Category Archives: Severe Weather and Other Disasters

2024 Atlantic Hurricane Season

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It starts.

Tropical Storm Alberto has formed in the Gulf of Mexico, just to the right of Actual Mexico.

As I write this, Alberto is making landfall as a naty storm with 50 MPH winds, downgrading quickly to a 35 MPH storm that will dissipate over land. However, the wet and disturbed air remaining from this storm will cross the country of Mexico and emerge incoherent in the Pacific, where it may become a weather feature of interest.

When the nucleus two atoms of a certain size range are mushed together by gravitational forces, the force that holds the elements of atomic nuclei and the mass of the nuclei themselves interact at the quantum level in a way that transforms that combination of matter and energy into a different mix of matter and energy, with much more energy and much less matter. IE E = MC2. This happens regularly inside our Sun, and some of that resulting energy can contribute to the formation of a hurricane.

I’ve left out some details.

One detail is this: Atlantic Hurricanes form amidst massive air currents that translate some of that sunsourced energy into the movement of air around the equator and from the equator northwards towards the North Pole. That movement of air and associated transfer of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean can be regular (aka “Neutral”) in form in the Pacific ocean, or it can be irregular (aka “El Nino” or “La Nina”) in the Pacific. The El Nino and La Nina forms of movement of air and transfer of heat involve either a blowing out of heat from the ocean into the atmosphere or the absorption of more than average amounts of heat from the atmosphere into the ocean, respectively.

So imagine you are an Atlantic hurricane forming on a long hallway carpet that is itself being pulled forward. As you move forward the air around you swirls and moves in just the right way to facilitate your increased spin and make you bigger, and the heat that comes up from below you adds energy to your spin. But suddenly the carpet gets bunched up way down the hall, way farther than you can see (in real terms, on the other side of the Earth). That disrupts the whole thing, and the forces that were spinning you up and giving you strength are reduced and made more chaotic. Maybe you’ll form into a full hurricane, maybe not. But even if you do, you won’t be the best hurricane you can be. That bunching up of the carpet was the disruptive El Nino pattern of equatorial air and ocean interaction.

Now imagine the same scenario, but way ahead of you, instead of the carpet bunching up, a force is pulling it along a little faster and more efficiently. Now, the effects causing your spin-up are enhanced, and the overall energy you take in is increased. Now, the chanced that you will reach hurricane strength and form are increased over “neutral” conditions, and the overall strength and size you may achieve is greater. That is La Nina.

Now imagine a second factor other than the carpet: overall heat. The warmer the surface of the Atlantic ocean over which you are forming, the more likely you are to become a hurricane, and the bigger and/or stronger you can become. The bunching-up aka El Nino phase of the climatic carpet system adds heat to the atmosphere everywhere, which increases the heat of the Atlantic Ocean’s surface, that energy source down below the carpet. But while El Nino is adding heat, it is also disrupting the process. But, if El Nino ads a bunch of heat and then goes away, the heat remains for months as it slowly dissipates. Therefore, if El Nino changes quickly to La Nina, then El Nino increases a key variable to enhance Atlantic hurricane formation, then immediately after, La Nino increases a key variable to enhance Atlantic hurricane formation.

That is what is likely to happen this hurricane season. We are leaving El Nino conditions over the next several weeks, and we are likely to plunge into a La Nina phase right away. That is why this Atlantic Hurricane Season is expected to be a humdinger of a hurricane season.

Storm Beryl

As I write this, Beryl is a Tropical Storm located about 10 degrees north, lined up with the mouth of the Amazon (far to the South). The numerous models mostly agree on this: Beryl will be classifiable as a hurricane by mid day Sunday, and proceed towards the Windward Islands, likely passing somewhere between Roseau and the South American coast, with the current National Hurricane Center’s track running through St Vincent and the Grenadines, with Kingston the current center of the bullseye. By Thursday or so next week, the storm will be closer to Other Kingston, the one in Jamaica, and Jamaica the island of Hispanola, and Cuba are all under the gun. That would put the hurricane, very likely a Category 3 storm, in the western Caribbean and wondering where to go next. That is very important, since it could do what a lot of hurricanes do, and turn north to overrun Cuba the threaten Florida, or it could penetrate further into the Gulf of Mexico, and then who the heck knows. In the first instance, it would probably weaken somewhat, in the second instance, it would be over very warm water in the Gulf and may well strengthen.

Beryl Update: 6/30/24 PM

Between now and tomorrow at this time, Beryl will achieve major hurricane status with winds of 140 mph, gusting to 165 mph, as it bears down on the southerly Windwaard Islands, that band of tiny nations and protectorates that form the southeastern edge of the Caribbean.

Beryl is a weird and strange looking hurricane. Not to be to judge, but it almost looks more like a typical thunderstorm cluster disturbance that hurricanes resemble before they are fully born. This is a major hurricane born so recently there are fragments of the placenta draped across its shoulders. Presumably Beryl will circle-up and start looking more organized soon. Beryl is not a monster size hurricane at this time but is expected to get larger.

This is very conjectural, but bear with me. Most models of the hurricane’s intensity have it remaining a Category 1 even after it slides across Yucatan and starts to leave that very flat mainland region behind. This is not going to be good for humans and habitats in that region. After about 5 days from now, it is reasonable to expect Beryl to be a Category 1 hurricane, or at least, still be a tropical cyclone as it re-enters the Gulf of Mexico. Most models, and this is way too far out to be more than cautionary information, have Beryl continuing across the southern Gulf of Mexico and re-landing on the MExico coast, but about 1/4th of the models have the storm curving northwards and striking the US gulf coast. Right now I see no estimates for Beryl’s likely strength at that time, but the Gulf is warm and tends to cause strengthening. So, again, this is way too far out to say, but not to far out in time to be concerned if you are along the Gulf coast anywhere from Poza Rica to New Orleans.

For perspective, Hurricane Harvey took a very similar track, crossed the Yucatan, then turned into a big storm before hitting Texas. At this point, Beryl looks bigger and stronger than Harvey.

Beryl is the farthest east forming hurricane in June on record. This time of year we tend to not have the “Cape” hurricanes that come all across the Atlantic. Once Beryl becomes a Category 4 storm (any hour now), it will be the earliest Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic, and presumably the only such hurricane in June. It is the earliest major hurricane within 100 miles of Barbados and Grenada.

Beryl Update 7/1 9:45 AM

I just want to put this here so we can compare realty with the current estimates in a day or so:

Beryl Update 7/2 6:25AM

As suspected, Beryl will remain stronger than earlier projected:

Also note that this hurricane’s path has shifted to the north a little, placing Jamaica in serious danger.

The people of Carriacou and other islands hit by Beryl over the last day have lost homes in infrastructure, but so far the death toll is minimal. We’ll see if that remains the case, hopefully it will.

Wind shear was expected to cause Beryl t drop to below Major status about now, but the storm is remaining at Category 4 level for the next day or two.

The estimated track of Beryl becomes extremely uncertain after Friday. The spaghetti models have continued to shift the post-Yucatan path northwards, with the Texas-Mexico border being the approximate center of the largest cluster of models, but a goodly number suggesting landfall as far east as New Orleans. The models are ambiguous as to how strong this storm might be by the time that happens.

Beryl Update 7/7 8:17M

One thing you can say about Beryl: as a named storm it feels like it is lasting a very long time. I think the record for longevity in the Atlantic is the 1899 Ciriaco hurricane, which hung out at sea for just over a month, and lasted as a storm from August 2rd to September 12th, with the last 8 days being extratropical. Beryl formed on June 28th, so it’s only been going 9 days, but somehow feels longer.

Beryl, currently tropical storm, a will strengthen back into a real Hurricane over the next 24 hours, then make landfall in Texas, affecting areas upcoast Corpus Christi and Galveston. As the storm moves inland, serious flooding is expectged as far north as the Dallas-Shreveport area. This does not seem to be a Harvy-eque situation.

Elsewhere in the Atlantic: Nothing. Yet.

Helpful Information

In the spirit of keeping things all in one place this hurricane season, here is the Saffir-Simpson scale, and below, the name list for the Atlantic Hurricanes.

Names for 2024:

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Hurricane: 2026, Atlantic Basin

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Entry of 8/17/2023

It has been a quiet Atlantic Hurricane Season. That is expected for an El Nino year, when wind patterns tend to throw sheer at the storms, messing up their plans to become giant rotating vortices of chaos and destruction. Not sure if “vortices” is a word. Anyway, it is now* expected, according to NOAA, that wind sheer is going to lose to super heated ocean surface, allowing the rest of the 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Seasons to blow up to be bad.

Here, let us begin to record the high points of the season. I’ll start:

After days of quiescence, there are suddenly two stormy bits emerging off the coast of Africa. They each have a 70% chance of developing into a storm. They will be moving over very warm water.

*My friend and colleague Michael Mann and his research group had already predicted this, well before the start of the season. He has an excellent track record. The longest range and thus least reliable spaghetti map projections suggest that one of them will curve up into the midst of the North Atlantic. The same not very reliable projections allow for other stormy blog moving farther west and not recurring over the next several days, which leaves open the possibility of a meaningful relationship with land.

That is all for now, keep an eye out. As it were.

Entry of 8/28/23

This is a google map screenshot of Horsdhoe Beach, Florida. The average elevation at the surface here is 7 feet. Most of the homes are on stilts. The expected storm surge, estimated two days in advance, so this may be very inaccurate, is over 9 feet.

At the moment, this community is almost exactly at the expected eye landfall of Hurricane Idalia.

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Greg Laden Blog Julia

The 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season: Nicole Meet Florida

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November 8th

Florida is about to get another hurricane. Tropical Storm Nicole is expected to develop into a Category 1 hurricane and come ashoire on the East Coast somewhere near Palm Bay, north of West Palm Beach, late in the day Wednesday. This is going to be a physically large storm, with effects over a broad area.

November 2nd

Somewhat suddenly there are two named storms in the Atlantic.

Lisa is a Category 1 hurricane bearing down on the coast of Belize, with Belize City in the front right quadrant of the storm. This will be going on for several more hours, then the storm will convert to a tropical storm or strong depression, until it exist land to the Gulf of Mexico, or possibly (but not likely) the Pacific.

Martin is a Category 1 hurricane way out in the middle of the Atlantic. Martin may develop into a Category 2 hurricane as it moves north, reaching nearly Category 3 strength, before weakening and wandering clumsily into the part of the Atlantic between Iceland and the UK.

October 18th

I’m not going to call an end to the season. But the season seems to be over.

October 11th later that day

The original plan was to keep the name Julia for whatever storm might have formed from Remnant Julia. But instead, a second storm formed right next to Julia Proper and created Clone Julia. That storm then moved into the Gulf of Mexico, and got up enough gumption to get an name, and its name is Karl with a K. (You don’t say the “with a K” part.)

This storm will shortly turn back into Mexico and land not far from Veracruz as a tropical storm, not a hurricane.

October 11th

Just a quick note: It is looking like the remnant of Julia is passing back over the sea in the Gulf of Mexico, highly likely to become a tropical storm, but then with an uncertain future. Stay tuned.

October 9th

Julia came ashore on Nicaragua’s coast as a Category 1 hurricane, and is now a tropical storm dumping a lot of rain in the interior. It is very likely to re-emerge on the Pacific side and will likely hug the Pacific coast for several hours.

From the NHC:

Regardless of Julia’s track and future status as a tropical cyclone,
the evolving weather pattern is likely to lead to heavy rains over
Central America and southern Mexico for several days, which could
cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, especially in
areas of mountainous terrain.

Since Julia’s low-level circulation is expected to survive its
passage across Nicaragua, the cyclone will retain the same name
when it moves into the eastern Pacific basin. The intermediate
advisory at 100 PM CDT (1800 UTC) will be issued under the same
Atlantic product headers as before. However, now that all coastal
watches and warnings are located along the Pacific coast of Central
America, product headers will change to eastern Pacific headers
beginning with the next complete advisory at 400 PM CDT (2100 UTC),
with the ATCF identifier changing from AL132022 to EP182022.

If Julia regains hurricane status, there is a non-zero chance it will make a second landfall in Mexico.

October 8th

Julia is the name of the below mentioned new system in the Atlantic Basin. This is now a tropical storm heading due west, which is expected to turn into a Category 1 hurricane prior to making landfall on the east coast of Nicaragua. The island of San Andrés, part of Columbia, is dead in the middle of the expected track. After landfall it is not unlikely that the remnants of Julia will pass into the Eastern Pacific with enough ooomph to be a concern, or less likely, but possible, to recurve north into the Gulf of Mexico and make a second landfall (hopefully not as a hurricane). One model (don’t believe the models yet) has it hitting Florida in the general vicinity of where Ian recently caused major devastation. Not likely but a reminder that if you get hit once with a Hurricane you can get hit twice with a hurricane.

Please go HERE to get the current forecast and advisory.

October 6th

There is a new storm, very likely to become a hurricane just before hitting land. In about 3 days the as yet unnamed storm will likely come assure in Nicaragua. There is a very good chance the storm will pass over Central America and emerge as a non-hurricane with potential in the Eastern Pacific. It will not be stronger than a Category 1 hurricane, but there could be serious problems in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. The island of

October 2nd

Ian’s Death Toll. Sometimes, when a deadly disaster happens, and the death toll starts to come in, you can get a feeling for how absurd the initial numbers are, and for what the order of magnitude of the final count is likely to be. And indeed we were seeing some pretty low and absurd numbers a few days ago for Ian’s mortality count, but I have no idea where this is going. There are neighborhoods where it seems like every single person present must have been killed, but what we don’t know is how many had left before the storm tide came in. Yesterdays estiamte was round 35, thius mornings estimates range from 44 to 67. The highest current estimate I know of is 77. Continue reading The 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season: Nicole Meet Florida

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Heat Kills. More Heat Kills More

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Over the last few years, the Atlantic Ocean and other parts of the world smashed their weathery fists into the faces of climate change deniers again and again until the denial of climate change fell to the mat, bleeding, and forever silent.

I wish. It wasn’t quite that extreme, but nearly so. In certain social settings, a person ranting about climate change, say a decade ago, would be looked at as though they might have a lose screw. Me, for example, at a family gathering. But a few weeks ago, a matriarch in my extended family, whom I might have expected to give me the stern look during one of my own rants, began ranting herself about climate change, and how astonishing it was that people could not see that it is real. I had to get her a glass of water. Times have changed. The big storms have spoken, and American society has listened, and at the very least, the deniers now look like the ones with the loose screw.

However, storms are not the biggest problem with future climate change. Sure, a storm can cause floods that kill hundreds of people. Sure, storms can carve away large sections of the shoreline, including those on which humans have built towns and cities, more so especially as sea level rises. Sure, strong tornadoes can destroy a storm shelter as though it wasn’t there, or pick up a school bus and throw it into a ravine, or whatever they want.

But storms are whiny babies compared to their own mothers, the weather-mother that causes the storms to be worse to begin with, and that will eventually become recognized as the real problem with global warming: heat. Continue reading Heat Kills. More Heat Kills More

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2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season

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Sept 9th: From the National Hurricane Center, pertaining to Larry:

“Larry is forecast to move near or over portions of southeastern
Newfoundland Friday night or early Saturday morning as it undergoes
transition to a hurricane-force post-tropical cyclone. Hurricane
conditions are storm surge are possible in portions of southeastern
Newfoundland where a hurricane watch is in effect. Interests there
should monitor updates to the forecast. Continue reading 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season

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Hurricane Ida is the real thing

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Ida is currently menacing western Cuba. It will then pass the long way across the Gulf of Mexico, gaining strength every day. Ida will probably be a Category 3 hurricane by the time it has crossed the gulf. There is a chance Ida could rise in strength to Category 4. It is too early to say for sure, but every single model but one that I’ve seen puts landfall somewhere in Louisiana. The one outlyer model has landfall in Mississippi near the Louisiana border.

Gulf-denizens, start getting ready now. Ida is moving fast. The landfall of the eye, which is NOT when it hits the coast, will be late Sunday or very early Monday.

Update: Latest info from NWS indicates that the storm will strengthn to Category 4 prior to landfall. That would be at about 6AM on the 30th.

Key Messages at 500 PM EDT Fri Aug 27 2021:

  1. Life-threatening storm surge and hurricane conditions are
    expected to continue through tonight in portions of western Cuba,
    including the Isle of Youth, where a Hurricane Warning is in effect.
    Life-threatening heavy rains, flash flooding and mudslides are
    expected across Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and western Cuba,
    including the Isle of Youth.

  2. There is a danger of life-threatening storm surge inundation
    Sunday along the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi within the
    Storm Surge Warning area. Extremely life-threatening inundation of
    10 to 15 feet above ground level is possible within the area from
    Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mouth of the Mississippi River.
    Interests throughout the warning area should follow any advice given
    by local officials.

  3. Ida is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane when
    it reaches the coast of Louisiana. Hurricane-force winds are
    expected Sunday in portions of the Hurricane Warning area along the
    Louisiana coast, including metropolitan New Orleans, with
    potentially catastrophic wind damage possible where the core of Ida
    moves onshore. Actions to protect life and property should be rushed
    to completion in the warning area.

  4. Ida is likely to produce heavy rainfall later Sunday into Monday
    across the central Gulf Coast from southeast Louisiana to coastal
    Mississippi and Alabama, resulting in considerable flash, urban,
    small stream, and riverine flooding impacts. As Ida moves inland,
    flooding impacts are possible across portions of the Lower
    Mississippi and Tennessee Valleys.


INIT 27/2100Z 22.1N 83.2W 70 KT 80 MPH
12H 28/0600Z 23.5N 84.8W 85 KT 100 MPH
24H 28/1800Z 25.3N 86.9W 105 KT 120 MPH
36H 29/0600Z 27.1N 89.0W 115 KT 130 MPH
48H 29/1800Z 28.6N 90.6W 120 KT 140 MPH
60H 30/0600Z 30.0N 91.3W 80 KT 90 MPH…INLAND
72H 30/1800Z 31.5N 91.1W 40 KT 45 MPH…INLAND
96H 31/1800Z 34.4N 89.3W 30 KT 35 MPH…INLAND
120H 01/1800Z 36.0N 86.0W 20 KT 25 MPH…POST-TROP/REMNT LOW

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The strongest cyclone known on this planet just happened.

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According to Jeff Masters, “With 195 mph winds, Goni is the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone in world recorded history. Previous record: Super Typhoon Meranti, September 16, 2016, Itbayat Island, Philippines, and Super Typhoon Haiyan, November 8, 2013, Leyte Island, Philippines (190 mph winds).”

Here is Jeff’s blog post.

In case you didn’t know, Jeff Masters moved from the Weather Underground to Yale Climate Connections a while back.

Jeff notes:

Scientists theorize that a warming climate should make the strongest tropical cyclones stronger, since hurricanes are heat engines that extract heat energy from the oceans, converting it to kinetic energy in the form of wind. In a 2019 Review Paper by 11 hurricane scientists, “Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change Assessment: Part I. Detection and Attribution“, 10 of 11 authors concluded that the balance of evidence suggests a detectable increase in the average intensity of global hurricanes since the early 1980s; eight of those 11 concluded that the balance of evidence suggests that human-caused climate change contributed to that increased intensity.

All those 11 authors agreed that the balance of evidence suggests that the proportion of all hurricanes reaching category 4-5 strength has increased in recent years; and eight of them concluded that the balance of evidence suggests that human-caused climate change contributed to that increase.

And now, the movie version of that quote:

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A very stormy Atlantic Hurricane Season

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Sally is going to turn into a hurricane, probably category 1 or weak category 3, and slam into the golf coat, possibly very close to New Orleans. In fact, Sally might approach New Orleans at a really dangerous angle. This storm is expected to bring a lot of water in land, for some major flooding, and storm surges may be pretty bad in a few spots.

Paulette will stay out in the Atlantic and head in the general direction of Europe, although some models having it cycling back to Africa and hitting Morocco. That would be strange. Somewhere along the way, Paulette may reach category 3 strength, barely.

Renee is going to wander around in the mid Atlantic fo a while in a state of depression, and might dissipate over the next few days. But sometimes, such a storm later turns into the next storm in line, so this blob of unsettled air will require some further attention.

Then there is Tropical Depression Twenty. This storm is going to be a hurricane by mid week or sooner. It is going to stay in the mid atlantic according to all the models but one or two (which has it grazing Canada). But, it will become a Category 2 hurricane.

Then, there is Disturbance 2. Check back on Disturbance 2, now near Africa, maybe Thursday. This storm has some potential.

There is also a Disturbance 1 in the Gulf of mexico which is not expected to do anything major at least for several days.

If Twenty and One become named storms, they will be Teddy and Vicky. Then there is only one name ready, Wilfred. The chance that we are going to run out of names is about 100%.

If that happens, we go to the Greek alphabet.

Usually, but this time, there are about 7 named storms and maybe 3 or 4 hurricanes. So far we have had 18 named storms and 5 hurricanes (one major). So we are about average on hurricane number but high on storms in general.

Very few of the predictions for this year suggested such a high number, but NCSU, SMN, and NOAA’s May 21st came close. I don’t count NOAA in early August, that’s cheating.

Several records were set this season so far. Cristobal is the earliest C storm, beating 2016’s Colin by three days. Edouard is the earliest E storm, Fay, the earliest F storm by a large margin, Gonzalo the earliest G storm by a couple of days, Hanna the earliest H storm by nearly two weeks. Etc. Seven other storms beat this record prior to the currently active three. Paulette, Rene, and Sally are the earliest of their letter by ten or more days each, with the previous records set in the infamous 2005 (which is when most of the earliest per letter records were set … that was an intense year).

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Laura is a Formidable Hurricane

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That’s what the National Hurricane Center says.

At this moment, Laura is a Category 2 hurricane edging over the next few hours into Category 3 territory. It is possible that Laura will reach Category 4 status before making landfall, but the storm is expected to weaken a little prior to the eye coming ashore. Laura is large, so while still at maximum strength, it will be affecting the coast directly.

Laura, large, looming below the Louisiana littoral.

The most recent intensification, during which the storm grew in strength from Category 1 to Category 3 over several hours, is called “remarkable” by the NHC. Projections of Laura’s ultimate strength, days out, did not suggest that the storm would reach 3, close to 4, intensity. And, I think this is a pattern. Atlantic Hurricanes have developed this recent habit of either moving faster, forming more quickly, or getting stronger, than expected based on the usual models. It is like the models all need to have their sights adjusted a little.

Very soon, as of this writing, Laura will move in on the coast, and the eye will cross over in the wee hours of the morning Thursday AM. Some time between nightfall tonight and sun rise tomorrow, this Category 3 with gusts up to 150 mph will take a run at the Texas-Louisiana border. The best guess location for the eye to come ashore is between Beaumont Texas and Lake Charles Louisiana, with the front-right quadrant mainly in Louisiana.

Again, this is a large hurricane (and is a bit asymmetrical at least at the moment) so the storm surge flooding ie expected to cover a very large area, across the entire Louisiana coast line, even New Orleans. Much of the storm surge will be over 9 feet over the ground (not above sea level, but above where your feet are planted as you nail plywood over the front window of your house). There are complexities. Many areas along this coast have levees that will keep the storm surge completely out, until a levee is over-topped or breached. Then, it all comes in rather quickly.

You will recall that Hurricane Harvey (2017) messed up Port Arthur and Beaumont. These communities are under threat again, but the main effects will probably be to the east of there.

A typical Atlantic hurricane season has about 12 named storms, between 6 and 7 being hurricanes. Half the storms usually occur by about this time a year or a week or so later. So far this year, we have had 13 named storms, four of which have been hurricanes, and Laura, the only major one so far, is the strongest. All of the pre-season predictions said this was going to be an active year, and that has turned out to be true. This year seems to be characterized as having had an early start, with the formation of storms setting “earliest formed” records 10 times so far. This is a somewhat obscure statistic. For example, Cristobal, the third storm of the year, formed three days before the next earliest third storm (June 2 beating June 5). Laura, the 12th storm, formed 8 days earlier than the previos record holder, Luis, which formed August 29th 1995. Of note, most of the prior eariest records are from one year: 2005. You may remember that year, it included Katrina and Maria.

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Isaias is coming to an Atlantic Coast near you.

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Tropical Storm Isaias is now affecting, and is in the process of leaving, Hispaniola, and will spend the next few days transiting the Bahamas pretty much at the worst possible angle. During that time it will turn into a hurricane. Expectations are that it will not likely be a major hurricane, but the trend lately has been for hurricanes to be worse, or speedier, or both, than expected, so expect worse. By next Monday afternoon, the hurricane will be in a good position to make some sort of landfall in South Carolina or North Carolina. It will hug the coast as a hurricane or a storm all the way to Massachusetts and possibly beyond.

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How To Think About Immunity to COVID-19

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This is what immunity is not: You are an organism walking down the street, and you are immune to the rare virus squirrelpox. A squirrelpox virus is walking on the same sidewalk towards you. It sees you, and goes, “that one’s immune to me,” and quickly crosses the street, going nowhere near you. Beause you are immune.

This is what immunity often is: You have built up an immunity to a common cold virus. Somebody infected with that virus sneezes on you and now that virus is in you. It begins to reproduce and do its thing, and you develop cold symptoms. However, your adaptive immune system has seen this virus before, so it quickly mounts a defense, so even though you do get a cold, you fight it off quickly and in five days you feel fine.

Lots of times, though, immunity works like this: You have an immunity to a certain disease. Perhaps you had that disease earlier in your life and your adaptive immune system developed a strategy to attack this pathogen next time it comes around. Perhaps you got a vaccine that prompted your adaptive immune system to develop a strategy to attack this pathogen next time it comes around. The virus goes in you — the virus does in fact infect you, it does not “cross the street” to avoid you. But your body is so ready for it that the counter attack is fast and effective, and before you can either develop symptoms or start passing the disease on to someone else, your body’s immune system has literally killed it.

An acquired or induced immunity can be called “100%” and it can be “life long” but it is never able to actually keep the disease out, and it is likely that few, if any, adaptive immune system build-ups last for the entire life of a person who lives a long time. Some immunity does not stop you from getting sick but does cause you to get better faster, and some immunity doesn’t last that long.

Much of the misunderstanding about immunity comes from the fact that our understanding of immunity comes from two distinct diseases: Polio and influenza. Polio vaccine is famous because its invention and deployment was historic and significant. Polio vaccine confers a strong immunity, one that is seen as life long and complete. Even this is not so simple, but if you believe what I just said about polio vaccination and immunity you would be in the ballpark. Influenza immunity is often discussed because it is at the center of the anti-vax debate, everyone gets the flu now and then (or so it seems) and the so-called “flu vaccine” is supposedly only “60% effective” or thereabouts, and thus, being imperfect, is the focus of rage on the internet as though it was a candidate for office.

If polio is an outlaw gunslinger in the old west, and the polio vaccine is Marshal Dillon, then influenza is all the underground crime organizations imagined in fiction and the flu vaccine is a competent but underfunded police agency.

When we say that the influenza vaccine is 50% effective in a give year in the US, as an example, what that can mean is that there are five kinds of flu circulating at various proportions in the population, and there are three kinds of vaccine in the shot you get; maybe two of those vaccines are nearly 100% effective in immunizing a person against two of the circulating influenza viruses, one of the viruses is untouched by the vaccine but doesn’t get you that sick, and one of the vaccines is for a virus that never really showed up, and the leftover viruses are the ones doing most of the damage. Or something along those lines. The outcome is, across the population, that the average vaccinated person in the population under consideration would have their chance of getting the flu if exposed is half what it would have been were they not vaccinated. So, 50% effective that year. Some other year these parameters may be very different, and the “vaccine” (a mix of different vaccines in one shot) is different. And, each vaccine may itself have a higher or lower level of effectiveness.

And that is the simple version of the story.

Immunity is not a folk concept. It is a medical concept. The fact that many people believe that immunity is the inability of a disease to affect a person, which is 100% wrong in every way, is not relevant to anything but people’s misunderstanding of the concept.

When we hear that there is a certain possible reinfection rate of COVID-19 in China or Japan, this does not mean that people don’t get immunity once they have the disease, or that COVID-19 has special powers. One health expert misstated that since we don’t know for sure what acquired immunity to COVID-19 looks like, we can’t assume that it is long term. That is balderdash. It is very likely long term (if “long” is years) because that is what normally happens. This statement is like looking at the first new car off the line of a new make and model and saying, “since we’ve never actually seen one of the drive, we have to assume there is a good chance none of these cars will work.” There may be a few recalls in the future of this make and model car, but it will work.

We can assume normalcy, we can assume biology to do what biology does. Bill O’Reilly does not know how tides work, but someone else does. Normally, adaptive immunity occurs, and lasts for a good time. Normally, immunity to certain kinds of viruses can be less than 100%, so there is some getting sick, and normally, a subset of people don’t develop much of an immunity because their own immune system simply fails at that task. COVID-19 will ultimately be found to match normal biological expectations, though we don’t know the details yet, and we won’t for some time. The fact that normal biological expectations do not form the basis of folk thinking about this disease, or pathogens and immunity in general, does not make Covid-19 a preternatural force, or an unknowable thing.

Still, remain hiding in your house until the all clear.

There is another level of thinking about immunity that I won’t go into detail about right now, but I’ll mention. We often, rightly, think of immunity at the population level, even though it does, truly, work at the individual and molecular level. Assume a particular vaccine, or exposure, typically provides ~100%) immunity in individuals. If 10% of the population have that immunity at the start, the disease will act like nobody is immune, as far as we’d be able to see. Often, natural (genetic?) immunity at low levels exist in a population, and can only be discovered by intensive research over a long time. If, on the other hand, 90% of the people in a population are ~100% immune, the disease may be so unable to get a foothold that it is like it isn’t there. The point is, the appearance of a diseases behavior seems to range from 0% (there ain’t none) to 100% (it’s everywhere!) on the surface, but this outcome is a function of a much smaller range of actual immunity values, like the 10-90% just noted, or more likely, closer to 0-70%. Putting this another way, a population gets very close to “immune” at the population level as the proportion of individuals who can’t get and pass on the pathogen rises over about half. This is called herd immunity. It will take several cycles of COVID-19 infection to achieve natural herd immunity, most likely, unless a vaccine is found. But once that happens, the disease is likely to stay around at low levels then occasionally come back and be menacing, but not as bad as it is now, on occasion.

So, let’s get that vaccine going!

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The Complete Scientific Guide to COVID-19

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… will be written in about three years from now. Meanwhile …

We labor under a number of falsehoods about how science works. Even scientists do. There are considerable differences among the panoply of scientific disciplines, and these are important enough that I would never trust the practitioners of one scientific discipline to, say, review research procedures or grant proposals from another discipline, by default.

These differences are even more significant outside of science itself. A common example is this one. A lay person evaluating peer reviewed research claims that a certain scientific conclusion can not be supported because there have been no double blind studies. That person may be unaware of the fact that almost no science uses double blind studies. This is a methodology used only in some areas of research. A study of earthquake hazards, genetic phylogeny of chickadees, or how long a particular virus lingers on a surface will not have a double blind methodology.

In some fields of study, a single idea will often be represented by a single major publication (sometimes a book) and will not be seen elsewhere unless it is being criticized. This is not common in the true sciences, per se, but this does happen in the peer reviewed literature. In other fields of study, a single idea may be addressed in hundreds of peer reviewed papers. In some fields of study, if a published peer reviewed paper presents a conclusion that is thought to be wrong, because of some flaw, the scholars in that field are expected to learn of this problem and thereafter avoid citing that paper. In other fields, when this happens, the paper is withdrawn from the literature after the invocation of complex rituals that might or might not involve the sounding of trumpets.

There seems to be two falsehoods affecting some of our thinking about COVID-19. One is the idea that a “study” or “publication” about some detail of the disease tells us something that we can take as fact. Yes, Covid-19 stays on a certain kind of surface for N days, therefore we can’t do X! That sort of thing. However, this research is, firstly, not peer reviewed. There may very well be no peer reviewed papers on COVID-19 at this time. This Pandemic has lasted less time that the typical peer review process takes. Maybe there are a few out there, but mostly, we are dealing with non-reviewed work, or work in review. This is good work, and important work, but it is more like a set of “emergency results” that address specific pressing questions in a provisional way.

It has been important to decide which of a small number of broad categories COVID-19 can be placed in, and the work on persistence on various surfaces has provided that rough and ready guide. There are pathogens that can find their way out of an exam room, go 20 feet down the hall, and infect a person sitting in a different exam room. There are pathogens that are so unlikely to infect another person that you practically have to lick the inside of their mouth five times to catch the disease. COVID-19 is in the in between category, where it sheds into the air and hangs around on surfaces for long enough that surfaces are found to have the virus on them. Is COVID-19 more or less surface-contaminating than, say, norovirus? Rotavirus? Nobody knows, because the research to determine that, and the publication array that would be necessary to lead to policy and recommendations about that, will take time. Someday there will be a study that looks at how much of the virus persists for how long on various surfaces, integrated with the other important question of how can the virus on a given surface actually infect a human, in order to allow for a realistic and useful statement about how to go about keeping a home, and ICU, an examining room, or a school relatively safe. COVID-19 has the potential to be the most studied pathogen in recent history, but not today.

So, that is the first fallacy: that a handful of quick and dirty, rough and ready, studies designed to get a clue about this disease constitute a well tempered and developed peer reviewed literature from which we can glean an accurate characterization of most o fhte important details of this disease. Nope.

One cost of this fallacy is the second fallacy, that we can evaluate models of either COVID-19’s behavior, or the efficacy of our reaction to it, based on a solid knowledge of the disease. That is backwards. We will eventually be able to evaluate ideas like “curve flattening” by understanding a lot about COVID-19, but that will happen after we have actually seen what various curve flattening efforts have done. A recent proposal that certain areas of the world may have seen a prior passage of COVID-19, causing some local immunity. One well meaning expert (not an actual expert) on social media responded that given the way COVID-19 operates, this is simply impossible. But that is backwards. The way we will eventually be able to describe how COVID-19 actually works is by observing it, measuring it, developing good explanations for what we see, strengthening and tempering those explanations by further hypothesis testing, replication, critique in the formal peer review process as well as the less formal but sometimes more important conversations at the conference-bar setting, and time. Time to just think. Then, we will be able to say things like “X is pretty much impossible because this is how COVID-19 works.” Now, we have an expansive void where some good theory and data will eventually reside, and the job of the scientists focused on this problem is to carefully and thoughtfully fill that void with what they come to know. To get a sense of how this works, read up on the literature that came out of the 2013 Ebola epidemic. Many key known things about the pathogen and its effects were not nailed down until months or years after the last patient was identified. These things take time.

I’m not an epidemiologist, but I play one in the classroom. Amanda and I teach a class on the immune system and epidemiology. Had I not gone into palaeoanthropology, I might have gone into this field. Excellent books on the topic include The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett (not current but mind-changing and foundational, includes some important forgotten history), Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (Open Yale Courses) by Frank Snowden, and for a good textbook, Gordis Epidemiology.

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COVID-19: Don’t Just Flatten The Curve, but also, do this….

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Is Washington State leveling off?

Are mainly Republican states seeing the greatest increases in COVID-19 infections (outside of New York)?

Is the NOLA effect an explainer of the the distribution of COVID-19 outbreaks?

What is the difference between flattening the curve and pushing the curve, and why is the latter what we need to be doing?

These and other questions….

Washington State is especially interesting because until New York muscled it out of the way, it was a US epicenter of Covid-19 infection. Over the last several days, the percentage increase in cases in Washington look like this:


Before getting too excited about that “4” we must digress to examine the “ever trust the last datum rule” in epidemiology. If you have been following the progress of COVID-19, you’ll notice that on many day — most days, really — the current situation always looks a bit rosy because the exponential rise in new cases is less for the most recent reading than for the previous readings. This is almost always an artifact of the nature of the data. Ignore the last day.

Having said that, it remains true that over the last several days the state of Washington’s new case number has not gone up as a percent of total cases. Washington is still in trouble, but measures being taken there may be helping.

It has been suggested that Republcian run states are going to have disproportionately more trouble from COVID-19 than Blue states, because Democrats pay attention to science and Republicans spend their days punching hippies and making liberals cry. This characterization of Democrats vs. Republicans is pretty much unassailable, but the effect on COVID-19 right now is a bit more complicated. Population size and density and other factors probably matter more, and it is possible that all the different virus related factors come together in the New York City Metropolitan area (which, to the surprise of Federal health authorities, includes about 10-12 counties, not four as they have been saying) to make that a hot zone no matter what.

Otherwise, the data, as shown in the following graphic which has a smudge on each state with the most rapid recent increase in COVID-19 infection, speak for themselves.

Sometimes, when data speaks for itself, it mumbles.

Not shown on that graphic because things are happening too quickly is the sudden and dramatic increase in cases, and deaths, in Louisiana. It thought that COVID-19 was active in that state during Mardi Gras. Contagious carnivalians were literally parading around on floats throwing the virus (on beads and such) to innocent revelers. There might have been some other forms of exposure. Right now, this morning, it appears that Louisiana has the second highest infection rate in the US, second only to New York and Washington, but possibly rising at a meteoric rate soon so surpass everyone.

And, of course, all those people who went home after Mardi Gras took it with them. I want to see travel to and from NOLA and other carnival sites mapped against infection outbreaks. Globally; Mardi Gras is only one carnival of many.

Flattening the curve is a nice idea, but there are two problems with it. First, it is probably very difficult to do unless cases are truly isolated prior to multiple infections. The idea of flattening the curve is to reduce R-naught, the number of people, on average, that are infected per infected person. Social distancing can help, but the only way to make a huge difference is to identify ill individuals very early in the course of their infection, and take them totally away from society. Social distancing does not do that enough. One can somewhat attenuate the curve, but mere social distancing is not going to do what happened in South Korea, Singapore, and China.

Moving the curve is somewhat difference. This involves recognizing that a spike will happen (though maybe a lower one than otherwise), but one moves the spike about two to three weeks ahead in time. Why? Because a given region probably has about 1/10th (or maybe in better scenarios, 1/5th) of the ICU beds needed to save most lives of the critically ill.

Flattening the curve is, explicitly, making the maximum infection rate low enough to duck under the bare of ICU bed number. Like this:

If the curve flattens a bit but fails at this objective, it was not flattening the curve, but rather, failing and losing to the virus. Like this:

Pushing the curve to later, which would probably reduce the amplitude of the peak but mostly result in the same huge increase in number of cases, allows the build up of ICU bed number. Like this:

That is what we are doing in Minnesota. We expect thousands of people to require ICU beds, no matter what happens. We are partly locked down, and increasing the lockdown on Friday. We are building new ICU facilities, apparently, at a sufficient rate to handle the eventual need.

Communities that are just flattening the curve, and that expect it to work, may run into trouble if they are not building out infrastructure now. We can argue about what the best approach is, but trying different methods in different states or regions is a hell of a way to test a hypothesis.

I learned yesterday that about 15% of the ventilators used in the US are made in Minnesota. We have about 2% of the population. So we’re good.

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COVID-19 Conversation: Updates and meanderings

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Spain has had a major surge in Covid-19 numbers. India has more people locked down right now than any other country. Trump intends to “open up” the economy by Easter. Fortunately he is powerless to do so. The best available information suggests that Covid-19 is not mutating much, suggesting that once a vaccine is developed, it can work widely and be more effective.

Things are bad in Iran. According to Arash Karami, “Iran’s confirmed corona cases is now 27,017 with 2,077 deaths. In the last 24 hours there have been 2,206 new cases and 143 deaths. In total 43 doctors and nurses have died from corona.”

Yesterday, March 24, is the day Trump told us we would have zero cases of Covid-19 in the US. The actual number was 53,478.

I hear chest freezers are flying off the shelves.

Covid-19 is Partisan in the US

Example of the effects of social distancing on a symptomatic indicator of Covid-19, suggesting it is working well at least in some place.
The default behavior of the Covid-19 virus has almost the same pattern of spread and increase everywhere — exponential increase with a fairly high exponent, for a virus.

How different societies or regions attempt to “flatten the curve” seems to result in very different specific outcomes, but in several areas there has been real success.

It is probably true in the US that the federal response has been pretty much perfect, from the point of view of the Virus. Trump is treating Covid-19 much like he treats Putin. “What can I do for you, sir?” But fortunately, locally, it does not work that way.

Broadly speaking (with too few exceptions) Republican executives are literally supporting the virus in this manner. They want it to spike. Democratic executives are ordering serious responses and it is working to varying degrees. In states with Republican governors, Democratic (usually) mayors are responding despite what the Governors are saying, and that is working locally.

So, yes, Covid-19 response is partisan, and one of the parties is acting like a Death Panel determining that the aged, infirmed, and the less privileged be sacrificed for the benefit of the economy. The other party is trying to help. Republicans vs. Democrats.

The response in Congress is also partisan, but the Republican response is so awful that Democrats are winning out of sheer shame on Republicans. Plus at the moment, more Republcian Senators are down with the virus than are Democrats, so that seems to shift the balance of power.

In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen the Deplorable Housewives of Minnesota (yes, that is a thing) congregating in groups at the grocery store and loudly yammering about Nancy Pelosi and how she hates America, spreading viruses onto each other as they wander like a pack of hapless Gollumoids through the produce section.

(In the past the Senate Republican leadership has always been against remote voting. Now that it is in McConnell’s interest to have remote voting, expect his situational ethics to resituate.)

Bad News

The mother of NBA player Karl-Anthony Towns is very ill with Covid-19, as of this writing. Amy Klobuchar’s husband is in the hospital on O2 and quite ill. Minnesota’s Lt. Governor’s brother has died of complications of Covid-19. A minor youth in Los Angeles has died. Prince Charles has been diagnosed positive. There is a long list of famous people from Jackson Brown to Natalie Horner to Prince Albert II diagnosed. Terrence McNally dies of Covid-19. These folks happen to be famous, and the tends of thousands of non-famous victims do not exist on a lower plane. But having famous names across the spectrum of how people know them and what people think of them is, perhaps, to this pandemic what a set of really bad hurricanes is to climate change, if you get my drift.

Watching an interview with a former official from the Louisiana Health Department last night, we got two reminders. One is that Mardi Gras happened at just the right time and place to be a major incubator of the disease, and probably accounts for a lot of sick people. The number of cases in NOLA has skyrocketed. The other reminder: Official Atlantic Hurricane season starts June 1st, but actual hurricanes or tropical storms can show up in May. Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard hospitals and communities night have an interesting year.

Here is an interesting history of the N95 mask. An outtake:

In the fall of 1910, a plague broke out across Manchuria… “It’s apocalyptic. … It kills 100% of those infected, no one survives… within 24 to 48 hours of the first symptoms,” …

What followed was a scientific arms race, to deduce what was causing the plague and stop it. “Both Russia and China want to prove themselves worthy and scientific enough, because that would lead to a claim of sovereignty,” …

The Chinese Imperial Court brought in a doctor named Lien-teh Wu to head its efforts. … after conducting an autopsy on one of the victims, Wu determined that the plague was not spread by fleas, as many suspected, but through the air.

Expanding upon the surgery masks he’d seen in the West, Wu developed a heartier mask from gauze and cotton, which wrapped securely around one’s face and added several layers of cloth to filter inhalations. His invention was a breakthrough, but some doctors still doubted its efficacy.

“There’s a famous incident. He’s confronted by a famous old hand in the region, a French doctor [Gérald Mesny] . . . and Wu explains … his theory that plague is pneumonic and airborne,…and the French guy humiliates him . . . and in very racist terms says, ‘What can we expect from a Chinaman?’ And to prove this point, [Mesny] goes and attends the sick in a plague hospital without wearing Wu’s mask, and he dies in two days with plague.”

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One way schools could help with the Covid-19 response

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Most schools have science classes. Among the science classes there are some that occasionally use nitrile or latex gloves (“surgical gloves”). While it may be perennial true that science classes are low on gloves, there is a good chance that there are a few unopened boxes in the cabinet somewhere.

Schools will not be using these gloves for the rest of the school year, because there is not going to be in class instruction for the rest of the school year.

So, figure out how to get these gloves to an appropriate medical facility.

If you are not a teacher you may not understand this part: The science teachers may have had to promise their first born to even get these gloves, and other important scientific equipment, in the first place. They may be unwilling to go up against the bursars to give these gloves up now and fight later. Indeed, it would be technically illegal for them to unilaterally root through the cabinets and gather these gloves together.

The word has to come from the top. Call your local school’s principals or superintendents. Or email them. Make the suggestion. They’ll make a call or send out an email and it will happen.

I mentioned above “unopened boxes.” I assume previously opened boxes are less of interest to medial facilities, but I might have that wrong. Anybody know?

Anyway, try it, it may help.

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