Archives for posts with tag: meteorology

I’m sorry to have to say it but we’ve entered the grumpy season.

It happens every year, sometime in mid to late winter.  It is almost always associated with prolonged periods of very cold temperatures or a string of heavy snow storms.  Or, in a bad weather year such as this one, both.

The first two or three snowfalls of the winter were beautiful, including a magical dusting that gave us a white Christmas (see December 25, 2013).  But the storms started early (in mid-November or December, depending on the source) and new ones have been arriving frequently.  The Weather Channel (which started naming storms in 2012, much to the chagrin of the National Weather Service and other weather forecasters) is already up to Leon (the names progress alphabetically, just like hurricanes).

Making matters worse, the forecasters have been simultaneously sensationalizing the winter storms (today’s “Leon Leaves Atlanta DEVASTATED!” is typical of TWC headlines) and underestimating their impacts.  As an exasperated friend recently lamented, “Why don’t the weather folks just come right out and say that now ‘snow showers’ means 3 inches?”  Most of us have already seen—and shoveled—as much snow as we care to, and it is only the end of January.

Meanwhile, this month has already established itself as one of the coldest in recent memory if not historical record.  In my experience (24 years in New York), a cold winter means highs in the 30s and upper 20s and lows in the lower 20s.  This year, we have considered ourselves lucky to have a high anywhere in the 20s.  The lows have been in the single digits (including one below zero).  Very rare and very cold.

So, we’re grumpy.  Especially in the morning, before the sun rises, when the temperature is at its lowest, and there is snow waiting to be shoveled.

Luckily, even if the grumpy season is prolonged, it eventually comes to an end.  It is most usually superseded by the mud season in early spring (the severity of March’s weather being a determining factor) and is occasionally interrupted by a gloriously, brilliantly sunny day such as this one.

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Just before shutting down my computer this evening, I took one last look at the weather forecast.  Some people compulsively check the stock market and others keep close track of baseball (and other sports) scores.  I’m addicted to the weather.

I was rudely surprised to see that the National Weather Service had posted a Frost Advisory for later tonight and into tomorrow morning.  Where did this come from?  Yes, the forecast has been calling for cooler temperatures, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 40s and 50s, but frost?  Really?

And what am I supposed to do with this information, at such a late hour?  The warning was not posted until about 6:00 pm.  That gives me only an hour before the sun sets.

Not that more warning would have been particularly useful.  Although the number of plants remaining in the garden is diminishing, there are still several growing strong.  And all of them are either tall (e.g., the tomatoes and string beans) or spread out (the squashes).  It’s not like I can easily throw a tarp over the entire yard.  (Well, I suppose could do that, but it wouldn’t be easy.)

I imagine that some farmers will be firing up their smudge pots tonight.  A common sight in orchards and vineyards, these oil-burning heaters produce a high-volume of slow-rising smoke—some call it artificial smog—which I always thought enveloped the plants and slowed their cooling.

Turns out they work more like the large fans that other growers—such as an apple orchard we visited last weekend—will be switching on instead.  Both the heaters and the fans circulate the lower levels of the atmosphere, moving colder air at the surface upwards and bringing down warmer air from the overlying inversion layer.

I love the idea of having one of the monster fans in my backyard (I could connect it to my propane tank) but I suspect they are very expensive (no, I’m not seriously considering it).  So this time, we’ll take our chances and do nothing.  Despite the advisory, the forecast low is 44 degrees, well above freezing.  I’m not too worried but we’ll see how things look in the morning.

It has formally been summer since last Friday (June 21) but if I had to base my assessment of the season solely on the weather, I’m not sure I’d agree that it is summer.  With the exception of a few days at the beginning of the month, it has been as cool as it was back in April and May.  And then there’s the rain:  Almost five inches so far this month.

Weather aside, not everyone would agree that summer started on the summer solstice, especially those living in the southern hemisphere where the seasons are the opposite of ours on the north half of the planet.  I was reminded of this by a recent post (from Australia) by BetR2 (see “Am I Learning or Just Confused??? When is the first day of the season again?”).  For her, the start of winter was the source of her confusion.  It seems that there is no consensus as to what officially starts (or ends) a season.

Growing up, I was taught that summer occurred during June, July and August; fall spanned September, October and November; the winter months included December, January and February; leaving March, April and May for spring (although spring almost never lasts three months, even in the northeast US!).  BetR2 was similarly instructed, it appears, although of course, the seasons—and not the calendar—are reversed where she lives.

Others (such as the folks at Google) base the seasons on the astronomical milestones:  the summer and winter solstices and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes.  Followers of this philosophy tend to be staunch despite the irony that summer begins with the days getting shorter and winter with the days getting longer.  I think there is some meteorological basis for this, however, due to heat lag.  In summer, the nights are not long enough for the day’s heat to dissipate and as a result, it continues to accumulate after the shortest night occurs.  The temperature gets hotter even as the days grow shorter.  Eventually, though, the conditions reverse and we start heading back towards cooler days and, eventually, winter.

Another practical approach is to use holidays as the demarcation points.  In the US for example, summer “officially” begins with Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and ends on Labor Day (the first Monday in September).  Christmas often considered a good time for winter to start (although some would argue for Black Friday, which follows Thanksgiving and opens the holiday shopping season).  To round out the seasons, Easter makes a nice transition from winter to spring, with its obvious connotations of rebirth.  Naturally, there are strong cultural, ethnic, and religious influences on this practice.

However defined, it is now summer (in the northern hemisphere) by any calendar.  All we need now is for Mother Nature to catch up.

The middle of last week, 90 percent of the computer simulations reported by the Weather Channel predicted that Hurricane Sandy would drift off into the Atlantic after wreaking havoc on Cuba, the Bahamas and Bermuda.  Only one or two models indicated a trajectory over the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States.

By the weekend, all of that changed.  Apparently, a region of high pressure in the north Atlantic was blocking the normal eastward path of the hurricane.  To make matters worse, a mass of cold air descending from Canada and the Ohio Valley was threatening to combine with Sandy to create a storm—a la Groundhog Day—of epic proportions.  The pressure systems were bumpers and Hurricane Sandy a steel pinball in the giant arcade game that is the earth’s atmosphere.

Consequently, the National Weather Service is now predicting the end of the world.  Well, not quite but the forecast is very dire.  The expected storm could be like last year’s Hurricane Irene and October snowstorm combined, a rainy, snowy, windy mess.  The pressure at the center of the storm is extraordinarily low and when combined with tonight’s full moon, will result in record-setting tidal surges along the coastline.  We’ve been warned to prepare for the worst Mother Nature has to offer.

So now we are waiting for Sandy to arrive, with an emphasis on the waiting.  This storm is moving slowly—only about 15 miles per hour—leaving us to agonize in anticipation of its potentially dire impacts.

Who needs a thermometer when there are cicadas and crickets in the neighborhood?

When it is hot outside, the cicadas spend the day buzzing away raucously like construction workers tearing up a roadway.  In the middle of a sultry summer afternoon, they seem to be the only ones with the energy to work (if you can call it that) outdoors while the rest of us retreat to the shade of a tree or sequester ourselves indoors.  The drone of the cicadas is piercing and even the motorized hum of our air conditioners (equally incessant) cannot drown them out.

When I was a kid, I was told that if I counted the number of cicada clicks per minute and then performed some mathematical operations on the result, I could calculate the ambient temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.  I loved the idea—cicadas as meteorologists—but I could never figure out how to make an accurate count.  I did know, however, that the faster the cicadas beat, the hotter the temperature.  There was clearly a proportional relationship.

On a warm evening, the cicadas’ tune diminishes in volume, becoming a steady background rhythm for the song of the crickets.  They are the stars of the nighttime stage and their chirping reminds me of the calypso beat of steel drums.  And like beach parties in the Caribbean, the music goes on all night.  The crickets’ rhythm is actually much more complicated, a combination of hundreds of players that are mostly, but not quite, in sync.  It is a beautifully melodic exercise in harmonics.

Now when the weather turns cooler, as it has around here in recent days, everything slows down and becomes quieter.  The cicadas, having finished their summer construction projects, pack up their jackhammers and head elsewhere.  The crickets, diehard partiers that they are, stick around but seem to move the celebration indoors; the music plays on but it is attenuated, muffled perhaps by layers of vegetation as the crickets burrow in to ward off the cold.

When the music finally stops, I know that it has turned very cold indeed.  Fortunately, we haven’t yet reached that point.