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


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

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


Summer or Fall?

The presence of cool weather this past week had most of us thinking about fall, with varying degrees of emotion.  Summer, obviously, is not over.  That being said, the average daily high temperature in August falls from around 83 degrees on August 1 to around 77 degrees August 31.  However, daily record high temperatures remain in the upper 90s and lower 100s.

What happens in these final weeks of summer is not that it gradually gets cooler.  Rather, the probability of there being a few days of fall-like weather increases through the month.  The hottest day in August might well be August 31 in any given year, but the probability of a day in the 90s is significantly higher in early August than in late August.

Likewise, a crisp 40 degree temperature is possible any August morning, but becomes increasingly likely later in the month.  So although summer weather is far from over, we should expect less and less of it.

Meteorologist John Wheeler


El Nino Primer

The recent surge of press on the impending El Nino has created as much confusion as awareness.  To begin with, the terrible winter of 1996-97 with all the snow followed by the big flood was not an El Nino winter.  The following winter of 1997-98, there was a strong El Nino and our region experienced warmer than average temperatures.

The winter of 1965-66 was also a strong El Nino winter, but the El Nino effect was overblown by other influences, leading to a very cold Northern Plains winter ending with the famous Blizzard of ’66 in March.

El Nino is probably the best indicator we have for predicting the winter season, but it is far from perfect.  There are many other large-scale weather systems which can factor in, many of which are unpredictable very far in advance.  So while it is fair to say the odds favor warmer than average temperatures this winter, perhaps even by 2-1, this bet is not a lock

Meteorologist John Wheeler

More the Hail

The four and a half inch diameter stone that fell near Roseau, MN, last week has prompted several questions about how large hail stones can get.  The largest hail stone officially accepted by the National Weather Service is the eight inch stone that fell near Vivian, South Dakota, in 2010.  There are reports of larger stones, but they remain unconfirmed.

There are only three accounts in the history if the United States of people killed by hail.  In 1930, a farmer near Lubbock, Texas was struck and killed.  In 1979, hail killed a baby in Ft. Collins, Colorado.  And a boater was killed by a large hail stone near Fort Worth, Texas in 2000.

Perhaps the costliest hail storm hit Sydney, Australia, in 1999 when hail the size of tennis balls fell for almost an hour and caused more than $3 billion (U.S. adjusted for inflation) in damage to structures.  There is a report of a hail storm in Bangladesh in 1986 that killed 92 people.

Meteorologist John Wheeler