March 3, 2010
Now for something completely different....
Many of you may not know that, aside from theology and all things related, my main hobby is weather, in which I find that, more than almost anything else, the wonder, power, and goofiness of God's creation and governance are revealed. The following is a little foray into popular meteorology/weather journalism, something I hope to do much more of in the future.
The winter that has just ended was not a kind one to the organizers of the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Indeed, it was not kind to anyone, not to the poor bedraggled souls responsible for preparing the Olympic ski slopes in Vancouver, nor to the citrus farmers in Florida, whose oranges took on the consistency of billiard balls, nor the new mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was sworn into office just two days before her city was inundated by its largest snowstorm in recorded history, nor to the residents of Hoseda-Hard, Russia, who are probably still shivering from the February cold spell that brought their temperature to -70 F, the second lowest temperature ever recorded in Europe.But one has to really feel for the climate change leaders. They spent years putting together this huge conference to finally convince everyone of the dangers of climate change, and no sooner does their conference end than God blasts Europe and North America with an icy breath that drives global warming out of people’s minds as fast as it drives the thermometer readings down. Of course, the tragic thing is that it really wasn’t all that cold of a winter--globally speaking, January 2010 was the fourth-warmest January on record. Even those monstrous snowstorms on the US East Coast were, arguably, products of global warming, since, as climate change experts were quick to point out, higher temperatures mean more evaporation and thus heavier snow. But be all that as it may, weeks of ice and snow across Europe, blizzards in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, and freezing temperatures in Florida are not very helpful when it comes to persuading a skeptical public. God was obviously having a jolly good time at the expense of the climate change gurus this winter, and so it is worth taking a few moments to look back and admire His handiwork.
The winter of 2009-10 was, by any count, one for the record-books. Indeed, I dare say you’ll be sick and tired of the phrase “record-breaking” by the end of this little article. I’m sure the residents of Baltimore and Philadelphia are sick of it as well. I also dare say you’ll soon become rather jaded when it comes to snowfall amounts, so I exhort you now to try and remember the biggest snowfall you’ve ever seen and keep in mind throughout just how doggone much snow three feet really is.
This winter lost little time in showing us what it was capable of (although we can see in hindsight that it was only flexing its muscles), unleashing on December 9th a mighty blizzard across the nation’s midsection. The storm began innocuously enough by dumping around four feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, then ploughed through the Southwest, leaving heavy deposits of snow and wind damage (areas in Texas saw winds gusting up to 105 mph). The low pressure system then proceeded northeastward, deepening as it went, until by the time it reached Lake Michigan it was the most powerful low Midwestern pressure system in 20 years, the equivalent of a hurricane on land. Iowa got the worst of the storm, suffering gale-force winds and heavy snow across the entire state, causing wind chills to plummit to 25 below, and besieging Des Moines with snow drifts as high as 15 feet. When all the flakes had settled, the entirety of Iowa’s 56,272 square miles had received an average accumulation of a foot of snow, the third heaviest statewide snowfall recorded, and comprising 1.5 trillion cubic feet of snow.
Sensing perhaps that the grand effect was lost on millions of acres of empty cornfields, God decided to unleash his next tempest on a somewhat more crowded neighborhood. On December 18 a storm system began to drop tremendous snowfall on the southern Appalachians, before moving off the coast and turning into a great “Nor’easter” and walloping the mid-Atlantic. Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were at the bullseye of the storm, receiving (in less than 24 hours) 16.4”, 21.0”, and 23.2”, respectively, but snowfall totals of up to two feet could be found in N. Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York (on Long Island, that is--the City only got 11”.) For Baltimore and Washington, it was the sixth-biggest snowstorm recorded, and for Philadelphia, the second-biggest, but for December, it was off-the-charts, breaking not only daily, but monthly snowfall records. The storm, which somewhere along the way picked up the tacky title “The Snowpocalypse,” left schoolchildren celebrating an early start to Christmas break and a rare White Christmas, and retailers panicking about the snowbound holiday shoppers. Little did they know what was still to come.
If retailers in DC were frustrated about Christmas disruptions, that was nothing to what folks in the Plains were going to have to deal with. The Great Christmas Blizzard of 2009 would shut down the entire state of Oklahoma on Christmas Eve, and bring blizzard conditions and heavy snows from Texas to Canada on Dec. 24-25. So powerful was the storm system’s circulation that it brought once-in-a-generation White Christmases to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, while at the same time on the east side of the storm, heavy rain melted away all the snow in northern Wisconsin! Worst hit was Oklahoma City, which in the course of about six hours received 14 inches of snow, eclipsing its previous 24-hour snowfall record. The addition of 50-mile-an-hour winds to the equation prompted the governor of Oklahoma to declare a state of emergency and close every single highway in the state of Oklahoma, just as churchgoers were trying to battle their way to Christmas Eve services.
The weather then settled down into a dignified silence for the rest of Christmastide, but only on the American side of the pond. In Europe, an odd east-to-west wind pattern established itself just before Christmas, acting like a giant vacuum to suck icy air down from Siberia and down upon the jolly Yuletides of Berlin and London. For the next four weeks, nearly all of Europe was gripped by its worst cold spell in 30 years, while snowstorm after snowstorm harried the British Isles and the Continent, blocking roads and rail lines, shutting down airports, and bringing once-in-a-lifetime snowfall totals to many regions. On the south coast of England, it got so cold that the sea froze along the shoreline. Temperature records were broken repeatedly, as was the Eurostar train, trapping 2,000 passengers in the Channel tunnel for 16 hours. By the time the cold snap ended on the 13th of January, at least 192 people had died, and everyone was ready for a spring that was still a long way off.
In the US, though things had been less snowy (with the exception of a little New England snowstorm that shattered Burlington, VT’s all-time snowfall record on January 4th, with 33”), the cold was just as pronounced for the first eleven days, especially in Florida. There, citrus farmers rushed again and again to try to protect their fruits, while children in Disney World were greeted by the sight of real snowflakes, and sunbathers in Key West shivered in 42-degree weather. Unfortunately, the same weird kink in the Jet Stream that was so afflicting the Southeast was leaving the Northwest as balmy as it had ever been, bad news for the Olympic organizers in Vancouver, which recorded its warmest January on record, and kept it up well into February.
But the Lord had not yet finished with the barrage of blizzards He had in store for the lower 48--oh no, not by a long shot. On the 20th of January, an immense low pressure system struck Northern California, effacing century-old low-pressure records and causing landslides, blizzards, tornadoes and all manner of chaos. The storm continued across Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, with sustained winds as high as hurricane force, shattering low pressure records across the region by incredible margins (up to .30”). In the end, the storm could incontestably lay claim to being the most powerful storm in the Southwest in recorded history, having set all-time low pressure records across 15% of the US’s surface area. California saw rainfall totals as high as 15” and snowfall totals as high as 73” from the storm, and the story was similar across the Southwest.
Early in February, residents of the mid-Atlantic, resting peacefully under the assumption that they had already received their quota of snow for the winter, were alarmed by ominous, even apocalyptic, weather forecasts for the upcoming weekend, forecasts that spoke of a snowstorm dumping 20-30” of snow in the Washington-Baltimore area (the all-time record for Washington was 28”, for Baltimore, 26.5”). Incredulous local weathermen hesitated to announce such a forecast, and residents wondered whether someone at the NWS had had a bit too much to drink. And indeed, by daybreak Saturday morning February 6th, most areas hadn’t received much more than a foot, with the worst expected to end fairly soon--the NWS revised its forecast down to 18-24”. “Not so fast,” God said, and unleashed a tremendous new plume of moisture. Thunder-snow engulfed the region--a rare phenonmenon in which a snowstorm is so powerful that lightning and thunder accompany snow falling at the rate of 3” an hour or more. By noon, some areas near Baltimore had already received over 30”, prompting the new mayor to close all roads to non-emergency traffic, and President Obama had declared to reporters that “Snowmaggedon” had struck DC--another tacky name that the media pounced upon eagerly. As snow came to an end across the region by mid-afternoon, totals ranged from 17.8” at the Ronald Reagan Nat’l Airport (surrounded by heavy development and the Potomac River) to the almost inconceivable 40” at Colesville, a NE D.C suburb. BWI had broken its all-time record with 27”, Dulles Airport had crushed its old record (24”) by recording a total of 32.9”; the state record for Delaware (25.2”) had been broken--in several locations. Most surprising was the extent of the heavy snowfall. Totals above 30” were recorded all across Maryland, from the Atlantic to the W. Va border, and the story was the same across the southern half of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, which had been forecast to receive 6”, ended with 21”, it’s fourth-highest ever, while Philadelphia, forecast to receive 14”, ended with 29”, just shy of its all-time record. Records were challenged or broken in large areas of New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia as well. Weather experts pointed out that the conjunction of two such snowstorms in one season was, statistically-speaking, a once-in-10,000-year event for some areas; while nitpickers noted that while the media had referred to both storms as blizzards, they weren’t, technically speaking, because the definition of “blizzard” required sustained winds of over 35 mph. The Lord chuckled on his throne, and said, “You just wait.”
Snoverkill, as it was dubbed by storm-weary residents of the mid-Atlantic, began modestly with the prediction of another 4-8” of snow beginning on the Tuesday three days after Snowmageddon. But, envious perhaps of its older sister, this storm decided to lay its own claim to fame. As the low moved off the mid-Atlantic coast, it underwent “bombogenesis” (a real meteorological term; also known as “bombing out”), rapidly deepening to 969 mb, the equivalent of a Cat. 2 hurricane. Although it could not quite match Snowmageddon in terms of precipitation (although it was still no laughing matter, dumping 1 to 2 feet of snow across the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-New Jersey corridor and up to 28” in parts of southeastern PA), it compensated for that in wind. As the low deepened Wednesday morning, winds picked up rapidly across the region, prompting the NWS to hastily issue blizzard warnings across practically the entire mid-Atlantic, from western Maryland to eastern Long Island. Throughout the day, wind gusts of 40-70 mph pummeled the region, blasting the old and new snow into an impenetrable white haze that forced the closing of hundreds of miles of interstates and of all federal government offices. By the time the storm ended, seasonal snowfall records had been broken at all the principal airports in the region--BWI’s by a huge margin (79” versus a record of 62”), with a month of winter still to go.
Even as this tempest was underway, weather forecasters across the Deep South were gearing up for a remarkable snow event predicted by the computer models, with some even speculating about the possibility of snow along the beaches of the Gulf Coast. As with seemingly every storm this season, it was inevitable that this storm should over-perform the forecasts. On the evening of February 11, it set its sights on Dallas-Fort Worth, originally predicted to receive 1-3”--by the next morning, 12.5” had fallen, an all-time record. As the storm continued east, snow did indeed brighten the beaches of the Gulf Coast, and further inland, in southern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, heavy snow fell, to the tune of six inches or more in places--a once-in-a-century event. The coastal Carolinas were battered as well, with up to 9” on the Outer Banks. By the end of February 12, thanks to this storm, 49 out of 50 US states (Hawaii being the exception) had snow cover, for a total coverage of 67.1% of the US’s land area, at an average depth of 8 inches.
The next two weeks, however, were remarkably tranquil, and gave the nation a chance to thaw and turn its attention from the winter outside the window to the winter Olympics on the TV. But God had one more blast in store before he shut the book on February. On February 23, moderate snowfall began over inland regions of New England, and continued through Thursday morning, bringing up to 38” in the mountains of Vermont, and up to 28” in western Massachusetts. New York was now essentially the only region in the East that had avoided a big snowstorm, with three having clobbered the mid-Atlantic, and two having clobbered New England. Forecasters warned, however, that the real storm was yet to come--a monster low-pressure center that was beginning to develop south of Long Island. Accuweather went out on a limb and warned of a “snow-hurricane” across the Northeast, with more than a foot of snow in NYC and winds gusting over hurricane force in areas. The National Weather Service was more conservative, calling for about 9” in NYC and winds as high as 55 mph across the region. But, as always, the high end of the forecast won out. Late on the 26th, the storm began to wind up over the Gulf Stream, pumping tremendous amounts of moisture and warm air over New England, and turning all the precipitation there into rain, creating great floods throughout the region. Further southwest, though, heavy snow began to fall in southern New York state. During the wee hours of the following morning, the low moved inland near New York City, and stalled out, and tremendous winds blasted New England and the mid-Atlantic--on the New Hampshire coast, they were briefly sustained at hurricane force, and more than a million lost power. New York was shut down by blizzard conditions, and snow continued throughout the day, eventually mounting to 21” in Central Park, the fourth-most ever. A little further west, in northern New Jersey, more than 30 inches fell, and in one small area west of Albany, NY, which was unfortunate enough to receive snow throughout both stages of the storm, fifty-three inches of snow fell in one continuous storm from Tuesday through Friday.
The month of February finally ended, leaving the battered Northeast to nurse its wounds and hope for an early Spring. But with two and a half weeks still to go until the Spring Solstice, God may have a few tricks left up his sleeve before he calls it quits on the great Winter of 2009-10.