Wednesday, February 26

Weather Forecasts Revisited After Duck Boat Disaster

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Here’s a thorough and thoughtful story from the Washington Post about the dangers and difficulties of reading weather charts, particularly in light of the duck boat disaster on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, in July, 2018, when a tourist boat sank, killing 17 people, in 70 mph winds:

Boat captain ‘reviewed radar’ data six minutes before his vessel was swallowed by angry waves

January 26

It has been 18 months since a fully loaded duck boat plunged beneath turbulent whitecaps atop Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo.

The ill-fated tour took place despite warnings of dangerous weather. Less than 40 minutes later, the vessel had been swallowed by angry waves, extinguishing 17 lives as 70 mph winds raked the lake above.

A National Weather Service assessment report released in December is highlighting the dangers of “self-interpretation” of weather data in the wake of the tragedy. This is in reference to situations in which non-specialists or untrained individuals make high-stakes weather-related decisions.

The assessment, which was compiled by seven Weather Service employees and a number of social scientists, also examined best practices for communicating weather information to vulnerable outdoor populations.

The original forecast

High-resolution National Weather Service radar shows the outflow boundary of strong winds arriving well ahead of any rain, lightning or thunder. (NWS)

At first glance, it may appear that what happened July 18, 2018, was a perfect forecast falling on deaf ears. The Storm Prediction Center had issued a severe thunderstorm watch at 11:20 a.m. advertising a “high” chance of severe wind; at 6:32 p.m., a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Table Rock Lake. The warning, which mentioned damaging winds, came 28 minutes before the onset of destructive gusts and 36 minutes before the sinking. The boat hadn’t entered the water until 6:55 p.m., 23 minutes after the warning to seek shelter came out.

Storms formed in Kansas around 10:30 a.m. on July 19, 2018, about eight-plus hours before affecting the Table Rock Lake area in Missouri. (NOAA/GR2 Analyst)

According to the report, the boat’s captain “reviewed radar information” between 6:25 and 6:27 p.m., six minutes before beginning the tour. Before 6 p.m., the general manager of Ride the Ducks Branson “reviewed radar information … and made a self-assessment on timing of the derecho approaching.”

Challenges in the assessment

Dick Wagenmaker is the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Detroit. He also was the team lead tasked with spearheading the service assessment. Wagenmaker said the group’s initial goal was to deconstruct how decisions were made by the duck boat company based on weather information the team accessed.

“Our original intent was to examine how the duck boat operators used publicly available information,” he explained. Read more:



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