Wildfire Outbreak in Northern California

Northern California is ablaze with wildfires.

As of Thursday, according to CalFire, 22 wildfires are burning in the Golden State. They have scorched over 190,000 acres and forced the evacuation of entire neighborhoods. Officials say at least 26 people have been killed and more than 400 are missing. In terms of property damage, they conservatively estimate that 3,500 homes and structures have been destroyed.

The smoke and ash from these fires are also causing widespread air quality issues. In the Bay Area, well outside of the burn zone, air quality reached historically poor levels this week.

These huge fires are largely the result of climate whiplash. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, but they have been extreme recently. After years of drought, this winter brought the state record amounts of precipitation that spurred explosive new plant growth. Then during the summer, which was the state’s warmest on record and unusually dry, all that vegetation turned to tinder.

Making matters worse, the region’s seasonal winds known as the Diablo Winds began blowing over the weekend. They reportedly reached speeds as high as 70mph in some areas. Blowing east to west, these winds warm from compression as they flow downslope from the mountains towards the coast and dry out vegetation even further. They also fan the flames of any fire already burning and can cause it to spread very quickly.

The Diablo Winds are essentially the same type of air current as the famous Santa Ana winds in southern California. They only really differ in location and name. The Diablo Winds are named for Mount Diablo in the East Bay area and the Santa Ana Winds are the namesake of Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County.

Wildfires are not unusual in California, but this outbreak is considered one of the worst in state history. The exact cause of the fires is still unknown.

Wildfire burns near Glen Ellen, CA. Credit: The SF Chronicle

Hurricane Nate Slams Gulf Coast

Hurricane Nate, the 14th named storm of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, made two landfalls along the US Gulf Coast this weekend. The first was near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and the second was near Biloxi, Mississippi.

Coming ashore with 85mph winds, this category-1 hurricane generated a significant storm surge that swamped parts of the region from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle. One of the hardest hit areas was Pascagoula, MS where a storm surge of 6.3 feet was reported. The storm also downed trees and caused widespread power outages.

Moving inland, Nate was soon downgraded to a tropical depression. However, it still spawned a number of destructive tornados from Alabama to North Carolina. They ranged in strength from EF-0 to EF-2.

Nate was the first hurricane to make landfall in Mississippi since Katrina in 2005.

Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES

Hurricane Maria Devastates Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria, the 13th named storm of this Atlantic Hurricane season, made landfall in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning. It was the strongest storm to hit the US Territory since 1928.

Coming ashore with sustained winds measured up to 155mph, Maria was classified as a high-end category-four hurricane. Its powerful winds sheared roofs and balconies off buildings, uprooted trees, and toppled power lines. In addition, the storm’s torrential rain unleashed devastating flooding across the island. More than 30 inches of rain was reported near Caguas, PR.

Local authorities say the entire island, home to 3.5 million people, is without power. They do not expect it to be fully restored for four to six months. This unusually lengthy timeframe is largely due to the fact that Puerto Rico is an island with rugged terrain and an electrical grid that has been crumbling for years from a lack of maintenance. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the territory’s sole provider of electricity, effectively filed for bankruptcy in July.

Before making landfall in Puerto Rico, Maria roared through the Caribbean and reached category-five strength. It battered several other islands, including the US Virgin Islands, which were still reeling from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma less than two weeks ago. As of Thursday, the death toll from Maria stands at seventeen. But sadly, this number is expected to increase as search and rescue efforts continue across the region.

Maria was the third category-four hurricane to hit the US, or one of its territories, in less than a month. In 166 years of record keeping, this has never happened before.

Hurricane Maria moves across Puerto Rico. Credit: NOAA/NASA

Hurricane Irma Batters Entire State of Florida

Hurricane Irma, the 9th named storm of this Atlantic Hurricane season, made two landfalls in Florida on Sunday. First, its eye crossed Cudjoe Key, just east of Key West, as a category-4 hurricane. Then, a few hours later,  it came ashore at Marco Island on the state’s Gulf Coast as a category-3 storm.

Measuring about 425 miles in diameter, Irma was wider than the Florida peninsula and its effects were felt across the entire Sunshine state. Powerful winds, heavy rain, and storm surge flooding caused catastrophic property damage in the Keys and along both coasts.

In the west, Naples, FL experienced wind gusts up to 142mph – the strongest recorded during the storm. On the east coast, gusts were clocked up to 109mph in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, where three high-rise construction cranes collapsed in the strong winds. The storm surge in both Biscayne Bay and Naples was about four feet above normal tide levels.  In the hard hit Keys, according to FEMA, 25% of homes were completely destroyed and about 65% sustained serious damage.

Reports of toppled trees and downed power lines are widespread. The Department of Homeland Security says 15 million people lost power, making it one of the largest power outages in US history.

Moving north and shifting inland, Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm on Monday. Nevertheless, it continued to pack a powerful punch. Jacksonville, FL reported a record six-foot storm surge and the worst flooding it has seen since Hurricane Dora moved through the area in 1964.

Irma’s wrath was also felt in parts of Georgia and the Carolinas. Along the coast, storm surge flooding inundated communities from Savannah, GA to Charleston, SC. Further inland, the NWS issued its first ever tropical storm warning for the metro-Atlanta area.

Coming just sixteen days after Hurricane Harvey, Irma was the second category-4 storm to make landfall in the US this season. In 166 years of record keeping, never before have two Atlantic hurricanes of such intensity hit this country during the same year.

The death toll from this historic storm currently stands at forty-three, including five fatalities reported in Florida, three in Georgia, and one in South Carolina. The rest are from the Caribbean, where Irma hit multiple islands as a Category 5 storm late last week. Sadly, these numbers are expected to rise as search and rescue efforts continue. The entire region faces a long and expensive road to recovery ahead.

Hurricane Irma makes landfall in southern Florida as a Category-4 storm. Credit: NASA

Harvey Sets New Rainfall Record for Continental US

Battering southeast Texas for days, Tropical Storm Harvey has produced more rainfall than any other single storm on record in the contiguous United States.

According to the NWS, 51.88 inches of rain was reported at a gauge near Mont Belvieu at Cedar Bayou, about 40 miles east of Houston. This crushes the previous record of 48 inches that was set by Tropical Storm Amelia which hit Medina, TX in 1978.

The record for the entire US, however, still stands. It was set in 1950 when Hurricane Hiki dropped 52 inches of rain on Hawaii.

Source: NWS

Harvey Unleashes Catastrophic Flooding in Houston

Days after making landfall as a category-4 hurricane, Harvey, now a tropical storm, is still battering southeast Texas. Relentless rain has unleashed catastrophic flooding across the region, including Houston – this country’s fourth largest city.

While this devastating event is still unfolding, rainfall totals in some areas have already exceeded two feet. Dayton, TX, northeast of Houston, has reported a staggering 39.72 inches of rain since Thursday. Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH) has posted 25.66 inches of rain so far and reported its wettest calendar day on record on Sunday with 16.07 inches.

This intense rainfall is causing the many rivers, creeks, and bayous in the metro Houston area to overflow their banks and flood homes, businesses, and major roadways – effectively paralyzing the area. Rainfall rates reached as high as 3 inches per hour on Sunday in some areas, prompting the NWS to issue a flash flood emergency – the highest level of a flood alert.

No evacuation order was issued ahead of the storm in Houston and residents were told to shelter in place. Now, thousands of high water rescues are taking place via boat and helicopter to save people trapped in their homes. The situation has many people comparing it to scenes that played out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, has opened the massive George R. Brown Convention Center to be used as a shelter. As of Monday, eight storm-related deaths have been reported. But sadly, local authorities expect this number to increase as the water continues to rise.

Southeast Texas is no stranger to flooding. However, officials in Houston say this event is the worst they have seen since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. That storm dumped more than 35 inches of rain on the metro area over the course of five days and caused $5 billion worth of damage.

Harvey, wedged between two areas of high pressure, is expected to linger over the region for several more days and dump an additional 15 to 25 inches of rain. Forecasters at the NWS say the rainfall total for this storm could reach an unprecedented 50 inches in some spots.

Eighteen counties in Texas, according to Governor Greg Abbot, have been declared federal disaster areas because of this storm.

TS Harvey caused unprecedented flooding in Houston, TX. Credit: Aryan Midas

Hurricane Harvey Hammers Texas

Hurricane Harvey, the eighth named storm of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, made landfall in Rockport, TX late Friday night. It was the strongest storm to hit the United States in twelve years.

Coming ashore with winds measured up to 130mph, Harvey was classified as a Category-4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. These powerful winds along with storm surge flooding and torrential rain caused catastrophic property damage across the Texas Coastal Bend region. It also downed trees and left hundreds of thousands of people without power. To date, according to local officials, only two storm-related deaths have been reported.

Moving inland, toward Houston, Harvey weakened to a Tropical Storm on Saturday afternoon. However, despite this downgrade in wind speed, its rain bands are still drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and unleashing massive amounts of precipitation. Wedged between two areas of high pressure, the storm is essentially stalled over the region. Therefore, even more flooding rain is expected over the next several days.

Harvey was the first major hurricane – category 3 or higher – to make landfall in the Lone Star State since Hurricane Carla in September 1961.

Satellite imagery from NOAA shows Hurricane Harvey along the Texas Coast. Credit: NOAA

The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017

The Great American Solar Eclipse will take place on Monday, August 21. It will be the first time that a total solar eclipse has been visible anywhere in the contiguous US since 1979 and the first event of its kind to travel across the entire continent since 1918.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, casting a shadow on the planet’s surface. Communities that are located in the large, but lighter penumbral shadow will see a partial eclipse. Those in the smaller, but darker umbral shadow will experience a total solar eclipse. Moving across the Earth, the umbral shadow creates what is known as a path of totality.

Credit: NASA

On Monday, this path will cross through fourteen states, from Oregon to South Carolina. However, every state in the Lower 48, as well as parts of Mexico and Canada, will see some degree of a partial eclipse.

This celestial event is also expected to affect the weather across the country. As the moon briefly obscures the Sun, temperatures are forecast to drop a few degrees. This, in turn, will also cause the winds to slacken.

When viewing this historic event, do not look directly at the Sun. Doing so will cause serious eye damage. Use special eclipse viewing glasses or a method of indirect viewing, such as a pinhole projector.

Path of Totality for Solar Eclipse 2017. Credit: GreatAmericanEclipse

Thomas Jefferson and the Weather in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776

Thomas Jefferson is well known as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, but he was also an astute and systematic weather observer.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805. Credit: NYHS

In the summer of 1776, Jefferson was in Philadelphia, PA to sign the Declaration of Independence.  While there, he purchased a thermometer and a barometer – new and expensive weather equipment at that time. For the next 50 years, he kept a meticulous weather journal.  He recorded daily temperature data wherever he was – at home in Virginia or while traveling.

On July 4, 1776, Jefferson noted that the weather conditions in Philadelphia were cloudy with a high temperature of 76°F.

In an effort to understand the bigger picture of climate in America, Jefferson established a small network of fellow observers around Virginia as well as contacts in a few other states. According to records at Monticello, he hoped to establish a national network for weather observations. While this plan did not come to fruition during his lifetime, today’s National Weather Service considers him the “father of weather observers.”

Happy Independence Day!

An excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Weather Journal, July 1776. Credit: NCDC

Hot Temperatures and Strong Winds Fuel Western Wildfires

Summer is wildfire season in the American West and this year it is off to an explosive start.

As of Wednesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, thirty large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres – are burning in ten western states.  These include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

The largest is the Brian Head Fire in southern Utah. It has burned approximately 50,000 acres and forced the evacuation of nearly 1500 people. Ignited on June 17, the massive blaze is only 10% contained.

Another hard hit state is Arizona, where six large fires are currently burning. The governor, Doug Ducey, has declared a state of emergency in Yavapai County in response to the Goodwin Fire, which has burned more than 20,000 acres near the Prescott National Forest. Local officials have ordered the full evacuation of the town of Mayer, AZ.

These huge fires are being fueled by extremely hot and dry conditions that have left the region’s vegetation susceptible to any type of spark. Just a few days ago, excessive heat advisories were in effect for a large swath of the area as temperatures soared into the triple digits. Now, high winds are fanning the flames and helping the fires to spread.

Year to date, 2.7 million acres in the US have been charred. The country’s worst wildfire season on record was 2015 when more than ten million acres burned.

Brian Head Fire, UT. Credit: Desert News