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One man's near miss ecological disaster is another man's swells

US National Weather Service Alaska
Weather stations around Kodiak Island on December 30, 2012 showing strong winds.
Weather stations around Kodiak Island on December 30, 2012 showing strong

In tonight's update on the investigation into the grounding of Shell's Kulluk oil rig, Rachel shared passages from a letter from Congressman Markey in which he questions Shell's explanation that the timing of the tow was to take advantage of a two-week forecast break in the weather. He cites several National Weather Service severe weather alerts from that period.

As I was gathering tonight's links and citations I thought those forecasts for the weather in Alaska between December 21, 2012 and New Year's Day, 2013 would be archived online somewhere and wouldn't it be interesting to find those links. But as rich in data and as generous in maps and charts as the National Weather Service site is, they don't seem to have thought it of value to archive past weather predictions.

Well, I shouldn't go quite that far. There is a forecast archive for the continental U.S. (which I learned they call CONUS) but Alaska doesn't quite fit on the map. And they have "discussions" of the extended forecast going back ten days. But that only means that tonight I can look at the forecast for last week as seen from December 30th. The pages aren't logged by date, just by number of days previous to now.

Even if it's hard to find the forecast for those two weeks, it's easy to find records of what the actual weather was. The image above from is one of the more fun-to-play-with examples.

Follow me on this one, it has a fun ending...

For the sake of orientation, here's the area we're talking about. The Kulluk was being towed from Dutch Harbor (A) to Seattle (C) and ended up at Sitkalidak Island (B). (It is presently in Kiliuda Bay if you want to look that up.)

Sitkalidak Island is right up close to Kodiak Island, so I used that as a point of focus for some of my searching. Kodiak does have its own newspaper, but the archives require a subscription and I didn't see anything in the abstracts that made me think I'd find a discussion of the forecast between Christmas and New Year's. But the paper's Facebook account has open archives and from there I found out the U.S. National Weather Service Alaska also has a Facebook page. This is the image they show for December 29th, describing it as a "powerful cyclone":

US National Weather Service Alaska

I should say, this post isn't meant to prove anything one way or other about what Shell knew or didn't know before they tried to tow the rig across the Gulf of Alaska. Frankly, it seems like there's a blizzard warning somewhere in Alaska for any given day last December, (including just east of Kodiak in the days before Christmas) so the idea of a two-week gap of good weather seems ridiculous on its face. But I'm just on a data hunt for curiosity's sake, and I'm just making the observation that it would be pretty surprising if the storm in the picture above showed up with no notice or forecast warning. In fact, that picture is just one of the storms that hit in what the weather service warned on the 28th would be a series. You can see the storms lining up in this post from the 31st.

But let's say for whatever reason, the National Weather Service couldn't give the Kulluk proper notice on approaching bad weather. There's one guy who could have: Adam Wright

Adam Wright writes a surf report for a site called SolSpot, and one of the things he does is look to the far reaches of the Pacific for developing storm systems that are likely to send good waves to the California coast. So when I searched for news about a powerful cyclone forecast for New Year's, what I found was an expression of disappointment that the storm wasn't worse.

As early as the 27th, Wright was giving his readers a heads up about a "crazy looking" storm developing to the northwest.

Boom, indeed. There's that series of storms lining up. Want a little more lead time in your storm warning/eagerness? How about December 24: THE NORTH PACIFIC GIVES THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING…IT’S A COMPLEX LOW-PRESSURE!

Here's what Wright was seeing in the 60-hour prediction, above, from the 24th:

The storms start to stack up by the middle/end of the week, with that complex-low-pressure slowly drifting toward the Gulf of Alaska. In the chart above, you can see the stronger storm pushing toward Alaska proper, the first storm moving over the West Coast, and a third system coming together NW of Hawaii…being fed both warm and cold-wet air mass from Kamchatka and from over by Japan.

Lastly, I see the credit on the Adam Wright maps is StormSurf. After poking around there I figured out that they come from the models menu, which includes some seriously cool animations. StormSurf also offers a tutorials section to help teach how to make heads or tales of all of these charts. That just went to the top of my "to read" list.