U.S. had most extreme spring on record for precipitation

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:20 PM GMT on June 14, 2011

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Nature's fury reached new extremes in the U.S. during the spring of 2011, as a punishing series of billion-dollar disasters brought the greatest flood in recorded history to the Lower Mississippi River, an astonishingly deadly tornado season, the worst drought in Texas history, and the worst fire season in recorded history. There's never been a spring this extreme for combined wet and dry extremes in the U.S. since record keeping began over a century ago, statistics released last week by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reveal. Their Climate Extremes Index (CEI) looks at the percentage area of the contiguous U.S. experiencing top 10% or bottom 10% monthly maximum and minimum temperatures, monthly drought, and daily precipitation. During the spring period of March, April, and May 2011, 46% of the nation had abnormally (top 10%) wet or dry conditions--the greatest such area during the 102-year period of record. On average, just 21% of the country has exceptionally wet conditions or exceptionally dry conditions during spring. In addition, heavy 1-day precipitation events--the kind that cause the worst flooding--were also at an all-time high in the spring of 2011. However, temperatures during spring 2011 were not as extreme as in several previous springs over the past 102 years, so spring 2011 ranked as the 5th most extreme spring in the past 102 years when factoring in both temperature and precipitation.


Figure 1. Nine states in the U.S. saw their heaviest precipitation in the 117-year record during spring 2011, with record-breaking precipitation concentrated in the Pacific Northwest and along the Ohio River. Seven other states had top-ten wettest springs. Texas had its driest spring on record, and New Mexico and Louisiana had top-ten driest springs. When compared with Figure 2, we see that this is a classic winter La Niña pattern, but at extreme amplitude. Image credit: NOAA/NCDC.


Figure 2. La Niña events since 1950 have brought wetter than average conditions to the Pacific Northwest and Ohio River Valley in winter, and drier than average conditions to the South in both winter and spring. Spring 2011 (Figure 1) had a pattern very similar to the classic winter La Niña pattern (left image in Figure 2.) Image credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.


Figure 3. The percent area of the Contiguous U.S. experiencing much above average heavy 1-day precipitation events in spring 2011 hit a record high, nearly 16%. The 102-year average is 9%. The previous record of 15.5% was set in 1964. Heavy springtime 1-day precipitation events in the U.S. have been increasing since 1960, in line with measured increases in water vapor over the U.S. due to a warming climate. See also Figure 4 below. Image credit: NOAA/NCDC.


Figure 4. Percent increase in the amount falling in heavy precipitation events (defined as the heaviest 1% of all daily events) from 1958 to 2007, for each region of the U.S. There are clear trends toward more very heavy precipitation events for the nation as a whole, and particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Climate models predict that precipitation will increasingly fall in very heavy events, similar to the trend that has been observed over the past 50 years in the U.S. Image credit: United States Global Change Research Program. Figure updated from Groisman, P.Ya., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004: Contemporary changes of the hydro-logical cycle over the contiguous United States, trends derived from in situ observations. Journal of Hydrometeorology, 5(1), 64-85.

What caused this spring's extremes?
During a La Niña episode in the Eastern Pacific, when the equatorial waters cool to several degrees below average, abnormally dry winter weather usually occurs in the southern U.S., and abnormally wet weather in the Midwest. This occurs because La Niña alters the path of the jet stream, making the predominant storm track in winter traverse the Midwest and avoid the South. Cold, Canadian air stays north of the jet stream, and warm subtropical air lies to the south of the jet, bringing drought to the southern tier of states. La Niña's influence on the jet stream and U.S. weather typically fades in springtime, with precipitation patterns returning closer to normal. However, in 2011, the La Niña influence on U.S. weather stayed strong throughout spring. The jet stream remained farther south than usual over the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, and blew more strongly, with wind speeds more typical of winter than spring. The positioning of the jet stream brought a much colder than average spring to the Pacific Northwest, with Washington and Oregon recording top-five coldest springs. Spring was not as cold in the Midwest, because a series of strong storms moved along the jet stream and pulled up warm, moist Gulf of Mexico air, which mixed with the cold air spilling south from Canada. The air flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico was much warmer than usual, because weaker winds than average blew over the Gulf of Mexico during February and March. This reduced the amount of mixing of cold ocean waters from the depths, and allowed the surface waters to heat up. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Gulf of Mexico warmed to 1°C (1.8°F) above average during April--the third warmest temperatures in over a century of record keeping (SST anomalies were a bit cooler in May, about 0.4°C above average, due to stronger winds over the Gulf.) These unusually warm surface waters allowed much more moisture than usual to evaporate into the air, resulting in unprecedented rains over the Midwest when the warm, moist air swirled into the unusually cold air spilling southwards from Canada. With the jet stream at exceptional winter-like strengths, the stage was also set for massive tornado outbreaks.


Figure 5. A La Niña-like positioning of the jet stream, more typical of winter than spring, brought much colder air than normal to the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest during the spring of 2011. Washington and Oregon had top-five coldest springs, and near-record snowfalls and snow packs were recorded in portions of the Northern Rockies and Northern Plains. South of the mean position of the jet stream, top-ten warmest springs were recorded in Texas, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Image credit: NOAA/NCDC.

Was climate change involved?
Whenever an unprecedented series of extreme weather events hit, it is natural to ask how climate change may be affecting the odds of these events, since our climate is undergoing unprecedented changes. This spring's unusual precipitation pattern--wet in the Northern U.S., and dry in the South--does fit what we'd expect from a natural but unusually long-lived winter La Niña pattern (Figure 2). However, it also fits the type of precipitation pattern climate models expect to occur over the U.S. by the end of the century due to human-caused warming of the climate (though shifted a few hundred miles to the south, Figure 6.) This drying of the Southern U.S. and increased precipitation in the Northern U.S. is expected to occur because of a fundamental shift in the large scale circulation of the atmosphere. The jet stream will retreat poleward, and rain-bearing storms that travel along the jet will have more moisture to precipitate out, since more water vapor can evaporate into a warmer atmosphere. The desert regions will expand towards the poles, and the Southern U.S. will experience a climate more like the desert regions of Mexico have now, with sinking air that discourages precipitation. A hotter climate will dry out the soil more, making record intensity droughts like this year's in Texas more probable. So, is it possible that the record extremes of drought and wetness this spring in the U.S. were due to a combination of La Niña and climate change. It is difficult to disentangle the two effects without doing detailed modelling studies, which typically take years complete and publish. One weakness in the climate change influence argument is that climate models predict the jet stream should retreat northwards and weaken due to climate change. Indeed, globally the jet stream retreated 270 miles poleward and weakened during the period 1970 - 2001, in line with climate model expectations. Thus, a stronger and more southerly jet stream over the U.S. during the spring is something we should expect to see less and less of during coming decades.


Figure 6. The future: simulated change in precipitation during winter and spring for the years 2089 - 2099 as predicted by fifteen climate models, assuming we continue high emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Confidence is highest in the hatched areas. Compare with Figure 7, the observed change in precipitation over the past 50 years. Image credit: United States Global Change Research Program.


Figure 7. U.S. annual average precipitation has increased by about 5% over the past 50 years, but there has been pronounced drying over the Southeast and Southwest U.S. Even in these dryer regions, though, heavy precipitation events have increased (see Figure 4.) Thus, rainfall tends to fall in a few very heavy events, and the light and moderate events decrease in number. Image credit: United States Global Change Research Program. Data plotted from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/ushc n/.

Keep in mind, though, that climate models are best at describing the future global average conditions, and not at predicting how climate change might affect individual continents--or at predicting how rare extreme events might change. Major continent-scale changes in atmospheric circulation are likely to result over the coming few decades due to climate change, and I expect the jet stream will shift farther to the south in certain preferred regions during some combination of seasons and of the natural atmospheric patterns like La Niña, El Niño, and the Arctic Oscillation. For example, there has been research published linking recent record Arctic sea ice loss to atmospheric circulation changes in the Arctic Oscillation that encourage a southwards dip of the jet stream over Eastern North America and Western Europe during late fall and winter. Until we have many more years of data and more research results, we won't be able to say if climate change is likely to bring more springs with a circulation pattern like this year's.

One thing we can say is that since global ocean temperatures have warmed about 0.6°C (1°F) over the past 40 years, there is more moisture in the air to generate record flooding rains. The near-record warm Gulf of Mexico SSTs this April that led to record Ohio Valley rainfalls and the 100-year $5 billion+ flood on the Mississippi River would have been much harder to realize without global warming.

I'll have a new post by Thursday.

Jeff Masters

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Quoting Waltanater:
Can anyone from the committee provde a status update on the volcano on Naboo?


Well, first off, her name is Nabro. And it's still very hot and smokey there, with some sulfer dioxide and magma and stuff.

TheCommitee approves of this post.
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Quoting Chucktown:
So called "climate change" is very media driven and sensationalized. Of course we are only going to focus on the extremes, no one would tune in otherwise. Don't you think that all this "extreme" weather has been happening for thousands of years. Its only now that we are able to see it first hand with so many platforms of media out there. I am a member of the media and don't always agree with what comes across our airwaves. I think half the reason why the economy stinks is because of media hype and that lowers consumer confidence so in turn we spend less.
Other thing, Chuck, is that what is extreme weather tends to depend on when / where you are alive.... like 1930s were pretty extreme weatherwise.... so were the 1870s.... but they're not our extremes, are they? So we tend to downplay them in the context of our current situation. Beyond that, your comments about media distortion has value; I'm looking at the very interesting eruption of a volcano not known to have done so in the historical record, and this has made very little news media pay attention. Reason? not hype-able....
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Quoting ncstorm:
Climate Change Blog..just saying..

Link



Dr. Master's used the phrase "climate change" in his blog new fewer than 8 times this morning...

Just saying...
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Quoting ncstorm:
Climate Change Blog..just saying..

Link



Was that targeted at me or Dr. Masters?
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the difference is, my chonies don't get in a bunch when I don't get an answer...chum....

I'm not that self-important...
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Quoting hydrus:
30 day water temperature forecast..


GOM is turning into a hot tub!
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Quoting NRAamy:
"the committee"?

I think they all have you on ignore, chum.
pfft...they didn't answer you either. I guess the topic wasn't really THAT important then.
Member Since: May 16, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1472
Climate Change Blog..just saying..

Link

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"the committee"?

I think they all have you on ignore, chum.
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Quoting Chicklit:


Do you think the above blog by Dr. Masters is "media driven and sensationalized"?


Can you prove or disprove the above information is cyclical or indeed an overall permanent change to the world wide climate?
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Can anyone from the committee provde a status update on the volcano on Naboo?
Member Since: May 16, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1472
Quoting cat5hurricane:
Boy would I be on top of the world if forecasters can accurately tell me whether or not to either bring the umbrella or the sunglasses to tailgate before I pack the cooler with ice cold beer. But until they can nail that forecast that afternoon with a reasonable degree of accuracy, I won't be putting any credence in precipitation outlooks 80 years in advance any time soon.

But I always keep the rain gear in the truck on standby regardless of the forecast, for what it's worth. Ya just never know with Mother Nature.
I think of the climate change forecasts as trend analysis.... put it this way... generally speaking rainy season in FL means p.m. showers. Now, there's no way to be sure when, where, or for how long, SPECIFICALLY, those showers will fall. But once the rainy season kicks in, one can pretty much expect that there will be some rain, somewhere, for somebody. The GW forecast is like that. 80-90 years from now, pple can expect to have drier springs in the SE US than now. How dry? Which one will be particularly dry? The specifics are not forecastable.... just a general pattern.
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Quoting Chucktown:
So called "climate change" is very media driven and sensationalized. Of course we are only going to focus on the extremes, no one would tune in otherwise. Don't you think that all this "extreme" weather has been happening for thousands of years. Its only now that we are able to see it first hand with so many platforms of media out there. I am a member of the media and don't always agree with what comes across our airwaves. I think half the reason why the economy stinks is because of media hype and that lowers consumer confidence so in turn we spend less.


Do you think the above blog by Dr. Masters is "media driven and sensationalized"?
Member Since: July 11, 2006 Posts: 14 Comments: 11459
I for one dont believe in "climate change"..I believe though we are living in end times according to the Holy Bible..Nothing scientific, only biblical..just my two cents..
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Quoting AussieStorm:
Off to bed all, up early in the morning for an assessment on my back injury in the city.
I'll try to stay warm and dry while i hope everyone stays cool and gets some rain. Night all


Night Aussie. Keep warm. Hope your appointment goes well. Been dealing with a bad back for years. They are no fun. :(
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So called "climate change" is very media driven and sensationalized. Of course we are only going to focus on the extremes, no one would tune in otherwise. Don't you think that all this "extreme" weather has been happening for thousands of years. Its only now that we are able to see it first hand with so many platforms of media out there. I am a member of the media and don't always agree with what comes across our airwaves. I think half the reason why the economy stinks is because of media hype and that lowers consumer confidence so in turn we spend less.
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Off to bed all, up early in the morning for an assessment on my back injury in the city.
I'll try to stay warm and dry while i hope everyone stays cool and gets some rain. Night all
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Quoting weathermanwannabe:
Good Morning All and Dr. M; I freaked out this AM before getting some work done when the site was down and glad to see that my old friends are back....Nothing on the Atlantic side, and the CV season not here yet, but I would note that I am amazed at the recent large SAL outbreak out there blanketing the mid-Atlantic MDR when there was very little SAL a month ago....Ya Never Know what could happen come August and September out there....Here is the link:

Link

I have been looking at that as well.
Big change in one week.
SAL is still relatively far North, and the ITCZ is still quite southerly.
But as you say, Aug-Sep, who knows what we will see?

The sky is rumbling just east of me now, and breezes are gusty.
Looking at the Loops, it wont be long before we are in rain...
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Quoting sunlinepr:
Re-Posting the 2010 / 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Seasons... From Youtube...



Summary in that youtube Video:
The 2010 Hurricane Season tied with 1887 and 1995 having the third highest storm count on record with 19 named storms. But short-term weather patterns dictate where storms actually travel and in many cases this season, that was away from the United States. The jet stream's position contributed to warm and dry conditions in the eastern U.S. and acted as a barrier that kept many storms over open water. Also, because many storms formed in the extreme eastern Atlantic, they re-curved back out to sea without threatening land. This movie shows GOES-13 infrared imagery from June 1 through November 30, the official extents of the Atlantic Hurricane Season.




Oh yeah! watching those is better than watching a "lava lamp"...for relaxing...love those antimated
satellites....call me crazy, I dont care :]...Ty for the repost~~~~~
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Quoting cat5hurricane:

Weather drives climate. How do you think climate data is gathered? By compiling everyday weather statistics over a long period of time (10 years, 30 years, etc.).

Weather and climate actually go hand in hand quite nicely.

Very well then. I'll just go about enjoying my life not worrying about something so far off in the future that may not even happen. Help yourself to a beer, by the way. NOT the Goose Island. That's mine. Anything else is fair game.


As Pot said, it's not 30 years or even 10 years off; it's happening now. But having said that, I'll say this: Goose Island bottles some awesome stuff. It's almost enough to make me move to Chicago.

But only almost. ;-)
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 14226
Quoting cat5hurricane:
Boy would I be on top of the world if forecasters can accurately tell me whether or not to either bring the umbrella or the sunglasses to tailgate before I pack the cooler with ice cold beer. But until they can nail that forecast that afternoon with a reasonable degree of accuracy, I won't be putting any credence in precipitation outlooks 80 years in advance any time soon.

But I always keep the rain gear in the truck on standby regardless of the forecast, for what it's worth. Ya just never know with Mother Nature.


What Nea said. Also, I don't believe that the meteorologists are as wrong as you claim they are about short-term weather. They can't predict the formation and movement of every storm cell, but aren't they usually REALLY close in terms of the maximum and minimum temperatures, humidity, and the general timing and nature of frontal movements? They are around here... yeah, sometimes a system takes a funny turn and surprises them, or convection is stronger than they predicted, etc. But it's not like we're getting snow when they predict record heat. If you read the scientific weather discussion for your area you'll see that they talk alot about what parts they are certain about and what parts they are not certain about. I generally find that they are right FAR more than they are wrong...
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Wow... the final Joplin death toll stands at 153...

CNN even listed the victims all by name

http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/13/joplin-torna dos-final-death-toll-at-153-city-says/?hpt=hp_t2
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Quoting Neapolitan:

Well, as you know, weather and climate are two different things. Weather forecasting is like standing next to the ocean and predicting how tall the next three waves will be. On the other hand, climate forecasting is [snip]
...like extrapolating observed recent trends into the distant future, whether legitimate, a product of a cyclical forcing regime, or a product of changing observation platform, density, or frequency.
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Good Morning All and Dr. M; I freaked out this AM before getting some work done when the site was down and glad to see that my old friends are back....Nothing on the Atlantic side, and the CV season not here yet, but I would note that I am amazed at the recent large SAL outbreak out there blanketing the mid-Atlantic MDR when there was very little SAL a month ago....Ya Never Know what could happen come August and September out there....Here is the link:

Link
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Quoting cat5hurricane:

Weather drives climate. How do you think climate data is gathered? By compiling everyday weather statistics over a long period of time (10 years, 30 years, etc.).

Weather and climate actually go hand in hand quite nicely.

Very well then. I'll just go about enjoying my life not worrying about something so far off in the future that may not even happen. Help yourself to a beer, by the way. NOT the Goose Island. That's mine. Anything else is fair game.

I agree with everything you said. Except the bolded part.
I think we are actually seeing stuff now, that should bother you.
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Putting them closer together, these two seem to have very, very little in common outside of the northeast and GA-FL.



This past spring deviates from the normal La Nina in many areas, as well.

CO2/warming/certainty issues aside ("will"? *gasp*), total precip, extreme precip, etc. pre-WSR-88D is a scary dataset to try to make any conclusions in trends or extrapolations to the future from. We have not always had as many rain gauges, nor the radar data for rainfall derivations, as we do now. We all know very well that a populated area can receive some normal amount of rainfall while some unpopulated area nearby could have a back-building system dumping 10 times that amount and no one would know about it without radar.

Do that many times over a large portion of the time period included in the "trend" or "change" map and it loses it's worth. JMHO.
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Quoting DEKRE:


This general ignorance isn't much better now

I have noticed we are getting back to a normal climate. wet early winter
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Quoting DEKRE:


This general ignorance isn't much better now


Just an opinion, nothing personal
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Quoting DEKRE:


This general ignorance isn't much better now


Ouch!
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Good Morning all.
Showers today, under overcast here. 11n 61w
Looking East at that wave and knowing that we will get some rains over the next 2 days.

I have no problems with that!
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Quoting kosbo77:
Back in my day, we call "climate change" weather....

I no what you mean.
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I thought that la Nina had ended and we were more neutral. Can someone explain where we stand on that? I know it probably gets discussed every year, but maybe a short description of the influences of el nino, la nina, or neutral years on the Atlantic hurricane season? It would be greatly appreciated!
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Back in my day, we called "climate change" weather....
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A few headlines from the heat...

Wildfires force closure of highway leading to Sea Rim State Park Link

More counties placing partial or total ban on fireworks Link

And the saddest of all. :(

Searchers find body of Labelle Fannett firefighter
Link
June 14, 2011 7:26 AM

(8:45 a.m. update) - JEFFERSON COUNTY - Searchers have found the body of a Labelle Fannett volunteer firefighter who went to look for a friend's missing remote controlled airplane and didn't return.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office says the body of Stephen Shoemaker, 56, was found at about 8:45 a.m. Tuesday in 10 foot cane near the Jefferson County Remote Aircraft Field off Highway 347, near the Nederland Gun Range.

Justice of the Peace Brad Burnett was called to the scene and will order an autopsy.

Investigators believe the heat may have been a factor in the death. They say it appears Shoemaker had gone in a circle while looking for the plane and may have become disoriented in the thick cane.
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Quoting cat5hurricane:
Boy would I be on top of the world if forecasters can accurately tell me whether or not to either bring the umbrella or the sunglasses to tailgate before I pack the cooler with ice cold beer. But until they can nail that forecast that afternoon with a reasonable degree of accuracy, I won't be putting any credence in precipitation outlooks 80 years in advance any time soon.

But I always keep the rain gear in the truck on standby regardless of the forecast, for what it's worth. Ya just never know with Mother Nature.

Well, as you know, weather and climate are two different things. Weather forecasting is like standing next to the ocean and predicting how tall the next three waves will be. On the other hand, climate forecasting is like telling you that high tide will be next Wednesday at noon. In other words, similar, but not really the same at all.

How much more extreme will the normal have to become to finally break through the walls of denial? I, for one, truly hope we'll never have to find out...
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 14226
Dr. N-G (TX state climatologist) calls this drought 3rd worst for TX with numbers one and two being multi-year droughts.


(Click for full size)
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Calif was "above normal" for precipitation in March-May 2011.... considering our normal is a drought, that ain't saying much....
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Funny that this also looks like a plot of population density by region.

(except for Alaska and Hawaii)
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Current wind for NSW, Australia.
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Re-Posting the 2010 / 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Seasons... From Youtube...



Summary in that youtube Video:
The 2010 Hurricane Season tied with 1887 and 1995 having the third highest storm count on record with 19 named storms. But short-term weather patterns dictate where storms actually travel and in many cases this season, that was away from the United States. The jet stream's position contributed to warm and dry conditions in the eastern U.S. and acted as a barrier that kept many storms over open water. Also, because many storms formed in the extreme eastern Atlantic, they re-curved back out to sea without threatening land. This movie shows GOES-13 infrared imagery from June 1 through November 30, the official extents of the Atlantic Hurricane Season.

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Quoting hydrus:
Didnt Carter or somebody visit you in 1976?


Nope.
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what happened to the volcano?
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Until we have many more years of data and more research results, we won't be able to say if climate change is likely to bring more springs with a circulation pattern like this year's. Thanks Jeff...
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Quoting tatoprweather:
Hey,
Obama is visiting Puerto Rico today.
Last time we had a President in the island for an official visit was JFK in 1961.....50 years ago.
Hopefully he puts an end to the puertorican colony.

Hot Button and Off Topic, dangerous combination.


Thanks for the update Dr Masters!!
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Quoting tatoprweather:
Hey,

Obama is visiting Puerto Rico today.

Last time we had a President in the island for an official visit was JFK in 1961.....50 years ago.

Hopefully he puts an end to the puertorican colony.
Didnt Carter or somebody visit you in 1976?
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 24194

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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