Planet Kepler-452-b

Monday, July 27, 2015

The latest NASA reports of a potentially Earth-like planet in a potential habitable zone it its solar system is as exciting to astronomers as it is to science fiction fans.  Kepler-452-b is 60 per cent larger than Earth and likely has an atmosphere thicker than ours.

The planet’s year lasts 385 Earth days and it has been in this “habitable zone,” where temperatures would allow for liquid water, for six billion years.  This implies that life like we understand it is possibility there.

This newly discovered planet is 1400 light years away from us in the constellation Cygnus, making any kind of travel from here to there (or there to here) impossible except in science fiction.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

Not So Hot

In our part of the country, many people associate temperatures of 90 degrees or higher as being a sort of statistical boundary between our regular warm summer weather and what is considered “hot.”  Fargo Moorhead experiences an average of about 13 days a year at 90 degrees or higher.  The greatest number of 90 degree days was 39 in 1988.  Last summer there were only three.

Days of 100 degrees or hotter have historically occurred at a pace slightly lower than once every two summers.  However, these hottest of hot days are tied closely to soil moisture and there have been so many wet summers in recent years that 100 degree weather has become rare.  Since the summer of 1989, there have only been four days of 100 degree heat. The last was July 20, 2012.  Previous to that, there were two century days in July of 2006, and one in June of 1995.

Meteorologist John Wheeler


A Bit of Heat

Technically, the peak of the average temperature in Fargo Moorhead is in the middle of July when the average high is 83 and the average low is 60.  Invariably, there are many days warmer than this in any summer, but this is the peak of the daily averages, which are smoothed out by years of averaging.

In any given year, of course, the hottest part of the year is related to the way the Jet Stream moves air around and also to soil moisture as our hottest days often coincide with a period of drier weather which allows the top soil to dry out so that solar energy goes more into heating up the ground and not so much into evaporating water.

There is an average of about 13 days a year with high temperatures of 90 degrees or higher.  Temperatures of 100 degrees or higher happen, on average, less than once every two years.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

The Dog Days

The Dog Days of Summer are here.  Ancient Romans referred to this stretch from July 24 through August 24 as the “dog days” because the star, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, rises and sets very close to the sun.

Astronomers in many ancient cultures including early Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans noticed the correlation between this and the latter days of the summer when the heat is hard to escape.   Sirius is called the “dog star” as it is part of the constellation Canis Major, (The Big Dog) which follows Orion, the great hunter in the night sky.

Technically, our warmest days on average here in the Fargo Moorhead area are from the middle of July through the early part of August although in many other parts of the world the hottest weather occurs at other times.  Of course, ancient weather observers had very little science to go on and the inaccuracies of these ancient explanations actually add to their charm.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

El Nino 2015-16

A very strong El Nino appears to be developing in the Pacific Ocean. El Nino is a reversal of weather conditions across the tropical Pacific.  Areas near South America get warmer and wetter while areas near Australia become very dry.  This affects the weather around the world by deflecting the Jet Stream.

But the effects around the world (including around here) are hard to predict because other large-scale patterns also influence the storm track.  The biggest concern for our area would be the potential development of a blocking pattern which could bring either persistently wet weather or drought, depending on the shape of the Jet.

At present, a large region of anomalously warm water off the coast of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, adds to the uncertainty.  If the strong El Nino continues to develop in conjunction with this warm blob, it could mean a very interesting winter for some parts of the world.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

Humidity: Learn To Love it

Our region usually experiences about 2-3 weeks of humid weather during a summer season.  By humid, I mean weather with dew point temperatures in the upper 60s and 70s.

Most places in the Midwest and the East have this sort of humidity for about two months of the summer.  In the South, such humidity lasts through much of spring, summer, and fall.  Along the Gulf Coast, these days even happen in winter at times.

Here in the Northern Plains, there is not enough humid weather for us to acclimate to it and many of us just hate humidity.  Others among us love it.  I, for one, notice my middle aged joints feel better and my skin develops a healthy glow that is missing in winter.  Perspiration feels to me like detoxification.

I understand that high humidity is an acquired taste.  But considering the length of our winter season, I would encourage everyone to try enjoying summer weather even when it is humid.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

Weather Not a Major Killer

Weather can kill.  But is our fear of weather a rational fear?  Consider that in the United States, approximately 42,000 people are killed annually in car crashes, 39,000 people are killed from accidental poisonings, and about 25,000 people are killed by falling down.

Tornadoes, on the other hand, kill an average of 56 people a year.  Lightning kills an average of 55 people.  Floods result in about 140 deaths per year.  Weather’s two biggest killers are heat waves and cold waves.  About 600 people each year die from exposure to cold weather and about 700 people a year die in heat waves.

It should be mentioned that many if not most deaths related to hot weather are also related to age and illness while many deaths related to cold extremes are also related to alcohol, particularly to decisions made while under the influence of alcohol.

Meteorologist John Wheeler


From Outer Space to Inner Atmosphere

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon.  It was on national television and NASA has remastered the recording and it can be found on the internet.  I was eight and a half years old that summer.  I lived and breathed NASA, and truly wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.  That never happened but I do think the excitement I got from the 1960s space program is a big reason for my interest in science.  That I ended up in weather may be a kind of a fluke.  I went to college to pursue engineering but I found the field unexciting and switched to meteorology part way through my freshman year.  The fluke part of this story is that most universities do not have a meteorology program.  I happened to be at Iowa State (which does) because I had finished high school in Iowa and it had a well-known engineering program.  Had I attended the University of Iowa instead, who knows what I would have become?

Meteorologist John Wheeler

When to Interrupt the Show?

Television meteorologists always struggle with the question of when to break into regular programs for important weather announcements.  WDAY’s policy is to interrupt for all Tornado Warnings, but only the most severe of non-tornadic storms; the ones with life-threatening winds or extreme flooding.

Wednesday afternoon, a thunderstorm was rolling into Fargo Moorhead with heavy rain, gusty winds, and lots of lightning.  The National Weather Service criteria for a Severe Thunderstorm Warning is a wind of 58 mph or greater or one inch diameter hail.  This storm had neither although it did have heavy rain, moderately strong wind gusts, and intense lightning. We elected to not interrupt the show.  As the storm passed into south Moorhead, rainfall intensified and there was street flooding.

In hindsight, perhaps we should have interrupted for this one even though it was not really life-threatening.  It’s always a tough call because those not in the path of the storm would have wondered why we were interrupting their show.

Meteorologist John Wheeler

New Horizons

Taking a break from the usual atmospheric musings today and shifting the focus to outer space.  On Tuesday, the New Horizons spacecraft reached Pluto and took fabulous pictures that will be studied for years.

Pluto is so far away that light from the sun takes more than five hours to reach it. (Sunlight takes seven minutes to reach Earth.)  New Horizons left Earth at a speed of 36,373 mph, setting the record for the fastest spacecraft speed, and it has still taken nine and half years to get to Pluto, which ought to tell you something about human space travel.

Rockets using “warp drive” or “wormholes” to travel to distant planets so humans can talk to aliens is purely the stuff of science fiction.  Earth truly is the only planet we have to live on and so we had better take care of it.

Meteorologist John Wheeler