The Man On the Moon

I make no claim of being an observant person.  My artist wife, reading this now, is actually laughing aloud.  For 30 years she has tried to show me the face of the Man in the Moon, but I just cannot see him.  I see interesting lunar geology, but no face.

However, I am able to find many of the constellations of stars in the night sky which she cannot see.  I especially enjoy the autumn constellations.  It takes time to learn them as seeing the shapes are not always intuitive.  It helps to find a book or a star chart and learn the constellations on paper first.

Start with the Big and Little Dippers (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) and then progress to more challenging Cygnus the Swan and Pegasus the Flying Horse.  The Queen and King, Cassiopeia and Cepheus, are also beautiful in the fall sky if you have the imagination to find them.

I can usually find these in the sky but I just cannot see anything in the Moon that looks like a face.  Meteorologist John Wheeler


Comet Catalina

Astronomy lovers will be excited to hear about a possible naked eye comet coming this winter.  Comet C/2013 US10, also known as Comet Catalina, is expected to be visible to the naked eye throughout the Southern Hemisphere in November.

By the time it will be visible here, here sometime from mid-December into January it will be past its peak brightness but may still be visible.

Predicting comet visibility is very tricky because comets are relatively tiny balls of ice and rock while way out in the Solar System.  But as comets move in close to the Sun, radiation pressure and the solar wind cause small pieces of the comet to break away and form a glowing tail pointing away from the Sun.  But the brightness of the tail cannot be determined while the comet is still very far away.

The last truly brilliant comet visible here was Comet Hale-Bopp in late winter, 1997.

Meteorologist John Wheeler


Rainy September Weather

Do not let the present stable and dry weather fool you.  There are several reasons to suspect September will end up being a much rainier month than August was.  Except in a few spots, August precipitation was well below average in our region.

Last weekend a powerful cold front caused cool and dry air to spread over most of the country east of the Rockies, ushering in another week of mostly rain-free weather.  The back edge of this air is now over us and it has warmed up nicely.

The next phase will be a return of moisture to the region later this week bringing a chance for showers and thundershowers into the weekend.  More significantly, the overall pattern appears ready to shift into a stormier one through the month.

There is nothing to suggest September will be crazy rainy the way May was, but a return to somewhat rainy conditions seems likely the next few weeks.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

August Frosts

A smattering of low temperatures in the upper 30s across our region Tuesday morning (Fargo Moorhead was 42.) has raised a few questions about early frosts.  Yes, there is some history of August frost in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

The most recent siting of frost in Fargo Moorhead was on August 20, 2004.  The temperature at Hector International Airport registered 34 degrees but frost was visible on many rooftops and car hoods and a few gardens did receive light frost damage.

Another early nip happened on August 27 of 1982.  The Hector thermometer registered 33 degrees that morning.

The 1960s was generally a very cold decade and there were early light frosts on August 13, 1964 (33 degrees) and August 14, 1968 (35 degrees).

The Fargo Moorhead record has only two actual freezing temperatures on record in August.  It was 32 degrees on August 25, 1885, and on August 31, 1886.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

Natural Air Pollution

Bison fans Friday are likely to notice the poor visibility inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.  The same smoke that we have seen high and thin in the sky over Fargo Moorhead is creating a stinky and unhealthy natural pollution of the breathable air in Missoula.

At the end of a hot, dry summer throughout the Pacific Northwest, a large number of forest fires are burning throughout western Montana as well as Idaho and Washington.  Not all summers are smoky in Missoula.  Most of the time, the fires are burning elsewhere in the Rockies.  But the fires are particularly bad this summer owing to below average snowfall last winter and a hot summer.

At 3,200 feet above sea level, the air is slightly thinner than at Fargo’s altitude of 899 feet.  Factor in a lot of soot, smoke, and a few hazardous chemicals, all products of burning Ponderosa pines, and the air in Missoula is not particularly good for an outdoor athletic event.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

May’s Coattails

The 7.85 inches of rain that fell in May in the official gauge at Hector Airport was the anomaly of the year.  The winter and spring had been very dry to that point and the summer has been dry since.

Fargo Moorhead has received about one and a third inches above the average precipitation year to date.  However, every single month has been drier than average except for May.  The total precipitation year to date not including May is 3.71 inches below average.  But May rainfall was 5.04 inches above average.

Perhaps conditions this fall will balance this out a bit.  Autumn precipitation tends to be above average in many El Nino years.  But if 2015 goes down in history as being a wet year, it will be heavily weighted by the tremendous rainfall we received in May.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

Too Hot to Learn

Two years ago, a stretch six consecutive afternoons in the 90s in late August caused many local school districts to cancel school for several days.  In Fargo, conditions were deemed “too uncomfortable to learn,” particularly in buildings without air-conditioning.  Moorhead kids were hot, too.  But they weren’t in classrooms because their school started after Labor Day (and still does).

Since then, the Fargo Public School District has changed their calendar to delay the start of school by a week.  True enough, hot weather can happen well into September.  It was 101 degrees as late as September 21 in 1936.  But this is a time of year in which each day is statistically less likely to be 90 degrees than the day before.  Also, September heat waves tend to be shorter than those at the end of August.

Of course, as time goes by, more and more school buildings acquire air-conditioning making hot weather less of a problem for schools.

Meteorologist John Wheeler


Our Region Not So Hot

In Fargo Moorhead, the average temperature for July was about average; 1.5 degrees above average to be precise.  Nothing unusual in that.  However, you may have seen reports about July being called the warmest month on record around the globe.

Actually, there are several various reports from different institutions using different methods.  Some are based more on the thermometer record while others are based on satellite-derived estimates.  There are differences in the reports and actually not all claim this July as the warmest.  However, the differences are small and any arguments are silly.

After decades of warming during the late Twentieth Century, Earth’s temperature has generally leveled off at a very warm mark and the ongoing El Nino is causing a temporary spike.  In terms of the past 150 years or so of temperature measurement, and also in terms of the past 1000 years or so of estimates, the atmosphere overall is about as warm as it has been.

Meteorologist John Wheeler


El Nino Forecast

The Climate Prediction Center has made its autumn and winter outlooks.  The developing El Nino is factored heavily into the forecasts.  The fall outlook is nondescript for our region, with equal changes of above, near, and below average temperatures and precipitation.

The winter forecast, however, is for a 60 per cent chance of above average temperatures (the remaining 40 per cent is split between near average and below average).  The precipitation forecast is far less certain, with equal chances of above, near, and below average precipitation.

These outlooks are updated every month and can be found online by searching for Seasonal Outlook Climate Prediction Center.

Meteorologist John Wheeler


Forecasting Without Computers?

Is it possible that weather forecasting was better in the old days before computers?  This question is actually ridiculous.  Weather computer models are capable of doing billions of mathematical calculations per second whereas humans are capable of doing one calculation in a few seconds.  The amount of data a weather models are able to process makes them an indispensable part of contemporary weather forecasting.

It is true that weather models never get the weather exactly right, and sometimes get it very wrong.  This is why the element of human experience is still a valuable part of forecasting.

The idea that computer models have made weather forecasting worse probably comes from a heightened expectation.  Thirty years ago, people used to call me in the weather office and ask if it might rain tomorrow.  Now, people call and ask what time it will start raining.  Weather remains an extremely dynamic and complicated system, but it is becoming increasingly predictable, thanks to modern computers.

Meteorologist John Wheeler