Author Archive: David Black

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Christmas in Fairhope

| December 20, 2014 @ 5:23 pm

Fairhope, a charming community on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, comes alive with color and decorations during the Christmas season.

Enjoy this video montage shot earlier this week, showing what Fairhope looks like at Christmas…

Farewell, GOES-12…

| August 19, 2013 @ 11:51 am

Farewell to a valuable set of eyes 22,300 miles above us!

This is what GOES-12 looked like as crews with Space Systems/Loral prepared for its July 23, 2001 launch into space...

This is what GOES-12 looked like as crews with Space Systems/Loral prepared for its July 23, 2001 launch into space…

GOES-12, the weather satellite launched in July, 2001 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is being retired, its operators have announced.

Intended to operate for about five years, GOES-12 turned out to be a warrior, instead, wildly surpassing expectations.

Going into service April 1, 2003, the satellite sat above the Equator, monitoring developing weather systems across the eastern United States and part of the Atlantic ocean for about ten years.

Under its watch, the satellite—which became known as GOES-East—saw a lot, including Hurricane Katrina’s devastating strike along the Gulf coast in 2005, the Christmas blizzard that pounded the central U.S. in 2009, and countless severe weather episodes.

There’s no telling how many lives have been saved with the help of this marvel of technology.

GOES-12 even did a bit of traveling, itself. In May, 2010, the satellite was shifted south of the Equator and provided coverage over South America, where it monitored wildfires, drought and volcanic ash clouds.

In the place of GOES-12 is GOES-13, serving as the current GOES-East, which works in partnership with GOES-15. Together, these two satellites provide coverage from the Atlantic ocean west across the entire continental U.S., into the Pacific ocean.

If you’re curious about the break in numbers (what happened to GOES-14?), there’s an explanation.

GOES-14 is up there, too, but is not in service. Instead, it remains available as a stand-by/back-up, should a problem develop with either GOES-13 or GOES-15.

GOES, by the way, stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite.

What’s next for GOES-12?

NOAA will use up the satellite’s remaining fuel to boost it to a higher orbit (so it will be less of a collision threat to operational spacecraft), its batteries will be disabled, and transmitters will be turned off (to reduce any potentially interfering signals).

Just how much did GOES-12 see during its service time? NOAA has taken ten years worth of GOES-12 observations and packed them into 3 minutes:

Helena Market Days

| August 10, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

If you’re looking for something fun to do, stop in at Helena Market Days, in its last month of operation for the summer.

The annual farmer’s market that runs from June through August off Hwy 261 by Buck Creek in Helena has become a favorite of folks from throughout the Shelby Co. area.

Helena Market Days

You won’t find a fresher assortment of peaches (from Chilton county, of course), peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, okra, squash and other fruits and vegetables.

Helena Market Days takes place Saturdays from 8am until noon. Be ready to do some taste testing, too. Lots of folks enjoy the cooking demonstrations by different guest chefs each week.
Helena Market Days

Highly recommended: Fresh peaches cooked on the grill!

More information about Market Days is available by visiting the Market Days website.

A Severe Weather Voice Goes Silent

| December 12, 2012 @ 11:52 am

No one knows for sure how many tornado or severe thunderstorm watches and warnings he monitored, or how many hours he stayed at his post, but—in the 30-something years of being available around the clock to deal with Alabama weather—one thing is for sure.

Birmingham resident Carl Grover was a machine, relentless in his dedication to helping make sure that area residents received advance warning of approaching severe weather.

Grover, who was an amateur radio operator, spent decades volunteering as the primary liaison between central Alabama ham radio operators and the National Weather Service’s Birmingham Forecast Office.

When hams observed tornadoes, flooding, hail or other severe weather, they would tune in the Birmingham Amateur Radio Club’s 146.880 MHz repeater (a wide area coverage two-way radio system), looking for Carl. And, day or night, 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., nights, weekdays, weekends or holidays, they would find KA4JIR (Carl’s amateur radio call sign) monitoring the radio channel, waiting to take their information.

Carl would immediately call the Forecast Office and advise meteorologists, keeping them current on what storm spotters were seeing in the field.

In an era before Doppler weather radar, cell phones, camera-equipped smart phones, texting or instant messaging, the information Carl helped relay was frequently a consideration in whether the NWS issued a warning.

Sometimes, the forecasters would call Carl, asking him to find out what radio amateurs in a particular area were seeing, as part of the effort to obtain “ground truth” by verifying what radar might be indicating.

Is there actually a tornado on the ground? There were times that this was the only way forecasters could know for sure.

There is no way to know how many severe weather warnings may have been issued to protect the public, as a result of the cooperative effort Carl so frequently helped lead. Today, the work continues, but with a new generation at the controls.

Considered by many to be the father of amateur radio Skywarn communications in Birmingham, Carl passed away Sunday, December 9th. He was 86.

When severe storms threatened, it was always Carl’s voice on local amateur radio frequencies, providing operators with updates on current watches and warnings.

When it came to maintaining on-air decorum, it was Carl who gave unsuspecting radio amateurs the necessary corrections, reminding them that only important weather-related communications were appropriate. Those who deviated typically only did so once.

Carl was also a regular reporter of rain totals from his home near Eastwood Mall.

During the 1980s, as technology advanced and the Skywarn program’s value became more recognized for its life-saving potential, amateur radio operators and clubs began creating more formalized protocols on how to provide severe weather communications support more effectively.

It was also during this time that Carl and his late wife, Patsy, who also had an amateur radio license, organized Skywarn spotter classes in conjunction with the NWS. The classes took place at WVTM-TV atop Red Mountain (when James Spann was chief meteorologist and I anchored weather on the weekends) and drew radio amateurs from throughout central Alabama.

This was a valuable opportunity for training, with meteorologist Jay Shelley explaining what the Weather Service’s WSR-57 radar, based in Brent, could, and could not, see.

When the Weather Service went through a modernization in the late 1980s and 1990s, the changes affected how amateur radio operators throughout the Birmingham area would assist forecasters. To better serve the agency, Birmingham area hams formed ALERT, an organization dedicated to providing emergency communications support to the NWS upon its relocation from Birmingham to Calera as part of the modernization program.

With the shift to ALERT’s more formal operating system for handling severe weather communications, the stage could have been set for a clash between Grover’s long-held operating style and the new organization stepping in with its own rules and procedures.

Instead, Grover acted as a team player.

Operating a business out of his home helped give Carl the ability to get on the air and relay information quickly when severe weather threatened. His voice was often the first to be heard on local amateur radio frequencies when tornado, severe thunderstorm, flash flood and other watches were issued for the Birmingham area.

Once responding hams were able to get on site at the NWS to provide requested communications support, Carl would step aside and let ALERT’s operators take over. The result was a smooth and professionally run network that benefitted not just radio amateurs, but the Weather Service, other agencies and the public.

Carl is survived by three daughters and seven grand children.

“He was very dedicated,” said Ron Arant, a Shelby Co. amateur radio operator who remembers Carl providing severe weather communications during the mid 1980s. “He was somebody who had the public interest at heart.”

NWA 2011: A Volunteer’s Perspective

| October 20, 2011 @ 5:22 pm | 14 Replies

Trying to select a highlight from this week’s annual meeting of the National Weather Association is sort of like walking into your favorite bakery or doughnut shop and having to pick the treat you want most. Good luck. Pink or chocolate icing? With or without sprinkles? The task may be easier said than done.

There were so many informative presentations and panel discussions. There were so many prominent people from the meteorological, scientific, commercial and broadcast industries, and government, gathering at one spot, unleashing and sharing an incredible amount of knowledge.

Hydrology Lesson with Roger McNeil

Roger McNeil, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, gives Alabama teachers a lesson in hydrology.

Long before the first speaker ever stepped to the podium, the momentum of this week had been building. WeatherFest, the October 15th gathering of weather experts and the public at McWane Science Center in downtown Birmingham, was one of the catalysts for the success of this week.

WeatherFest’s weather was perfect, the turnout huge, and the enthusiasm tremendous. I saw the excitement in the eyes of young children, many of whom were probably getting a rare chance to be exposed to the sciences. We desperately need more young people pursuing careers in the sciences. Perhaps WeatherFest’s opportunities for such close up, hands-on involvement may have ignited the fire in some of these young minds. Our answer will come years from now.

Dry Ice fun

H. Michael Mogil, a meteorologist and author, shares some fun weather demonstrations with teachers at NWA 2011 in Birmingham

As the NWA meeting itself got underway, it became obvious that the planning and logistical organizational work that started long ago had paid off.

From the next generation of weather satellites to dual polarization radar, from hurricanes to EF5 tornadoes, from ice to severe weather forecasting and research, a diverse array of experts shared thoughts and experiences, discussing what we’ve learned, and—very important—what we still need to learn.

What we still need to learn received heavy emphasis at the meeting because of Alabama’s April 27th severe weather outbreak. With all our sophisticated technology and so much advance notice, experts and non-experts alike ask why so many people had to die that day. It’s not an easy question to answer. But Tuesday’s Town Hall meeting took a serious try at finding answers that may well keep future generations alive.

As a volunteer, NWA was a wonderful experience (I played an extremely small role, about the size of one sprinkle on one of those doughnuts!). Being around so many experts and getting to sit in during this incredible sharing of knowledge was a rare opportunity and one I enjoyed tremendously. It was very educational … and loads of fun.

All of us who were involved in NWA 2011 have our memorable moments from the week of gatherings.

I’ll always treasure getting to help with Sunday’s session of meteorology students, who got tips and mentoring from some of our nation’s most prominent people in science, aerospace, government and broadcasting on how to get a successful career underway.

Getting started in a weather career

Meteorology students attending NWA 2011 in Birmingham get advice on how best to get their careers started.

Looking across these students, I realized that the torch is being handed off, right in front of our eyes.

We are watching the next generation of scientists, researchers, forecasters and broadcasters move through a critical chapter in their lives. One of these young men or women may be who makes a startling breakthrough in atmospheric research, teaching us something new about our planet, or who develops a new way of understanding storm structure and behavior. Future mothers, fathers and children may owe their very survival to what these young people wind up accomplishing. And yes, the next James Spann is probably in this group, too (but I didn’t see anyone who had lost their hair—at least not yet!).

Another memory that’s hard to lose is seeing James almost break into tears, as he talks with a group of teachers about the horror of April 27th. It is still too raw to talk about. Too personal.

NWA 2011 was a lot more than just a meeting of weather experts. It was a chance for Birmingham to show its best to people from all across the country and the world. From the comments I heard, the meeting and the Magic City shined nicely.

Meetings that go as successfully as NWA 2011 went don’t just happen. Planning for an event like this takes meticulous attention to the smallest of details (most details are small until overlooked; then they’re not small anymore!). Making NWA 2011 work took a lot of devotion, time and effort. From people in professional careers related to weather to people with no formal connection at all (just a love and passion for weather), a lot of people in our community helped make NWA 2011 a success.

If there’s any one person who deserves credit for pulling off such a wonderful conference, I know of no one who has put in more time and effort than self-admitted weather geek Bill Murray. He certainly didn’t do this for the money.

Bill’s passion for weather is so intense that he began the effort to bring NWA to Birmingham years ago (literally). This week, that work paid off. We should be grateful that we have movers and shakers like Bill in our community. Bill assembled a team of volunteers who helped with making sure events and presentations went off as smoothly as possible.

Bill Murray, NWA 2011's chief organizer

Birmingham weather historian Bill Murray (center) was the driving force in bringing NWA 2011 to the Magic City.

NWA 2011 has put our community on the world map for many, and one that will be remembered for years to come for the huge success it was.

Birmingham owes Bill a debt of gratitude.

NASA Spacecraft Sees Tornado Tracks

| May 17, 2011 @ 8:39 am | 6 Replies

Even from 438 miles above the Earth, you can tell that something very significant happened around Tuscaloosa and Birmingham April 27th.

For the first time, an energy-sensing instrument aboard a NASA spacecraft has been used to identify tracks left by the devastating tornado that tore through central Alabama.

Here’s what the damage path looks like as seen by ASTER, short for Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer:

ASTER tornado track

ASTER, which flies aboard NASA’s Tera spacecraft, monitors visible and infrared energy reflected from the Earth’s surface. The destruction caused by the tornado shows up clearly in ASTER’s imaging, because of differences in how energy reflects back to the spacecraft from areas where houses and trees have been demolished.

The image above was captured May 4th, while Tera—which has a near polar orbit—made a pass over central Alabama.

Sometimes, knowing exactly where a tornado was on the ground can be difficult to pinpoint.

ASTER’s imaging is one more way we can use technology to better identify what’s happening on Earth.

You can find out more about ASTER and Tera by clicking here

Helpers Amid The Chaos…

| May 6, 2011 @ 12:44 pm | 9 Replies

There are so many groups doing great work in the aftermath of Alabama’s April 27th tornado outbreak that it’s hard to single them all out.

Many working to help victims recover will get a lot of media exposure; their names and purposes will be known to all. Others helping are working much more silently, almost in the background, getting very little recognition for their efforts. The work of still others contributing their time and resources to try and ease the effects of this tragedy may never be known.

Many of the organizations helping went into action as soon as the devastation became obvious. But one group was active long before the first tornado touched down, and whose volunteers continue to provide assistance. This group has done its work to help others so many times in the past—mostly in the shadows, so to speak—that I can’t count them all.

Frankly, what they do is often not very visible or visual. Because it’s not exciting to watch, media attention is typically infrequent. But what these people do helps protect us all before the danger. And they are extremely valuable when it comes to help with recovering afterward.

So, who are these folks?

They are amateur radio operators, men and women of all ages and backgrounds. They share a commitment to help others in need.

I still remember being intrigued at the interesting looking radio my co-worker had placed on his desk in the small office we shared at Channel 13 in Birmingham one afternoon in the early 1980s.

At a time long before the era of cell phones, MP3 players and so many of the other small electronics devices surrounding us today, all the unusual switches and controls made my curiosity get the best of me. I had to ask: “What’s this?”

“It’s my handy talkie,” he answered. And so began my introduction and entry into amateur radio, courtesy of James Spann.

Ham radio is considered by many to be a hobby. I’ve never fully agreed with that description. It’s a public service. April 27th in Alabama is one reason why.

It’s true that many people get into ham radio for the communications contests and other fun activities. But amateur radio is one of the most valuable pathways there is to help your community in times of crisis.

Being a ham radio operator and providing communications support during emergencies is not always pleasant. But it’s rewarding. I can think of no more vivid proof of that than to listen to the stories of some of Alabama’s amateur radio operators active before and after last week’s storms.

The stories are chilling. They are enough to bring tears to your eyes.

I was able to speak with various hams involved in helping with the current disaster in Alabama, and thought you might like a behind-the-scenes look at what they were seeing and doing as the killer storms hit.

Nothing tells the story better than the people who were in it.

David Drummond, of Tuscaloosa, is among the hams who saw heartbreaking scenes they will never be able to forget.

Below is a report about what David and fellow amateur radio operators did across the state when devastation hit. This story is taken from The Amateur Radio Newsline, a weekly newscast about amateur radio and communications that is distributed worldwide.

Click here to download…

By the way: If you visit The Amateur Radio Newsline website and download the full newscast, be sure to check out the story at the end of the newscast—the work of James Spann, ABC 33/40 and the team of Skywatchers gets some very prominent recognition.

The efforts of amateur radio operators may not be “all over the news,” but what Alabama’s hams have done makes me very proud to hold an amateur radio license.

I hope you are as thankful for what they do as I am.

How Many Lives Did They Help Save?

| May 2, 2011 @ 11:36 am | 13 Replies

John Oldshue and Ben Greer downplay it the minute you ask, but the question can’t be denied: How many lives did they help save when Alabama was slammed by the killer storms of April 27th?

No one knows, but one thing is for sure. Countless people are probably alive right now, because of the live video feed they provided from a spot they chose near a bingo hall southwest of Tuscaloosa.

What not everyone knows is what was happening behind the scenes, while John and Ben were trying to track the storm, find a good place to view from, stay safe, maintain communications and set up a video feed to be carried live on ABC 33/40.

And could their surprise encounter with “the Australian septic tank guy” at the bingo hall be a life-changing lesson about angels?

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening while John and Ben tracked the Tuscaloosa storm, and the key relief effort John has launched to try to help some of Tuscaloosa’s youngest storm victims:

Click here to listen to Tracking The Storm

What ‘Pop-up’ Storms Cost Us

| December 9, 2010 @ 10:18 am | 10 Replies

Small doesn’t mean insignificant.

The ‘pop up’ thunderstorm we see so often in Alabama is something most of us (as weather geeks) love to watch. We’re accustomed to it, and we seldom think much about it.

With Alabama’s current cold snap, pop up storms may not be on our mind at the moment, but they’re costing us money, nonetheless. That’s because companies that provide homeowners insurance in the state say small, isolated severe storms are becoming extremely expensive because of the damage they cause.

The pop up storm is also causing another headache for insurance providers because of shady companies offering to help Alabama homeowners with recovering from storm damage, especially caused by hail (so be warned!).

Creg Leggett, an insurance Agent with Allstate Insurance in Pelham, says weather is why many companies are raising rates. And he warns that being the victim of a fraudulent offer to help fix your home’s roof or other storm damage could leave you not only out of money, but worse, minus your insurance coverage. That’s because many insurance providers are imposing stricter requirements; this applies, he says, not only for customers looking to obtain coverage, but sometimes for existing homeowners to keep their protection.

Because of the tougher rules being adopted, Leggett says you may get a visit from your insurance company, even if you haven’t filed a claim.

Click the player below for Leggett’s valuable advice about storm-related insurance coverage and insights into the new stricter guidelines companies are imposing in Alabama:

If you have questions or want more information, Creg Leggett can be reached at 205-621-0722, or click here to contact Creg by e-mail.

Joe Dirt’s Thanksgiving Present

| December 1, 2010 @ 7:03 pm | 3 Replies

Rex Free says he couldn’t believe the bloody, bizarre scene in front of him during his Thanksgiving weekend outing to north Alabama’s Sipsey Wilderness.

Free, an amateur radio operator and storm spotter from Moulton, had headed into the Bankhead National Forest with two friends to enjoy nature, as they’ve done many times before. But what the three spotted seemed unreal.

The next several hours would lead to strangers lending a helping hand to Pam Coan, a distraught Lawrence Co. resident who got a Thanksgiving surprise she had not imagined possible.

Click the audio player below to find out more:

See photos the hikers took at the rescue scene here, including video of the hikers as they approach Joe Dirt, his broken saddle still dragging.

ISS To Fly Over Early This Evening

| April 29, 2010 @ 8:39 am | 756 Replies

International Space StationThe International Space Station makes a pass over Birmingham early this evening, and a combination of factors suggest we’ll have a great chance to see this marvel of technology.

The ISS is scheduled to approach from the west-southwest and, at its maximum elevation, will be very high in the sky, at 84 degrees elevation (90 degrees is directly overhead). The station should be very bright, making it easy to see with the naked eye. With the sky expected to be mostly clear, all of the ingredients are coming together for an easy chance to view it.

The passover starts at 8:09:36pm and concludes less than 3 minutes later at 8:12:03pm, so don’t be late, because the ISS won’t wait around for you. The ISS travels at an average speed of 17,227 miles per hour. To give you an idea of how fast that is, this is almost the same speed at which James and JB can down a plate of ribs at their favorite barbecue joint!

A lot of folks don’t realize that you can see the ISS without any special equipment. I’ve seen it from in my Shelby Co. neighborhood with streetlights around, but if you’re able to get away from light pollution, your view is likely to be even more enjoyable.

Some folks have even caught the ISS on camera. If you want to see a great shot of the ISS docked with the Shuttle Discovery taken on 4/8/10 from the ground by California resident Ted Judah, click here. Ted took this shot using a Canon 30D digital camera connected to his Celestron telescope.

I have to confess some frustration here. I have a nice digital camera and a telescope with camera mount capability, but am clueless as to whether I need any other equipment or how to even connect it. If anyone can point me to some resources on how to do this, I’d be appreciative.

Happy viewing!

One Way To Enjoy A Beautiful Alabama Day

| March 19, 2010 @ 8:27 pm | 1 Reply

Okay, so I’m guilty. I took about half an hour to play hooky while working in Shelby county this afternoon. It all started when I looked up and saw a glider, gracefully and elegantly sailing along, with central Alabama’s gorgeous deep blue sky as the backdrop. I knew that whomever was at the controls of the glider had been hit with an attack of spring fever, and had to get away from work and enjoy the fabulous day.

So, work got put aside as Fisbo (our spoiled six pound poodle) and I headed to the glider field on Co. Rd. 22 in Montevallo, to get a closer look at the folks having all the fun.

Paul Roebuck, of Riverchase, is Treasurer of the Birmingham Soaring Society. I caught a few pictures of Paul as he was coming in from his flight. Stanley Murrell, who flew the tow aircraft for Paul, was providing ground support.

This is one group that watches the weather carefully, and for obvious reasons. For these folks, at least some instability in the atmosphere is a good thing, since thermals are their crafts’ fuel.

On most weekends–weather permitting, of course–you’re likely to find these enthusiasts sailing across the wild blue yonder … and doing so very quietly…!

Interested in watching? The airstrip these folks use is on the north side of Co. Rd. 22, immediately west of Ballard Lake, and about 1.5 miles west of Hwy 119. Here’s a Google map link to help:

View Larger Map

Even without having flown in a glider myself, I can see why these folks love it so much, especially on a gorgeous spring Alabama day!