Meteorology has always intrigued me; living in a metropolitan area covering 6,365 square miles and 3,615,902 residents (Census 2010) making it the 13th most populous metropolitan area in the United States makes weather prediction very difficult across the viewing area. It wasn’t until a few years ago I realized how difficult such a prediction could be. There are many days throughout the year where the northwestern Twin Cities metro region will receive large amounts of precipitation and the southern cities wouldn’t see a cloud in the sky. Meteorology, in particular severe weather, has always fascinated me and I have always been interested in the formation of severe weather and tornadoes.

Development of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area from 1966-2006. Map published by Metropolitan Council.

I recently read meteorologist, Mike Smith’s books titled, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Time the Weather (2010) and When the Sirens Were Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community (2012). Both of Smith’s books discuss the evolution in warning the public of weather warnings in the last fifty years to today. If you haven’t already, read both of Smith’s books – you will not be disappointed.


One of the reoccurring themes in both of Smith’s books is the Forecaster’s Lament from an anonymous writer (113):

“And now among the fading embers;
These in the main are my regrets,
When I am right no one remembers;
When I am wrong no one forgets.”

It is very much true in Minnesota where weather is dynamic and can change in the matter of hours. Minnesotans have coined the phrase, “if you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes and it will change.”  Often time’s meteorologists take the blame for the dynamic weather seen across the Midwest. There are times when I see the variations across the metropolitan region where I wish I could send a direct response to the local meteorologists to show my support of them because they are accurate more than the public gives them credit for and they have saved many lives throughout their careers.

The top three things I took away from Smith’s books were:

1. Time;
2. Communication; and
3. Innovation.


Smith mentions the time it took to perfect the warning system in the United States. “It was only nine years after President Kennedy had committed America to putting a man on the moon that Neil Armstrong took his first lunar steps. It took double that amount of time to get a network of Doppler radars running in the United States” (187).

We cannot expect overnight results, no matter the urgency. Some things take time despite their needs today.


Things have certainly changed in the last 100 years. Tornadoes continue to strike as they always have destroying homes and towns along the way but deaths and injuries are on the decline. Why? The National Weather Service technologies, including NOAA weather radios, as well as broadcast meteorologists have been able to warn residents of danger hours and in some cases prepare days in advance.

For instance, as Smith writes, “The Greensburg (May 4, 2007) and Udall (May 25, 1955) tornadoes were as identical as two tornadoes could possibly be. Both occurred in the same state – Kansas – so there is similarity in the building codes governing the two towns. Both occurred well after dark. The two tornadoes approached from the south, rather than the much more common southwest. And because of the southern approach, the tornadoes themselves were obscured by rain and hail…In both cases, 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed, and the other 5 percent were damaged. Both tornadoes were F5 intensity…The two supercells [from radar] are virtually identical. In the Udall (1955) tornado, eighty-two people were killed and 260 were injured. The casualty rate in the town was 68 percent. In Greensburg (2007), with triple the population, nine people were killed and fifty-nine were injured. The casualty rate in Greensburg was less than one-fourteenth that of Udall’s” (275-6). “Two hundred thirty-two lives saved in a single evening. Meteorology has come a long way since my dad came running into the house shouting ‘Here it comes!’” (279).

There is, unfortunately, the Joplin tragedy. Due to many factors, warnings were not provided in either a timely or accurate fashion to the city of Joplin. There were “too many tornado warnings with no tornado. Too many siren activations. People learn from experience. Sometimes they learn the wrong thing. The citizens of Joplin were unwittingly being trained not to act when the sirens sounded” (14). “[The National Weather Service] were behind the curve. But May 22, 2011, was an extraordinarily busy day. For example, a fatal tornado, EF-2 in intensity, struck Minneapolis two and a half hours before the Joplin tornado…Forecasters were behind events and confused about the location of the threat. Their warnings included incorrect locations of the tornado; incorrect directions of movement, focusing on Galena when the threat had shifted to Joplin; and incorrect threat emphasis, with discussions of golf-ball and then baseball-size hail as the tornado was about to move into and through Joplin. These issues only served to confuse what should have been an urgent and straightforward message: Take cover Joplin” (42-3).

AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions (AES) predicted tornado path at 5:16pm compared to the National Weather Service (NWS) predicted tornado path as the tornado entered Joplin. Image source: Mike Smith Enterprise Blog (http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com)

This is why, to this day, even as technologies have altered the way we can predict the weather – we still need to remember to deliver clear, concise reports to residents. One message delivered a minute earlier could save a life.


Both time and communication are key but one of the most important takeaways from Smith’s books is innovation. As Smith writes, “Good  science does not have to take billions of dollars. It requires dedication, outside-the-box thinking, and a willingness to go where the data and experimental results might take you” (284).

I believe this is not only true for science but in everything we do every day. We should never go “through the motions” but rather learn something new every day and apply our knowledge elsewhere in our lives.


Campaign Maps

Maps that Tell a Story

One of the newest ideas in the cartographic world are maps that tell a story. Sometimes viewers cannot get the full perspective of a map that looks “normal” or contains information we see everyday. Instead, cartographers are trying to tell a story using either dynamic information through social media, photos and/or videos or distorting maps to show you what your eye misses at first glace – conveying a story. Below are some distorted maps that tell a story of the upcoming election.

Electoral Votes

In most nationwide maps we see which candidate has won over its respective state with a number of electoral votes won by that candidate. But what the map does not normally tell us is the weight of the state with its electoral votes. In the map displayed below you can see the weight each state has based on their electoral votes and the state’s popular vote from the 2008 election. This weight is key as the electoral votes by state, not the popular vote in the nation depict the final winner – as we saw in the 2000 election when George W. Bush had a lower popular vote but won the electoral vote over his opponent, Al Gore.

The United States with state sized based on the number of electoral votes. Map Source: Adam Cole/NPR.

Election Advertising Spending

As we focus on the importance of the electoral votes we understand the weight of the United States but we do not get an understanding of the states that the candidates consider the most important for the 2012 election. Advertisement spending is only conducted in states where opponents think need the most attention, or may sway the electoral votes. The following two maps show advertisement spending by state in millions of dollars and spending by state voter in dollars respectively.

The United States with state size based on advertisement spending by outside groups in the 2012 presidential race. Map Source: Adam Cole/NPR.
The United States with state size based on political advertisement spending by outside groups on the 2012 presidential race per voting age adult. Map Source: Adam Cole/NPR.

Election 2012

What will the weather be like when you vote Tuesday? What about your polling location – has it changed? Who’s name will be on the ballot?

Weathernation is predicting relatively nice weather dominating across the country on Election Day. The only areas with the potential for precipitation are the northwest, parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the southeast.

Where will you vote and who will be on your ballot? Google has created a polling place look-up and ballot summary based on your location – just type in your address to get all of the details. To view the Google tool visit https://www.google.com/elections/ed/us/vote

Hurricane Sandy “Frankenstorm”

I wanted to write a post to address those effected by Hurricane Sandy. My thoughts and deepest sympathies are with those effected and I hope the recovery efforts and the rebuild of the damaged communities goes well.

No disaster is pleasant and Hurricane Sandy has definitely left its mark on parts the east coast with over 8 million without power, at least 35 confirmed fatalities and subway systems shut down for what appears to be the remainder of the week.

New York City in the dark
The New York City subway flooding from Sandy is the “worst in the 108 year history of the system”

As Sandy approached shore on Tuesday, the cloud shield stretched from the Hudson Bay south to the Gulf Coast states.

Hurricane Sandy Storm Scope
Hurricane Sandy Storm Size Marker

Let us not forget West Virginia where snowfall accumulations reached nearly two feet.

West Virginia Snowfall Accumulations
Photographer: Beau Dodson,
Source: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151298419765309&set=o.101608723270553&type=1&theater

Mobile Maps

The last week in the mobile map world has been a public hit – and not for good reason. Apple’s latest OS – iOS 6 dropped Google Maps as its primary map application and it replaced it with the newly designed Apple Maps.

This image shows Google Maps on the left and Apple Maps on the right.

The latest release has users and developers scrambling for an answer to solve the answer of many Apple users – where am I and how can I get somewhere? One of the most used applications on Apple products changed last week. Many users noticed the change within minutes of the upgrade including problems such as relocating the Dublin airport to a farm, mislabeled neighborhoods in downtown San Francisco and missing key landmarks in downtown areas across the world to name a few of the many issues with Apple’s mapping solution.

The Dublin airport labeled in a farm field in Apple Maps.

As a geographer it is hard to watch Apple remake maps from scratch when others like Google and OSM (Open Street Map) have had working maps for nearly a decade. But alas, here we are back at what seems to be square one with Apple maps. This geographer is not upgrading soon and is already considering the other options in terms of phones this fall/winter season. What are your plans?


Paper Maps

Day after day GIS staff are known for making maps. Many times we are asked to make a paper map, even during a time when electronic maps can change dynamically daily. Why? Why do we still print e-mails, PDF’s, Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets? Sometimes a paper copy is the best way to disseminate the information at stake. Most days, we stare at our computer screens more than we interact with each other.

I know when I attend the ESRI User Conference one of the main events I look forward to most is the map gallery. I can see artistry at work – and yes, critique the thousands of maps freely available to me. But each has its story and the cartographer gets to tell that story to their best ability with a piece of parchment. While the automation process of maps is efficient most days, sometimes a paper map tells a story electronics cannot.

From Data to Story

GIS is all about data. When someone requests a map they are requesting a snapshot or dynamic view of the data. In some circumstances they also want to know where the data is from and when it was last updated. But realistically, they want a map that tells a story. As part of their responsibilities, a geospatial staff member organizes and coordinates the necessary materials together in any way they can and present their story on a map, or through a viewer.

While many of these steps seem obvious they are not as obvious to those who do not have geospatial responsibilities. Those outside of the geospatial realm forget it can take days, weeks, or even months to assemble the proper information into a story if it is not freely available.

During an incident, any time given for a map is unacceptable. So how do GIS staff accomplish the same goals during an event when data is unavailable? While a geospatial staff member cannot gather all of the data that is needed for an incident they can gather as much as they can and ensure each dataset is updated in a timely manner. Otherwise what good is outdated data? This also goes back to my post on Relationships where GIS staff can coordinate multiple datasets as it is needed before, during and after an incident.

During normal operations data can be difficult to receive from other agencies and many times it is duplicated by agencies that cannot coordinate their efforts. However, during an event agencies are more willing to share since everyone has a piece in the puzzle and they do not want to be known as the non-cooperative agency. During this time, it is imperative GIS staff maintain contact with each other so after the event. After the event, data maintenance can then be maintained during normal operations.