Northern Lights

We have been treated to some spectacular Northern Lights displays this week. The auroras around and after midnight Monday night were among the best and brightest in our area in several years.

Auroras are the product of high-energy particles from the sun reacting with gas molecules in Earth’s outer atmosphere, causing them to glow.  Auroras are usually concentrated near Earth’s north and south magnetic poles due to the influence of the magnetic field.  This is why most auroras in our area are seen as a rather distant glow in the northeastern sky.

Monday night’s brilliant and colorful display was the result of a powerful solar storm.  On even rarer occasions, stronger solar storms have been known to disrupt radio transmissions and interfere with electrical grids.  It is possible for a solar storm to be so strong to cause significant damage to the world’s electrical grids.  The most famous of these, in 1859, caused telegraph lines to spark and the Northern Lights to be seen in the Caribbean.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

Tornado Absence


March is typically one of the peak months for tornadoes in the United States.  Though rare so early in our region, it is common for there to be big outbreaks in March across the Southern Plains or the Southeast.  This year, for just the second time since 1950, there were no tornadoes reported across the country from March 1-15.  The other year was 1969. The cause for this year’s absence of twisters is, of course, the jet stream pattern, which has kept the Great Plains extremely dry this month so far.  And although the Southeast has been rainy, the rains have been general soakers.  The pattern just has not favored the development of tornado-producing supercell thunderstorms.  This should not be taken as a sign that our warm season will be free of tornadoes.  Meteorologist John Wheeler

March Blizzards


It is a myth that there are always huge blizzards in March.  In the distant past as well as in recent years, March and April pass without any blizzards at all.  Of course, it is also true that some of our most severe blizzards in history have happened in March.  Across North Dakota, the benchmark for blizzards may well be the monster blizzard of March 3-6, 1966, when one to three feet of snow with winds 50 to 100 mph built drifts 30 feet high.  But March is not the only month with a tendency to produce memorable winter storms.  All of the cold months from October through April have produced at least a few severe blizzards.  Interestingly, the big ones are most common in three of the months; November, January, and March.  November and March provide the greatest proximity of warm and cold as the seasons change.  January is the king month for hybrid Alberta Clipper storms connecting with super strong Arctic high pressure systems.   John Wheeler


February Review

February has been the wintriest of the winter months this year.  The average temperature for the month was about seven degrees which is about six degrees below the long term average for February.  The coldest temperature was nineteen below on February 19th and again on the 22nd.  There were just two days thawing temperatures during the month.  It was 34 on the 6th and 36 on the 7th.   For comparison, the average January temperature of 16.0 is 6.7 degrees above average.  The average December temperature was 21.1 degrees is 7.0 degrees above average.  Snow amounted to 8.1 inches, which is near the average for the month, making February by far the snowiest month of the winter so far.  Total winter snowfall in Fargo Moorhead is still just 15.6 inches.    Meteorologist John Wheeler


What is a “Weather Event” Anyway?

There is a wonderful essay in the online “Chronical of Higher Education” from February 3 written by William Germano on the topic of the terms, “rain event” and “snow event.”  I laughed aloud as I read the article because these words have always bothered me.  Why do some reporters and meteorologists feel the need to call weather a “weather event?” Is a rain not just a rain?  Why do we need to call it a rain event? When the sun comes up and then goes down we call that a day and not a “day event.”  When I feed my dogs it is suppertime and not a dog food event.  Broadcast journalists strive to be efficient with words so as not to waste time.  My point is that describing a snowstorm as a snow event is really a wasted time event, which in this case would be about half a second.      Meteorologist John Wheeler

From No Snow to Buried

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The weather station at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, has recorded a total of 70.8 inches of snow in the past 17 days.  The barrage of blizzards began with an innocent enough five inch snowfall back on January 24.  Two days later, a monster snowfall of just over two feet broke the record for a single snowfall at Logan.  There was a 16 inch snowfall on Groundhog Day, followed by a few nuisance snows.  The crown was delivered this past Sunday and Monday as another 22 inches was measured.  The residents of Boston are somewhat used to getting big snows.  Their location so far north on the Atlantic Ocean ensures a snowy winter combination of freezing weather and ample moisture for snow.  But the past two and a half weeks have been extraordinary.  Prior to this recent 17 day snow sequence, there had only been about six inches of snowfall this winter.  Less, even, than what we had received here in Fargo Moorhead.    Meteorologist John Wheeler

False Spring This Year?

The light snow this winter could be setting us up for a false spring.  Typically, our deepest snow cover of the winter happens in February and March.  The average deepest depth for Fargo Moorhead is around a foot around March 1.  As early spring warms the air, our warm up is held back by all that snow which has to melt before truly mild weather can happen. But when there is little or no snow cover, the black topsoil in our region is ready to warm up as soon as the spring south winds start blowing across the Great Plains.  However, the wind can change direction easily.  Arctic air and much deeper snow cover lie across southern Canada.  So if our snow cover remains scant, it will be easy for unusually warm weather to develop very early in spring.  However, there is nothing to stop a spring snowstorm or even a severe spring cold snap.   Meteorologist John Wheeler

No Apologies

The talk continues regarding last weekend’s “big miss” regarding the forecast of a near record snowfall for the New York City area.  As a forecaster, I feel a need to support the New York National Weather Service on this one.  Sure, they forecast too much snow.  But the two feet they forecast did fall about 70 miles up the coast.  And the city did get around 5-8 inches of snow so it is not like there was no snow at all.  Some media did a better job.  I know Ginger Zee on ABC’s Good Morning America program was indicating the heaviest snow would miss New York.  But forecasting weather is not like predicting the next lunar eclipse.  We can do that down to the second.  But the dynamics of an eclipse is fairly simple.  Weather is extremely complex.  And the biggest storms are usually the hardest to forecast because the dynamics are so much more, well, dynamic.  A weather forecaster who misses a forecast after working hard to do the best job possible has nothing to apologize for.     Meteorologist John Wheeler

Will Snow-Free Stay Snow-Free?

Is a winter that is largely snow-free more likely or less likely to have a big snow at some point near its end?   Interestingly enough, two of our region’s biggest storms in history were largely stand-alone storms.  Arguable the strongest winter storm to hit anywhere in the United States hit our region in early March of 1966.  For four days the storm hammered us with 35-70 mph winds and 1-3 feet of snow.  The winter, up to that point, had been very cold but with just enough snow to have kept the ground white.  The great “Super Bowl” blizzard of 1975, another four-day whiteout famous for causing a huge power outage when the Minnesota Vikings were playing in the Super Bowl, happened in January of a largely snow-less winter.  Although there was more snow than this winter, the snow cover was scant enough to allow the four-day storm to scour down to the topsoil which caused more of a brown-out than the traditional blizzard whiteout.      Meteorologist John Wheeler

2014 Was a Warm Year, But Not Here

NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both reported last week that 2014 is the warmest year in Earth’s temperature record since at least 1880.  These studies are separate analyses of the instrument record from around the world.  The two studies used slightly different techniques to estimate temperatures in the many locations not represented by actual thermometers.  A separate analysis of satellite-derived temperature data suggests that 2014 may be just the third warmest year.  The differences are slight and in either case, Earth is going through a very warm period relative to anything observed or estimated over the past several hundred years.  The average temperature in Fargo Moorhead for 2014 was 39.9 degrees, which is quite a bit lower than the average of 42.4 degrees.  Globally, the most significant warming continues to occur in the higher latitudes, particularly the Arctic.   Meteorologist John Wheeler