Written by Jennifer M. Collins and Charles H. Paxton, coauthors (with Robert V. Rohli) of Florida Weather and Climate: More Than Just Sunshine.
When we think about what makes good and bad weather, we both have different initial thoughts. Charles thinks over his career as a National Weather Service meteorologist and how excited he got when the weather maps indicated a chance for the atmosphere to produce wild, out of the ordinary weather events.
Speak to any meteorologist and they will tell you that they live for dramatic weather. They also live to protect residents on the ground from the negative effects of catastrophic weather events.
A dramatic lightning event in Florida can light up the night sky and be more fascinating than a fireworks display, but lightning kills. Florida leads the nation in the number of lightning deaths, averaging six per year. The same thunderstorm that creates the lightning can also produce icy chunks of roof-damaging hail, downburst winds that knock trees onto houses and powerlines, and even tornadoes that can rip apart neighborhoods. Florida is one of the most tornado-prone states in the country.
To a meteorologist, the atmosphere is a puzzle with missing pieces that must be assembled to produce a forecast—particularly for significant weather events that impact people’s lives and livelihoods. Meteorologists know that good weather conditions can sometimes cause bad weather. There are conditions in the atmosphere that result in fair weather—a high pressure center, for example. But too much of a good thing can end up being bad. Often in areas of high pressure, fair skies during the day can result in rapid cooling at night and enhanced chances for fog as the relative humidity approaches 100 percent. Fog is a major roadway hazard. Or take those same conditions—high pressure stalling over an area for weeks, leading to fair weather—and a prolonged stagnant atmosphere. Then the lack of rain becomes a major concern as drought slowly creeps in. In a drought, rapidly-burning wildfires are more likely to threaten homes, and health issues associated with air pollution become more likely.
Meteorologists want to make a perfect forecast so that their clients can make plans to prepare for the upcoming weather. If you live in Florida, your plans may be a trip to the beach on a sunny day, or taking an umbrella on the way to work, or battening down the hatches at home as a hurricane draws close.
When Hurricane Matthew impacted Florida in October 2016, Jennifer was thrilled at the opportunity to finally conduct research that she had planned for nearly ten years. Her research required a hurricane to threaten close enough to Florida to cause an evacuation. Her research team interviewed people about their evacuation experiences and the social connections that influenced their decision to stay or evacuate. However, this opportunity, courtesy of Hurricane Matthew, to learn about Florida’s weather preparedness and help improve future evacuations was a nightmare for many residents and tourists. They had to secure their homes and review their hurricane plans. For many, this meant creating a plan quickly. Since Florida had not been impacted by a hurricane in a long time, many people had relaxed their planning for such an event.
Since the early 1960s, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hurricane Hunters have provided the nation with increasingly-sophisticated atmospheric data in the hurricane environment, to aid NOAA and the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in depicting storms more accurately and in predicting hurricane track and intensity (Collins and Flaherty, 2014). Jennifer had always longed for the opportunity to fly through a hurricane and help collect storm data with the Hurricane Hunters. She got this opportunity with Hurricane Sandy in 2012. A devastating storm for so many people in the Eastern United States, Hurricane Sandy caused a death toll of over 125 and caused over $60 billion in economic damage to the United States alone.
Bad weather offers meteorologists the opportunity to study weather patterns, assess the effectiveness of disaster preparedness plans, and use their skills to help those in the affected area stay safe. You can learn more about the work we do to track and measure Florida’s surprisingly varied and dynamic weather in our new book, Florida Weather and Climate: More Than Just Sunshine.
Jennifer M. Collins, Ph.D., is coauthor of Florida Weather and Climate: More Than Just Sunshine. She is associate professor in the School of Geosciences at the University of South Florida and president of the West Central Florida Chapter of the American Meteorological Society.
Charles H. Paxton, Ph.D., is coauthor of Florida Weather and Climate: More Than Just Sunshine. He has been certified by the American Meteorological Society as a consulting meteorologist. He has a wealth of experience from working at the National Weather Service in Florida for over 30 years.
Collins, J.M. and P. Flaherty, 2014: Keeping an ‘Eye’ on Tropical Research Data: The NOAA Hurricane Hunters, Their Missions and Their Recent Work with the University of South Florida to Archive Historical Information. The Florida Geographer, 45, 14-27