June 23, 2020

You're Reading About The "Monster" Dust Storm Everywhere Because The Weather Is Boring Right Now

The day-to-day life of someone who works in weather isn't as thrilling as it appears on television. Hardly any of the weather you cover will consist of EF-5 tornadoes and monstrous hurricane churning into the coast. Most days are sunny, temperate...boring. Finding something to write about can be a struggle if you're tasked with writing general interest stories that have to appeal to potential readers in both Savannah and Walla Walla.

Anyone who follows the news has probably heard about the dust storm dubbed "monster" and "Godzilla" in headlines bouncing all over social media the last few days.

A large plume of Saharan dust making its way across the Atlantic Ocean finally arrived in the Caribbean and eastern United States this week. These dust storms usually lose their potency as they traverse the Atlantic Ocean, but this one is strong enough to bring unusually low air quality readings to some Caribbean islands that are famed for their clear skies and reliable weather.

It's a common sight during the warmer months to see Saharan dust storms extend far over the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes reaching the Caribbean and North America where they can degrade air quality and lead to stunning sunrises and sunsets. The layer of dry, dusty air can also inhibit tropical formation, a factor that's often made tropical cyclone forecasting tricky during recent hurricane seasons.

That said, the coverage of this particular Saharan dust event is so disproportionate to the impact of the event that many folks are on the verge of sounding like they just found out about Saharan dust themselves and they're excited to tell someone about it.

Saturation coverage of the Saharan dust is the confluence of two events that are innocuous alone but powerful combined.

The first is that the weather is pretty darn boring right now. Much of the eastern United States is covered by classic summertime thunderstorms that pop up and rage for half an hour before dissipating. It's hot in California's Central Valley. There's a measly tropical storm south of Nova Scotia that's hanging on by an updraft and a prayer. There's a train of depressions about to form in the eastern Pacific and American audiences infamously don't care about weather beyond their own front yards. There's just not much to talk about that'll bring in the big clicks.

That leads us into an unwritten rule of how online weather—really, most online coverage—works. I had never covered the weather on a day-to-day basis back in 2014 when Gawker brought me on to run The Vane. I asked the editor how I would write several posts a day when the weather is boring most days. He told me "when there is no news, you make the news."

So that's what I did. I wrote explainers on supercells and tornadoes and sleet and why hurricanes recurve and how the weather helped BeyoncĂ© serenade most of San Francisco. I wrote about conspiracy theories and I criticized The Weather Channel and I annotated full-disk satellite images to show that even the most mundane patterns had something interesting to spot. Even if it didn't draw many eyes, the posts hopefully reached a few people and making them interested in the weather.

When there is no news, you make the news. When one meteorologist writes about the Saharan dust because there's nothing else click-worthy going on, a few more will invariably follow suit. Others see those posts flying around social media and decide to get in on the action. Soon enough, everyone's rushing to get up a post on the Saharan dust to cash in on some pageviews before the event wanes and everyone loses interest. Each new post has to use stronger, more vivid language to top its competitors for views and ad impressions.

That kind of saturation coverage that tries to top one another can generate interest, sure, but it also creates the impression that something is more urgent than it really is. We've certainly seen that happen here. I've seen just as many posts about how a monster, Godzilla-like dust storm is another harbinger of the 2020 apocalypse as I've seen from meteorologists completely baffled at the outsized attention this plume of dust has gotten compared to other events that are magnitudes more impactful. 

It's great that people are learning how events are interconnected and dust from thousands of miles away can help you snag a great photo out your window. It's also important for people to be able to tell what's urgent and what's interesting, as the two aren't always the same. Reining in the hyperbole and breathless coverage over relatively mundane events is a welcome skill in these days of never-ending bad news and declining reader trust.

[Satellite Image: NOAA]

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June 21, 2020

New England And Eastern Canada Will Keep On Sweating Through Midweek

The second heat wave to bake New England and eastern Canada in recent weeks will continue through the first half of this week. Caribou, Maine, tied its all-time record high temperature on Friday, and heat index values climbed above 100°F deep into Quebec and the Maritime provinces. The southern-style summertime heat will continue through midweek across most of the region.

Temperatures during the peak of the heat wave climbed into the mid- to upper-90s dug deep into Quebec—you know, those classically toasty environs—punctuating how freakishly warm it got across areas where the pinnacle of summer heat usually isn't much worse than a typical August morning down south.

Caribou is about as far north as you can go in New England without crossing the border or getting lost in the forest. The city tied their all-time record high temperature on Friday, June 19, reaching 96°F for only the third time since records began in the early 1900s. The high temperature in Caribou has been at least 10°F above average since June 16, and the National Weather Service's forecast shows that continuing through Wednesday, June 24, before things return closer to normal.
Temperatures in Caribou, Maine
June 16, 2020 — June 24, 2020
Date Obs/Fcst High Avg High Anomaly
June 16 84°F 72°F +12°F
June 17 87°F 73°F +14°F
June 18 95°F 73°F +22°F
June 19 96°F 73°F +23°F
June 20 93°F 73°F +20°F
June 21 86°F 73°F +13°F
June 22 87°F 73°F +14°F
June 23 89°F 73°F +16°F
June 24 85°F 74°F +11°F
June 25 80°F 74°F +6°F
Sources: xmACIS2 / NWS
One thing you quickly learn about the weather is that patterns repeat themselves more often than you'd think. The Mid-Atlantic has seen frequent periods of gloomy, chilly, rainy weather for the past couple of months. The Rockies and Pacific Northwest have seen several intense severe weather events recently. And portions of New England and eastern Canada have been the target of (relatively) intense heat twice in the last few weeks. 

At the end of last month, Montreal saw its hottest temperature ever recorded when the high on May 27 reached 98°F. That heat wave lasted just a couple of days, covering many of the same areas experiencing long-term heat this time around.
Source: Tropical Tidbits

The current heat wave is the result of a stubborn pattern over North America that's kept an upper-level ridge of high pressure pinned in place over New England and eastern Canada. The model animation above shows the progression of the ridge from June 16 through its expected break later this week. Temperatures will drop closer to normal by the end of the week, the change bringing with it some much-needed rain. (The warm and dry spell of late allowed abnormally dry conditions to creep into 30 percent of the Northeast in recent weeks.)

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June 16, 2020

Another Weeklong Gloom-Fest Is On Tap For The Mid-Atlantic This Week

Monday was the first of several consecutive days of gloomy weather across Virginia and North Carolina. It's felt positively Pacific across the region for the last month or so, lurching back and forth between "relatively nice" and "Seattle classic." A disturbance over North Carolina will lock into place a thick overcast and bouts of heavy rain through the end of the week. Hey, if nothing else, at least we're used to it by now!

An upper-level cutoff low broke away from the jet stream this weekend as it dipped down over North Carolina, setting the stage for the drear-fest weather we're going to see through the end of the week. A ridge of high pressure over the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada will force the low to stall and meander over North Carolina and Virginia for the next couple of days, allowing wave after wave of steady rain and occasional thunderstorms to blanket the region.

The Weather Prediction Center's rainfall forecast through early next week shows several more inches of rain falling across VA and N.C. through early next week. The rain will be spread-out enough that we shouldn't see widespread flooding problems, but localized flooding is possible if heavy rain and thunderstorms start training over the same areas for too long.

Temperatures will remain below normal for the duration of June Gloom '20. Monday's high temperature of 66°F occurred at midnight here at DAMWeather's Glass-Enclosed Nerd Center in Reidsville, North Carolina, slowly falling into the upper 50s during the day. It's a similar story across most of Virginia and North Carolina. Average temperatures in Greensboro, N.C., on June 15 are 85°F for a high with a low of 66°F.

Thanks to cold air damming and the persistent gloom, temperatures will remain steady on Tuesday and Wednesday before slowly warming back up.

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June 10, 2020

Significant Damaging Winds Are Possible Across Eastern Michigan On Wednesday

An intense squall line could sweep through the eastern Great Lakes on Wednesday afternoon, bringing a risk for significant damaging winds, tornadoes, and some reports of large hail.

The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issued a moderate risk for severe weather—a four out of five on the scale used to measure the severe threat—across eastern Michigan and adjacent portions of Indiana and Ohio. An enhanced risk—a three out of five—radiates out from there to include Cincinnati and Cleveland. The greatest risk with these storms will be widespread damaging wind gusts, with gusts of 70+ MPH possible in the strongest storms.
Radar at 12:26 PM CDT on June 10, 2020. Source: WSV3
We're already seeing strong to severe thunderstorms pop up in Indiana as of this post's publication. These storms will likely evolve into a squall line that rolls through northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan through rush hour this evening. It's this squall line that will pack the greatest risk for damaging winds, some of which could be in excess of 70 MPH. It's not uncommon to see tornadoes along the leading edge of a squall line.

If you live in areas at risk for storms today, stay aware of watches and warnings and give yourself plenty of time to seek shelter if a storm rolls up on your location. I've found the most useful reminder in a situation like this is to avoid rooms in your home that have large trees or limbs that could fall into the building. We always tell people to avoid windows and stay inside, but it's easy to overlook the potential for falling trees and tree limbs.

It's unusual to see such a high risk for severe weather in this part of the country. According to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet's records, the last time Detroit found itself under a moderate risk in a SPC forecast was on November 17, 2013. 

It's worth noting that the severe threat will also include much of southern Ontario. It's pretty easy to extrapolate the SPC forecast over the border, bringing a risk for significant wind gusts, tornadoes, and large hail to southwestern Ontario, including Windsor, Sarnia, and London. The threat is lower in the Greater Toronto Area.

If you're wondering...SPC forecasts don't stretch beyond the international border for sovereignty reasons. Among other reasons, it could create an international incident if the U.S. government predicts a dire threat for storms on foreign soil if forecasters in that country disagree with their American counterparts.

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June 6, 2020

Tropical Storm Conditions Close In On Gulf Coast As Cristobal Approaches Louisiana

Tropical storm warnings are up for the northern Gulf Coast as Tropical Storm Cristobal steadily makes its way toward landfall in Louisiana on Sunday night. Conditions will begin deteriorating across the region on Saturday night as the outer bands start to come ashore. Flooding rains, gusty winds, and tornadoes are possible along the storm's track through early next week.

Tropical Storm Cristobal isn't the most traditional looking storm this evening. All the heavy rain and thunderstorm activity is displaced far to the east of the center of the storm, leaving a center of circulation that's almost completely exposed on satellite imagery. The National Hurricane Center's 5:00 PM discussion even points out that this system is more like a subtropical storm than a tropical storm. Regardless of its name or appearance, though, it'll have the same effects when it comes ashore.

The latest forecast shows Cristobal making landfall in southeastern Louisiana sometime on Sunday evening, accelerating as it curves up the Mississippi River through early next week.

As I always put at the bottom of my maps, the NHC's forecast only applies to the center of the storm, and the rain, wind, and storm surge can sometimes extend hundreds of miles from the center. That's very much the case here with Tropical Storm Cristobal. The lopsided nature of this storm means that most of its impacts will occur to the east of the center. 

Heavy rain is the greatest threat with this system. The Weather Prediction Center's rainfall forecast over the next couple of days shows a widespread area of 3-5" of rain falling along the storm's projected path, with a swath of heavy rain following the storm's remnants as they race north toward the Great Lakes later this week. Flooding is possible in vulnerable areas, and training bands of thunderstorms could lead to the threat for flash flooding.

Make sure you're prepared for power outages. Rain-soaked soil will make it harder for trees and power lines to hang on against strong winds for any length of time. It's probably too late to do any stock-up shopping before conditions head downhill, but it never hurts to gather up supplies you may already have at home—batteries, flashlights, radios—so you don't have to fumble around in the dark if the lights go out.

Cristobal's strong winds could produce a storm surge along coastal areas in the path of the storm. The NHC began issuing nifty storm surge summary maps this year. Their latest forecast shows a maximum potential storm surge of 3-5 feet above ground level between the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, if the surge occurs at high tide. A storm surge is possible as far east as Marco Island, Florida.

Tornadoes are a threat with any landfalling tropical cyclone. Communities to the east of Cristobal's center are under a risk for tornadoes as the system moves through the region. We've already seen several tornadoes across the Florida Peninsula on Saturday, including one that moved through the heart of Orlando. The tornado threat will shift to the northern Gulf Coast on Sunday as the storm approaches landfall.

[Satellite: NOAA | Surge Graphic: NHC]

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June 4, 2020

Flooding Likely Along Gulf Coast And Miss. Valley As Cristobal Strengthens This Weekend

Tropical Storm Cristobal made landfall near Ciudad del Carmen in southern Mexico on Wednesday after several days of meandering and strengthening in the Bay of Campeche. The system will remain inland until Friday evening, when forecasters expect it to reemerge over the Gulf of Mexico and slowly strengthen as it heads for the northern Gulf Coast. The system will bring heavy rain, gusty winds, and a risk for tornadoes to portions of the Southeast and Midwest early next week.

The center of what's now Tropical Depression Cristobal spent Thursday moving along the Mexico/Guatemala border at walking speed. The storm is quite ragged looking now, having lingered over land for about a day now. The system will begin lifting north toward the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, reemerging over open waters by Friday night.

The latest forecast from the National Hurricane Center shows the system regaining some of its strength and making landfall along the northern Gulf Coast as a tropical storm on Sunday or Monday. While folks near the point of landfall will likely see the strongest winds and greatest potential for storm surge flooding, this will be a large system and the potential for flooding will extend many hundreds of miles from the center of the storm.


It's been raining for days in some parts of Central America and southern Mexico—remember, this system originally made landfall on Sunday as Tropical Storm Amanda over in the eastern Pacific—and some communities have measured several feet of rain as a result. Widespread flooding and mudslides will continue until the system lifts away this weekend.

We won't see that kind of intense rainfall in the United States, but this is a juicy storm and it's going to rain quite a bit across areas affected by Cristobal. The Weather Prediction Center's latest forecast calls for up to half a foot of rain along the Gulf Coast. It's easy to trace the predicted path of the storm by following the swath of heavy rain from the Gulf to the Midwest through the first half of next week.

Heavy rain that falls too quickly will lead to flooding issues in vulnerable areas. Flooding accounts for most deaths in a landfalling tropical storm. We've been through this time and time again in the last couple of years. The messaging should be driven home by now: the wind gets all the headlines, but it's the water that causes most of the problems.


While it's the water that causes the most problems, we can't completely ignore the threat for wind. Meteorologists warn severe thunderstorms for wind gusts of 60 MPH. A tropical storm with sustained winds of 60 MPH at landfall will certainly do some damage to trees and power lines, as well as blowing around objects outside that could cause injury or damage. The rain-soaked soil will make it easier for trees to come down in gusty winds.


Tornadoes are a threat with any landfalling tropical system. The greatest threat for tornadoes lies in the right-front quadrant of a tropical system—in this case, to the east of the center of circulation. If the storm follows its projected path, a threat for tornadoes will exist on Monday and Tuesday in eastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and possibly the Florida Panhandle.

Rough Seas

Rough seas across the Gulf of Mexico will lead to an increased threat of rip currents from Texas to Florida. A rip current is a swift channel of water that moves from the shore to the sea, induced by waves that hit the coast head-on.

Rip currents don't suck you under like you see in movies—they pull you out away from land. Folks susceptible to drowning include inexperienced swimmers or folks who quickly get exhausted from trying to fight against the pull. If you're ever caught in a rip current, it's wise to do one of two things:

1) swim parallel to the shore until you've left the current, then swim back toward shore, or;
2) calmly signal for help.

Rip currents often look appealing to swimmers since they look like oddly calm sections of the beach amidst otherwise raucous waves, but the calm you're seeing is the channel of water retreating out to sea.

It's always a good idea to check the rip current forecast and make sure it's safe to swim. The National Weather Service offers regular rip current forecast for shores in their service areas, and most public beaches post warnings when dangerous rip currents are possible.

[Satellite Image: NOAA]

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