2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook

From year to year, the number and strength of storms developing during the Atlantic hurricane season varies. This year, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center  is expecting an average to slightly below average season.

Tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes in the United States, develop around the globe at different times of the year. In this country, we are most affected by the Atlantic hurricane season, which impacts the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. It runs from June 1 through November 30.

The main driver behind this season’s mild forecast is the likely development of El Niño later this summer.  While centered in the tropical Pacific, El Niño impacts weather around the planet. According to NOAA, “El Niño causes stronger wind shear, which reduces the number and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes. El Niño can also strengthen the trade winds and increase the atmospheric stability across the tropical Atlantic, making it more difficult for cloud systems coming off of Africa to intensify into tropical storms.”

In addition to the seasonal outlook, announced at a press conference in New York City, NOAA also unveiled its new storm surge visualization product. Building on the lessons from super-storm Sandy, this new mapping tool will show the storm surge threat to specific communities beginning when a tropical storm or hurricane watch is issued. Hopefully, this will give the public a better understanding of the dangers of storm surge flooding and allow them to make more informed decisions.

While the overall number of storms expected to develop this year is relatively low, it is important to remember that it only takes one to cause serious damage, if it makes landfall.

Data Source: NOAA

Data Source: NOAA

Air Quality Concerns in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects 800 square miles of the southern Appalachian Mountains. It is the largest federally protected upland landmass east of the Mississippi River.  Air pollution, however, does not recognize these human-drawn borders. While traveling in the Smokies recently, I learned more about the air quality issues facing this country’s most visited national park.

According to the NPS, most of the air pollution impacting the park originates outside its boundaries. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power plants, factories, and vehicles are the main sources. Carried by wind to the southern Appalachians, the height of the mountains and the prevailing weather patterns of the region tend to trap the pollution in and around the park.

Originally named for its naturally occurring smoke-like blue haze, the park in recent years has been shrouded by unnatural white smog. Produced by tiny sulfate particles – released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels – the smog scatters light and reduces visibility. It has degraded views from the park’s scenic mountain overlooks and dulled its signature blue haze. Since 1948, according the NPS, human-made pollution has decreased average visibility in the region by 40% in winter and 80% in summer.

Ground level ozone, formed when nitrogen oxides react with heat and U.V. light, is known to have negative impacts on human health.  In the Smokies, it is also injuring trees and plants. Damaging leaves, it reduces photosynthesis and limits a plant’s ability to produce and store food.  As a result, they are more susceptible to disease, insects, and extreme weather events.

Acid rain is another problem for the park that is rooted in air pollution. It develops when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water and oxygen in the atmosphere to form solutions of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. This type of precipitation alters the chemistry of forest soils and streams. It jeopardizes the health of entire ecosystems, as a large array of species – from fish to trees – cannot adapt to the more acidic conditions. The average pH of rainfall in the Smokies, according to the NPS, is 4.5. That is 5–10 times more acidic than the pH range of normal rainfall.

While air quality issues in the park – like much of the rest of the country – have improved in recent years, it still remains a serious problem. Addressing the matter, the NPS says: “The Park Service is working with state regulatory agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and industrial and utility interests to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent future damage through such measures as offset programs, the use of improved technology, and determination of emission caps and government standards for various pollutants. To remedy air pollution problems at the park, additional reductions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide are necessary.”

The Blue Haze of the Great Smoky Mountains

Traveling in North Carolina and Tennessee recently, I had the opportunity to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While renowned for its “wondrous biodiversity”, the park’s name is derived from a localized atmospheric phenomenon.

The Cherokee, who originally inhabited the area, called the mountains, “Shaconage”, meaning “place of the blue smoke”. It refers to the smoke-like bluish haze that hovers over the park’s rugged peaks and valleys, especially after a rainstorm. According to the NPS, it is a natural by-product of plant transpiration.

While all trees and plants exhale water vapor, the conifer trees in the park also emit terpenes – a naturally occurring organic compound. Released in large quantities, the mix of terpenes and moisture react with natural low level ozone molecules to form tiny particles that scatter blue light. As a result, the mountains appear to be bathed in a gauzy blue mist.

In recent years, according to the NPS, human-made air pollution has been obscuring the Smokies’ signature blue haze.

View of blue haze in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Image Credit: NPS

View of the bluish- haze in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Image Credit: NPS

Climate Change Note Included with Book Delivery

Climate change is a complex subject impacting all aspects of human society. In an effort to better understand the political and economic side of the subject, I recently ordered some books from a well-known e-commerce company. Arriving a few days later, they came with a little something extra.

Inside the box, someone left a note to tell me how they feel about climate change. Written in marker on a blank shipping label, it read: “It’s all about control and taxes.”

It is no secret that climate change – a scientific issue – has been hijacked by politics and feelings run deep. Nonetheless, in a world with so many forums to share your opinion, I find it strange that someone was so compelled by my choice of books to risk their job by leaving this note. While only a single incident, it hints at how much work needs to be done to build a consensus to address the most pressing environmental issue of our time.

Handwritten note included in delivery of books on climate change.                                              Image Credit: The Weather Gamut

Handwritten note included in delivery of books on climate change.  Image Credit: The Weather Gamut

U.S. National Climate Assessment: 2014

The White House released the third US National Climate Assessment (NCA) report yesterday. It clearly states that climate change is not a distant problem of the future; it is happening now and impacting every region of this country.

Issued every four years to assess how climate is changing in the US, this latest report says: “Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.” In terms of agricultural production, “Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience.”

“U.S average temperature,” according to the report, “has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since 1895, and most of this increase has occurred since 1970. The most recent decade was the nation’s and the world’s hottest on record, and 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental United States.” Over the next few decades, temperatures are projected to rise another 2°F to 4°F.  By the end of the century, our average temperature could soar by 10°F if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase unchecked.

While similar in theme to the recently released 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. Here are some regional highlights:

Northeast: Increased frequency and duration of heat waves; Increased flooding due to sea level rise and extreme rain events

Southeast: Increased frequency and intensity of extreme heat events; Decreased availability of fresh water; Increased threat from sea level rise

Mid-west: Increased frequency of extreme heat events; Increased heavy downpours and flooding; Decreased air quality

Southwest: Increased heat, drought, and wildfires; Increased insect outbreaks

Northwest: Decreased summer water supplies due to earlier snow melt; Increased threat from sea level rise; Increased insect outbreaks and wildfires

Alaska: Warming twice as fast as the rest of the nation; Loss of sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost; Increased wildfires

Hawai’i: Increased saltwater intrusions from sea level rise; Decreased availability of fresh water

As a nation with over 95,000 miles of coastline, the report also addresses the issues of ocean warming and acidification.

Written by over 300 NOAA scientists and endorsed by dozens of other experts from both the public and private sector (including two oil companies), the NCA concludes that, “Climate Change presents a major challenge for society.” It goes on to say, “There is mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat trapping greenhouse gases are greatly reduced.” While this comprehensive report does not offer policy, it does emphasize the urgent need for both adaptation and mitigation at all levels of government.

The colors on the map show temperature changes over the past 22 years (1991-2012) compared to the 1901-1960 average for the contiguous U.S., and to the 1951-1980 average for Alaska and Hawai'i.  Image Credit: NCA

Change in annual average temperature, 1991-2012. Credit: NCA


State of the Air: 2014

Are you concerned about the quality of the air you breathe?  Air pollution, a by-product of our modern age, is an ongoing problem in many parts of the United States.

According to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report, 147.6 million people – 47% of the nation – live in counties with unhealthy levels of particle and ozone pollution. That is an increase of 16 million from last year. One of the worst polluted cities is Los Angeles, CA, where the air is considered unhealthy 120 days of the year, on average. For a list of the most polluted as well as the cleanest cities, click here.

Particle pollution comes from a variety of sources, but chief among them are industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust.  When these emissions react with the U.V. light of the sun, they form ground level ozone. Both of these pollutants are known to have serious negative impacts on human health.  They especially affect individuals suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

While air pollution continues to be a serious challenge in this country, the report also notes the fact that our air – overall – is cleaner now than it has been in previous decades. This is largely due to the regulations put in place by the Clean Air Act.

To check on the quality of the air where you live, click here.

NYC Monthly Summary: April 2014

April 2014 felt like a weather roller-coaster in New York City. We had highs that ranged from a chilly 47°F to a balmy 77°F.  All together, though, these extremes balanced each other out and produced an average monthly temperature of 52.3°F.  That is only 0.7°F below normal.

In terms of precipitation, April’s famous showers were intense this year. The city received a remarkable 7.85 inches of rain in Central Park. Of this impressive total, 4.97 inches fell in a single day – April 30th. According to the NWS, that is the 10th highest daily rainfall total on record for NYC. The Big Apple normally gets 4.50 inches for the entire month.

The city also received a trace amount of snow this April. While this is normally nothing to get excited about, it is worth mentioning as it came on the heels of our warmest day of the year so far. What a month of extremes!

Graph Credit: The Weather Gamut

Graph Credit: The Weather Gamut

A Day of Drenching Rain in NYC

April is famous for its showers, but yesterday’s precipitation was extreme. Torrential downpours brought New York City more than a month’s worth of rain in a single day.

According to the NWS, 4.97 inches of rain was measured in Central Park. Not only is that a new daily record for the date, it was the 10th rainiest day ever recorded in NYC. On average, we normally get 4.50 inches of rain for the entire month of April.

Up until yesterday, the city’s rainfall total was running below average for the month. So, while the rain was beneficial for the area, the rate at which it came down and its extended duration caused a number of localized flooding problems.

Scientists say the frequency of extreme rain events like this one will increase as global temperatures rise and our climate changes.