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Thursday, July 6, 2017

OPCW's No Wind Theory

Idlib Chemical Massacre 4-4-17
Wind Direction Explainer
OPCW's No Wind Theory
July 6, 2017
Last edits July 10, Sept. 27

The report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the Khan Sheikhoun incident is now public. (PDF link) A number of interesting points are made, but here I'm interested what they say about the wind. Having invested some time into getting a clear reading from numerous videos filmed at different angles, and having noted in clashes 180° with the opposition's claims (as shown at right and explained here, it blew to the north-northeast, while families were reportedly killed mainly, or entirely, to the southwest).

So I remain interested in how opposition-supporting people and agencies handle that problem. Most just ignore the contradiction. This Al-Jazeera graphic (modified), shows the same area we identified (but bigger, showing the entirety of affected neighborhoods). This ignores the wind (which I added in green) and just noted more people lived that way than to the east, almost as if it blew in both directions. 

But the OPCW is tasked with understanding what scientifically happened. Surely they can' just ignore the wind?  

Point 5.6 in the report (p.18) explains "No meteorological data was available for Khan Shaykhun, therefore weather conditions were estimated by reviewing historical data from www.worldweatheronline.com and www.wunderground.com in Hama City, Idlib City and Latakia." Of course there are plenty of videos available showing the wind directly. But they ignored that meterological evidence, maybe because it wasn't pre-processed into "data," and chose to rely on limited  online sources instead.

Figure 3 (p. 18) is a map that "shows the wind directions over time in these three locations on the morning of 4 April 2017." I understand these are direct reading at the airport, and should be reliable for those spots.* (I'd be surprised if Islamist-run Idlib is part of this system, but normal government-held Hama and Latakia should be.) 
* <add July 10>As Charles Wood explains (see comments) World Weather Online uses 'computer models' that are often wrong. Weather Underground uses readings from volunteer stations, which aren't specified but could be accurate. Airport records are not cited, nor is the "synoptic scale" wind prediction, which is also inaccurate, compared to the actual wind on video. <end July 10>

But these are all some distance from Khan Sheikhoun and only given for the top of every third hour. Knowing the direction, we can see the closest match is seen in Idlib; at 3:00 am it was northeast at 5mph, and at 6:00 NNE at just 1mph, shifting to northwest by 9 am. That's like the prediction cited by Ted Postol for midnight to 3 am, but closer to the right time, and about what we see in KS just a bit later.

But having no clue what the real direction was, they apparently chose Hama as the best predictor, and it is closer. "The  team  estimated  the  likelihood  that  the  wind  was  coming  from  somewhere  between the South and the East, but could not be certain." (the map shows Hama's airport reading to the northwest at 2mph at 6:00). 

"Based  on  that  data,  the  wind  speed  was  low  but with  no  certainty  of  wind  direction." Low and uncertain could be read as very low and maybe irrelevant, and to the extent it is relevant, it could be almost any direction. This is handy, in context. Because I've assessed the probability of it blowing from the south-southwest to the north-northeast, in the video supposedly from the very time and place in question, as 100%. And I'm certain. The exact heading and speed are debatable, but not the basic direction. (The speeds is not very low, nor very high - estimated around 6-8 mph (a 1 or a 2 on the Beaufort scale), and higher than the other prevailing speeds the OPCW found online). 

Why the OPCW, with all its resources and brains, decided to forgo the most direct evidence for wind direction can only be speculated on. My guess is they did try it, but didn't like how that clashed badly with the affected area (which agrees with all we've seen - see below).

From the vagueness of wind direction, the OPCW turns to "narratives" that include  witness  testimony in  relation  to  the weather and topography." Witnesses to topography make no sense, but here we learn the OPCW is also considering "activists say" weather reports, and maybe their tip-offs to consider differences in elevation. It's unclear to what degree their massacre-concealing trick define the OPCW's findings. But in the narratives, overall, "the weather was sunny, with a clear sky and no discernible wind." (point 5.12) Then what did I discern pushing northeast in all those videos the OPCW ignored?

I noted topography as one other factor besides wind in my explainer. In the absence of wind, the main factors in sarin or any vapor exposure will be proximity and topography; those nearest the plume and those downhill will fare the worst. "But," as I noted, "most would say, and many have said about this attack, and it's mostly true - the wind is the main difference in who lives and dies," if there is one. And I hadn't considered topography much until now because it doesn't seem to matter, in light of the obvious wind visibly directing the alleged sarin fog, mostly uphill as it turns out.

Figure 4 (p19) is an (exaggerated) topographic map of the town (right). We're looking north here, and he blue area is the basic release point. Yellower areas to the left and towards us is what they suggest the sarin cloud sought out, killing those in its path. 

As they note "A broad description of the topography showed a small downward incline to the south and west from the initiation point."  A non-3D version from Google maps I've referenced agrees with this point (labeled version below) - if there was basically no wind, the plume should drift ... not quite into the purple area so much a bit in all directions (the immediate area is fairly level), but favoring a small valley wrapping around the north of that area. But this might be close enough, and it's not opposite of what the opposition reported.

<add 9/27>Or it's still way off, but still not 180 degrees. As I managed to just squeeze into my recent Indicter article, the OPCW is even more clearly wrong about the topography, and they may have even realized that and tried to make it look better with some more shifty moves. As noted, the topographic map they used is quite exaggerated, which makes slopes appear steeper and more relevant than they really would be. But even worse, they shift the focus to the wrong spot, which makes it connect to the right kind of slope for their theory. They apparently indicate the release area in blue. What else would it be? Well, by size, shape, and locale, it's the bakery, a bit southeast of the release point.
It took me a while to notice that. Corrected here, we can see (or open in a new tab if it's too small to see) IF there was no wind, the sarin would not likely roll southwest at all, but only northwest - especially if the wind were a bit that way, as the OPCW decided was most likely! So they make the bakery blue, and hey - it's next to a slope to the southwest.

This topography things doesn't pan out very well, even in the hypothetical. In reality, it's also up against the fact that there was a discernible wind blowing the opposite direction of that wrong slope, that visibly (to me anyway) pushes the mystery fog northeast, even though that's slightly uphill. But somehow the OPCW just either missed this, or deliberately left it out of their deeply flawed report.  <end 9/27>

So they chose to ignore the best evidence for wind, found a few reasons to basically ignore it altogether, and apparently settled on topography as the driver of death here. And as it happens, that's a lucky slope for the opposition's story. Figure 7 (right) shows the "origin of casualties, as derived from interviews and recieved [sic] evidence." As we've seen, this pointedly includes no usable wind direction clues. It will include where people were reported dying and being affected. It may not be complete, but should show the main area(s) at least. And, by a curious line of reasoning, this is also just about the topographically-defined spread area they decided on. 
But this is a bogus claim, put in context at right with labels like I used for Al-Jazeera's take. As I recapped at ACLOS a few days ago, based on a preview of the report, and revised here:

We can see the wind to the northeast doing the shaping, not that slope. 
* The smoke plumes analysis is clear, from multiple angles: all discernible wind shaping and movement is to the northeast.
* More relevant to any sarin plume at ground-level: The 'white cloud' of expanding vaopr (ignored in the OPCW report, by the way) has its left side smearing left on the wind (as seen from the north), despite this slope (the right side expands against the wind, I think, because it's in the tel's wind shadow, being just barely northwest of it). 

* That white cloud seems to expand into a fog that seems to spread left and towards the camera over the unseen 20-25 minutes between attack plumes and fog videos (a bit to the right (west), because of  that wind shadow). The scene makes sense in light of the model I made. Any sarin from THAT spot could coat the affected area (red dots), besides an ignored area south and east of it that should be hit twice as hard. We don't know what it is - perhaps but probably not sarin. There's no sign of any blast here, just fog suddenly billowing out at the time of the attack or false-flag event. (see white fog explainer)

* There's also a southwest fog area (also ignored in the report, except to falsely imply it might have been bombed at 6:45 like the other spots). From here, a recently-destroyed farmhouse of some interest (see here), the mystery mist clearly spreads left and towards (east and north), here despite a general if mild up-slope the whole way. It does split around a hill there, and will prefer the lowest path available, but it was dense, spread wide, and rolled primarily uphill on the wind, just like it would do in the north. 
 * It'll roll slower than it would on flat ground or downhill, but visually, it gets there, however fast. 

The OPCW have poor analysis or distrust the video to make this claim of no wind. ... Why couldn't they just cite the wind like normal?

I also wondered "Are they reacting to me? Maybe not, but who else raises the issue? And why scramble to explain unless there's an issue?" Now having seen the report, it's clearly no kind of rebuttal of my findings, just more of their avoidance of the true wind direction. The contradiction is fatal to the opposition story, and reality has issued a death warrant on it. By ignoring this, it seems the OPCW is trying to get the story though alive, out of respect to political agendas rather than to the truth they seem to be  sheltering these claims from.
Some Different Readings
1) HRW witness Ahmad al-Helou: Helou says he "saw the plane drop a bomb and the bomb falling until it hit the ground. The bomb fell in front of the bakery," meaning the famous sarin release point. It didn't blow up, but "he saw the bomb kick up yellowish smoke that spread in the prevailing wind." (HRW report) He would also say the wind must be to the southwest if he were shown the map. He'd clash with the video evidence and lose the clash. But anyway, he cites a wind, not a slope, as deciding where the "dust" spread.

2) Ted Postol (via Robert Parry)
"MIT analyst Theodore Postol notes that the plumes appear to be blowing to the east, in contradiction of the day’s weather reports and the supposed direction of a separate sarin cloud. ... Indeed, if the wind were blowing toward the east – and if the alleged location of the sarin release was correct – the wind would have carried the sarin away from the nearby populated area and likely would have caused few if any casualties, Postol wrote."
He's right, and that's a multi-way clash between the opposition/terrorist claims, various predictions, and the video. It's either a problem with the video or with the rebel claims (and with all clashing predictions). Rebel claims are usually lies, weather predictions are often wrong, and the camera doesn't lie, in itself. So here we are.

3) Rod Barton, the Interpreter: Arguing against Ted Postol's incorrect wind direction (a baseless prediction of a wind to the northeast - the same one the OPCW seems to favor as a possible direction, if there were one), Barton wound up supporting the true direction that's now to be ignored, because the OPCW decided there was just no wind direction.
"As further proof of faulty US intelligence, he claims that a dead goat found about 40 metres from the crater was upwind and therefore could not have been killed by sarin from the crater. ...With regard to the dead goat, Postol has simply got the wind direction wrong. It is clear from smoke drift shown in a rebel video that the air was almost still in the early morning of 4 April, with just a slight easterly movement above roof top level in the direction of the goat. Thus the animal could have easily been killed by the sarin from the crater."
"Almost still" is debatable, and could be seen as favoring the OPCW case, but again he shows whatever the degree, it's discernible, pushing smoke and fog at least partly to the east. He may have been aware of this problem in that, leading him to clarify it's very slight, and only above the trees (and it's true, that's all we see). And so he leaves it somewhat open ... maybe the goat is out of the frame after all and the rebel story remains possible? Note: The goat isn't exactly downwind (northeast), but rather a bit southeast, at least when dead. But at 40 meters, and perhaps less at first, the poor creature was so close it's likely to die in any case where a toxin was released in that spot, regardless of wind.If any wind could save it, though, it would be the one Postol decided on, again without good reason.)

4) Timmi Allen, Bellingcat: In a video analysis posted on Twitter, Allen explains his theory that while higher-level winds are clearly discernible and move to the left (east), there's a somewhat opposite wind at ground level pushing things to the right. But he can only point to one thing this wind seems to blow on, and fails to notice it blows in two different directions. This is the white cloud as it was just starting to expand: the right side is in the wind shadow of the tel (flat hill) and the left side is more exposed to the wind. Hence, the right side billows outward while the left does the same, but also gets smeared on the wind (see graphic above, first made in response to Allen). While the OPCW decides there was "no discernible wind," Allen sees TWO different ones, one of which doesn't exit, and the other one of which is fatal to the opposition's story.

5) Alaa Al-Yousef: Alleged witness/survivor, cousin and publicist for the case's star witness and "proof man" Abdelhamid Al-Yousef. As the CBC reported, after hearing from Alaa, he and his family "were lucky, the wind went in the other direction, Alyousef said." He doesn't say what direction that is, but is clear on it blowing towards his cousin's house and others, all southwest of the impact. But when the time is right, their story in general can be as lucky as he says his family was when the sarin blew away from them to the southwest - now there was "no discernible wind," instead of one opposite of what they need, and it was a gentle slope to the southwest that doomed some and not others. At least, the esteemed folks at the OPCW have decided as much, as they scrape for reasons to blame the Syrian government and absolve the foreign-supported terrorists there for the ongoing massacres of Syria's people. 

6) Added 9/27: from SNHR report: Hala, 26 “The wind sent the gases away from our house, which reduced the concentration of the gases in our house area, as the effects on me and my family were less severe compared to other areas. However, I was affected suffered from gas symptoms." Is that the implied wind to the southwest? The opposite one to the northeast seen in videos of the event? The one likely to the northwest but not "discernible," like Hala thought she had discerned?


  1. Strangely missing from the OPCW interviews, HRW's only witness to see the actual plane Ahmad al-Helou also saw "smoke that spread in the prevailing wind".

    I'm not sure their marked area is right - any cloud floating directly south seemed unlikely to me, the main road at the junction is at best flat (maybe even slightly uphill) as it goes past the bakery.


    The OPCW report also seemed disappointingly vague on victim locations.

    'Ali Omar's wife' from the Justice For Life report was interesting though - husband in prison, renting out their apparently spare home to a 'family' who have now vanished..! How did they escape the Sarin I wonder?

    1. Good call on HRW - was tired when I wrote this. Will add.

      The report also seems to mention that home. It;s not as vague as I heard though, with that map of casualties (basic area). It's enough to get their foot in their mouth.

  2. The OPCW reference to World Weather Online is ridiculous. As WWO say in their site they don't use actual observations, just 'computer models'. And those models can be and often are wildly wrong. For example I just checked the last provided weather at my location. WWO says Wind North . In fact it was according to Met Bureau actual data as West - and the other readings from stations in the metro area also didn't show North.

    The use of Hama is also odd. There is no airport there, and no METARS. There may be a Syrian Government observation station but that's not referred to. Then the cryptic reference to Weather Underground. Possibly a source for Hama and Idlib? So why not cite the stations? Wunderground keeps detailed records from thousands of volunteer stations each with a unique ID.

    There is also no reference to the synoptic scale wind which was generally North to South - supporting their case.

    However, all this is moot (mute for Americans). Wind direction at low speeds under an inversion can vary wildly over the scale of a few km. Complete reversal of direction is quite usual. Reference to any of those sites, especially Latakia, can't be used to establish North Khan Sheikhoun township micro-weather.

    It sounds like OPCW had minimal professional meteorological input. Definitely no micro-meteorologists who know about wind fields on the 1-20 km scale.

    The ground truth is all that matters. The videos, if filmed on the day, show a light wind from the SW quadrant to the NE quadrant and with a low inversion. That is perfectly compatible with the synoptic scale data. Local winds are essentially random swirls under those conditions.

    1. Thanks for the clarifications on the site methods. Will update.

      FWIW we also say moot, not mute. Or I do anyway.


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