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The 100-year-storm isn’t what it used to be

They’re bigger.

More than three months after Hurricane Harvey battered southeast Texas with unprecedented and costly flooding, an analysis of rainfall trends across Texas suggests the standards used to develop floodplain regulations, map flood zones and design flood control projects routinely underestimate the severity of the Houston area’s downpours.

That analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which looked at rainfall data stretching back decades, up to and including Harvey, shows the amount of rain that defines a “100-year storm” – one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year – has risen by 3 to 5 inches in Harris County since the last estimates were put in place in 2002.

Instead of expecting 12 to 14 inches in a day during a 100-year storm, the data shows the county should expect 15 to 18 inches.

A higher rainfall estimate for a 100-year storm means developers would need to design subdivisions and strip malls to compensate for higher runoff, and more existing residential and business properties would be included in new floodplain maps that drive insurance costs and development regulations.

“We design our infrastructure and our society and homes to be resilient to a certain level of risk,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University. “Having updated, more accurate numbers means that we’re better able to do that, and the risk we’re undertaking matches the risk we’re designing for.”

[…]

The preliminary data released last week includes estimates across Texas. A broad swath of Texas, stretching from Beaumont and Port Arthur, across Austin and the middle of the state, and all the way to Del Rio, indicates rainfall greater than that modeled during the 1961 study. In some parts of west Texas, the data shows the amount of rainfall indicating a 100-year storm should actually be lower than current standards.

St. Laurent said the increase in the 100-year storm severity for the Houston area could be attributed in part to the several severe storms the region had experienced since 2002. NOAA included data from Harvey in its analysis.

“The additional decade or two of data have some significantly high rainfall events that definitely contribute to higher precipitation estimates,” he said.

Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said any time officials have more data with which to work, estimates change, particularly when including events like the Tax Day flood and Harvey. The new estimates, he added, also reflect a changing climate.

“You wouldn’t want to look at an individual location and say that all of the change there is due to climate change,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “But if you look at the state as a whole, it seems that the increases have outnumbered the decreases, at least in the current draft. So, that’s some combination of longer-term natural variability and climate change that’s doing that.”

I don’t have much to add to this. As a region, we seem to be internalizing the notion that we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done, with regard to development and flood mitigation. That’s good and necessary and long overdue. The much bigger question is whether we are internalizing the fact that climate change is a big part of the reason why we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done, and that means we can’t keep polluting and emitting carbon as before. That’s a question for more than just the region, or for the state. I think – I hope – our region is up to our part of the task. Whether our state and our country are remains to be seen, but the track record of the powers that are now in charge is not encouraging. That needs to be part of the discussion, not just in the 2018 campaign but in every campaign after 2018 as well.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Welcome to summer, y’all.

The nation’s climate agency on Thursday predicted an above-normal 2017 hurricane season with 11 to 17 named storms, five to nine of them hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 45 percent chance of the hurricane season that begins June 1 being above normal, a 35 percent chance of a normal season and a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season. An average season is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

The agency said it expected two to four of the hurricanes to be Category 3 or higher.

“The outlook reflects our expectation of a weak or non-existent El Niño, near- or above-average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and average or weaker-than-average vertical wind shear in that same region,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Bell said a strong El Niño causes more intense wind shear, which tends to break up tropical disturbances before they can grow into a hurricane. He cautioned that chances were 50-50 that a stronger El Niño could develop later in the hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.

[…]

The United States has had a long run of good luck, said Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator. “It’s been a record 12 years since a Category 3 or higher storm has hit the United States, Friedman said.

And it’s been nine years since Hurricane Ike, which caused a lot of problems even if it wasn’t nearly as bad a storm as it could have been. It’s not unreasonable to think that people have relaxed a bit recently, given how mild the storm seasons have been since then. Be prepared, don’t panic, and if you live in Katy go ahead and start evacuating now. Texas Monthly has more.

Welcome to hurricane season

Looks normal so far, but you know how that can go.

Federal officials on Friday predicted between four and eight hurricanes will form in the Atlantic Ocean this year, and up to to four of those could become a major storm.

That kind of activity reflects a “near normal” Atlantic hurricane season, which starts June 1 and runs until November 30.

Still, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials advised the public not to get hung up on the number of hurricanes predicted. Be prepared, they urged.

“It only takes one,” said Laura Furgione, National Weather Service deputy director.

[…]

The long-term hurricane season for the Atlantic averages are 12 named storms, with six hurricanes and three “major” ones with winds topping 110 mph.

There have already been two named storms so far this year, Hurricane Alex in January and Tropical Storm Bonnie last weekend. Neither caused any real problems, but as we well know, it doesn’t take a named storm to do a lot of damage. Go restock your emergency supplies, and review your evacuation plans as needed. Better to have them and not need them, and all that.

Ghosts of Allison

I sure hope everyone made it through yesterday’s ferocious rain all right.

The storm that flooded the greater Houston area on Monday – drenching the region with the most rain since Tropical Storm Allison dumped more than 24 inches in June 2001 – packed a mighty punch in mere hours.

Some areas saw as much as 4 inches of rain fall in an hour Monday morning. Unfortunately for some motorists, the heaviest downpours occurred between 6 and 7 a.m., just as they had started their commute to work.

Parts of Harris and Waller counties to the west of Houston were swamped with as much as 18 inches. For that section of Harris County, and much of central Waller County, the rainfall totals matched those expected during a one-in-200-year rain event, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Totals were much lower for eastern Harris County, where fewer than 4 inches of rain fell in some locations.

Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, said between Sunday night and mid-afternoon on Monday, an average of 7.75 inches of rain fell in neighborhoods across the county. That’s the equivalent of 240 billion gallons of water.

“The big problem with this storm was the volume of rain it produced in such a short amount of time,” said Don Oettinger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office.

[…]

As the heavy rainfall moved out of the Houston region on Monday afternoon the question became: what comes next? Fortunately, drier air contributed to a quiet Monday evening, in terms of rain showers.

Unfortunately, the greater Houston region is not done with the potential for heavy rainfall this week, as moisture will continue flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico to recharge the atmosphere, and the atmospheric instability that led to Sunday night’s and Monday’s downpours isn’t going away entirely. However, another gargantuan, slow-moving system that Houston just experienced seems unlikely.

The National Weather Service forecast for the Houston region calls for additional showers and thunderstorms over the next three days, with accumulations of perhaps 1 to 4 inches more rain between Monday night and early Friday.

It is possible there will be higher levels in certain areas. Meteorologists say Wednesday is the day when the region could see the most organized rain showers.

HISD schools are closed again today. Some parts of town experienced terrible flooding yesterday, and they are in danger of further damage today and tomorrow. I haven’t seen any information about what to do to help those who have been affected. If and when I do, I’ll post something about it. In the meantime, stay safe, and for God’s sake heed all warnings about high water on the roads. The Press has more.

It’s hurricane season prediction time

And this year’s forecast is for a fairly quiet summer.

On Thursday, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their seasonal outlook for 2014, predicting eight to 13 named storms would form. This means, most likely, the Atlantic season total will fall below the normal 12 tropical storms and hurricanes during a given year.

Like NOAA’s, other seasonal forecasts issued this spring have predicted 75 to 90 percent of normal activity levels this year. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

[…]

Principally, they expect El Niño to develop this summer in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño, a rise in tropical Pacific sea temperatures, has global weather effects including stronger wind shear in the Atlantic tropics, which reduces the number and intensity of tropical systems.

“Atmospheric and oceanic conditions across the tropical Pacific are already taking on some El Niño characteristics,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.

Other factors are suggested as well. A number of signs suggest water temperatures in the area of the Atlantic Ocean where storms most commonly form, between Africa and the Caribbean Islands, will be a bit cooler than normal later this summer.

“Cooler water means less heat content available for hurricanes to intensify, resulting in fewer strong hurricanes than normal,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a Houston-based company.

See here for the official NOAA forecast page. Last year’s prediction of a busy season didn’t work out so well, but even the best are going to strike out now and again, and if the process is sound then the results will be there more often than not. Of course as noted even in an otherwise very light season, all it takes is one hurricane to hit where you are and the rest doesn’t matter. So be prepared and remember that if you live in Katy it’s never too early to start evacuating.

What happened to the hurricanes?

This had been predicted to be one of the busier hurricane seasons of recent years. It turned out to be one of the quietest. What happened?

“A combination of conditions acted to offset several climate patterns that historically have produced active hurricane seasons,” explained Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal hurricane forecaster. “As a result, we did not see the large numbers of hurricanes that typically accompany these climate patterns.”

[…]

Prior to the beginning of this season, which started June 1, forecasters were expecting to see higher-than-normal water temperatures and lower-than-normal pressure in the deep tropics, where most tropical systems form. Forecasters also expected water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean would remain in the cool or neutral range through the season.

All of these factors tend to boost hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

And during this season all of these things happened. And yet, there were no big storms.

“It turns out that there is an additional parameter that was not generally considered when making seasonal predictions,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a company based in Houston.

Hebert said earlier this year, after it became obvious that the Atlantic activity would be well below normal, he searched for other factors at play and discovered that moisture levels in the midlevel of the atmosphere, about 18,000 to 25,000 feet above the surface, were well below normal.

I forget who said it, but as someone once said, true scientific advancement comes not with “Eureka!” but with “That’s funny…” This was one of the latter experiences, and with it the science of hurricane forecasting has advanced. This is how it’s supposed to work. Failure is a great learning experience. SciGuy has more.

Do you want more information about potential hurricanes?

The National Hurricane Center is giving you what you want.

Sometime during this Atlantic hurricane season, which began Saturday, forecasters will start issuing five-day outlooks – that is predicting where storms may form five days in advance.

The expanded outlook is one of several new products being developed by forecasters as computer modeling of hurricane formation and movement improves.

The five-day outlook will be similar to the hurricane center’s existing graphical tropical weather outlook, which provides an overview of tropical activity anticipated within the next 48 hours. This information, which has proven accurate, in text and graphic form shows areas of possible tropical development and assigns a percentage chance they will become a tropical depression or storm within two days.

The new tool will assign probability that a certain area of disturbed weather will become a tropical depression or storm over a five-day period, said Dan Brown a senior forecaster at the National Hurricane Center and its coordinator of warnings.

In addition to longer-range outlooks on storm formation, forecasters are also considering issuing warnings for systems that have not yet developed into a tropical depression or tropical storm.

With some storms, it is apparent they will develop into a tropical system, but by the time they eventually do such a system will be too close to land for the warning to have that much practical effect. An example is Hurricane Humberto, which rapidly developed off the Texas coast in 2007 before moving inland north of Galveston.

“Watches and warnings before formation are likely several years away,” Brown said. “It will likely require another one to two years of in-house testing.”

Don’t look for these until after 2015, at the earliest, Brown said.

Hurricane Humberto formed as a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, and came ashore as a hurricane the next day. If there had been any need to evacuate, there would not have been the time to do so, it was that quick. If what the NHC is doing can give a little extra notice for events like that, it could make a big difference. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Welcome to hurricane season

Today is the start of hurricane season for 2013, and we should expect a bumpy ride for the next few months.

NOAA predicts an above normal, and possibly a hyper-active hurricane season:

  • 13-20 named storms
  • 7-11 hurricanes
  • 3-6 major hurricanes

This is about 50 percent more activity than occurs during a normal season. The main reason is higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the region of the Atlantic where hurricanes typically form, and no external factors that might dampen tropical activity.

[…]

Since 1950 there have been an average of 12 tropical storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes during the Atlantic season.

So forecasters clearly expect a busier season.

However seasonal forecasting is far from a hard science. It’s difficult to predict meteorological conditions across the Atlantic, and their effect on a storm season, four months before the busiest time of a hurricane season begins.

Still, a recent analysis by a reader here found that the seasonal forecasts issued by NOAA — which will come out next month — is correct about twice as often as chance would predict. That’s not a perfect record, but it wouldn’t stop me from making reasonable preparations for hurricane season now.

Know whether you need to evacuate. Know what you will bring. Have a plan for where to go. Be prepared to protect your house. The simple steps you take now can make a big difference if a storm does indeed threaten Texas this year.

You can enter the annual Hurricane Prediction Contest here. And, of course, if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

Have I mentioned the that drought is back?

I hate to say it, but it is.

A dry winter that’s on track to making the record books has sent portions of Texas, including Houston and Fort Worth, back into severe drought, raising concerns about wildfires and the health of wheat crops and tree farms.

September and November could be the driest of those months since 1950 and among the top five driest on record, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said. And not much more rain is expected this winter or spring since the El Niño pattern meteorologists had counted on for some moisture fizzled out.

[…]

“Normally … the ground is taking up a lot of moisture and the temperatures are cool enough for the ground to stay moist for most of the winter,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “But … it simply hasn’t rained much in the past couple of months, so things are as dry.”

As a result, reservoirs are not refilling, and some are dropping, which is unusual for winter in Texas, Nielsen-Gammon added.

How dry was November? This dry.

In the year of Austin’s last rain-less November — 1897 —the Civil War was a recent enough memory that the University of Texas was forced to defend itself over claims that “northern professors” were “teaching heresies.”

Following an investigation, the regents announced “there has not been taught in the University anything objectionable to southern people” and, other things being equal, they confirmed that they opted for teachers who were “Texas men first and southern men next.”

One hundred and fifteen years later, in the latest sign of a seemingly unshakable drought, not one drop of rain was recorded at Camp Mabry during the November just ended.

Only three times — in 1871, 1894, and 1897 — has zero rain been recorded during November at the Austin site since record-keeping began in 1856.

Nearly three inches fall in a typical November; this year, nothing. But thanks to storms the first half of the year, 2012’s precipitation is still outpacing the average rainfall.

The drought, which just months ago was seemingly broken by all those rains, is slowly reasserting itself in Central Texas.

The good news is that Central Texas, at least, is still a lot better off than it was two years ago. The bad news is that the next three months are forecast to have below average rainfall. One wonders if a second session with drought stories abounding will be sufficient to spur the Legislature into action. I’m not holding my breath. SciGuy has more.

The drought is back

Bad news, y’all.

The latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, released this morning, shows that more than three-quarters of Texas is now in at least a “moderate” drought, and nearly half the state is in a “severe” or worse drought.

Now to be clear, conditions are still far better than 13 months ago, when the great 2011 drought peaked. At the time 100 percent of Texas was in a moderate drought, 99 percent in a severe drought, and 88 percent in an exceptional drought.

But conditions have gotten quite a bit worse since May, when the drought was at bay for about half of Texas, including the Houston metro area. Now the majority of greater Houston has returned to drought conditions.

Although November isn’t over, it’s possible Texas could end with its driest October and November period since 1950, says Victor Murphy, a climate specialist with the Southern Region Headquarters of the National Weather Service.

Statewide average rainfall for Texas in November 2012 should be about 0.5 inches versus a normal of nearly 2 inches, he said. That would make the October/November time period total about 1.3 to 1.4 inches, or about 30 percent of the state’s normal of 4.60 inches.

More from the print edition.

The current October-November period may end up being drier than the same period in 2010, when 1.85 inches of rain fell. That launched the state in the great drought of 2011.

“This is not a good way to be moving into winter,” Murphy said.

Also of concern is the latest winter outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which finds that without an El Niño pattern developing in the Pacific Ocean as expected, Texas can no longer look for a wetter-than-normal winter.

The greater Houston region, NOAA says, has an equal chance of above- or below-normal rainfall, and a 40 percent chance of having significantly above-normal temperatures this winter.

Last year’s drought primarily affected Texas and Oklahoma, but this year it has spread to much of the midwestern United States.

More than 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states are gripped by some level of drought, erasing two weeks of improvement, the Drought Monitor reported, with widespread agricultural effects.

We got lucky at the beginning of the year, when winter and spring were far rainier than we had any right to expect. We better hope we get at least some of that luck this winter and spring. Now would be a good time for us all to start conserving water again.

Here comes El Niño

Our hurricane season could be short.

The formation of Tropical Storm Debby last weekend in the Gulf of Mexico brought the tally of Atlantic storms to four this season, the earliest that’s ever happened.

But despite the quick beginning, scientists say this season may have a much quicker end, with an El Niño system likely to ride to the rescue later this summer.

“I’m becoming fairly confident that we will have a weak to moderate El Niño by the peak of this year’s hurricane season in September,” said Phil Klotzbach, a seasonal hurricane forecaster at Colorado State University.

Scientists have long understood that El Niño, a natural warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, tends to suppress hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

But now, through a combination of research techniques, they’re beginning to gain a much deeper understanding of not only why but how El Niño changes the tracks of Atlantic storms and, crucially for Houston, how it may affect activity in the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Studies have found that, during the last 60 years, when an El Niño pattern prevailed during the Atlantic hurricane season, only one-quarter of those seasons had more activity than normal. During La Niña years, when Pacific tropical temperatures are cooler, two-thirds of years had more activity than normal.

El Niño years also produced fewer than average major hurricanes as well as fewer landfalling hurricanes.

Read the story for the technical details. Bottom line is that the early signs are for a less active hurricane season than usual. All it takes is one big one, of course, but I’d rather have the odds in our favor. As long as this doesn’t also presage another abnormally dry summer, it’s all good.

Still more drought may be coming

Just what you wanted to hear, right? There is at least the chance of some good news, however.

The drought that has plagued Texas is virtually certain to continue at least until early summer, climate experts said on Tuesday at a conference in Fort Worth. But what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

The main cause of the drought, the most intense in recorded Texas history, is back-to-back episodes of La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon that almost always brings dry conditions to the state. The bad news is that, based on the historical record, there is a 40 percent chance of La Niña returning for a third consecutive year, according to Klaus Wolter, a research associate with the Earth Research Laboratory at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That record consists of 10 instances over the past century in which La Niña has appeared for two years in a row (normally it does not recur). However, Wolter emphasized, 10 episodes is a fairly limited data set. And — here’s the good news — the other six times, an El Niño has followed the two La Niñas, bringing unusually wet weather.

“If we were to switch to El Niño next summer, the record of the last decade would indeed favor an end of the 2010-2012 drought,” according to Wolter.

That would be nice if it happened, because the aquifers really need the rain.

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, satellites are unique because rather than measuring light on wavelengths, they measure gravity based on mass variations, making them sensitive to changes in water on or below the Earth’s surface, no matter how deep, NASA hydrologist Matthew Rodell explained.

Scientists took that data and combined it with other information to create a numerical model that simulates the water redistribution after it rains. They then were able to conclude that the aquifers are at lows seen only 2 percent of the time since 1948, when mapping began.

“People rely on groundwater, especially in times like this when it’s dry, because groundwater provides a reserve of water when it doesn’t rain,” Rodell said. “But we’re in a deficit now. We’re drawing down our bank account.”

It doesn’t look like those supplies will be replenished by rain in the coming months, Fuchs said. The La Nina weather pattern currently cooling the Pacific Ocean typically causes warmer, drier weather in Texas and other parts of the South. The best hope for rain, he believes, will be in the spring.

“The likelihood of recovery or any substantial improvements is probably not going to be there,” Fuchs said.

That Trib story above says that the city of Odessa has received about three-quarters of a inch of rain all year. You can see why they might be a little desperate. Better root for El Niño to pay us a visit, and the sooner the better.

Time for the annual “We’re in for a busy hurricane season” forecast

And indeed, forecasters say we are in for another active year, as was the case last year. Here’s SciGuy with some discussion.

[S]easonal forecasters did a pretty good job of calling last year’s extraordinarily active season. So while there’s no way we can say precisely where storms might make landfall this year, it’s a fairly safe bet to say we’re in for an active year.

Here’s some discussion , from Chris Hebert with ImpactWeather:

  • One of the primary seasonal predictors we examine is the presence of an El Niño or a La Niña in the Tropical Pacific. An El Niño typically results in less favorable conditions for development and fewer named storms in the Atlantic Basin. A La Niña generally results in more favorable conditions for development and more named storms. For 2011, the La Niña of 2010 appears to be fading to what we call “neutral” conditions this summer and fall. Neutral conditions alone would not significantly reduce the number of named storms this season. The 2005 hurricane season with 28 named storms was a “neutral” year.
  • Long-range models are predicting that surface pressures across the Subtropical Atlantic will be significantly higher in 2011 as compared to 2010. This suggests a stronger Bermuda High that is located farther south and west than in 2010. A stronger Bermuda High would impact the season in several ways. It would result in stronger easterly trade winds in the deep tropics east of the Caribbean. Stronger trade winds would mean increased low-level wind shear compared to last season, which should result in fewer named storms.
  • More significantly, a stronger Bermuda High would not allow as many hurricanes to turn northward or “recurve” east of the Caribbean and east of the U.S. This would significantly increase the risk of a hurricane entering the northern Gulf of Mexico and striking the Southeast U.S. Coast.
  • Atlantic sea surface temperatures (SSTs) remain quite a bit above normal this spring. These above-normal SSTs are forecast to persist through the hurricane season. Warmer water increases the amount of heat energy available, resulting in the generation of more intense hurricanes. The Gulf of Mexico is particularly warm this spring, indicating an elevated risk of a major hurricane in the Gulf for 2011.

You know the drill. Stock up on hurricane supplies, be prepared to hunker down, and if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

Active hurricane season predicted

Hurricane season officially begins today, and it looks like it will be a busy one.

As we have previously discussed, there’s ample reason to expect a very active hurricane season this year.

And so it wasn’t too surprising this morning when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Hurricane Center, released an especially bullish forecast. They’re predicting:

• 14-23 Named Storms

• 8-14 Hurricanes

• 3-7 Major Hurricanes

• An ACE range of 155%-270% of the median.

Heretofore the general consensus has been around 15 named storms, however NOAA has significantly upped the ante with what is essentially a prediction of 18.5 named storms. That’s an incredibly active year considering, over the long-term, the Atlantic basin sees about 10 named storms a year.

It may have been a cold winter here, but it was pretty darned warm everywhere else, so this should not be a surprise. Don’t count on a repeat of last year. And while you’re stocking up on bottled water and batteries and whatnot, now would also be a good time to review your insurance. Better to know what you’ve got before you need it.

More or stronger?

If we’re talking about hurricanes, neither sounds like an attractive choice.

A new study with the most extensive computer modeling of storm activity to date suggests the overall number of Atlantic storms will fall 30 percent by century’s end, but the number of the strongest category 4 and 5 hurricanes will increase by 81 percent.

The study comes after half a decade of intense research, in the wake of the record-setting 2005 hurricane season that included Katrina and Rita, by scientists to understand how a warmer climate might affect hurricane activity.

This isn’t the final word, of course, but it does seem to be an emerging consensus. I suppose if I had to pick, I’d prefer more less-intensive storms, as I think overall that would cause less damage, but I don’t feel too strongly about it.

Fish farming approved for the Gulf

Back in January, I noted that there was a proposal to allow a fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was asked for a ruling on it. On Thursday, the deadline for making such a ruling, the NOAA allowed it to happen by not ruling against it on the grounds that there weren’t any regulations prohibiting it.

Officials said the federal agency will develop and implement a national policy for offshore aquaculture, a process that could take nine months. Until then, the farms could open in the Gulf — though as a practical matter it would take much longer to get one up and running.

“Our options in a case like this are very limited,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a statement. “I believe this is the best approach to the situation.”

[…]

The proposal — intended to help reduce the nation’s reliance on imported seafood — calls for raising millions of pounds of amberjack, red snapper and other species each year in submerged pens three miles to 200 miles off the coast.

But the plan has raised concerns from environmental and fishing interests about how to protect the Gulf’s waters and wild fish stock from disease, pollution and other threats that have troubled fish farms in other countries.

That NOAA allowed fish farms in the Gulf without a ruling troubled opponents.

George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program, said the lack of action “created more confusion instead of less” and made it more urgent for Congress to pass fish farming standards.

“Choosing not to make a decision is still making a decision,” Leonard said. “We’re one step closer today to fish farms in the Gulf.”

[…]

The Fishery Management Council predicted that its proposal, as drafted, would produce up to 64 million pounds of seafood each year — equivalent to more than half of the annual commercial catch off the Texas coast.

Jim Balsiger, the NOAA Fisheries Service’s acting administrator, said the council’s plan would fill a regulatory void until a national policy is implemented.

“I expect that there will be little difference between plans,” Balsiger said. “If there are, I have confidence that the Gulf council will adjust.”

We’ll see. I wasn’t terribly impressed with opponents’ arguments in January, so perhaps they can do a better job persuading Congress to be more picky about this sort of thing.

Time to replace that portable TV

I don’t have a portable TV, so I hadn’t given the matter of their obsolescence due to the digital transition any thought, but if you have one, you ought to be aware of it.

Though Americans were given four extra months to prepare for the nationwide switch from analog to digital signals, the conversion date last week coincided with the advent of this year’s hurricane season, creating challenges for those like Clanton, who depend on battery-operated sets during emergencies.

Because digital converter boxes are plugged into the wall, on-the-go analog TV sets won’t function during a blackout. The audio from analog TV broadcasts received on radios are now tuned out, as well.

In September, former Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin warned of a possible shortage of battery-operated digital TV equipment and called on groups such as the Consumer Electronic Association to encourage their availability.

FCC spokeswoman Edie Herman said the agency was both concerned and prepared from the outset for residents who rely on portable sets during emergencies.

“The question of battery-powered TVs came to our mind very early on,” she said, “and so the people trying to help and educate consumers with the change were aware of the issue, too.”

The only portable analog sets that have the potential to be kept alive are ones with an antenna port, typically absent on older or smaller models. These TVs must be combined with supplemental devices to get a picture.

Apparently, there are battery-powered digital TVs available, but they’re more expensive and early models weren’t very dependable. The article suggests an NOAA weather radio as a cheaper alternative.

“Near normal” hurricane season

Better than a highly active season, I guess.

With the Atlantic hurricane season drawing near, the last of a growing number of storm prognosticators, Uncle Sam, chimed in Thursday with its predictions.

Federal forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there probably would be nine to 14 named storms this year, with four to seven becoming hurricanes.

“A near-normal season is most likely,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.
Among the burgeoning community of hurricane season forecasters — from veterans such as William Gray and Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University to new players like North Carolina State — there’s a general consensus that this year will bring less tropical weather than last year’s 16 named storms.

They cite various reasons, such as an expectation of more moderate sea surface temperatures in tropical areas of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the possible development of an El Nino in the Pacific, which could dampen storm formation.

“During many El Nino years, we have had significantly fewer named storms than normal,” said Chris Hebert, the lead hurricane forecaster with Houston-based ImpactWeather, a private forecasting service.

Over the last several decades an average of about 10 named storms have formed each year, but that number has risen significantly since 1995. Most forecasters attribute the rise to an upswing in a long-term, natural cycle of Atlantic temperatures called the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation.

Since 1995, 12 of the 14 Atlantic hurricane seasons have seen above-normal tropical activity.

So don’t rest easy just yet. Preseason predictions are not that accurate anyway. And as we all know, it only takes one well-aimed hurricane to make the season a bad one.

Measuring hurricanes

The venerable Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane strength is so simple to use, it’s not really adequate for the task of assessing risk and estimating damage.

“If I could wave a wand and make it go away, I would,” said Bill Read, at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin on Friday. “It made sense in the era it was conceived, four decades ago, and now it’s ingrained in the culture.”

Attendees at the hurricane center have buzzed about the Saffir-Simpson scale’s inadequacies.

KHOU-TV’s chief meteorologist Gene Norman said it needs to be modified to better account for surge.

Greg Bostwick, a meteorologist at KFDM-TV in Beaumont, said his viewers couldn’t believe how “only” a Category 2 storm striking 90 miles away could flood one-third of Orange County.

Some hurricane scientists, such as Mark Powell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division, have been arguing in recent months to replace the Saffir-Simpson scale entirely.

Powell said the scale is especially deceptive when it comes to storm surges, and when you review the data there’s simply no correlation between the category of a hurricane and the amount of land it inundates.

[…]

Based upon maximum sustained winds, the scale ranges from Category 1, the weakest hurricane classification, to the fearsome and rare Category 5, with winds greater than 155 mph.

But the scale fails to take a host of factors into account — such as physical size and rainfall potential — that are critical to determining whether a particular storm will have a large surge or cause inland flooding, like Houston experienced during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

No big surprise here. The Saffir-Simpson scale is essentially one-dimensional, so of course it can only capture so much information in it. I’m a little incredulous that anyone who watched any of the Ike coverage from last year could have seen the satellite pictures showing just how massive it was and not imagined how much havoc it would wreak. Having said that, the words “at least it’s just a Cat 2” escaped my lips more than once during the run-up. Perhaps another number, one that’s more evocative than just a storm surge size, would help. If we can replace the Richter scale with something better, surely we can do it for the Saffir-Simpson as well.

Fish farming in the Gulf?

Not sure what I think about this.

Regional fishery managers have a plan to open the Gulf to the first industrial-scale fish farms in federal waters.

The proposal — intended to help reduce the nation’s reliance on imported seafood — calls for raising millions of pounds of amberjack, red snapper and other Gulf species each year in submerged pens three miles to 200 miles off the coast.

But the plan has raised concerns from environmental and fishing interests about how to protect the Gulf’s wild fish stock and waters from disease, pollution and other threats that have troubled fish farms in other countries.

What’s more, some of the plan’s critics contend that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for the Gulf’s fish population, shouldn’t act before Congress establishes federal regulations for the emerging industry.

“We’re not fundamentally opposed to fish farms,” said George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program. “But we need to get it right the first time, and one way of doing it is to have a national debate.”

The time is apparently now, because the plan was approved, though it still has to get past the Commerce Department.

Those against the plan say the large cages and pens that would raise fish far offshore would pollute the oceans with fish waste and chemicals. Farmed fish, which often get heavy doses of antibiotics, can also escape into the wild and interfere with native species.

“We simply do not want this,” said Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama. “Do not allow this, I don’t care who’s pushing your buttons … Don’t put us out of business.”

Bates, who represents about 200 commercial fishermen in Alabama, said there was fear that foreign companies would buy permits to farm fish offshore and then sell the fish at reduced prices, undercutting U.S. fishermen.

The United States takes in about $10 billion in seafood imports a year and exports only about $2.7 billion, according to data from the Commerce Department. About 80 percent of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported.

Commercial seafood company owner John Ericsson favors the plan. He said the United States has fallen behind countries such as Greece, Norway and Chile, where offshore farming has taken off.

His said his company, Florida-based BioMarine Technologies Inc., is looking at growing fish in cages that could contain up to 60,000 cobia, also known as king fish in the Northeast, and amberjack. He said it would take about $10 million to set up an offshore fish farm.

“It’s a serious business commitment,” he said.

Besides creating jobs, fish farming is important for the nation’s food security, he said. “Just think if someone was able to wipe out our cows and other land creatures with an anthrax. Where would we get our protein from?” he said.

I have to say, neither of those arguments strike me as particularly compelling. Surely the advocates on either side can do better than that. I think I’m just going to have to read around and see what I can learn about them before I come to any judgment about this. What do you think?