WeatherWhys Blog

What's up with the worldwide wacky weather?

What's up with the worldwide wacky weather?
Cars are buried as a woman tries to clear her windshield Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011, in Milwaukee. The area was under a blizzard warning and some freeways were shut down. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

January is in the books now and was a notable departure from the months leading up to it. In what has been characterized as a “sandwich season”, January proved to be a sandwich of its own with rain only at the start and end. Meantime the rest of the world is in melt down mode.

We were 7 tenths of a degree cooler than a normal last month- not much in the big picture. January rainfall of .40” was only 34% of normal. But that comes on the heels of December which delivered 766% of normal and temperatures that averaged more than 5 degrees above normal. Warmer and wetter have become cooler and drier, a wholesale change of climatic fortunes. Snowpack in the Sierra at the highest elevation is still holding with only minor decreases. In the southern Sierra as of February 1st, the snowpack contained the equivalent of 25” of melt water which is still 166% of normal. And that is after a very dry January. There had been a number of fog delays toward the end of January and upper level high pressure dominated most of the month. It was relatively quiet weather wise.

But the east coast is experiencing one of the hardest winters in some time. From Washington to Philadelphia to New York and New England, one powerful winter storm after another has challenged many weather records and peoples nerves. The Big Apple just missed recording the snowiest January ever. So far this season they have seen 57.2 inches of snow. Normal is just 11.4. That is more than 5 times the average. In Philadelphia they’ve received 38.0” (414% of normal). Boston has been buried by 67.1” so far this winter (306% of normal). And that doesn’t take into account the huge storm pummeling the Midwest right now and headed in their direction.  As of Tuesday evening, Chicago had added 8” of snow, with full on blizzard conditions over most of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and southern Michigan. The storm left 1 to 2 feet of snow in Oklahoma and parts of southeastern Kansas. Tulsa picked up 16” and Oklahoma City was paralyzed with 12” (plus an ice storm to start). This may turn out to be the third most massive blizzard in the past 100 years for the Mississippi Valley.

Who can forget the other wicked weather from around Thanksgiving only 3 months ago, when the Sierra got its heaviest snow for so early and Butte, Montana dropped to 22 below zero. Well, it was 42 below this morning in Havre, Montana- Denver never got above zero and places like Albuquerque and Amarillo are suffering with below zero temperatures coupled with strong winds. This has certainly been a winter to remember- so far. And tomorrow’s Ground Hog Day represents the exact middle of the season. We are halfway on the timeline between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.

While we are doing all we can to just make it through this extremely cold and disruptive winter, our friends on the other side of the world in Australia have been dealing with a wicked summer. Following the floods of Biblical proportion in Queensland only last month, now a category 5 tropical system (Cyclone Yasi) is about to strike that province once again. Queensland has not had much time to recover from the widespread floods, and now this. There have only been a few major cyclones (the equivalent of what we in the US call a hurricane) to hit Australia. And Yasi was recently upgraded to a category 5. However, what you may not know is that their categorization scheme (which also ranges from 1 to 5) is different than the American protocol.  We use the Saffir-Simpson scale which rates a storm’s potential damage by the 1-minute sustained average wind speed 33 feet above the surface. A category 5, such as we saw in August of 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, is achieved by sustained winds in excess of 155 MPH. But the Aussies calculate the destructive potential not based upon average sustained winds but rather on maximum gusts. So in their realm of influence a category 5 cyclone must have peak wind gusts associated with the storm of at least 174 MPH. In the case of Yasi, its average sustained winds are only 144 MPH. That would typically rate a category 4 to us. But since they categorize by highest wind gusts, the observed 176 MPH peak wind is enough to call it a category 5, also known as a Severe Cyclone. In the northwestern Pacific these storms are called typhoons. There is a separate category for a strong storm of Saffir-Simpson category 5 strength. They call it a “Super-Typhoon”. Those happen every now and then around the Philippines, Japan and Guam.

The primary reason for all the bad weather this year in Australia can be traced back to the persistent La Nina episode in the equatorial Pacific. The cool water temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific are in stark contrast to the very warm sea surface temperatures in the western Pacific near Australia and Indonesia. La Nina is the same phenomenon that has caused our dry January (and February to come). So much is going on all around us. Snow, ice, severe thunderstorms, bitter wind chills in the northern hemisphere. Historic flooding and cyclones in the southern hemisphere. While all this is spiraling seemingly out of control, it is nice to live in Kern County where it will be sunny and pleasant for much of the remainder of this month. Computer models keep all the extreme action away from California, at least for now. We can watch it all on TV rather than dig out of it next to where we live. And that is a situation I can deal with.