May it snow?

Central Colorado had a very snowy April—for instance, Boulder, CO set a record for April snowfall measuring more than four feet (122 cm) of snow during the month…and most of that fell during a two-week span in the middle of the month. May has continued the pattern with an all-day snowfall today along the Front Range of the central Rockies. What does a mid-spring snow day look like? Much like a mid-winter snow day except for the perturbed robin and the confused buds…

A collage of 4 pictures showing snowy scenes from May Day 2013, in central Colorado

Snowy scenes from May Day 2013

For a minute there, I lost myself…

Excerpt from an email yesterday (protecting innocence with pseudonyms):

“John, Mary, and myself are all out on vacation Wed-Fri.”

Arrrrrrrrrgggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Fingernails on the chalkboard,
A sharp knife along the surface of a ridged metal bottle,
A steel fork scraping along a glass.1

Myself needed this rant.

Sigh…
but I do feel better now.


1 see “Screech! Sounds which are worse than nails on a chalkboard”

The I-70 Snowstorm

This has been a snowy March along the Front Range of Colorado and the most recent storm which blew in Friday night and lasted through much of yesterday (Saturday) was unusual in a number of ways.  First, it was quite a cold storm for late March.  For instance, yesterday’s clouds, snow, and strong north winds held Denver’s high temperature to only 23°F (-10°C), a whopping 34°F (19°C) below normal.  The storm also broke several records for single-day snowfall for March 23, almost 11 inches (28 cm) in Boulder, more than a foot and a half (46 cm) east of Denver over the wheat fields that spread to Kansas.

One other weirdly interesting aspect of this storm is that it is following a track just about due eastward from the snow field it left in Colorado yesterday to the areas it will affect tomorrow as it moves off the east coast of the U.S. in the afternoon.  In fact, it seems to be using I-70, one of the essential east-west routes of the Interstate Highway system, as its guide.  Just look at this map of I-70’s route overlaid with the area of snow already deposited by the storm and forecasted to fall in the next 24 hours:

Image

There’s not a bad correlation at all between the path of I-70 and the path of the storm’s snowfall.

It is not uncommon for a storm to move more-or-less due eastward across the U.S., following the winds in the upper atmosphere which usually blow from west to east at mid-latitudes. However, it is unusual in late March for a storm to take this track and and leave such a continuous layer of snow this far south across the central U.S.  The biggest downside from the storm is probably the chaos it has had and will have on I-70 traffic, the biggest upside: the farmers in the grain belt will be happy.  Now, I’m looking forward to spring!

Sandy, the Europeans, and the Americans

Hurricane Sandy just before landfall, 1:35 p.m. EDT, 29 October 2012
(From NASA)

Hurricane Sandy came ashore on the evening of Monday, 29 October, just south of Atlantic City, NJ.  It was definitely a unique, “storm of the age” kind of event as it transitioned from a tropical system while it was offshore to a non-tropical (or “extratropical,” as meteorologists like to say) super storm as it crossed the coast and moved inland.  The combination of tropical energy (in the form of moisture and heat) and winter storm energy (in the form of jet stream winds and a sharp temperature gradient between very cold air to its west and warm, tropical air to its east) led to the lowest sea level (barometric) pressure ever recorded off the northeastern U.S.  Just before landfall, a hurricane hunter aircraft measured a sea level pressure of 940 mb (27.76″) in the center of Sandy and when it came ashore a weather observing site near Atlantic City measured a pressure just above 945 mb (27.91″).  Both values broke the previous record of 946 mb (27.94″) measured at the Bellport Coast Guard Station on Long Island during the Great New England Hurricane of September 1938.  The surface map showing contours of sea level pressure looked like this just as Sandy was crossing the coast and transitioning to an extratropical super storm on the evening of Monday, 29 October:

GFS Analysis of Sea Level Pressure and 1000-500 mb thickness, 8 p.m. EDT, 29 Oct. 2012 (0000 UTC, 30 Oct 2012)

Even more remarkable than the storm itself was the accuracy of the weather model forecasts of the storm as much as 8 1/2 days in advance.  The forecasts showed how much progress has been made in weather forecasting as computers have become more and more powerful.  The model from the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) gave a surprisingly accurate depiction for the location and intensity of Sandy at landfall from both its morning and evening runs on Sunday, October 21.  That’s 8 days before the storm hit New Jersey and a couple days before it had even become very well organized in the Caribbean.  Truly incredible!  Here is what the model predicted on Sunday evening, 21 October:

ECMWF 192-hour forecast of MSLP and 1000-500 mb thickness from 8 p.m. EDT, 21 Oct. 2012 (0000 UTC, 22 Oct 2012)

Unfortunately, most of the stories about this excellent forecast have focused on how much better the European model forecast was with Sandy compared to the output from the primary American global weather forecast model, the Global Forecast System (or GFS), at the same time.  For instance, see these stories:

The forecast from the GFS model was noticeably poorer as evidenced by this map showing its output from the same time as the ECMWF model run on October 21:

GFS 192-hour forecast of Sea Level Pressure and 1000-500 mb thickness from 8 p.m. EDT, 21 Oct. 2012 (0000 UTC, 22 Oct 2012)

While the GFS did develop the storm, it clearly was taking it out to sea into the central Atlantic and entirely missed the intensity of the cold air diving into the eastern United States and its interaction with the storm.  The GFS needed a few more days before it finally started bringing the storm closer to the coast and had it deepen when encountering the cold trough in the eastern U.S.  It definitely was the poorer model for this storm.

On average, the ECMWF model beats the GFS, as it has for decades, because the Europeans have focused their energies and resources on improving one thing: medium-range weather forecasting.  They have a a higher resolution model with a better scheme for ingesting initial observations and satellite data which runs on a more powerful computer system than what the U.S. has.  The U.S. agency containing the National Weather Service and responsible for developing weather models, NOAA, has limited resources and must allocate them across a broad spectrum of needs to protect life and property in the U.S.—the needs range from short-term forecasting of severe weather events, such as tornadoes, to the long-term issues such as summertime drought or wintertime cold.  And, while the ECMWF model is better on average than the GFS, it is far from perfect.  Just a month before Sandy, the ECMWF model was consistently trying to bring another storm, hurricane Nadine, into southern Europe as a destructive extratropical storm.  The GFS, on the other hand, generally kept Nadine out at sea with a looping track south and southwest of the Azores.  The GFS was the much better model in this case as the storm got nowhere near southern Europe and threatened the Azores twice.

Back to Sandy, for a moment—I would hate for us to get mired in a controversy about ECMWF vs. GFS and miss the incredible skill shown by the ECMWF model more than eight days in advance.  Billions of dollars will be saved or losses prevented if such forecast skill becomes commonplace.  This forecast gives us an example of what is possible as we continue to advance the science of meteorological modeling.  Now if we can just find the money to continue funding the research in this all-important area…

“You are getting sleepy…very sleepy…”

Here’s a second interesting view of Isaac, now well inland over northern Louisiana.  This time it’s an animation of the surface wind field around Isaac at 11:00 a.m. CDT.  The creative and wonderfully imaginative people at Google’s Big Picture data visualization group created the surface wind visualization site (http://hint.fm/wind/index.html) which was the source for this animation.  The hypnotic swirl is mesmerizing.

Hurricane Isaac Crosses the Coast

Here’s an interesting 22-hour radar loop from the New Orleans NEXRAD site (the National Weather Service’s weather radar site) showing hurricane Isaac very slowly crossing the coast and heading inland:

Today’s Stream of Consciousness

Today, I’m making my first attempt to create a blog entry on my iPad using the much-loveblogsy_icond blogsy app. The result: So far, so good. Intuitive (I haven’t looked at their tutorial videos yet), easy to use, designed for iPad’s touch-n-swipe interface. And, even better, a lot less frustrating compared to my initial experience with the WordPress app (which is fine for simple stuff, but is not very feature-rich…although the price is right!) [Update, January 28, 2016: Blogsy is no longer with us. Sigh.]

And, now for the abrupt change of subject (befitting the stream of consciousness)—

As the 11-year solar sunspot cycle continues to heat up…

…the effects of another impressive solar flare are headed towards Earth in the next 24 sxi_20120306_235815165_ba_15hours. Updates about expected impacts on radio transmissions, auroral activity, etc. are issued by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and posted here. It doesn’t look like the auroral activity will be seen this far south (40°N), but it really doesn’t matter because we’ll be covered in clouds through tonight.

Temperature at KDEN, past 2 days

And, just why is it so cloudy in Colorado? Because of a cold front which moved rapidly down the Front Range of the central Rockies last night. We went from 73°F yesterday (just 2°F shy of the record high temperature for March 6) to a current temperature of 27°F—a 45°F drop!

Hmmm…just ran across an oddity in blogsy. I wanted to use the degree symbol (HTML code: ° or °, but when I went into the HTML editor side of blogsy and put in the code, then returned to the rich text editor side (with a real-time preview of the blog entry), no degree symbol…just the actual HTML code is shown. We’ll see what happens after I post this to the WordPress site…
Update after my post: While blogsy does not show the degree symbol in its rich text editor, the degree symbol shows up just fine (as I had hoped) on the WordPress site. Good. Blogsy passes the test!

Computers, Poetry, and Meteorology?

Inside Apple CoverI recently finished the book Inside Apple by Adam Lashinsky who is a senior editor for Fortune covering all things Silicon Valley. The book was interesting and a fast read—it read much like a long magazine article—and it’s a nice companion to the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.

Near the beginning of the book Lashinsky describes the kinds of people Steve Jobs hired during the early days at Apple. In particular, Jobs was looking for people who “had an insight into what one sees around them,” what Lashinsky and presumably Jobs called an “artistic gift.” The artistry found in computer design also manifested itself in other ways which Jobs described in a 1995 interview for the Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program. The following is a quote from that Awards Program which Lashinsky uses in the book.

The goal Jobs said was…

“…[to put] things together in a way no one else has before and [to find] a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some advantage of that insight, [and, thus, make] them feel a certain way or [allow] them to do a certain thing. If you study these people [the ones Jobs was hiring]…you’ll find…in this particular time, in the 70s and the 80s, the best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. Almost all of them were musicians. A lot of them were poets on the side. They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents. The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter.” 1

Interesting. And, my anecdotal evidence from many years working with innovative, creative software teams is that Jobs’ observation is still true today. Some of the most inspired programmers and designers whom I have had the pleasure to work with often had avocational interests in the arts, particularly music. I’d like to think my own preoccupation with poetry follows similarly—it’s a perfect outlet for a creative temperament. Now, how meteorology fits into all this is still the unanswered question. 🙂

Reference:
1Adam Lashinsky, Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired—and Secretive—Company Really Works (New York: Business Plus, Hachette Book Group, 2012), p. 52.

Snowless Winter? Not entirely snowless, but certainly snowstarved

There have been many headlines about the lack of snow over the conterminous U.S. this winter particularly because the northeastern U.S., a major source region for headlines, has experienced an unusually mild winter.  For instance:

Outdoor Enthusiasts Adapting to Snowless Winter West of Boston
Festival has Near Meltdown
Towns Save Money in Snowless Winter
Home Depot Given Warm Winter Boost

The less than normal snow extent also affects many parts of the western U.S. including where I live in Colorado.  It was visually evident during the President’s Day weekend when I noticed I could see most of my two-foot tall snow stake at our house at the 8300-ft level in the Colorado mountains:

Snow on the ground, Feb. 2012

That contrasted with the conditions of a year ago which were much different.  Just how different?  This picture from last year’s President’s Day weekend shows the same snow stake at the same location:

Snow on the ground, Feb. 2011

Ah yes!  What a difference a year makes.  Even more striking is the difference in the amount of water contained in the central Colorado snowpack this year as opposed to last.SWE in central Colorado, 21 February 2012  The graph to the right shows the snow water equivalent (SWE), the amount of water in the snowpack measured in inches, for a location not too far from the snow stake comparing Jan 1-Feb 21 of last year with the same period this year (last year=blue, this year=red).  Again, what a difference a year makes!  Last year the snowpack contained more than 3″ of water (if you were to melt all the snow in a column); this year the pack has about ¾”, just 25% of last year’s amount.

The dearth of snow in the Central Rockies is not confined to the area just around my snow stake.Colorado snowpack, 21 February 2012  This next map, from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS—a part of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture), shows all of Colorado having a below average snow season this year. The NRCS collects data about the snowpack (snow depth, water content, etc.), both remotely and in-situ, and produces a variety of maps depicting the condition of the wintertime snow cover. Their Colorado map set can be accessed from here.

Snowpack over the western U.S., 21 February 2012
To the right is an even bigger picture view, again from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Most of the western U.S. except the far northern regions and a few spots in the southern Rockies have had a snowstarved winter.  If you are interested in monitoring changes in the snowpack across the western U.S., here’s where you can access daily updates to this map.

Much of this winter’s snowlessness across the U.S. is related to the location of the jet stream.250 mb average jet stream winds 24Nov11 to 21Feb12  Winter storms generally follow the path of the jet stream (Storms develop along thermal boundaries between cold air to the north and warm air to the south, in the Northern Hemisphere.  The jet stream is created by these same thermal differences.) Generally, cold air and snow will be more prevalent along and on the poleward side of the jet stream’s location.  This winter, on average, the jet stream has been farther north than normal especially over the western U.S. as this map shows (magenta arrows show average position of the jet stream).  Usually, those magenta arrows would be hundreds of miles farther south and the northward bulge over western North America would not be as pronounced.  This is a pattern which is often seen during La Niña conditions (cold water over the central Pacific Ocean) like what we have this winter—although this year the jet stream is even farther north than in typical La Niña years.

And, as with all things weather, by the time I post this missive it will be old news.  In the past few days the jet stream has shifted south and west (as shown by this satellite picture and wind speed map from today).
Jet Stream Over the U.S. 22 Feb. 2012It now enters the U.S. over the Pacific Northwest and dives down into the central Rockies.  Meanwhile over the eastern U.S., it’s farther south as well (and, not surprisingly, Richmond, VA had a few inches of snow this past weekend). For Colorado, this has meant a return to snowy conditions for our mountains with fresh powder at the ski resorts being measured in feet rather than inches.  This is good news for the western watersheds (but bad news for my snow stake).  And for the next 10 days, at least, it looks like the jet stream will remain closer to its normal position across the western U.S. leading to more normal wintertime weather.

Griffiths Island: Lightstations and Stratocumulus

After a bit of effort scanning through my digital photo library, I found a nice image to use as the banner for this blog.  Then, I used Apple’s Keynote software to resize it and add two critical pieces: the requisite blog title and all-important one-line description of what this blog might contain.  Griffiths Island LightstationMy banner picture is of the Griffiths Island Lightstation (or Lighthouse) in Port Fairy on the southern coast of Australia.  Port Fairy is at the western end of “The Great Ocean Road,” the beautiful ocean-hugging route in Victoria, Australia, from Melbourne west towards Mount Gambier.  This lighstation is one of more than 350 in Australia, many of which have quite interesting histories and are open to the public.  They are well worth the visit if you happen to find yourself in Australia with a penchant for picture-taking or want to absorb some local history.

By using a lighthouse picture for a banner, I’ve managed to knock off several birds with the one proverbial stone: the seascape/lighthouse picture fits nicely into the banner-required 9×2 aspect ratio, its blue hues blend harmoniously with the blog’s thematic colors, it connotes all sorts of deep meanings about potential topics for this blog (think lighthouse metaphor :)), and, finally, it presents a nice depiction of the typical stratocumulus layer that often hugs the Australian south shore.  All in all, the banner pic has much going for it—we’ll see how long it lasts. 🙂

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