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Weather & Maps Go Together Like PB&J

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As I sat here, eating my lunch at my desk and reading weather news from last week that I had not had time to read until the quiet Friday before Christmas weekend, a thought occurred to me: weather and maps go together like peanut butter and jelly. You can appreciate each separately, but without one or the other, you could be missing out.

Ain Sefra map

Google Map of Ain Sefra, Algeria, and Yuma, Arizona

One of the big weather headlines last week was about a rare snow that fell over the desert in northern Africa. NASA’s Earth Observatory highlighted the story with a satellite image of the whitened area around Ain Sefra, Algeria, at the edge of the Saharan Desert. The last recorded snow there was in February of 1979, so it truly is a rare occurrence. The combination of dry desert climate and its location in relation to both the equator and the Atlantic Ocean play a part in the area’s lack of regular snowfall, but without a map, how would we know those factors?

Take a look at the Google map above. The pinned location is Ain Sefra, and the line drawn from there to southern Arizona is along the latitude 32.75 degrees North. The line crosses the southern United States through areas that do not normally see snow, but do get some on rare occasion, and it ends in Yuma, Arizona.

Both Yuma and Ain Sefra are arid regions, and some might blame their distance from the equator.  Of course, they would be mistaken.  Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and eastern Texas fall along the same parallel and are far from desert-like.  The difference between those southeastern states and the southwestern states has to do with ocean circulation almost as much as their lack of white Christmases has to do with their distance from the equator.

Ocean Circulations Map

NOAA’s Major Ocean Circulation map. The blue arrows represent cooler water; the red arrows represent warmer water.

You can see on NOAA’s map of major ocean currents that both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean have currents that affect the land masses that border them.  Those currents circulate generally clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere bringing warm water to the lands to their west – like the east coast of the United States – and cooler water to the lands to their east.

Those currents explain why Ireland and the United Kingdom have similar weather to our Pacific Northwest, and they help explain why Arizona and southern California have a climate similar to Saharan Africa’s.

Of course, geography also plays a role in a region’s long-term weather conditions.  Mountains, large lakes, etc., must be included when considering climate, and those can be seen on some types of maps as well.

My point is that if you take the story – or worse, just the headline – at face value without putting it into context, you miss a chance at full comprehension.

Weather Blog

Common misconceptions about winter

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snowy porch

View of the author’s front porch from inside after a late winter snowfall on February 26, 2015

On Wednesday at 5:44 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, residents in the northern hemisphere will experience Winter Solstice. Despite popular thought, the solstice is not the entire day. It’s actually that one instant with the sun passes directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In that same moment, the southern hemisphere has its Summer Solstice. For global clarity, a better term is “the December Solstice.”

Many think that Winter Solstice is the day with the least amount of daylight, and that’s not necessarily true either. Depending on your perspective, the truth may actually be good news. Today is the shortest day of the year, or the longest night if you prefer.

The sun rises at 7:21 a.m. both today and tomorrow, but today’s sunset is at 5:04 p.m., while tomorrow’s is at 5:05 p.m. That’s right – the days start getting longer tomorrow!

You might think that with more sunlight, the days should start getting warmer, too. That assumption isn’t quite right either, although the forecast tomorrow just happens to be for warmer and sunnier weather. The coldest day of the year in our area is January 19 with an average low of 30 degrees Farenheit and an average high of 49 degrees.

Depending on how you look at seasons, Wednesday could be considered the start of winter.  It is astronomically anyway. However, meteorologists and climatologists consider December 1, the first day of winter, which would make that coldest day – January 19 – pretty close to Midwinter’s Day.

Sometimes celebrations of seasons are all about perspective. As for this southern girl, I will celebrate in late spring when the weather turns consistently warmer again.

Weather Blog

Winter Weather Preparedness Week: get involved

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By Niki Morock, Meteorologist

You might have heard that this week has been declared Winter Weather Preparedness Week in the state of North Carolina by Governor Pat McCrory.  If you follow the local National Weather Service offices, NC’s Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Management Office, Ready NC, or any other state government agencies concerned with public welfare, you have probably started seeing informational posts about the challenges of winter weather forecasting in North Carolina.

I could add to the topic, but I think they have it covered pretty well.  Instead, I want to point out how important being a proactive member of your community is, especially when it comes to weather emergencies.

While the local, state, and federal government are tasked with emergency management and official response, true preparedness starts with individuals and families in their own homes.  Are you prepared for a winter weather emergency?  What does being prepared actually mean?

View of the December 26, 2010, snow storm from the author’s front porch.

The first step in readying for a potential disaster is to know what threats you may face.  Winter storms can bring snow and ice to our area, and those hazards can lead to power and other utility outages.  Prolonged power outages can make daily activities that we take for granted difficult, warmth hard to maintain, and food hard to preserve.  Snow and ice can also make travel difficult for everyone including first responders and utility workers.

Considering those two basic points, ask yourself if you have batteries, candles, and a safe way to keep warm.  Do you have enough easy-to-prepare food and water to last three to seven days?  Do you have a basic first aid kit?  How about a reliable way to receive information such as a hand-crank or battery operated radio?  Is there enough gas in your vehicle in case you absolutely need to leave your home to find better shelter?  Other supplies you may need in a winter weather emergency include rock salt or ice melt, a shovel, an ice scraper for your car’s windows and a way to remove all of the snow and ice from your car before traveling.  You can check ReadyNC.org for a full list of what should be in an emergency preparedness kit.

Once you have your own house in order, think about your neighbors.  Do any of them have special needs?  Is there an elderly person you should check on, or family with small children that might need extra assistance?  Do you even know?

There was a time when neighbors talked to each other, really knew each other, and helped each other out.  These days, there are whole neighborhoods that seem to limit their interactions amongst themselves to a nod and a wave.  While it may seem nostalgic to ask how well you know the people in your neighborhood, those people are your immediate community and ideally should be the ones who come together first in an emergency.

You can go a step further in your preparedness and take a CPR course or join the Citizen Corps or a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).  CERTs train in several types of emergencies including fire, medical, and search and rescue operations.  They help fill the gaps in emergency response that may happen during an extreme disaster when resources and the availability of police, fire, and emergency medical personnel are limited.

The goal of Winter Weather Preparedness Week each year is to remind people of the seasonal hazards we may face in the coming months.  I challenge you to do more than just read the articles.  I challenge you to take responsibility for your personal preparedness and think about how to get more involved in your community’s preparedness as well.

Weather Blog

Arctic blasts in December

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By Niki Morock, Meteorologist

The question on everyone’s mind today seems to be “How cold will it really be this weekend?”  My answer is “pretty darn cold.”  Normal high temperatures for this time of year are in the upper 50s, and on Friday and Saturday, the high is forecast to be around 40 degrees.  Arctic blasts for this time of year are unusual, but not unheard of.

Do you remember where you were on December 4th and 5th, 2002?  If you were in western and central North Carolina, you might.  On those dates, we had a record breaking winter storm.  In fact, by the time it was all over, Raleigh received the most freezing rain from a single storm since 1948 according to a summary on the State Climate Office of North
Carolina’s website.

Ice accumulation in 2002 storm

Freezing rain accumulation map from the National Weather Service Raleigh Office for the December 4-5, 2002 storm

The initial setup for the event was similar to what we expect at the end of this week as far as temperatures go.  A cold front crossed the state the night of December 3rd, and an arctic air mass followed. Low temperatures fell into the 20s in the Triangle the morning of the 4th, and with that cold air in place at the surface, when moisture arrived, wintry precipitation began to fall.

You can see by the map created by Jonathan Blaes and Phillip Badgett at Raleigh’s National Weather Service office that northern Wake County recieved up to an inch of freezing rain.  Additionally, another one to two inches of snow fell.  It was definitely a storm for the history books, especially since the Triangle ususally doesn’t see winter storms like that until late winter and early spring.

Thankfully, this week’s arctic blast will have dry air behind it.  While we’ll need warm coats, gloves and scarves, snow boots are not going to be necessary.