Attack of the Cyclones

By Phil Plait | November 2, 2010 7:00 am

Last week, I woke up in the middle of the night to winds raging outside. I figured they were chinooks — strong, brief winds common this time of year near the mountains — and went back to sleep.

Well, they weren’t chinooks. They were from this:


[Click to coriolinate.]

Holy isobaric imbalance! What a monster!

This was the storm that tore across the US last week as seen by NASA’s GOES Earth-observing satellite. It spawned tornadoes, high winds, and all manners of mischief over more than 30 states. It wasn’t technically a hurricane — it’s actually an extratropical cyclone — but it had the lowest recorded pressure ever seen in the US:

At 5:13 p.m. CDT, the weather station in Bigfork, Minnesota recorded 955.2 millibars (28.21 inches of pressure). Pressure is one indicator of a storm’s strength, and this measurement corresponds to the pressure seen in a Category 3 hurricane.

Yikes. There are also videos of the storm’s development on the NASA page, just in case you think the Earth was tailor-made for us humans to live comfortably and complacently.

Incidentally, if there is some sort of metaphor between this storm marching across the country and today’s elections, I invite you to make the connection on your own.

Image credit: Jesse Allen, NASA GOES Project Science Office

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (41)

  1. Kind of reminds me of the storm from 1993. I’m sure anyone that lived on the East coast remembers that year. A hurricane strength storm formed in the Gulf and ripped its way up the coast. I want to say that storm set the record for lowest barometric pressure recorded in the state of Georgia. I’m a bit of a weather nut so it was exciting. That storm wreaked havoc. Eek!

    I’d also like to note that was the one and only time I experienced “thunder snow”. Yeah, scared the crap out of me. Raging winds, horizontal snow and KABLAM a lightning bolt hits a few hundred feet from our house. And yes, this was in Georgia. :)

  2. zeke

    Correction, Phil, NOAA paid for the satellite. It’s ours. Not NASA. Yes NASA helped NOAA with managing the contracts and launching it, but NOAA wrote the checks.

  3. From up in space, it looks really pretty! Oh, and it looks like someone forgot to close an italics tag…

    OFF TOPIC: Saw Marian Call last night at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square. She was wonderful! I am trying to talk my better half into going to a house show tonight in Concord, but she’s reluctant to do that on a school night.

  4. Thomathy

    I’ll point out that most of that storm, in that picture, is over Canada. And looks particularly bad over my region. But, then, I knew there was a storm; at least when it rains and blows, I tend to make that assumption.

  5. Kevin

    Here in Michigan this storm was compared to the November 10, 1975 storm that sank the “Edmund Fitzgerald” and the November 10, 1998 storm.

    I remember vividly the 1998 storm. Like this one, while we were in the “clear slot” the winds were steady at 35-40 mph, and it was sunny. The night was clear, and I went out observing. I could believe the views I was getting of Jupiter and Saturn – they looked three-dimensional, little 3D spheres hanging in space. I didn’t take my camera with me, because I didn’t think the seeing would be any good – boy, was I wrong.

    This storm last week brought tornado warnings when it went through, and then the next day it was sunny and windy. There are a lot of photos taken at Lake Michigan of waves breaking over the myriad of lighthouses that dot the lakeshore.

    And the one good thing to come of this storm? The winds blew all the leaves from my front yard and carried them away. Saved me from raking! :)

  6. “if there is some sort of metaphor between this storm marching across the country and today’s elections, I invite you to make the connection on your own. ”

    Anyone want to start a pool on how long before Obama gets the blame for this?

  7. Frak! I thought this read Attack of the Cylons.

    BTW, someone forgot to turn off italics.

  8. Chris

    A little behind in your blogging Phil?

  9. cisko

    Dr. Masters’ Wunder Blog had a great recap of the storm. It wasn’t the lowest pressure ever in the US — there have been hurricanes with lower pressure — but it was the lowest inland pressure ever. He put this as the worst storm on record to hit the Great Lakes, with the 1998 storm Kevin mentions as #4 and the Edmund Fitzgerald storm at #6.

    Masters also discusses the storm in the context of climate change, and the implications are scary. To quote him, “The modeling studies predict a future with fewer total winter storms, but a greater number of intense storms.” (Note he’s quoting himself here from a post he made back in March.)

  10. noen

    Ahhhh…. We’ll be just fine.

  11. Paul

    @Kevin – As I read a report of ships on the lakes heading to shelter, the phrase “the gales of November came early” kept playing in mind.

  12. Phil, you mean that’s the winds of Republican change blowin’ ?


  13. Great photo, Phil.

    Any word on when Bad Universe episode 3 will air?

    I’m looking forward to seeing them all.

  14. Bill

    That is a pretty wicked image.

    You missed the forward slash in your close <em> tag for your image credit, Phil!

  15. Andrew

    Read this article last week written by University of Washington Atmospheric Science professor Cliff Mass. He seemed especially bothered by the claim that the storm had the “lowest recorded pressure ever seen in the US”.

  16. Jason

    @7 Romeo..
    Wait, I thought this was still George Bush’s fault?

    But to assign blame for a Weather event to a President is idiotic pure and simple.

    Regardless, All of us in the U.S. should go vote today. It is a responsibility to go vote. I doubt I agree with the way a majority of the people here will vote, but I encourage it. Our government works best when the people are involved. Every legal vote counts and is important. And given the charges thrown back and forth by BOTH sides, the more real and legal votes there are the more diluted the effect of any illegal votes that may occur.

    That is a very cool picture. I have always wondered…. What impression of Earth would say, inhabitants of the moon have if they had developed observing earth and watching the weather patterns march across the face.

  17. Ryan H

    Isn’t this a shot from _The Day After Tomorrow_? (A terrible movie by any standard, but I do seem to recall a scene where a “satellite photo” showed multiple enormous cyclonic systems dancing in a line across the upper latitudes.)

  18. This storm is so strong it’s blowing all of our words sideways! whooaaaa!!!

  19. BJN

    Cyclones may be irrational and destructive, but at least they’re completely devoid of hatred and malevolent intent. Elections are much more scary.

  20. Minos

    The GOES CONUS images I’m used to looking at didn’t even encompass the whole storm system. I had to find some Canadian satellite imagery to get the whole scope of it. The image you posted has a real nice angle, though.

    One tiny nitpick: it was the lowest pressure from a non-tropical storm recorded in the US.

  21. Sarah

    Yikes! So that’s what was taking so long to fly around! My husband and I flew from New Haven to San Francisco last week and had to go around this monster. Many many people had been rerouted.

  22. gopher65

    J. Major Says:

    This storm is so strong it’s blowing all of our words sideways! whooaaaa!!!

    That made me laugh:). Then Phil went and fixed the broken page formatting. Pfffft. Way to ruin a good joke Phil.


  23. alfaniner

    I wondered why I seemed to have trouble catching my breath for those couple days — it was like being at the top of Mount Haleakala. Holy Mauna Loa!

  24. Wouldn’t “coriolinating” something make it rotate?

    I clicked. No rotation. Will now leave in a huff.

  25. Jeff

    This is a lesson I teach the earth science kids, so if you want to learn about “cyclones” and “anticyclones”, this was a good example.

    In this case, the low pressure (cyclonic system) had rapid counterclockwise winds converging on the low. If you look at an isobar (lines of equal barometric pressure) map around last weeks low, you will see they are very tightly packed together. That tight packing of isobars creates a great pressure gradient and thus very high winds, up to almost hurricane level, and the pressure was unusually low.

    That “comma shaped” line below the low is a cold front, which actually cleared us in Florida later that week and brought us northerly winds and some decrease in the dew point (and thus more comfortable air , the first since about may).

  26. Grizzly

    Chinooks in the states might be brief, but up here they can last for days and days and days. Calgarians of a certain age recall going to work in a foot of snow with -20 celsius (sub zero Fahrenheit) temps, and coming home in a nearly dry, balmy +20 celsius.

    Then again they can last only hours too.

  27. Seems the winds have abated. 😉

  28. Keith Bowden

    I love pictures like that, Earth and her atmosphere engaging in weather. :)

    (Am I the only person who’s annoyed that Universal Studios logo has never ever had an atmosphere? A noisy giant propeller-driven plane in orbit, yes. Air, no.)

  29. Dan


    This storm did NOT break the record for lowest pressure recorded in the US.

    This storm set lowest recorded sea level pressure records in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, and was a candidate to set the lowest pressure ever recorded from a non-tropical cyclone in the lower 48, but did not break the record.

    The lowest pressure ever recorded in the US was 892 millibars at Matecumbe Key, Florida on September 2, 1935 during the Labor Day Hurricane. The lowest pressure recorded in the United States from a non-tropical cyclone was 927 millibars in 1977 at Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

    The lowest recorded sea level pressure from a non-tropical cyclone in the lower 48 states that can be verified is a measurement of 955.0 millibars, which has happened twice: once on January 3, 1913 at Canton, New York, and again on March 7, 1932 at Block Island, Rhode Island. We missed setting a record by two tenths of a millibar.

    The National Weather Service office in Duluth, Minnesota has a great writeup of the meteorological aspects of the storm here:

  30. Mikael I

    LOL, even if the image is really taken from space, you americans (no offense) add borders to it afterwards:P

    Seriously, though, one of the things astronauts often talk about after their trip to space is that they didn’t see any borders on the surface of the Earth. I do think the world would’ve been a better one if they weren’t necessary.

  31. Grand Lunar

    It’s the Day after Tomorrow! 😉

    I wonder just how common storms like that are.

  32. Jeff

    27: I lived in north dakota in 1965 and I think I remember some Chinooks that lasted pretty long, but it was a long time ago. If I was there now for a few years, I’d be able to judge it better, but they probably last a day or two in north dakota.

    If you are reading this, could I ask you a question? Do you know if the wind shifts from (whatever direction) to westerly when the chinook wind descends on Alberta? It is very interesting how the temperature goes up and it clears out.

  33. Matt

    Where were you at the time, Phil? I can only pin it down to somewhere between Montana and New Brunswick.

  34. @ Mikael I:

    The satellite image in question is used by many state and local authorities to respond to weather related disasters. Knowing which state, and hence which jurisdiction a system might be approaching, is somewhat important, since it will be the local and state emergency services responding to any disasters.

    Americans may be, and are, many things, including practical.

    Besides, it’s our satellite, we’ll do what we want the images…including share the data with the world to add or subtract borders as they please.

  35. Gary Ansorge

    I was in Montana in 1975, when an arctic gale came through. When I went to bed it was +65 degrees F. The next morning it was -45 F(wind chill; -65).

    THAT’S a really big temp change.

    Gary 7

  36. Thanks Dan, I was going to comment that if this was a record low pressure it is awfully high.

    In the UK the Braer storm of 1993 resulted in corrupt data from some automated recording stations, because the designers hadn’t anticipated recording pressures that low. Now that is what I call a low pressure.

  37. Buzz Parsec

    Larian @4, I’m really bad at recognizing people from those little Facebook pictures, but was that you sitting in the booth next to me? If so, Hi! I thought
    it might be you, but you were busy so I didn’t interrupt. And yeah, Marian was TOTALLY AWESOME!!

  38. Jeffersonian

    It’s a little early still for chinooks along the front range I think.
    I used to love it when I lived on the western slope and a major storm on the west side of the divide would cause a chinook on the east side. You can receive snow by the foot and then drive 60 miles east where it’s clear skies and hot dry wind.

  39. DennyMo

    (Am I the only person who’s annoyed that Universal Studios logo has never ever had an atmosphere? A noisy giant propeller-driven plane in orbit, yes. Air, no.)

    But for the opening of Waterworld, the Universal logo demonstrated the effects of a glacial meltoff. Not quite “atmosphere”, but certainly “climate”, which implies atmosphere…

  40. Naomi

    And in the mean time, Arizona is all, “Hey, we can have clouds as well! Really! Look! They’re there, I promise! WE HAVE CLOOOUUUUDS!”


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