Norbert’s influence on Southwest U.S. to be felt over large area

Very high moisture content for the Desert Southwest over the next three days

Very high moisture content for the Desert Southwest over the next three days

It is rare for a tropical storm or hurricane to impact the weather for the Southwest U.S. but it does happen. Going back to 1939 and then again in 1976 and 1997, there have been infamous storm events that brought flooding rains to areas that are not used to such high precip events. It looks as though Norbert will be added to that list.

First of all, let me say that I am in Phoenix, AZ this morning after having traveled here from Houston where I flew in on Friday.

I am working with Amateur Radio operator and friend to HurricaneTrack.com, Kerry Mallory. He has been my wheels, so to speak and we have covered some serious ground since Friday afternoon.

We are out here because of the serious threat of flooding as a result of monsoonal flow and the influx of moisture from what was once category three hurricane Norbert. This situation is unique and is quite different for us than any other hurricane related field mission we have undertaken.

Tropical cyclones have the ability to drop a tremendous amount of rain. Inland flooding from excessive rain fall is often overlooked by the public as being a potential threat. Wind and storm surge grab the headlines until the rains begin to fall and add up – by then, it’s usually too late to react.

In the case of the Desert Southwest, it’s not a matter of seeing ten to twenty inches of rain. In this case, just a few inches is all it will take to cause incredible flash floods to occur which puts property and lives at risk.

The main culprit will be the flow of moisture from Norbert as we get later in to today and through the next few days. Areas from southern California to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and in to Utah are under the threat of flooding rains and serious flooding.

One of the more difficult tasks of the NWS out here is to know which areas could be most impacted. The geography of the region makes it tough to predict precisely where heavy rains could fall. Heating of the day, mountain ranges and other factors make it a challenge to convey to the public who is most at risk. As such, the NWS has done a great job in putting out public information statements and even YouTube videos explaining the threat from this flood event.

As I have read the area forecast discussions, it is remarkable to note how much water is available in the atmosphere compared to normal. In some cases, as much as 300% the normal water available in the air column is forecast to be present – giving ample fuel for potentially very heavy rain.

The most vulnerable areas appear to be the mountains and hill sides that have what are called burn scars on them. These are left over scar areas from recent (or not so recent) forest fires. The soil is like pavement with ash and other debris compacted in with little to no vegetation left behind. It only takes moderate rain for a little while to send water down these burn scars, filled with debris as it flows in to streams and otherwise dry washes. The result can be deadly and people caught unaware can be buried by these debris flows.

As I mentioned, Kerry and I are in Phoenix today. We will be on the lookout for developing thunderstorms throughout the day and will try to get to areas where heavy rain is likely to fall. Our goal is to document the event using some of the same technology we utilize during storm surge along the coast. We don’t want to be caught in a flash flood ourselves, so using remote, unmanned cameras will help to keep us safe while we capture video of flooding.

We can also post information to social media to help people in the region keep up with what’s going on in near real time. Video clips can be posted to our Instagram feed in no time at all, it’s amazing what we can do these days, even in the middle of the desert! We’ll also post pics and information on conditions as we encounter the storms later today and tonight.

Believe it or not, the rain threat extends up in to Utah and that is where we plan to be by later tonight. Reading the discussions for the southwest part of the state, it looks serious. We’re talking about widespread flooding a distinct possibility in parts of Utah tonight and tomorrow. This presents us with a unique situation to both try and observe and research the event while remaining safe. I am no stranger to rain but flash floods in canyon lands is totally alien to me. Again, the use of unmanned cameras will be paramount to documenting the effects from incredible viewpoints.

We plan to stream our field work live on our Ustream channel throughout the day today. Follow along at ustream.tv/hurricanetrack

If you live in the region that is forecast to be affected by this unusual event, keep aware of rapidly changing weather. It’s going to be an interesting and potentially dangerous few days out here and we hope to document it and learn from it for future preparedness when the inevitable happens again.

Oh yeah, the Atlantic Basin is of no concern right now, so at least there’s that.

I’ll post another blog tonight from St. George, Utah.

M. Sudduth 11:51 AM ET Sept 7

 

Heading in to uncharted territory

Computer model plots for Norbert show a distinct turn towards the Southwest United States

Computer model plots for Norbert show a distinct turn towards the Southwest United States

I have been in hurricanes from Texas to New Jersey and most states in between. I even traveled to Maine in 2008 for the off-chance one would venture in to that area. It didn’t pan out. The quest, however, is always the same: to get up close and then document the effects of tropical cyclones on us mere humans and the landscape we dwell upon.

One big problem that I see when dealing with tropical cyclones is the fact that people generally don’t understand their true nature. The news headlines are usually about the wind and the storm surge. However, other hazards often cause problems but are rarely talked about until they show up as being a problem. Case in point: hurricane Marie recently in the east Pacific. The swells it generated caused damage along portions of the southern California coastline. While it was a well documented and talked about event by the local National Weather Services, The Weather Channel and local news outlets, how many people truly knew it was coming? My guess, not many, save for a few die-hard surfers who are in tune with the sea like few people are.

Let’s take another example. Fay in 2008 in Florida. The tropical storm never made it to hurricane intensity but it dumped copious amounts of rain on the Melbourne area, inundating homes and businesses. There are others such as Allison in 2001 which drowned a good deal of Houston in relentless rain.

My point is that tropical cyclones have effects that are often overlooked by the public until those effects become a painful reality and something bad happens.

Norbert could be one of those situations for parts of the Southwest U.S.

As such, I am going to be working with The Weather Channel to document the effects, even if indirectly related to the hurricane, of Norbert over the coming days. I am also a weather geek at heart and have always wanted to venture out of my comfort zone of East Coast or Gulf Coast action. Now is my chance.

The plan is complex. I am heading to Houston in the morning to meet up with a good friend, supporter and technical adviser of our work, Kerry Mallory. He happens to live in Houston and has been an integral part of our HURRB research balloon project and, as of late, the new Drifting Surge Cam project. Kerry will be my wheels. I will airline out with me some of the equipment we use to capture storm surge effects along the coast. It’s so small now that I can easily check it as baggage and bring several items with me.

The idea is to head west on I-10 in to New Mexico. Moisture streaming in from Norbert is expected to result in heavy rains for parts of the region. I want to use time lapse to capture the thunderstorm development as well as be ready in case we encounter flash flooding from the tropical downpours that are forecast to affect the area. Using our unmanned cameras, we can monitor these effects safely, providing live video to The Weather Channel in the process.

Some reports I read from NWS discussion suggest upwards of 5 inches of rain for some areas, especially in the mountains. Imagine being able to capture a dry or low water level stream suddenly roaring to life with a surge of water! We can do that using unmanned cameras, just like we do for storm surge. We can also fly above the torrents of water with our quadcopter to capture the view from the air. The technology keeps us a safe distance away while being able to document the effects in a unique way.

We will spend Saturday in New Mexico and Arizona, looking for possible flash flood situations. It appears that the southern regions of those states will be most at risk but this can change so we’ll be on top of it with constant info coming in to us.

To help out if needed, our good friend and technical adviser from Nevada, Paul Bowman, will be available to meet us in southern Arizona so that Kerry and I can continue west to our final destination.

Hurricane Marie sent substantial swells in to parts of southern California last week, resulting in damage and even injuries to people who were not prepared. It was amazing to see the pictures and video coming out of the region. A similar but less dramatic swell event unfolded along a good deal of the East Coast at the same time as a result of hurricane Cristobal. I got out and documented that as did our colleague Jesse Bass from Portsmouth, Virginia. It wasn’t too much of a coastal erosion or flooding event but it served as a reminder of how passing tropical cyclones can have an impact on the coast.

Our final goal will be to document and study the swells from Norbert in southern California. Using the new Drifting Surge Cam, itself armed with plenty of GPS tracking technology, Kerry and I hope to deploy it a mile or so out in the Pacific and let the swells bring it in. We can track it in real time using satellite tracking plus we’ll have a data logger inside for precise GPS information on how the waves progressed.

Oh, and it will be streamed LIVE from the unit itself – from the Pacific, within the swells! The DSC is equipped with a GoPro which will record up to 13 hours of HD video. Its other “eye” is a live streaming cam, with audio, that will give us a look at the swells from within the swells. I have always had a fascination with the big waves that a hurricane generates and sends out hundreds of miles from its core. Now we can study it like never before and show people what it looks and sounds like. All we need is a little luck and for Norbert to continue on as forecast. We’ll likely set up in the Long Beach area but will narrow it down more tomorrow and in to the weekend.

All of our video will be shown exclusively on The Weather Channel. We may be able to document quite a bit or it may turn out to be nothing more than a long ride in the truck! Chances are, we come away with some new data, exciting video perspectives and a chance to show people that tropical cyclones are much more than wind speed and categories.

I begin the quest tomorrow in Wilmington, NC where I board a plane at 7:30 AM. From there, it’s new and uncharted territory but the reward is that my team and I capture this rare event, a tropical cyclone affecting the Southwest, in a unique and safe manner. I’ll post updates on Twitter and our new Instagram account (@hurricanetrack) and of course, to our app, Hurricane Impact.

It’s going to be a long and interesting several days ahead. Wish us luck, we may need it!

M. Sudduth 11:15 PM ET Sept 4

Norbert could be a big problem for Baja and then Southwest U.S.

Radar from south Texas showing rain moving in as part of remnants of TS Dolly

Radar from south Texas showing rain moving in as part of remnants of TS Dolly

Tropical storm Dolly made landfall last night in Mexico and is dissipating today over the mountainous terrain of the region. There is still an abundance of moisture streaming in which has led to quite a bit of rain across part of central Mexico. In fact, some of this rain made its way up north in to Texas, dumping more than an inch in some areas near Brownsville. It will take another day or so before the low pressure dries up and the moisture feed gets shut off. Until then, the chance of rain will be around as the low slowly weakens and dies away.

The rest of the Atlantic Basin is fairly quiet now with no new areas to be concerned with for the time being. It does appear that a strong tropical wave will emerge from the African coast in a couple of days with a decent chance that it develops. This will only be an issue for the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa and if it does develop, we’ll have plenty of time to monitor as it moves westward.

Meanwhile, the east Pacific has an interesting storm that is forecast to become a hurricane over the next few days.

TS Norbert track map

TS Norbert track map

TS Norbert, not too far off the coast of Mexico, formed yesterday and is steadily strengthening today. The NHC forecasts it to become a hurricane as it more or less parallels the Baja peninsula. It appears that the worst conditions will remain far enough off the coast to spare the region any direct impacts. However, heavy rain and an increase in rough seas and locally high surf will certainly be an issue as Norbert tracks along just to the west of the narrow peninsula.

One potential side effect of Norbert that we will have to watch closely is the chance of very heavy rain for parts of the Desert Southwest of the U.S. Computer models are indicating the possibility of Norbert turning back to the north and northeast in about five to six days. This would allow deep tropical moisture to be pulled in to southern California, Nevada and Arizona. The result could be a period of heavy rain for areas that do not handle such events too well. This is something that will have to be watched closely in the coming days especially since tropical cyclone rain events for the desert regions is a rare occurrence. Stay tuned, Norbert could make news in more ways than one as we get in to early next week.

I’ll post more about this and any other goings on in the tropics with tomorrow’s update.

M. Sudduth 1:18 PM ET Sept 3

Short-lived Dolly to move inland over Mexico tonight, Norbert forms in east Pacific

TS Norbert forecast track in the east Pacific

TS Norbert forecast track in the east Pacific

The tropics are a littler busier today, more typical of what we should be seeing this time of year.

Tropical storm Dolly, which was upgraded overnight, is moving toward the coast of Mexico with about 50 mph winds. Fortunately, strong upper level winds out of the north have kept Dolly from getting stronger especially considering the very warm water it is tracking across. The primary threat for Mexico will be an abundance of very heavy rain and an increase in waves along the coast. This also means a short period of time for additional wave energy to move up in to Texas, providing a short window of opportunity for surfers to take advantage.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic, not much going on as of now. The NHC is indicating that a tropical wave is forecast to emerge from Africa in a few days with a good chance of development. Almost all of the global model guidance shows this happening and conditions do seem to be much more suitable now. We’ll wait and see, even if it does develop, it will be more than a week away from any land outside of the Cape Verde Islands.

There is also an upper level low that is producing some areas of concentrated convection just east of Florida and over the Bahamas. Sometimes these can work their way down to the surface and generate in to a more typical warm-core tropical cyclone. I don’t see that happening on any of the models right now but it’s something to keep an eye on and will continue to bring periods of showers and thunderstorms to the Bahamas and offshore waters of Florida and Cuba over the next few days.

In the east Pacific, TS Norbert has developed just off the coast of Mexico. The official NHC forecast takes Norbert roughly parallel along the coast with modest strengthening indicated. Some model guidance suggests a track closer to the Baja and with a much stronger system. Obviously, interests along the Baja and even mainland Mexico should monitor Norbert closely. Water temps in this region are running well above the long term average and we have seen some very strong hurricanes in this area so far this year. Do not be surprised if the NHC bumps up the intensity quite a bit in the coming days.

By the way, ever wonder what happens when we get to 99L for those “areas of interest” in the Atlantic? We start over again with 90L. The NHC uses this method of labeling suspect areas of weather instead of just calling them blobs of clouds or tropical disturbances. The naming designation also helps to initialize computer models and assign resources such as recon and satellite fixes. The numbers 90-99 are used with the letter “L” for Atlantic. The same labeling system is used in the Pacific except the letter “E” is used for East Pacific. Before Dolly became a tropical depression, it was 99L, the last in the series, and so we will start again with the next area of interest in the Atlantic being labeled as 90L. In case you wanted to know, now you do.

I’ll have more here tomorrow.

M. Sudduth 1:02 PM ET Sept 2