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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Weather

Aired January 1, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods. It is not just the weather that's changing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. JOHN KELLEY, DIR., NATL. WEATHER SERVICE: Twenty years ago, the first note of a tornado was essentially when it touched down. Today, in Oklahoma we had over 17 minutes lead time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHAW: Forecasting mother nature will never be the same.

Welcome back. I'm Bernard Shaw.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Judy Woodruff.

Every day we see weather forecasts on television. It's a part of life. We almost take them for granted. But as we begin the 21st century, we know more about global weather patterns than ever before and that knowledge is making a crucial difference. We're going to spend the next few minutes taking a closer look at weather and at weather forecasting. Let's start right here in the CNN Weather Center with CNN's own meteorologist Dave Hennen -- David.

DAVID HENNEN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Bernie, Judy, we are looking at a pretty quiet weather pattern over much of the world, which has been the case over the last 24 hours. We do have some snow and rain to report though, as we check your forecast. First of all, over Asia, some snow into North Korea. Rain showers further to the south into South Korea. Beijing has seen snow in the last several hours or so and may see another round of snow into the overnight hours on Sunday and into Monday. Same story around Tokyo, dry conditions now but we do expect some rain in the forecast. Tokyo forecast is for a high of about 10 degrees centigrade, that's 50 on the Fahrenheit scale.

Elsewhere over the Indian subcontinent, it is quite warm, a little bit cooler than normal though, with temperatures in Munbai about 34 Celsius. We check the weather over Australia, we do expect some onshore flow and morning showers around Brisbon and back into Sydney. A tropical cyclone perhaps developing further to the north could bring some rain along the northern Australia coast. And forecast temperatures in Sydney are quite warm, especially in the middle of Australia, where temperatures in Alice Springs will warm up to 36.

The Euro continent, windy once again. In London we'll see some breezy conditions during the day on Sunday. Parts of Ireland and much of the U.K. will see very gusty winds. Back through a good part of the Baltics, we're looking at a little bit of light snow. And Scandinavia expecting more snow as well. London, the forecast high about 9. Over Africa we are looking at a stread (ph), which is a tropical cyclone which will diminish over the next 24 hours as it moves back into the Mozambique Channel. And North American weather rather busy. In the northwestern U.S. we expect quite a bit of snow to develop. That's a look at your weather.

WOODRUFF: All right.

And when we hear Dave Hennen say that it will be 10 degrees in Tokyo and windy in London, it's no accident. All this is the product of new technology and a lot of hard work, and it really pays off when violent weather strikes. Once again, here's Dave Hennen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a tornado right out my back door.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That struck at the worst possible time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's our house!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're experiencing the worst conditions we have seen yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next thing we knew, we started to see the houses come down. We had about seven people trapped.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's frightening in the sense that mother nature is so incredible, puts you in your place.

HENNEN (on camera): At any one time on our Earth there are literally dozens of different weather patterns going on, and weather extremes, too. For instance, there may be a drought going on in Australia or El Nino and La Nina affecting the weather over the Western Hemisphere. And in the United States, the thousand plus miles from International Falls to Key West, Florida, in between is where we see some of the world's worst weather.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It sounded like a freight train. It just passed right on top of us.

HENNEN (voice-over): The United States has more tornadoes than anywhere in the world, averaging more than 650 twisters a year. A dramatic example of that, the super outbreak in 1974. One-hundred- and-forty-eight touchdowns in 16 hours in 11 states. And there's a new disturbing trend. Tornadoes moving right down main street through the heart of major metropolitan areas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at it. Right downtown. Look at the city. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Man. Good lord.

HENNEN: Tornadoes have been around since the beginning of time. One-hundred years ago, there was no way to monitor these deadly storms. But fortunately, the revolution in weather technology has made it possible to locate tornadoes and issue quicker warnings.

KELLEY: Twenty years ago, the first note of a tornado was essentially when it touched down. Today, in Oklahoma we had over 17 minutes lead time on average.

HENNEN: Recently, we've seen one of the most active hurricane patterns in recorded history in the Atlantic Ocean. The second half of the decade got walloped with 66 named storms, many of them major hurricanes with winds of more than 111 miles per hour, that's about 15 more storms than the average for that time.

JERRY JARRELL, DIR., NATL. HURRICANE CENTER: We are now at an all time high in that five-year running mean of hurricanes. Named storms, we're almost at a -- we're tied with 1936 for an all time high. So we're -- we are indeed in a peak.

HENNEN: And there is plenty to be concerned about in the future.

ROSS HAYS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: In the '70s and '80s we were in a colder water Atlantic basin, and now we've gone back into warmer like in the 1940s into the '50s, and had strong hurricanes hit the East Coast in those decades.

JARRELL: Sooner or later, we're going to have a major hurricane strike a major metropolitan area. We have not had that happen with a modern city. It just hasn't happened. We've been lucky. When that does, then we had better be prepared for it.

HENNEN: Our weather is guided, in simple terms, by the atmosphere and the ocean redistributing the uneven heating of the sun. This interaction creates numerous weather patterns, sometimes with turbulent results. The United States was devastated during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. When the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in 1993 it caused more destruction than any other flood in U.S. history.

And just this past October, with winds in excess of 165 miles an hour, one of the strongest cyclones ever devastated India. A cyclone is just like our hurricane in this hemisphere and just as devastating. We're starting to understand more about the weather patterns that drive these disasters, like El Nino and La Nina.

ANTS LEETMAA, DIR., NOAA CLIMATE PREDICTION CTR.: One way to think about the El Nino and La Nina is that you can think of sort of the Pacific Ocean as a really giant bathtub. That's pretty hard to imagine. Further the distance around the globe and the warm water kind of sloshes back and forth for a period of about two to four years.

HENNEN: Some global effects of El Nino are massive mudslides, heavy rain and severe drought. While high tech has recently helped us trace the trends of this phenomenon, El Nino has been around forever.

LEETMAA: As far as we can tell, it's been around for thousands of years. It's a natural way of -- that the ocean and the atmosphere work together. We've seen -- you can look back through Nile River flow records, you know, that go back 2,000 years. You can look at sediments in Peru, lake -- old dry lake sediments. And, you know, those track those things back thousands of years. And we anticipate they'll -- the El Ninos and La Ninas will continue into the future.

HENNEN: The good news is meteorologists are recognizing these patterns and their effects much faster than ever before.

KELLEY: Twenty years ago, we were in an El Nino before we knew we were in an El Nino. And the last El Nino, we forecast it several months in advance.

HENNEN: Man himself may be creating changes in weather patterns. The depletion of rainforests, the ozone layer and other factors may be leading to global warming. Several studies say our cities are heating up. For example, Chicago's deadly heat wave in the summer of 1995 that killed more than 700 people.

(on camera): So what's ahead in the new millennium? Do we expect the same weather patterns and weather trends to continue to drive our weather? I've talked to a lot of different experts from across the country and they're all telling me the same thing. There is really no clear-cut answer.

(voice-over): And while we may make great leaps forward in forecasting, there is a theory to prevent the perfect prediction. A theory we call chaos.

PROF. WILLIAM DITTO, GEORGIA TECH UNIVERSITY: The whole idea behind the butterfly effect is that a butterfly flapping its wings China can change the weather in such that it'll change, say, a hurricane coming into the Florida coast, and that's actually true. I mean, it's not that we can track down that butterfly, but that small of a change actually can change the weather -- the global weather dramatically. And so, that's why it's so hard to predict in the short term. The weather is just the quintessential chaotic system.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENNEN: I think that's the bottom line. Behind me we have all of this expensive equipment that helps us to forecast the weather, and while we are at a time where we are looking at better forecasts than ever before at any time in history, we may never get to that point where you can have the perfect forecast -- Bernie and Judy.

SHAW: Dave, please stay right there in the weather center. When we come back, we're going to hear from you along with the chief of the country's top weather agency.

WOODRUFF: They're going to talk about predictions we can live with, when "Millennium 2000" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: Well, as we've been hearing, trends in weather forecasting have improved dramatically, but only so much. How will that affect how all of us live in the future?

Joining us now, our own Dave Hennen, at the weather -- our meteorologist here at the CNN Weather Center, and the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, James Baker. He joins us from Washington. Dr. Baker, to you first, we've heard in Dave Hennen's report how much better forecasting has gotten, and yet he talked about the whole chaos theory, how we're not really sure how much better it can get. From your perspective, how much better can we get in terms of knowing what the weather is going to be?

JAMES BAKER, NOAA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, we're doing a very good job right now in terms of looking at large storms or big affects. For example, our forecasts of rain usually are on target about 90 percent of the time. With the Doppler Radar systems that we have in place, we're getting a very good picture of exactly what's happening out there, and with these new computer models, we can really do a good job of forecasting up to a point. You can go up to about a 10-day forecast with the way the system is today. Beyond that it's more difficult. You have to look at other kinds of issues.

WOODRUFF: And is that going to change in the future?

BAKER: Well, we're hoping to get better ways of observing things, and also, more high-speed computers, so that's going to help us improve our forecast tremendously.

SHAW: Dr. Baker and Dave Hennen, what good are accurate forecasts with all of this mega technology if people insist on living and building where they shouldn't?

BAKER: You know, this is a problem. And one of the things that we've tried to do is to provide the information that we get, sometimes it's technical information, in real easy to understand ways, so that people can see it and find a way to either stay at home, get into a safe place, or else evacuate. But if you don't have the evacuation routes, as we saw in the Hurricane Mitch situation in Honduras last year, you still have a big problem, and that is a real difficulty.

WOODRUFF: What about, both of you, what about building, what about these evacuation routes, these issues? Is there enough cooperation now between the forecasting people and the people in charge of the infrastructure, government authorities and so forth?

BAKER: Well, I can talk about the government side. We have very good cooperation with FEMA, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, EPA, the other agencies that are really involved here. And we try to help out in designing better building standards, better ways to get warnings out, and to provide that information out to people in the ways that they need it. We even work very closely with countries abroad, so that they can learn some of the lessons that we've learned.

HENNEN: I think, too, that the media and the outlets have gotten much better getting the information out. Certainly you're not in the dark anymore. I don't think we're going to get to that point where we're going to miss major weather events. We may miss some of the subtle weather events. But any of the major weather events -- if you take, for instance, the Oklahoma City tornado, that was well warned. The warnings were out some hour in some cases before the tornado actually hit some of the communities. So there's no big surprises anymore like there were in the past.

BAKER: Yes, that's true.

SHAW: Well, each of you must have fantasies, wild dreams in which you imagine being able to do more with your science. My question is, do you think technology will ever prevent cyclones, will ever prevent tornadoes, hurricanes?

HENNEN: I think modification may be a bit off. We're still trying to figure out in some cases how to forecast some of these major storms. So I think we're a long way away from getting to the point where we actually can get in and modify. Although, there have been some studies, and from what I understand, it would be very hard to do, the amount of energy involved, for instance, to -- say, to turn a hurricane, is just something that in our present technology we're incapable of doing.

BAKER: Yes. The energy involved is so large. A typical hurricane involves something like exploding an atomic bomb every second as it moves along. So if you want to influence that, it's very difficult to do. There have been some examples of where cloud seeding has provided a little bit of extra rainfall, but as far as modifying the weather, that still is a long way off. What we hope to do, though, is to do a much better job of accurate local forecasts, because if we can get real accurate measurements, get some real high- speed computers, 10 to 100 times of what we have today, we can do a better job of doing very accurate local forecasts. That's something we're very excited about.

WOODRUFF: Dr. Baker, does this apply really just to the United States, western Europe, Japan? What about the rest of the world? How much can it benefit from this remarkable technology and how it's going to improve?

BAKER: Well, one of the things we're doing right now is sharing the information that we have globally over what's called a global telecommunications system. All of the satellite data that we collect from our satellites, our weather satellites, weather satellites of other countries is piped down and available to all these countries, and the models that are developed, these computer models that do the forecasts are also made available to these countries. So even though those countries don't participate in the heavy infrastructure of the technology, they're able to get the data and then their problem is trying to develop it so they can get the warnings out in the right way.

HENNEN: I think Dr. Baker brings up a good point, too. There are a number of countries that do forecasting and computer modeling, and it's interesting that we share some of the European models here in the United States, and talking to forecasters there, they do the same. They'll use some of our same United States models to do their forecasting. So I think that globally there's a lot of sharing of data going on.

WOODRUFF: But, for example, the recent flooding in Venezuela, the terrible loss of life, the damage. Was that something that could never happen in the United States, because of our technology, not to mention geography?

BAKER: Well, we see a lot of flooding in the United States. The 1993 flood in the Mississippi, for example, was a good example. But we have learned lessons. For example, in 1927 there was a huge flood in the Mississippi. Tremendous number of people died, were made homeless, had to move out, and farm land was ruined. But we've learned our lessons now. We have a lot of flood control in place and we have new advanced flood prediction systems that are there. What we're trying to do now is to export some of these ideas about flood forecast to countries like China, and India, and South America, so that they can those as they look at their natural disasters.

SHAW: Can you please answer this question? El Nino, La Nina, which is next and which should people in North America be concerned about in the coming months?

BAKER: Well, right now we're in a -- what we call a La Nina phase. The El Nino is when you have warm water in the Pacific sloshing back and forth, as Ants Leetmaa said. The La Nina is just the flip side. It's cold water in the Pacific, and it affects our jetstream. It makes the jetstream do a couple of things. One is it kind of curves it so that we get either very cold or very warm weather. Right now, we're in a La Nina phase, cold water in the Pacific, a curved jetstream, and so we get kind of this oscillation between cold winter and warm winter. And in fact, it looks like we're going to see in California -- we're probably going to see a switch from this relatively mild weather that people have been seeing in the West over to cold weather, which is pretty typical of La Nina winter.

HENNEN: Is it true, Dr. Baker, that we don't understand La Ninas as well as we do El Ninos, so that's something that we're trying to understand even more too?

BAKER: Yes, it is true. In fact, the El Nino, because it's this very strong signal in very warm water is something that we have studied for a long type. We have a little better understanding of that. The La Nina, though, we're learning a little bit more about, too, because we have a whole set of buoys out in the Pacific that measure the temperature of the water, measuring the temperature of the water, then looking at what the satellites can tell about the winds allows us to do some science, we can figure out what's actually happening there.

WOODRUFF: All right. Gentlemen, stay with us. We've been talking about forecasting and weather in the Earth's atmosphere. When we come back, we're going to ask if it's possible to forecast in outer space? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHAW: Housekeeping question to you, Dave. How does weather forecasting from outer space help you at CNN Center?

HENNEN: Well, quite a bit, Bernie. We have satellites that we tap into, are able to look at different feeds. You know, remember, some of this technology has not been around all that long in the relative scheme of things. Satellites, for instance, only since about the late 1960s or so. And so, we have not had a chance to look at the data as much as we could have if we would had these around much longer, obviously, and -- so as we continue to look at the stuff, we're getting better understandings of some of these different global weather patterns.

WOODRUFF: Dr. Baker, what about the question of forecasting in space? I mean, is anybody sitting around now looking that far ahead, thinking about space travel in the future, all those things that are flying around out there?

BAKER: Yes. One of the big issues that we have in space are the emissions that come from the sun. You get X-rays and radio waves and highly charged particles that can damage a integrated circuit or can kill a person. And so, we're very interested in monitoring what happens with these solar storms, or big flares that come from the sun. We have a couple of satellites up there now that are managed jointly by NASA and the Air Force and NOAA, and we look both at the X-rays and the radio waves, and we also look at the charged particles. Right now, we're in the midst of what we call a solar maximum. For the next year or so we expect a much higher probability of some of these flares. If we can monitor them, understand something about what goes on in the sun, we'll have a better chance of understanding what's going to be the impact on space travel.

WOODRUFF: So -- and that's my final question. What about space travel? How much do the people at Nasa have to think about it what it's like out there in terms of the weather?

BAKER: Well, this is a big problem for a mission to Mars. It's not too bad for a mission to the moon, which only takes a few days. But if you want to go to Mars, it takes over a year. So you've got your astronauts out there in space for a long time. There's a much higher probability of having a big solar flare. And so, one of the things that NASA does is look for ways to protect the astronauts. For example, you can have them go into an area that has a lot of water around it so that they can be protected. But this is something that's built into the whole idea of long space travel, how to protect yourself against these solar flares. It's a real problem.

WOODRUFF: All right. Once again, our thanks to Dr. James Baker, the head of the NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and our own meteorologist, Dave Hennen, thank you both.

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