(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘meteorology

“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline


As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am

“People seemed to believe that technology had stripped hurricanes of their power to kill. No hurricane expert endorsed this view.”*…

Tropical Storm Bertha approaching the South Carolina coast, May 27, 2020

For six straight years, Atlantic storms have been named in May, before [hurricane] season even begins. During the past nine Atlantic hurricane seasons, seven tropical storms have formed between May 15 and the official June 1 start date. Those have killed at least 20 people, causing about $200 million in damage, according to the WMO.

Last year, the hurricane center issued 36 “special” tropical weather outlooks before June 1, according to center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha both formed before June 1 near the Carolinas.

torms seem to be forming earlier because climate change is making the ocean warmer, University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said. Storms need warm water as fuel — at least 79 degrees (26 degrees Celsius). Also, better technology and monitoring are identifying and naming weaker storms that may not have been spotted in years past, Feltgen said…

With named storms coming earlier and more often in warmer waters, the Atlantic hurricane season is going through some changes with meteorologists ditching the Greek alphabet during busy years…

A special World Meteorological Organization committee Wednesday ended the use of Greek letters when the Atlantic runs out of the 21 names for the year, saying the practice was confusing and put too much focus on the Greek letter and not on the dangerous storm it represented. Also, in 2020 with Zeta, Eta and Theta, they sounded so similar it caused problems.

The Greek alphabet had only been used twice in 2005 and nine times last year in a record-shattering hurricane season. 

Starting this year, if there are more than 21 Atlantic storms, the next storms will come from a new supplemental list headed by Adria, Braylen, Caridad and Deshawn and ending with Will. There’s a new back-up list for the Eastern Pacific that runs from Aidan and Bruna to Zoe.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is recalculating just what constitutes an average hurricane season… But the Atlantic hurricane season will start this year on June 1 as traditionally scheduled, despite meteorologists discussing the idea of moving it to May 15…

With so much activity, MIT’s [Kerry] Emanuel said the current warnings are too storm-centric, and he wants them more oriented to where people live, warning of specific risks such as floods and wind. That includes changing or ditching the nearly 50-year-old Saffir Simpson scale of rating hurricanes Category 1 to 5. 

That wind-based scale is “about a storm, it’s not about you. I want to make it about you, where you are,” he said. “It is about risk. In the end, we are trying to save lives and property”… Differentiating between tropical storms, hurricanes and extratropical cyclones can be a messaging problem when a system actually has a cold core, because these weaker storms can kill with water surges rather than wind… For example, some people and officials underestimated 2012’s Sandy because it wasn’t a hurricane and lost its tropical characteristic… 

Rethinking hurricanes in a time of climate change: “Bye Alpha, Eta: Greek alphabet ditched for hurricane names.”

* Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History


As we accommodate climate change, we might spare a thought for George Alfred Leon Sarton; he died on this date in 1956. A chemist by training, his primary interest lay in the past practices and precepts of his field…an interest that led him to found the discipline of the history of science as an independent field of study. His most influential work was the Introduction to the History of Science (three volumes totaling 4,296 pages). Sarton ultimately aimed to achieve an integrated philosophy of science that connected the sciences and the humanities– what he called “the new humanism.” His name is honored with the prestigious George Sarton Medal, awarded by the History of Science Society.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 22, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”*…

While wandering around a snowy New York City this past December, the artist Jan Baracz began to notice patterns forming in the grates of storm drains. “They reminded me of the I Ching hexagrams and ideographic language systems,” he writes. “They also reminded me of when I lived in Japan and researched how water patterns (from vapor to ice) are represented in kanji. It was a time when I had given my apophenia free rein. I was transfixed by logograms and language characters built upon symbolic origins. I thought these snow glyphs may be a perfect set of images to reflect this intense time in which we seek signs and project meaning onto the physical world that surrounds us.”

More of Jan Baracz‘s portentous photos at: “Snow Oracles.”

See also Vivian Wu‘s marvelous “Snowflake Generator.”

*”For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds /
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” – Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”


As we search for signs, we might note that today is National Weatherperson Day, honoring individuals in the fields of meteorology, weather forecasting, and broadcast meteorology, as well as volunteer storm spotters and observers.

It is celebrated on this date in honor of the man credited with being America’s first (scientific) weather observer, John Jeffries (born on this date in 1744), who began making and recording daily weather observations in Boston in 1774.

Jeffries sided with the Crown in the unpleasantness that soon followed with the British, so fled to Nova Scotia in 1776, and from there to London, where his observations continued. In 1785, Jeffries and inventor/aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a balloon, becoming the first human beings to cross the Channel by air; Jeffries measured the temperature throughout the voyage.

John Jeffries


“We’re not in Kansas anymore”*…

Randy Shoemaker embraces his son Conner, 6, after surviving a deadly tornado that killed at least seven people in Chatsworth, Ga., in April

In March 2019, a violent tornado plowed through eastern Alabama, flattening houses and demolishing mobile homes. Twenty-three people were killed including four children, ages 10, 9, 8 and 6.

Exactly one year later, on March 3, 2020, a tornado gusting at 170 mph ripped through central Tennessee, killing 19 people. Four of the victims were children between the ages of 2 and 7.

The twisters spiraled along the ground for only minutes, but they are the two deadliest natural disasters in the United States since the start of 2019. They received fleeting national attention.

The mortal storms illustrate an alarming trend that is overlooked amid concern about hurricanes, wildfires and floods: Tornadoes are increasingly occurring in the Southeast, where they are twice as deadly as tornadoes elsewhere in the United States…

A shift of tornado activity from the Great Plains to the Southeast has brought heightened danger by concentrating twisters in a far more perilous landscape — one covered by forest that conceals tornadoes and is filled with mobile homes that are easily demolished…

Tornado Alley has moved from the Great Plains to the Southeast: “Migrating tornadoes are the nation’s deadliest disasters.”

* Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz


As we contemplate the consequences of climate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1896 that the Cedar Keys Hurricane finally disapated. Having passed as a tropical storm through the Lesser Antilles on September 22 (the earliest known activity), it grew to hurricane strength over Cuba, then passed on to Florida, over the Keys. Before being absorbed into another low pressure area, it made its way to southern New York State, where it finally gave out.

Its winds stayed high throughout its journey, and it was prodigiously wet: it left 19.96 inches at Glennville, Georgia, caused flash floods in the Shenandoah Valley, left the White House grounds in a wreck, and downed trees at the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is estimated to have caused 130 deaths and $1.5 million in damage (in 1896 dollars, which would be about $46 million today).

Storm victims pose with damaged houses on Cedar Key


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“You have to be in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective”*…




Hailstones are balls (or spikes, or flattish pancakes) of frozen precipitation that measure at least 0.2 inches across, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Severe Storms Laboratory. Several other types of smaller frozen precipitation are known as “ice pellets,” reports the National Snow & Ice Data Center, and may take the form of graupel (soft balls of water droplets clinging to a snow crystal and looking like Styrofoam) or sleet (essentially icy raindrops). In the sky, either of these can serve as an “embryo,” the little nucleus around which a hailstone can grow. The longer a fledgling hailstone stays lofted in a thunderstorm’s fierce updraft, the bigger it gets. Beyond that minimum 0.2-inch threshold, there are a few finer distinctions between hailstones, thrown around by researchers and sometimes forecasters at the National Weather Service. “Severe” hail has a maximum dimension of one inch or more, “significantly severe” stones are larger than two inches, and “giant” hail is bigger than four inches.

“Giant” sounds pretty big, but this crop of researchers didn’t think it seemed quite big enough. A hailstone of more than four inches is “certainly very large,” says Matthew Kumjian, a meteorologist at Penn State University and lead author of the paper. But, he adds, while stones of that size are rare, “they are not exceptional.” Hailstones bigger than four inches are reported 30 to 40 times a year in the United States alone, he says. Stones larger than six inches, though, are few and far between. Kumjian’s co-author, graduate student Rachel Gutierrez, combed through reports and found about 10 confirmed instances in the last 10 or 15 years, mostly in the U.S. (There were a handful of unconfirmed reports in Australia, Africa, and Asia, but photos or official measurements were missing.)

The researchers suspect that there are probably more of these spectacularly sized hailstones dropping down across the country, but they’re likely going unnoticed. When measuring hail, time is of the essence: Hailstones vanish fairly quickly, especially in hot or humid conditions, or if they shatter on impact; even large ones with cushioned falls might be overlooked. The most severe hailstorms in the United States are in the Great Plains, Kumjian says, where people are spread fairly far apart…

They’re huge; they’re rare; and they’re melting all the time: “The Slippery Problem of Measuring Enormous Hunks of Hail.”

* Matthew Kumjian, a meteorologist at Penn State University, on measuring hailstones


As we check the weather, we might recall that it was on this date in 1883 that the volcano on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa began to release huge plumes of steam and ash. Roughly three months later, on August 27, it erupted in earnest– with a sound so loud that it circled the earth four times.  (As big as the explosion was, it was not the biggest in history: experts suggest that Santorini’s eruption in 1628 BCE was three times as powerful.)

300px-Krakatoa_eruption_lithograph source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

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