A blizzard AND tornadoes…in October?

A month ago, on October 3-5, a strong storm system brought blizzard conditions to western South Dakota and significant tornadoes to eastern Nebraska and northwest Iowa.  There are many stories to tell on both the warm and cold sides of the storm, but I’d like to get to a few of them here.


Tornadoes in the fall months are not quite as common as the spring, even though they are sparked by similar ingredients:  deep storm systems, which bring warm and moist air up from the south and combine it with strong wind shear, along with frontal boundaries that provide a focus for thunderstorm development.  Tornadoes can and do happen in the fall months.  They are, however, rarely as violent as the EF4 tornado recorded in Wayne, Nebraska.  That tornado was the first October tornado anywhere in the U.S. that was rated EF4 or stronger since October 3, 1979 (Connecticut).

EF4 tornado in Wayne, Nebraska.  Photo by Simon Brewer, via KTIV.

EF4 tornado in Wayne, Nebraska. Photo by Simon Brewer, via KTIV.

My friend Scott has video of the tornado here, and there are a number of others online.  Due to some other obligations that tethered us closer to home, hubby and I chased the birth of a different tornado that day, one that started in northeast Nebraska and hit the town of Macy, Nebraska, before continuing on into Iowa.  While the final count is still being tallied, it seems likely that over a dozen tornadoes touched down on October 4th alone, with a few other tornadoes on October 3rd, as well.


As strong as the warm side of the powerful storm system was to produce those tornadoes, the cold side was just as vicious.  Up to four FEET of snow fell in southwest South Dakota, with a swath of snowfall that reached into Wyoming, western Nebraska, and western North Dakota.  Driven by winds up to 60 to 70 mph, blizzard conditions hit southwest South Dakota hard.  The system was well forecast, and people had lots of time to stock up on groceries and stay safely home during the storm.

Cattle, however, did not have enough time to prepare.  If there is a common thread from the blizzards of the 1880s to today, it is the vulnerability of livestock to a prolonged blizzard.  With cattle out in their summer pastures, there simply was not enough time to herd them all into the more sheltered winter pastures.  South Dakota lost many tens of thousands of head of cattle, up to 20 to 50 percent of the herds in the affected region.  A month later, the deaths and costs are still being tallied.  Please take a moment to read the stories linked here and think about those who have been affected by this natural disaster.

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An October blizzard foreshadowed a long, hard winter for the Ingalls family in DeSmet.  Are we heading into another Long Winter now?

October blizzards aren’t all that rare, actually.  South Dakota is touched by an October blizzard every few years (I don’t have the actual numbers handy, but I’m working on it!), though this year’s was exceptional for the amount of snow and its early timing.  There isn’t a correlation between wintry conditions in October and severity of the full winter season.  In other words, an October blizzard doesn’t help us know if we’re in for a long winter.

Signs aren’t too strong for forecasting how this winter will be, so we’ll have to keep watching for what develops.  (Here is my take, in the meantime.)


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A Flood of Thoughts

I have so many thoughts about the flooding in Colorado.  So much empathy for those who are affected.  So much awe at the power of water.  So much fear for the people who live there.

The weather conditions that came together to produce the record rainfall are not much of a mystery.  Moist tropical air has been carried up from the south, with flow pointing upslope along the Rockies, providing lift.  The amount of moisture in the air was record-setting by itself, and the atmosphere was primed for a heavy rain event.  The weather pattern is slow-moving and stagnant, so the same moisture and the same lift have been in place for days.  The result is day after day of copious rainfall.

2013, highest, lowest, and average annual rainfall in Boulder, CO.

Precipitation so far in Boulder, CO, in 2013 (green), along with the highest year on record (1995, blue), the lowest year on record (1954, red), and the average yearly rainfall (brown).

A head-spinning number of weather records have been set during this event.  Boulder set an all-time record for highest rainfall in a day at 9.08 inches on September 12, blasting past the previous all-time record of 4.80 inches set on July 31, 1919.  Three days in September 2013 already reside among the top 10 wettest September days on record there.  September is already the all-time wettest month on record in Boulder at 14.75 inches as of this morning, with more rain already falling today and half a month yet to go.

With record rainfall comes record flooding.  Record highest water levels have been recorded on numerous rivers around the Colorado Front Range, including the notorious Big Thompson Creek.  The record there was previously set during a devastating and deadly flash flood in 1976 (for more information, head here.)  The water is making its way down the South Platte River across northeast Colorado and into western Nebraska, where it will produce flood-level water along its reaches.  Flooding has obliterated roads, homes, businesses, and lives across a wide part of the Front Range.  It’s not just one creek, or one canyon, or one city.  It’s a region.

I can’t bear to post any pictures of the devastation here just to “juice up” the blog, but there are a number of pictures and videos out there, with mile after mile of damage.

Meteorologist Barb wants to take this moment to talk about flood safety.  And for that, I’ll start with what not to do… from our favorite little risk-taker:

This was not like wolves or cattle.  The creek was not alive.  It was only strong and terrible and never stopping.  It would pull her down and whirl her away, rolling and tossing her like a willow branch.  It would not care.

Oh, Laura.  Never step into a flooding waterway!  It only takes 6 inches of moving water to knock you off your feet.  While we’re at it, please don’t drive into one, either.  It only takes 12 inches of water to relocate a car.  As a friend of a Facebook friend put it, “Don’t go all Oregon Trail here and ford the river.  You’ll lose your oxen.”

Don't ford the flooded river!

Look out for the dreaded river ford…

On top of that, let’s talk for a minute about what’s in the water.  It has flooded through homes, sewage treatment plants, kerosene tanks, unknown chemicals in fracking liquid, manufacturing plants, feed lots, and gas stations.  The debris in the water includes dead animals large and small, chunks of buildings, pieces of trees, and mud.  Don’t touch the sludge-water.  If you have to touch the muck that it leaves behind, wear waterproof protective gear and wash up and disinfect afterwards.

Climatologist Barb wants to talk about things like how rare this event is.  Numbers like “1000 year flood” get tossed around, so let me break down what that means.  A 1000-year flood means that there is a 1 in 1000, or 0.1%, chance of that flood happening in any given year.  The language is misleading because it sounds like once an event like this happens, it shouldn’t happen again for 999 years.  But that’s not the case.  It might just be that we didn’t have a long enough record of precipitation to see too many of these events before, but maybe they’re more common than we thought.  Wild cards like climate change can make events like this more or less likely, too.  (In this case, it’s probably closer to the “more likely” side as our climate continues to change, as Colorado sits in a region that is more likely to see fewer precipitation events but more extreme ones when they do come.  And for the record, we aren’t able to say yet if this event has a fingerprint of climate change.  But we can say that it is in line with what we expect to happen in the atmosphere in a changing climate.)

Writer friend Sandra Hume asked me for my thoughts on how rare this event is, and I answered her with this (and I tend to be an under-hype rather than over-hype kind of person):

This is an extreme event… a once-in-a-career event, right up there with the Big Thompson Canyon flood of 1976. It’s the kind of event that kills people and causes major damage no matter how good the warnings are. It’s the kind of event that will get studied for years, both on the weather side (which ingredients came together, and can we learn anything about predicting it better in the future?) and on the response/impacts side (how well did people listen to the warnings? how did people die, and what are some survival stories?). I’m sure someone will look at whether there is a tie to climate change or other climate patterns, too (though those are always hard to peg for weather events like this). People will tell stories about it. It will set a new bar for flooding. It will inspire some children to become meteorologists, hydrologists, or swiftwater rescuers. It’s that big of an event.

I can’t do a better job than colleague Bob Henson did in describing the rarity of this event, so I’ll take you right to his words on the UCAR web site.

My heart goes out to everyone who is affected by these floods — a great many friends and colleagues are in the path of the deluge, and it hurts to see the impact to them as well as to the beautiful landscape of this piece of Colorado land.

The creek would go down.  It would be a gentle, pleasant place to play in again.  But nobody could make it do that. Nobody could make it do anything.  Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody.  But the creek had not got her.  It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry.

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Modern Pioneers of the Stormy Roads

Pa itched to follow wagon trails to new adventures, and while he dropped roots in De Smet, his heart still looked toward the west.

Laura, ever Daddy’s little girl, slid along the imaginary and infinite moon-path… at least until a wolf turned her back.

I get it.

The Ingalls family was a pioneer family.  Laura and Pa were not only pioneers — they had pioneering spirits.  They wanted to start a journey and not know the end destination.  They longed to indulge their senses just beyond the next hill, or just across the next river.  They edged close to dangers ranging from raging flooded creeks to loads of hay between blizzards.

The spirit is in me, too.

Obligations like career, house, and family have anchored me to Omaha, much as Laura and Pa were anchored to De Smet.  Once a year, though, hubby and I break our fetters.  We load our wagon, feed and water the horses (and by that, I mean gas up the car), and set out across the prairie for a week or so of freedom.  For that week, we follow our moon-path.  We push ourselves to the next hill, the next river.  We edge just close enough to danger to smell it without entering its grasp.

Our goal, in the end, is to see storms.  But it’s also so much more than that.  We love the rush of passing towns we have never seen before, taking in scenery that is new to us, and traveling roads less traveled.  Ghost towns and abandoned houses provide mystery, with the secrets of who lived there and why they are gone.  We parallel railroad tracks for miles, and in my head, I always hear, “One-two-whoop-three!”  Our food can range from something barely better than a skillet johnny-cake to a feast fit for a Wilder farm. We pack what we’ll need for the week, our complex lives boiled down to the essential apparel, gear, and maintenance items.  Our wagon crosses paths with other trail riders who are in their itching their wandering feet, often bringing us to meet the same old friends year after year.

When we’re chasing, we do occasional stumble upon a wolf or a bear — not the literal animal, but the beast of a storm that is awesome in its beauty and chilling in its danger.  You’ll even hear storm chasers talk about the “bear’s cage” — the core of the supercell thunderstorm beneath the rotating updraft, where a tornado will form if the thunderstorm is so inclined, where the danger is greatest and the power of the storm is most evident.

Supercell thunderstorm with a rotating wall cloud, not too far southwest of Topeka, Kansas, on May 21, 2011. Photo by Josh Boustead.

For 51 weeks of the year, I am a planner, an organizer, a goal-setter.  I live through my calendar and lock in to a crazy but predictable rotating shift schedule.  But for that one week in the spring, I am a free spirit, unleashed onto the Plains to ride in our modern covered wagon and touch the edge between Nature and civilization.

Until next spring, fellow trail riders!

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Storm Chasing: Faced with Tragedy, Will Chase On

By now, many have heard or seen the toll on storm chasers from the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado on May 31, 2013.  Tim Samaras, a longtime veteran researcher and chaser, was killed along with his son, Paul, and his chase partner, Carl Young.  Mike Bettes and the Weather Channel crew were rolled off the highway and lucky to escape with minor injuries.  Brandon Sullivan was whacked with debris and barely escaped.  Reed Timmer’s supposedly untouchable “Dominator” lost its hood.  Veterans and rookies, cautious chasers and hot doggers, all in harm’s way.  (There are links aplenty on some of those near misses, but I refuse to add to the YouTube hits by linking them here.)

Why do we chase at all?  What is the benefit, and is it worth the cost?

I have a lot of emotions right now that range from disgust to rage to sadness to shock.  I also still have the feelings of awe and inspiration, which I will reserve for another blog on another day.  Right now, a lot of people are questioning those of us who seek out storms, and I want to take a moment to share my concerns as well as my defense of this strange hobby.

Not all chasers are alike.  There are a few categories, with varying amounts of risk among those in each category.  Research teams, like Samaras’s TWISTEX and the VORTEX2 campaign, spread out to collect data on storms from ranges of miles away to the deploying of instruments within the expected path.  Pseudo-celebrity chasers like Reed Timmer and Sean Casey have made a career of bigger/faster/closer encounters that are made for TV drama and entertainment.  Reed Timmer copycats stream toward the core of tornadic storms, cameras pointed inward toward their own faces as well as outward toward tornado destruction, looking for YouTube gold.  Meteorologists stream in to capture development and structure, and a glimpse of a possible tornado, for the sake of reporting as well as understanding storms.  Some chasers simply feel the call of nature, much like someone who scales rock faces or skis off trail, to get as close to nature’s beauty and power as possible.

Some chasers plaster their cars with logos and lights, their goals to see tornadoes evident in bright colors and in-your-face graphics.  Others chase in nondescript cars, hoping to evade the appearance of a spectacle.  Some are extraverts who love to engage locals who have questions, while others prefer to shy away from interaction and focus inward.  Some of us hate the label “storm chaser”, while others embrace it.  Chasers are no more of a homogenous group than rock climbers, skiers, or any other hobbyists/enthusiasts.

Some chasers take too many risks and get too close, to the derision of the chasers who prefer to keep their encounters more low-key.  The consequences of such risks had not been truly felt by anyone among chasers.  Until May 31, nobody had paid a price worse than minor injuries, car damage, and pride.  On June 1, that world changed.  And I am angry, and sad, and shocked.

It is indeed possible to pursue storms, photograph them, appreciate their majesty and power, and remain relatively safe – in the same way that it is possible to climb rocks and mountains relatively safely.  But chasing a powerful storm is inherently risky, as are many encounters on the fringe of nature.  It’s rare that the tornado itself is the biggest hazard.  I worry as much or more about impediments like lightning, flooded roads, hail, strong non-tornadic winds, and other cars on the road (chasers and locals alike).  In recent years, that last one has become a bigger concern than all the rest, as roads near storms are now often congested with a dangerous mix of chasers making illegal and unsafe maneuvers to get closer, locals puttering around with their dogs in the back of the truck and their kids hanging out the windows to see what the fuss is all about, and inexperienced chasers who stop on the road, stand on the road, leave their car doors open, and otherwise create obstacles.

Count me among those who turn a nose up at the bigger/better/faster chasers among us.  I’ve seen dangerous behavior increasing with my own eyes over the last several years.  I don’t know what, exactly, has caused it – perhaps people have lost their healthy fear of storms due to saturation of videos of close encounters.  Perhaps too many kids and thrill-seekers are attempting to chase unguided, without experience or education to help them.  All I know is that it was going to reach a breaking point someday.  We all assumed it would be when one of those kids got killed.  Who would have ever thought that the first chaser fatality would include one of the best?

Tim Samaras’s work was dangerous, but it was a calculated risk.  His mission was to deploy instrument probes in the path of a tornado, then get out of the way while it hit the probes and collect them afterwards.  If this sounds a little like Twister, then you’re actually not too far off.  Getting in front of a tornado is always, always risky.  It requires planning escape routes in all directions, and it requires anticipating the storm’s movement.  Disruption to either of those could be, and was, deadly.  His death is stunning and saddening because he has been in those positions before and did not pay such a price. What was it about this tornado that his experience could not escape?

The close encounters of Mike Bettes and Brandon Sullivan were less defensible, because they did not involve research.  They were for the purposes of selling coverage to gain viewers and getting video for personal attention, respectively.  (And if either of them argues they were there to spot storms or to take pictures or for public safety, I will argue right back that an in-vehicle inward pointed camera on their faces has nothing to do with public safety or storm photography.)  They were in terrible positions even for a tornado whose path wasn’t as unusual as the El Reno tornado, and in both cases, it caught up to them.  I’ll believe the apologies and mea culpa when I see changes in actions in subsequent chases this year and next year.  Their highly visible recklessness makes me angry.

We were one of the dots on the map, one of the chaser teams around that storm.  Why am I even there, with such a danger around me?  How can I defend being a chaser?

Chasing began for me back in the late 1990s, when I spent a summer in Oklahoma and met a person who had experience chasing and could take me.  (That person is now my husband and always my favorite chase partner.)  The magic of seeing a storm from birth through maturity and to demise is humbling, breathtaking, and transcendental in the same way that many awesome experiences in nature can move the spirit.  Additionally, seeing storms with my own eyes makes me understand them better.  As a meteorologist and a forecaster, it makes me better at my job to understand storm behavior, to see a storm that is in a volatile environment but can’t get its act together enough to produce a tornado, while others drop tornadoes even when some ingredients seem to be lacking.  I can understand and talk to storm spotters about what they’re seeing, because I’ve seen the same features with my own eyes.  I can see a storm on radar and have a clear idea of what it probably looks like from the ground, and I can understand how the same storm can look very different to observers from different angles.  We relay our reports to NWS, and we do our very best to stay out of harm’s way.

I’ve never been so close to a tornado that I found myself in its damage path, in a position to provide assistance rather than chase on.  I’ve never had a tornado bearing down on me and not known where I would turn.  But I’m also not error-free.  We drove way too close to the back side of a rain-wrapped tornado just on this year’s chase trip, though the combination of what radar told us and what our eyes and gut told us were enough to turn us around before we drove into harm.  We’ve had lightning hit within a mile of our car while still taking pictures, prompting a fast dive into the car for the rest of the chase.  Our car has been rocked by strong rear-flank downdraft winds that wrap around behind and to the south of tornadoes and strong supercells.  We’ve been pelted by up to tennis ball size hail when we drove into a storm that we thought was weakening at the end of a chase day.

In short, we take calculated risks, too.  Our behavior during chasing is on the low end of the risk scale, with our worst offense probably some of the speeding we’ve done to get to a storm target, rather than anything near the storm itself.  You won’t find insane video of houses being torn apart among our reels because we’re usually not close enough, and if we are, we’re driving too hard to get away.  I’ve learned that Nature doesn’t care if I want to see a storm, or where… that storm will develop or not develop, a tornado will or won’t form and hit things, and it has nothing to do with me.  All I can do is maybe be in a position to watch it and learn from it.

We will continue to chase, though perhaps not within a county of a major metro like Oklahoma City.  The communion with Nature is not lessened, even now.  If anything, I need to get back out there even more now.  I want to see the majesty of supercell genesis and remember that it is still as humbling as ever.

Above:  The El Reno tornado, May 31, 2013.  Photo copyright Barbara Boustead.

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Violent tornadoes strike: How to help and how I feel

In May of 1999, I was a 22-year-old college girl heading to a summer internship in Norman, OK.  The summer was a huge one for me, including such milestones as meeting my future husband and being mentored by some of the greatest minds in weather.  A couple of weeks before I arrived, on May 3, a series of violent tornadoes raked Oklahoma, including an F5 that crossed the Oklahoma City metro area.  One of the first things we did after a few of us summer interns met each other was examine the damage path in Moore and surrounding areas.  I had never been around real tornado damage before, despite having followed tornadoes for years from a distance.  I was simply stunned by the blocks and blocks of scrubbed foundations, debris piles, mangled cars, bits of insulation and nails and wood splinters, and mud.  Seeing that devastation firsthand, and standing in the midst of it, is humbling and frightening and emotional in a way that I still struggle to put into words.  Every storm I have chased, every warning I have issued, I have always kept that picture in my mind of what the worst looks like.  This is why I do what I do — to give people a chance to get somewhere safe when the worst weather is approaching.

At about 3pm CDT today (May 20), my husband burst into the bedroom.  I was at the tail end of a deep post-mid-shift sleep and a little groggy when he apologized for waking me up, then flipped his laptop so I could see the screen and said, “This is in the Oklahoma City metro.  Right now.”  My sleepy brain was trying to sort out whether he was looking at footage from tornadoes just the day before or live, new footage.  I hoped for the former, but it was the latter.  Between the live coverage of the tornado as it spun across Moore and eastward and the live coverage on CNN and local Oklahoma City TV stations from that point onward, we were transfixed.

It’s hard to describe the range of emotions I felt while watching that coverage of this year’s probable EF5 hitting Moore.  Again.  I shed tears over the images of the elementary school where many children survived… and many did not.  My heart lifted with a picture of a dog who survived the storm and sank with a story of a horse farm that lost almost all of its horses.  My gut wrenched with the images of block after block of exposed foundations and shredded lives.  I got angry at the CNN anchor who harped on an erroneous bit of information about the amount of warning that folks in Moore had, and felt vindicated when she was corrected by a congressman and a lieutenant governor who praised the meteorologists. I burst with pride as my cohorts at NWS Norman, some of whom I know personally, worked their tails off despite knowing that their own homes and friends and colleagues may have been impacted by the tornado.

Norman, Oklahoma, and its surroundings will always be close to my heart.  Seeing another violent tornado strike the area feels like reopening a wound.  My heart goes out to those who were in and near the damage path… to the first responders who are saving lives while witnessing unspeakable horrors… to the meteorologists who put the needs of the citizens ahead of their own needs and work their tails off to give the best possible warnings for events like this… to the medical staffs trying to heal and comfort the injured… to the volunteers who are giving up time in their own lives to aid those in need… to the region that is bearing the brunt of the third violent tornado in 14 years.

In the early wake of the latest weather tragedy, I have a few thoughts and points I want to make.

1.  Preparing for the worst weather is the only way you can survive it.  Wherever you are, know what you would do if a tornado (or hurricane, flash flood, blizzard, or other weather hazard) threatens you.  Know your geographical location by both city and county so that you’ll know if you’re in the path of a storm — and be sure you know these when you’re traveling, too.  Know the escape routes if you have enough warning to get out of the way.  Pay attention to updated weather information (I, of course, am biased toward NWS as an information source).  Own a NOAA weather radio, keep it plugged in with fresh backup batteries, and activate its settings to alert you when warnings are issued.  Download weather applications to your smartphone that warn you of bad weather.  Once those warnings hit and you hear about them, vow to heed the warnings and take immediate action to save the lives of you, your family, and if possible, your pets, rather than waiting to “see it for yourself”.  Know where the storm shelter is, and USE IT!

2.  Leave the storm chasing and picture taking to the people who have the meteorological training to understand and anticipate storm behavior.  Stay in safe places during stormy weather, and don’t try to join the masses of people who grab their smartphones and head out to get pictures of the “big one”.  Get off the roads, or at the very least, if you’re driving to get out of the storm’s path, keep driving until you’re well clear of it.  No picture or video is worth your life.  Cars are sitting ducks during tornadoes, and once you’re threatened while in your car, there’s no truly safe escape.  Never, ever park underneath an overpass for shelter.  Never, ever stop your car on a road or block an intersection — get into a parking lot (or driveway, etc.) or all the way off the road if you’re stopping.

3.  I’ve seen a lot of people post something to the effect of, “All I can do is pray.”  That couldn’t be farther than the truth.  Pray or reflect or send good thoughts, if it brings you comfort, but also take action to bring assistance and relief to the victims of these weather tragedies.  Donate money to the Red Cross or other reputable relief organizations.  (You can donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999, or $10 to the Salvation Army by texting the word STORM to 80888.  Monetary donations are always the most needed type of help after a disaster.)  Donate blood, especially if you’re in the region and have time in the next few days.  Start an item donation drive at your local workplace/church/community center/etc., and donate needed items to the victims (most of the time, the local Red Cross will post lists of needed items like clothes, baby supplies, food, etc. – just be sure that the items you’re collecting are items that were requested by local relief organizations).  Join a volunteer effort to rebuild homes.  Don’t just pray — act!

I don’t have a lot of Laura in this post.  Just a desire to help stricken neighbors and be prepared for next time.  Which maybe is a lot of Laura, after all.

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Mayday, May Day!

When I was a little girl in the suburbs of Detroit, spring’s arrival was marked by the lilacs.  The blooms perfumed our neighborhood and tinted it with shades of cream and purple.  We wove construction paper baskets in school and filled them with blooms, and we even rang neighbors’ doorbells and left the little fragrant presents on their porches, just like the May Day traditions we had heard about from our teachers.  In southern Michigan in the 1980s, the lilacs really did usually bloom close to May Day.


Light purple lilacs in bloom

It’s May Day today.  My red bud tree in Omaha has struggled to push out its buds, but that’s pretty smart of it, since we’re not done with freezing.  Hubby and I are on the couch under a pile of blankets with a fire blazing, but in a crazy juxtaposition, we’re watching baseball.  We’ve heard the pitter-patter of sleet on the windows and deck for a couple of hours, but it’s quieting down now as sleet changes to snow.  It was light until about 8:30 PM, but now the coating of sleet and snow on the ground is reflecting the light and prolonging twilight.

May day!  May day!  We have snow in May!  Abandon ship!

In Omaha, we have had measurable snow in May just four times since 1884.  The sleet alone has accumulated at least a measurable 0.1 inches, meaning that we’ll add a fifth day to the record books.  Five times in 129 years!  This is a rarity, indeed.  The record snowfall for any day in the month of May is 2.0 inches, and we’re forecast to threaten that record tonight, too.

What’s causing this funny business? We’ve had a combination of weather systems and longer-term climate patterns that have squashed our spring.  Low pressure has developed and re-developed in the central and eastern United States.  The low pressure systems drag cold air out of Canada on their back sides, keep clouds around, touch off showers, and generally make the weather cool and unpleasant.  A couple of the bigger picture weather patterns, like the Arctic Oscillation and the Madden-Julian Oscillation, have slightly tipped the pattern toward cooler ones for the eastern and central U.S., also.  Mostly, this has just been the result of a stagnant pattern that’s keeping the warm temperatures confined to other parts of the globe.

Does this mean that all that global warming stuff is just nonsense?  Of course not.  Cold weather will still happen as the planet warms.  It will just happen less often.  In the central U.S., March and April were certainly cold, but the previous several months were warm.

NCDC temperature rankings November 2012-January 2013

Temperature rankings for November 2012 through January 2013, near the tail end of a long warm spell. Source: National Climatic Data Center.

I think this spring’s cold weather feels particularly nasty because last spring was the very warmest one on record, in stark contrast to this cool spring.  The very last spring in our memory was a very warm one.  Even a normal spring would have felt cold, but a cold spring just feels like winter!

Take heart, friends.  The lilacs, violets, and roses will bloom.  Snow will be replaced with thunderstorms, and crops will be planted and tended.  And it will be sweeter than ever to feel the warm sun on our faces with the May snow in our recent memory.

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Would you like sleet, freezing rain, snow, or hail with that thunderstorm?

What a storm system!

The strong low pressure system that has been bowling across the central U.S. has brought freezing rain, sleet, snow, and thunderstorms… and often all of those in the same place!  It’s pretty common to get a strong spring storm that produces thunderstorms in the warm air ahead of it, while snow and wintry precipitation follow behind on the cold side.  But it is not common for the thunderstorms to occur on top of the cold air, and that’s exactly what has happened with this storm.

The air temperatures near the ground were well below freezing, in the mid 20s to lower 30s.  About 1000-3000 ft off the ground, though, temperatures were warmer than freezing. That warm “nose” of air just off the deck allowed precipitation to become liquid in that layer.  If the near-ground sub-freezing layer is shallow, precipitation would fall as freezing rain — the kind that is liquid until it touches the frozen ground, then turns to a glaze of ice.  If that sub-freezing layer is a little thicker, the liquid has time to freeze again before it reaches the ground, and it falls as the small ice pellets that we call sleet.

freezing rain glaze on trees

Ice storm in Lawrence, KS, on March 28, 2009.

On Tuesday, April 9, thunderstorms developed in central to northeast Nebraska.  The layer near the ground was very cold, but just above it, there was enough instability thanks to that warm nose to let thunderstorms get tall.  Ahead of and around the storms, lighter precipitation was mainly falling as either sleet or freezing rain.  In the thunderstorms, the precipitation converted mainly to sleet with a few reports of snow.  But then the thunderstorms got stronger, and they started to produce large hail!  Our weather brains in the weather office kind of exploded a little at the thought of issuing severe thunderstorm warnings for storms that were riding over temperatures below freezing!  Our storm spotters were a little uncertain about whether the ice pellets were sleet or small hail… that is, until the hail got bigger and it was clear!

Hubby and I saw a good thunderstorm develop just south of Omaha on Tuesday evening and hopped in the car to go find some hail.  We were only a half mile from home when we got the first “thunk” of a stone hitting the car.  (And yet, we never had a stone of hail at our house!)  The largest stones, on the west side of the storm, were at least golf ball size.  As we went further east across the storm, the hail got smaller — roughly the size of dimes to quarters — but it fell in copious amounts that covered the ground and the roads. Luckily, our temperatures were hovering in the upper 30s, so the hail was mixed with rain instead of the frozen varieties.

Talk about the weirding of weather!  If this is a harbinger of spring, then this is going to be an interesting storm chase season.

On the bright side, the steady rain for the last several days is giving a beneficial soaking (or wintry coating) to the parts of Nebraska and South Dakota that have been driest.  We’re hoping that it’s enough to make a dent in the drought.

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Multiple sources of information: Pa, muskrats, and the European forecast models

Early in The Long Winter, Pa clearly pays attention to the signs for the coming winter.  He checks the thickness of muskrat dens and notes the patterns of birds flying south.  He talks to his fellow townsmen.  Of course, Pa also listens to an old Indian predict that every 7th winter is severe and every 3rd of those is especially severe (that’s a subject that will earn its own post another day).  He didn’t just trust one thing.  He took in information from all kinds of sources to give Ma his prediction that the coming winter would be a hard one.  And if you think Laura lays it on thick in the book, it’s even more extensive in the manuscript.

Those of us who make weather and climate predictions now aren’t all that different.  Instead of muskrats, birds, and folklore, we turn to computer models and observations around the globe to make our predictions.  But we definitely consult more than one source.  In fact, when it comes to our forecast models, we want as many as possible.  We call it an “ensemble” approach, to take as many models as possible and see what range of solutions they give us. Forecast models are run in the U.S. (mainly from the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, a part of the National Weather Service [NWS]… but also from the military and other federal research labs and universities), Europe (the European Center for Medium Range Forecasts [ECMWF] and the U.K. Met Office), and Canada, for the most part.

Sometimes, they agree with each other about an event pretty well.  When they do agree, we feel a bit more confident about the forecast.  When our maps start to look like spaghetti with all of the different possible solutions — and yes, we literally call those “spaghetti plots” — then we know that confidence is low and there is a wider range of possibilities.

One thing that has caught some fire in the news lately is the success of the “European model” (ECMWF) compared to our federally funded American models.  The ECMWF pegged the track for Hurricane Sandy days before the American models settled on the same track as a most likely solution, and several news outlets made a pretty big deal about it (for example, USAToday, Politico, and Popular Mechanics, just to name a few).  As a forecaster, I can tell you that I’m more comfortable with the ECMWF than most others on most days, especially at longer ranges (4 days out and onward).  It does outperform our homegrown models, on the average.  Like every model, it does sometime get it wrong, too.  It just happens less often.

What makes the European model (I’ll call it the ECMWF here) so much better?  One reason is that it runs at finer resolution for more days out in time — meaning, kind of like a TV or computer monitor, the picture is better when there are more pixels covering the same amount of space.  So it’s basically like an HD TV compared to an old tube TV, especially from about 8 days out to about 14 days.  Another reason is that it takes in more data from real observations to start each model run, and it does it using a method that seems to be better.  And the reasons the Europeans can do these things and NWS can’t is because they have better computers to run all these high-powered calculations.

What’s up with us here in the U.S.?  Why can’t we keep up with the Europeans?

In a word…money.  Federal funding for NWS in general, including our forecast models, simply isn’t keeping up with technological advances that would be needed to improve the models.  We can’t afford to upgrade our computers to improve how we run our models.  We can’t afford the research to know what improvements would be helpful to forecasters.  Heck, we are barely able to keep the lights on in NWS with our current budgets, and we’re running on significant staffing and equipment shortages.  The Europeans can afford it because they charge for their model information, while we Americans let everyone have equal access to it for free.  The Europeans also don’t hire forecasters to provide your weather forecasts and warnings for free, with a network of offices around the country to keep in touch with what’s going on locally.  They are focused much more intensely on pure modeling.

Is that better?  I’m not sure.  I think it’s nice that there’s an NWS office pretty close to everyone in the country, and we have a much bigger patch of the globe to cover.  What we need, really, is enough money to support both.  A forecast model isn’t much good if someone isn’t there to interpret it and make decisions from it.  A forecaster can’t do as good of a job if the tools in our toolbox aren’t sharp.  We need both the models and the forecasters to give the best forecasts to our American citizens.

How do we get better models in our National Weather Service?  Well, since I’m a federal employee, I really can’t tell you what to do, even though I’m on my own time and my own blog and my own equipment now.  I’ll leave it to your imagination to think about what to do from here, keeping in mind who it is that makes the decisions about our budgets in a federal agency. 😉

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Mary’s Blindness: Diagnosing the Science

This is still a weather/climate/Laura blog, right?  So why am I posting about the recent study in Pediatrics that investigated the cause of Mary’s blindness?

In a word…


I love that scientists can continue to connect their work to their fond childhood memories of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books (or watching the TV show).  I love that fans of the books can get to talking about science when a cool investigation comes out.

For those who are catching up, a team of medical researchers put their heads together to try to diagnose the the illness that caused Mary’s blindness.  The article, which I first saw at USAToday, has made an appearance on the front page of CNN’s website, not to mention a host of other news and blog sites (CBS, New York Times, LiveScience, Detroit News, NPR, People, and UK Daily Mail, just to name a few).  If you’ll pardon the pun, it has gone viral!  And all because a medical school student remembered hearing about scarlet fever when she read the books as a kid and connected it to her medical school education later in life.  I totally get it.

The ever informative Nancy Cleaveland pointed out that another researcher came to a different conclusion in a project that was discussed in the Homesteader newsletter (chicken pox).  Nancy wondered why this new study is gaining traction over the old one, and it gives me a great opening to talk about the scientific process a bit.

Scientists trust peer-reviewed articles above all others.  These articles, published in very specialized journals, are given to at least 2 or 3 specialists in that field to review.  Let’s take my area of specialty as an example, because I can discuss it knowledgeably.  Eventually, I will submit pieces of the work I’ve done to one of the well-regarded journals in my field — probably the Journal of Climate.  The article will be reviewed by people who have very specific expertise in the very specific aspects of my study — statistical analysis of data, using modern data to investigate historical events, and global climate patterns like El Niño and La Niña.  Those reviewers will tear apart my data, scrutinize my methods, and dig into my conclusions, checking along the way that they think I’ve used the right data and the right techniques, that I’ve used those data and techniques correctly, and that my conclusions are supported by those data and techniques.

Not one of my reviewers, though, will be a Laura expert.  If I want to get those parts correct, I have to run it by some of my Laura expert friends first.

Peer review is the best process we have to show other scientists that we are doing credible science.  It is not a flawless process.  One of the primary ways that mistakes get into peer-reviewed literature is when the material is not in the specialty area of the journal.  If I’m using a paper from the Journal of Climate, I’m not going to use it to verify, say, the life cycles of frogs.  I’m going to use it to verify climate techniques, and if the article happens to discuss the life cycles of frogs in relation to climate, I’m going to pretty much take their word that the frog stuff is all right.  Likewise, when I publish a paper in the Journal of Climate, the reviewers will take for granted that I got the Laura stuff correct, because it’s outside their areas of expertise.  The paper will be credible as a climate paper, but it would be questionable for hard-core researchers to use it as, say, a literary analysis of Laura’s storytelling techniques, because it wasn’t reviewed as a literary paper.

I trust the medical analysis of the new study because it passed peer review of other doctors.  The authors did their due diligence to get Laura’s story right, but I don’t necessarily turn to this paper as the final word on Laura’s story.  I do think, though, that we can turn to it as a credible medical explanation of what happened to Mary.  Until another explanation passes through peer review and makes it into a medical journal, it’s the best explanation that we have.

That is how science works!  We trade evidence among specialists as we work toward getting the best explanation that current evidence can give us.

I make this point because from time to time, confusing information about climate change sneaks through peer review.  It often sneaks through in journals that don’t specialize in climate and don’t have reviewers who have expertise in climate.  They take the leap of faith that the authors got the climate stuff right, while focusing on their expertise in, say, coral reef biology in a journal that focuses on marine biology.  Most authors do their due diligence to get the rest of the story correct.  Some authors have an agenda, or just don’t have all the knowledge that they should, and they put information into those papers that goes against the evidence known in the climate field.  It’s important to know where the body of evidence is pointing when it comes to science.  It’s also important to know which sources are credible.

We continue to add evidence to the research on just about every weather and climate phenomenon out there.  Sometimes, the evidence is in good agreement, such as the overwhelming body of evidence that humans are increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is causing warming that is causing all kinds of changes to weather patterns, ocean currents, and plant and animal life.  Sometimes, the evidence is murky and unclear, like whether or not the number of tornadoes will increase as climate changes.  Climate change will have all kinds of impacts on our health, and climatologists and doctors will have to team up to publish papers, to make sure that we get both the climate and the medical science right!

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What Would Laura Do? Modern Laura’s “Footprint”

Laura and her family (both as a child and as an adult) lived a very simple life, close to the Earth.  They raised their own food, built their own things, and reused whatever they could.  But they did not shy away from technology and advancements in many cases, either.  Laura was allowed to buy name cards, and she spent her own money on pretty hats and clothing.  Pa may have turned his nose up at threshing machines, but Almanzo sure didn’t.  The elder Wilders owned a car and traveled long-distance several times.

We talk a lot these days about things like “eating locally” and “carbon footprints”, hearkening to days when people did eat food grown close to home and did not belch so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere just to live their lives.  But just how “green” was Laura’s lifestyle?  And how “green” would she be if she were somehow lifted out of DeSmet as a teen or young adult and planted into 2013?  (For the sake of simplicity, let’s just focus on Laura around the 1880s.)

Certainly, I believe that even a modern Laura would have an extensive garden, if not a small farm.  She’d raise chickens for both eggs and meat, and she would get virtually all of her vegetables from her own garden.  Modern Laura would be a model for eating locally, as well as using as much as possible without wasting.  She’d have a compost pile.  What she didn’t reuse, she certainly would recycle.

I bet Ma and Pa would have kept the thermostat on their heating system turned pretty low in the winter.  With the scarcity of wood in South Dakota, I imagine they would rely on the modern comforts of gas or electric heating, just as most households do in this country.  The Ingalls family might have admired geothermal heating, but I doubt they could afford to install it.  I wouldn’t rule out a solar panel on their roof, but even those cost some money to install.  Turning down the thermostat to something in the mid-60s is how they would save money on energy costs.

But Laura was one for the occasional shiny gadgets.  Her 1880s name cards and autograph books become the modern iPhone and Facebook page.  Her schoolgirl slate becomes a laptop computer, and she’d spend hours researching, studying, and writing reports, even when she occasionally posted on Ida’s Facebook wall about getting together with Mary Power and Minnie over the weekend.  She might even text Mary once or twice, though Ma might take away her phone until her homework was complete.  Of course, all of these modern comforts require electricity to produce and ship, let alone to use, and electricity for energy is the biggest way that we modern folks are putting extra carbon dioxide up in the air.


Wouldn’t those cutter rides really just become modern cruising in a car?  Almanzo might really have a nice “pony” … a shiny, well-waxed classic car that has been carefully restored and meticulously kept.  Buggy rides to the lakes might turn into car rides out to see the sights and visit some places that were just far away enough to be out of the parents’ watchful eyes.  With a car instead of a buggy, the couple could venture farther than just the Twin Lakes.  They could drive over to those distant Wessington Hills, or maybe just down to Sioux Falls to hang out at Falls Park.  It takes a lot of food and energy to keep livestock, but all of those weekend car trips certainly add carbon dioxide to the air.


I ran Laura’s lifestyle through one of the many carbon dioxide footprint calculators available online (The Nature Conservancy’s Free Carbon Dioxide Footprint Calculator, but there are dozens of others).  Laura’s footprint of 17 was below the average U.S. person at 27, thanks to savings on home and water heating, eating organically and only occasionally meat, and recycling and composting.

How do you score?  At 27, I matched the national average.  My energy efficiency at home (we set the thermostat at 62 in the winter and use energy efficient appliances) was not enough to offset my travel habits or the fact that I don’t compost.  You’ve got me beat, Laura!  Now, what can I do to reduce my footprint?  Who wants to visit and help me start a compost pile? :)

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