Lost in Translation: What (Some) Hurricane Terms Actually Mean

Subtropical Storm Alberto was a weird system. But we can discuss the science of “weird” another day. Today, on the official first day of the Atlantic hurricane season, I want to talk about jargon.

Meteorologists learn a truckload of new terms when they start studying the weather. And then we use those terms weekly if not daily. It’s surprisingly easy to forget what it was like when those words were confusing or unknown. Here, I’d like to translate some of the terminology thrown around related to hurricanes. (A hurricane has maximum sustained winds of at least 74 MPH.)

Let’s start with tropical cyclone, often shortened to TC. “Tropical cyclone” is the generic term for a tropical storm/hurricane that develops anywhere in the world. How do we know a storm is a tropical cyclone? Via three main criteria:
      1) It spins
      2) It has a closed circle of spinning
      3) Thunderstorms hang out (and persist) near the center of the spinning

The spinning, or circulation, is important. All cyclones spin, and cyclones occur across the globe, but not all cyclones are tropical. (Here’s an example of a non-tropical cyclone over the Central U.S.) Also, the character of the circulation is important. If you read the fine print of National Hurricane Center (NHC) discussions, you may see text similar to “this storm has now developed a closed circulation and can be designated a tropical cyclone” when a storm receives a number or a name. This means the winds are spinning around the center on all sides, and once that happens, the storm is becoming more organized. Storms are more capable of strengthening when they have a closed circulation.

Finally, the thunderstorms. Thunderstorms are convective clouds: they form in response to rising air. This animated GIF of another NON-tropical cyclone shows temperature and, at the end, wind speed and direction. The strongest thunderstorms look coldest because the tops of the clouds reach high into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere gets colder as altitude increases. So the more yellow/orange/red a pixel is, the colder that cloud top is, and thus the higher it is. In the GIF, the coldest clouds are very far away from the center of the storm. This is one way we know a storm is NOT tropical. Tropical cyclones need those cold clouds–thunderstorms–to be close to the center. And those thunderstorms need to exist for an extended period of time, at least 12 hours. A single thunderstorm near the center isn’t enough to cause a spinning storm to be a tropical cyclone, but this pushes us into the dynamics of tropical cyclone development which is outside the scope of this post…

(One more thing: the word cyclone isn’t used for just anything that spins. A tornado is not a cyclone. Neither is a dust devil nor a waterspout. What’s the difference? Size. Cyclones are much larger than an individual tornado.)

Now for the word subtropical. It’s like “subpar.” Subtropical means a cyclone isn’t quite tropical. We use the term for cyclones that generally meet criteria #1 and #2 but not #3. Official definitions refer to subtropical cyclones as “hybrid” storms, having characteristics of both tropical and non-tropical cyclones.

Unfortunately, that’s confusing to any non-meteorologist. Why bother giving them names or issuing watches and warnings on subtropical cyclones? Because their effects aren’t much different from a tropical storm. They’re just as capable of producing storm surge, strong winds, and heavy rain. Those hazards can be deadly no matter the shape of the subtropical or tropical cyclone that causes them. It’s the NHC’s responsibility to monitor, forecast, and warn on tropical systems, and subtropical systems fit under that umbrella.

Let’s go back to the shape thing. Criterion #3 has the important caveat of thunderstorms being near the center. In a tropical storm (maximum winds between 39 and 73 MPH), the strongest winds are generally located near those thunderstorms shown in satellite images as the coldest cloud tops (often referred to as the deepest convection). So, in a tropical storm, those thunderstorms are near the center, and so are the strongest winds.

In a subtropical storm, the maximum wind criteria is the same (39-73 MPH), but where those winds are located isn’t. This means the center of the storm could hit land in the exact same place, but if it’s a subtropical storm, the strongest winds will be in a different spot compared to a tropical storm. This difference in the winds can affect the location of both storm surge and rainfall.

Here’s a satellite image comparison between Subtropical Storm Alberto and Tropical Storm Hermine. Cloud tops are much colder for Hermine than for Alberto, and the shape is also quite different:

Should we still label them differently for public communication purposes? Maybe not. It’s an ongoing debate in the scientific communication community. But the science behind the storms is different, and operational practices at the NHC tend to be led by science, not by communication. Efforts are being made to weave social science and psychology expertise into operational practices, but change can take a long time due to the testing and approval process required for official products. In the age of Twitter and other instant-access media, that change can feel glacially slow in coming.

One final note: for Alberto, the advisories eventually switched from the NHC to the Weather Prediction Center (WPC). This is because these two agencies serve different purposes, and the NHC isn’t responsible for continued monitoring of over land systems. However, the NHC webpage links to WPC advisories, so the flow of information isn’t interupted. Always pay attention to products from your local National Weather Service (NWS) office if you are in the path of any storm being monitored by the NHC.

Feel free to contact me with questions! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few acronym definitions and resource links:
      NHC = National Hurricane Center, https://www.nhc.noaa.gov
      WPC = Weather Prediction Center, http://www.wpc.ncep.noaa.gov
      SSHWS = Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutsshws.php


motivation amidst uncertainty

(Thank you, Firefox, for claiming “amidst” was misspelled and leaving me uncertain about my spelling skills.)

As an assistant professor, I’m constantly living with uncertainty.

I know I’ll learn something from each lecture I give, but I don’t know what that will be until I give it.

I don’t know what reviewers will be assigned to each manuscript I submit for peer review and eventual publication. I write each paper to the best of my ability and hope the reviewers will be impartial and focus on scientific content, but each reviewer is human, as is the editor. And there is always the chance of outright rejection.

I work and write and work and write some more to create grant proposals, but I don’t know whether I’ll get funded, whether that work was–in some respects–for naught.

And, of course, there is the inherent uncertainty within research itself. You hear about the 95% confidence level or p<0.05 and other metrics. These are ways to quantify how certain (and, conversely, how uncertain) we are about our results.

Living with uncertainty is hard. Retaining motivation can be even harder.

Then I remember I learn something every time. So I apply what I've learned. I refine my lectures. I change my approach to the material. I gain a broader perspective on the diverse learning styles and backgrounds of students in my courses. I become a better advisor and mentor. I write better papers. I become a better evaluator of others' work. Eventually (hopefully) (someday) I'll land a grant.

Applying these lessons to writing is difficult. There's so much uncertainty in writing (does this idea work? can I finish this book? will anyone like it? will revisions matter? even if my CPs/betas love this book, what if no agent does? what if it gets me an agent but that agent can't sell it? what if the book lands a deal but doesn't get enough sales?). I'm burned out at the end of every day–many of which extend beyond 10 hours–which makes finding the motivation to keep working, even on something I enjoy, even on something as different from STEM academia as creative writing can be, a challenge.

Yet, in both academia and writing, I still find things I love. I discover and join invaluable communities. Sure, there's much uncertainty, but there's also much to gain.

I just have to focus on the rewards rather than the risks.


burn·out, n.
physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress

To be quite honest, I’m burned out. Since the semester began, my academic job has taken over my life during the week (example: yesterday I got to the office before 7am and didn’t leave until 5pm). When I get home, I’m too wiped to do more than hang out with my spouse and attempt to do basic things like make dinner and clean dishes and otherwise keep the house tidy.

Over the Labor Day weekend, I planned to write ALL THE WORDS. I have a MS draft I’m tearing apart and putting back together. The book is mostly written. I just need to fix it.

Yet when I sat down to write, nothing happened. I stared at the screen. I gravitated toward Netflix or video games instead. Or flopped onto the couch with music and let my mind wander… to all the things I wasn’t doing. The writing I wasn’t working on. The research I wasn’t getting done. The grant proposals lying in stasis. The unfinished grading lurking over my shoulder.

I’m slowly developing a more manageable schedule for work. I’m hoping that schedule will weave in enough self-care time to motivate me to write again.

Until then, I don’t feel like much of a writer.

word vomit

It’s as ugly as it sounds.

A blank page is suddenly covered with words that probably go together but don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Notes might be mixed together with description and dialogue. After word vomit (sometimes sprints, sometimes not) sessions, I tend to end up with pages of white space randomly punctuated by words in brackets ([], my way of adding notes) and bullet points.

July, as a Camp NaNoWriMo month, is my word vomit month. Because I’m trying to get words into a first draft. They don’t have to be good words. They’re generally crappy words. But they’re words. They’re mine.

Through word vomit I get a better sense of my world, my characters, the events that force my characters to move forward and create waves of their own. I try different POVs, different verb tenses, sometimes even different approaches for the same scene if it’s a pivotal one.

It’s okay to have a terrible first draft. I’d argue it’s expected. (If you write good first drafts, you’re a sparkly unicorn and I admire the hell out of you.)

So whether you are a pantser or a plotter, if you’ve hit a wall and can’t seem to write anything, why not try vomiting words? As terrible an analogy as that is, sometimes you need to purge the “bad stuff” from your system–in my case, it’s paralyzing self-doubt more often than not–before the better words start to flow.

Some of my best writing sessions come after I’ve given myself a chance to word vomit.

identity crisis

This hasn’t been an easy post to write. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder for a while now as I go through the exploration process of figuring out my identity.

Before I hit puberty I figured I was a normal enough girl. A little behind in the physical growth department, a bit of a tomboy, a bit of a nerd–yay science!–but other than that, I was normal.

I had to be normal. If I didn’t fit in I was wrong. So to be right I had to be like everyone else around me.

That mindset thoroughly screwed me up when puberty hit.

My emotions didn’t cooperate with me. I was moody but I didn’t want to be “that moody girl” which made me even more moody (go figure). I had crushes on boys that were rarely reciprocated, and though I desperately wanted those feelings to be reciprocated, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with a boyfriend. Hold hands and get lots of hugs, maaaaybe kiss. That was it. (FYI, I’m a hug fiend. I’ll take ALL THE HUGS.)

I also had raging impostor syndrome. If I wasn’t the best, I wasn’t good enough. If I wasn’t getting As, I wasn’t trying hard enough. I was told I was smart. I had to live up to those expectations. But trying as hard as I did, working as hard as I did, meant lots of stress and anxiety and sleep-deprived nights and randomly crying at my friends’ houses over the dumbest things. Plus, I always wondered what about me might get anyone to like me (as a person, not romantically) and whenever I felt like I wasn’t living up to the expectations of “a good friend” I thought I was failing at life and deserved to die and that’s enough of that memory lane.

(I had awesome times too. I had steadfast friends who somehow put up with all of this. But right now I’m focusing on the things that felt off or wrong.)

Some of my favorite memories are of times when I was one of the guys. Playing video games, throwing footballs, being the only girl or one of a scant few girls who could respond to sports trivia during a Battle of the Sexes match (I’m not going to go into my newfound issues with that game right now likjsdlfkjsdfg).

I also lived in the age when the Internet was becoming more of A Thing. My life changed when we got cable internet and no longer tied up the phone line to get online. Why? Because I discovered something I’d been Warned Against: chat rooms.

I won’t go into detail what happened in those chat rooms. You’re welcome to ask me about it in a private conversation though. (If relatives find my hidey hole in this corner of the internet, I don’t want them learning about it this way. This post is exposing enough as it is.) But I found some good friends there. I lost one to suicide. I was talked out of considering suicide myself.

And in those chat rooms I got my first hint that I might not be straight. (For example, they introduced me to fanfic and made me realize the silly stuff I wrote was fanfic too.)

That was high school. Fast forward to college and meeting my husband and getting a series of degrees (BS, MS, PhD). I didn’t think about my sexuality so much during those years–I fell in love with a man; look how straight I am!–but I still had a deep-seated, nagging sense of wrongness due to my femininity. Or, you know, lack thereof.

I’d longingly stare at the guys’ section when I went into Macy’s or Old Navy or wherever to find clothes. (I still do.) I deliberately bought shorts that went down to my knees and were practically the female version of cargo shorts (good grief were those hard to find sometimes). I wanted to buy guys’ button-up tops because the ones made for women either hung too loosely or had the hey-your-boobs-don’t-fit issue. I wanted to look like the models who wore the shirts. I never could.

I still remember a time in high school when I was waiting outside the counselor’s office to ask a question about my schedule. A friend of mine saw me and stopped by to chat. We were having a friendly conversation, yet I couldn’t help but notice how his eyes kept straying to my chest. It made me profoundly uncomfortable. “My eyes are up here!” and all that.

Ever since that moment I’ve had a see-saw relationship with women’s shirts. Do I get the v-neck or not? Do I want guys to stare at my chest or not? I wanted guys’ attention but did I want that kind of attention?

No, I really, really didn’t. I wanted to be a person first, a maybe-once-we’re-good-friends-and-we-both-like-each-other-we-can-do-physical-stuff second. Or third. Or fourth.

I was pretty sure I wanted sex. Eventually. I loved characters getting together in books and movies and whatnot. I wanted that for myself at some point. But I didn’t want it with just anyone, and I had a hard time understanding the people around me who would talk about wanting to sleep with Such and Such celebrity or So and So classmate or whoever. I’d talk like I was on the same page as them–and believe me, my mind is a dirty one–but I knew I would never act on what I said.

Many of you reading this can see where I’m going at this point, but it wasn’t until recently I had a word for it. “Demisexual.” Not broken, not stupid, not prude, just someone who wants the emotional connection before the physical one.

Okay, so there’s facet one of my identity. Facet two came to fruition when I finished the first draft of my first novel. It featured a lesbian MC, and writing her was the most cathartic experience I’d had (up to that point). But I laughed at myself. I liked guys. I couldn’t possibly be identifying with her. I was writing her as a lesbian because she was a lesbian and couldn’t be any other way.

Lots of soul-searching and reading and writing a second novel (and joining Twitter) later, I accepted the fact that I’m biromantic. Another label that wrapped around me like a warm blanket saying “Welcome home.”

After the euphoria of discovering that wore off, I still felt incomplete. Sure, part of it was from self-doubt: I was married to a guy, was I really queer? (Thankfully the Twitter community validated the hell out of me and continues to do so to this day.)

So back to the soul searching, the reading, the writing.

My current WIP features a biromantic/demisexual female MC. It also has a nonbinary character. The words weren’t flowing, so I started writing some scenes in first person from the nonbinary character’s perspective.


Words exploded onto the page. Snark, personality, biases and preferences and idiosyncrasies.

*blink blink*

Okay, step back, this can’t be happening, I can’t be identifying with this agender character like I am.

I looked in the mirror one day last week and mouthed the word “nonbinary.” I looked at myself as a female and then as a person not quite female.

I liked my reflection a lot better when I saw her as not quite female.

I played a game of horseshoes this weekend. They had marks set up for women players, a shorter distance, but I threw from where the men threw. I wasn’t good at it, but it felt good to claim the position I felt should be mine rather than the position assigned to me by my physical gender.

It felt right.

So there’s the other facet of my identity. I’m biromantic, demisexual, and nonbinary but mostly female. Good grief it feels amazing to type those words and claim them as mine. I’m still claiming she/her pronouns, but I certainly don’t–can’t–identify as 100% cis female.

One day I might say “panromantic” instead because I’m hugely binary-averse right now, but it’s also a freaking huge step for me to claim a nonbinary gender in any sense of the word, so I’ll cling to the still-somewhat-new-to-me biromantic label until I’m more comfortable with all these changes.

Hi, world. This is who I am. It’s nice to see you as me.

how do you write like you’re running out of time?

As you may have gathered from the title of this post, I’m somewhat obsessed with Hamilton right now. And I want to write like I’m running out of time. Trouble is, 1) I’m low on inspiration right now, and 2) I don’t have a lot of time. You’d think #2 means I’d write a lot–because I’m running out–but somehow it means I write less. The inspiration’s hard to come by, sure, but the minimal amount of time available to me is in the way too.

Once things settle down next month, in a new house with a devoted office for my writing use, I imagine some aspects of writing will become easier. I hope to set a schedule such that I write a little every day–ideally on my WIP, but if I write anything, that’s a win–but that’s next month.

In the meantime I’ll be traveling internationally for work, and I’m not sure where I’ll find the time to write. My schedule will fluctuate every day, and I won’t necessarily be in the same place.

Any tried and true tips for making time to write with a busy schedule? Send them my way!

get that query critiqued

A short (and late) post today to emphasize one key thing for the querying writer:

Get that query critiqued.

However good you think it is, your query can ALWAYS improve. Always. I guarantee it. And the only way it’s going to improve is through fresh eyes. I see potential in other queries that I can’t find in my own. I’ll think my query is just fine until feedback makes me realize how much I needed that critique.

Since it’s not easy to get critiques — especially much-needed ones — I’m going to emphasize one more key thing.

When you receive a critique, you should allow yourself time to go through the grieving process. I’m not kidding. You may be angry and/or reactive the first time you read someone else’s comments. That’s okay. But don’t act on that anger. Let it rest. Give it time to sit. Do something else.

Same goes for feeling insecure about yourself as a writer after receiving a critique. It wasn’t given with malicious intent (or if it was, stay far away from that person). It wasn’t given to make you feel small. It was given to help, to support, to lift your writing to the level they know it can reach. (I don’t say this because I’ve conquered this issue. I say it because I’m still struggling with it.)

And then revisit those comments. Think about them like you would a critique you’d given someone else. Sure, the person might not have gotten everything right. You’re the writer; you deserve the first and last say in your own words. But they may point out something you never would have seen. And even if you disagree with the way they suggest you solve some problem, the fact that they identified that problem is important, and you should address it.

The querying process is a rough roller coaster ride. But keep trying, keep writing, keep querying project after project and harness the talent and insight of a community of writers.

I honestly believe learning how to write better (and how to pitch better) isn’t a waste of time.

the importance of a few words

Right now, I’m not a great writer.

I’m capable of writing well. I’ve written things that work. But at the moment, I’m not good at writing. Amidst a busy semester (and a bunch of little unexpected things), I haven’t found that much-needed rhythm of getting in a little writing every day.

I was down about that for a while. I hated being so tired, so worn out, so not in control of my own schedule that I couldn’t write.

Thankfully I have amazing friends who encourage me to keep writing, who blow me away by how they feel about words I’ve managed to get onto the page.

Today I saw this tweet:

It’s one of many reminders that a few words can go a long way. Don’t forget to highlight what your writer friends do well. I want to encourage my friends who write to keep going, and I can’t thank enough those who support me.

word sprints

Hello fellow IWSG members! I have a positive post this month! FINALLY.

So, what’s a word sprint?

As far as I can tell, it’s a concept that arose with NaNoWriMo: you set a time range with other writers–10 minutes, 15 minutes, an hour, or any other interval you want–and you write as many words as you can in that time. Some people set goals before they start, others simply try to get words on the page (I’m one of the latter). At the end, you check in with the other sprinters and compare word counts.

They. Are. Magic.

There’s something about writing with other people for a set amount of time that lets my fingers fly. I wrote 2700 words the other night thanks to word sprints. I didn’t expect to write at all that evening, and instead I got scenes that formed in the heat of the moment, scenes that deviated from my original thought process but were so much better for it.

No, really. I had a nebulous idea in my head for one scene, and another scene simply started with the mental image of a house’s eaves dripping with melting snow. Now I have an incredibly important character for my MC’s development, a better sense of my MC’s voice, and a greater love for this WIP in general.

I needed those word sprints that night.

I’m not saying they’ll always be magic. You may have a block you can’t get past even with a deadline, or you may be between ideas (whether for a scene or a character or for entire WIPs). But when you feel like you can’t write–and you want to–they’re a great thing to try. Get on Twitter, look for others who want to sprint or are already sprinting, and get those words onto the page.

You may write something you never saw coming.