We’re Not in Kansas…

28 04 2011

In my daily activity, I have to keep in mind two things – I study meteorology, and I can get all the sleep I want when I die. Yesterday was an interesting day, for reasons most folks have probably heard already. Apart from Mother Nature deciding that the Deep South had to be devastated, there was a tornado watch extended into upstate New York. A watch means that the possibility is there for a tornadic cell to develop. Well, when things finally began to be a little more settled last night,
I was working in my office, and my officemate turns to me and says,

“B—, Ithaca was just placed under a tornado warning. You might want to check it out.”

So I did. And over Schuyler County, here’s a cell with a plausible tornado signature (a hook) on radar. The cell was tracking northeast and Ithaca was directly in the warning path.

At that moment, I decided to  make a few phone calls. It ended up being a long night (as previously stated, I’ll get all the sleep I want someday), as three cells bore down on the area, one of which is showing in its prelim reports that a tornado likely touched down in Danby. From NWS BGM (Binghamton):


So, an unusual and rather scary night for the folks back in Tompkins County. Digging into some data, I decided to check the last time a tornado was confirmed within the county.

From the Tornado Project:

AUG 25, 1961    005   1800     0      0    F0    109
JUN 15, 1964    001   1530     0      0    F1    109
JUN 20, 1969    004   0745     0      0    F1    109
JUN 18, 1977    002   1500     0      0    F1    109
AUG 28, 1988    005   1342     0      0    F1    109
AUG 21, 1994    008   0715     0      0    F0    109

Although the project suggests otherwise, conflicting reports suggest a fatality with the August 28, 1988 tornado. That tornado, an F-1 (today we use EF-1, as the Fujita scale as been refined to become the “Enhanced Fujita” scale), may have killed one person. Further analysis suggests this tornado tracked from Schuyler County into Tompkins County, and the fatality was in Schuyler, which might explain the disparity.  I don’t know the ratio of warnings to confirmed touchdowns, but Brotzge et al. (2009) suggest only 1 in 4 warnings result in confirmed tornadoes. EDIT: Actually, that link won’t work for most people unless you have American Meteorological Society connections.

So, events like this are rare indeed. My only regret is that I should’ve saved the radar imau ge from last night. Actually, I have two regrets. My second is that I have a friend who photographed the King Ferry tornado a few years ago from Space Science, and he sent me a copy of the photo back in 2007, which I lost at some point. If I feel really proactive I might email him to ask for another copy.

The Great “Snowicane” of 2010

27 02 2010


So this is storm is notable for two reasons; the snowfall amounts here and some high wind gusts reported in New England (the storm had dumped 18 inches onto Ithaca’s Game Farm Road weather station by 8 AM Friday morning, probably about 20-24 inches when all is said and done by the end of Saturday), and for letting professional sensationalism rear its ugly head.

From the meteorological perspective, this thing wasn’t even a blizzard for us, as winds were never above 35 mph. In some parts of the northeast it qualified for blizzard status, but only in a few locations. Most of the windy places were rainy. Most of the snowy places didn’t have strong winds. Only a few spots (excluding mountain tops) had both.

The storm bottomed out around 972 mb. That’s a pretty intense Nor’Easter. A strong storm is typically below 984 mb. The great Superstorm of 1993 had a central pressure of 960 mb. This was a powerful storm by any means, but certainly not the mother of all winter storms as depicted by some media outlets.

By that, I mean calling this a “snowicane”. First of all, let me start by saying that calling this a “snowicane” is completely inaccurate and irresponsible. The term was being used by the Ithaca Journal and a few commercial weather websites like Accuweather.com to describe (what was at the time the impending storm) the snowstorm that that passed through our area. The term is misleading and sensationalist. Hurricanes and snowstorms are like apples to oranges; combining the two into a catchy portmonteau because of high winds is complete bullshit. So, first came all the news headlines about the coming snowicane; then came the panic and confusion as people didn’t know what the hell was going on. Over in Bradfield, people were calling or emailing, asking what they should do about the snow hurricane. At first it was funny in a pathetic sort of way, and the NWS and a lot of broadcasting stations chastised a certain private company for trying to incite a panic. The first follow-up article on the Ithaca Journal read like this:

This is not a “snowicane.”

“That is garbage,” New York State climatologist Mark Wysocki said of the word AccuWeather.com and several news outlets are using to describe the storm. “This is really a typical storm. It’s nothing unusual. We’ve had them before, we’ll have them again.”

Of course, then I find lovely little comments like this one on the Ithaca Journal:

From TheZuneLune:

Garbage…Wysocoki’s [sic] misrepresentative critique is what’s garbage….Accuweather clearly explained that their rationale for comparing it to a hurricane was the strength of the low, and guess what? They were right as the storm is currently 978mb and strengthening.

Wyscoki [sic again] and the NBC owned Weather Channel (weather.com) are bitter because Accuweather’s meteorologists have fought the tide of meteorologists forecasting based on politics rather than science. Accuweather’s Joe Bastardi, in particular, has been assailed for refuting the notion that the recent stormy weather in the Mid-Atlantic was based on other factors than “man-made” climate change.

Ithaca Journal, please do a better job researching both sides of a story before perpetuating the far left agenda.”

Part of me is willing to wager that the poster has an affiliation of some sort to Accuweather. They’re only based two hours away in State College, PA (home of Penn State, and where its previous and current CEOs earned their meteorology degrees).

But really, what the hell does the weather have to do with politics? Like the two couldn’t be any less related. I’m a moderate Republican, but maybe because I study meteorology I don’t just write off sensationalism as an attempt of slander by the liberal media. I swear, it sounds like something right out of wingnut playbooks (if you don’t understand something, don’t worry about being uneducated, just blame it on people you hate). This is an issue of a company trying to capitalize on the fad of snow neologisms like “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse”, and being called out by other outlets for being irresponsible. No one expects Armageddon or the apocalypse with a snowstorm. But get a few people who don’t know better to hear “snowicane”, and suddenly they have thoughts of Katrina and blizzards meshed into some horrible monster of a weather system (speaking of which, Accuweather was also chastised for calling this storm “a monster”).

Interacting with people in meteorology has shown me that there is an expected level of professionalism and objectivity in forecasting, and that many in the field saw Accuweather’s descriptions as crossing the line. Yet people are twisting this argument from an issue of professionalism in a scientific field to an argument based on political bickering.

This is going to make me so bitter in a few years.

On a final note, Cornell last closed in 1993 for the aforementioned Superstorm (also known as the Storm of the Century — and these were posthumous titles). Cornell will only close if the Tompkins County sheriff shuts down the main roads like Route 13 due to extreme inclement weather conditions. Seriously, I was astounded that Cornell even gave a two-hour delay. I haven’t had those since high school.

However, No One Said Anything About October

14 10 2009


So, yeah, it’s been cold. Unpleasantly cold. Coldest October in years cold. But what makes me really uncomfortable is the thought of snow is October. While snow in October usually has no impact on the upcoming winter, it still serves as a psychological bitchslap to most of the students, and to many of the local who are accustomed to waiting until November to see the first notable snowfalls.

Then we have this message from the Ithaca Journal:

Storm coming to Twin Tiers could bring snow

There’s a couple of very scary things associated with that message. For one, we still have leaves on the trees. Trees don’t stand up very well if they have both a fair amount of snow and foliage on them at the same time. There was a very nasty snowstorm that hit Buffalo a couple of years back that brought the city to its knees in October because it dumped  two feet of snow, and all the trees basically snapped under the weight. As I recall, some places were without power for two weeks, and the storm damages were estimated between $150 and $200 million.

Fear factor aside, the possibility of snow in Ithaca in October is a lot more uncommon than it used to be. Climatologically speaking, Ithaca averages about .4 inches of snow in October. In reality, we’ve only received measurable snow once this decade, and that was .3 inches on October 30, 2008. Prior to that, we have to go back to October 31, 1993, which received 3.7 inches, and .1 inches on October 29, 1990. That’s it for the past twenty years (to be fair, October 22-23, 1988 received 6.5 inches of snow). I took the time to check the following winter after 1993 and 1988; 1989 was about 3 degrees above normal; 1994 was one of the coldest winters reported in several decades. Yeah, I still have fingers crossed for El Niño.

Point is, we’ve rarely seen October snows. Especially before the 20th. You have to go back to 1974 to find a pre October 20th snowfall day on file.

So, Ithaca is in a valley, which makes it a kinda crappy place for snowfall because they tend to be slightly warmer, and it doesn’t experience an upslope effect like Cornell’s campus does. Unfortunately, the Ithaca weather station used by the NRCC is on Game Farm Road, which is off of Route 366 as you’re heading out towards Dryden.It’s about 1000 ft. in elevation, and the snow line so far is predicted to be about 2000 ft, and that is subject to change.

I’m really not interested in seeing snow this month. But it’s not like any of us have a say in what the weather does.

EDIT: So Ithaca recorded 1.6 inches, setting a record for the earliest snow over 1” in over 120 years of data. Other parts of the county received as much as 3”. Northern PA recorded as much as 8”, and widespread power outages and minor damages were reported.

Expecting A Warm Winter

4 10 2009


Global warming completely aside, I think it might be worth noting that Ithaca can expect a warm winter for 2009-2010. This is because we’re in the middle of an El Nino year.

For those living under a rock, El Nino (or as meteorologists know it, the el Nino Southern Oscillation, often reduced to ENSO) is the much publicized periodic change in atmospheric and oceanic conditions highlighted by the shift of the eastern Pacific Ocean water temperatures to much warmer than usual conditions (typically most apparent off the coast of Peru). The effects on the Atlantic will lag somewhat behind the Pacific.

Well, El Nino conditions started to kick in during this past summer, around June. One effect that El Nino years (as they tend to last 12 to 18 months) have is that the Northeast is much warmer than usual during the winter. To illustrate this, I pulled the data for the last few El Nino years (Winter 06-07, Winter 02-03, Winter 97-98, and Winter 94-95, Winter 91-92) from the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

Month/Year Anomaly

Dec 2006 +8.0 F

Jan 2007 +5.6 F

Feb 2007 – 7.1 F

Dec 2002 -2.2 F

Jan 2003 -5.6 F

Feb 2003 -3.0 F

Dec 1997 +2.3 F

Jan 1998 +8.4 F

Feb 1998 +7.8 F

Dec 1994 +4.4 F

Jan 1995 +7.1 F

Feb 1995 -2.7 F

Dec 1991 +2.0 F

Jan 1992 +3.0 F

Feb 1992 +2.0 F

Data from pre-1995 is only available to those with research accounts. Thankfully, my senior thesis research has allowed me this perk. Anyways,  4 of the past 5 El Nino seemed to follow the typical pattern, and 2002-2003 did not. To be perfectly honest, that year is still under study as no one can really seem to explain what happened. A prevailing theory for a while was that it was another osciallation (the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) having an impact on El Nino, but that theory developed a big hole in it after a fairly typical 2006-2007 El Nino year. It takes 20-30 years for the PDO to change phases, so 2006-2007 should have been much the same, but it wasn’t.

Keep in mind this is all relative. Five degrees above normal during the coldest time of the year (late January) means a high of 35 and a low of 19. So don’t get too comfortable.

A few weather stats

29 10 2008

Courtesy of the Northeast Regional Climate Center [1]. Because the weather on Tuesday was just THAT sh*tty.

Highest recorded wind speed in Ithaca proper today: 36.2 MPH, around 4 PM. [2]

Highest wind gust, annually: about 60 MPH.

Highest recorded in area, ever: 84 MPH, from 1972.

Last time measurable snow occured in October: October 31, 1993. 3.7 inches. Prior to that, there were measurable snows in October 1988 (which had the most October snow recorded, at 6.5 inches) and October 1982; it was more common back in the day.

Most snow ever recorded from a single storm: 21 inches, in 1961. An unofficial record of 25.5 inches is claimed for January 1925 [3]. (for the record, most snow ever recorded in my hometown: 43.1 inches, in 1966).

Average amount of snow in a year: 67 inches.

Most snow ever recorded in Ithaca in a single season: 122.2, in the winter of 1977-78.

High on this day last year (2007): 63. Low was 40. Sunny.

Tuesday’s high: 38. Low 32. Not sunny.

Warmest October on record: October 2007: 7.8 degrees above normal.

Average temperature on a given October day in Ithaca: About 48 degrees (high 59, low 37).

Warmest October day ever recorded in Ithaca: 91, in 1953.

Coldest October day ever recorded in Ithaca: 15, in 1928.

Highest high ever recorded: 103, in July 1936.

Lowest low: -35, in February 1961.