Weather Lingo: Humidity

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” This old adage heard throughout much of the summer in the eastern US, refers to how the amount of water vapor in the air affects human comfort. Since the body’s main source of cooling is evaporation of perspiration, the more moisture there is in the air, the less evaporation takes place and the warmer we feel. Two ways to indicate atmospheric moisture content are relative humidity and the dew point temperature.

Relative humidity (RH) measures the actual amount of moisture in the air compared to the total amount of moisture that the air can hold. It is expressed as a percentage and is commonly used in generic weather reports and apps. A high RH can produce fog and a low RH can cause rapid dehydration in both people and plants – important information for some sectors such farmers and crews fighting wildfires. But, since warm air can hold more moisture than cool air, the relative humidity changes as the air temperature changes.

The dew point temperature, on the other hand, is an absolute measurement and is often the preferred metric of meteorologists. It is the temperature to which air must be cooled in order to reach saturation. In other words, when the air temperature and the dew point temperature are same, the air is saturated and the relative humidity is 100%. If the air were to cool further, the water vapor would condense into liquid water, such as dew or precipitation.

The classic example of this phenomenon is a glass of cold liquid sitting on a table outside on a warm, muggy day. The beverage cools the air around it and beads of water form on the outside of the glass. The temperature at which the beads of water form is the dew point.

Simply put, the closer the dew point temperature is to the air temperature, the more humid it feels. In summer, when the air is warm and can hold a lot of moisture, a dew point temperature in the 50s is generally considered comfortable. Dew points in the 60s are thought of as muggy and once they reach the 70s or higher, the air can feel oppressive. On the opposite end of the spectrum, dew points in the 40s or lower are considered dry, and dry air has its own set of comfort issues

What is a Monsoon and How Do They Affect the US?

The summer phase of the North American Monsoon is in full swing. But what, you may wonder, is a monsoon and how do they affect the United States?

While most people associate a monsoon with rain, that is only half the story. It is actually a wind system. More specifically, according to NOAA, a monsoon is “a thermally driven wind arising from differential heating between a land mass and the adjacent ocean that reverses its direction seasonally.” In fact, the word monsoon is derived from the Arabic word “mausim”, meaning seasons or wind shift.

In general, a monsoon is like a large-scale sea breeze.  During the summer months, the sun heats both the land and sea, but the surface temperature of the land rises more quickly. As a result, an area of low pressure develops over the land and an area of relatively higher pressure sits over the ocean. This causes moisture-laden sea air to flow inland. As it rises and cools, it releases precipitation. In winter, this situation reverses and a dry season takes hold.

Monsoon wind systems exist in many different parts of the world. In the US, we have the North American Monsoon that impacts states across the southwest. Summer temperatures in the region – mostly desert – can be extremely hot. Readings in the triple digits are not uncommon. This intense heat generates a thermal low near the surface and draws in moist air from the nearby Gulf of California. In addition, an area of high pressure aloft, known as the subtropical ridge, typically moves northward over the southern U.S. in summer. Its clockwise circulation shifts the winds from a southwesterly to a southeasterly direction and ushers in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. This combination of heat and moisture rich air produces thunderstorms and heavy rainfall across the region. In fact, summer monsoon rains are reported to supply nearly 50% of the area’s annual precipitation.

Replenishing reservoirs and nourishing agriculture, these seasonal rains are a vital source of water in the typically arid southwest. Conversely, they can also cause a number of hazards such as flash flooding, damaging winds and hail, as well as frequent lightning.

Monsoon season in the American southwest typically runs from mid-June to the end of September.

The North American Monsoon pulls moist air (green arrows) inland over the typically arid southwest region of the US. Credit: NOAA/NWS

Aphelion 2018: Earth Farthest from Sun Today

The Earth will reach its farthest point from the Sun today – an event known as the aphelion. It will officially take place at 16:46 UTC, which is 12:46 PM Eastern Daylight Time.

This annual event is a result of the elliptical shape of the Earth’s orbit and the slightly off-centered position of the Sun inside that path. The exact date of the Aphelion differs from year to year, but it’s usually in early July – summer in the northern hemisphere.

While the planet’s distance from the Sun is not responsible for the seasons, it does influence their length. As a function of gravity, the closer the planet is to the Sun, the faster it moves. Today, Earth is about 152 million kilometers (94 million miles) away from the Sun. That is approximately 5 million kilometers (3 million miles) further than during the perihelion in early January. That means the planet will move more slowly along its orbital path than at any other time of the year. As a result, summer is elongated by a few days in the northern hemisphere.

The word, aphelion, is Greek for “away from the sun”.

Earth is farthest from the Sun during summer in the northern hemisphere. Credit: TimeandDate.com

What the Summer Solstice Means

Today is the June Solstice, the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. The new season officially began at 10:07 UTC, which is 6:07 AM Eastern Daylight Time.

Our astronomical seasons are a product of the tilt of the Earth’s axis – a 23.5° angle – and the movement of the planet around the sun. During the summer months, the northern half of the Earth is tilted toward the sun. This position allows the northern hemisphere to receive the sun’s energy at a more direct angle and produces our warmest temperatures of the year.

Since the winter solstice in December, the arc of the sun’s daily passage across the sky has been getting higher and daylight hours have been increasing. At noon today, the sun will be directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer, its northernmost position, marking the “longest day” of the year. This observable stop in the sun’s apparent annual journey is where today’s event takes its name. Solstice is a word derived from Latin and means “the sun stands still”.

While today brings us the greatest number of daylight hours  (15 hours and 5 minutes in NYC), it is not the warmest day of the year.  The hottest part of summer typically lags the solstice by a few weeks. This is because the oceans and continents need time to absorb the sun’s energy and warm up – a phenomenon known as seasonal temperature lag.

Earth’s solstices and equinoxes. Image Credit: NASA

How Hail Forms

The thunderstorms of spring and summer are notorious for their powerful winds and heavy rain. However, when strong enough, they can also produce hail.

Hailstones start off as water vapor that is lifted high into the atmosphere by the updraft of a thunderstorm. Rising into cooler air, it condenses and forms water droplets. Once these liquid droplets reach a level where the temperature is below freezing, they turn into tiny ice crystals. Overtime, they get larger as other water droplets freeze to them on contact, forming layers like an onion.  Once a hailstone gets too heavy for the updraft, it falls to the ground.

The stronger the updraft of a storm, the longer a hailstone remains suspended, and the larger it can grow. For a ball of ice to be considered a hailstone, according to the AMS, it has to measure at least 5mm in diameter.

The largest hailstone ever recorded in the US was found in Vivian, South Dakota on June 23, 2010. It measured 7.9 inches in diameter and weighed 1.94 pounds. The updraft supporting it would have had to exceed 150 mph.

Needless to say, hail can cause serious damage to people and property.

Weather Lingo: June Gloom

For most people in the US, the month of June is associated with warm temperatures and abundant sunshine. For parts of coastal California, however, it is a month known for cloudy and relatively cool conditions. This regional phenomenon called “June Gloom” is the result of the interaction of several natural elements, including geography, ocean currents, and weather patterns.

With the California Current running south along the coast from the Gulf of Alaska, the water in the area is cold. Ocean temperatures in the region usually hover in the upper 50s to low 60s during the summer, cooling the air that flows over it.

Another significant factor is the temperature inversion aloft created by the North Pacific High, a semi-permanent area of high pressure. This is part of a larger planetary circulation of air known as a Hadley cell, a current of high altitude air traveling poleward from the tropics. As the air cools, it descends around 30N latitude. It compresses and warms as it sinks, making the air aloft warmer than the cold, moist air at the surface. Since air temperatures normally decrease with height, this situation acts like a cap on the cool air below and prevents it from rising any higher.

When the air under the inversion layer, known as the marine layer, is cooled to the point where the moisture condenses, an expansive sheet of low level stratus clouds form.  The region’s prevailing westerly winds, as well as the sea-breeze circulation that often develops during the summer months, carries these clouds inland.  While they create overcast conditions and some light drizzle, the clouds do not produce any significant rain. They also tend to dissipate by the afternoon as the land heats up.

The thickness and inland extent of the marine layer clouds depend on the strength of the high-pressure system. A stronger high will thin the clouds and keep them confined to the coast. A weaker high with allow the clouds to thicken and move further inland. Separated by only a few miles, the cloud-covered coast can be significantly cooler than sunny areas further east.

These conditions are most common in June, but are not necessarily limited to the month. They have been known to develop in May and last on and off through August. The monikers for these events include “May Gray”, “No Sky July”, and “Fogust”.  However, high pressure usually builds over southern California in July, decreasing the impact of the marine layer or eliminating it altogether.

“June Gloom” clouds along west coast. Credit: NWS/UCSD

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

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

Do April Showers Really Bring May Flowers?

The phrase, “April showers bring May flowers “ has been around for centuries. It is derived from a poem written in the 1500s by Thomas Tusser – an English poet and farmer. This old adage, however, does not hold true in the northeastern United States.

Coming on the heels of the snowy months of winter, April typically produces more rain than snow. Many people, therefore, consider it a rainy month. Since water is necessary for the overall survival of plants, they also associate it with the bloom of flowers in May. Nevertheless, according to botanists, perennials – the plants that go dormant in winter and re-grow in the spring – are more dependent on the soil moisture derived from winter snowmelt and the long-term local precipitation pattern.

In the end, though, temperature is the most significant factor in determining when a flower will bloom. As soon as the weather becomes more spring-like, flowers will start to blossom, regardless of how much it rained in April or whatever the prior month was. That said, a “false spring” – a warm spell that triggers flowering but is followed by a hard frost – can kill the fragile blooms.

It is also worth noting that April is not typically the wettest month of the year for most places in the US. In New York City, July, on average, takes that honor because of the downpours associated with its strong summer thunderstorms.

Peonies in bloom. Credit: Melissa Fleming