About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is both an environmental communicator and visual artist. Researching the ways art and science interact, she has presented at a variety of venues, including national and international conferences.

What is Normal Weather?

When a significant weather event occurs, we often hear it being compared to “normal”. While this helps put an event into perspective, you may wonder – what is normal?

Climate normals, according to NOAA, are defined as the 30-year average at a given location. They are calculated for several climatological variables, including temperature and precipitation. Updated every decade, the current set of averages is based on the weather from 1981 through 2010.

These statistical measurements also help put climate trends into context. As greenhouse gas emissions continue to spew into the atmosphere, it should not come as a surprise that “normal” these days is warmer than it used to be. For the continental US, according to Climate Central, the average temperature has increased 1.4°F since 1980.

This may seem like a small number, but it is having big impacts. It reflects the increasing number of extremely hot days and the decrease in extremely cold days. Looking at daily temperature records across the US, record highs have outnumbered record lows in 26 of the last 30 years. In 2012, that ratio was as high as 7:1.  These changes and the effects they have are what is meant by human caused climate change ushering in a “new normal”.

Credit: Climate Central

Powerful Thunderstorm Batters NYC

The first severe thunderstorm of the season barreled through the New York City metro area early Tuesday evening. Strong winds and heavy rain were reported across the region.

After an unseasonably hot and humid day, a fast moving cold front moved in from the west and triggered the violent storm.  According to the NWS, 0.58 inches of rain was reported in Central Park and wind gusts at JFK airport reached 55 mph. It is also interesting to note that the temperature in the city dropped from 88°F to 68°F in less than one hour.

The powerful and fast moving storm knocked down trees and caused power outages throughout the area. Rolling through the city a little after 5PM, the storm also wreaked havoc on the evening commute. All MetroNorth Railroad lines out of Grand Central Terminal were suspended because of downed trees on the tracks. Additionally, the city’s three airports reported significant delays.

Outside of the city, the storm turned deadly claiming the lives of at least five people. That number includes an eleven year old girl who was crushed by a tree while sitting in a car in Newburgh, NY. No injuries or fatalities were reported in the five boroughs.

A powerful thunderstorm moves across NYC. Credit: southerlysweet/Instagram

Severe Weather: Watches and Warnings

Severe weather, the type that can cause property damage and loss of life, can take a variety of forms depending on season and location. But during spring and summer in the northeastern United States, it usually takes the shape of an intense thunderstorm. In addition to thunder and lightning, these storms produce strong winds, heavy rain, hail, and the possibility of a downburst or tornado. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between the various alerts issued by the National Weather Service. They include advisories, watches, and warnings.

  • Advisory: Issued when significant, but not necessarily hazardous, weather conditions are likely to occur. Residents should exercise caution.
  • Watch: Issued when dangerous weather conditions are possible over the next several hours.  They generally cover a large geographic area.  Residents should be prepared to take action.
  • Warning: Issued when dangerous weather is imminent or already occurring.  They cover a smaller, more specific geographic area.  Residents should take action immediately.

Stay safe!

Weather Lingo: Downburst

Thunderstorms pose a number of familiar hazards, such as lightning and hail. The lesser-known downburst, however, is also a serious threat to life and property.

A downburst is a strong downward current of air that causes damaging winds on or near the ground. They initiate high up in the atmosphere, where relatively dry air is entrained inside of an intense thunderstorm. The dry air evaporates some of the storm’s raindrops, which has a cooling effect. Since this cooler air is denser than the warm air that surrounds it, it sinks rapidly toward the surface. When it hits the ground, it spreads out radially – in straight lines in all directions. Reaching speeds in excess of 100mph, a downburst will knock down trees and other obstacles leaving a trail of debris all facing the same direction.

These straight-line wind events, according to the NWS, can vary in size and duration. When they cover an area less than 2.5 miles, they are referred to as microbursts. These typically last between 5 and 15 minutes. Larger events, known as macrobursts, affect an area greater than 2.5 miles and last from 5 to 30 minutes.

While short-lived, these powerful winds can pose a threat to property on the ground as well as airplanes in the process of taking off or landing.

Credit: NWS

Volcanic Smog: Kilauea’s Other Threat

Lava is not the only thing flowing out of the fissures of Kilauea on Hawaii. Sulfur dioxide, a foul-smelling and toxic gas, has also driven people from their homes.

According to the USGS, sulfur dioxide levels near the volcano have been measured above 100 parts per million. That is a level considered dangerous to human health. Noxious on its own, sulfur dioxide is also the main ingredient in volcanic smog. Known as vog in Hawaii, it can have a variety of adverse health effects.

Vog occurs when the sulfur dioxide spewing from a volcano reacts with oxygen, moisture, and other particles in the air in the presence of sunlight. It is considered a form of air pollution, not unlike that given off by power plants burning sulfurous coal. Looking back to December 1948, a similar type of toxic smog caused by unregulated industrial pollution killed 26 people and sickened thousands of others in Donora, PA.

Volcanic smog can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Shortness of breath and dizziness can also occur.  Its effects can be even worse for anyone with respiratory problems or lung disease.

This threat, on top of the flowing lava, has led public health officials to order an evacuation of areas around the fissures, such as the hard hit Leilani Estates.  Other parts of the Big Island, however, have reported moderate to good air quality. This is largely because the region’s prevailing northeast trade winds have been pushing the vog offshore. If those winds slacken and a southeasterly flow emerges, the vog could impact a wider area, including other islands in the Hawaiian chain.

Volcanic eruptions spew gas as well as lava. Credit: GoVisitHawaii

Suddenly Summer: Record Breaking Spring Heat in NYC

After a long cold winter and a chilly start to spring, it suddenly felt like summer in New York City this week.

According to the NWS, the temperature in Central Park hit 90°F on Wednesday. That marked the city’s first 90°F reading of the year and tied the daily record set in 2001. The sultry conditions continued on Thursday as the temperature climbed to 92°F, setting a new record high for the date. The previous record of 90°F had been in place since 2001.

Thursday’s low of 70°F was another record breaker, surpassing the old record of 68°F from 2001. In fact, this low reading was warmer than the date’s normal high. The city’s average high and low temperatures for this time of year are 67°F and 50°F, respectively.

These dramatic temperatures are the result of a Bermuda High, a large area of high pressure situated off the mid-Atlantic coast. Spinning clockwise, it has created a warm southwesterly flow of air into the northeast.

This summer-like weather brought many New Yorkers out of hibernation and into the city’s numerous parks and outdoor cafes. However, for some, the heat comes with a cost. It can lead to the formation of ground-level ozone, which is why an air quality advisory was issued for the area. Anyone with respiratory concerns, like asthma, has been advised to stay indoors.

While these temperatures are unseasonable, the city has seen 90° readings arrive even earlier. The earliest, according to NWS records, was April 7, 2010, when the mercury climbed to 92°F.

If you are not quite ready for summer, fear not. Conditions more typical of May are expected to return this weekend.

A week of weather whiplash for NYC. Credit: The Weather Gamut

April 2018: Unseasonably Cold and Wet in NYC

April felt like a wild ride of weather in New York City this year. It produced both a record-breaking snowfall and a balmy summer preview with temperatures in the 80s. However, with 19 out 30 days posting below average readings, the cold won out in the end. The city’s mean temperature for the month was 49.5°F, which is 3.6°F below normal.

While unseasonably chilly, the month was not a record breaker. That dubious honor, according the NWS, belongs to April 1874 when the monthly temperature was only 41.1°F. The city’s warmest April on record was April 2010 with a mean temperature of 57.9°F.

In terms of precipitation, this April was unusually wet with 14 out of 30 days producing rain or snow. In all, the city received 5.78 inches of rain, which is 1.28 inches above average. Of that total, 49% fell during a single heavy rain event on April 16. Snow was also abundant with 5.5 inches measured in Central Park. Coming down during a single storm on April 2, it set a new daily snowfall record for the date. On average, the city gets 0.6 inches of snow for the entire month.

April was a wild ride of weather in NYC. Credit: The Weather Gamut

Flooding and the Power of Water

It is no secret that heavy rain can cause flooding. However, it can be surprising to learn how little water is required to create significant impacts.

As anyone who carries a water bottle knows, water is heavy. In fact, just one cubic foot of fresh water weighs 62.4lbs (28.3kg).  Multiplied many times over, raging floodwater can carry away or destroy most things in its path. Moving at just 4-mph, water has enough force to cause structural damage to an average home.

Flowing floodwaters can also pose a danger when hiking or driving. According to NOAA, it only takes six inches of fast moving water to knock a person off their feet. Twelve inches of water can sweep a small car off the road and eighteen to twenty-four inches can float most large vans and SUVs.

Since it is impossible to know how deep water is just by looking at it, it is best to err on the side of caution. As the saying goes, “Turn around, don’t drown!”

Credit: NWS/NOAA

Red, Blue, and Green: The Environment Was Not Always a Polarized Issue

Earth Day is a time to focus on the environment. These days, however, it is hard to discuss the topic in the US without politics coming into play. While there have always been debates about land and resource uses, the issue today is more polarized then ever with the division almost always running down party lines. Those in favor of environmental protection and conservation are usually Democrats and those pushing for economic and commercial development tend to be Republicans. This type of tribal divide, however, was not always the case. There is a long history of Republicans taking action to protect the environment.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, signed the Yosemite Land Grant. This piece of legislation gave Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. Championed by Senator John Conness (R-CA), it was first time in US history that land was designated for preservation and public use.

This historic legislation set the precedent for Yellowstone, which spreads across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to become this country’s first official National Park in 1872. Established by Congress, it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican.  Yosemite eventually also became a National Park in 1890 under President Benjamin Harrison, also a Republican.

Coming into office in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican from NY, became known as the “Conservation President.” Using the power of the presidency, he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land. According to the NPS, this included the establishment of 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.

While also steadfast in his belief about utilizing the country’s natural resources, he understood the necessity of ensuring their sustainability. As such, he created the US Forest Service in 1905 as a division of the Department of Agriculture. He wanted to conserve forests for continued use.

By 1916, there were 35 National Parks and monuments across the US. To manage them all, President Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat – signed the Organics Act, creating the National Parks Service as a bureau within the Department of the Interior.

In the 1970’s, the environment returned to the national agenda, but with a new focus. After the 1969 Cuyahoga River fiire and the oil spill off Santa Barbara, CA, the rampant industrial pollution and deterioration of the nation’s natural environment became apparent. These human-caused disasters occurred around the same time as the publication of Earth Rise, a photograph taken by NASA astronaut William Anders as he looked back toward the planet. The image was a powerful reminder of how also fragile and unique the Earth really is. Together, these events led to the first Earth Day in 1970, where millions of people across the US came out to demand protection for the environment. As a result, President Richard Nixon – a Republican  – created the EPA. Soon afterwards, his administration passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

By the 1980’s, the hole in the ozone became an international environmental concern because of the adverse effects it could have on human health and the environment. Under the UN’s Montreal Protocol, governments around the globe agreed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. When released into the atmosphere, these gases, formerly found in aerosol spray cans and refrigerants, reduced the ozone’s capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed the international agreement in 1988.

In the 1990s, climate change was beginning to be recognized as a serious environmental problem.  To address this issue, the UN organized the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, President George HW Bush – a Republican – signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This international environmental treaty was the first step on the long and often bumpy road toward the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.

The current Republican administration, however, has called climate change a “hoax”. It has announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and is rolling back the nation’s Clean Power Plan. So, it is safe to say that the Republican Party has been stepping back from its green legacy in recent years. In fact, we often hear Republican politicians and pundits say things like environmental regulation is detrimental to the economy.

History, however, has shown this argument to be largely false. In the past, some people saw National Parks as government land grabs that would hinder development. Today, they are among the most beloved landscapes in the country. They also generate millions of dollars every year from tourism for the local businesses that surround them. Regulations for clean air and water also had many positive outcomes. Not the least of which are the improved health of millions of Americans and the reclamation of polluted areas now open to new uses and clean sustainable development.

The lessons of history are clear. So, why is there such a polarized divide in this country over environmental issues? Who is benefiting from this rift? These are some important questions to consider not just on Earth Day, but everyday. After all, as the saying goes, everyday is Earth Day.

Earth Rise. Credit: William Anders/NASA

March 2018: Earth’s Fifth Warmest on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with March 2018 marking the fifth warmest March ever recorded on this planet. This latest milestone comes on the heels of the three warmest Marches on record – 2015, 2016, and 2017.

According to a report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 56.39°F. That is 1.49°F above the 20th-century average. March was also the 399th consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

While heat dominated most of the planet this March, some places were particularly warm, including Alaska, northeastern Canada, and most of Asia. These soaring global temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. In fact, La Niña conditions – the cooling counterpart of El Niño – were present in the Pacific during March.

However, for many people in the US, especially in the eastern part of the county, this March was relatively cold. To put this disparity into context, consider that the contiguous United States constitutes less than 2% of the total surface of the Earth. This detail highlights the fact that climate change is a complex global phenomenon that involves much more than the short-term weather that is happening in our own backyards.

Year to date, the first three months of 2018 were the sixth warmest such period of any year on record. Global temperature records date back to 1880.

March 2018 was the fifth warmest March on record for the planet. Credit: NOAA