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Monthly Archives: November 2008

Hurricane season officially ends

November 30th, 2008 - 10:37 pm

The National Hurricane Center has issued its final regularly scheduled Tropical Weather Outlook of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season:

FOR THE NORTH ATLANTIC…CARIBBEAN SEA AND THE GULF OF MEXICO…

AS THE 2008 ATLANTIC HURRICANE SEASON APPROACHES ITS CONCLUSION… TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

ISSUANCE OF THIS PRODUCT WILL RESUME ON 1 JUNE 2009. SHOULD ANY SIGNIFICANT DISTURBANCES DEVELOP DURING THE OFF-SEASON…SPECIAL TROPICAL DISTURBANCE STATEMENTS WOULD BE ISSUED…AS NEEDED.

And so it ends.

Well, probably. Notwithstanding the November 30 “end” of the season, if any tropical systems were to form in December, they would still be considered part of the 2008 season. This happened last year with Tropical Storm Olga, and it also happened, quite memorably (at least for me), in 2005, when Tropical Storm Zeta formed on my wedding day, December 30.

It seems fairly unlikely to happen this year, though. In all likelihood, the slightly-above-average 2008 season is over. For more of a seasonal wrap-up, see my previous post.

Meanwhile, on a totally unrelated note, if skies are clear where you are, be sure to step outside after sunset Monday and look to the southwest. The three brightest objects in the night sky, Venus, Jupiter and the Moon, will appear very close together, making for a stunningly lovely sight. Here’s a photo I took tonight, from Gold Canyon, Arizona:

IMG_0886.JPG

Venus is the bottom planet, closer to the Moon. (Here’s a closer view, which more clearly shows that Venus is brighter.) The lines are planes taking off from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

The planets and the Moon will be even closer together tomorrow. In fact, in Europe, the Moon will briefly eclipse Venus. Anyway, wherever you are, take a look. I promise it’ll be well worth your while.

(See my photoblog for more, including photos of the heavenly trio hovering over the Los Angeles Coliseum during Saturday night’s USC-Notre Dame game.)

First of all: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

The Atlantic hurricane season “officially” ends this weekend, but that climatological milestone means essentially nothing, except that the National Hurricane Center will stop issuing a new Tropical Weather Outlook every six hours; the final “Outlook” will be published at 7:00 PM EST Sunday. But the season has effectively been over since November 9, when the NHC issued the final advisory on Hurricane Paloma.

Dr. Jeff Masters has an excellent wrap-up of the season, which he summarizes as follows:

The hurricane season of 2008 draws to a close on Sunday, but leaves behind an indelible mark in history and in the lives of the millions of people it affected. After two years of relative tranquility, the active hurricane period that began in 1995 returned in full force this year, living up to pre-season predictions. It was a top ten hurricane season when considering the total number of named storms and major hurricanes, and ranked 24th using a better measure of total seasonal activity, the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE). Hurricane records in the Atlantic go back to 1851. An ACE index of 95-100 is average, so this year’s ACE of 141 puts this season at about 45% more active than average.

Before anyone starts hyperventilating, I’ll say again, as I did after the hyperactive 2005 season and the relatively inactive 2006 and 2007 seasons, that a single hurricane season, by itself, tells us nothing about global warming. Only long-term trends are significant, and a single season — or even a small group of seasons — does not a long-term trend make.

In any case, Dr. Masters does more than cite various meteorological statistics about the 2008 season; he also reminds us of some of the places that saw the most human misery from the storms it spawned. At the top of the list, of course, is Haiti:

Nowhere was the hurricane season of 2008 more terrible than in Haiti. Four storms–Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike–dumped heavy rains on the impoverished nation. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation, let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country. Particularly hard-hit was Gonaives, the fourth largest city. According to reliefweb.org, Haiti suffered 793 killed, with 310 missing and another 593 injured. The hurricanes destroyed 22,702 homes and damaged another 84,625. About 800,000 people were affected–8% of Haiti’s total population. The flood wiped out much of Haiti’s crops, and aid workers are concerned that spiraling food costs will add to the toll of 26 children that died of malnutrition in recent weeks. For those looking to help out, I recommend an end-of the-year donation to the Lambi Fund of Haiti. I’ve been impressed with their efforts over the years to effect change at a grass-roots level, with an emphasis on reforestation efforts.

Cuba was hit hard too, of course, as was Texas by Hurricane Ike. Dr. Masters has more on these places and others. Read the whole thing.

Will it be a cold winter?

November 21st, 2008 - 10:34 am

In an amusing post yesterday, Dr. Jeff Masters looked at the various forecasts by wooley bear caterpillars regarding the impending winter. The verdict? “Two out of three woolley bear forecasts point to a colder than average winter for the Appalachian region of the U.S.”

But what do the, you know, scientists think? Not just about Appalachia, but about the whole country? Well, NOAA’s seasonal forecast is calling for a warmer-than-average winter across the central United States and Alaska, with an equal chance of warm or cool conditions in the rest of the country.

But Dr. Masters candidly points out that these seasonal forecasts, much like the hurricane seasonal forecasts that I’ve been so critical of, have precious little skill. Indeed, he says, the forecasts’ accuracy is “not much better than flipping a coin.”

Dr. Masters then launches into an excellent explanation of why this does not necessarily mean that long-term climate forecasts are unreliable:

A common complaint one hears about global warming predictions made by climate models is, “How can we trust the predictions of these climate modes, when they so such a lousy job with seasonal forecasts?” It’s a good question, and there is no doubt that seasonal forecasts have pretty marginal skill. However, there is a fundamental difference between making a seasonal forecast and making a 100-year climate forecast. A seasonal or a short-term weather forecast is what mathematicians call an “initial value” problem. One starts with a set of initial meteorological and oceanographic values that specify the initial state of the planet’s weather, then solve the equations of fluid flow to arrive at the state of the atmosphere a few days, weeks, or months into the future. This forecast is highly sensitive to any imperfections one has in the initial conditions. Since there are large regions of the atmosphere and ocean we don’t sample, it’s guaranteed that the prediction will suffer significantly from imperfect initial conditions. Furthermore, the chaotic and turbulent nature of the atmosphere leads to many “bumps” in the weather pattern over time scales of days, weeks, and months. The nature of turbulence makes it impossible to accurately forecast these “bumps” that are superimposed on the mean state of the climate.

A 100-year climate forecast, on the other hand, is what mathematicians call a “boundary value” problem. Given an initial and final set of factors (called “forcings”) that influence the climate, one runs a climate model 100 years into the future. The final state of the climate will depend on the strength of the forcings supplied. This type of model is not very sensitive to initial conditions, and is not trying to forecast the “bumps” of chaotic, turbulent atmospheric motion superimposed on the mean climate. Rather, one is trying to forecast the mean climate. As computer power increases and our physical understanding of how the climate works grows, these type of models will continue to significantly improve. While climate models do fail to properly simulate important aspects of our past climate, such as the Arctic warming of the 1930s, and the observed 0.1°C global temperature increase that occurs at the peak of the 11-year solar sunspot cycle, they have been very successful at simulating things like the global cooling triggered by the 1992 Mt. Pinatubo eruption, and the observed pattern of greatest global warming in the Arctic. I believe that climate models are already significantly more reliable than seasonal forecast models, and should continue to improve steadily in coming years.

This blog is, as I’ve said before, agnostic on the core question of anthropogenic global warming, and on the separate, subsidiary question of what impact such warming will/would have on hurricanes. However, this blog is strongly opposed to illogical arguments by both sides in the global warming debate, and “you can’t trust the climate models because short-term and medium-term forecats are often wrong” is a prime offender in that category. So I appreciate the well-articulated rebuttal.

Want to be a planet? Be bigger than Texas.

November 21st, 2008 - 10:22 am

This has nothing to do with weather, still less with hurricanes, but I found it on Eric Berger’s “SciGuy” blog, and it’s amusing enough to warrant a post:

Given the considerable debate as to whether such outer solar system objects as Pluto and Eris (2003 UB313) should be counted as planets, and the not-entirely satisfactory resolution on the matter recently passed by the International Astronomical Union, we offer the best possible definition of a planet–the TEXAN definition: . . .

• Since any object too small to be considered a planet is a “minor planet”, a “small solar system body”, or a “dwarf planet”, and

• Since anything bigger than TEXAS is certainly not minor, not small, and not a dwarf,

• Therefore, a planet must be any star-orbiting, non-fusing celestial body larger than the smallest sphere containing TEXAS

Using the present boundaries of Texas, this works out to a definition of a planet as an object with a diameter of at least 1,298.5 km (806.9 miles). This is the distance (through the Earth) between the northwestmost point in the Texas Panhandle and the southern tip of Texas near Brownsville. With this definition, our solar system has at least 10 and perhaps 14 known planets, so far.

Heh. There’s even a helpful photo illustration, for comparison purposes.

As a USC football fan (with, consequently, a certain degree of antipathy toward a certain university in Texas), I can’t entirely endorse this plan. But still, it’s pretty funny.

With two weeks until the climatological end of the Atlantic hurricane season, things remain utterly quiet, with no apparent cause for concern anywhere in the ocean. Dr. Jeff Masters summarizes:

In the tropics, there are no threat areas to discuss, and none of the reliable models are calling for tropical storm formation over the next seven days. However, it is possible that an extratropical low expected to form south of the Azores Islands on Monday will be able to gradually acquire tropical characteristics during the week, and could become a subtropical storm late next week. Such a storm is not likely to threaten any land areas.

On the other side of the world, there was concern earlier today about a different kind of oceanic activity — a possible Indian Ocean tsunami — after a 7.5 earthquake struck Indonesia. However, it appears no tsunami was generated. CNN reports:

A powerful earthquake early Monday in Indonesia led briefly to fears of a possible tsunami, but officials soon lifted a warning, and there were no reports of casualties or damage. …

Indonesia’s National Meteorology and Geophysics Agency said there were no immediate reports of a tsunami.

Local TV reports in Gorontalo said panicked residents were outside their homes, though there were no reports of casualties or damage.

It’s worth remembering that earthquake strength is measured on a logarithmic scale, so even a 7.5 earthquake, though nothing to sneeze at, is much, much, much weaker than the 9.0 monster that triggered the calamitous 2004 tsunami.

Meanwhile, the day’s big disaster news here in the U.S. is, of course, the Southern California wildfires. Fires aren’t my specialty, but here’s a Google Map of the affected areas from the Los Angeles Times, which, of course, has complete coverage of the fires. And here’s a summary from Dr. Masters:

A strong Santa Ana wind event continues over Southern California, fanning two major fires that have caused over $100 million in damage near Los Angeles. Wind gusts up to 76 mph were clocked early this morning at Camp Nine near the Sylmar fire, which is burning in the mountains about twenty miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Yesterday, winds gusted to 72 mph near the Montecito Hills fire in Santa Barbara County. A Fire Weather Warning continues for the Los Angeles area, and high wind warning. As air drops out of the mountains, it will warm due to compression as its pressure increases. The warm winds have caused several record highs to be set, including 91° in Burbank yesterday. Very low humidities in the 5-10% range have contributed to the dangerous fire conditions. Fire conditions will ease on Sunday as high pressure weakens, allowing winds to slow down. However, winds are not forecast to reverse direction and blow moist air inland from the ocean until Tuesday. 

Cayman Brac is vowing to rebuild after being devastated by Hurricane Paloma over the weekend. For now, however, “over half of the islands 2,000 residents remain at least temporarily homeless, and are either staying in hurricane shelters, with friends and family, or have fled to Grand Cayman,” according to the Cay Compass.

Meanwhile, the Castro government says Cuba has suffered $10 billion in damage from Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma. Of that total, $1.4 billion was caused by Paloma. Cuba says it evacuated 1.2 million people out of Paloma’s path, and that no one died — though such claims are difficult, if not impossible, to verify. A dissident group claims there was one death in the storm.

Thankfully, for both the Caymans and Cuba, all is now quiet in the tropical Atlantic, with no threat areas to discuss. Dr. Jeff Masters thinks we could get a Subtropical Storm Rene over open water south of Azores in a week’s time, but if so, it would be no threat to land. “I am not expecting any more tropical storms this season that will threaten land areas,” he writes. “With wind shear expected to rise over the Caribbean later this week, and continue to remain at high levels until late November, it is likely that the Atlantic hurricane season of 2008 is finally over in the Caribbean.”

And what a season it was. Via ReliefWeb, here’s a map of the 2008 hurricane season in the Caribbean:

Hurricane Paloma devastates Cayman Brac

November 9th, 2008 - 9:53 pm

Cayman Brac, the small island of roughly 2,000 people that bore the brunt of Hurricane Paloma as the storm was in the midst of intensifying into a monster Category 4 hurricane Saturday morning, suffered “catastrophic damage” that is being compared to Hurricane Ivan, the 2004 monster that caused nearly $2 billion in damage to the Cayman Islands. CayCompass.com reports:

Damage across the Brac has been described as “Ivan like”, with some houses completely obliterated. An estimated 90 per cent of properties have suffered mild to severe damage and many on both Sister Islands [i.e., Cayman Brac and nearby Little Cayman, population less than 200] now face a long and painful rebuilding process. . . .

“We’ve got catastrophic damage here in Cayman Brac,” [Deputy District Commissioner Mark] Tibbetts said. “I would say 90 per cent of properties on the Brac are damaged and, if anything, that is probably being a bit conservative.

“You are talking about buildings that are totally demolished, roof damage from shingles blown off to rooves being completely ripped off, all along from one end of the island to the other.

“There will be lots of [people left homeless] for a long–term period,” he said.

Schools have been damaged by the storm, two hurricane shelters were themselves breached and the Cayman Brac police station has lost its roof. All that is left of the warehouse at the Government dock is a frame, Mr. Tibbetts said. . . .

As for nearby Little Cayman, damage there is reportedly extensive, but “not…as bad as many had feared.” Grand Cayman, meanwhile, was spared the worst of the storm by a well-timed right turn (which, unfortunately, but the smaller islands in Paloma’s bullseye).

Storm Carib has lots of reports and some aerial photos of damage in the Caymans. Also, here‘s a great satellite view of “what hit them” — the first visible photo of Paloma’s eye on Saturday, just after it hit Cayman Brac:

Meanwhile, in Cuba:

Hurricane Paloma leveled hundreds of homes along Cuba’s southern coast . . . Crashing surf and a powerful sea surge sent waves almost a mile (1 1/2 kilometers) inland as the storm ravaged Santa Cruz del Sur, the coastal community where it roared ashore Saturday night.

Javier Ramos said he rebuilt his simple wood-frame house in Santa Cruz del Sur after Hurricane Ike struck in early September, only to watch Paloma flatten it again.

“At least we’re alive, but my wife hasn’t seen this yet,” Ramos told The Associated Press as he scavenged bits of clothing and smashed dishes in his front yard. “I don’t know how she’s going to react. It’s going to be terrible.”

More than 10-foot-high (3-meter-high) waves washed away nearly all traces of about 50 modest houses in Santa Cruz del Sur. Civil Defense authorities said altogether 435 homes in the community were destroyed.

More here.

Oh, and the National Hurricane Center has issued the final advisory on Paloma — and perhaps the final advisory of the 2008 hurricane season.

Paloma weakens over Cuba

November 9th, 2008 - 9:40 am

Hurricane Paloma is, as expected, falling apart over Cuba, due to the combination of land interaction and wind shear. In the National Hurricane Center’s 10am EST discussion, forecasters candidly admit that they don’t really know how strong Paloma’s winds are at this point, but they estimate them at 60 mph, with further rapid weakening expected. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, “the Cuban weather service said it was all but gone and was now not even a tropical depression.” The reality may be somewhere in between what they’re saying in Miami and what they’re saying in Havana.

There isn’t much to say about Paloma’s future, because it doesn’t have much of one. The official forecast calls for Paloma to be a tropical depression within 24 hours, and a remnant low within 48, but the discussion adds, “IF THE CURRENT LACK OF DEEP CONVECTION PERSISTS…PALOMA COULD DEGENERATE TO A REMNANT LOW SOONER THAN PREDICTED HERE.” With wind shear forecast in the 50 mph range, it’s difficult to see how Paloma will be able to regenerate much convection.

The real question now is how much damage the storm has done. In Cuba, that may be hard to ascertain. Alan Sullivan, blogging from the cruise ship Noordam, snarks:

Southern Cuba must have taken a bad hit from surge yesterday. The storm was moving on a rare trajectory and caught a concave coast. We will probably hear reports than no one was killed. No one is ever killed in Cuban hurricanes, thanks to the superior media control. How do you say “fairness doctrine” in Spanish?

For what it’s worth, here is what the AP is reporting so far about storm damage in Cuba:

A ferocious Hurricane Paloma roared ashore in Cuba on Sunday, downing power lines, flooding the coast and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate on an island still recovering from two other devastating storms.

Early reports of damage were limited, but Cuban state media said the late-season storm toppled a major communications tower on the southern coast, interrupted electricity and phone service, and sent sea surges of up to 700 meters along the coast.

I assume that “700 meters” means the surge went that far inland; certainly Paloma did not produce a wall of water 700 meters (or 2,300 feet) high. Anyway…

In the central-eastern Cuban province of Camaguey, more than 220,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas. Another 170,000 people were moved in the eastern province of Las Tunas.

Cuba regularly relocates masses of people to higher ground ahead of tropical storms and hurricanes, preventing major losses of life. …

In an essay published in state media Saturday, former President Fidel Castro warned that Paloma could slow Cuba’s recovery from hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which hit in late August and September causing about $9.4 billion in damage and destroying nearly a third of the island’s crops.

Meanwhile, Cayman Net News reports extensive damage to Cayman Brac:

The majority of buildings on Cayman Brac have sustained major damage and some roads on the South Side remain impassable following the passage of Hurricane Paloma . . .

According to Cayman Net News Brac correspondent Carlton Lyons, approximately 50 per cent of houses have completely lost their roofs and approximately 20 per cent more have partial roof damage. Mr Lyons estimated that only 30 per cent of homes on Cayman Brac remained completely intact with no structural damage. He also said that some homes appeared to be completely destroyed. 

Cayman Brac’s 1,800 residents are currently without power, running water or Internet service. Many utility poles were downed or snapped by the force of Hurricane Paloma’s powerful winds. 

In addition to destroying homes, Paloma also caused damage to some of the Brac’s Government buildings and business places. 

Mr Lyons reported damage to two Government hurricane shelters. Part of the roof came off at the West End Primary School, and the ceilings caved in. The same situation occurred at the Seaman’s Centre on the Bluff. . . .

Of the major businesses on Cayman Brac, Mr Lyons reported that Billy’s Supermarket is “completely destroyed” and the building housing Tibbetts Enterprise has lost its roof. He also reported that the Tibbetts Square Marketplace, which houses the Cayman Brac office of the Cayman Net News, has lost its roof and Paloma’s torrential rains soaked through the structure. 

The Brac’s houses of worship were not immune from the high winds, and Mr Lyons observed that the Cotton Tree Bay church received extensive damage. 

The Brac’s tourism sector also received significant damage, with Mr Lyons reporting that the roofs on the Brac Caribbean Beach Resort and the Brac Reef Resort were lost to Paloma’s winds. . . .

Most of the damage on Cayman Brac appears to be caused by Paloma’s high winds; however, Mr Lyons said that the district of Spot Bay also experienced extensive flooding. 

Mr Lyons reported that the West End of Cayman Brac appears to be the most extensively damaged area of the island.

Paloma hits Cuba as a Category 3

November 8th, 2008 - 7:49 pm

Hurricane Paloma made landfall near Santa Cruz del Sur in Cuba this evening, after a faster-than-expected approach to the island, as a Category 3 hurricane with 125 mph winds.

Storm Carib continues to have coverage.

UPDATE: From the 10pm EST discussion:

THE LAST AIR FORCE RESERVE RECON REPORT AT [6:05 PM] INDICATED A MINIMUM CENTRAL PRESSURE OF 968 MB…WITH AN EARLIER MAXIMUM FLIGHT-LEVEL WIND OF [136 MPH] IN THE SOUTHEAST QUADRANT. SINCE THAT TIME…PALOMA HAS MOVED INLAND AND THE COMBINED EFFECTS OF MODERATE VERTICAL WIND SHEAR…DRY AIR ENTRAINMENT FROM TH SOUTH…AND LAND INTERACTION WITH CUBA HAS SIGNIFICANTLY DEGRADED THE CONVECTIVE ORGANIZATION AS NOTED IN SATELLITE IMAGERY. HOWEVER…RADAR DATA FROM CAMAGUEY CUBA ARE STILL INDICATING STRONG CONVECTIVE BANDING OF 50 DBZ AND HIGHER VALUES COMPRISING THE NORTHERN EYEWALL. BASED ON THIS INFORMATION AND THE POSSIBILITY THAT STRONG WINDS STILL EXIST OVER THE OPEN WATERS OF THE GULF OF GUACANAYABO…THE INITIAL INTENSITY IS ONLY DECREASED TO [115 MPH]…MAINTAINING PALOMA AS A MAJOR HURRICANE. . . .

PALOMA SHOULD CONTINUE TO WEAKEN DUE TO INCREASING VERTICAL SHEAR AND LAND INTERACTION WITH CUBA FOR THE NEXT 12-18 HOURS. AFTER EMERGING OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN…STRONG UPPER-LEVEL WESTERLY SHEAR SHOULD BE THE MAIN WEAKENING FACTOR. HOWEVER . . . MOST OF THE GLOBAL MODELS ARE FORECASTING THE MID-LEVEL FLOW BELOW 30,000 FT TO DECREASE TO 15-20 KT…WHICH COULD ALLOW FOR SOME MODERATE CONVECTION TO PERSIST NEAR THE LOW-LEVEL CENTER…AND MAINTAIN PALOMA AS A TROPICAL OR SUBTROPICAL CYCLONE. THIS SCENARIO IS ALSO SUPPORTED BY THE MODELS FORECASTING UNUSUALLY COLD 200 MB TEMPERATURES OF AROUND -55C…WHICH WOULD ACT TO INCREASE THE INSTABILITY AND SUPPORT CONVECTIVE DEVELOPMENT BEYOND 72 HOURS.

Thefofficial forecast track calls for Paloma to curve back west into the Bahamas as a weakening storm, then a remnant low.

Hurricane Paloma strengthened to an extremely intense Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph as it passed near Cayman Brac and Little Cayman early this morning. Damage on those islands will presumably have been severe. Storm Carib will have damage reports as they come in; see specifically here.

The National Hurricane Center’s 10am EST discussion suggests that Paloma may have peaked at an intensity even stronger than 140 mph sometime between 5:30 AM (when it was upgraded to Cat. 4, with 135mph winds) and 10:00 AM. Now, it is expected to begin slowly decreasing in strength:

RADAR FROM CAMAGUEY AND REPORTS FROM THE AIR FORCE RESERVE SUGGEST THAT PALOMA IS STARTING AN EYEWALL REPLACEMENT CYCLE WITH CONCENTRIC EYEWALLS NOTED. THIS STRUCTURE…COMBINED WITH SHEAR THAT IS LIKELY TO INCREASE TODAY…SUGGESTS THAT SLOW WEAKENING IS LIKELY. 

Now the storm is headed for Cuba, and despite the expected weakening, the latest forecasts indicate it will probably still be a major hurricane (Cat. 3 or above) at landfall overnight tonight or early tomorrow morning. The NHC notes that ”EXCEPTIONALLY HIGH STORM SURGE VALUES OVER 20 FEET ARE POSSIBLE ALONG THE SOUTH COAST OF CUBA IN THE GULF OF GUACANAYABO DUE TO THE TRACK AND INTENSITY OF PALOMA.”

Rapid weakening is expected after landfall in Cuba, as the combined effects of wind shear and land interaction take their toll.

Finally, an interesting bit of trivia: Paloma is currently “TIED FOR THE SECOND STRONGEST ATLANTIC HURRICANE EVER NOTED IN NOVEMBER…THE STRONGEST BEING LENNY IN 1999.” Given the suggestion that Paloma may have gotten stronger than 140 mph at some point this morning, it is possible Paloma will take sole possession of second place when the NHC produces the post-season storm verification report. (It is unlikely to surpass Lenny, which had 155 mph winds.)

UPDATE: Dr. Jeff Masters has a full update.