When all helicity breaks loose…

skywarn_noaa_trainedIlearned a new word last Saturday: helicity. During my Skywarn advanced storm spotter training, Brian Koenecke of the National Weather Service here in Jackson MS taught participants about key elements of meteorology. The «helicity» of a turbulent flow of air---sort of like a bed spring gone awry---was one of the elements that NWS tracks in their radar systems as part of their package to make storm predictions (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turbulence). The differential equations describing these fluid dynamics was about the only thing that I knew ahead of time! (Thanks to the former contact with the old NSF-funded Engineering Research Center folks like Don Trotter and others.) Interestingly, one of my statistics home-boys, Andrey Kolmogorov, was a pioneer in developing the Reynolds Numbers to describe the directional complexity of such turbulence!

The two-hour program was hosted at the Mississippi Extension Service in Rankin County which is co-located with the EOC for that county. The Extension Service seldom gets the recognition that they deserve for facilitating public education programs like these.

Brian gave a superb presentation and has a great style for the audience he was trying to reach. These included folks with education levels ranging from less than high school to Ph.D. He’s also pursuing a degree in GIS from my pals at Penn State University. I had a small hand in the MSU Meteorology Program getting into GIS back in the late 1990s when I was the Coordinator of the Mississippi Space Commerce Initiative. It’s a natural blend of scientific fields.

He recommended their smartphone link for use in getting their latest information: mobile.weather.gov. It’s a really good link. No mobile phone app yet, just a URL link. I found the RadarScope app for my iPad to be stellar (it's also available for Android and OS X): http://www.basevelocity.com/RadarScope/. It is really slick and highly educational.

Getting back to hamateur radio, the Skywarn program is a terrific investment of public tax dollars. We learned that while Mississippi does not have the highest frequency of tornadoes, the region from NE Louisiana to western Tennessee has the most dangerous set of tornadoes historically. These are tornadoes which stay touched-down to the ground for 100 miles or more! So when we have them, we tend to have the worst. That means that trained Storm Spotters can have a great, life-saving impact. Especially if they are licensed amateur radio operators who can easily communicate what they accurately see to the National Weather Service.

Right now, the NWS uses their file of trained spotters to make key telephone calls to those located in areas for which their radar systems cannot detect the «micro meteorology» needed to update storm path and intensity predications. Eyes on the ground. They try to utilize live feeds from traffic cameras too but these are not located throughout the state. What would make a better arrangement would be to have the locations of all trained Storm Spotters, especially those with ham licenses, geocoded to lat-lon coordinates into the NWS GIS System so that they could contact key Spotters directly in the locations where they need immediate intelligence. But, alas, they are not currently geocoded.

There are more complete systems to provide this feedback which would be critical to both NWS and radio-television weather meteorologists. APRS and SSTV have been coupled (see http://wa8lmf.net/aprn/index.htm). The digital modes of DSTAR and HSMM-MESH can provide such rich details. Of course, cell phones with picture texting can too---IF cell service isn’t down.

This sounds like a problem of social organization (or the current lack thereof) rather than a dearth of technology. Joe Speroni (AH0A) and I are currently geo-coding all actively licensed amateurs in the US with the cooperation of the generous company, SmartyStreets (http://smartystreets.com). (More on that in a future blog post.) We could do the same for NOAA-certified Storm Spotters IF the Skywarn program will work with us. A secure website hosting the QTH of Spotters with the additional attributes of those with ham licenses and the repeater frequency used for Skywarn Net in the locale would greatly assist NWS according to Brian. We will see how this works out. But, for now, I’m glad that I got trained to spot danger: look, it’s a bird; it’s a plane; no, it’s all helicity breaking loose from the Southwest! Let NWS know now.

In a more serious tone, consider getting trained. Contact your local Extension Service Office (one in almost every county; see msucares.com/counties/index.html for Mississippi) and ask about Skywarn Training or go to the national Skywarn training site: skywarn.org/skywarn-training/. The life you save may be your own… or mine!

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