects were felt in 24 states, including here, along Lake Michigan.

Maybe he would not call himself a superhero, but Dr. Uccellini and his team were instrumental in predicting the storm track and landfall, issuing timely warnings, and no doubt, saving lives. Even with advance warning, there were 72 deaths from the storm, and damage costs second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

 After his presentation, Dr. Uccellini  answered questions from the audience. There was a very interesting question on how the NWS would be affected by the budget sequestration.  Dr. Uccellini explained that while there was bipartisan support for the “Sandy Supplemental” allocating resources for weather satellites, as for the National Weather Service, that was hard to predict!

There will also be a special 2 hour condensed version of the Fermilab Severe Weather seminar this weekend on CLTV! You can see it at 8pm SAT and  3pm SUN.

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Filed under: weather

Tags: NOAA, NWS, Superstorm Sandy

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