Nepal Earthquakes 2015 and Remote Sensing

On April 25th, the ground shook violently in Nepal. By the time the magnitude 7.8 earthquake ended thousands would die or be injured and hundreds of thousands would be homeless. Following an earthquake, there is the risk of aftershocks. While most aftershocks tend to be small some can even surpass the primary earthquake in terms of magnitude. Relief efforts were well underway when on May 12th, an aftershock with a magnitude of 7.3 struck.

Earthquakes in particular can create access issues. Infrastructure including roads and bridges may be destroyed or blocked by debris. In mountainous areas, roads that survive may end up being damaged or blocked by landslides. This creates additional issues in ensuring that relief is able to reach those in need who live in rural and remote areas.

Remote sensing is a tool that I would love to see being used even more to identify areas that have been impacted by a disaster. Satellite and aerial photos (and drones) can be used to identify which areas have significant structural damage and may even be able to identify ‘tent cities’, areas where people have set up tents instead of staying in damaged or potentially damaged homes. This information can then be used by the local emergency management agency and relief agencies to assist in directing their response efforts.

Depending on the extent on the impacted area, there can be a huge number of photos that need to be examined. The earthquakes in Nepal damaged a large area and there are thousands of photos that need to be meticulously combed through. This is where crowd sourcing can be a powerful method. I am most familiar with Tomnod, a site that uses crowd sourcing to identify areas of concern. This information is then given to disaster relief teams. It is pretty simple to use, although there are occasional glitches, and you can do it in your free time. It is a good way to help out and it is definitely needed in this case; the severity of the damage that I have seen during the Nepal earthquake campaign is mind blowing. If you are interested in volunteering, you can do so at


Storm Season Plans

If you are on Twitter you have probably noticed a response from the weather community over the first few rumbles of thunder that can best be summed up by this image sent to me by @blueznjazz

Embedded image permalink

While Ontario is just of the verge of storm season, it is actively underway in the U.S., so I figured that a post on my plans for the upcoming season was due.

Due to work commitments, I will be focusing my efforts on Southern Ontario this year. I will be taking some time off when the weather permits to focus on severe weather. These will be mostly day trips but if something promising pops up in the forecast, it may be a bit longer. In the event of tornadic weather, my first priority is to call it in. Once that is done, I will update on my twitter feed, @ontariohazards. I may also be adding video this year.

Storm chasing in Ontario is tricky, tornadoes are less frequent, the landscape does not provide a clear line of sight and tornadoes are often rain wrapped among other challenges. This means that the odds of seeing a tornado in Ontario are pretty small. However, the main reason I chase is to provide information to the weather agencies through SKYWARN or CANWARN, or should the situation present an immediate need for first responders, 911; so if there is a chance that my experience can help then I don’t mind the low odds of seeing tornadoes.

Time for the disclaimer; safety comes first. I have no desire to get myself killed and no photo or video is worth the risk. A lot of people seem to have forgot that TORNADOES ARE DANGEROUS. Even experienced storm chasers who have safety measures in place are taking a risk.

Iceland – Northern Lights

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the main motivators in going to Iceland was the chance to see the northern lights. Seeing the lights requires a lot of luck. The lights are the result of charged solar particles from the Sun hitting atoms and molecules Earth’s atmosphere. Since this happens much higher than weather, an overcast sky means that you are out of luck.

The weather in Iceland changes often and fast. We arrived to hurricane force winds and experienced nearly every type of weather while we were there. However, the clear breaks where not happening at night or at times in which the lights were actually occurring. It was looking like we would not get a chance to see them but then on March 17th, a strong coronal mass ejection (CME), an powerful outburst from the sun arrived at Earth.

I am not a photographer. I try to take decent photos when I remember to bring my camera but I can accept that the real reason that so many of my photos turn out good is that the subject matter is just that amazing that it is impossible to take a bad picture, although I guess if you forgot to take your lens cap off or accidentally kicked over your tripod while shooting  you could (I have done both. Repeatedly). The northern lights on March 17th were no exception to this.

A day aurora

The activity was so strong that the lights appeared before it was even fully dark and only got better.

A day aurora3 The K-index scale is a measurement of the level of geomagnetic activity. It ranges from 0 to 9 and is directly related to the maximum amount of fluctuation  in the geomagnetic field in the Earth’s magnetosphere over a three-hour interval. On March 17th it reached an 8. It was the strongest geomagnetic storm of the current solar cycle.

A lightsA hotel ranga 2A aurora 5It was so amazing that it didn’t even realize that I had been staying out in the cold for 4 hours.

Even if we had not gotten the chance to see the northern lights, it would have been a great trip since Iceland is amazing. I am really hoping that I get the opportunity to go back there someday since there were so many amazing sites that we just didn’t have the time to see…and maybe during a volcanic eruption to learn more about emergency management.




It seems like everyone I know has seen the northern lights, even friends who live in much lower latitudes have seen them. Every time in the past couple of years they have been visible in southern Ontario I have somehow missed them. This has raised the northern lights to a level of obsession  in my mind to the waterspout level (I have made many an experienced chaser do a double take when they find out how many tornadoes I have seen without ever seeing a waterspout. Especially when they realize I have lived by the ocean and then in the Great Lakes Region for many years).

I had wanted to visit Iceland for quite awhile so travelling to Iceland seemed like the perfect opportunity to FINALLY see the northern lights. We arrived on Friday, March 13…to hurricane force winds.

So not quite the natural phenomenon I had been hoping for. I have to admit, my reaction was more like this than disappointed:


The winds got so strong that buses had to stop in the middle of their routes since vehicles with a high, flat profile like buses or tractor trailers are more likely to be blown over due to large surface areas.

storm blog

We did see a couple of very large downed trees, and damage such as this:

shelter blog (that *had* a roof).

Iceland is a country of extremes with volcanoes, glaciers, earthquakes and windstorms.  But given their history,  Icelanders are also resilient. In 1973 a powerful volcanic eruption occurred without warning on Heimaey Island in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands). By the time it was declared over on July 4th; the population of Heimaey Island had been evacuated for months, everything was covered under a thick layer of ash and more than 400 buildings, approximately 1/3 of the town had been destroyed.

dcf4ae2158628595b4f6c9f5d5b6d0d5(anyone know the source of this image?)

Here is the really impressive thing, this could have been so much worse but Icelanders and other volunteers acted rapidly to mitigate the impact. When the lava began to threaten the harbour, a major source of income for residents, Icelanders implemented a lava cooling effort to save the harbor and to halt the flow of lava that was threatening another part of the town. Not only were they able to prevent more damage, they were also able to harass the heat from the cooled lava flow and use it as a source of geothermal energy.

To escape the weather, we went to the Volcano House in Reykjavik where we watched a documentary on this eruption. About five minutes in, I realized something. I had watched another documentary on this eruption a long, long time ago when I was shorter than the old tv we had. Watching how people came together to protect their town and harbor on Heimaey was what got me interested in natural disasters to begin with.

I’m Bacccckkkkkk……

Ok, I know I haven’t updated this blog in like a year. Things got really crazy with a new job and a move. The job is still in emergency management but has been a great opportunity to try new things. The move was to Niagara which will actually make storm chasing easier since I no longer have to contend with Toronto traffic. Hopefully having another pair of trained eyes on the sky more often this coming storm season will help.

Speaking of storm season, if you are interested in severe weather I strongly recommend attending CANWARN training. CANWARN training teaches you how to be a storm spotter. Spotters provide invaluable severe weather information to Environment Canada which helps them to issue warnings.

Freezing Rain, Ice Pellets, and Heavy Rain, Oh My!

The winter weather system yesterday brought a mix of precipitation including heavy rain, freezing rain, ice pellets, and snow to Southern and Eastern Ontario. After last year’s non-winter, it was quite the rude awakening to get a system like this in April, although it really is not that uncommon. In its wake it left behind approximately 150,000 customers without electricity and brought down tree branches and power lines. Some locations reported experiencing three types of precipitation in less than 30 minutes.

Here is a quick look at the different types of precipitation:

Heavy Rain: Rainfall warnings were issued by Environment Canada. A warning is issued when 50mm or more of rain is expected within an hour. The heavy rain combined with relatively damp soil conditions led to flooding, particularly in Southwestern Ontario in areas such as Elora and Fergus.

Freezing Rain: My arch enemy. Freezing rain may begin as snow that falls through a layer of warm air, melts, and then falls through a shallow layer of freezing temperatures just above the surface. When the drops hit the surface, they freeze on contact and can form a layer of ice. As more freezing rain falls, the layer of ice will thicken and if it becomes heavy enough, it may result in damage to objects such as branches and power lines. High winds can greatly increase the risk of damage from freezing rain.

Ice Pellets: Ice pellets are not hail. Hail is a product of convection (thunderstorms), can be much bigger, and tends to occur during the summer. Ice pellets are generally between 1 and 5mm. They usually do not cause damage; however, a heavy fall of them can lead to poor driving conditions.

Tornado Alley Storm Chase 2012

Disclaimer: I have more than 13 years experience with severe weather and have safety, first aid and emergency management training. Severe weather is dangerous and I do not recommend that this be done without the proper safety and first aid training and without a will to help others.

So I realized that I never updated this blog to include the 2012 Tornado Alley Storm Chase. The general weather patterns were not looking very promising that week, so I was worried it was going to be a bust. Ideally a trip like this would be at least two weeks with the dates being flexible, we had to fly down to Oklahoma and only had a week. I figured at the very least it would be an appropriate introduction to storm chasing for my husband since the weather doesn’t always cooperate. However, unlike most other first time storm chasers, he was lucky.

We got a rather nice thunderstorm with impressive CG lightning the first night. I will admit, I am still trying to embrace the whole photography thing. It didn’t even occur to me to stop watching the storm to get out the camera. I now really regret not getting a shot of the lightning. Somehow I did not get a single lightning shot this entire trip.

The first real chase came the following day and took us from Oklahoma into Texas, New Mexico and ended in Southern Colorado (even today when my husband gets asked about the trip, the first thing he always talks about is the amount of driving, not the storms or the adventure of seeing new places, the driving. Oh, and t he number of llamas that we saw on the trip, that also apparently made an impression). While one LP storm is particular was impressive and cycled several times, it did not produce a tornado. However, it did have an incredibly impressive long-lasting wall cloud.

Wall Cloud in New Mexico

Wall Cloud in New Mexico


While there were a few storms, conditions over the next couple of days were not particularly good for severe weather. The next impressive storm was in Nebraska and ended up being the only tornado warned storm in the state that day. Understanding meteorology is essential to tracking severe weather, but luck can also play a role.  Fortunately for us, luck was on our side that day. Most other storm chasers were following a storm to the north that ended up fizzling. We only saw others when most of the action was already over. Both storms had looked promising so being on the right one came down to luck. This storm produced impressive downbursts. A state trooper stopped by to share information and told us that there were reports of downed powerlines and branches from the high winds.


This storm also produced multiple funnels. I originally thought that the one in the photo below was just a funnel cloud but I later found out that circulation had been reported on the ground, and that it was actually a tornado. We were unable to see it at the time due to the trees and terrain. The storm was also about to cross the highway, so I did not want to get closer at the time. Fortunately no one was hurt and there was no significant damage reported.

P.M. Martel Nebraska

I had planned on our last day being a down day and leading up to it, all the models seemed to indicate that it would be a fairly calm day. The morning of, I woke up early and checked the weather, more out of habit than anything else. After almost a week of fairly ‘calm’ conditions, there was now a high risk of severe weather in Kansas. My husband, being awesome, agreed to spend the final day of his vacation driving across half of Oklahoma and Kansas. It was worth it.

Conditions triggered a ‘localized outbreak’ in rural Kansas. The photo below is not a tornado, but one of several gustnadoes in the area.


The storm in the picture below had very strong rotation.


Eventually the storm did produce a weak, short lived tornado.

Rotation on ground, only a small portion of the funnel at cloud level is visible in this photo.

Rotation on ground, only a small portion of the funnel at cloud level is visible in this photo.

This was a fairly messy looking tornado and it never had the ‘classic’ funnel shape that many people associate with tornadoes. The upper section of the funnel stayed fairly close to the cloud base and never extended very far to the ground, although it had strong rotation.

Eventually, the upper rotation ceased and the tornado died out will the dust it had picked up from the fields falling:

P.M. Martel

One very photogenic storm that made everything worth it came just before sunset (the photos below are from the same storm):

P.M. Martel 2012

sunset storm

We saw the final one just as the sun was setting. Unfortunately the dust kicked up by the previous storms and the light conditions resulted in very poor quality photos which is unfortunate since it was much clearer in real life. I apologize for the pretty bad photos, that was as clear as I could get them with photo software. With the sun setting we ended our chase since night chases tend to be risker. I know that others stayed out watching the tornado below. This storm underscored the riskiness of nocturnal tornadoes, apparently it dropped a satellite tornado a short distance from some of the chasers, many of which were unaware of the second tornado.

Gorham or La Crosse Tornado BW

Kansas Tornado

All and all it was a great trip. Mother nature put on a great show despite conditions not being ideal and there were no serious injuries as a result of any of the storms.