From space, spring storminess looks like a boiling cauldron of atmospheric stew

By Tom Yulsman | May 9, 2019 6:48 pm
And the stew is now boiling more vigorously: Heavy precipitation events have grown stronger and more frequent over the long run
Boiling up of a supercell thunderstorm

Growth of a supercell thunderstorm over the Texas Panhandle, as seen in an animation of images from the GOES-16 weather satellite. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA)

With big, boiling thunderstorms spewing hail and spawning tornadoes in the Southern Plains and beyond even as snow once again falls elsewhere, the weather sure does seem wild and weird this week.

Spring often brings a meteorological roller coaster ride, thanks to the tension between lingering cold and spreading warmth. And, in fact, severe weather is the norm in the Southern Plains for this time of year.

You can see an example in the animation above, acquired over Lubbock in the Texas panhandle on May 5, 2019. It consists of high-resolution images acquired at one minute intervals by the GOES-16 weather satellite.

In essence, this is a time-lapse video offering a stunning impression of the growth of the storm over a little more than four hours, ending in the evening. I find the overlay of false-color infrared visual data over the natural-color depiction of the land surface quite arresting.

But this “VIS/IR Sandwich” wasn’t designed just to look pretty. The visual component provides meteorologists with high spatial detail. And the infrared part of the “sandwich” provides key data on the temperature of the clouds as they are boiling up to produce the supercell thunderstorm.

Keep reading below for more spectacular imagery of severe weather outbreaks over the Southern Plains. (And when you click on the animations, please keep in mind that they may take awhile to load up.)

But first, a longer-term context to the storminess we’re seeing this week — and for the past 12 months too, the wettest on record in the U.S. — as laid out in the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment: Read More

New study reveals “extraordinary change” in El Niño possibly linked to climate change

By Tom Yulsman | May 7, 2019 8:04 pm
The current El Niño features warmer-than-normal surface waters in the central tropical Pacific.

A weak El Niño episode currently in place features warmer-than-normal surface waters in the central tropical Pacific. New research finds that these kinds of El Niño events are becoming more frequent, whereas stronger El Niños, which are rarer and tend to occur farther east, seem to be getting stronger still — a trend possibly linked to climate change. (Source: Climate Reanalyzer, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, USA.)

|Update: I posed some questions related to this story to Jason Furtado, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma. I’ve added them and Furtado’s responses to the end of the post. |

In a first, researchers have used chemical fingerprints locked within coral skeletons to build a season-by-season record of El Niño episodes dating back 400 years — a feat many experts regarded as impossible.

That record, presented in a new study appearing in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience, reveals an “extraordinary change” in the behavior of El Niño, according to the researchers. That shift “has serious implications for societies and ecosystems around the world.” Read More

Water in the West: Snow news may not be good news

By Tom Yulsman | April 30, 2019 8:24 pm
Images acquired by NASA's Terra satellite show just how much more snowpack accumulated in the Colorado Rockies this past winter than last winter. Last year's image was captured on April 18; this year's on April 19. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Images acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite show just how much more snowpack accumulated in the Colorado Rockies this past winter compared to last winter. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

As the animation of satellite images above shows, this past winter has brought desperately needed snowfall to a large portion of the American West.

It consists of images captured by NASA’s Terra satellite, centered on the Colorado Rockies — one on April 18 of last year, and the other this past April 19th. All that extra white stuff tells the tale better than any statistics.

And looks aren’t deceiving. For Colorado as a whole, snowpack looks to be about the third highest on record.

In fact, many measuring sites in Colorado experienced their wettest spring on record, according to Paul Miller, a hydrologist for the Colroado River Basin Forecast Center. Temperatures also were relatively cool, limiting the kind of premature snowmelt that has been seen with increasing frequency in recent years.

The result: “It has just been a very beneficial spring,” Miller says. Read More

Illuminating the night with curtains of light: the aurora borealis seen from above and below

By Tom Yulsman | April 15, 2019 4:07 pm
Suomi NPP captured this image of the aurora borealis

The Suomi NPP satellite captured this image of the aurora borealis while orbiting over North America on March 28, 2019. Please click on the image to view it full size. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

I’ve been meaning to write a story about the aurora borealis ever since I captured photos of an astonishing display in January when I was visiting Tromsø, Norway to cover the Arctic Frontiers conference. Finally, the satellite image above offered the perfect excuse.

It was captured by the Suomi NPP spacecraft as it orbited above North America on March 28, 2019. The spacecraft has a nighttime sensor that can capture relatively faint emissions of light under varying illumination conditions, including city lights and aurorae like those seen in the image above.

Auroral displays occur when Earth’s magnetic bubble, called the magnetosphere, is roiled by material flowing outward from the Sun. These can come from gusts of particles in the solar wind, or from more explosive emissions of plasma and magnetic energy caused by a phenomenon called coronal mass ejections.

The March 28 aurora resulted from relatively minor gusts of solar wind that knocked loose electrons and protons within the magnetosphere. Following Earth’s magnetic field lines toward the poles, these particles rained down on the atmosphere and caused it to glow. (For more about the March 28 event, see this article from NASA’s Earth Observatory: Dazzling Spring Aurora Over Hudson Bay.)

When I attend the Arctic Frontiers conference in January, the same phenomenon caused the atmosphere to glow so brightly above the city of Tromsø that the aurora was clearly visible despite a nearly full moon and light pollution from the city: Read More

The latest bomb cyclone swept dust from Mexico and Arizona all the way north to Minnesota

By Tom Yulsman | April 12, 2019 9:13 am
The GOES-16 weather satellite captured this view of large plumes of blowing dust originating from southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico on 10 April 2019. (Source: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies)

The GOES-16 weather satellite captured this view of large plumes of blowing dust originating from southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico on April 10, 2019. (Source: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies)

As the latest monster spring storm spun up over the U.S. Four Corners region on April 10, high winds drove huge amounts of dust all the way north to the Upper Midwest, where it fell as dirty snow.

You can see the low-pressure center of the cyclone spinning counter-clockwise in the animation above of GOES-16 weather satellite images. Below it, watch for the gargantuan plumes of khaki-colored dust being swept up and driven to the northeast.

Also check out the lighter, sand-colored patch (right under ‘click to play’). This is White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, and the dust streaming from this area is lighter in color.

The storm system, dubbed a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists because of the rapidity with which it exploded in intensity, ultimately churned into the U.S. midsection with very high winds and heavy snow, creating whiteout conditions in Kansas and Nebraska. Major highways were closed, power to thousands of homes was knocked out, and hundreds of flights were cancelled.

It was the second such storm this spring. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Extreme Weather, select, Top Posts, Weather

As the Arctic heads into the warm melt-season, sea ice is tracking at record lows

By Tom Yulsman | April 5, 2019 3:24 pm
This animation of satellite images shows sea ice conditions in the Bering Sea. Copious sea ice is seen in the labelled image, acquired by NASA's Terra satellite on April 4, 2013. The other image, captured on March 26, 2019, reveals very little ice. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

This animation of satellite images shows sea ice conditions in the Bering Sea. Copious sea ice is seen in the labelled image, acquired on April 4, 2013. The other image, captured on March 26, 2019, reveals very little ice. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

As winter gives way to spring in the Arctic, the region’s lid of floating sea ice is shriveling much more sharply than normal.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s latest monthly update, published April 3, Arctic sea ice reached its maximum extent on March 13, which marked the end of the winter season. Since then, warming spring temperatures have caused the ice to shrink — and lately, the shrinkage has been record-setting.

Late-March ice losses in the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska  have been particularly steep, in turn driving the Arctic’s overall ice extent to a record low level on April 1, according to the NSIDC. With that in mind, I created the animation above to show just how dramatic the loss of ice in the Bering Sea has been.

The labelled image in the animation shows the extent of sea ice coverage in early April of 2013, as seen by NASA’s Terra satellite. At that time, ice coverage in the Bering Sea was was slightly above normal. In the second image, acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite on March 26th of this year, note the huge expanses of open water. The copious sea ice seen in 2013 is largely absent.

To help you fully appreciate the scale of the losses, consider that the distance from left to right across the middle of the scene totals 1,000 miles. Read More

Colorado River Basin states agree on ‘pain-sharing’ plan to deal with drought affecting 40 million Americans

By Tom Yulsman | March 30, 2019 1:47 pm
But the stop-gap measure, now before Congress, includes a provision that some regard as a major step backward
Signs on the pole in this photograph show how much the land has subsided due to pumping of groundwater in Arizona’s Wilcox Basin between 1969 and 2018. (Source: Arizona Department of Water Resources.)

Signs on the pole in this photograph show how much the land has subsided due to pumping of groundwater in Arizona’s Wilcox Basin between 1969 and 2018. (Source: Arizona Department of Water Resources.)

For the 40 million people who depend on water from the Colorado River Basin, including me, there’s no escaping this stark reality: Our thirst for water exceeds what’s actually available.

That’s mostly because rising temperatures are sapping moisture from the environment even as demand for water resources in the region is going up.

The result: a run on the banks — lakes Mead and Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the basin. Collectively, they’re now just 40 percent full.

For Lake Mead, that brings it perilously close to a critical threshold: Once its surface level is expected to drop to 1,075 feet above sea level, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will declare a first-ever water shortage in the basin. This, in turn, would trigger significant mandatory cutbacks in water use imposed by the federal government.

This isn’t just an issue for people who live the in the region. That’s because the river provides for a $1.4 trillion economy — which means that what happens here in the Colorado River Basin won’t just stay in the basin.

With all of this in mind, the seven states of the basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — have been struggling to reach agreement on contingency plans. The goal is to avoid the federal government dictating from the top down what will be done once the water shortage threshold is crossed.

The efforts by the states to reach consensus have finally succeeded. And on March 19, 2019, they took a big step forward when they asked Congress to pass legislation giving them permission to put their plans — collectively bundled together into something called the “Drought Contingency Plan,” or DCP — into effect.

”It’s a remarkable achievement,” said Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona and Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001, speaking at a workshop on water issues I’m attending in Phoenix. “It’s a pain-sharing agreement.” Read More

Tropical Storm Iba has formed off the Brazilian coast — a real rarity in this part of the world

By Tom Yulsman | March 25, 2019 5:53 pm
Infrared imagery from the GOES-16 weather satellite shows the formation of Tropical Storm Iba off the east coast of Brazil at 16 UTC on March 24, 2019. (Source: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies)

Infrared imagery from the GOES-16 weather satellite shows the formation of Tropical Storm Iba off the east coast of Brazil at 16 UTC on March 24, 2019. (Note: This is a big file, so after you click on the screenshot, the animation may take a little while to load.  Source: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies)

For the first time since 2010, a full-fledged tropical cyclone has formed in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Say hello to Tropical Storm Iba.

You can see it in the animation above, about 500 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The animation consists of infrared imagery from the GOES-16 weather satellite. It shows Iba as it strengthened on Sunday. The false colors correspond to the temperature of the cloud tops in the storm, with black and pinkish colors indicative of the very coldest temperatures. (And at -90 C, or -130 F, in some pink areas, we’re talking very cold!)

Since temperature decreases as you go higher and higher in the troposphere, the coldest areas correspond to parts of the storm where clouds have blossomed most vigorously to the highest altitudes. Read More

Satellite imagery reveals the stunning scope of historic flooding inundating the Midwest

By Tom Yulsman | March 19, 2019 5:10 pm
Before and after satellite images reveal the extent of flooding on the Platte, Missouri and Elkhorn rivers near Omaha, Nebraska. (Images: NASA Earth Observatory. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Before and after satellite images reveal the extent of flooding on the Platte, Missouri and Elkhorn rivers near Omaha, Nebraska. (Images: NASA Earth Observatory. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Flooding characterized by the National Weather Service as “major to historic and catastrophic” is continuing across parts of the central plains and Upper Midwest.

The flooding has come in the wake of last week’s “bomb cyclone,” which dumped heavy rain atop snowpack with high water content. The resulting runoff has triggered record-setting flooding throughout the Missouri and Mississippi river basins.

As I’m writing this on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 19, more than 8 million people are under flood warnings — and rain showers forecast into this evening could make things even worse.

The scope of the flooding in the Omaha, Nebraska area is dramatically illustrated in the before-and-after animation above. I created it using false-color imagery from the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite. The ‘before’ image was acquired on March 20, 2018. The ‘after’ image is from March 16, 2019.

As NASA puts it:

Several communities west of Omaha (between the Elkhorn and Platte Rivers) either flooded or temporarily became islands as floodwaters encroached from both sides. One third of Offutt Air Force Base was inundated and 30 buildings were damaged, according to news reports. Rising flood waters forced people in dozens of communities to evacuate.

To make the close-up images in the before-and-after animation showing the Omaha area, I actually cropped in on much broader Landsat views of the region. Here’s what they look like: Read More

The High Plains bomb cyclone has exploded — a report from ground zero

By Tom Yulsman | March 13, 2019 1:47 pm
bomb cyclone

An animation of infrared imagery acquired by the GOES-16 weather satellite shows a strong cyclone spinning over southeast Colorado on March 13, 2019. (Source: CIMSS Satellite Blog)

As I’m writing this at 11:30 a.m. on March 13, 2019, winds are gusting above 45 miles per hour, snow is blowing horizontally outside my patio window, and the lights in my home are flickering. I hope that I manage to get this story posted before the electricity goes out…

Winter Storm Ulmer is intensifying over the High Plains and going through a process known as “bombogenesis.” You can see its evolution today in the animation above, consisting of infrared imagery from the GOES-16 weather satellite.

The false color scheme is known as “Air Mass RGB.” Meteorologists use it to identify temperature and moisture characteristics of an air mass surrounding and within large storms like this one. In the animation, reddish areas are indicative of high “potential vorticity,” which, as the name suggests, is related to the development of cyclonic features.

Bombogenesis happens when a mid-latitude cyclone like this one intensifies explosively, with the central barometric pressure dropping very rapidly. When this occurs, meteorologists often will call it a “bomb cyclone.”

According to NOAA: Read More

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ImaGeo

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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