January 20, 2021

A Sharpie Can't Cover Up The Last Four Years

Today is the first flash of warmth after a long, cold winter. It's been a...trying...four years. Even the weather didn't make it out unscathed. Storms played a role in shaping some of the most important events of Donald Trump's term in office, ranging from a white lie on the day of his inauguration to a simple error in a presidential tweet that launched a coverup that almost toppled the leadership of NOAA. 

The National Weather Service, probably the most agreeable federal agency in the entire government, became a focal point several times during Donald Trump's four years in office. The federal weather agency survived a drawn-out attempt to install a former rival as its leader, the threat of steep budget cuts, a lengthy government shutdown, and a brazen assault on the agency by the executive branch launched over two words in a tweet.

It's not a partisan statement to point out that Donald Trump lies frequently. The outgoing president told thousands upon thousands of lies during his four years in office. Many of the lies were intentional. Many of the lies were a case of an apparent misremembering of details or his characteristic embellishment and exaggeration. But Trump's most harrowing and consequential lies were told with purpose, and those were the lies that caused the most damage. 

Intrepid fact-checker Daniel Dale, who analyzed just about every public statement Trump made while in office, started his top-line review of Trump's lies with one succinct summary: "Trump began his presidency by lying about the weather." 

The Inauguration

Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017, is best remembered for the White House's weeks-long effort to convince the American public that the crowd on the National Mall was much, much bigger than it looked in photographs. The lie—which eventually snowballed into an order for the National Parks Service to stop tweeting after they contradicted the lie about the inaugural crowd size—wasn't the first lie told about the inauguration.

Before White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Trump's inauguration had the biggest audience in the history of presidential swearings-in, "period," the president himself told the audience at an inaugural ball an embellished story about how it didn't start raining until he had finished his inaugural address.

Except, it did rain during his address. We know it rained because there's video of it raining about a minute into the speech. There were raindrops on Trump's suit jacket and everyone started putting on ponchos behind him. But, there Trump stood, waxing poetic about how it didn't rain during his speech even though everyone could see it rain.

It was a tiny lie. But it demonstrated how even the truth about the small things, the demonstrably false things we all saw for ourselves and knew to be false, were up for grabs.

It was the tiny lies that paved the way for the big ones.

The Sharpie Map

In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already a category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!
Donald Trump mistakenly tweeted the morning of September 1, 2019, that Alabama was one of the states that would be hit "(much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian as the scale-topping storm came dangerously close to Florida.

The only problem was that Alabama wasn't actually anywhere near Hurricane Dorian's predicted path. This was the forecast map issued by the National Hurricane Center the morning Trump sent out that tweet:

After Trump's tweet, a flood of calls to the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, prompted the office to use its own Twitter account to say that the state was not in Hurricane Dorian's path. Even though forecasters didn't know Trump was the reason people started getting antsy, the administration took their statement as a direct slight against the president, sending the executive branch on an increasingly bizarre crusade to "prove" Trump right that ended with a threat to fire NOAA's leadership if they didn't issue a statement renouncing the forecasters' statement.  

It's going to be hard for future generations to understand how the Hurricane Dorian dustup came to symbolize Trump's sole term in office. The context is that Trump rarely admits when he's wrong, and hardly ever corrects smaller mistakes, because doing so would be a sign of weakness, and he will not say or do anything that casts himself in a weak light.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, his extreme aversion to using unfavorable words to describe himself resulted in an Arrested Development-like exchange when he told reporters that he'd "tested very positively for the coronavirus." After reporters pushed him for clarification, he backtracked by saying he "tested positively toward negative" to describe testing negative for the virus. The word "negative" was so...well, negative...to him that he couldn't even bring himself to say that he didn't have the virus.

Source: Twitter/@WhiteHouse

And to that end, in the aftermath of a seemingly simple error in one tweet, the administration stepped up and kept escalating the situation until Trump's mistake became truth in an alternate reality.

The effort culminated in Trump himself  scribbling on a three-day-old printout of a forecast map to crudely extend the forecasters' cone of uncertainty to include Alabama. The president's Sharpie-scrawled bubble, looking like an eye on a potato that sat in the pantry too long, was the perfect encapsulation of the mindset that drove these last couple of years: the truth is what Trump says it is.

The coverup and eventual fallout from Trump's mistake-turned-Sharpiegate competed against the fact that there was a major hurricane just a few dozen miles off the coast of the third-most populous state in the country. Forecast updates and preparedness information became sub-headlines to stories about the president forcing the government to help him avoid admitting he made a mistake in a tweet.

The administration's handling of Trump's tweet about Hurricane Dorian was perhaps the most telling incident of the entire presidency. A similar situation played out as the coronavirus pandemic tumbled out of control. Trump downplayed the virus at first, boasting to reporters that the virus would disappear after just a few dozen cases. Case totals and deaths continued to soar throughout the final year of his presidency even as he went out of his way to play it down.

NOAA Administrator

It wasn't just the campaign to preserve the president's self-image. The federal weather agency came under a political threat as well. The president nominated Barry Myers, then-CEO of AccuWeather, to become the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, or the administrator of NOAA.

AccuWeather employs many meteorologists who are genuinely good-hearted people who do honest work to keep their audiences informed and prepared. AccuWeather's leadership, unfortunately, has made some questionable decisions over the years, not the least of which was the company's not-so-subtle campaign to vanquish the National Weather Service as a competitor.

Pushback to Myers' nomination, which included concern about potential conflicts of interest as well as larger concern about the company's history of viewing the National Weather Service as unfair competition, was swift—and it actually seemed to make a difference. The Republican-controlled Senate never advanced Myers to the floor for a vote despite the president having nominated him three times: first in 2017, then on resubmission in 2018 and 2019. (Presidential nominations normally expire when the Senate adjourns at the end of each year.)

Myers ultimately withdrew his own name from nomination in November 2019, citing health issues that would make it difficult for him to serve in the role. The position was then filled by Dr. Neil Jacobs, who headed the agency as acting administrator. Trump's presidency was the first time since the position was created in 1970 that the Senate never acted to confirm an administrator for NOAA.

The Shutdown

There was also the time that National Weather Service meteorologists had to miss a paycheck because Trump wouldn't sign a bill to fund the government unless Congress paid for a wall along the border with Mexico.

The federal government ran out of money on December 22, 2018. Usually, if Congress can't agree on a budget, they'll pass a temporary funding agreement while they work on a deal. Sometimes, though, negotiations break down and the funding runs out. When the funding runs out, the government shuts down.

Historically, shutdowns only last a couple of days while Congressional leadership and the White House work out a deal.

But this one went on. And on.

And on.

When the federal government shuts down, most of the government's public-facing services grind to a halt. National parks close and more than 800,000 employees are sent home and told not to return to work until the funding returns. But there are so many essential employees who have to come to work every day during a shutdown without knowing when they'll receive their next paycheck.

The 35-day shutdown became the longest in American history. The shutdown dragged on for so long that essential federal employees—including forecasters at the National Weather Service—missed a paycheck. These hardworking people had to scramble to make ends meet while still working hard as ever to keep the public informed of hazards coming their way.

It never needed to happen. Funding bills passed the House and the Senate, but the president dug in and insisted he wouldn't sign a budget without full funding for a border wall. The standoff continued through the last half of January 2019, at which point the president relented, signed the bill, and the folks at the National Weather Service finally got the pay they worked for.

The 2020 Budget

The president's budget proposal for 2020 included slashing more than $75,000,000—seventy-five million dollars!—in funding to the National Weather Service. That's a lot of money.

Such a deep slash in funding would have kneecapped an agency that was already stretched thin by understaffing, making it that much harder to fulfill its responsibilities to the American public. The plan would have fired nearly 250 meteorologists, cut funding for weather stations and upper-air weather balloon launches, and ended a valuable research project to study tornadoes in the southeastern United States.

Thankfully, the cuts never came to pass.

Hurricane Harvey

It wasn't always a lie that caused an issue. Donald Trump issued a controversial pardon to the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, while Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas in August 2017. He announced the pardon as the hurricane made landfall because he "assumed ratings would be far higher" since people were already watching storm coverage on the news. Hurricane Harvey caused more than $100 billion in damages and killed nearly 70 people.

Puerto Rico

Donald Trump and his administration delayed meaningful aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The storm killed thousands of people and severed electricity to much of the island for months after the storm. The president said that he believed the death toll was inflated to make him look bad, conditioned billions of dollars in disaster aid on political goals like prohibiting the island from raising the minimum wage, and implied that further aid to the island was contingent upon the territory's political leadership showing "appreciation" for him.


The weather for Trump's arrival in Palm Beach, Florida, will be sunny with a gentle breeze, low humidity, and a temperature around 70°F.

A little while later, Joe Biden will take office in Washington under clear skies and gusty winds. It'll be chilly, but warmer weather is right around the corner.

[Top Photo: Flickr/White House]

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January 18, 2021

High, Dry Winds Could Spark An Off-Season Fire Threat Across Parts Of California On Tuesday

A critical fire risk and life-threatening rip currents are possible across parts of California over the next couple of days as high winds begin to blow across the Golden State. High wind warnings are in effect for much of southern California, as well as high elevations in the Sierra and Bay Area, in anticipation of gusts that could exceed 60 MPH at times.

Source: PivotalWeather.com

A strong area of high pressure over the northern Rocky Mountains will push against a developing low-pressure system off the coast of southern California. The tight pressure gradient between the two systems will generate powerful offshore winds that will peak on Tuesday before tapering off on Wednesday night. 

The greatest risk for high winds will exist on Tuesday, when gusts could easily exceed 60 MPH in areas under a high wind warning. Winds that strong can do damage in their own right, knocking down trees, power lines, and blowing around loose objects in backyards and on patios.

Even though we're well outside of traditional fire season in California, which typically peaks in the fall months, the combination of several favorable ingredients will lead to potentially dangerous conditions for wildfire ignition and growth.

The Storm Prediction Center's latest fire weather outlook shows an elevated risk for fire weather conditions from the eastern Bay Area down to the border with Mexico, and a critical risk for fire weather conditions for higher elevations from San Luis Obispo to northern San Diego County.

A fire consumed a few hundred acres of land this weekend in Thousand Oaks, California, and a handful of small fires broke out near Sacramento on Monday. 

While it's unusual to have this kind of fire risk in the middle of January, it's not too much of a surprise given the predicted conditions across the region right now. Temperatures will climb above normal across the affected areas. The strong high-pressure system to the northeast will help generate those powerful winds that could spread any flames in a hurry.

And it's dry. Very dry. While the worst drought is farther inland toward the deserts and Intermountain West, almost the entire state of California is mired in some level of drought, according to last week's update of the United States Drought Monitor. Dry vegetation, low humidity, relatively warm conditions, and high winds are a breeding ground for fast-spreading fires.

As if the risk for tree damage, power outages, and wildfires wasn't enough, the strong winds will also lead to a high risk for rip currents off beaches up and down the state's coastline. A rip current is a swift current of water that pulls away from the beach, generated by waves that hit the beach head-on.

Rip currents are dangerous not because they suck you underwater—that's just made-for-TV dramatics—but because they quickly pull you away from the coastline. The vast majority of injuries and deaths in rip currents are caused by the victim panicking or quickly becoming exhausted trying to swim against the current to get back to shore. 

The best practice, of course, is to avoid going in the ocean when there's a risk for rip currents. If you ever find yourself caught in a rip current, tread water and calmly signal for help. If you're not a strong swimmer, tread water until help arrives or the rip current releases you so you can paddle back to shore. It will eventually release you. If you're able to swim, don't try to swim against the current—it's too strong. You need to swim parallel to the coastline until you're out of the current, and then swim back to the beach.

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January 11, 2021

East Texas Enjoys And/Or Despises Its Biggest Snow In Years

A rare snowstorm blanketed parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi this weekend with more snow than some communities have seen in decades. The unusually robust winter storm left behind snow from western Texas to northern Alabama, bringing a brief dose of winter to an otherwise temperate region. 

The story behind this system is largely "right place at the right time." It takes the perfect ingredients coming together just right to allow precipitation to fall as snow even in colder climates, but it's that much harder to get the ingredients for snow to line up across the far southern reaches of the United States. It's just tough for cold air to overcome the warmth of the southerly winds that dominate this region of the country. Freezing rain and the occasional bout of sleet are more common once you get close to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Cold air briefly managed to win out for a change and it brought a healthy dose of snow to areas certainly not used to it. Waco, Texas, recorded 4.4 inches of snow on Sunday, which was their largest one-day snowfall total in 39 years—it hasn't snowed like this there since January 13, 1982. In fact, this was the city's fifth-largest snowstorm since records began at the airport there in 1930.

This morning's snowfall analysis from the National Weather Service showed a remarkable blanket of snow stretching from the Front Range to northern Alabama, where some folks saw a dusting of snow before precipitation switched over to rain. More than half a foot of snow fell across parts of western Texas. 

There's a weird data glitch on the map above that makes it looks like the border between Texas and Louisiana around the Toledo Bend Reservoir saw something like a foot of snow. That's just some wonkiness in the National Weather Service's data. For posterity's sake, here's NWS Shreveport's map showing snowfall totals in that area:

See? It's a good amount, but not that much. They wish! (Or, maybe not.)

Usually a southern snowstorm like this would make it all the way across the south and affect Georgia and the Carolinas, too, but this system wasn't long for this world. The low that produced the system fell apart into a disjointed mess of clouds and showers before it could bring any hint of January to the rest of the southeast.

After a couple more chilly nights, temperatures will rebound to the 50s and 60s across the winter-afflicted areas through the rest of this week.

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December 31, 2020

This Is Your World Today | December 31, 2020

Today is the 366th day of the longest year we've been through in a long time. Fires, floods, tornadoes, excessive heat, bitter cold, massive snows, and hurricanes upon hurricanes upon hurricanes—and that's just the weather. It's hard to find beauty amid the chaos, but it's there if you know where to look.

If you're a longtime reader (hi!), you might remember that I used to write "Here's Your World Today" posts in a previous blogging life. I originally started those posts as filler to get through quiet days, but it turned into an enjoyable (but short-lived) series to gawk at happenings around the world. In that spirit, and 'cause goodness knows we could use it, here's a loosely affiliated sequel: This Is Your World Today.

A: Today's big weathermaker in the United States is this blobular (totally a word) winter storm in the southeast. It's producing severe thunderstorms along the northern Gulf Coast, complete with an enhanced risk for tornadoes across parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. The cold side of the storm will bring snow and ice to communities from Texas north through the Midwest. Temperatures will briefly jump into the 60s along the East Coast before the system's cold front sends things back down to a more reasonable level for the beginning of January.

B: It's tough to see the Great Lakes through the clouds—but they're part of the reason there are clouds there in the first place. It's been such a (relatively) warm couple of months in the eastern United States that there's hardly any ice on the Great Lakes. The latest analysis from NOAA showed that just 2.2 percent of the Great Lakes were covered by ice. Ice cover percentages are usually in the double digits by this point in the winter.

C: A strong cold front moving over relatively warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean is a recipe for brilliant streets of cumulus clouds. These are always a sight on satellite imagery. They form as air warms up near the surface of the ocean, forming cumulus clouds as its rises and gets organized into rows (or "streets") by the prevailing winds. 

D: The Amazon's hot and humid climate affords us the opportunity to admire thousand-mile fields of cumulus clouds. Particularly active days will see raucous thunderstorms blow up over the Amazon, raging and randomly scooting around until the instability of the day wanes after sunset. 

E: Actinoform clouds (a close-up is seen at the top of this post) are a near-daily occurrence in the southern Pacific Ocean. These marine clouds take on a radial pattern, kind of developing littles spokes and trippy chains as they form over frigid waters. These clouds weren't discovered until weather satellites first spotted them—it's hard to see their shape from below—and it's still a bit of an open question why these clouds take on their distinctive shape. Some of the clouds over the northern Atlantic in "C" above are also actinoform clouds.

F: It's the sun! Well, the sun's reflection. Each day for about the next six months, the sun's reflection on the ocean surface will tick a little higher in latitude. Maximum sunlight reached its southernmost extent over the Tropic of Capricorn on last week's winter solstice. It's always cool to watch the sun's reflection glisten across the oceans in long satellite loops. (The loops are too sizeable to upload here, unfortunately.)

G: This swirling low-pressure system in the Bering Sea is the strongest storm in that part of the world in years. The system's central pressure dropped to a staggering 921 mb on Thursday, which is about as low as you'd expect in a powerful category four or category five hurricane. I explained on Forbes yesterday how this storm got so strong—and why it's so different from a hurricane.

H: Hey, look, Hawaii! Very pretty. It's always interesting to look at the islands on satellite imagery because it's obvious which way the winds are blowing. Moist winds blowing out of the northeast dry out as they pass over the islands, leaving clear skies downwind.

[All satellite images from NOAA.]

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December 24, 2020

A Boisterous Windstorm Will Usher In A Frigid Christmas Across Much Of The Eastern U.S.

A coast-to-coast storm will reach its peak tonight as it shoves its way across the eastern United States, bringing some combination of dangerously strong winds, severe thunderstorms, flooding rains, and heavy snow to everyone from the southern tip of Florida to the northern reaches of Maine. This storm will be highly disruptive in many areas as it pushes through.

As we've seen out west already, a strong pressure gradient will lead to ripping winds as the system strengthens. The low already produced heavy snow and intense winds across much of the north-central part of the country. Intense winds buffeted communities in the Rockies and on the Plains earlier this week. A significant portion of Minnesota and Iowa endured blizzard conditions during the day on Thursday, whiteout conditions that made driving a fool's errand and simply walking around without getting disoriented just about as difficult.

More snow will fall as the system tracks east. The greatest snowfall totals—read: the greatest chance for a white Christmas—will fall in the Ohio Valley and the Appalachians. Some areas could see a decent li'l snowstorm, with totals exceeding half a foot in higher elevations of West Virginia. Lake effect snow on the eastern shores of the Great Lakes will bring a fresh blanket to communities that are plenty acclimated to those conditions.

Farther east, it'll be rain, storms, and wind. Ugly stuff any time of the year, but just brutal for Christmas Eve. Even though people shouldn't be traveling (NUDGE NUDGE), people will travel anyway, and those folks—hopefully not you, my loving and health-conscious reader—should pay attention to the weather and make plans to quickly get to safety if they roll up on dangerous storms or flash flooding.

Flash flood watches are in effect for a vast swath of the eastern United States, stretching from Tennessee to New England's border with Canada. It's not going to be a tremendous amount of rain, but a few inches of rain will fall quickly—that's a problem on its own, but many of these areas still have snow on the ground from last week's storm, so between existing snowpack, rapid snow melt, and clogged storm drains, some areas could deal with flash flooding.

Severe thunderstorms will be an issue closer to the coast. I went into detail about the threat over at my Forbes column on Wednesday afternoon. There's an enhanced risk for severe weather in parts of eastern North Carolina and Virginia on Thursday afternoon and evening. That's a pretty significant risk for this region this late in the year.

Any thunderstorms that form have the potential to produce damaging wind gusts and tornadoes, especially in the discrete storms that form ahead of the cold front. These individual thunderstorms ahead of the main line have the greatest chance of developing into supercells capable of producing tornadoes.

This storm will likely be remembered for its wind. It's going to be windy. Wiiindy. The wind will follow the track of the low-pressure system from the Mid-South straight through New England on Friday. Widespread wind gusts of 40 to 50 MPH will be the norm across many eastern states, with higher gusts likely in thunderstorms, higher elevations, and communities close to coastlines.

Wind alerts scattered around from Texas to Maine in anticipation of widespread gusty winds. Gusts greater than 60 MPH could be common in parts of New England, which will easily knock out power. Widespread power outages are going to be difficult for power crews to get a handle on, so there's a good chance that many communities will spend Christmas without electricity as a result of this storm.

Make sure you're prepared for a power outage. Keep flashlights (actual, physical flashlights) and plenty of batteries to keep them going for at least several days. Gather some non-perishable, ready-to-eat food and water so you don't scramble to find something to eat if you can't cook anything, keeping in mind that McDonald's and Pizza Hut probably won't have power either. And please be mindful of candles and fireplaces as you try to see and keep warm.

It's going to be tough to keep warm in many areas. That cold front is a doozy. Temperatures plummeted 30-40°F in many areas in the central U.S. High temperatures will struggle to climb above freezing in many parts of the east on Christmas.

Here's the National Weather Service's high temperature forecast for Friday. Some of these high temperatures in New England will occur not long after midnight, plummeting through the morning and day after the cold front passes through. (Temperatures will be quite nice on the Plains, though, as a ridge builds in behind the big storm.)

And here's their low temperature forecast for Friday night:

Brr. The chilly air makes it all the way to southern Florida, which won't escape this burst of cold air without a morning in the mid 40s. 

It's not going to linger for too long—temperatures will slowly moderate after this weekend—but it's going to stick around just long enough to remind you that we're in the throes of winter now.

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December 15, 2020

A Significant Winter Storm Will Plaster The Mid-Atlantic And Northeast This Week

Gird your loaves and invest in milk futures: a snowstorm's comin'. A big one, in fact. Parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast are getting ready for the season's first big-time snowstorm. Some areas will see more snow than they've seen in two years—of course, that's not as impressive as it sounds considering last winter's snows were a dud in the Mid-Atlantic. As we see with so many coastal storms, the precise track of the storm will determine whether you get blanketed by snow or shrouded by bitter disappointment.

The Setup

A trough in the jet stream will drive the formation of the low-pressure system that will become our mid-week winter storm. A low-pressure system will develop in the Carolinas on Tuesday night and move up the coast through Thursday. The system will have plenty of moisture and cold air to work with, so there's not much wishy-washiness about whether or not the system will produce big snowfall totals. There's going to be a sharp cutoff between blockbuster snows and a nuisance, so the ultimate track of the storm will make a big difference on who sees huge snows or a cold rain.

The Timing

Rain will begin over the southeast on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning as the low-pressure system starts to develop. The storm will pick up intensity in a hurry as it approaches the Mid-Atlantic, which is when wintry precipitation will start on the northern side of the storm.

Freezing rain will likely begin in western North Carolina and parts of western Virginia on Wednesday morning and afternoon. Temperatures will eventually climb above freezing across areas expecting freezing rain, so the question will be how long it takes the subfreezing air at the surface to erode. The longer it sticks around, the thicker the crust of ice will grow. It shouldn't be a big ice storm, but any crust of ice is dangerous when there's ice on the roads and if tree limbs or power lines snap under the weight. Temperatures should—should!—climb above freezing by late afternoon across most areas expecting ice.

Farther north, the snow will begin on Wednesday afternoon west of D.C. and spread north through the afternoon and evening hours. Precipitation will taper off on Thursday morning from west to east. 

The Track

Six runs of the GFS model showing how tiny shifts in the storm's position can move around the rain/snow line. SOURCE: TropicalTidbits.com

Track track track. Track? Track. Okay, I got that word out of my system. It'll be like Edith and the cling peaches. Won't say that word again.

The structure of coastal storms like this is usually pretty textbook. The rain/snow line follows close to the tra—uh, path—of the center of the low-pressure system, so you wind up with rain to the south/east and snow to the north/west. You get a pretty heavy shield of snow to the northwest of the low that accounts for the greatest snowfall totals. If that line sets up near I-95, you wind up with those memorable storms that immobilize big cities for an entire week.

Since precipitation type and totals are so heavily dependent on the storm's motion, getting it right is crucial to the forecast. If the storm moves 20 miles to the right or to the left of what was forecast, the rain/snow line and shield of heavy snow will follow suit. That could result in surprises and disappointments.

Right now, it's likely that any jog in the storm's motion would be a northerly jog, which would push the heaviest snowfall totals north.

The Snow

Speaking of surprises and disappointments, check out that tremendous cutoff between lots of snow and not much at all. That's why even a tiny shift in the storm's motion could result in a tremendous difference in snowfall amounts for these densely populated communities.

Right now, the National Weather Service's forecast calls for more than a foot of snow from northwestern Virginia to southern Connecticut, which is a vast swath of real estate at risk of seeing a great deal of snow. The greatest totals are likely in central Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and the Hudson Valley in New York—these areas could see more than a foot-and-a-half of snow by the end of the storm.

Again, it won't take much for that sharp cutoff in totals to nudge a dozen or two miles to the right or to the left, which could have big implications for densely populated communities along I-95. When you're preparing for a storm, it's always best to prepare for the worst so you're ready no matter what happens.

The Weather Prediction Center's new Winter Storm Severity Index (WSSI) shows major to extreme impacts across areas expecting more than a foot of snow. The greatest disruptions are likely in eastern Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, where a combination of deep snow on the ground and the weight of the snow on trees, power lines, and flat roofs could cause major issues.

Across the hardest hit areas, travel will be all but impossible during and immediately after the storm. It could take several days for crews to reach residential areas. Hopefully the fact that travel is at a minimum and work/school is predominately conducted at home these days will make it easier for crews to safely clear the roads in a reasonable amount of time.

Now that most trees have lost their leaves and the snow isn't going to be particularly wet, there shouldn't be a widespread risk for power outages, but this much snow built up on power lines and tree limbs could lead to some power outages.

It's likely that the snowpack will stick around for a while after the storm—it doesn't look like there are any significant warmups on the way for the eastern states.

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December 4, 2020

The Season's First Big Nor'easter Could Bring A Foot Of Snow To Interior New England

The first significant nor'easter of the season will bring heavy snow to parts of New England this weekend. It's got everything: a sharp cutoff in totals, uncertain snow amounts, and small changes in the storm's path having a big impact on what ultimately happens. Hey, at least we're not talking about hurricanes anymore, right?

The storm that will become the nor'easter—which, by the way, doesn't have a name, since we don't name winter storms in the United States—will get its act together tonight over the southeastern states. Precipitation will begin as heavy rain and thunderstorms in the Carolinas as the low-pressure system organizes and starts to move toward the coast.

Here's what to expect.

Rain And Severe Thunderstorms

Heavy rain and thunderstorms will begin to overspread the Carolinas tonight through early Saturday morning. Not only will the rain be quite heavy at times—with a quick inch or so of rain possible—but there's a possibility for severe thunderstorms in eastern North Carolina.

The Storm Prediction Center issued a slight risk for severe weather across the far eastern portion of the state through Saturday morning, with a marginal risk extending westward into the Piedmont Triad.

The greatest risk will be damaging wind gusts of 60 MPH, but tornadoes are possible, especially in the slight risk area in eastern N.C. There will be enough wind shear on the eastern side of the developing nor'easter that discrete thunderstorms ahead of the main line could rotate and produce tornadoes.

Elsewhere, it's just a heavy rain threat. Precipitation will fall as rain across most inland and coastal areas until you reach deep into New England. Even areas that could see snow at the end of the storm, such as Boston and Portland, will see rain for most of the storm.

The heaviest totals are likely along the coast—Cape Cod could see up to two inches of rain by the end of the storm. This isn't a blockbuster rain event, but it could cause some flooding issues, especially where any storm drains are clogged by fallen leaves.


Plenty of cold air over interior New England will ensure that the northwestern side of the storm will produce the first decent snowstorm of the year for the region. The latest forecast from the National Weather Service calls for more than half a foot of snow through much of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, with the greatest totals likely from northern New Hampshire northward into Quebec. Augusta, Maine, could see more than a foot of snow by the end of the storm.

Precipitation will begin as rain on Saturday, quickly changing over to snow as the evening wears on. Snow will continue through Sunday afternoon as the storm pulls away into Atlantic Canada. There's a decent chance that rain will end as snow near the coast, possibly bringing a light blanket of snow to Boston.

The first big snow of the year is a big deal no matter where you live because it takes a little while to acclimate yourself to shoveling, walking, and driving in the stuff. The Weather Prediction Center's new Winter Storm Severity Index (WSSI) calls for minor to moderate impacts across the region, mostly for a combination of snow amounts and the "snow load," which is the weight of wet snow on trees, power lines, and roofs. This is going to be a wet snow, so that'll increase the risk for downed tree limbs, power outages, and it'll make it more difficult to shovel.

It's important to remember one of the rules of winter weather forecasting: small changes in storm track have a big effect on the final result. This especially holds true for nor'easters. If the storm moves one or two dozen miles to the east or west of what forecasters expect, it would move the axis of heavy snow accordingly. That could mean that areas expecting minor (or no) accumulations wind up with a shovelable snow, while areas bracing for a big thump get less than expected. Keep checking forecasts this weekend so you're ready if things change in your area.


It's going to get pretty windy behind the system. Gusts of 40 MPH are possible well behind the system into the Carolinas, which could lead to sporadic power outages where trees, already stressed by the parade of storms this summer and fall, struggle to keep their grip in the wet soil.

Up north, gusty winds will follow the snow on Sunday. Wet snow is bad enough on tree limbs and power lines, but the added stress of gusty winds could cause some issues. The risk for power outages ticks up with heavier totals, so folks from Worcester, Massachusetts, north through interior Maine should be ready for at least a day or so without power, just in case.

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November 16, 2020

Hurricane Iota, Latest Category Five On Record, Making Landfall In Pummeled Nicaragua

This has been one heck of a hurricane season and "it can always get worse" seems to be the rule at the moment. It's the middle of November. We're on our unprecedented 30th named storm. And Hurricane Iota, now a category five hurricane with 160 MPH sustained winds, is on track to make landfall in almost the exact same spot in Nicaragua where category four Hurricane Eta made landfall two weeks ago. Come on.

Iota rapidly intensified into a scale-topping hurricane on Monday morning as it encountered near-ideal conditions in the western Caribbean. The region features a deep reservoir of warm waters, light winds aloft, and ample moisture, all the necessary ingredients for a storm to thrive. The only limitation on the storm is that water temperatures—even a steamy 84°F—will only allow storms to intensify so far.

The latest forecast from the National Hurricane Center puts the storm into the Nicaraguan coast at full intensity. The only thing that could weaken the storm right now is either a hiccup in its internal structure that causes it to temporarily weaken, or the beginning of an eyewall replacement cycle that has the same effect. Time is running out for that to happen, though, and the storm is so strong that the catastrophic effects are essentially baked in at this point.

The National Hurricane Center's 10:00 AM EST discussion succinctly sums up the threat:
This is a catastrophic situation unfolding for northeastern Nicaragua with an extreme storm surge of 15-20 ft forecast along with destructive winds and potentially 30 inches of rainfall, and it is exacerbated by the fact that it should make landfall in almost the exact same location that category 4 Hurricane Eta did about two weeks ago.
Hurricane Eta killed more than 100 people in Central America after multiple feet of heavy rain triggered flash flooding and mudslides. It's always difficult to outline the true worst case scenario for any one region when a hurricane makes landfall, but Central American countries preparing for a category five hurricane just two weeks after the devastating winds and flooding of a category four hurricane has to sit pretty high up on the list. 

Adding insult to injury, there's a chance that another storm will form in the western Caribbean later this week. Indications point to the potential system not being quite so strong, but even a gentle shower over areas hit by these two hurricanes would make a horrible situation worse.

An infrared satellite image of Hurricane Iota on November 16, 2020. | Source: NOAA

The tropical Atlantic usually starts shutting down by the middle of November. The end of hurricane season isn't a hard deadline—it's based on climatology that shows waning tropical activity in the Atlantic as the cool, dry, and hostile winds of autumn start to call the shots in the northern hemisphere. While that's what usually happens, that isn't the case this month.

In addition to warmer-than-normal waters in the western Caribbean, Hurricane Iota likely managed to strengthen as a result of La Niña in the Pacific and a ridge of high pressure over eastern North America. 

La Niña, a period of cooler-than-average waters in the eastern Pacific, subdues thunderstorms over the eastern Pacific that could send strong wind shear eastward over the Caribbean. The ridge of high pressure over eastern North America, the one responsible for the relatively warm and calm weather we're experiencing today, further calmed the atmosphere over the Caribbean, fostering an environment where Iota could build itself up as much as possible.

It's also difficult to ignore the influence of climate change in a situation like this. We can't "pin" any one storm on climate change, but when you see rapid intensification in one storm after another, year after year, it becomes a worrying trend that could signal that we've crossed a threshold when it comes to warmer ocean waters and more favorable atmospheric conditions for rapid intensification.

Oh, and just in case you're keeping track...

Hurricane Iota is the 30th named storm of the season. The previous high water marks were 28 storms in 2005, 20 storms in 1933, and 18 storms in 1995.

We exhausted the list of 21 names back in September. Iota is the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet.

Hurricane Iota is the latest category five hurricane on record in the Atlantic Ocean.

This is the sixth major hurricane this season. 

This is the fourth storm to reach at least category four intensity this season.

This is now the fifth season in a row we've seen at least one category five hurricane in the Atlantic.

This is the eleventh storm this year to undergo rapid intensification, having jumped from 105 MPH to 160 MPH in just 12 hours. (Rapid intensification occurs when a storm strengthens about 35 MPH in one 24-hour period.)

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