September 9, 2020

The Weather Is Not Good


Fires, drought, heat, humidity, hurricanes, a deadly pandemic virus, rising inequality, a rapidly changing climate. Things are bad right now. The weather is bad right now. We can deal with bad things and bad weather as they come, but the convergence of multiple catastrophes at once is a societal strain we haven't experienced in generations. 

California just came through an intense heat wave. A high of 121°F was the hottest temperature on record in Woodland Hills, which was also the hottest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles County. The high on Monday hit 117°F in Paso Robles, breaking their all-time high record, and Burbank tied its hottest-ever measurement with a high of 114°F. Many other stations around the state recorded highs in the 100s.

As a result of this summer's extended warmth and a worsening drought, California is now in the middle of its most intense wildfire season on record. This year has seen the second-, third-, and fourth-largest fires ever recorded in California, and the uncontained Creek Fire seems on track to crack the top-ten as well. The 'peak' of a traditional wildfire season doesn't occur until later in the fall. 

This weekend's Creek Fire in central California required the air evacuation of hundreds of people stranded at Mammoth Pool when the fast-spreading fire cut off all roads out. A fire in southern Oregon—one of many burning across the state—encroached on Medford on Tuesday evening, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. The state's governor called the scope of the current fires and the losses therein "unprecedented" in the state's history.

The sheer intensity and widespread nature of the fires pumped immense amounts of smoke into the sky across Oregon and California, resulting in scenes that looked like high noon on Mars rather than any earthly location.

And here's what that looked like from space:
Source: NOAA
Dense smoke filtered the sunlight and only allowed longer orange and red wavelengths to reach the surface, turning the sky a deep shade of grim. Temperatures across the region were also lower than predicted as a result of the dense smoke reflecting solar radiation back out to space.


It's no wonder that we've seen one horrible fire after another this summer. This summer was so hot and dry that we've seen the largest extent of drought conditions in the United States in more than two years. A solid two-thirds of the western half of the country was in some level of drought last week, and it'll likely grow in this week's update as a result of the past week's extreme heat. 

The Central Plains and Front Range sweltered this weekend in temperatures around 100°F. High heat and low humidity allowed several wildfires to spark in Colorado and Wyoming. Dense smoke also filled the skies around Denver on Sunday afternoon, making a hot afternoon even worse.


A significant cold front swept across the Plains on Monday, sending temperatures from 100°F to below freezing by Tuesday morning. The Denver area experienced one of its most extreme temperature swings on record. The city set numerous notable temperature records over the last couple of days, including the warmest temperature recorded the day before measurable snow.  

It's not just the west. This was one of the hottest summers on record in the United States, and the hottest for some cities back east. 2020 is already on track as one of the hottest years on record, joining 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013 among the top-ten hottest years ever recorded.

The northeast (and eastern Canada!) experienced some of their most intense heat waves on record earlier this year. Montreal recorded one of its hottest temperatures in the books with a 98°F high on May 27.

While the heat was bad, the mugginess is what makes it unbearable. Greensboro recorded more than 1,000 hours of dew points at or above 70°F in June, July, and August. Washington, D.C., saw more than 1,500 hours of dew point at or above 65°F this summer, with nearly 800 hours of that kind of swampy moisture recorded in Boston—even as the region slipped into a drought! (You can compile dew point statistics at the Iowa Environmental Mesonet's site.)

Low temperatures typically come in warmer than normal when it's muggy, increasing the misery and accounting for much of the above-normal temperatures we've seen in recent years.

Climate change will exacerbate droughts, increasing the potential for more common and more intense wildfires. Climate change doesn't only increase overall temperatures, but it increases nighttime lows and increases mugginess.

And that's not all we've got to deal with!
Source: NHC

This week marks the climatological peak of hurricane season.

Tropical Storm Paulette and Tropical Storm Rene formed this weekend. They're the earliest sixteenth and seventeenth named storms on record, beating the record pace set by the hyperactive 2005 season and setting us on track to exhaust the official list of names and dive into Greek letters to name the remaining storms later this season. There are several more disturbances out there that could develop into tropical systems over the next week or so.

Even though we're on pace to see a near-record number of storms this year, the overall strength and duration of the storms is about on par for the second week of September.

The fact that this year's plentiful storms have been relatively weak isn't much consolation to the hundreds of thousands of people in southwestern Louisiana who've been forced to live a 19th century lifestyle after a 21st century storm.

Hurricane Laura made landfall near Lake Charles with 150 MPH winds, damaging or destroying thousands of homes and plunging the entire region into a weeks-long power outage. Most power won't be restored until later this month, forcing the people here to live in the dark with no air conditioning, no refrigeration, little water—all during a raging pandemic that's claimed 200,000 people in the United States over the last seven months and an average of about 1,000 people a day for the foreseeable future.

Things aren't good. I try to end even the most dismal posts on a positive note even if one is tough to find. Help each other and yourself. Care for each other and yourself. Be kind to others and yourself. Vote for good—please vote. Donate for good. Strive for good. And keep tabs on the weather. We can't always control bad weather, but we sure can see it coming and that ain't nothing.

[Top Picture: A smoke-filled orange sky looms over San Mateo, CA, on Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Cody Robertson]


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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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