Category: Met 101/Weather History

Our El Nino Winter

| December 19, 2015 @ 10:27 am

I get so many questions about this winter with people seeing all kind of wild reports on TV and the Internet. Let’s separate facts from fiction…

*There is LITTLE skill in a seasonal outlook. So, quite frankly, nobody can really tell you what the winter will be like right now. These are just my thoughts and observations after going operational meteorology in Alabama for 37 years.

*There is a strong El Nino ENSO phase underway.

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*Looking at the past can give you a peek into the future, but we have to be careful with using analogs.

*Most previous El Nino years have been wet across the Deep South with few exceptions.

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An enhanced southern branch of the jet stream tends to push frequent storm systems through during the winter season.

The same pattern that sets up the active storm track, also tends to keep true Arctic air from advancing this far south very often. It can happen, but El Nino winters here tend to be generally mild.

*When cold air does arrive, it is usually shallow. And, with the active southern storm track that could very well open up the door for more ice threats than snow threats this season. Ice storms are caused by extended periods of freezing rain (liquid precipitation falling with temperatures are below 32 at the surface). Our last significant ice storm was in 1996, and the last catastrophic ice storm was in 1982, so we are somewhat overdue for one. And, trust me, they are no fun.

*Having warm weather at Christmas in Alabama is NOT unusual. Most don’t like it, but this isn’t anything new. People in Alabama were outside in their shorts and t-shirts on Christmas Eve, 1964 when the temperature soared to 77 degrees. Our warmest Christmas Day on record came in 1987, when the high in Birmingham was 74 degrees.

Birmingham soared to 76 on December 16, 1924.

FYI… the warmest December temperature on record is 80, recorded on December 7, 1951.

In Alabama, it never “gets cold and stays cold”. If you are looking for that kind of winter, head north.

*I have heard in recent weeks “I can never remember the weather being this strange”. I will never forget speaking to a civic club for the first time in my career about weather in 1979, and and older gentlemen said those very words to me after my talk. The truth is that our weather is “strange” EVERY year. There is no such thing as “normal” weather. The chaotic state of the atmosphere guarantees that. But, we do have averages based on 100 years or so of weather records, giving us “average” highs and lows.

*I do have some concern for the spring of 2016; the 1997-1998 El Nino brought an active tornado season; many remember the April 8, 1998 EF-5 tornado in Birmingham that killed 32 people.

BOTTOM LINE: I know there are many cold weather fans that want snow. But, again, this is Alabama. It doesn’t snow much here… never has, and never will. We are coming off a number of cold winters with very significant winter weather events, and it won’t be like that always. Expect a relatively mild winter with frequent rain producers. Yes, occasional cold shots. And, watch for winter storms that could bring more ice than snow. But, NOBODY knows for sure. We will just have to wait and see.

Fifteen Years Ago Today

| December 16, 2015 @ 6:43 am

On December 16, 2000… an EF4 tornado tore through the southern part of Tuscaloosa, killing eleven people and injuring over 100. Nine of the fatalities occurred in mobile homes, one in a vehicle, and one in a commercial building converted to residential use. Six of those killed were females and five were males. Ages ranged from 16 months to 83 years old. The tornado was on the ground for a total of 18 miles, all within Tuscaloosa county. The tornado path was estimated to be 750 yards wide at it’s maximum intensity.

There was an excellent warning for the tornado; a warning was issued at 12:40 p.m. on that deadly Saturday, 14 minutes before the twister first touched down in a rural area southwest of Tuscaloosa near the Black Warrior River. The tornado crossed Alabama 69 near Shelton State Community College and Hillcrest High School; destroying a shopping center and many homes. The Bear Creek Trailer Park was hit, where many of the deaths occurred. The tornado moved to the east/northeast, south of Skyland Boulevard, and finally crossed I-59/20 near the Cottondale exit.

We caught the tornado live on our tower camera in Tuscaloosa; we were able to show live video of the twister on ABC 33/40 for almost 10 minutes as it rolled through the southern part of the city of Tuscaloosa. Our StormChaser van was heavily damaged in the storm; John Oldshue and his photographer had to rush in to a Hampton Inn to protect themselves as the tornado passed right over their location. The manager of the motel has all of the guests lined up in a hallway on the lowest floor, and nobody was injured there.

Later in the day, the same parent storm dropped an EF3 tornado which stuck the Coats Bend region of Etowah County, near Gadsden, destroying 250 homes and injuring 14 people. Like the Tuscaloosa tornado, excellent warnings were issued by the National Weather Service long before the damage occurred. Just another reminder we can have some very violent weather this time of the year. This is the core of the late fall tornado season.

See our live coverage of the tornado below… note we had a skeleton staff that day, and the person running the old tower cam over in the newsroom was multi tasking, and doing the best he could to keep up with everything. The problems on this day led to our new SKYCAM system, which we fully control in the weather office.

And, the front page picture (photo from Michael E. Palmer) from the Tuscaloosa News on December 17, 2000 was so touching. Michael Harris carries an unconscious Whitney Crowder, 6, through debris in Bear Creek Trailer Park after a tornado on Dec. 16, 2000. Whitney’s father and 15-month-old brother were killed in the tornado. Whitney graduated from Tuscaloosa County High School in May 2012; read more about her story here.

Alabama Weather At Christmas

| December 8, 2015 @ 7:32 am

There are some that believe it has always been cold, and should be cold at Christmas in Alabama, and something is wrong this year since we are projecting temperatures, generally speaking, above average through the rest of the month.

Let me say up front, there is no such thing as “normal” weather. The chaotic state of the atmosphere guarantees that. But, we do have averages based on 100 years or so of weather records.

For Birmingham on December 25, the average high is 54, and the average low is 34. But you rarely will find a Christmas with those numbers.

WARMTH: On the warm side, people in Alabama were outside in their shorts and t-shirts on Christmas Eve, 1964 when the temperature soared to 77 degrees. Our warmest Christmas Day on record came in 1987, when the high in Birmingham was 74 degrees.

FYI… the warmest December temperature on record is 80, recorded on December 7, 1951.

No, having mild weather at Christmas is not unusual at this low latitude. In Alabama, it never “gets cold and stays cold”. If you are looking for that kind of winter, head north.

ARCTIC CHILL: But, from time to time, we can have Arctic blasts in late December. The coldest Christmas morning on record came in 1983, when the low in Birmingham was 2 degrees above zero. In 1989, on December 23, the temperature dropped to 1 degree.

WHITE CHRISTMAS? Getting a white Christmas in Alabama is next to impossible, but we did actually have snow five years ago, on December 25, 2010…

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For many North Alabama communities, it was their first “white Christmas” on record, and some of those records go back over 100 years. The wet, warmer ground conditions in the City of Birmingham and points southward along the Interstate 65 corridor contributed to most of the snow melting as it made contact with the ground. Only a trace of snow was recorded at the Birmingham International Airport with no snow to measure on the snowboard. The City of Birmingham has therefore still never recorded a White Christmas since records have been kept, which is right at 100 years.

BOTTOM LINE: The weather at Christmas in Alabama is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you are going to get. But, this year, with the strong El Nino pattern in place, sure seems like the best chance of cold and snow will be out west, in the Rocky Mountain states. We will see…

AlabamaWXTra: The November 1950 Cold Wave

| November 23, 2015 @ 9:00 am
Click image to enlarge.

Click image to enlarge.

Alabamians paid little attention to the weather forecast on Thanksgiving morning, November 23, 1950. The Birmingham News carried a lead article about the many blessings of the day, including bountiful food, talking about the day’s candied yams, crisp white celery, plump olives and a golden brown roasted turkey. Headlines told of a Thanksgiving Eve crash between two Long Island Railroad trains in New York City that killed 76 people. There were hopes that the Korean War might be ending, bolstered by hints that China might be willing to sit down for peace talks.

Over 36,000 people made their way to Legion Field for the annual Crippled Children’s Classic at Legion Field. The game featured the Phillips Red Raiders and Woodlawn Colonels. It would raise $95,000 for the new Crippled Children’s Hospital. As the game kicked off at 2 p.m., the temperature at the Birmingham Airport was a balmy 70 degrees.

The fine holiday weather belied the fact that a major cold wave was overspreading the U.S. east of the Rockies. Birmingham’s official weatherman, Charles Bradley, warned that the mild afternoon and nice weather was going to be followed by a quick turn to winter. The afternoon highs near 70 would be replaced with overnight lows in the 30s. Highs the following day would remain steady or fall. Fans in shirt sleeves at Legion Field got a rude awakening when the temperature fell into the 50s by the fourth quarter of a 20-0 Phillips victory.

By late evening, readings were in the lower 40s with a north wind averaging over 20 mph. To the north, it was getting interesting. It was 18F in Nashville with heavy snow. It was 25F in Memphis with moderate snow and a north wind averaging over 30 mph. The snow was reaching Northwest Alabama.

By 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, it was down to 32F at Birmingham with snow. Four inches of snow was on the ground at Tuscumbia. An inch was on the ground in the Magic City. Roads were hazardous all over North Alabama. Dozens of accidents were being reported. By late morning, US-31 was impassable as far south as Clanton. By 10:30 a.m., the mercury had plummeted further, to 21F at the Birmingham Airport.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football team boarded a charter plane at the Birmingham Airport, bound for Jacksonville and a Saturday tilt with Florida. With two losses, Alabama needed a victory to seal a major bowl bid. Tennessee was already paired with Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Kentucky coach Paul Bryant was preparing his Wildcats for a Sugar Bowl date with Oklahoma in New Orleans. The Birmingham News carried rumors that the Bear might be nosing around for a job in Texas, while mentioning that Alabama was his alma mater.

In his afternoon forecast, the weatherman was calling for an overnight low between 12-15F. Good thing for Mr. Bradley that the three degree guarantee had not been invented, because with screaming cold air advection, the temperature would already be at 15 by midnight, on the way to a low of 5F. It is the coldest November reading ever in Birmingham. The second coldest November reading ever is 13F, underscoring the significance of the record. Fresh snow would fall across the northern half of the state on Saturday as the Great Appalachian Storm spun up over Ohio.

J.B. would call it a cold wave. I call it just another story from the pages of this week in weather history. Follow my weather history tweets on Twitter. I am @wxhistorian at Twitter.com.

Remembering 1969’s Hurricane Camille

| August 17, 2015 @ 7:00 am

THIS IS HISTORICAL INFORMATION ON HURRICANE CAMILLE FROM 1969

Aug 17 1000z

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Pete Wentzell was 10 years old. He lived in Biloxi, in a one story ranch home directly across Highway 90 from the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. His memories are of an idyllic childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, until August 17, 1969. He remembers the sugar cane that grew right outside their kitchen window. The beach was taken for granted. Summer meant beat up tennis shoes and cutoff shorts, crabbing in the warm Gulf waters at low tide with a kerosene lantern and a gig for any unsuspecting flounder he might find. He could bicycle anyplace he wanted. He had a secret hiding place in a grove of sugar cane.

Pete remembers waking up at 3 a.m. on Sunday, August 17, 1969. Something was eerily wrong in those early pre-dawn hours. He didn’t know what it was, but it terrified him. He could smell coffee. His dad was in the living room in front of the family’s Curtis Mathes console stereo listening to the radio, plotting latitude and longitude coordinates on a hurricane tracking chart. The windows had been boarded up during while Pete slept.

His father had been a military weather forecaster during World War II in Europe. The newscaster’s tone was serious as he reported that the National Hurricane Center Director Robert Simpson was saying that Camille was going to be an unprecedented storm.

Pete’s father told the youngster that the family was going to evacuate their home. Evacuate! That had never happened before. There had been other hurricanes, like 1965’s Hurricane Betsy.

Pete was told to pack clothes in a suitcase. Clothes for summer, fall, and winter. Being an avid fan of toy cars, Pete chose to use his luggage space for his prized Matchbox City. Of course, he failed inspection later, and the toys were replaced with the clothes. He was not worried. They would be back tomorrow. Everything would be okay.

Pete’s dad was like many grownups along the Mississippi coast early on that Sunday morning, August 17, 1969. They had their tracking charts, some of them magnetic, some paper. This hurricane was not turning northward toward Northwest Florida…it was still moving northwest.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and at the Weather Bureau Hurricane Warning Office in New Orleans were coming to the realization that the northward turn was not materializing. This storm was threatening areas west of the hurricane warning. The 5 a.m. CDT advisory was radically different…

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Of course, Camille was drawing a bead on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A total of 143 people died on the coast, and 27 were never found.

A Critical Mission

| August 16, 2015 @ 2:30 pm

On this date in 1969, National Hurricane Center Director Bob Simpson knew that he had a big problem. There was a hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico, some 360 miles south of Panama City, Florida. It was moving slowly toward the north northwest on an inevitable collision course with the northern Gulf Coast.

The Weather Bureau’s main computer model, the primitive statistical/dynamic NHC-67, showed that Camille was going to turn north and then northeast and impact the coast near Fort Walton Beach. But in addition to the worrisome track forecast, Simpson was concerned that Camille had grown into a monster hurricane. He just had no idea how strong it was.

The Navy was responsible for flying reconnaissance missions over the Gulf then and most of their planes were tasked to seed Hurricane Debbie in the Atlantic as part of Project Stormfury. The two remaining old planes left in Jacksonville were unable to fly into a strong hurricane. They were sending back radar triangulations of the center from the radar’s on the Connies that they were flying and dropping dropsondes well away from the center. That Saturday morning, the dropsonde released 40 miles from the center recorded a pressure of 996 millibars.

Satellite photos showed that the storm was getting better organized, but the imagery was rudimentary compared to what we have today. Forecasters had estimated that winds had increased to 115 mph. Simpson feared they were much higher.

Simpson asked the Air Weather Service in Illinois to send an Air Force C-130 into the storm that afternoon and they found the central pressure had rapidly dropped to 908 mb, very nearly the record for the western Hemisphere. This is the transcribed report from the plane, written by Dr. Simpson himself.

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On the next advisory, the winds were increased to 150 mph. The mission allowed forecasters to highlight the extreme threat that Camille presented to the Gulf Coast.

Camille would go on to devastate the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the evening of August 17th, forever changing the landscape and history of the area.

On This Date in 1980: Heat Wave in Alabama

| July 12, 2015 @ 9:44 am

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Headlines on Saturday, July 12, 1980 focused on the Iranian hostage crisis, which was in its 292nd day, The GOP was putting the finishing touches on its platform prior to their national convention in Detroit. There were fears that Mt. Hood in Oregon was getting ready to erupt, a la Mount St. Helens, since quakes had been shaking the area. A hijacker in Seattle had been given $100,000 and a parachute as he seemed destined to be the next D.B. Cooper. The economy was in the tank, with talk that the extended recession was comparable to the Great Depression in many ways.

But the big news across the southern United States was the heat. Birmingham was in the middle of a thirteen day heat wave, with temperatures 90F or higher for those thirteen days. The mercury reached at least 100F on eight consecutive days. The high temperature at the Birmingham Airport topped out at 104F on that Saturday, the hottest it had been so far in the hot spell. The next day would see 106F, the hottest of the heat wave.

Air conditioning repair companies were doing a land office business. Bank managers resorted to putting blocks of ice in front of electric fans to “cool off the girls” in the drive-thrus. The local Coca-Cola bottler reported that soft drink sales were up 35 percent. The weather page in the Birmingham News wistfully noted that it was midwinter in Australia.

The toll was beginning to rise across Alabama. At least four deaths had been reported so far. Before it was over, at least 120 Alabamians lost their lives to heat related illnesses. 200,000 chickens also succumbed to the extreme heat.

The June-September 1980 Heat Wave is the first billion dollar weather-related disaster in U.S. history. Damage to agriculture and related industries was estimated at $20 billion.   The sweltering weather claimed the lives of over 10,000 Americans.

The Deadly Barneveld Tornado

| June 7, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

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On the morning of Thursday, June 7, 1984, weather maps showed a major trough of low pressure across the western United States, anchored by an upper low over the northern Rockies. A long cold front snaked from Canada down through the Upper Midwest into the Plains. An occluded low pressure system was over southern Canada. A new low pressure system had formed to the south and was moving northeast off the plains of eastern Colorado. A strong complex of thunderstorms had moved through the Upper Midwest during the early morning hours, but across the region, the atmosphere reloaded quickly. Dewpoints were in the middle and upper 60s

By afternoon, an explosive situation was in place with high instabilities and increasing wind shear as the low pressure system intensified while moving toward the Upper Midwest. Thunderstorms broke out during the afternoon from Minnesota into Iowa. Tornado reports started to come in by mid-afternoon, where a rash of at least fourteen tornadoes plagued the northwestern part of the state.

Further south, other tornadoes touched down in Missouri. One family of tornadoes started near the Missouri/Iowa border. This supercell storm produced at least four tornadoes along a 140 mile path across much of Iowa. Three tornadoes were rated as F3s and one was rated F4 out of the afternoon activity. The F4 tore through the town of Wright, Iowa, killing two. The tiny town was completely leveled, with all 25 homes destroyed and all but two buildings destroyed. In addition, one person died near Ringgold, Iowa and three more in Harrison County, Missouri.

But the deadliest tornado of the outbreak would come during the early morning hours of June 8th. The complex of storms that had produced the long-track tornadoes in Iowa weakened during the evening hours. But as it moved toward southwestern Wisconsin, it encountered a higher level of instability and shear and the storms began to strengthen. A tornado watch was issued at 11 p.m. The first tornado touched down around 12:30 a.m., remaining on the ground for several minutes. A more powerful tornado touched down near Mineral Point. A few miles to the northeast, many of the 582 residents in the town of Barneveld were awakened by a massive clap of thunder right before the power went out. The town’s tornado sirens remained silent due to the power outage even as the huge F5 tornado roared toward Barneveld.

As the tornado ripped through Barneveld, it was at least 400 yards wide. When it finished its destructive rampage, 90% of the town lay in ruins. Seventeen of eighteen businesses were destroyed, as well as the municipal building, bank, post office, fire station and three churches. A total of 93 homes were destroyed and another 64 heavily damaged.

A total of nine people lost their lives in the inky blackness that night, while 200 were injured. The town’s water tower was damaged, but was the only thing left standing amidst the tremendous devastation.

Click image to enlarge.

Click image to enlarge. Courtesy NWS Milwaukee.

For years, residents of the tiny town spent many a sleepless night listening to every rustle of the wind for the sound of another deadly nighttime visitor.

Forecast for D-Day

| June 6, 2015 @ 9:00 am

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As German soldiers peered out from their bunkers along the French coast on the morning of June 5, 1944, they knew there was no way that the long awaited invasion by the Allies was coming that day. High winds, heavy rains and huge waves were pounding the beaches all along the English Channel that day.   June 5th had been the day that the invasion was scheduled to launch. But Allied weather forecasters had accurately predicted the terrible weather that occurred. If June 5th had been D-Day, the results would have been terrible.

So the forecast had been accurate, staving off a disaster, but Allied commanders were nervous. The landings depended on a complex set of factors, including tides and moonlight and other things. The early June window for invasion was about to close and would not reopen for two weeks. The element of surprise was a huge factor, and waiting an two additional weeks would reduce the Allies chance of success. So as you can see, weather was critical in the decision making process.

In April 1944, a joint Allied team of British and American forecasters had been established to create five day forecasts for commanders. A five day forecast was something that was unheard of at that time. Their first job was to pick a time that climatologically would be favorable for the invasion.   They chose early June. June 5th would be the day. But weather maps on June 3rd and 4th showed a depressing situation for forecasters and military leaders. Several low pressure systems were poised to move across the invasion area over the next several days.

Allied forecasters had an advantage since their forces controlled most of the North Atlantic and weather data was more plentiful to them than to the Germans. This data revealed a small window of better weather that would occur on Tuesday, June 6th as a small ridge moved over the area between two low pressure troughs. The decision was made to go then.

Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy on the morning of June 6th, 1944,, opening the long-awaited second front against the Germans and spelling the beginning of the end of World War II. The Germans were completely caught by surprise. Their military leaders believed that the Allies would wait until there six good days of weather before crossing the channel. At the end of the first day, the Allies had suffered 12,000 casualties.   Commanders had expected as many as 75,000.

Weather forecasting had played an important role in the success of the operation, but a closer look reveals that the German forecast was actually better than the Allied forecast.   The German predictions were actually closer to the actual wave heights, which were critical to the success of conveying men and materiel to the beaches on landing craft. The German forecast led them to them being relatively unprepared with their commander Irwin Rommel away from the field. The wave heights were actually above the critical threshold set by the Allies for invasion. If their forecast had been more correct, they might not have made the fortuitous decision to launch on June 6th.

It really makes you stop to consider the relationship between accuracy and value in a forecast and how it is interpreted by its end users. Dr. Harold Brooks eloquently discussed this in episode 322 of WeatherBrains on June 4, 2012. Listen to the podcast.

A final note: if the invasion had not occurred on the 6th, the next window of opportunity standpoint would have been the 17th through the 21st. A storm of historic proportions during that time could have proven disastrous for the invading forces.

June 5, 1976: The Teton Dam Collapse

| June 5, 2015 @ 8:53 pm

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The 305 foot tall Teton Dam designed to provide tremendous benefit to the farmers and residents of the Snake River area of Idaho. Built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, it was supposed to eliminate the threat of spring floaods and provide year-round water for irrigation.

The earthen dam had just been completed in June of 1976, and men and equipment were still on-site. But the dam was defective.

Runoff from heavy snows during the winter had filled the reservoir behind the dam to capacity. Water began leaking from the dam on June 3rd, but there seemed to be no cause for alarm.

By 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning June 5th, new leaks were spotted and bulldozers were used to try and shore up the dam. By 10:30 a.m., warnings were frantic as officials warned residents below the dam that it was about to break. Around 11 a.m., a whirlpool appeared as water was pouring through the earthen dam. The hole in the dam enlarged to 25 feet in diameter, nearly swallowing a bulldozer working to plug the hole. Shortly after that, the western side of the dam seemed to crumble.

Over 180 billion gallons of water were soon pouring down the Teton River Canyon. The towns of Wilford, Sugar City and Rexburg were inundated. Damages totaled $400 million. Eleven people lost their lives along with 13,000 head of cattle.

Had the disaster occurred during the nighttime hours, the death toll would likely have been in the thousands as sleeping residents would not have had time to hear the warnings to evacuate.