Buffalo’s first snow of this winter occurred on December 18, about two weeks past the previous record for latest first snow. There are implications for the rest of the winter.
Today (or yesterday if you live in the US) marks the winter solstice: The day on which the sun is farthest from the northern hemisphere. It is now officially winter by any standard in the US, Europe, and Asia. But in some parts of each continent the weather doesn’t seem to know.
The chance of a White Christmas in the eastern US is tending on the ‘none’ side of ‘slim to none,’ while in Europe, only the northern parts of Scandinavia will be white.
Also: Beijing has another red smog alert; low gas and oil prices are a headwind for renewable energy; and Weather Pattern Omni has reasserted itself.
Let’s go Around The World.
Buffalo’s First Snow; But There Could Be a Lot More
Count your blessings, Buffalo. Never has it taken until December 18 for the first measurable snow to fall in the lee of Lake Erie. But there’s a flip side to this.
Lake effect snow is caused by cold air blowing over warm lake water. The cold air warms at the surface of the lake, picks up moisture, which quickly condenses and falls as snow when the air mass travels over the cold land.
The lake effect shuts down when the lakes freeze. This year, that time will come later than usual because the lakes are so warm. Meanwhile a cold outbreak is likely to be colder in midwinter than in late fall. So the stage is set for some very heavy lake effect snow events possibly lasting the whole winter.
Winter Solstice Gets No Respect
Today at 04:49 Universal Time (technically yesterday at eleven minutes before midnight in New York), the north pole was tilted directly away from the sun. It is the shortest daylight of the year in the northern hemisphere. But unless Donald Trump mentions it, there will be no fanfare. Still, this is another time for blessing-counting. Winter in the northern hemisphere could be worse, but for an astronomical accident.
The earth’s path around the sun is not a perfect circle; it is an ellipse. On January 4, the earth will be at perihelion, its closest approach to the sun.
At that time it will be five million kilometers closer to the sun than at aphelion on July 6 (the dates vary from year to year by a couple of days because of leap years).
The result is that during northern hemisphere winter, the sun is closer and warms us a little more than at any other time. It would be colder in the northern hemisphere in winter if the earth’s orbit were a circle, because there is 7% more solar heating when the earth is closest to the sun than when it is farthest away.
So you would think that the whole earth is warmer in January — but you would be wrong. The earth actually averages four degrees Fahrenheit colder in January than July due to the distribution of the continents and the oceans. Land absorbs the sun’s heat at the surface and conducts it to the atmosphere; water distributes heat throughout its depths. The Northern Hemisphere has much more land than the Southern Hemisphere, so more of the incoming radiation is converted into atmospheric heat. Hence the whole earth is warmer in northern hemisphere summer as the heating of the continents outweighs the effect of the greater distance of the sun.
Commodities Crash: A Headwind For Fighting Climate Change
The last time I filled up my car with regular gas, I paid $1.93 per gallon. As long as gasoline is cheaper than milk, Americans are going to drive. The American Automobile Association estimates that more people will drive more miles this holiday period than ever before.
The conclusion is obvious: more automobile travel, more CO2 emissions. As a potent greenhouse gas, CO2 traps the earth’s outgoing radiation.
CO2 concentrations have been rising at an increasing rate, and last week passed 402 parts per million, a record for this time of year, up 0.7% from a year ago. On Sunday, the CO2 concentration passed 403 ppm for the first time in this cycle. (CO2 concentrations have a seasonal fluctuation, reaching a peak in May.)
Beijing Has Second Red Alert For Smog
The regulations reducing auto traffic and factory activity that took effect under the first red alert helped alleviate the choking plume of unhealthy air. But more important in improving the air quality was a brisk northwest wind. Once the wind subsided and the weather pattern returned to a stagnant one, the dirty air descended upon Beijing again and a second alert is now in effect — three days and counting.
Weather Pattern Omni Returns: Rain; Snow; Wind; Record Heat; Floods; Tornadoes
The Weather Channel calls it Winter Storm Ferus, but that’s only half the story. True, the current weather pattern has a wintry side, with heavy snow in the mountains from the Rockies to the west coast. But the jet stream configuration that is causing the snow is also producing record warm temperatures in the entire eastern half of the country.
In addition, there is the possibility of tornadoes in the Mississippi Valley and flooding rains along the Gulf Coast. To call this a winter storm misses the point. Decoded Science has named the jet stream pattern Omni to reflect the many kinds of weather associated with it.
When the first weather event connected with Omni occurred two weeks ago, Decoded Science suggested it might return. And here it is.
After the jet stream flattened out for a week, it has now folded back into a southward swoop in the west and a bulge northward in the east. At the surface, Omni produces:
- Rain and wind on the west coast.
- Snow, especially at higher elevations, from the Cascades to the Rockies.
- Record heat from the midwest and deep south to the Atlantic coast.
- Heavy rain with potential flooding from the Gulf Coast into the Mississippi Valley.
- Thunderstorms and tornadoes in the southern plains and southern Mississippi Valley.
Long range forecasts indicate that after the jet stream flattens out later in the week, it will fold up again for a third bout of Omni weather.
Unusual Warmth In Europe
In the same way that the jet stream has buckled over North America, it has also bulged across Europe, bringing unseasonal warmth to all of the continent except northern Scandinavia. Forecasts call for a continuation of the general pattern well into the new year.
And May All Your Christmases Be …..
If it’s white you want, you’ll either have to dream it or head for the highest mountains in the eastern US or most of Europe.
Decoded Science wishes everyone a happy holiday season, whatever the color. And let us know what’s happening this so-called winter in your neighborhood.
Decoding Science. One article at a time.