More data than you could ever want about weather
One of the best tricks the National Weather Center uses to forecast the path of hurricanes is to monitor about a score of computer models. Sure, radar and satellite imagery is probably the most useful tool for storm path prognostication, but the computer models offer a glimpse of where the whirlies should go in three or five days.
You may remember when Hurricane Charley was scheduled to make landfall at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at 6 p.m. Aug. 13, 2004. At about 1:30 p.m., a low-level computer model detected a slight veer to the right in the storm's path, and Charley drove into Punta Gorda rather than Tampa Bay. Anna Maria Island was spared the brunt of the powerful storm.
But you may not remember the story of another computer model involving Tropical Storm Harvey. The storm was hunkered down out in the Gulf of Mexico just offshore of the Island, poised to strike somewhere in West Central Florida, according to the storm experts.
Below is part of the 5 a.m. discussion advisory on Harvey of Sept. 20, 1999. It's in all capital letters - the NWC likes to shout out its storm advice.
"HARVEY IS EXPECTED TO MOVE EAST-NORTHEAST AHEAD OF THE DEVELOPING EASTERN U.S. DEEP LAYER TROUGH. MOST COMPUTER MODELS AGREE WITH THIS, ALTHOUGH SOME HAVE A MORE EASTWARD MOTION TOWARD THE FLORIDA WEST COAST FOLLOWED BY AN EAST-NORTHEAST MOTION. THE ONE REAL MODEL OUTLIER IS THE NOGAPS, WHICH MOVES HARVEY SOUTHEAST INTO THE CARIBBEAN."
Harvey moved southeast and brushed past Flamingo, Florida, before it ended up in the Caribbean. Thank you, NOGAPS.
The Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System, it appears, is one of the more accurate computer models out there. Believe it or not, the military offers an unclassified, pretty much real-time Web site for NOGAPS, and there is some extraordinarily detailed information available on it.
Go to www.fnmoc.navy.mil/PUBLIC/index.html
This is not a simple site. I've been puzzling over it for hours and hours now and have only scratched the surface of what it is presenting and what it is saying, but the little I've been able to glean is really impressive.
Want to know wave heights on any ocean on the planet? Want to see what the water temperatures are on any body of saltwater? How about prevailing winds? And all this information is projected out from pretty much the moment you view it to five days away.
Of course, the really impressive thing about all of this computer model stuff is that NOGAPS is just one of about 20 models that the NWC folks digest to make their storm predictions.
Despite the latest news reports about being understaffed, underfunded and underfinanced, the weather center seems to be doing a pretty good job of keeping us informed. Keep up the good work, gang.
More computer stuff
OK, so if you're interested in weird charts and graphs and funky-colored maps of weather conditions around the world, you might get a kick out of another set of Web sites - live Web cams of parks and zoos.
And lots of people are tuning in.
The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has cameras offering real-time views of 18 different species of critters. According to the zoo, more than 600,000 people tapped in over three days in July when a panda gave birth to a cub.
The San Diego zoo also has Web cams that show what's happening with elephants, polar bears, apes and pandas.
I haven't seen much in the way of critters when I've logged on, but you may get more lucky.
Talkin' trash here, boss
Moving from computer trash to real trash, the matter of garbage in New Orleans promises to reach epic proportions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The New York Times has reported that the trash in that city alone is estimated to be 22 million tons. Since the streets are still problematic for passage, the stuff is just sitting there.
The Times broke down what 22 million tons represents - "It is more trash than any American city produces in a year. It is enough to fill the Empire State Building 40 times over. It will take at least 3.5 million truckloads to haul it away."
Not included in that 22-million-ton figure is an estimated 1 million refrigerators, washing machines or stoves that are also piled out by the curb. Some of the fridges are actually more of a mini-toxic waste dump than anyone would ever want to see.
Remember when we all had really, really clean refrigerators last year after all the power outages caused by the four hurricanes prompted us to dump out all the food as it started to rot?
Remember that special aroma of spoiling hamburger?
Now imagine what it would have smelled like after four weeks, instead of our average power outage of about four days last year. Yuck!
Most people in the city have just hauled the rotted-food-laden fridges out to the curb, chained the stinky things closed, and left notes to open at one's own peril.
There's another toxic issue in New Orleans that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is just starting to think about. It is estimated that there could be thousands of tons of household chemicals mixed into all the gunk that can and probably will create a nightmare in landfills over the next few decades. Bleach, paint, cleaners, Freon - all those chemicals that we like to make sure is separated from our regular garbage is all part of the toxic cocktail that New Orleans has to swallow.
Chemicals continue to delay sinking aircraft carrier
It's a chemical thing.
The U.S. Navy has been trying for a year or so to sink the USS Oriskany, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, off the Pensacola coast in the Gulf. When, or if, the ship reaches the bottom, it will be the largest vessel ever purposefully sunk to create an artificial reef.
The problem now appears to be that the ship is full of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a cancer causer among critters and humans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has told the Navy to clean out the PCBs before the ship can be sunk. Unfortunately, the clean-out has about quadrupled the cost of the sinking, from $2.8 million to $12.7 million.
There's another cost hike caused by having to shlep the ship all over the northern Gulf.
The Navy had first hoped to drop the Oriskany on the bottom last year. The EPA-PCB issue delayed the sinking until earlier this year, when the Navy had the ship towed to Pensacola from Texas. The PCB thing wasn't settled in time to settle the ship on the bottom this year and, facing the threat of hurricanes, the ship was towed back to Texas to ride out hurricane season.
It now will have to be towed back to Pensacola for its now-scheduled sinking next May.
As one Pensacola charter boat captain told the Associated Press, "With all the money that's been sunk into this thing, we probably could have built three replicas out of clean steel."
The debris cleanup prompted by Hurricane Andrew in South Florida "aged" area landfills by an estimated 10 years.