It’s been a wild and crazy year

pgeweather@pge.comDecember 29, 2012 

As 2012 is drawing to a close, the weather east of the Rocky Mountains has been awful. This year actually started with record warmth. In January, Fargo, N.D., saw the mercury reach 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which broke its previous record set in 1908 for warmest January day.

Later in the winter, a tragic tornado outbreak ripped through the Ohio Valley and killed 42 people. Record-smashing high temperatures followed in March, and that helped to create severe tornadoes that struck in vicious swarms through many parts of the Midwest and Texas in April. 

Later in the spring, a strong and nearly stationary ridge of high pressure centered over the Midwest forced the jet stream far to the north. This condition produced one of the worst heat waves and droughts on record. By June, the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado destroyed hundreds of homes. It was the most destructive wildfire in that state’s history. In fact, wildfires burned more the
9.1 million acres across America in 2012. That was the second-highest annual total since the year 2000.

For much of the country, about the only relief this past summer from the three H’s — heat, haze and humidity — came from fast-moving and violent thunderstorms that briefly cooled the atmosphere, but also caused extensive damage.

On the afternoon of June 29, a rare and terrifying derecho developed in Iowa and marched toward Maryland and Massachusetts, reaching those states by nightfall. What began as a standard-issue thunderstorm soon turned violent, generating fierce winds, fearsome lightning and massive power outages.

July turned out to be the hottest of any month on record in 118 years of record-keeping in the United States, even hotter than in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. July was 3.3 degrees higher than the 20th century average. This heat helped to continue an epic drought in the Midwest that shriveled corn and other crops. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, about 62 percent of the United States is in drought, making the 2012 drought the greatest since the Dust Bowl year of 1939. At the time of this writing, concern is growing about the ability of barges that carry vital agricultural and other products to navigate the Mississippi River because of its low level.

Also, according to NOAA, this year has seen tens of thousands of maximum temperature records broken, but only a few thousand record lows. Put another way, about five high- temperature records were broken this year for every low-temperature record. This was much higher than the 2:1 ratio that prevailed in the past decade. With all things being equal, during a normal year the ratio would be 1 high to 1 low record broken.

In September, the level of ice in the Arctic Ocean dropped to its lowest on record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. This ice melt was faster than earlier climate models had predicted.

Then in October, Superstorm Sandy, officially known as Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy, slammed into the northeastern part of the nation. At its peak, a P-3 Orion hurricane hunter aircraft measured Sandy’s central pressure as 27.76 inches of mercury or 940 millibars! That was one of the lowest barometric readings ever recorded for an Atlantic storm. 

About a day before it made landfall in New Jersey, Sandy produced hurricane-force winds (at least 74 mph) out to 175 miles from its center. When Sandy came ashore, it produced tropical storm force (at least 39 mph) winds along 943 miles of the East Coast. Along the New Jersey coastline, Sandy produced sustained winds of 80 mph at Atlantic City, with a central pressure of 946 millibars -— the lowest pressure ever recorded along the northeastern coast. Due to Sandy’s approach angle, strength and higher-than-normal tides, it created a record storm surge and flooding along the New Jersey and New York shoreline.

Tragically, this storm took the lives of 130 people. At one time, 8.5 million people lost their electricity, making it the second worst weather-related power outage in U.S. history. PG&E sent 270 electric workers to New York to help restore power to thousands of homes and businesses in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and on Long Island. Paul Deis, emergency services manager for the Red Cross of San Luis Obispo County, recently shared his experiences in the wake of Sandy on local talk radio. His story of helping others in particularly challenging conditions brought home the need for all of us to prepare for emergencies. 

All these severe weather events lead to the question: Is climate change responsible? Well, I think my fellow colleague and writer Jonathan Marshall said it best.

“It’s easy to ignore climate change when it’s mostly discussed in scientific papers and op-ed articles.

It’s a lot harder if you’re still suffering through one of the most extreme droughts in U.S. history, or hauling away wreckage from one of the costliest ‘superstorms’ on record. The gigantic magnitude of recent climate-related natural disasters subverts oft-repeated claims that we can’t afford to act on global warming. It’s increasingly obvious to the victims — and to those who assess mega-damage claims for a living, like re-insurance giant Munich Re — that we can’t afford not to act.”

In next week’s column, I will summarize 2012’s San Luis Obispo County’s weather and try to predict the weather for the first part of 2013. I will also announce the winning name of our local downslope winds contest.

•  •  •

Yesterday’s 1,015-millibar low-pressure system and associated cold front produced rain and areas of hail throughout San Luis Obispo County.

Here are the 24-hour rainfall totals as of 5 p.m. on Saturday:

Arroyo Grande: 0.47 inches
Atascadero: 0.24 inches
Baywood Park: 0.20 inches
Cal Poly: 0.41 inches
Cambria: 0.16 inches
Creston: at Windrose Farm 0.21 inches
Diablo Canyon: 0.44 inches
Los Osos: 0.35 inches
Morro Bay: 0.18 inches
Nipomo: 0.39 inches
Paso Robles Airport: 0.23 inches
Rocky Butte: 0.39 inches
Port San Luis Lighthouse: 0.26 inches
Santa Maria Public Airport: 0.49 inches
San Luis Obispo County Airport: 0.36 inches
San Simeon: 0.32 inches
Shandon: 0.24 inches
Templeton: 0.20 inches
Vandenberg AFB: 0.24 inches.

For the first time in many weeks rain is not in the forecast. Increasing high pressure out over the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Great Basin will produce gentle to moderate (8- to 18-mph) northeasterly (offshore) winds during the night and morning hours starting today and continuing through next weekend.

This condition will produce mostly clear skies with mild afternoon temperatures and chilly overnight temperatures with valley ground fog and frost for the first week of 2013 and possibly into the second week.

Today’s surf report

A 956-millibar storm with hurricane force winds developed in the Gulf of Alaska Friday.

A 5- to 7-foot northwesterly (290-degree deep-water) swell (with a 14- to 23-second period) from this storm is forecast to arrive along our coastline this afternoon and will remain at this height but with a shorter interval Monday. This northwesterly swell will increase 6 to 8 feet (with a 15- to 17-second period) Tuesday and will remain at this height with a gradually shorter interval  Wednesday through Friday.

Seawater temperatures

Seawater temperatures will range between 54 and 56 degrees through Friday.
•  •  •

For information on how to prepare for an emergency, log onto San Luis Obispo County’s Office of Emergency Services website at www.slocounty.ca.gov/OES.htm.

Jonathan Marshall maintains a blog called NEXT100. To learn more, please log into www.pge
currents.com.

John Lindsey is a media relations representative for PG&E. He is also a local weather expert and has lived along the Central Coast for nearly 25 years. To subscribe to his daily weather forecast or ask him a question, email pgeweather@pge.com.

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