Weather Lingo: The Dead of Winter

The “Dead of Winter” is an old saying that refers to the coldest part of the winter season. For most of the northern hemisphere, that usually means the month of January.

While actual daily weather varies, historical average temperatures typically reach their lowest point of the year between January 10 and February 10.  In the US, the western half of the country, with the exception of high elevation areas, tends to see its coldest day before the eastern half.  This is because the mountainous areas of the west and much of the eastern US tend to be snow covered in winter, reflecting much of the sun’s heat. Here in New York City, mid to late January is usually the coldest part of the winter season.

This traditional cold period does not begin on the winter solstice, the day we receive the least amount of solar energy, because of a phenomenon known as seasonal temperature lag. 

Air temperature depends on both the amount of energy received from the sun and the amount of heat lost or absorbed by the oceans and continents. From the start of winter through mid-February, both the oceans and land are losing more heat than they gain.

These few frosty weeks are the opposite of the “Dog Days of Summer.”

Credit: NOAA

Perihelion 2020: The Earth is Closest to the Sun Today

The Earth reached its Perihelion today at 7:48 UTC, which is 2:48 AM Eastern Standard Time. This is the point in the planet’s orbit where it comes closest to the Sun.

This annual event is due to the elliptical shape of the Earth’s orbit and the off-centered position of the Sun inside that path. The exact date of the Perihelion differs from year to year, but it’s usually in early January – winter in the northern hemisphere. The Earth will be furthest from the Sun in July.

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, the Earth is 147.1 million kilometers (91.4 million miles) away from the Sun. That is approximately 5 million kilometers (3 million miles) closer than it will be in early July. This position allows the planet to speed up by about one-kilometer per second. As a result, winter in the northern hemisphere is about five days shorter than summer.

The word, perihelion, is Greek for “near sun”.

Earth’s Perihelion and Aphelion. Credit: Time and Date.com

The Science Behind the Winter Solstice

Today is the December solstice, the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere. The new season officially begins at 11:19 PM EST.

The astronomical seasons, which are different than meteorological seasons, are produced by the tilt of the Earth’s axis – a 23.5° angle – and the movement of the planet around the sun. During the winter months, the northern half of the Earth is tilted away from the sun. This position means the northern hemisphere receives the sun’s energy at a less direct angle and brings us our coolest temperatures of the year.

Since the summer solstice in June, the arc of the sun’s apparent daily passage across the sky has been dropping southward and daylight hours have been decreasing. Today, it will reach its southernmost position at the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5° south latitude), marking the shortest day of the year. This observable stop is where today’s event takes its name. Solstice is derived from the Latin words “sol” for sun and “sisto” for stop.

Soon, the sun will appear to move northward again and daylight hours will slowly start to increase. Marking this transition from darkness to light, the winter solstice has long been a cause for celebration across many cultures throughout human history.

Earth’s solstices and equinoxes. Image Credit: NASA

From Snow to Freezing Rain: Why Winter Precipitation Can Take Several Forms

The winter season can produce various types of precipitation – rain, freezing rain, sleet, or snow. The form we see at the surface depends on the temperature profile of the lower atmosphere.

All precipitation starts out as snow up in the clouds.  But, as it falls toward the Earth, it can pass through one or more layers of air with different temperatures.  When the snow passes through a thick layer of warm air – above 32°F – it melts into rain.  If the warm air layer extends all the way to the ground, rain will fall at the surface.  However, if there is a thin layer of cold air – below 32°F – near the ground, the rain becomes supercooled and freezes upon impact with anything that has a temperature at or below 32°F.  This is known as freezing rain.  It is one of the most dangerous types of winter precipitation, as it forms a glaze of ice on almost everything it encounters, including roads, tree branches, and power lines.

Sleet is a frozen type precipitation that takes the form of ice-pellets. Passing through a thick layer of sub-freezing air near the surface, liquid raindrops are given enough time to re-freeze before reaching the ground. Sleet often bounces when it hits a surface, but does not stick to anything.  It can, however, accumulate.

Snow is another type of frozen precipitation.  It takes the shape of six-sided ice crystals, often called flakes.  Snow will fall at the surface when the air temperature is below freezing all the way from the cloud-level down to the ground.  In order for the snow to stick and accumulate, surface temperatures must also be at or below freezing.

When two or more of these precipitation types fall during a single storm, it is called a wintry mix.

Precipitation type depends on the temperature profile of the atmosphere. Credit: NOAA

Why the Sky Looks Bluer in Autumn

Autumn is well known as the time of year when leaves change color. Not as well known, however, is the fact that the sky also changes shades with the season.

In general, we see the sky as blue because of Rayleigh scattering. This is a phenomenon where the molecules of nitrogen and oxygen that make up most of Earth’s atmosphere scatter the incoming light radiation from the sun. More to the point, they are most effective at scattering light with short wavelengths, such as those on the blue end of the visual spectrum. This allows blue light to reach our eyes from all directions and dictates the color we understand the sky to be.

The arc height of the sun’s apparent daily passage across our sky, which varies with the seasons, determines how much of the atmosphere the incoming light must pass through. This, in turn, affects how much scattering takes place. Simply put, the more Rayleigh scattering, the bluer the sky appears.

That said, humidity levels also play a role. Water vapor and water droplets are significantly larger than nitrogen and oxygen molecules and therefore scatter light differently. Instead of sending light in all directions, they project it forward. This is known as Mie scattering and tends to create a milky white or hazy appearance in the sky.

During the summer months, when the sun is higher in the sky, light does not have to travel as far through the atmosphere to reach our eyes. Consequently, there is less Rayleigh scattering. The warm temperatures of summer also mean the air can hold more moisture, increasing the effect of Mie scattering. As a result, the summer sky tends to be relatively muted or pale blue.

In autumn, the sun sits lower on the horizon, increasing the amount of Rayleigh scattering. The season’s cooler temperatures also decrease the amount of moisture the air can hold, diminishing the degree of Mie scattering. Taken together, these two factors produce deep blue skies.

When this azure hue is contrasted with the reds and yellows of the season’s famous foliage, all of the colors look even more vibrant.

Photo credit: Azure-Lorica Foundation

Weather Lingo: Blue Norther

Autumn is a transitional season when the heat of summer fades away and the chill of winter gradually returns. But, sometimes winter can be aggressive and show up overnight.

When this type of rapid temperature change happens, it is often called a Blue Norther. This is a fast-moving cold front marked by a quick and dramatic drop in temperature. A fall of 20 to 30 degrees in just a few minutes is not uncommon. They also usher in a dark blue sky and strong northerly winds. Hence, the name.

Blue Northers are most common in the central US, where there are few natural barriers to slow or block arctic air masses from moving south. They can occur throughout the year, but are most common between November and March.

One of the most famous examples of this weather phenomenon was the “Great Blue Norther” of November 11, 1911. As the front passed through the southern plains, temperatures dropped from highs in the 70s and 80s to the teens in just ten hours. In Oklahoma City, for example, the temperature reached a record high of 83°F in the afternoon and then plummeted to a record low of 17°F by midnight. Both records, according to the NWS, are still in place.

Twenty-four temperature changes from The Great Blue Norther of 1911. Credit: FOX

How Climate Change is Impacting Fall Foliage

Colorful foliage is the hallmark of autumn, especially in the northeastern United States. As the season heats up, however, this familiar natural phenomenon is reflecting the impacts of our changing climate.

While decreasing sunlight hours is a key factor that signals the annual color change, the timing and duration of the displays are largely dependent on temperature and precipitation. Dry, sunny days and cool nights are the ideal conditions for beautiful fall foliage. But, as our climate changes, warmer and wetter conditions are becoming more common across the region.

In general, this means autumn colors are expected to peak later and disappear sooner. While there will still be variability from year to year, the fall foliage season, overall, is expected to get shorter. Furthermore, with the increasing probability of extreme weather events, such as heavy rainstorms, leaves could be swept from trees effectively ending the leaf-peeping season in a single day.

More than just an aesthetic detail, these changes are sure to have an impact on the multi-billion-dollar a year ecotourism industry in several states.

Credit: Climate Central

Why Leaves Change Color in the Autumn

Autumn is a season well known for its colorful foliage. The often-celebrated aesthetic displays, however, are actually part of a process that trees use to survive the winter.

As daylight hours decrease in the fall, there is less sunlight available to power photosynthesis – the chemical process that provides nutrients to trees by converting carbon dioxide and water into glucose. This, in combination with falling temperatures, signals the tree to stop producing food and prepare for a period of dormancy, which is similar to hibernation.

To do this, a tree turns off its food producers by slowly corking the connection between leaf-stems and its branches. This blocks the movement of sugars from the leaves to the tree as well as the flow of water from the roots to the leaves.  As a result, the leaves stop producing chlorophyll, the agent of photosynthesis and the reason for the green color of summer foliage. As the green fades, other chemicals that have been present in the leaves all along begin to show. These include xanthophyll and carotene, which produce yellow and orange leaves, respectively. Red to purplish colors are the result of anthocyanin, a chemical produced as a result of any remaining sugars trapped in a leaf.

While leaves change color every year, the timing and duration of the displays are largely dependent on temperature and rainfall. Dry, sunny days and cool nights are the ideal recipe for beautiful fall foliage. Warmer and wetter conditions, on the other hand, tend to dull and delay the color change. Extreme circumstances, such as frost or drought, can be a source of stress for trees and cause the leaves to fall off faster.

It should also be noted that different species of trees react to atmospheric conditions differently. Therefore, the more diverse a forest, the wider the range of colors in autumn.

Tree in Autumn. Credit: Melissa Fleming

How Wildfires Get Named

Wildfires, like major storms, are named for ease of communication and historical reference. But unlike hurricane names which are chosen from a pre-determined list each season, wildfires are labeled on a rolling basis.

According to CalFire, a wildfire is named as soon as it is reported. The moniker is usually selected by the dispatcher who takes the call or the initial first responders on the scene. Driven largely by geography, the names reflect a landmark such as a canyon, creek, or road, near where the fire started. For the sake of simplicity, they often tend to be one word titles. Although efficient, this can lead to some ominous or misleading names such as the “Witch Fire” of 2007 in San Diego or the “Easy Fire” that is currently burning in Simi Valley, CA.

If a fire occurs repeatedly in the same place, it will get a name and number such as “Bear Fire 2” or “Canyon Fire 3”.

While this may seem like a free-wheeling way to do things, the National Interagency Fire Center offers guidelines for the best practices in naming a fire. They advise against using the names of people, companies, or private property. They also discourage the use of “deadman” in any fire name.

Regardless of how arbitrarily selected or innocuous a name may sound, fires will ultimately be remembered for the destruction they cause.

Kincade Fire 2019. Credit: KTVU

How the Santa Ana and Diablo Winds Help Wildfires Spread

The Diablo and Santa Ana winds are notorious for exacerbating wildfires in northern and southern California, respectively.

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 large desert that covers most of Nevada  – and the California coast. This pressure gradient funnels air downhill and through mountain canyons and passes toward the Pacific. Squeezing through these narrow spaces, the wind is forced to speed up. According to the NWS, they 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.

These infamous zephyrs are named for the places from which they tend to blow. The Santa Ana Winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County. The Diablo Winds take their moniker from Mount Diablo, which sits northeast of San Francisco.

Credit: Insider Inc