WeatherWhys Blog

American Winter Storms- in July

American Winter Storms- in July

2012 has been one of the hottest years on record with thousands of new high temperature records both this summer and also back in March. July therefore provides a perfect opportunity to investigate dangerously cold and violent winter storms- to balance out all this heat, of course.

Each season of disruptive weather across the calendar brings its own biting flavor. Severe thunderstorms are perhaps the most compactly violent types as was witnessed in 2011, killing 577 people from tornado outbreaks in the Great Plains through the deep south. Tropical storms offer widespread and sustained damage from wind, rain and coastal storm surge. But winter storms are certainly the most diverse variety of nature’s fury.These snowy leviathans take many lives too, such as the Great Blizzard of 1888 in the northeastern US which claimed more than 400 souls. Large air masse collisions can bring about a kind of storminess with multiple personalities during the winter season. Complex cyclones half the size of America have the potential to draw copious amounts of moisture from tropical sources while at the same time pulling arctic air southward from Canada. Heavy snow falls, but that is just the beginning of consequential arrays which can paralyze a region. As winds blow around cold core low pressure systems, the snow starts to pile up in drifts. Wind, combined with extreme cold, causes a harsh wind chill effect that threatens frostbite or death. Power lines may be brought down by wind and heavy snow. Travel and commerce often comes to a standstill.

While the chill of winter is certainly dangerous from many different angles, it can also be viewed as beautiful and even pleasantly cozy. Who doesn’t enjoy a Currier and Ives scene of gentle snowflakes falling on a white landscape interrupted by a warm home with its yellow and orange glow emanating from within, and bedecked with multi-colored Christmas lights? The starkness of a bitter cold and spartan countryside with icicles and bare trees serves as nature’s metaphor of death. But that sight only inspires people to huddle together in their homes, a warm facsimile of springtime to come. Eventually winter passes and warmer days arrive.

But prior to the technological age, at a time when most Americans were farmers, winter was a much bigger deal. The metaphor of death was real, since summer was your only opportunity to prepare for winter. If something went wrong in the warm months and the crops failed, you might not survive colder months ahead. The well regaled Groundhog Day came about through legends and superstitions of farmers. February 2nd is the mid-point of winter, halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. If the groundhog, who lives in the ground (and in farmer’s minds speaks for the ground’s virility), emerged from his hunkered down state- that would be a very good sign that the plague of winter may have passed. People would soon plant and life would continue. If not, the metaphor of death would continue to hang over their heads a bit longer.

Even worse than heavy snow is a different menacing winter hazard: an episode of freezing rain. Not only does the virtually nullify transportation, but accumulating ice on everything from power lines to roofs can prove catastrophic. Liquid rain that falls from above into a sub-freezing environment adds the weight of ice to standing structures such as transmission towers or even bridges- to the point they can no longer carry their own weight. A variation on that same phenomenon has taken place in the Bering Sea, where heavy freezing spray (ocean water whipped up by wind in a sub-freezing atmosphere) has added so much weight to fishing vessels that they have sunk- claiming lives.

Winter weather in America is part of life in the northern two-thirds of the country. From Texas eastward through Dixie to Florida it is more of a novelty for several months. The effects of extreme cold can also be costly to both animal physiology and to mechanical efficiency. And don’t forget to wrap the pipes! Temperatures into the 20s in places like Mississippi or Alabama keep plumbers busy with broken pipes each year- something that is rare in the north where everyone is used to protection from the cold.

Winter weather is perhaps the most challenging to forecast, because it often involves every meteorological parameter imaginable. And while lightning is less common in winter storms, “thunder snow’ is always possible in portions of a winter cyclone complex where atmospheric instability exists. Thunder snow is a routine staple in the Great Lakes when sharp instability arises after a strong cold front passes over relatively warm lake waters.

Winter weather is a popular topic for university research at many top institutes, due to the wide territory affected by these systems and the complicated physics that explain their behavior. New methods and techniques are being thought up every year to better predict blizzards, ice storms, cold outbreaks that affect agriculture, avalanches, winter hazards to aviation and marine concerns as well as many other cold weather threats. Winter weather may occur even in the summer in some areas of the country (Montana, Rocky Mountains, Alaska).

People can either love or hate winter. But general emigration from northern climes to southern is much more common than the other way around. New Yorkers flee to Florida and Chicagoans escape to Arizona- snow birds, all. And, why not? After years and years of shoveling snow to clear the driveway of the latest snowstorm, heart attacks become a bit more likely as one ages. The crinkly ice on the walkway is a hazard without some sand or anti-ice compound on it. If someone slips and falls, it is a law suit waiting to happen. So older people feel they’ve done their time and want to get away from the shear drudgery of dealing with winter.

At the same time, many people simply love the pristine look of freshly fallen snow on a cold bright blue day. The snow seems to twinkle with diamonds. The invigorating crisp air makes one feel happy to be alive. Your breath in the air, some hot chocolate and the warmth of friends- what’s not to love? Dealing with winter is a frame of mind. Some only want it to be over so they can enjoy summer and the beach (not thinking about heat waves and drought that take their toll). Others enjoy the cozy warmth of their parka and thick socks (not considering others who suffer through winter with insufficient clothing, constantly shaking- involuntarily staving off the ever present chill).

To my mind, every season has its charm AND its dangers. The key is to relish the charm and prepare for the danger. Such is the argument for winter. I thoroughly love the weather forecasting challenge that a deep winter low pressure system brings and the commission meteorologists have to protect their clients from what nature can throw at them. But even if winter is more than some people can handle, they can always take heart that just as assuredly sunset will be followed in time by a beautiful sunrise, so too the winter season’s days are numbered before spring breaks forth in the sky and from the ground. So enjoy winter’s bite like a friend who is a bit too talkative and opinionated. A friend, no doubt, you will miss when they are gone.