Monday, March 1, 2010

The Amazingly Fickle Winter of '10

Just another (sunny, calm, quiet) day in paradise. Yes, we are quickly losing our Winter Weather Mojo, as well as cold & snowy weather boasting rights for the lower 48 states. I mean, think about it: Baltimore has seen 2-3 times more snow than most of Minnesota so far this winter. Baltimore? New York City picked up 3 1/2 times more snow than the Twin Cities in February, nearly 4 times more than St. Cloud. That's just - well - unnatural. Please, don't let anyone living on the east coast give you a hard time about living in Minnesota, at least not THIS winter. For once we can sit back and gloat (a little), bewildered spectators watching the biggest, baddest (old English teachers please don't send me an e-scolding) storms slide off harmlessly to our south and east this winter. Back in January and early February I thought we might even eek out a snowier than average winter, back when it was snowing just about every other day. BTW, average snowfall is close to 55". Believe it or not that number has been trending steadily upward in the last 30 years, according to the NWS and the Minnesota State Climatology Office. What's changed: most recent winters have been fickle; we can't seem to HANG ON to the snow that does fall. Back in the 70s it would snow in October, and snow would CONSISTENTLY be on the ground through March, sometimes April. But since about 1998 the snows have been more fickle, more prone to rapid melting with nighttime winter temperatures showing a definite warming trend. Not sure we can chalk all of this up to climate change. El Nino has been a major factor too.

The Original "Back Yard." O.K. Cut me a break - this was back in 1979 (I think), when I was still a senior at Penn State, doing weekend weather for WNEP, a TV station in the Wilkes-Barre Scranton market of northeastern Pennsylvania. Yep, those are impressive magnetic symbols I'm putting on the wooden background (no wonder they wouldn't stick). The news director at the time, bless his heart, took me aside and said, "Paul, at least if you're outside you'll get the current weather right." Thanks for that vote of confidence. So they aimed a camera out through a small slit in a garage door and I talked about the weather, while it was raining and snowing (and hailing) on my head. The audience seemed to like the idea of the weatherguy suffering out in the weather he predicted (or not). So when I came to KARE (then WTCN) in 1983 the news director asked, "Hey, think you could do the back yard format in Minnesota." I carelessly blurted out yes, before thinking it through - before they proceeded to tell me how cold it gets in January. No regrets - I had a great ride at 11 (and 4) and all those years on the air have led me to WeatherNation, our attempt to provide cost-effective weather shows for TV stations, cable outlets, newspapers and web sites; spending a fraction of what they'd spend for a team of full-time meteorologists. We're not outsourcing to China - just Excelsior. More on what we're doing at WeatherNation here, if you're interested in learning more. May I come inside now?

Monday Almanac (high temperatures)

St. Cloud: 38

Twin Cities: 38

Brainerd: 42

Cross Lake: 42

Warm Enough for Rain? Here is the GFS model prediction for 6 am Monday morning, showing the rain-snow (540 line) over far northern Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas - implying the atmosphere overhead may be warm enough for mostly-rain, surface temperatures close to 40 F. A changeover to wet snow is possible late Monday into Tuesday, it's still way too early to even speculate about potential accumulation roughly 1 week from today.

We seem to be enjoying an unusual number of brilliantly sunny days. It's true that the coldest days of winter tend to be sunny in Minnesota; when it's zero or subzero it usually means the main storm track has been suppressed well south of Minnesota, far enough south that arctic high pressure can dominate, resulting in mostly-blue skies (on those numbing days you can't quite see the mercury in your outdoor thermometer). What's unusual about this (El Nino) winter is that temperatures since mid February haven't been that cold at all, in fact they've been close to average, yet we've had an amazing sun of sunny, tranquil, high-pressure days. According to Pete Boulay at the MN State Climatology Office February was sunnier than the 47 year average (we have accurate sunshine data going back to 1963), but not as sunny as January - February of 2006. No complaints here. I find that (most) Minnesotans miss sunlight even more than they miss the warmth. People tend to be crabbiest when we have a couple weeks in a row of gray, gloomy weather. No question: blue sky and bright sun tends to pull most people out of their dark, midwinter funks.

Snow lovers are in a funk - we will have gone three weeks without measurable snow in the Twin Cities - I expect a lack of flakey-action through at least the end of the week, although there's little doubt we're sliding back into a stormier weather pattern, starting this weekend. Sure enough the storm track, which has been kept artificially far south (probably a symptom of El Nino) much of the winter shows signs of creeping northward. The models bring a rain event into town by Sunday, possibly ending as a period of accumulating snow one week from today. The timing & amounts: still very much up in the air. The models are all over the place, and my confidence level is still quite low. But no that there is at least a CHANCE of some snow falling outside your window by next Monday night - Tuesday, as jet stream steering winds switch around from westerly, to more southwesterly, allowing southern moisture to surge north. The question is rain vs. snow. Most models keep us warm enough for mostly-rain Sunday and Monday, with enough cooling of the atmosphere overhead for a possible switch to wet snow by next Tuesday. That's way out on the horizon. Much can and will change between now and then. But it's the first sign in a long time that the atmosphere may be in the process of shifting gears. Although the worst of the subzero cold is behind us now - don't write off accumulating snow just yet. Besides, Tournament Time is right around the corner. Uh oh.

An "Upside Down Winter". From USA Today: One climatologist calls it the "upside down winter" — lots of snow in some places where it usually doesn't fall and relatively little in some where it usually does. It's a winter when Baltimore has gotten more snow than Buffalo, Des Moines more than Denver. Seattle's January was the warmest on record. In mid-February there was more snow on American soil than any time in three decades, yet none in normally icy Plattsburg, N.Y., or Portland, Maine. Pea-sized hail fell on Southern California in mid-December. Dallas had its first white Christmas since 1929. In Washington, a president who'd once scoffed at the capital's inability to cope with winter joined the talk of "Snowmageddon" as the winter's total hit a record 56 inches. The complete USA Today article is here.

Snowbound Northeast. If you look carefully you can see the difference between clouds and snow on the ground across the northeastern USA. When this satellite image was taken New England was still being buffeted by 40-60 mph winds, producing severe coastal beach erosion from Maine southward to Cape Cod. All that white across New Jersey and Long Island: 1-3 feet of snow on the ground. The Catskills of upstate New York are reporting some 5-8 foot drifts!

Wild Weather, European Style. The USA isn't the only nation enduring rough winter weather. Much of Europe is enduring an especially severe winter, the most recent storm left at least 60 people dead across central Europe. Hardest hit: France, where winds approached hurricane force. To see the latest satellite loop for yourself click here.

Visualizing a Sonic Boom. I've never, ever seen anything quite like this. Yesterday an enterprising 13 year old (!) captured this footage of an Atlas rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. About 1:50 into the clip you can see a shockwave moving away from the rocket - a sonic boom moving outward about roughly 700 mph. Amazing. To see this sonic boom interact with a sun dog- an amazing sight - click here.

The Blue Marble. I still get a little lump in my throat when I see Earth from space. NASA has just released a new series of images of the planet in high-resolution glory. See the new library of pics here.

Earthquake Clues from Space. A low-orbiting NASA satellite picked up evidence of thick smoke and haze rising up from Santiago, Chile, just minutes after Saturday morning's severe 8.8 magnitude earthquake. Again, I've never seen this on a satellite image. The photo is here.
Tracking a Tsunami. Although the tsunami was considered to be a "dud" across most of the Pacific basin, it did produce a 1 foot rise in water across Hawaii - the coast of Chile experienced a 7-8 foot rise in ocean water immediately after the quake. Scientists, using sensitive satellite data and a continuous stream of information from ocean buoys, can track the unusually high tides as they raced westward, moving at speeds over 500 mph.

Science or "Hot Air"? Watch as Bill Nye, the Science Guy, tangles Accu Weather meteorologist Joe Bastardi, with Bill O'Reilly moderating the exchange on Fox News. A good, spirited debate. No lazy polar bears or cute dogs in purple booties today - Bill O'Reilly will have to do.

Paul's Conservation MN Outlook for the Twin Cities and all of Minnesota:

Today: Generous sunshine once again, unusually light winds. Winds: W 3-8. High: near 40

Tonight: Mostly clear, chilly - patchy (ice) fog possible. Low: 18

Wednesday: Bright sun, a couple degrees cooler (still warmer than average). High: 38

Thursday: Plenty of sun, melting snow by PM hours. High: 38

Friday: Sunny start, clouds increase. High: near 40

Saturday: Mostly cloudy, chance of drizzle. High: 38

Sunday: Periods of light rain possible. High: 41

Monday: Steadier, heavier rain. High: 38

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