With soaring temperatures in the forecast, risks rise from California’s Sherpa Fire, and other blazes across the West

By Tom Yulsman | June 18, 2016 5:08 pm
Sherpa Fire

An animation of satellite images acquired between Jun 16 and 17, 2016 show the smoke plume from the Sherpa Fire near Santa Barbara, California. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

From a trail near my house along Colorado’s Front Range, the majestic Rockies ordinarily stand out in clear relief against blue Western skies. But when I set out on a run this morning, those skies were gauzy, and the mountains were barely visible.

The cause: smoke blowing in from wildfires burning to the west.

With temperatures beginning to soar under a growing dome of high pressure, firefighters are struggling to contain major wildfires in California, Arizona, New Mexico and other western states.

SEE ALSO: Here’s what the brutal heat wave now setting up across a large part of the U.S. looks like — in four simple graphics

The Sherpa Fire near Santa Barbara has garnered the most media attention — and rightfully so, since it is burning near a highly populated area and threatens many homes. As I’m writing this on Saturday afternoon, it has covered more than 7,000 acres. That’s about a quarter of the size of the nearby city of Santa Barbara.

The fire, which is burning in the Santa Ynez Mountains, has frequently raced downhill toward California Highway 101 along the coast. It has prompted the mandatory evacuation of about 270 homes.

The animation above shows its evolution during Thursday and Friday, as seen from the vantage of space. The animation consists of images captured by three satellites on June 16 and 17: NASA’s Terra and Aqua, and the Suomi NPP satellite. (The first and last images in the animation linger slightly longer than the others.)

The fire has also been visible to the GOES-West weather satellite: Read More

NOAA confirms it: temperatures across Earth’s land and sea surfaces are still running at record highs

By Tom Yulsman | June 17, 2016 11:29 am


Earlier this week, NASA released its monthly analysis of global average temperatures — and now NOAA has followed with its own.

The two agencies concur: With last month coming in as the warmest May on record, average temperatures across Earth’s land and sea surfaces continue to run at record highs.

According to both NOAA and NASA, January through May 2016 was the warmest such period on record. And the record-breaking streak actually goes back even farther — a total of 13 months by NOAA’s reckoning. That’s the longest such streak since the record began in 1880.

NASA, which uses the same temperature data but goes about its analysis differently, finds that each of the last eight months has been record warm.

SEE ALSO: Latest analysis from NASA: It’s now eight straight months of record shattering global warmth

Other tidbits from NOAA’s report: Read More

Here’s what the brutal heat wave now setting up across a large part of the U.S. looks like — in four simple graphics

By Tom Yulsman | June 16, 2016 2:19 pm

heat wave

I created the animation above to show how the heat wave coming to a large portion of the United States is forecast to evolve between now and Tuesday.

Check out the spreading stain of deep red in the graphical forecast maps that make up the animation. The stain shows temperatures soaring under a massive heat dome forecast to build over Southern California, Arizona, other parts of the Southwest, and beyond.

Not shown in the animation is the stifling heat and humidity already afflicting parts of the Southern Plains. More about that in a minute. But first…

As you watch the animation, watch for the high temperatures in Phoenix and Los Angeles. Also check out how the red stain fills the meandering trace of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. The canyon is so deep that it is usually considerably warmer than the higher elevations on the southern and northern rims.

The coming heat wave in Los Angeles and Phoenix

Los Angeles is now forecast by the National Weather Service to top out at 103 degrees on Monday. (The animation pegs it a 101, but as I’ve been preparing this post, the forecast has been updated.)

According to the NWS forecast discussion for the area, if the models are right: Read More

Going, going, GONE — California’s snowpack has vanished

By Tom Yulsman | June 15, 2016 2:57 pm

A premature melt-out has replenished reservoirs, but with a drying La Niña probably coming, California’s water woes are far from over


In this animation of images from NASA’s Terra satellite, the snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada range all but vanishes between April 2 and June 7, 2016. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

After El Niño failed to deliver salvation from California’s epic drought, it has now come to this:

Statewide, snowpack is down to just 6 percent of normal for this time of year.

For all intent and purposes, this vital source of water for tens of millions of Californians, and one of the world’s most productive agricultural economies, has vanished prematurely. The culprit: a sunny and warm spring.

And with La Niña probably on the way, things could get worse before they get better.

SEE ALSO: Although its impacts on the weather still reverberate, El Niño has now officially gone bye bye

That’s the bad news. The sort of good news is that while El Niño didn’t bring salvation, it did bring a fair amount of relief. Statewide, snowpack this past winter pushed up above 80 percent of normal, with much of the relief occurring in the northern part of the state (but leaving the south dry). Once the snow started melting out, water flooded into reservoirs.

As a result, major California reservoirs were at 87 percent of capacity on June 14, according to the California Department of Resources. That’s way better than at the same time last year, when storage had dwindled to an average of 59 percent of normal.


Source: California Dept. of Water Resources

Even so, not all reservoirs are brimming. Far from it, as the map at right shows. (Click to enlarge it.) Moreover, warmer temperatures bring increased evaporation from reservoirs.

The premature melt-out of California’s snowpack this spring also gives us a glimpse of what we should probably expect in coming years: As human-caused warming progresses, more snow will fall in the mountains as rain instead, and it will melt-out earlier and faster, just as happened in California this spring.

In turn, this will throw out of whack hydrologic systems designed with plentiful and long-lasting snowpack in mind. In California and elsewhere in the West, snowpack is supposed to serve as a giant reservoir that can provide a steady source of meltwater during the dry months of summer and fall. Read More

Latest analysis from NASA: It’s now eight straight months of record shattering global warmth

By Tom Yulsman | June 14, 2016 2:23 pm

By NASA’s reckoning, May was the warmest such month on record. But Earth’s particularly high fever may be breaking — at least for now.


This map shows how temperatures around the world in May, 2016 departed from the long-term average. (Source: NASA GISS)

Another month gone, and another record bites the dust.

According to an analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, last month was the warmest May in a record extending back to 1880. By the reckoning of NASA GISS, this marks the eighth straight month of record high global temperatures. And it keeps 2016 on track to enter the record books as warmest year on record.

Gavin Schmidt, GISS director, pegs the odds of that happening at 99 percent:

Even if 2016 does break the record for warmest year, global temperatures could level off in 2017. More about that in a minute. But first…

Read More

Surface melting of snow and ice in Greenland explodes as temperatures soar to record levels

By Tom Yulsman | June 12, 2016 8:50 pm
Melting at the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Numerous melt ponds are visible in this image of Greenland’s southwest coast, captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 12, 2016. The grayish-blue band also is indicative of melting at the surface. (Source: NASA EOSDIS)

With parts of Greenland experiencing record high temperatures of late, melting of snow and ice at the surface has been skyrocketing.

This follows a record low extent of Arctic sea ice in May, and other troublesome signs that global warming is taking off in the high north.

The satellite image above of Greenland’s southwest coast shows what’s happening at the surface: numerous blue melt ponds, and the telltale grayish-blue coloration indicative of melting snow and ice. (Make sure to click on the image for the full-size version.) Read More

Mammatus clouds catch fire during blazing Niwotian sunset

By Tom Yulsman | June 10, 2016 7:48 pm
Niwotian mammatus

The view from my deck in Niwot, Colorado on June 9, 2016. (Photo: ©Tom Yulsman)

I know what you’re probably thinking. Yulsman totally manipulated this sunset image in Photoshop. But actually, this is the JPG file straight out of the camera (a SONY A7R with a Zeiss zoom lens attached).

The camera’s JPG processing algorithm probably punched up the vibrance of the colors a little, and shifted the white balance a bit toward yellow.  But quite honestly, this is close to what the sky looked like last night from my deck in Niwot, Colorado after a series of thunderstorms had rumbled through and the Sun dipped below the horizon.

I’m posting this image and the ones below not just because of the sheer spectacle of the sky catching fire, but also to highlight a marvelous meteorological phenomenon known as mammatus clouds.

These are rounded, pouch-like structures on the underside of clouds, typically thunderstorm clouds, known scientifically as cumulonimbus.

You can see the beginnings of mammatus pouches in the image above. But the light was so fiery bright during that stage of the sunset that it was difficult to discern them. Also, not many had formed just yet.

But as the sunset progressed, and the fires cooled a bit, more mammatus pouches formed, and they became more evident: Read More

Animation of satellite images shows smoke from a Russian wildfire getting sucked into a weather system vortex

By Tom Yulsman | June 9, 2016 7:56 pm

An animation of images acquired by Japan’s Himawari-8 satellite shows smoke streaming from a large wildfire near the west coast of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula between June 6 and 7, 2016. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA/NOAA)

Wildfire activity in Russia’s Far East has seen something of an upsurge this spring compared to the same period last year. One of the most dramatic of the fires has been burning along the west coast of Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula.

Wildfire is no stranger to the peninsula, but this one has created a bit of a remote sensing spectacle. To see what I mean, check out the animation of satellite images above. Make sure to click on it to view a larger, higher quality version.

The peninsula can be seen at the right side of the animation. Watch for thick plumes of grayish smoke streaming west out into the Sea of Okhotsk.

A weak low pressure system draws some of the smoke into its vortex circulation. Beneath the smoke, low level stratus clouds also swirl in the weather system’s circulation pattern. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, select, Top Posts, Wildfire

Although its impacts on the weather still reverberate, El Niño has now officially gone bye bye

By Tom Yulsman | June 9, 2016 10:49 am

Forecasters lean toward the emergence of a weak to ‘borderline moderate’ La Niña in the fall

El Niño

In January, above average sea surface temperatures projected like a spear along the equator in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean — a hallmark of El Niño. Since then, the warmth has given way to cooler than normal temperatures. (Images: earth.nullschool.net. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

If you live in Texas — or Indonesia, for that matter — it might be difficult to believe, but El Niño truly has gone away.

Record-setting rainfall has recently caused devastating floods in Texas. Meanwhile, drought continues in parts of Southeast Asia. And both have been linked to lingering impacts of El Niño on atmospheric circulation patterns.

But as the animation above illustrates, January’s warm spear of sea surface waters in the equatorial Pacific — a hallmark of El Niño — has now given way to cooler than average temperatures.

This heralds the official end of El Niño, according to the latest monthly update from the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service.

SEE ALSO: As El Niño fades, here comes La Niña

Here’s another animation showing the transition, this time over the course of the month of May: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate, ENSO, select, Top Posts, Weather

Arctic sea ice continues its downward spiral, reaching a record low extent for the month of May

By Tom Yulsman | June 8, 2016 9:27 pm

If the trend continues, sea ice coverage will decline to an historic minimum by summer’s end in September

A May 21, 2016 satellite view of the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska and Canada shows highly fragmented sea ice.

A May 21, 2016 satellite view of the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska and Canada shows highly fragmented sea ice. (Source: LANCE System/NASA/GSFC via National Snow and Ice Data Center)

Back in mid-May, unusually warm conditions, and shrinking sea ice coverage, prompted Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center to predict that “the Arctic is going to go through hell this year.”

Almost a month later, that prediction seems right on track.

Each and every day during May, the extent of Arctic sea ice shrunk by an area roughly equal to the state of West Virginia. Sea ice does decline naturally in May, as the weather warms up. But this rate of loss was more rapid than during any other May in the 38-year satellite record.

So it should come as no surprise that overall, May saw the lowest average extent on record for the entire month, according to provisional data from NSIDC.

This follows record lows set in January, February and April. (In March, Arctic sea ice extent was the second lowest in the 38-year satellite record.)

SEE ALSO: Second dramatic spike in thawing on the Greenland Ice Sheet heralds an early start to the melt season.  Read More



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

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