Light-Switch Spring

Ah, March in Minnesota: knee-deep in dirty snow with a slight risk of a tornado. This is a manic month of meteorology – blizzards, floods, ice, even twisters by the end of the month. Did I leave anything out?

Huge north-south temperature contrasts leading up to the Spring Equinox can whip up intense storms capable of jaw-dropping temperature extremes.

Exhibit A: St. Louis went from 83F and shorts Tuesday to flurries & 40F yesterday. Like turning off a light switch. One minute it’s spring, blink a few times, and it’s winter again.

While Chicago digs out from 3-6 inches of snow (now the third snowiest winter on record) we enjoy another well-timed puff of Pacific air; 40s likely today and tomorrow before cooling off over the weekend.

No headline-generating weather drama in sight, just a slight cooling trend by next week as big storms torment the southern and eastern USA. No sign of The Big One here anytime soon.

People ask me to put this winter into perspective. According to the MN Climate Office’s “Winter Misery Index” (snow and cold) this winter was severe – the first since 2011, and only the 4th since 1985.

Yes, I’m Master of The Obvious, but now we have confirmation.

Cooling Trend Next Week. (But No School Closings). After basking (?) in the 40s today we cool down over the weekend, temperatures running about 5-15F cooler than average next week. One consolation: I expect enough cold, dry Canadian air to push the main storm track south of Minnesota, only a small chance of snow next Tuesday over southern Minnesota. Graphic: Weatherspark.

Chilly Next Week, But Not Exactly Polar. Temperatures over North America continue to trend warmer than average, with one notable exception (pretty much directly overhead). How can the atmosphere be warming if it’s cold at my house? Perception becomes reality – keeping a global perspective is challenging, even for meteorologists. Note to self: that’s why we have climate scientists, who keep the big picture in mind. Temperatures anomalies next Wednesday, March 19, courtesy of Climate Reanalyzer.

10th Greatest Number Of Days With 15″+ Snow On The Ground at MSP. If you lost count it was 22 days with at least 15″ snow on the ground this winter, the most since 2001, but a far cry from 1970 and 1979. Data: Twin Cities National Weather Service.

52 Days Of 15″+ Snowcover At St. Cloud. I did a double-take when I saw this stat, nearly 2 full months of consecutive days of 15″ or more of snow on the ground at St. Cloud this winter, the most since 1979.

Brutal Winter, And Painful Rises In Heat Costs. Propane costs have skyrocketed this winter. Supply and demand, superimposed upon a pioneer winter from the Upper Midwest to the Great Lakes. Here’s an excerpt of a New York Times story: “Opening up heating and electricity bills has been a bit of a shocker in recent weeks. Exactly how shocking became clear on Wednesday when the Energy Department released a report showing just how expensive it was to keep warm and cook dinner this winter. Those living in mostly rural and Midwestern areas who depend on propane are expected to spend 54 percent more this winter than last. Those who rely on heating oil, largely in the Northeast, will be paying 7 percent more. Natural gas consumers will pay 10 percent more and electricity consumers will pay 5 percent more...”

Buffalo: Two Blizzards In One Winter – First Time In 40 Years. The Buffalo News has some perspective on what a crazy winter it’s been in Buffalo, a city that is accustomed to snow. When people there start to complain you know it’s no ordinary, garden-variety winter: “…For a genuine blizzard, three conditions are needed: visibility of a quarter-mile or less due to snow; winds sustained, or in gusts, of over 35 miles an hour; and, finally, Zaff said: “Those two events need to occur for three hours.” We just went through this – in early January. “This is the first time – at least in the last 40 years,” Jon Hitchcock, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Buffalo, said of two blizzards within two months. “As far as anybody knows,” he said, “this is the first time we’ve had two in one season…”

Photo credit above: “Niagara University ROTC cadets Christian Beaucage, Will Olszewski and Matt Stevens run at Niagara University, in spite of the blizzard, to keep up with their training Wednesday.” James P. McCoy/Buffalo News.

Climate Change Could Bring More Of These Winters. Or not. Too early to tell, but please get us go a few winters without a strongly negative AO or Arctic Oscillation: lighter winds allow the Polar Vortex to drop south, and linger indefinitely. Here’s a clip from The Winnipeg Free Press: “…Again, the cold weather this winter was due to southern excursions of the polar vortex, the big air mass that always swirls around the Arctic. The cold air’s southern journeys were made possible by a meandering jet stream, a flow that usually functions like a big waistband that holds the nasty stuff back. Some climatologists theorize the weird wiggling of the jet stream might be caused by a warming Arctic atmosphere, itself the result of a loss of summer sea ice. But the cause-and-effect relationship between a warming Arctic and wandering jet stream is not conclusive, so it’s too soon to blame this terrible, nasty winter on climate change…”

Almost A Record on Superior. According to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory the all-time record for ice cover on Lake Superior was 100% in 1996. Lake Michigan just broke the all-time record, set in 1977.

Peak Lake Superior Ice Cover. According to data from NOAA CoastWatch Lake Superior ice cover peaked at 95.74% in early March.

Historical Perspective. The trend in (most) recent winters has been for less ice on Lake Superior, at least since the mid-90s. Check out the NOAA data for yourself here.

Here Comes El Nino; Good News For U.S. Weather Woes. Maybe the headline should come with a question mark instead of a period. El Nino often brings flooding rains for the west coast; but fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean. AP and Ravalli Republic have the story; here’s the intro: “Relief may be on the way for a weather-weary United States with the predicted warming of the central Pacific Ocean brewing this year that will likely change weather worldwide. But it won’t be for the better everywhere. The warming, called an El Nino, is expected to lead to fewer Atlantic hurricanes and more rain next winter for drought-stricken California and southern states, and even a milder winter for the nation’s frigid northern tier next year, meteorologists say. While it could be good news to lessen the southwestern U.S. drought and shrink heating bills next winter in the far north, “worldwide it can be quite a different story,” said North Carolina State University atmospheric sciences professor Ken Kunkel. “Some areas benefit. Some don’t…”

Aging El Nino Buoys Get Fixed As Weather Forecasts At Risk. With an El Nino warming phase brewing (52% probability by late summer and autumn) NOAA doesn’t want to be flying blind. Here’s an update from a story at Bloomberg: “The National Weather Service is set to start repairing 70 towering buoys used to track El Nino and La Nina patterns, whose damage has led scientists to warn the accuracy of forecasts is in danger. The Tropical Atmospheric Ocean Array, deployed after a 1982-83 ocean warming caught governments by surprise and caused at least $8.1 billion in damage worldwide, is designed to help predict developments that can alter global weather. The system has degraded to about 40 percent effectiveness, a victim of age, vandalism and neglect, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration…”

Photo credit above: NOAA “A TAO buoy seen next to a NOAA research ship, which was used for maintaining the buoy array across the Pacific Ocean.”

When Lightning Strikes, Instruments On The Space Station Will See It. has an intriguing article, focused on lightning detection from low-Earth orbit. Here’s an excerpt: “…A sophisticated piece of flight hardware, called a Lightning IMaging Sensor (LIS), was developed by researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and launched into space in 1997 as part of NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Missions (TRMM). The sensor, used to detect and locate lightning over the tropical region of the globe, undertook a three year primary mission to return data that could be used to improve weather forecasts. LIS continues to operate aboard the TRMM satellite today…”

Image credit above: “A sprite glows red (inset) in this image captured by astronauts on the International Space Station on April 30, 2012.” Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

A sophisticated piece of flight hardware, called a Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS), was developed by researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and launched into space in 1997 as part of NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM). The sensor, used to detect and locate lightning over the tropical region of the globe, undertook a three year primary mission to return data that could be used to improve weather forecasts. LIS continues to operate aboard the TRMM satellite today.

Of course, the researchers responsible for building LIS in the 1990s built a spare unit as a precaution. That other unit is now being brought into play as well. The second LIS sensor is scheduled to launch aboard a Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2016.

How It’s Possible To Lose An Airplane In 2014. Reality trumps fiction – you can’t make this stuff up. What happened to the Malaysian 777? Great question. asks the rhetorical question; here’s an excerpt: “…The most chilling thing about this is the fact the plane seemingly vanished without a trace. The captain, who had more than 18,000 hours of flight time, gave no warning, issued no mayday. There was no indication anything was amiss. This is not terribly unusual, because a flight crew’s first priority in an emergency is dealing with the situation at hand. “Aviate, navigate, then communicate” is the mantra. Airline pilot and blogger Patrick Smith says the radio silence “doesn’t startle me…”

Photo credit: Pedro Moura Pinheiro/Flickr

Safe Skies. According to The Economist, in spite of a recent tragedy, air flights are getting safer: “…On a per passenger-mile basis, an individual is about 180 times more likely to die in a car than on a plane, according to America’s National Safety Council (though these types of travel are not in direct competition)…”

The Robots Are Coming. Maybe “The Terminator” movies really were a taste of what’s to come. According to this long but fascinating read at Aeon Magazine, the invasion’s already in progress: the only question is when, not if, humanoid robots will work, play and war beside us. Here’s an excerpt: “…It’s hard because each one of those functions – perception, planning, movement – requires powerful yet portable computers to make lots of calculations in the shortest amount of time possible. That is why robots have until recently been relegated to controlled environments such as factories, where the number of variables requiring calculation can be kept to a minimum. But DARPA has proven, through the Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge auto races of 2004, 2005, and 2007 that led to the development of driverless cars, that robots can be made to function autonomously in the chaos of the real world...”

Photo credit above: “The Atlas robot created by Boston Dynamics.” Photo by Boston Dynamics.

Compound In Fruits And Vegetables Prevents Symptoms Of Alzheimer’s In Mice. Some interesting details in an article at Gizmag; here’s an excerpt: “Alzheimer’s disease represents the most common form of dementia, with the early stages of the disease generally characterized with short term memory loss and learning difficulties that increase in severity as the patient progresses in age. Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, California, have discovered that with regular treatments of the antioxidant fisetin, they were able to prevent memory loss in mice with genetic mutations linked to Alzheimer’s…”

Photo credit above: “A compound commonly found in fruit and vegetables, including apples, grapes and strawberries, has been found to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in mice.” (Photo: Shutterstock).

You’re Drinking The Wrong Kind Of Milk. Who knew? Anyone who is lactose-intolerant may want to read this article from Mother Jones; here’s an excerpt: “… An emerging body of research suggests that many of the 1 in 4 Americans who exhibit symptoms of lactose intolerance could instead be unable to digest A1, a protein most often found in milk from the high-producing Holstein cows favored by American and some European industrial dairies. The A1 protein is much less prevalent in milk from Jersey, Guernsey, and most Asian and African cow breeds, where, instead, the A2 protein predominates…”

Photo credit: Okea/Thinkstock.

30 F. high in the Twin Cities Wednesday.

39 F. average high on March 12.

29 F. high on March 12, 2013.

11″ snow on the ground.

TODAY: Some sun, milder breeze, almost feels like spring. Winds: SW 10. High: 45

THURSDAY NIGHT: Partly to mostly cloudy. Low: 29

FRIDAY: Mostly cloudy, slightly cooler. High: 40 (early, falling through the 30s during the day).

SATURDAY: Lingering clouds, chilly. Wake-up: 16. High: 32

SUNDAY: Cold start. Partly sunny, still brisk. Wake-up: 9. High: 29

MONDAY: Mostly cloudy skies, few flakes? Wake-up: 14. High: 31

TUESDAY: Snow risk southern Minnesota. Wake-up: 16. High: 27

WEDNESDAY: Lots of clouds. no daffodils yet. Wake-up: 11. High: near 30

Climate Stories….

Climate Change Not A Top Worry In U.S. Gallup has the poll results; here’s the introduction: “Twenty-eight U.S. senators held an all-night “talkathon” Monday to call attention to climate change, an issue that only 24% of Americans say they worry about a great deal. This puts climate change, along with the quality of the environment, near the bottom of a list of 15 issues Americans rated in Gallup’s March 6-9 survey. The economy, federal spending, and healthcare dominate Americans’ worries…”

Actually, You Can Link Specific Weather Events To Climate Change. has the article, which orginated at The Guardian. Here’s a clip: “…The research that links global warming to particular extreme weather events is called attribution and has already notched up notable successes. The Oxford team showed in 2011 that climate change was loading the extreme-weather dice as far back as 2000, in a study that showed serious flooding in England that year was made two to three times more likely by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The killer heat waves in Europe in 2003 and 2010 were also made far more likely by global warming, similar research has demonstrated, while another new study shows how Hurricane Katrina would have been far less devastating had it happened 100 years ago…”

Photo credit above: “In Louri village in the Mao region of Chad, climate change has meant that the normally once-a-decade droughts are now coming every few years. November 2, 2012.” (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell).

Arctic Sea Ice Season Shortened By 5 Days Per Decade. Northern latitudes are warming much faster than mid latitudes, just like climate models predicted they would. Here’s an excerpt from Nature World News: “The Arctic sea ice season is shortening by five days per decade, with the appearance of sea ice becoming delayed by warmer weather, according to new research. Writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, University College London Earth sciences professor Julienne Stroeve and her colleagues report their analysis, which used satellite data, indicates that the Arctic Ocean is absorbing more of the Sun’s energy in the summer, leading to a delayed appearance of autumn sea ice…”

Photo credit above: “The Arctic sea ice season is shortening by five days per decade, with the appearance of sea ice becoming delayed by warmer weather, according to new research.” (Photo : NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center).

Model Behavior. Here’s an excerpt from an article (and PDF paper link) at “Every day, major economic decisions are made based on advice no more accurate than a coin flip. But when it comes to climate change, sceptics and media are fuelling distrust in forecasts that now have a 20-year track record of accuracy. It’s time to end the double standard in how our most important decisions are made..”

* Tweet above courtesy of Simon Donner.

As Temperatures Climb, So Does Malaria. Warming has implications for various diseases, with malaria at or near the top of the list. Here’s an excerpt from Scientific American: “Warming temperatures expand the risk area for malaria, pushing the disease farther uphill in afflicted regions, according to a new study. Infecting more than 300 million people each year, malaria emerges from a tapestry of temperature, rainfall, vectors, parasites, human movement, public health and economics. Fighting the disease involves pulling on all of these threads, but scientists have a hard time figuring out which ones are the most important to predicting where the disease will go…”