Autumn Makes a Sultry Entrance

California’s heat wave came late and is staying late

Sunset on San Pablo Bay. Coastal areas saw a balmy end to September, accompanied by air quality alerts.

The Great American Heat Wave of 2012 arrived later in California than in many parts of the country — and it’s in no hurry to leave.

Having nudged the upper 90s on Sunday, Sacramento closed out the month of September with a record 26 days of 90-plus highs, surpassing the 1974 record of 24 days. The trend is forecast to continue into the first several days of October, with a chance of hitting 100 for the first time since mid-August. Farther north, Sacramento Valley towns like Redding and Red Bluff are suffering similar bake-offs. Continue reading

After Two Years of La Niña, El Niño May Be on the Way

The climate pattern usually causes wetter weather in California

By Andrew Freedman

In 2010, a series of strong storms linked to El Niño caused major flooding in Southern California.

If you thought the first six months of the year were chock full of weird weather events, just wait — according to climate scientists there is an increasing likelihood that El Niño conditions will soon develop in the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño events, which are characterized by an area of unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, can have a huge influence on global weather patterns. Its effects on the U.S. tend to peak during the winter.

The U.S. has already had a record warm January-to-June period, and has already had two extremely rare heat waves this year, one in March and the other in mid-June to early July. Entering mid-summer, drought conditions are covering 56 percent of the lower 48 states, a record drought extent in the 21st century. Continue reading

Why Hasn’t California Been Hit With This Summer’s Extreme Heat?

As the rest of the country roasts, California has enjoyed a moderate summer

California has not experienced the extreme heat much of the rest of the country has this summer.

For more than a week, record-breaking temperatures have been baking the Midwest and East Coast. But while cities in other parts of the country broke and tied records for the hottest Fourth of July, in San Francisco I bundled-up in a couple sweaters and watched the fireworks through the fog. Which is typical. Overall, it’s been an average summer here in California, at least temperature-wise.

“At June around the state, most places were fairly close to normal, or a degree and a half below normal, so not any real extremes,” Jan Null, a meterologist with Golden Gate Weather Services, told me. “We’ve stayed in the mild, in-between area. It was not a particularly cold winter, and not a particularly hot summer.” Continue reading

Foghorns and the Changing Coastal Soundscape

Technology and politics are changing the tune of the maritime chorus

Read the full text version of this story at KQED’s QUEST site.

East Brother Island, with the 19th-century lighthouse on the left and fog signal building on the right.

On foggy mornings, I wake up to a faint symphony of foghorns. From my condo on a windy bluff above the Mare Island Strait, the horn on the Carquinez Bridge is the bassoon in the back row, accompanied by the assorted boops and beeps of all the other fog signals within earshot of where the Sacramento River empties into San Pablo Bay.

But the orchestra plays a different tune than it did in decades past. Technology and politics are changing the navigational soundscape of coastal America. Complaints from coastal residents about the repetitive blasts of sound and modern electronic navigation aids have relegated the foghorn to a lesser role in the maritime chorus. Continue reading

Wet Enough For Ya? California Precip Makes Sprint for the Finish Line

The rainy weather has helped, but the state’s still in deficit for the year

Heavy rain flooded the parking lot at San Francisco's Ocean Beach over the weekend.

California’s water supply is in better shape after this weekend’s storms and the wet weather earlier in the month (though the parking lot at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is in worse shape). The water content of California’s snowpack is hovering around fifty percent of what’s considered “normal” for this time of year — not quite cause for celebration but much better than it had been; on February 28, the date of the most recent manual snow survey, water content was only 30% of normal.

So this winter isn’t going to be the driest on record, or even the second-driest, but it’s bound to be on the dry side, regardless of what happens now. It’s just too late in the year to catch up, even with more storms heading our way this week.

Continue reading

This Winter Looking Like Fourth Warmest for Lower 48

Could be second-driest winter on record for California, Pacific Northwest

Rain comes late to Northern California: A March storm front hovers over San Pablo Bay, north of San Francisco.

Last week’s State of the Climate report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that this winter is stacking up as the warmest since 2000 and the fourth warmest on record in the contiguous United States.

According to NOAA, 47 of 48 states experienced above-average temperatures in the period between December and February, with the greatest increases seen in the Northeast and Midwest.

Only New Mexico saw below-average temperatures. Continue reading

We’re Not Alone: Wimpy Winter Weather Across the Country

Some atmospheric scientists think that could change soon.

By Andrew Freedman

While some may be cheering the lack of snow as welcome relief, the widespread lack of it spells trouble for the ski industry, which pumps billions into the wintertime economy in states from California to Maine, and requires cooperation from Mother Nature to stay in business.

Snow from last year's big winter storms could still be seen on the mountains near Lake Tahoe on August 30th. This winter has been one of the driest on record.

Ski area operators across the country are already reporting drops in lift ticket sales, and are hoping for a major change in the weather pattern to bring colder, snowier weather. So far, die-hard skiers have been forced to either ski on man-made snow or travel to one of the few far-flung areas that have benefited from the unusual weather, such as the mountains of New Mexico or Alaska (where one town has had 18 feet of snow).

Compared to last winter, this wimpy winter weather is coming as quite a shock.

Snow was so widespread last winter that at one point in January, every state except Florida had some snow on the ground. But this year, the U.S. had the 11th least extensive December snow cover in the 46-year satellite record, said David Robinson, the director of the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University.

“Is it fair to call it a snow drought? We’re getting there,” Robinson said. “It’s certainly an early season snow drought.”

Continue reading

A Year-Long Sky Journal as Video Mosaic

A motion mosaic of our ever-changing, endlessly fascinating atmosphere

Detail from Ken Murphy's video sky mosaic

About two years ago, Ken Murphy set up a tripod on the roof of San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum and aimed his video camera at a particular patch of sky. He’s spent the two years since shooting time-lapse sequences from his makeshift observatory and has stitched them together into this wonderful visual tableau.

Murphy, who is a web developer at KQED and a former artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium, says the project grew out of — well — boredom. He became restless with his experimentation with art works using LED lights. He says he was looking for more natural movement. So Murphy went dumpster-diving for parts and cobbled together a computer-controlled camera that would record the same sky segment every ten seconds, around the clock. He says it took two years of shooting to stitch together one full year of images. Eventually he found himself sorting through three million video frames for the mosaic. Continue reading

Global Warming May Worsen Effects of El Niño, La Niña Events

Precipitation outlook for winter 2011-12, showing the likelihood of below average precipitation in Texas and other drought-stricken states.

Does this mean Texas is toast?

By Michael D. Lemonick

As most Californians know, El Niño is a periodic unusual warming of the surface water in the eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean. Actually, that’s pretty much a lie. Most people don’t know the definition of El Niño or its mirror image, La Niña, and truthfully, most people don’t much care.

What you do care about if you’re a Texan suffering through the worst one-year drought on record, or a New Yorker who had to dig out from massive snowstorms last winter (tied in part to La Niña), or a Californian who has ever had to deal with the torrential rains that trigger catastrophic mudslides (linked to El Niño), is that these natural climate cycles can elevate the odds of natural disasters where you live. Continue reading

Snow in Tahoe Already: How Weird is That?

Meteorologists say it’s the shortest Sierra “summer” in four decades

An early snow in the Grouse Lakes area of the Sierra Nevada

By Matthew Green

For months now, I had reserved the second weekend in October for my annual grand finale “summertime” backpacking trip. Culminating an unusually short warm season, this was to be the ceremonial final alpine lake swim, the last mosquito bloodletting until well after next year’s thaw. Which is why, as my partner and I proceeded to pitch our tent in about 10 inches of snow last Friday evening, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been had.

Last week’s storm, which swept across the northern half of California early Wednesday, dumped up to a foot of snow in the Sierra’s high peaks, with accumulation as low as 5,000 feet. According to the Central Sierra Snow Lab, this is the first snowstorm in 96 days – since July 1 – marking the shortest duration between storms in the Sierra since 1969. Continue reading