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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who made it possible to predict storms and save lives.

As I write this hurricane Florence is dancing in a large circle around me. I am in central North Carolina and a few days ago it was predicted that this storm would race ashore and pass right over my head, dumping literally tons of water on the way. Then a couple of days ago meteorologists predicted a change. Florence would curve south, and head inland slowly, followed by a sweeping curve north. Her wind would also drop dramatically, causing less damage - though the slower movement meant she had more time to drop more water. Everything is a trade off. And guess what? That is exactly what happened. It looks like I won't see much more than her outer bands.

I spend a lot of time maligning meteorologists. I teach my students - unfairly - that meteorologist in English translates to liar. It always gets a laugh. I can't tell you how many times bad weather reports have ruined perfectly good plans. But the fact is, that particularly for events like a hurricane the predictions are better now than they have ever been, and ultimately it saves a lot of lives.

How does this happen? How do we have the ability to predict the actions of killer storms. There are three things that happen, to make this possible.

The first, is the advance of computer technology. Ever faster computers, make it possible to work with all the data sources and variables that make weather happen. Research in the 1960's and 1970's in chaos theory and supercomputers made it possible to figure out what was going on. Today we see the outcome of all this work with accurate weather system prediction and spaghetti models for how storms will move. This is chaos theory and supercomputers at their finest.

The other thing that occurs is people decide to dedicate their lives to scientific research. They go to work at research institutions, which are almost all publicly funded universities.

The by-product of all these things, studying an extremely abstract concept like chaos theory, working to make computers infinitely faster and more powerful, and students becoming scientists give us better understanding of weather, and how it effects us. Which means local governments have a better idea of what is going to happen and can better prepare themselves, their towns and their people for major weather events like a hurricane.

I want to apologize to every meteorologist I have used as a punchline. It won't happen again, and I appreciate the advances you have made in the field of weather prediction. The nature of my work - outdoor education - means that I rely on accurate weather information and tracking all of its changes. I have the ability - from my phone, while sitting in the cockpit of a kayak, or standing on a SUP - to see recent satellite photos, and predictions on wind and rain. The ability to do that is because of the hard work of the people mentioned above. I literally have in the palm of my hand significantly more computing power than was used to go to the moon, and I utilize it give people good, exciting (and safe) experiences in the outdoors.

Finally, the next time someone says to you they don't believe in global climate change, or global warming, explain to them that people have been working hard for decades to understand the incredibly complex system of weather and climate that we are surrounded by. We know, all too well, the effects of what we have done to our environment. All you have to do is open your eyes, and see those effects around you every day. If they don't listen, just walk away. They will understand when we run out of food, and their house is underwater. Just don't let them knock scientific research and publicly funded research. They do amazing work, and make the world a better place. We need more people taking up hard sciences like this, as a nation we are falling far behind other countries.

If you are interested, here are the apps I use for weather prediction. Dark Sky is a micro weather app that gives hyper-localized information. My Radar is just that, and while it is free I paid for the hurricane tracking update. Well worth it. Windy is an amazing weather app that gives a visual representation of direction and velocity of wind. I have started using Predict wind which is very popular in the sailing community but the free version of the app is rather limited.

Be safe out there people.