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Brian Colle

Canadian wildfire smoke reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the ground over Long Island. Photo by Terry Ballard from Wikimedia Commons

Brian Colle saw it coming, but the word didn’t get out quickly enough to capture the extent of the incoming smoke.

Dr. Jeffrey Wheeler, director of the emergency room at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson. File photo from St. Charles Hospital

The smoke from raging wildfires in Quebec, Canada, last week looked like a “blob out of a movie” coming down from the north, said Colle, head of the atmospheric sciences division at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. As the morning progressed, Colle estimated the chance of the smoke arriving in New York and Long Island was “80 to 90 percent.”

Colle, among other scientists, saw the event unfolding and was disappointed at the speed with which the public learned information about the smoke, which contained particulate matter that could affect human health.

“There’s a false expectation in my personal view that social media is the savior in all this,” Colle said. The Stony Brook scientist urged developing a faster and more effective mechanism to create a more aggressive communication channel for air quality threats.

Scientists and doctors suggested smoke from wildfires, which could become more commonplace amid a warming climate, could create physical and mental health problems.

Physical risks

People in “some of the extremes of ages” are at risk when smoke filled with particulates enters an area, said Dr. Jeffrey Wheeler, director of the emergency room at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson. People with cardiac conditions or chronic or advanced lung disease are “very much at risk.”

Dr. Robert Schwaner, medical director of the Department of Emergency Medicine and chief of the Division of Toxicology at Stony Brook University Hospital. Photo from Stony Brook University

Dr. Robert Schwaner, medical director of the Department of Emergency Medicine and chief of the Division of Toxicology at Stony Brook University Hospital, believed the health effects of wildfire smoke could “trickle down for about a week” after the smoke was so thick that it reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the ground.

Amid smoky conditions, people who take medicine for their heart or lungs need to be “very adherent to their medication regimen,” Schwaner said.

Physical symptoms that can crop up after such an event could include wheezing, coughing, chest tightness or breathing difficulties, particularly for people who struggle with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

When patients come to Schwaner with these breathing problems, he asks them if what they are experiencing is “typical of previous exacerbations.” He follows up with questions about what has helped them in the past.

Schwaner is concerned about patients who have had lung damage from COVID-related illness.

The level of vulnerability of those patients, particularly amid future wildfires or air quality events, will “play out over the next couple of years,” he said. Should those who had lung damage from COVID develop symptoms, that population might “need to stay in contact with their physicians.”

It’s unclear whether vulnerabilities from COVID could cause problems for a few years or longer, doctors suggested, although it was worth monitoring to protect the population’s health amid threats from wildfire smoke.

Local doctors were also concerned about symptoms related to eye irritations.

Schwaner doesn’t believe HEPA filters or other air cleansing measures are necessary for the entire population.

People with chronic respiratory illness, however, would benefit from removing particulates from the air, he added.

Wildfire particulates

Dr. Mahdieh Danesh Yazdi, an air pollution expert and environmental epidemiologist from Stony Brook University’s Program in Public Health. Photo from Stony Brook University

Area physicians suggested the particulates from wildfires could be even more problematic than those generated from industrial sources.

Burning biomass releases a range of toxic species into the air, said Dr. Mahdieh Danesh Yazdi, an air pollution expert and environmental epidemiologist from Stony Brook University’s Program in Public Health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has done a “fairly decent job” of regulating industrial pollution over the last few decades “whereas wildfires have been increasing” amid drier conditions, Yazdi added.

In her research, Yazdi studies the specific particulate matter and gaseous pollutants that constitute air pollution, looking at the rates of cardiovascular and respiratory disease in response to these pollutants.

Mental health effects

Local health care providers recognized that a sudden and lasting orange glow, which blocked the sun and brought an acrid and unpleasant smell of fire, can lead to anxiety, which patients likely dealt with in interactions with therapists.

As for activity in the hospital, Dr. Poonam Gill, director of the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program at Stony Brook Hospital, said smoke from the wildfires did not cause any change or increase in the inpatient psychiatric patient population.

In addition to the eerie scene, which some suggested appeared apocalyptic, people contended with canceled outdoor events and, for some, the return of masks they thought they had jettisoned at the end of the pandemic.

“We had masks leftover” from the pandemic, and “we made the decision” to use them for an event for his son, said Schwaner.

When Schwaner contracted the delta variant of COVID-19, he was coughing for three to four months, which encouraged him to err on the side of caution with potential exposure to smoke and the suspended particulates that could irritate his lungs.

Weather balloons were launched to gather radar data. Photo by Brian Colle, Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

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The hours a few meteorology professors and some of their students spent in driving snow and whipping wind this past weekend amid the nor’easter may improve the accuracy of future weather forecasts.

Samantha Lankowicz, above, a sophomore at SBU, takes a photo of the multi-angle snowflake camera, which is the equipment mounted on the black tripod. It captures photos of the snowflakes as they fall from three angles in real time. Photo by Brian Colle, Stony Brook University

Even as other Long Island residents were hunkered indoors, Stony Brook University Professors Brian Colle and Pavlos Kollias were teaming up with scientists from several institutions as a part of a three-year NASA-led study called IMPACTS, for The Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms.

The researchers and a group of their students launched weather balloons and gathered radar data from last Friday evening through Saturday night, as the nor’easter named Kenan dumped well over two feet of snow through parts of Long Island.

Stony Brook students helped launch weather balloons every few hours, while NASA sent an ER-2 high altitude airborne plane and a Lockheed P-3 Orion plane into the storm.

“Everyone brings their tools to the sandbox with respect to looking at these storms,” said Colle, who collected data and managed students for over 24 hours.

At 4 a.m., Colle was driving on a road where the lanes and other traffic had disappeared.

“I kind of enjoyed it,” Colle admitted, as he maneuvered along the snow-covered roadway where the lanes completely disappeared.

Colle is in the second year of an IMPACT operation that started in 2020 and was put on pause last year amid the pandemic.

The purpose of the study is to improve forecasting in a one-to-two-day time horizon.

An improvement in the accuracy of localized forecasts over a shorter time can help municipal authorities determine when to send out plows.

“The models can hone in on those features and provide what we refer to as ‘nowcasting’ or short term forecasting,” Colle said. “There’s a big emphasis within the National Weather Service of providing decision support to emergency managers.”

Part of what makes forecasting these storms so challenging is the difficulty in predicting the timing and location of snow bands, which drop large amounts of snow in short periods of time.

In addition to information from the weather balloons, scientists throughout the area gathered temperature, wind and moisture data in places like Brookhaven and Albany.

Researchers ran a few different radar systems probing into the clouds to get more details about how these precipitation bands formed. 

During the storm, Colle said the wind shear or the change in wind speed at different altitudes was dramatic, with 10- to 20-knot winds near the ground and 50-knot winds only 500 meters above.

“I was surprised by how strong those winds were, right above our heads,” Colle said.

Colle suggested that the students who participated in gathering data amid a driving snowstorm had the opportunity to apply their textbook learning to a real-world situation.

“The students learn about these measurement approaches in class” but they truly understand it differently when they gather the data themselves, he said.

Student experience

A second-year student in the PhD program at Stony Brook, Erin Leghart, who lives in Farmingdale, worked from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., which included launching six balloons in about six to eight hours.

Leghart said this was the first time she experienced winds like this in a winter storm.

She was well-dressed for the weather, as she invested in an ankle-length winter coat, snow boots, thermal long johns, Patagonia under armor and ski goggles.

Leghart said the excitement about the storm built about five days before it arrived, as it presented an opportunity to “do a live experiment.”

A sophomore at Stony Brook, Samantha Lankowicz, meanwhile, was excited to join her shift from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“I got to do hands-on science with other students,” she said.

Lankowicz, who loves snow and was hoping for a chance to study a nor’easter this year, was pleased that one of the balloons made it all the way to the stratosphere.

Lankowicz has been to other balloon launches where a snow band turned into rain, which was “not as fun, standing in pouring rain when it’s 34 degrees.”

The only time she felt cold was when she had to take off her ski gloves and put on thinner gloves to handle the balloons.

Also a sophomore, John Tafe, who is from Salem, New York, was fascinated by weather early in life. When he was four years old, he saw clouds on the horizon and predicted a thunderstorm, which not only came later that day, but also knocked out power.

Tafe, whose hands also got cold from handling the balloons, was excited to contribute to the effort.

“To be in such a major storm that hopefully will provide valuable data is exciting,” Tafe said. “I hope that the data we collected will help advance the science.”

Above, Brian Colle, who enjoys surf fishing, with a false albacore that he caught at the Shinnecock Inlet. Photo by B. Colle

By Daniel Dunaief

In August of 2014, Islip experienced record rainfall, with over 13 inches coming down in a 24-hour stretch — more than the typical rainfall for an entire summer and a single day record for New York state. The rain required emergency rescues for motorists whose cars suddenly died after more than 5 inches of rain fell in a single hour.

What if, however, that rain had fallen just 50 miles west, in Manhattan, where the population density is much higher and where people travel to and from work on subways that can become flooded from storms that carry less precipitation?

An image of an ice crystal Colle examined during a Nor’easter. Image from B. Colle

Brian Colle, professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, is part of a group that is studying flood risks in the New York metro area during extreme storms that could bring heavy rains, storm surge or both. The team is exploring mitigation strategies that may help reduce flooding.

“The risk for an Islip event for somewhere in the NYC-Long Island area may be about one in 100 years (but this is being further quantified in this project), and this event illustrates that it is not a matter of whether it will occur in NYC, but a matter of when,” Colle explained in a recent interview.

The group, which is led by Brooklyn College, received $1.8 million in funding from New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency. It also includes experts from The New School, the Stevens Institute of Technology and Colorado State University.

The co-principal investigators are Assistant Professor Brianne Smith and Professor Jennifer Cherrier, who are in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Brooklyn College–CUNY.

Smith, who had worked with Colle in the past, had recruited him to join this effort. They had “been wanting to do studies of flooding for New York City for a long time,” Smith said. “When the city came out with this” funding for research, Colle was “the first person I thought of.”

Malcolm Bowman, a distinguished service professor at Stony Brook University, holds his colleague, whom he has known for a dozen years, in high regard. Colle is “a leading meteorologist on regional weather patterns,” he wrote in an email. 

Colle is interested in the atmospheric processes that produce rainfall of 2 or 3 inches per hour. “It takes a unique part of the atmosphere to do that,” he said. The three main ingredients are lots of moisture, lift along a wind boundary, and an unstable atmosphere that allows air parcels, or a volume of air, to rise, condense and produce precipitation.

Representatives from the local airports, the subway systems and response units have been eager to get these predictions, so they can prepare mitigation efforts.

Brooklyn College – CUNY project co-leads Brianne Smith (left) and Jennifer Cherrier at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn in early September. Photo by John Mara

This group has taken an ambitious approach to understanding and predicting the course of future storms. Typically, scientists analyze storms using 100- to 200-kilometer grid spacing. In extreme rainfall events during coastal storms, scientists and city planners, however, need regional spacing of 20 kilometers. Looking at storms in finer detail may offer a more realistic assessment of local precipitation.

Researchers are anticipating more heavy rainfall events, akin to the one that recently caused flooding in Port Jefferson.

A warmer climate will create conditions for more heavy rains. Water vapor increases about 6 to 7 percent for every degree increase in Celsius. If the climate rises two to four degrees as expected by the end of the century, this would increase water vapor by 13 to 25 percent, Colle said.

The group includes experts from several disciplines. “Each of the scientists is highly aware of how integrative the research is,” Cherrier said. The researchers are asking, “How can we provide the best scientific foundation for the decisions” officials need to make. If, as predicted, the storms become more severe, there will be some “hard decisions to make.”

Smith suggested that a visible project led by women can encourage the next generation of students. Women undergraduates can appreciate the opportunity their female professors have to lead “cool projects,” she said. 

Raised from the time he was 4 in Ohio, Colle said he was a “typical weather geek” during his childhood. The blizzard of 1978 fascinated him. After moving to Long Island in 1999, Colle used to sit in a weather shed and collect ice crystals during nor’easters. He would study how the shape of these crystals changed during storms. An avid surf fisherman, Colle said there is “not a better place to observe weather” than standing near the water and fishing for striped bass, fluke, bluefish and false albacore. A resident of Mount Sinai, Colle lives with his wife Jennifer, their 16-year-old son Justin and their 13-year-old son Andrew.

As for his work on flood risks around the New York metro area, Colle said the group is producing monthly reports. The effort will end in December. “The urgency is definitely there,” he acknowledged. Heavy rainfall has increased the need to understand rain, particularly when combined with surge flooding.

A transportation study written over a decade ago describes storm surge and rainfall risk. That study, however, included a prediction of 1 to 2 inches of rainfall an hour, which is far less than the 5 inches an hour that hit Long Island in 2014.

“Once you start seeing that, there’s a lot of people who are nervous about that risk and want to get a best estimate of what could happen,” Colle said.

Cherrier described New York City as being “quite progressive” in gathering information and formulating data. “The city wants to be prepared as soon as possible.”