Weather – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 25 Mar 2019 17:14:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Chris Burt Tue, 26 Feb 2019 16:45:59 +0000

Nicolo sertorio

Chris Burt ’83 was drawn to the UW in 1973 by its world-renowned meteorology department. Although he’d been studiously recording the weather since age six, at UW–Madison, his scholastic dreams stalled against the rigors of meteorological math. So he left school for a brief stint in farming and then toured Asia. Smitten by Thailand, he reenrolled at the UW in 1979 to earn a degree in international relations. After graduation, he entered the travel guide business in Bangkok just as Thailand became a popular tourist destination.

Burt jumped into the U.S. market with the Compass American guidebook series and sold that venture to Random House in 1992. He moved to the Bay Area and remained as publisher until 2001, when he reconnected to his weather enthusiasms. Burt created an extreme weather guide, working from a photocopied 1971 compendium of record-breaking weather compiled by one of his mentors. He updated the data and packaged it as Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book.

First enchanted by epic snowfalls, Burt’s passion now includes the outer limits of all climatic events. He survived Bangkok’s biggest rain event — 16 inches in 10 hours. “My house went underwater,” he recalls. “I remember sitting in my bedroom, and the house was literally shaking from the intensity of the rainfall.”

But that’s nothing: “I’d love to have been in Unionville, Maryland, when that one and a quarter inches of rain fell in 60 seconds,” Burt says of a record-holding 1956 storm. “I just can’t imagine what that would be like. That’s just ridiculous.”

The book helped launch him from meteorological dropout to a blogger at Weather Underground, a popular website for weather junkies. One of his blog posts even led to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) overturning a 90-year-old statistic of the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth (136°F at El Azizia, Libya, in September 1922).

Burt’s investigation found critical flaws in how the heat was measured, prompting the WMO to conduct its own investigation and confirm his findings. The record fell by default to the 134°F observed in Death Valley, California, on July 10, 1913. The upset led to national media coverage and landed Burt an ad hoc membership on the WMO’s World Weather and Climate Extremes Committee.

“The increase of extreme weather events is definitely not our imagination,” Burt warns. “The heat waves are definitely as extreme as they have ever been in history and more frequent all over the world.”

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Slideshow: Madison Flood Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:14 +0000 Madison-area lake levels continued to rise after a record-breaking storm on August 20, 2018, dumped more than 10 inches of rain on parts of Dane County and caused flooding on the UW–Madison campus lakeshore. Street closures in the downtown area also complicated matters for students who moved into residence halls six days later. While other areas of Madison experienced flooding for weeks after the initial rainfall, campus remained open for normal operations.

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Eye on Irma Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:04 +0000 Satellite view of hurricane.


Before Irma turned into a Category 5 hurricane, UW–Madison’s Tropical Cyclone Research Group was the first to spot the then tropical storm off the coast of Africa. The UW scientists share such findings with National Hurricane Center forecasters, who then release warnings to the public. “You have to take a little pride in being a small slice of the process that lets people know what will happen — so they can get out of the way,” senior scientist Chris Velden MS’82 told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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Earth in HD Mon, 22 May 2017 17:47:48 +0000 “Meteorologists are drooling.” That was the report from the Washington Post when the GOES–16 satellite sent back its first images of Earth in January.


A true-color composite from the satellite, generated by UW researchers in March, shows clouds and the Earth’s surface, including North and South America, and snow cover over Wisconsin. UW–Madison CIMSS and NOAA

From wispy swirls of white against a deep blue expanse, to bold-hued panels of North America, to plumes of smoke from wildfires, the images offer views never seen before and — for the first time in decades — views of Earth at night and in true color during the day.

“We’ve been looking at the same satellite data for most of my career, and this is so revolutionary, it’s like going to HDTV,” says Dan Baumgardt ’90, MS’92, National Weather Service science and operations officer in La Crosse, Wisconsin. “We can start to identify features in the atmosphere we couldn’t see before.”

GOES stands for geostationary operational environmental satellite, and this is the 16th in the GOES series, the first of which launched in 1975. The satellite offers three times more imaging capability, four times more spatial resolution, and five times more coverage than previous GOES satellites, says Tim Schmit ’85, MS’87, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist based at UW–Madison.

Schmit and colleagues at the UW’s Space Science and Engineering Center, the Cooperative Center for Meteorological Satellite Studies, and NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service began preparing for GOES–16 in the late 1990s.

From his Twitter handle, @GOESguy, Schmit has enjoyed watching social media users wonder over the satellite’s capabilities and learn how to use its data. In addition to stunning images, the satellite offers improved hurricane forecasting, aviation-route planning, and wildfire tracking.

One of Schmit’s favorite tweets came from a National Weather Service employee who’d be off work when the satellite’s data were first released: “Something to look forward to at 4 am tomorrow!”

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An Ill Wind Thu, 07 Mar 2013 17:07:40 +0000 satellite image

This image of Sandy was taken by one of NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites on October 29, as the storm neared the coast of New York and New Jersey. A time-lapse view of the storm’s development can be viewed online. Courtesy of UW-SSEC Data Center.


Superstorm Sandy shows the capacity of UW satellite science.

Last October, as Superstorm Sandy bore down on the coast of New York and New Jersey, national weather services relied on the UW’s Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) to get the satellite data that would help them analyze the storm’s behavior. Because meteorologists expected the storm to be so severe, SSEC asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to activate an offline satellite to follow Sandy exclusively, and send back minute-by-minute images. The result was an unprecedented dataset of a single storm’s lifecycle.

“We anticipated this potentially epic event coming up,” says senior scientist Christopher Velden. “So we asked NOAA if we could put one of our existing satellites into a special, rapid-scanning mode. They smartly agreed, and now we’ve documented this historical storm with continual, one-minute image sampling that provides a fascinating account of Sandy’s evolution.”

SSEC hosts the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), formed in partnership among the UW, NASA, and NOAA. CIMSS scientists conduct meteorological research using images and information from satellites. “Minutes after a satellite picture is taken, it’s downloaded at SSEC and made available to the scientists here,” Velden says. The CIMSS team is then able to process the images into products that can help forecasters better predict what storm systems will do — such as charting the path that Sandy took out into the North Atlantic, and then back onto the shores of New York and New Jersey.

“We took the satellite imagery and turned it into hard data to help the Hurricane Center analyze the storm in real time,” Velden says. “We use the images to derive wind shear, steering currents, things like that. And that’s also the type of data that our [meteorological] computer models assimilate to predict the future storm track and intensity.”

Sandy also provided an opportunity to show what the satellites of the future will be able to do. Velden says the next generation of satellites — scheduled to launch in the next two to three years — will be able to routinely transmit such images at any time. This will enable meteorologists to home in on the factors that shape and direct severe weather systems, making forecasts more accurate.

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Hot Enough for You? Sat, 10 Nov 2012 22:00:59 +0000 Statistics indicate heat waves are the deadliest weather.

Blizzards are bad. Hurricanes are worse. But when it comes to killing power, no weather packs the punch of a heat wave, according to the numbers that Richard Keller has crunched.

Keller, an associate professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health, has been counting the dead from the heat wave that struck France in August 2003. That month, high temperatures in Paris climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows in the eighties. During that stretch, the nation saw its mortality rate shoot up by nearly 15,000 deaths.

“In terms of mortality, this is probably the worst natural disaster in the modern history of France,” Keller says, though he admits, “there may have been some droughts in the Middle Ages — accurate numbers are very hard to get from pre-modern times.”

Accurate numbers are difficult to get in modern times, as well, Keller notes. When some natural disasters hit, the death toll is fairly easy to count: bodies drowned in a flood, for instance, or crushed by falling buildings in an earthquake. But heat is a more insidious killer.

“You can only tell if a person dies of heat stroke if you’re actually there when they die,” Keller says. “Plus, during a heat wave, more people die of things like drowning — the warmer it is, the more people go swimming, and when more people swim, more people drown.”

Keller used numbers that French demographers came up with to measure excess deaths — that is, the total number of people who died in France in August 2003, as compared to the average number of deaths in the same month in 2000, 2001, and 2002. The result was an increase of 14,802. “It’s a crude measurement, extremely blunt,” he says, but it’s the best overall calculation. Across Europe, the heat wave may have accounted for 70,000 excess deaths.

It wasn’t the daytime highs that seemed to be most deadly, Keller believes, but rather the low temperatures — which were actually very high, meaning that people who suffered all day found no relief at night.

“The houses in France, made of stone and brick, just retain heat,” he says. “People had no chance to recover.”

Today, France — as well as communities across the United States and elsewhere — pay greater attention to the danger of heat waves, mandating air conditioning in nursing homes and senior living facilities, and setting up “cooling centers” where the public can have access to air-conditioning. But Keller notes that such measures may have little effect.

“The people who were most affected by the heat were the socially vulnerable: the elderly, the poor, and those who live alone,” he says. “They often don’t take advantage of cooling centers or have people to look in on them and encourage them to seek relief.”

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