Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Punxsutawney Phil's Warrant Papers Served

Punxsutawney Phil (Photo credit Alex Wong/Getty Images)
On this brutally cold night (expected to be at around -18 F by dawn), I thought it would warm your hearts to know that earlier today, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan served an arrest warrant for Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. Phil is being charged not only with predicting six more weeks until spring, but failing to disclose it would consist of mountains of snow. And let's face it - we have no idea what else that groundhog is withholding.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Maybe the funniest Amherst Police Log entries ever!

This is not made up. I swear. Embedded in the Amherst Bulletin's weekly Police Log are always some gems that are laugh-out-loud funny, like these two. The bottom entry, however, is just everything, right now especially!

From Amherst Bulletin "Police Log" this week -
(photo from S. O'Keeffe's FB post)

Our weekend weather experiment - will rain meet frozen tundra?

More than the usual "red exclamation mark" weather advisories -
View of my phone screen earlier this evening, 2/20/2015
For some reason, a lot more red exclamation marks (indicating a Winter Weather Advisory) are popping up on my phone than usual. Even when a storm is looming I rarely see more than two, so I have to assume the specter of “Pandora” this weekend has set off more than the usual alarms.

Speaking of Pandora, I am still trying to wrap my head around the decision (it’s on you, Weather Channel) to bestow the name “Pandora” on any storm, never mind one that’s landing in one of the most challenging New England winters we’ve seen in a long time. Let’s just hope it does not live up to its mythological roots. This weekend’s storm is tricky to forecast, primarily because the storm’s snow/ice/rain line is hardly a sure thing – and I have lived here long enough to know that this is the type of forecast situation that can swing one way or another here in the Valley without a lot of warning. At this point it looks somewhat less fearsome than it seemed earlier in the week, but be prepared for anything.  Just a slight shift in temperature, rain amounts, or icing can change the landscape dramatically.

So with that “be prepared for anything” caveat in mind, here’s the outlook for Amherst. First, it will be quite cold tonight as winds diminish and conditions remain clear. Valleys around Southern New England may actually see morning lows of -20 F. A Winter Weather Advisory is currently in effect from 1 pm Saturday through 1 pm Sunday for mixed precipitation that has the potential of bringing some significant icing. This is where the trickiness kicks in – we have incredibly cold ground temperatures, which means that even if temps warm above freezing, any rainfall will most likely freeze on surfaces. And since many of the surfaces around here are actually snow covered… well, it is likely to get extremely icy.

The snow will start to fall around mid-afternoon on Saturday. Depending on how long the precipitation stays snow, we could be looking at a 3-5 inch snow accumulation before warmer air aloft brings a changeover to freezing rain or rain (though I would be surprised if it warmed up enough around here to convert to just rain). In fact, if the snow/ice/rain line ends up where it’s forecast now (south of I-90), we may even get mostly snow, which would be vastly preferable to any other substance falling from the sky.

The National Weather Service acknowledges this is a tough call – in fact, central portions of Southern New England could get as much as 6 hours of freezing rain, with one-tenth of an inch of ice accumulation or more. Or the rain/freezing rain could taper off. Or we could end up with all snow (at least around here). While we’ve certainly seen this kind of set up before (which would normally favor a short period of freezing rain transitioning to all rain), we’ve also never experienced this scenario with such a deep snowpack on the ground. As the NWS forecast discussion put it this afternoon, one “just cannot ignore the fact that it is a frozen tundra outside."

One of the concerns with this storm is the danger of water-loading of snow on roof-tops, particularly because snow absorbs water like a sponge, and we’ve got deep snow across the region and on many roofs. More weight on roofs that are not cleared off is not what we need now.

On Sunday, as high dewpoint air surges in with the warm-moist flow, expect dense ground fog across the deep-cold snowpack, creating very low visibilities and a soupy mess. And as if this all weren’t bad enough, the warmer air will exit by Sunday night, as bitterly cold air surges back. Standing water/slush will freeze solid on Sunday night (think block ice) and the temperatures will not rise above freezing at least until March 1 (which is as far as the 10  day forecast goes).  Despite the increasing late February sun angle, wind chills will be back to between -15 and -30 F late Monday into early Tuesday. The high temperature on Tuesday afternoon should recover into the upper teens and lower 20s – which is still 20 degrees below normal!

So that’s the somewhat bleak weekend outlook. If we’re very lucky, we’ll see all snow. May Pandora be kind.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Hoping for snow this weekend (bet you didn't expect that)

Hubble spies large mystery plume on Mars
(Photo and full story available widely, including here)
In reflecting on the precipitation possibilities for Saturday/Sunday (see yesterday's post), it's not just what will be coming down (rain/ice/snow) that's the problem - it's also how that precipitation may interact with what's already on the ground, trees, roof-tops, etc. A prolonged period of freezing rain or ice (which is looking increasingly possible for us) would permeate or encapsulate the snowpack, making it even heavier than it is now. That could mean widespread power outages, more roof cave-ins, and general grinding-to-a-halt everywhere. (Think "Snowtober 2011" in a much colder, snow-laden February.) Here's hoping it stays all-snow wherever you are - it would seem to be the least worst scenario right now. Clearing your roof as needed and getting stand-by supplies for a power outage would be a smart way to prepare over the next few days, just in case.

In other possibly weather-related news, giant plumes of gas are erupting from Mars and nobody knows why. I don't know if that's ominous or not, but it does distract from more earthly concerns.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Another weekend snowstorm (aka what else is new?)

Snow on State Street, North Amherst MA
2/15/2015 (as well as every other Sunday so far this month)
Photo by S. Vardatira
For those of you who were enjoying the snow free skies and relatively warm temperatures today (yes, our 9 F right now looks good compared to -9), I hate to be the bearer of bad news. Sub-zero temperatures surge back with a vengeance on Thursday/Friday, and it looks like we might be in for another long-duration storm by Saturday night.

On Thursday night, minimum temps will fall below zero again, and gusting winds will result in wind chills in the -15 to -25 F range through Friday morning. As for the weekend storm, there is currently “high confidence” that an extended period of wintery precipitation is likely across most of Southern New England from Saturday night through Sunday and possibly continuing into Sunday night. That part of it is pretty clear – less clear is exactly what will be falling and where. It all hinges on the storm track (doesn’t it always?).  Right now, computer models are in general agreement that things will warm up enough that the coast will get mixed precipitation, likely turning to all rain along the southeast coast. The models diverge, however, on just how far north that rain/ice/snow line will set up. Most models have interior Western Massachusetts in the all-snow range, but at least one is forecasting a changeover to ice/rain all the way into the interior (though that model seems somewhat out there at this moment). So basically, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Something’s coming. Could be significant snowfall, could be ice, and could be a mix. Given the temps we’ve been experiencing, if it is rain, it’s going to be the freezing variety.

More to follow over the next few days, as we get closer to the next main event. Is this next storm system #6? #7? #8? Honestly, I’ve completely lost count.

Laissez es bon temps rouler (but don't forget to wear a coat)

I just opened an email reminder, sent out last night by a New Orleans organization I work with remotely:
"Due to Mardi Gras, there will be no update tomorrow - laissez es bon temps rouler!"

And right at that moment, I found myself yearning to trade all these mountains of snow for a party mask, beads, cajun jambalaya, and maybe even just one layer of light clothing. But then I checked out the New Orleans weather forecast for today - rain and a high/low of 51/36 (wind chill right now is 25!). Not exactly a gorgeous day there either. Apparently I can't even daydream myself into a warm and sunny world.

New Orleans, 2/17/2015
Photo from Reuters, printed in an NBC News posting,
New Orleans Shivers in One of Coldest Mardi Gras Ever

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The wonder of living in New England

Sun through trees, Amherst MA
Photo by S. Vardatira, 2/2015
First - what? - is that sun I see?! (Don't get too excited, though, as now the cold rushes in.)

Second, just had to share this excerpt from this morning's official National Weather Service Area Forecast Discussion. In the midst of a highly technical overview on how the weather pattern we are now in - repeated snow systems mixed with unusually cold temps - is going to be continuing this coming week, the writer enthuses (in all caps, because that's how the discussions are always written): "...WE WILL SEE ADDITIONAL WEATHER SYSTEMS FOLLOWED BY SHOTS OF COLD ARCTIC AIR. IT APPEARS WE WILL NOT SEE A BREAK IN A PATTERN OVER THE NEXT WEEK. THE MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF SNOW WILL REMAIN TO REMIND US JUST HOW AWFUL WINTER HAS BEEN AND HOW WONDERFUL IT CAN BE LIVING IN NEW ENGLAND. HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN!"

Really, you gotta love living in New England!

Champlain on Ice - and tonight's brutal cold

Champlain on Ice (aka Frozen Lake Champlain)
Photo by Melanie Goodman
Burlington, VT - 2/2015
Yes, it's still snowing, and even more, blowing out there this morning, but around here the main weather story for tonight into Monday morning will be the bitter cold and dangerously low wind chills. Air temperatures will be 25-30 degrees below normal, with wind chills of -20 to -30 F across much of the area, and as low as -30 to -40 F at higher elevations of Western MA. This is dangerous cold, with frostbite to exposed flesh occurring very quickly.

By the way, thanks to Head in the Clouds Amherst friend, Melanie Goodman, for sending us this photo - I've dubbed it "Champlain on Ice," (although it really should be "Ice on Champlain" - or simply "Frozen Lake Champlain") - taken last week in Burlington, Vermont. We do love getting photos/videos, so please keep them coming. Check out our "Through the Lens" page for more seasonal photos and videos from our readers and regular contributors.

In the meantime, I'm on the lookout right now for a frosty video of this morning's blowing snow in Amherst, particularly as I really, really don't want to go outside and risk freezing my hands off to get the video myself!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Weekend weather, icicles and flamingo, and when the pass closes

Flamingo Under Icicles, North Amherst MA
Photo by S. Vardatira, 2/12/2015
For whatever gut-feeling reason, I've been holding off on passing along weekend storm forecasts for our region until the picture became clearer.  Because the impact of this storm varies significantly depending on where you are, this is one of those situations when it's important to keep in mind who is forecasting and for what areas. All this to say that it’s now clear that the weekend storm will have the greatest impact on coastal areas – here in Amherst, we are going to get VERY cold over the next day, and we will get (relative to northeast coastal areas from Boston and north) a modest amount of snow overnight Saturday into Sunday, probably about 3-6 inches.  Nothing to lose your mind about, even with all the snow already on the ground. So here’s what to expect over the coming weekend and slightly beyond:
  • Arctic air and dangerous wind chills overnight on Friday to Saturday, between -15 to -20 F. This is a good night for staying indoors by the fireplace and/or tending the wood stove.
  • Possible wind gusts of 45-50 mph late Saturday through Sunday.
  • 3-6" (maybe 8"?) of snow overnight from Saturday through Sunday.
  • Some of the coldest air of the season in the wake of the weekend storm. We are likely to see wind chill values of -15, with -25 F in higher terrain. Low temperatures (not wind chill) will be well below zero for most locations with highs struggling to get into the teens. Expect more wind chill headlines.
  • Possibility of another snow event mid-week, though it’s too early to tell how that will shake out for Western MA.
That’s not nothing, but the hysteria you are hearing applies mostly to the coastal areas of Massachusetts, Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Northeastern Connecticut, where they will be getting blizzard conditions, coastal flooding near the shore, and high winds (even possibly near-hurricane-force winds) late Saturday afternoon through Sunday, along with anywhere from 8-18 inches of snow over the weekend. And they really don’t need any more snow added to the snowpack already on the ground. Again, for the coastal areas, we are seeing a surface low - situated roughly 50-100 miles northeast of Provincetown MA around midday Sunday – with a central pressure that is typically observed with Category 2 hurricanes! This signifies the possibility of extremely dangerous winds which can cause structural damage and widespread power outages. Hurricane-force winds are not out of the question and certainly possible across eastern and southeastern coastal New England, especially Cape Ann/Cape Cod, around Sunday midday. But remember, that is NOT here in Amherst.

I would advise anyone in Western Massachusetts to put off traveling to Boston until spring sets in – all (probably exaggerated) reports from the area suggest that Boston neighborhoods are awash in walls of snow, the streets are impassable, the T has mostly come to a halt, and the entire city will soon be completely cut off from civilization. It’s akin to the “pass closing” in that (arguably awful) movie musical from my childhood, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. What I remember most clearly is the moment the lovingly kidnapped women all screamed, in unison, creating an avalanche of snow that cut off – for the entire winter! - the townspeople from the mountain cabin the young women were being whisked away to. Though the whole premise of the musical (a family of dancing and singing, rough-hewn parentless brothers kidnapping dancing, singing, and romantically silly women to be their eventual brides) is truly horrifying to my adult sensibilities now, as a child it was that moment of “closing the pass” that made the biggest impression – I wanted that “closing the pass” experience, minus the dancing men and women. I was, truth be told, weather-obsessed from a young age. In this part of the world it is almost never the case that anyone is truly cut off from anywhere for an entire winter, or even a few days, for that matter. And as appealing as it may sound  in some sort of hypothetical, Hollywood musical way, the one recent time we came close to that around here, during the October 2011 Halloween storm, it turned out to be a lot less fun than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers made it out to be.

Earlier this week I fleetingly had – and then suppressed - the urge to write a comedic bit on how folks in Boston and the Cape should probably evacuate ahead of this storm. I thought better of doing that because, in truth, it sounds incredibly challenging and very likely dangerous if you have to go anywhere, if the power goes out, and if the ocean comes to your front door.  

Here’s hoping that if you ever find yourself in a weather-event where the metaphorical “pass” closes you off from civilization, you are trapped in a solid, heated, weather-proof house with a highly entertaining (and ultimately polite) group of dancing and singing companions. 

And may you have your own room to escape to when the singing gets to be too much. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The seasonal assault on mailboxes

Broken mailbox covered by snow, February 10, 2015
Photos by S. Vardatira
Endangered species (newspapers and mailboxes)
February 2011
Does your mailbox take a beating every winter? If you live on a rural mail delivery route in New England, you know exactly what I mean.

This year, and I honestly have no clue how this happened, the door of our mailbox got ripped off (I presume by a plow) while the mailbox itself stayed firmly planted. Usually the whole contraption ends up on the ground. Two years ago, with the box crushed on its side on the ground, the mail carrier still managed to put the mail in the box. But at least it had a door - this year, with no door and blowing snow, our mail is probably miles away. During each of my frequent trips to the post office this week, I've overheard one or more customers trying to figure out how to deal with their own mailbox woes. I swear, we could start a support group.

At the very least, a coffee table book of broken mailbox
photos!
Mailbox buried in snow, January 2010

Mailbox felled by early summer microburst, June 2010

Digging out mailbox, February 2011

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Another Fizzle in the Valley?

Revised NWS Snowfall Projections as of 2/8 at 10:00 pm
(Amherst is in the 8-10 inch "additional snow" zone)
Snow has been falling so lightly that I had to go outside and hold out my hand to figure out what was happening. Slowly accumulating, very small, granular flakes of snow. So it is snowing on top of the 3" we've gotten since yesterday, but at this point anyway, it's nowhere near a 1-2"/hour snowfall rate.

Just checked the official NWS (National Weather Service) discussion for our region, and, not surprisingly, they have downgraded their total snowfall projections for the CT River Valley to about 8-10" additional snow through tomorrow night (on top of the 3" we've already gotten). And I'm guessing here in the Pioneer Valley, where "snow storms come to die" (nod to Dave Hayes The Weather Nut for that phrase) we may not even get that much. 

If you are wondering why we often seem to get less than predicted, it's because of a phenomenon known as "shadowing." Basically, the northeast flow brings higher amounts of snowfall - or upslope enhancement - along the east slopes of the Berkshires and Worcester Hills, while between these areas the amounts are less. This is particularly true in the lower Connecticut River Valley, where we have a tendancy to experience shadowing. Folks who live in ski country know this phenomenon well, as snow "summits" and snow "shadows" can be found within a few miles of each other. For example, Bennington VT has about 55 inches of snow per year, while Somerset, with over 120 inches, is located only about 15 miles away, but at a much higher elevation.

All this to say that if you were starting to imagine 20" of snow by tomorrow afternoon, it's probably best to adjust your expectations. You'll have to go west to the Berkshires or east to the Worcester Hills, Boston, and coastal areas to their north for more snow, but even there projections have been tempered slightly. Disappointing to some degree (I do love a good snowstorm), but we have plenty of snow on the ground regardless - and 6-10 inches is plowable and more than enough to shovel. In fact, this would seem a very respectable amount of snow if we hadn't been hearing 1-2 foot amounts and higher for several days now.

Looking ahead, the Thursday/Friday storm looks like it may also be a primarily coastal event, but we still have insanely cold, record-breaking low temps on tap for next weekend. So there's that to look forward to, of course! 

Driving has been teacherous all day (reports of many accidents on 91 this evening), so go slow tomorrow and stay off the roads if you can. School is closed for the day (again), so good luck to all the parents out there trying to figure out what to do with yet another snow day!

Anyone in Amherst seeing freezing drizzle out there?

Ice on car, Amherst MA
(Not today! This was taken last month, 1/4/2015) 
Just got a couple of official NWS notifications warning of FREEZING DRIZZLE and/or freezing rain in Amherst. Nothing is coming down where I am at the moment, but anyone seeing freezing drizzle/rain where you are? The temperature hangs at 24 F right now, so if it's raining at all it is absolutely going to freeze on contact. This storm was expected to bring ice accumulations south of the CT border, so if we've got icing here, this is a very unwelcome development.

Next week's record-setting cold snap


I could not believe my eyes when I saw this temperature forecast map (GFS computer model) for next Sunday, 2/15. You may actually be wishing for snow after you see these temperatures (and no, this is air temperature, not wind chill). If we really get temperatures like these, we will be setting all-time records across New England, and on south for that matter. I feel like breaking out the hand warmers just looking at this, and I don't even want to think about the heating bill.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

WINTER STORM UPDATE (and is another on the horizon?!)

Puffer's Pond in Snow, Amherst MA
Photo by S. Vardatira
Latest computer model projections point to "high confidence" in our getting between 3-6" tonight through tomorrow afternoon around here (more like 3" around Amherst, 6" in the higher elevations). 

And then we will get heavier "signficant" snowfall from later Sunday night through Monday night (2/8-2/9). I haven't been able to come by a solid projection for the Sunday night to Monday night amount, but when all's said and done we're still talking 8"-16" total. There are some murmurings that the total could be even higher in some locations, but no one is going out on that limb just yet. 

Looking ahead (and please don't shoot the messenger here), it is starting to look like we could have another round of snow by Thursday/Friday of the coming week - still a ways off, however, and much can change. Just in case you don't believe me, here's an exact quote from the most recent National Weather Forecast discussion for our region: 
ANOTHER SIGNIFICANT SNOWFALL IS HEADING TOWARDS SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND. THIS WILL BE STORM NUMBER 5 WITHIN THIS ACTIVE PATTERN THAT DOESN`T LOOK TO END. WHAT A COME BACK FOR WINTER!
Trust me - although all caps are the standard format for these weather discussions (no, no one is screaming about the weather), exclamation marks are actually used very sparingly. 

Stay calm, keep breathing!