Summer Solstice 2017

Today is the June Solstice, the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. The new season officially began at 04:24 UTC, which is 12:24 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 apparent daily passage across the sky has been moving northward and daylight hours have been increasing. Today, it reached its northernmost position at the Tropic of Cancer (23.5° north latitude) marking the “longest day” of the year. This observable stop 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 all year (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

Severe Thunderstorms: Watches vs Warnings

A severe thunderstorm is forecast for the New York City area on Monday afternoon. In addition to lightning, it could bring strong winds, heavy rain, hail, and the possibility of a tornado. Simply put, this is the type of weather that can cause property damage and loss of life. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between the various alerts issued by the National Weather Service. They include advisories, watches, and warnings.  All should be taken seriously.

  • 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.

The Eastern Pacific Hurricane Season is Underway

Hurricane season in the eastern Pacific begins today.

Tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes in the United States, develop around the globe at different times of the year. In the northeastern Pacific, they tend to form between May 15 and November 30. This early start is related to the basin’s warm sea surface temperatures and relatively low wind shear.

While powerful, these Pacific storms are generally not as familiar to Americans as those that form in the Atlantic. This is because they rarely make landfall in this country. In fact, it has only happened twice. A hurricane slammed San Diego, CA in 1858 and a tropical storm battered Long Beach, CA in 1939. This low rate of occurrence is attributed to the cold water of the California Current that flows south along the west coast. Nonetheless, Pacific hurricanes can still impact the US.

Developing in the tropics, Pacific storms deteriorate as they travel north to cooler waters and in some cases over the mountains of Mexico. However, their remnants are still laden with moisture when they reach the southwestern US, where they often unleash flooding rains.

East Pacific storms can also cross into the Central Pacific and affect Hawaii. (The dividing line between the two basins is 140°W longitude.) One such storm was Hurricane Iniki in 1992, the worst hurricane in the state’s history. With wind speeds measured up to 145mph, it was rated category-4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

This year, the eastern Pacific hurricane season got off to a record early start, with the development of Tropical Storm Adrian on May 9. No other storm in the basin has formed earlier during the satellite era.

Source: WMO

The Different Ways a Nor’easter Can Develop

In the northeastern United States, nor’easters are well known for producing heavy precipitation, strong winds, and coastal flooding. Despite approaching the region from the south, they take their name from the steady northeasterly winds that blow in off the ocean.

Nor’easters can occur any time of the year but are most common between November and March. This is because the cold air that dips south in a jet stream trough during fall and winter often meets warmer air moving north over the Gulf Stream, which is just off the east coast. This contrast in temperature strengthens the storms. That said, there are a few different ways in which they can develop.

The first is called a “Miller Type-A” storm and is considered the “classic” nor’easter. These occur when an area of low pressure develops along the Gulf Coast or Atlantic Coast and intensifies as it tracks northward along the eastern seaboard.

The second type originates in the mid-west and is known as a “Miller Type-B” storm. Traveling east, these low-pressure systems weaken when they run into the Appalachian Mountains and transfer their energy to the coast. Often called a “center jump”, this transfer strengthens or creates a secondary low on the lee side of the mountains, which then moves northward. These types of storms are notoriously difficult to forecast as everything depends on the timing and location of the energy transfer between the two lows.

Both Miller “types” are named after James E. Miller, an atmospheric scientist who studied storm formation in the Atlantic coastal region during the mid 20th century.

Typical Miller Type A and B storm tracks. Credit: NOAA

Twelve New Cloud Types Added to International Cloud Atlas

Look up! There are some “new” clouds in the sky. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) – the UN’s weather agency – announced twelve new additions to its prestigious International Cloud Atlas on Thursday.

First published in 1896, the atlas is considered the most authoritative and comprehensive reference volume for identifying clouds. This is the first time it has been updated in thirty years.

Clouds, like flora and fauna, have an official classification system. There are ten different genera, which are defined by altitude and appearance. These are then subdivided into species based on a cloud’s shape and structure. Within these, there are varieties that describe the arrangement and transparency of different clouds. Whittling things down even further, there are also supplementary features/accessory clouds that merge with or attach to the main cloud body. In total, there are about one hundred combinations.

This new version of the Cloud Atlas recognizes one new species called volutus, but it is more commonly known as a roll cloud. This tube-shaped cloud appears to roll around a horizontal axis and is typically associated with the leading edge of a thunderstorm. But, on occasion, advancing cold fronts can also trigger their formation.

Six new supplementary/accessory features were also added. For avid sky-watchers, however, they are already widely known by their common names. These include:

Furthermore, five new “special clouds” were also part of the update. These form because of unique localized factors, including human activity such as exhaust from jet engines.

Of all these new additions, the asperitas (formerly known as undulatus asperatus) has garnered the most attention. These low-level clouds are caused by weather fronts that create rolling waves in the atmosphere and resemble the underside of a turbulent sea. It was first photographed in 2006 by a cloud-watcher in Iowa. Then in 2008, after several other sightings around the world, the Cloud Appreciation Society, an international group of cloud enthusiasts, began to lobby the WMO to acknowledge it as a new cloud type.

Available in digitized form for the first time, the WMO hopes this new edition of the International Cloud Atlas will help to increase public understanding of the critical role clouds play in the atmosphere. “If we want to forecast weather we have to understand clouds. If we want to model the climate system, we have to understand clouds. And if we want to predict the availability of water resources, we have to understand clouds”, says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

The WMO cloud classification system can be traced back to Luke Howard, the so-called father of meteorology. In 1803, he published “The Essay on the Modifications of Clouds” which organized its then nebulous subject using a Latin nomenclature.

Asperitas Cloud. Credit: WMO

First Day of Spring 2017

Today is the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. The new season officially began at 10:29 UTC, which is 6:29 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. Today, as spring begins, the Earth’s axis is tilted neither toward nor away from the sun. This position distributes the sun’s energy equally between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Since the winter solstice in December, the arc of the sun’s apparent daily passage across the sky has been getting higher and daylight hours have been increasing. Today, the sun appears directly overhead at the equator and we have approximately equal hours of day and night. The word “equinox” is derived from Latin and means “equal night”.

As a transitional season, spring is a time when the chill of winter fades away and the warmth of summer gradually returns. The most noticeable increases in average daily temperature, however, usually lag the equinox by a few weeks.

Earth’s solstices and equinoxes. Image Credit: NASA

A Look at Rainbows and their Legendary Pots of Gold on this St Patrick’s Day

According to Irish folklore, a pot of gold can be found at the end of a rainbow. In reality, however, it is impossible to locate the terminus of this optical phenomenon.

For a rainbow to form, rain has to be falling in one part of the sky while the sun is out in another. The water droplets in the air act like prisms that refract and reflect the sunlight, revealing the colors of the visible spectrum. Red is refracted the least and is always on the top of the bow while blue is on the bottom. Since we only see one color from each drop, it takes a countless number to produce a rainbow.

That said, these colorful arcs are not physical entities that can be approached. No matter how close they appear to be, they are always tantalizingly out of reach. Nevertheless, most people consider seeing one to be a treasure with no gold required.

With a little luck, you can spot a rainbow if you face a moisture source – rain or mist from a waterfall – while the sun is at your back.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Rainbow after a rainstorm in Bermuda. Credit: Melissa Fleming

Weather Lingo: Bombogenesis

The weather world has some interesting words and phrases. One of these is “bombogenesis”.

Sounding rather ominous, it is a combination of the words cyclogenesis (storm formation) and bomb. It refers to the explosive or rapid intensification of an area of low pressure. More specifically, it means the central pressure of a storm system drops at least 24 millibars in 24 hours.

Air pressure is measured in millibars (mb) and the lower it is, the stronger the storm.

Taking place along steep temperature gradients, bombogenesis is most common along the east coast where cold continental air masses meet the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Disturbances in the jet stream above this type of temperature contrast help the air to rise and the pressure to drop.

This process can develop any time of the year but is most likely between October and March. When a system “bombs out” – a variation on the original phrase – strong winds, heavy precipitation, and even lightning can be expected. Nor’easters often become “weather bombs” – another popular variation – as they move up the coast.

Credit: TWC

The Difference Between a Snowstorm and a Blizzard

The biggest snowstorm of the year is expected to blast the northeastern US on Tuesday. In New York City, on top of the significant snow totals that have been forecast, a blizzard warning is in effect.

Different than a typical winter storm, a blizzard is characterized more by wind speeds and reduced visibility than the amount of snow it produces. According to the NWS, the three main factors for blizzard conditions are:

  • Wind – Sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35mph or higher.
  • Visibility – Falling and/or blowing snow that reduces visibility to ¼ mile or less.
  • Time – High winds and reduced visibility must prevail for at least 3 hours.

These conditions heighten the risk of power outages and often produce whiteout conditions on roadways, making travel extremely dangerous.  Stay Safe!

A blizzard warning is in effect for NYC. Credit: NWS

Why This Winter Has Been So Warm in the Eastern US

The weather usually associated with winter in the eastern United States has not really taken hold this year. One of the reasons for this involves something called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).

This is a natural phenomenon that affects the position of the jet stream and weather patterns thousands of miles away. Based in the North Atlantic Ocean, it is driven by the pressure differences between the semi-permanent Icelandic Low and Azores/Bermuda High.

When the pressure difference between these two systems is low, the NAO is said to be in a negative phase. This means the winds of the jet stream are relatively relaxed and cold air from the north can spill down into the eastern US. The positive phase of NAO is characterized by a strong pressure difference between the two systems and a robust jet stream that keeps cold air bottled up in the northern latitudes.

Fluctuating between positive and negative, the strength and duration of these phases vary. This winter, however, the positive phase has been occurring more often and lasting longer than the negative phase. That is why the eastern US has been experiencing prolonged warm spells separated by a few brief blasts of cold air.

Unsurprisingly, this season’s soaring temperatures have sparked many important conversations about global warming. But as weather is extremely variable, no single warm day or week can be linked (at this time) to our changing climate. That said, anomalously warm events are happening more often, which is consistent with the long-term trend of human-caused climate change.  2016, for example, was this planet’s third consecutive warmest year on record.

Typical impacts associated with the positive phase of NAO. Credit: NOAA/NCDC

NAO observations, Nov 2016 to date. Credit: NOAA/CPC