Weather Lingo: Alberta Clipper

The winter season can produce a number of different types of storms. One of these is an Alberta Clipper.

These systems originate in western Canada, on the lee side of the Rocky Mountains. As  Pacific air spills downslope, an area of low pressure develops. From there, it gets caught up in the jet stream and moves to the southeast across the US. Traveling over land, these systems lack a significant source of moisture and generally do not produce much snow- usually around 1 to 3 inches. However, they are known for their strong winds and bitterly cold temperatures.

This type of quick-hitting storm takes its name not only from its place of origin near Alberta, Canada but also from the clipper ships of the 19th century – the fastest ships of the time.

Credit: NOAA

Dressing for Cold Weather

When winter rolls around, I am often reminded of the old Scandinavian saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.”

Since the weather is going to do whatever it is going to do, it is important to be prepared for anything that Mother Nature throws your way. In winter, that means cold temperatures.

Extreme cold causes the body to lose heat faster than it can be generated. Prolonged exposure, according to the CDC, can cause serious health problems such as hypothermia and frostbite.

To stay safe this winter, remember to bundle up in layers and wear hats and gloves to minimize the loss of body heat.

Credit: NOAA

Report Finds Hurricane Harvey’s Record Rainfall Linked to Climate Change

Hurricane Harvey – one of the big names of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season – unleashed catastrophic flooding in southeast Texas at the end of August. Now, after months of reviewing the data, scientists say the storm was exacerbated by climate change.

According to a peer-reviewed report by World Weather Attribution (WWA), an international coalition of scientists, human-caused climate change made Harvey’s devastating rainfall three times more likely to occur and fifteen percent more intense. Using historical rainfall data and high-resolution climate models to compare conditions in a pre-warming world to those at the time of the storm, the WWA team was able to separate the climate signal from natural variability. They found that the deluge caused by Harvey would have been a 1-in-2400-year event in the absence of global warming, but is now a 1-in-800-year event and becoming more likely.

Heavy rainfall events, in general, are becoming more frequent in many different places, because as the atmosphere warms it can hold more moisture. In fact, it can hold four percent more moisture for every 1°F of warming. This means there is more water vapor available in the air that can fall as precipitation.

After rapidly intensifying in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a category-4 storm in the Texas Coastal Bend region on August 25. It then stalled over the area for several days, unleashing massive amounts of rainfall. Cedar Bayou, outside of Houston, reported a staggering 51.88 inches of rain, setting a new record for the continental US. The storm claimed the lives of 80 people and more than 120,000 residents across the area had to be rescued from their homes. The economic impacts of the deluge are still being tallied, but it is expected to be one of the most expensive in US history.

The WWA study only analyzed the impact of climate change on Harvey’s rainfall, not its role in the storm’s formation or strength.  Those connections remain an active area of research.

Climate change made Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall worse. Credit: Climate Central. (World Weather Attribution is led by Climate Central, a non-profit research group.)

First Snowfall of the Season in NYC

New York City saw its first measurable snowfall of the 2017-2018 season on Saturday. According to the NWS, 4.6 inches of snow was measured in Central Park.

While not a blockbuster event, it was enough to leave the city looking like a winter wonderland. With all the holiday lights and decorations on display, the softly falling flakes added to the festive atmosphere.

The timing of this first snowfall was about normal for the Big Apple. On average, the first flakes of the season are seen by December 14. Our earliest first snow event on record was on October 21, 1952, and our latest was January 29,1973. New York City typically gets 25.3 inches of snow for the entire winter season.

First flakes of the season fly in NYC. Credit: Melissa Fleming

How the Santa Ana Winds Help Wildfires Spread

The Santa Ana winds are notorious for exacerbating wildfires in southern California.

These strong winds blow warm, dry air across the region at different times of the year, but mainly occur in the late autumn. They form when a large pressure difference builds up between the Great Basin – a desert that covers most of Nevada and parts of Utah – and the coastal region around LA. This pressure gradient funnels air downhill and through the passes of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains toward the Pacific. According to the NWS, the Santa Ana winds can easily exceed 40 mph.

Originating in the high desert, the air starts off cool and dry. But as it travels downslope, the air compresses and warms. In fact, it warms about 5°F for every 1000 feet it descends. This dries out the region’s vegetation, leaving it susceptible to any type of spark. The fast-moving winds then fan the flames of any wildfires that ignite.

The Santa Ana winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County, CA.

Credit: NWS

The Supermoon and Other Moon Names

The first and only supermoon of 2017 will rise on Sunday.

Supermoons are the result of the moon’s elliptical orbit around the Earth. They occur when the moon reaches perigee – its closest point to our planet (less than 223,694 miles). As it is so close, a supermoon looks 7% larger and 16% brighter than an average full moon. When seen near the horizon – where buildings or mountains provide a foreground – an illusion is created that makes the super moon look even bigger. They happen about every thirteen months or so.

When the moon is furthest from Earth – at apogee – it is called a micro-moon.

Full moons occur every 29.5 days when the moon is on the side of the Earth directly opposite the Sun. It reflects the sun’s rays and appears as a beautiful silver disk in the sky.

Ancient civilizations used full moons as a guide to schedule important activities, such as hunting and farming. They gave them each a name based on the dominant weather pattern or typical animal and plant activity during a particular month. In North America, according to National Geographic, native tribes used the moon names listed below. Many are still in use today.

  • January: Wolf Moon or Ice Moon
  • February: Snow Moon
  • March: Worm Moon or Sap Moon
  • April: Sprouting Grass Moon
  • May: Flower Moon
  • June: Strawberry Moon
  • July: Buck Moon
  • August: Sturgeon Moon or Grain Moon
  • September: Harvest Moon
  • October: Hunter’s Moon
  • November: Beaver Moon
  • December: Cold Moon or Long Night Moon

A blue moon is when a second full moon occurs in a single month. Given the uneven nature of our calendar system, these happen roughly every 2.5 years.

The apparent size of the moon as seen from Earth. Credit: KQED

Autumn 2017: Fourth Warmest in NYC

The winter solstice is still a few weeks away, but meteorological Fall (September, October, and November) has officially ended and it was the fourth warmest on record in New York City.

The season, a transitional period between summer and winter, can often feel like a temperature roller coaster. This year, highs ranged from 91°F to 38°F. In the end, though, the warmth came out on top. The city’s average temperature for the three months was 60.4°F, which is 2.9°F above normal.

In all, fifty-nine days posted above-average readings and two of the season’s three months were warmer than their long-term norms. In fact, October 2017 was the city’s warmest October on record.  

This autumn was dominated by a pattern of warm spells separated by a few short-lived blasts of cold air. It was largely driven by the jet stream staying well to the north for most of the season with just a few dips southward.

The city’s warmest autumn on record, according to the NWS, occurred in 2015, which tied 1931 with an average temperature 61.8°F.  The coldest was 1871 when the three-month average was only  51.7°F.  Central Park weather records date back to 1869.

Credit: The Weather Gamut

NYC Monthly Summary: November 2017

November 2017 felt like a temperature roller coaster in New York City. Highs ranged from an unseasonably balmy 74°F to a chilly 38°F. But with fourteen out of thirty days posting below average readings, including two record lows, the cold won out in the end. The city’s mean temperature for the month was 46.6°F, which 1.1°F below average.

In terms of precipitation, the month was mostly dry. Only 1.58 inches of rain was measured in Central Park, marking the fifth month in a row to deliver below average rainfall. The city usually gets 4.02 inches of rain in November.

Credit: The Weather Gamut

Extremely Active 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Comes to a Close

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially ends today.  Not only was it above average, as predicted, it was the basin’s fifth most active season on record.

According to NOAA, there were seventeen named storms this season. Of these, ten developed into hurricanes and six were major hurricanes with ratings of category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. An average season produces twelve named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. It is also interesting to note that this year’s ten hurricanes developed consecutively over the course of ten weeks, marking the largest number of hurricanes to form in a row in the satellite era.

This season’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE), which measures the intensity and duration of storms, was also exceptionally high. On average, a season will post an ACE of 104 in the Atlantic. This year, according to researchers at Colorado State University, it was 226 – the seventh highest in the historical record.

Officially running from June 1 to November 30, the season got off to an early start this year. Tropical Storm Arlene was a rare pre-season storm that developed in April. Another interesting outlier was Hurricane Ophelia in October. It was the easternmost major hurricane ever observed in the Atlantic Basin and the strongest storm on record to hit the Republic of Ireland. The biggest names of the season, however, were Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

In August, Harvey made landfall in Texas as category-4 hurricane. It was the first major hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. It was also the wettest storm on record, dumping more than 50 inches of rain in southeastern Texas. This extreme precipitation caused catastrophic flooding in the Houston area.

Hurricane Irma maintained category-5 strength winds for 37 hours before making landfall as a category-4 storm in the Florida Keys. Measuring about 425 miles in diameter, Irma was wider than the Florida peninsula and its effects were felt across the entire Sunshine state in early September.

Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. It was the third category-four hurricane to hit the US, or one of its territories, in less than a month. In 166 years of record keeping, that never happened before.

Causing so much destruction, Harvey, Irma, and Maria will likely be retired from the World Meteorological Organization’s list of storm names.

This active hurricane season was largely the result of above-average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and ENSO neutral to cool La Niña conditions in the Pacific. With warm water to fuel storms coupled with reduced wind shear across the Gulf of Mexico, tropical development in the Atlantic basin was essentially unhindered.

In terms of economic impact, ENKI Operations, a private research firm, estimates the property damage, clean up costs, and lost business productivity from this year’s storms to be $206 billion. That would make 2017 the costliest hurricane season on record for the US. The official tally from NOAA will not be available until early 2018.

Data: NOAA

Energy Flow: A Wind Powered Public Art Installation in Pittsburgh

On a recent visit to Pittsburgh, PA I had the opportunity to see “Energy Flow”, a wind-powered art installation on Rachel Carson Bridge. It was created in 2016 through a collaboration between environmental artist, Andrea Polli, and WindStax, a Pittsburgh-based wind turbine manufacturer.

Using sixteen small vertical axis wind turbines to power 27,000 LED lights, the piece produces a rainbow of colors up and down the bridge’s vertical supports. The light show visualizes the local wind speed and direction in real time as detected by an onsite weather station. The project also has battery storage to power the lights for up to twelve hours when the wind is not blowing. In essence, this artwork turned the bridge into a micro-grid – a single location where power is produced, stored and consumed.

As a site-specific art installation, it honors the environmental legacy of Rachel Carson (1907-1964). She was a native of the Pittsburgh area who went on to become a marine biologist and famous environmental writer. Her books, such as “Silent Spring”, are widely credited with inspiring the environmental movement of the 1960s that eventually brought about federal laws like the Clean Air Act.

The project also highlights Pittsburgh’s new focus on technological innovation and sustainability. Once known as the “Smokey City”, because of all the pollution that billowed from its plethora of mills and factories, Pittsburgh has refocused its economy and remade its image. Situated at the confluence of three rivers – the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio – it is home to an astounding 446 bridges and is now often referred to as the “City of Bridges”. The Rachel Carson Bridge was originally, and rather simply, called the Ninth Street Bridge after it opened in 1926. It was renamed on Earth Day 2006.

“Energy Flow” was only expected to be up for a few months to celebrate Pittsburgh’s Bicentennial. But due to popular demand, its run has been extended through the end of 2018.

“Energy Flow” Wind/Light Installation on Rachel Carson Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA. Credit: Covestro LLC