After Review Hurricane Michael Upgraded to Rare Category-5 Status

Hurricane Michael, which pummeled the Florida panhandle in October, has been upgraded from a category-4 to a category-5 storm, the strongest on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

According to a report by the National Hurricane Center, the storm’s winds reached 160mph when it made landfall near Mexico Beach, FL. That is a 5mph increase from the estimate used last autumn. The agency says the uptick was the result of a re-analysis of reams of data, including aircraft winds, surface winds, surface pressures, satellite intensity estimates, and Doppler radar velocities.  The review also took into account data that was not available in real time.

In the grand scheme of things, an increase of 5mph may not sounds like a lot, but it puts Michael in rare company. It now ranks as the fourth category-5 storm on record to make landfall in the US. The other three were the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Camille in 1969, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Michael is also the third cat-5 storm to hit the Sunshine state.

Regardless of the technical upgrade and historic statistics, Hurricane Michael was a devastating storm that will be long remembered by those it affected. The storm claimed the lives of 16 people and caused an estimated $25 billion in damage. More than six months after coming ashore, much of the area is still recovering.

Hurricane Michael making landfall as a Category 5 storm along the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018. Credit: NOAA

Hurricane Names Florence and Michael Retired by WMO

There will never be another hurricane by the name of Florence or Michael. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced that it is officially retiring these names from its list of Atlantic cyclones.

The WMO is responsible for naming tropical storms and hurricanes around the world.  It maintains a set of six rotating lists for each hurricane-prone region. After a six-year cycle, names are re-used.  Names are only retired when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage.

Hurricane Florence. Credit: NOAA

The 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season was active, but two storms were particularly destructive. Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina in September as a cat-1 storm and dumped a massive amount of rain on the area. Traveling inland, it caused catastrophic flooding in parts of both North and South Carolina. In Elizabethtown, NC, 35.93 inches of rain was reported, making it the wettest tropical cyclone on record for the state. For the contiguous US, it ranked as the eighth wettest.

Hurricane Michael. Credit: NOAA

In October, Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle as a cat-4 storm. With winds measured up to 155mph, it was the strongest storm on record to strike the region and the third strongest storm to make landfall in the continental US. Its powerful winds and storm surge flooding decimated the Panama City area.

To date, according to the National Hurricane Center, 89 storm names have been retired since the current naming system began in 1953. The 2005 hurricane season holds the record for the most retired names – five – in one season.

Starting in 2024, when last year’s list is recycled, the names Florence and Michael will be replaced by Francine and Milton.

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1.

Speaking About Art, Climate, and Environmental Policy at AMS

The 99th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society is taking place this week in Phoenix, Arizona. Its theme is “Understanding and Building Resilience to Extreme Events by Being Interdisciplinary, International, and Inclusive.”

Thrilled to be a part of it, I will be giving a presentation titled “The Power of Perception: Art, Climate, and the History of US Environmental Policy”. The talk looks at the role art has played in helping to build the political will behind several landmark environmental policies over the years and how it can help with climate change communication today.

From the Yosemite Land Grant of 1864 to the present, images have helped give the public, and the policy makers they elected, a new way to relate to and understand the issues of their time. In many cases, images mobilized public concern that helped drive legislation. The publication of photos of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 in Time Magazine, for example, helped spur the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the EPA in the 1970s.

The talk also highlights the way technology has changed the way we relate to images and the role movies – the art of moving images – can play in reaching a wide and diverse audience.

Credit: AMS

The Snowiest Places in the US

Snow is a common occurrence during the winter months for many parts of the US. But, some places tend to get more than others. In fact, there are locations that see triple digit snow totals every year.

In the east, the Great Lakes region is well known for lake effect snow events. With moisture laden snow bands forming down-wind of the massive lakes, it is not uncommon for some communities to see more than 100 inches of snow each season.  For example, Syracuse, NY, on average, gets 123.8 inches of snow annually.

In the west, even more snow is par for the course in the Cascade Range of Washington state. The Paradise Ranger Station in Mount Rainier National Park holds the record for the greatest average annual snowfall in the US. At 5400 feet in elevation, they see 643 inches of snow (53.6 feet) each year.

Storm systems that move in from the Gulf of Alaska run into the Cascade Mountains and are forced upward. As they rise, the moisture in the air cools, condenses, and falls as precipitation. At lower elevations, it comes out as rain, but at higher elevations, where the air is colder, it falls as snow. Standing at 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the highest peak in the Cascades.

Mount Rainer National Park sees the highest average annual snowfall in the US. Credit: Hemmings

Fourth National Climate Assessment: A Dire Forecast for US if Action is Not Taken

The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) report was released rather inauspiciously last week on the day after Thanksgiving – a traditionally slow news day. Nevertheless, the report is out and it clearly states, “the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen.”

The massive report, considered volume two of NCA4, builds on the Climate Science Special Report issued last year. It gives a detailed account of what the impacts will be across the country and how the worst effects could be avoided.

The U.S average temperature, according to the report, has increased by 1.8°F since 1901, and is projected to continue rising. Over the next few decades, temperatures are projected to rise another 2.5°F.  By the end of the century, our average temperature could soar by as much as 11.9°F if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase unchecked.

The report also looks at the long-term economic impacts for the country as the average temperature continues to climb. Costs from rising sea levels could reach as high as $118 billion and the projected total for damaged infrastructure is $32 billion. This is in addition to the reduced agricultural productivity expected from high heat and extended drought events. Overall, the report warns that if significant steps are not taken, climate change could slash the US economy’s GDP by 10% by the end of the century.

Not all doom and gloom, the report’s authors emphasize, “These impacts are projected to intensify—but how much they intensify will depend on actions taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the risks from climate change now and in the coming decades.”

While similar in theme to the IPCC report from the UN, this assessment focuses solely on the United States. Emphasizing the fact that rising temperatures will affect different parts of our vast country in different ways, the NCA breaks the nation down into specific regions. It details the current and future impacts of climate change in each one:

The report also includes a supplemental set of State Climate Summaries that give a clear idea of what to expect in each of the 50 states as well as the US territories.

Mandated by Congress under the Global Change Research Act, this exhaustive 1600 page peer-reviewed report was produced by 300 scientists from 13 different government agencies. Published every four years, it is considered this country’s most authoritative statement on climate change.

Annual average temperatures across the United States are projected to increase over this century, with greater changes at higher latitudes as compared to lower latitudes, and greater changes under a higher scenario (RCP8.5; right) than under a lower one (RCP4.5; left). This figure shows projected differences in annual average temperatures for mid-century (2036–2065; top) and end of century (2071–2100; bottom) relative to the near present (1986–2015). Image credit: Fourth NCA, Vol II, figure 2.4.

Hurricane Michael Devastates Florida Panhandle

Hurricane Michael, the 13th named storm of this Atlantic Hurricane season, made landfall near Mexico Beach, Florida on Wednesday. It was the strongest storm on record to hit the Florida Panhandle.

Coming ashore with sustained winds measured up to 155mph, Michael was classified as a high-end category-four hurricane. Its powerful winds sheared roofs off buildings, uprooted trees, and toppled power lines. Storm surge flooding was also a major force of destruction. The NHC estimates the water reached between nine and fourteen feet above normally dry ground from Mexico Beach eastward through Apalachee Bay.

Fueled by the unseasonably warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Michael intensified rapidly as it moved closer to shore. According the NWS, Michael was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the US since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It was also the strongest storm to ever hit this country in the month of October.

Moving quickly, the storm traveled across the Florida Panhandle toward the northeast. Its strong winds and heavy rain caused flashing flowing and power outages in several states.

As of Friday, the death toll from this historic storm stands at sixteen. But sadly, officials say that number is expected to rise as search and rescue efforts continue in the hardest hit areas.

Hurricane Michael makes landfall near Mexico Beach, FL. Credit: NOAA

Hurricane Florence Swamps the Carolinas

Hurricane Florence, the 6th named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane season, slammed North and South Carolina this weekend.

Steered across the Atlantic by a strong area of high pressure, Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, NC on Friday morning as a category-1 storm.  It peaked at category-4 strength while still over the ocean, but weakened as it moved closer to the US coast.

Despite this downgrade, Florence still packed a powerful punch. Its strong winds, flooding rains, and storm surge forced people to evacuate their homes and caused significant property damage as well as widespread power outages across the region. In the hard hit city of New Bern, NC, at the mouth of the Neuse River, a storm surge of more than ten feet was reported. Local officials there say upward of 4000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Moving as slowly as 2 mph at one point, Florence essentially stalled out over the region, allowing it to unleash massive amounts of precipitation. Preliminary reports show that the storm set new state records for rainfall from a single tropical cyclone in both North and South Carolina. In Elizabethtown, NC, 35.93 inches was reported, crushing the previous record of 24.06 inches set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. In South Carolina, the town of Loris, about 25 miles north of Myrtle Beach, reported 23.63 inches of rain, eclipsing the old record of 17.45 inches set by Tropical Storm Beryl in 1994.

If these numbers are confirmed by the NWS, that would mean four state tropical cyclone rainfall records were broken in the last thirteen months. The other two being Texas with 60.58 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 and Hawaii with 52.02 inches from Hurricane Lane just last month.

Measuring 400 miles wide, Florence’s successive bands of heavy rain also caused catastrophic inland flooding as several rivers in the region overflowed their banks and inundated communities. In Fayetteville, NC – nearly 100 miles from the coast – more than 15 inches of rain was reported as of Monday. The Cape Fear River, which runs through the city, is forecast to crest at 61.8 feet on Tuesday, which is more than 25 feet above flood stage.

The death toll from this storm currently stands at 20, with most fatalities being water related. Sadly, as the rivers across the area continue to rise, that number is expected to increase in the coming days.

Hurricane Florence off the coast of the Carolinas. Credit: NOAA

Wind Cave National Park and the Science Behind What Makes the Wind Blow

I recently visited Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, which protects a beautiful expanse of the Northern Great Plains as well as one of the largest and most complex cave systems in the world. While well known for its geology, the park’s namesake feature is also an excellent example of the science behind a basic weather phenomenon – wind.

Wind, which is air in motion, is the result of differences in atmospheric pressure. These pressure differences are caused by the temperature differences created by the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface by the Sun.  Several factors contribute to this unbalanced process, including cloud cover, large bodies of water, topography, and vegetation.

As the surface warms, air heats and rises, creating an area of low pressure. To fill that void, air from an area of relatively higher-pressure rushes in, creating a flow of air that we recognize as wind. The greater the pressure differences between these two areas, the stronger the breeze.

Atmospheric pressure conditions at the cave entrance during my visit. Credit: Melissa Fleming

At Wind Cave, given its vast size, the air pressure inside the cave is constantly working to equalize with that above ground. Therefore, when there is an area of high pressure at the surface, the wind will blow into the cave. If there is an area of low pressure on the surface, the wind will blow out of the cave. For this reason, the cave is described in the oral histories of the Lakota – a Native American tribe who consider it scared – as “the hole that breathes cool air”.

Park Ranger demonstrates the flow of air coming out of the small cave entrance with a ribbon. Credit:RVDreamLife

While other large cave systems can generate barometric winds, those at Wind Cave are more noticeable because of the small size of its entrance. As the Venturi Effect shows, when space is constricted, air will flow faster. Legend says that the first non-native settlers to discover the cave – two brother named Jesse and Tom Bingham – did so by accident when the wind from its entrance blew the hat off one of their heads in 1881.

According to the NPS, winds at the cave’s natural entrance have reached up to 25-mph.

Wind Cave National Park, SD. Credit: Melissa Fleming

The Continental Divide Determines Where Rain Goes After it Hits the Ground

Most people are familiar with the various types of precipitation that falls from the sky. However, have you ever wondered where all that water goes after it falls or melts? The answer is largely dependent on what side of the continental divide it landed.

A continental divide is a natural boundary that separates the river systems of a continent. They are usually tall mountain ranges that direct the flow of rivers and streams to different oceans. Essentially, any precipitation that falls or melts on one side will flow into one ocean basin and anything that falls or melts on the other side of the divide will flow into another basin.

Sign in Rocky Mountain National Park marks the location of the Continental Divide in CO. Credit: Melissa Fleming

Every continent has at least one and some have multiple. In the United States, the main divide is the Rocky Mountains. It is part of the Great Continental Divide of the Americas, which runs from western Alaska through the Andes Mountains in South America. It separates water that runs into the Atlantic Ocean from water that flows into the Arctic or Pacific Oceans.

In some cases, water finds its way into an endorheic basin with no outlet to an ocean.  Utah’s Great Salt Lake and Oregon’s Crater Lake are well known examples.  Here, the water re-enters the water cycle via evaporation. A small percentage of precipitating water also seeps into the ground where it replenishes soil moisture and underground aquifers. That said, the vast majority of water returns to the world’s oceans where it will eventually be evaporated and fall as precipitation again somewhere on the planet.

North America has several drainage divides, but the Great Divide (red) is the largest. Credit: ContinentalDivide.net

 

Hurricane Lane: The Wettest Tropical System Ever Recorded in Hawaii and the Second Wettest for US

Hurricane Lane, the twelfth named storm of eastern Pacific hurricane season, slammed the state of Hawaii with strong winds and flooding rains over the weekend. It was the wettest tropical cyclone on record in the Aloha state.

The storm, according to the NWS, peaked at category-5 strength, but weakened as it approached Hawaii. While it did not make landfall, its outer rain bands still packed a punch that was felt across the island chain. The Big Island, however, was one of the hardest hit. In the town of Mountain View, about 15 miles southwest of Hilo, 52.02 inches of rain was reported. That is the second highest rainfall total ever recorded from a tropical cyclone in the entire United States. The highest total, 60.58 inches, fell in Nederland, Texas during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

The slow moving nature of Lane and the orographic lift provide by the mountainous terrain of Hawaii helped push the rainfall total into the record books. Falling in a relatively short period of time, the relentless precipitation caused widespread flooding, mudslides, and road closures. It also forced mass evacuations as well as a number of water rescues.

While the eastern and central Pacific basins produce about 15 named storms a year, they rarely hit Hawaii. This is largely because of the state’s location in the vast Pacific Ocean. Sitting at about 20°N latitude, most storms pass south of the archipelago or dissipate in the relatively cooler waters to its north and east.

The last hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii was Iniki, a category-4 storm, in 1992.

Source: NWS