By WBZ-TV Chief Meteorologist Eric FisherBy Eric Fisher

The solstice is around the corner, school is about to finally end, and the Red Sox…well let’s not talk about the Red Sox. Summer is here and with it comes the usual bouts of heat, thunderstorms, occasional severe weather, and the threat of an ‘overdue’ hurricane that will eventually return to our shore. Here’s a guide to get you through some of the burning questions when it comes to weather, how we report it, and what you can expect over the next several months.

What’s a ‘Watch’ and What’s a ‘Warning’?

READ MORE: Survey Identifies Massachusetts City With The Rudest Drivers

These nefarious bulletins passed along to the general public are not schemes cooked up by TV stations to increase ratings. In fact, the TV stations have no say in issuing them whatsoever. Your friendly local meteorologist is acting as a line of communication between those in charge of issuing these products and the consumer (you). We try to help explain what they mean, when they’re in effect, and what you should expect.

Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado Watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. This goes for all of the U.S.. The SPC is a place filled with professionals whose charge is to focus solely on extreme weather and give the general public advance warning of when dangerous storms may form. Watches are often put up several hours in advance of impending severe weather, in order to give you the ‘heads up’ that conditions are going to change.

watch

Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado Warnings are the more urgent versions of watches. There are now many ways to receive these warnings – via cell phone alerts, the internet, your local meteorologist, etc – but they all originate from your local National Weather Service office. In our area, NWS Taunton has domain over all of Massachusetts except Berkshire County, Rhode Island, and the north central/northeast portions of Connecticut. NWS Gray keeps an eye on southern New Hampshire, NWS Albany covers Berkshire County and Litchfield County, as well as southern Vermont; and NWS New York covers southern CT. Each of these offices has the authority to issue warnings when they decide conditions warrant.

Below is an explanation from the National Weather Service:

“A severe thunderstorm watch means that the potential exists for the development of thunderstorms which may produce large hail or damaging winds.”

“A severe thunderstorm warning, on the other hand, means that a severe thunderstorm is occurring or is imminent based on doppler radar information. You should move indoors to a place of safety. Schools should think about delaying departure of buses, and should take quick action to delay outdoor sports activities, etc.”

Yes, We’re Going To Break In To Judge Judy

Most of you will probably understand when we cut in to programming to give the details of a critical tornado warning, or to update rapidly changing conditions when severe thunderstorms are moving through. However, you may be surprised to hear about the flood of hate that flows into a TV station when programming is disrupted to relay this public safety information. The newsroom phone system gets overloaded. I’ve heard swearing so loud on our answering machine in the middle of a cut-in that I was afraid it was audible on-air. We’ve all received dozens of emails telling us what horrible people we are and that we’re making all the weather up because we like to hear ourselves talk. “Can’t the tornado warning wait until the show is over?” There was even this cringe-worthy episode last year when a meteorologist in New York got destroyed by enraged viewers for bringing information about a tornado warning when the World Cup was on (just days after several people were killed by a tornado in a nearby town).

Monson (credit: Massachusetts State Police Air Wing)

Monson (credit: Massachusetts State Police Air Wing)

Can it wait? No – it cannot. I’m here to tell you that whether you like it or not, a TV station will ALWAYS cut-in for a tornado warning and stay on until it goes away. We’ll often cut-in when new severe thunderstorm warnings are coming in. I really don’t care if the Judge is about to drop the hammer on someone. Public safety is the #1 concern, and there’s no way any self respecting meteorologist would ever hold back this information if it could protect just one person or save one life. We take this role very, very seriously. Tornadoes kill people. Severe thunderstorms can be capable of doing the same. Plus, it’s part of the agreement with the FCC that TV local affiliates provide this type of information. And you get local news stations for free – ‘over the air’ programming. All you need is an antennae to pick up a signal, so it’s not a service anyone has to pay for. It’s all the stations except local affiliates that cost money. So the bottom line is – we’ll be interrupting regularly scheduled programming at times this summer. We’ll try to keep them as brief as possible, and most last 60 seconds or less unless it’s for a tornado.

Lightning Safety – If You Hear Thunder, You’re In Range

deaths

Source: National Safety

Lightning kills dozens of people in the U.S. every year. Some of them are struck by a ‘bolt from the blue’ which can emanate from a storm many miles away. Others get caught off guard in an open area. And some just push the limits of what you should be doing when storms are approaching (I always cringe when baseball teams are still playing out in a field with metal bats when you can already hear thunder).

The saying is – ‘When thunder roars go indoors.’ Easy and it works. And definitely don’t go to the nearest tree for shelter. Lightning will find its easiest path to the ground, and those trees are frequent targets. That tree will offer little protection when its blasted apart by a bolt of electricity 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun.

lightning

Spelling PSA!

 How Does That Lightning Form, Anyway?

The easiest way to describe weather is that it is the Earth striving for balance. Weather is produced by differential heating of the globe. In other words, different areas heating at different rates. The poles are colder, the tropics are warmer, and there are all sorts of different surfaces heating at various rates in between. These gradients help to produce wind, storms develop, forces collide, and yadda yadda there ya go! A whole planet with plenty of weather to go around.

Lightning is another version of this attempt to find balance. Nature doesn’t like it when charges separate in large quantities. You know this firsthand if you’ve received a shock touching a doorknob in the winter. The little static electricity release is a mini-lightning bolt, helping to erase a separation of positive and negative charge between you and the knob. Electrons flow and you get zapped.

The lightning bolt is the grown up version of this. There’s a lot of chaos inside a thunderstorm. Strong updrafts are delivering warm and moist air, downdrafts are the ‘exhaust’ bringing cold air down from inside the storm, and in the middle there are raindrops and ice crystals flying all over the place. As these particles bang into each other, electrons can rub off or transfer to different parts of the storm. The base of the cloud is full of heavy water droplets and tends to become negatively charged, while the ground becomes positively charged and the anvil also becomes positively charged. Cloud to cloud lightning is when bolts are traveling between the anvil and the middle/lower end of the storm. Cloud to ground is when the bolts head straight to the surface.

charge

READ MORE: Johnson & Johnson Says Its Booster Shot 94% Effective Against COVID-19

Source: NWS

By the way, we often are asked why thunder has a different sound in some situations. Close lighting strikes deliver a ‘CRACK!’, while other times we hear a long and dull rumble. The reason for this is based on distance. When a lightning strike is close to you, it rapidly heats up the air and produces a shock wave. That shock wave is the thunder you hear, and it comes through loud and clear if it’s close. When you hear a long rumble, you’re hearing that shock wave from the entire extent of a bolt in the distance, which may be many miles away and many more in length. Parts of the rumble reach you quickly, while the part farthest from you takes longer to reach the ear. Science!

 Bank and Car Thermometers are Rubbish

I can’t tell you how many times people bring up how warm their car thermometer says it is. They vehemently degree with us unwitting meteorologists who clearly don’t understand that if the Volkswagen says it’s true, it must be so. But trust me, this faith is misguided. In fact, they can be off by 10 to 20 degrees, according to a recent study (in Celsius).

bank

The same can be said for bank thermometers. There’s a standard when it comes to measuring temperature, and the local bank branch is most likely not following it. Sensors are a certain height above the ground (about 4-6 feet) and in an open area. Why? In chilly times the dense, cold air can settle at ground level and produce an incorrect reading. At the same time on a hot day, the sun will heat up that ground and give a reading more consistent with the blacktop or ground than the air itself. You also need to keep a thermometer out of the direct sunlight (which automated airport sensors do with the help of a shield). You want that sensor away from any buildings if possible, which can absorb and radiate heat and contaminate the reading.

You never really know where exactly a bank thermometer has been set up. At that building? A remote location? On the roof?

So the novelty is certainly great and makes for some fun photos online. But the true, accurate readings are from these standardized weather stations that take measures to get the real air temp.

Vacations – They’re Not Just For Movie Stars

There’s one thing about summer that’s both a good sign and disturbing. If a meteorologist disappears from the air for a couple days, the emails and calls start coming in wondering if we’ve been sacked or have gone AWOL. This is enjoyable in the sense that it validates that someone is actually watching and that we may be able to keep our jobs a little while longer. But no – we (hopefully) have not been sent to the gallows.

vaca

TV folks get time off just like many other employees at jobs around the country, but it tends to get a little tricky when you try to use those days. For starters, you pretty much can’t take time off in southern New England from mid-December through early March. We typically don’t even try. It’s busy season, there’s snow and ice, and so that eats up nearly 3 months out of the year where you can’t take more than an impromptu day during a quiet stretch. Then there’s ‘sweeps’ – ratings periods. During these 4-week stretches in February, May, and November, ratings are measured at all stations to determine how many people are watching and in turn how much air time is worth at a given station. During these times, no one in the news operation is allowed to take time off. So there goes half the year between snow and sweeps.

Add in the fact that we sponsor several holiday events (4th of July, Christmas Tree lighting, First Night)…welp there goes a few more opportunities. Don’t get me wrong we’re not complaining – we still sneak the time in and feel very fortunate for that. But it tends to all come in bunches during the summer and understandably can be a little disruptive for the viewer! There’s 4 of us on staff and at most 2 can be off at a given time, so there are all sorts of funky schedules that take place June through August. Don’t be alarmed when someone is missing from air for a little while – they are likely watering their lawn, grilling a steak, or getting some sun. No reason to panic.

Hurricanes – It’s Been A While

By now you probably know the drill – we haven’t had a hurricane make landfall here in Massachusetts since Bob in 1991. We’ve seen impact from other storms (like Irene and Sandy in recent times) but not actual landfall with the center heading right into the Bay State. The area isn’t necessarily ‘due’ because that would imply that the odds of landfall increase with each passing year, which is not the case. We could all of the sudden get several in short order (like in the 50s) or get none at all for many years to come. But the bottom line is that we’ll get hit again, and this year is as good as any to prepare for that eventuality.

bob

In the previous Hurricane Outlook blog post, I put up several great links to help generate a plan for you and your family. It’s also best to think about these things ahead of time so that you’re not in a panic when it’s crunch time and the storm is upon you.

One thing I strongly recommend is to buy a strong box that’s also fire/waterproof. Fill this up with important documents, photos that are near and dear to you, or other info you don’t want to lose on thumb drives. If a disaster strikes, this box should survive and help you get back on your feet more quickly, instead of having to search around for all the necessary documents to start over again.

We’re 2 storms in so far, and although the odds for an active season are low, the odds of any formation being close to the U.S. mainland are high. Wind shear and cooler ocean temps in the tropical Atlantic should strongly inhibit formation well out to sea (better news for someone with a vacation planned to the Lesser Antilles).

NOAA’s Outlook

We’ll wrap this one up with NOAA’s outlook for the summer season, which so far as weather is concerned is June/July/August. They’re predicting equal chances of above or below avg temps in New England, and the same for precipitation. That leaves quite a few blanks to fill in, doesn’t it? Personally, I think we’re in for near to slightly above average temps for the 3 months as a whole. I also think we’re in for slightly drier than average conditions. The indicators aren’t there for an ‘extreme’ season so hopefully we can take a break from all these records we’ve managed to tear down in the first half of 2015.

temps precip

NOAA’s 2015 summer outlook. Leaves a bit to the imagination.

MORE NEWS: 'It Looked Like Niagara Falls,' Massive Water Main Break Floods Part Of Beacon Hill

Find Eric Fisher on Twitter and Facebook

Eric Fisher