Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013: California’s Driest Calendar Year, Ice and Cold in Vermont

2013 is winding down, and with 2014 comes an unwanted record; the driest overall calendar year ever recorded in California.

Two caveats come with this. One is that calendar year precipitation amounts can be relatively meaningless, because the rainy season occurs in winter. The second is that this record only applies to actual recorded precipitation. Tree rings and other data indicate the state has seen much worse droughts in the past.

None of those droughts happened with a population of 38 million people in the state, of course. Even the drought of 76-77 was one faced by a significantly less populous state. So far there are not extreme water shortages, but there is little sign of change going at least half way into January, typically one of the wettest months of the year. If February and March aren’t extremely wet, especially in the Sierras where the snowpack feeds the water needs of much of the state, next summer will mean extreme water shortages. If you live in California, now would be a good time to get rid of your lawn or tropical landscaping, plant native plants and/or succulents, and set up a rooftop rainwater collection system to collect what does fall for the rest of the rainy season. If you live anywhere in the US, and have the space and time, it would be a good idea to plant a big garden this year. Despite how it seems in some areas, California isn’t just lawns. It also produces a huge chunk of the nation’s food.

Vermont has also been experiencing something that hasn’t happened in a while… in this case, a cold winter. This winter so far has been characterized by blasts of extremely cold air punctuated by occasional warmer storms. Some of these storms have brought rain or even ice storms.The result has been very cold temperatures and not a lot of lasting snow to play in. The weekend before Christmas brought a very odd weather pattern where a heavy rainstorm moved into the area, but northerly winds brought very cold air into the Champlain Valley. Burlington is usually one of the warmest parts of the state, but in this case it stayed in the 20s while temperatures approached or passed 50 in other areas with heavy rain. The result was a heavy ice storm.

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A chunk of salt on icy pavement left this interesting pattern.

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It’s hard to say what the future holds, but at least in the short term it looks like more of the same. Not much hope of rain any time soon in California. In Vermont, even colder temperatures are in store for the next few days, with a few shots at a couple of inches of snow. Early next week another larger storm may impact the area, and one computer model indicates more rain or ice while another suggests mostly snow. We’ll see! I hope for the latter. We tried going for a short cross country ski on the icy snow today, and it wasn’t very fun.

Wild Vermont Winter Continues: Ice Storm Next

The early start to winter has held, and it has been an eventful one in the world of weather and water. A wave of subzero temperatures brought these neat ice formations where a small seep comes to the surface and melts the snow:

Next was a foot of snow, mostly from one storm. We were able to ski out the door, and the snow has been beautiful. Snow can make almost anything pretty, even trash cans.

Of course the snowflakes are each things of beauty as well..

Then there was a dead calm, clear, dry night under the deep snowpack. The temperature plunged, especially in our little cold pocket where our home is. We were amazed to see this (the forecast had been only -8)

The cold hasn’t been good for icicle formation, as there has been little melt. Still, I was able to color a few. This one came out pretty dim.

Not surprisingly, most open water is iced up. The tiny open spot left on this part of the Winooski above the dam is full of pancake ice.

And… a very cold day brought what seemed like at least a minor miracle. A clear sky with nothing but milky haze, and with beautiful glittering snowflakes falling. Apparently when it gets very cold it can snow without clouds. It was incredible, like walking through a cloud of glitter.

Apparently this only happens when it is very cold, which it was!

It’s been very early for such cold conditions, and there’s no way we could get away without at least some ‘attempt’ by the warm air to push north. That is forecast for this weekend. What will happen in any given location is incredibly hard to say, because just a couple of degrees make all the difference. There will be a very strong temperature gradient from north to south, but it’s hard to say exactly where. Right now it appears likely that warm air will indeed force north, and that the heavy cold air entrenched in the area will not readily leave northern Vermont and New York. A storm will ride the warm air north. If the warm air makes it in up high, but can’t get into the valleys, we could experience a heavy ice storm. Sleet is another possibility. The warm air may ‘win’ temporarily which will just result in a cold, heavy rain. It probably won’t melt the snow completely, but it will turn it to an icy mess. Of course, if the warm air doesn’t quite make it this far north, even above the cold air, we’ll get snow. Possibly lots of it.

So… travel conditions could be very bad, especially Saturday night and Sunday. There is still a lot of uncertainty. If you live in northern Vermont or New York, expect to spend some time indoors. If you live in southern New England you may be seeing record warmth. Be safe, prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

Early Winter Hits USA Hard

It was a cold walk to work today. I was able to wait until the temperature got into the double digits, but that isn’t saying much. It was one of those days when the sun was shining incredibly bright, turning the snow on the ground into glistening glitter. On first glance it looks warm… one would expect the jingle and smash of falling ice and rush of snowmelt that comes with a thaw. But if you look closer, you can tell. There is a strange edge to the light that you can see even before you step outside. Something about how the trees look against the sky, about the way the branches move. The branches don’t flex the way they do when it’s warm. The steam and smoke from chimneys billows upwards vigorously, or settles into valley-bottom inversions. There is an indescribable, razor-thin crispness to the world that, oddly, I’ve only also observed during the hottest, driest days in the desert.

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Bundling up always makes me think of astronauts and space suits… we really can’t survive without our technology in this environment, though in this case much of it is very old technology… fire and clothing.

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A walk through woods, fields, even suburban backyards with an inch of new snow on the ground reveals so many stories. I had no idea just how often the deer cross our field, or how they use the same path most of the time… the way a neighbor’s cat wanders through the rain garden on most mornings… the number of turkeys using nearby woods.

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Here in Vermont it has been unusually cold through November and much of December so far. The cold isn’t as extreme (relative to average, at least) as much of the country though. There has been sloppy slow in the Mid-Atlantic, a nasty ice storm in Texas, brutal blasts of arctic air in the Midwest and Plains, and unusual frost and low snow levels in lower elevations of California. Unfortunately, this cold pattern often coincides with dry weather in California, and much of the state has been incredibly dry for the last year (which now spans parts of two rainy seasons) and beyond. Many parts of the state may experience the driest calendar year on record. True, there are stories of two years in the late 1800s where the rains failed completely in parts of the state, including a terrifying account I once saw of a year where Santa Barbara went through an entire winter without a single drop of rain. The drought could be worse… but it isn’t good.

In any event, it looks like most of the ‘lower 48’ may be heading for the harshest winter we’ve seen in a while. There’s no guarantee the cold will last all winter – for instance, the coldest December on record in Vermont – December 1989 – was followed by the second warmest January on record for the state, and a warm February as well. Then again, the winter of 1978-1979 started cold and kept getting colder, with a downright frigid February. Only time will tell.

Not surprisingly, the cold snap has worked many climate change ‘denialists’ into a froth. One cold winter in one country means that the climate isn’t warming, right? Never mind that the arctic coast of Alaska was experiencing a freak thaw at the same time. Don’t get me wrong – bad science is not limited to those who don’t ‘believe’ in climate change. There are plenty of counter-examples of people blaming individual weather events on ‘climate change’ as well. But… there is some evidence that lack of Arctic sea ice can move cold south into the US. I made a blog post about this phenomena almost exactly 3 years ago during the start of a winter that turned out to be extremely snowy and relatively cold. I do think too much emphasis on ‘global warming’ as it pertains to 2 degrees of warming and melting sea ice. I personally believe the effects of human-caused climate change, at least for the net few decades, are and will continue to be felt much more strongly in changes in storm severity and track than changes in temperature. But we will find out I guess. And in the mean time… make sure to bundle up!

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Cold, Wet Storm Confirms Value of my Drainage System

It’s nice to see the value of your work, but that can be tempered a bit when it involves going out in 33 degree rain on a cold morning.

The Nor’Easter I mentioned in last week’s post did hit Vermont. It brought a few surprises – instead of a bunch of warm rain, much of the precipitation fell as sleet, and at the storm’s end we were left with a few inches of snow. However, during the day last Wednesday we did get some rain, and that led to some runoff. I’d just dismantled my gutter system, since it seemed that it might get damaged by ice, and it didn’t seem like one storm would be enough to get water in the basement. Sure enough, though, when I went down to the basement that morning to start the fire, there was a little stream of water running across the concrete floor. Oops! Apparently the gutters had been making more of a difference than I thought. Out I went into the rain and sleet, and I actually got the gutters in a better setup than the previous one, albeit a bit messy looking. The runoff into the basement promptly stopped. The water started flowing into the rain garden instead, but the soil was at least partially frozen, so it didn’t soak right in. Instead it made two interesting looking ‘vernal pools’.
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The water bar on our driveway was also working well. I’m not sure if it will survive being repeatedly hit by a plow this winter, though, so it will probably need work in the spring.
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Then, over the long thanksgiving weekend, it got cold. Really cold.
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The snow stuck around, so we were able to have a little sledding party on Saturday. It definitely felt and looked like midwinter. Most areas still have a couple of inches of wet snow.
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We’ve also had some light additional snow and freezing fog that coated every branch and pine needle.
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For the rest of the week, it will be a bit warmer, with some possible rain and wet snow, so the gutters will probably be useful again. After that… well, there could be a snowstorm on Monday, but that too could bring rain or a wintry mix, or miss altogether. It’s too far away to say much for sure. Very cold air is plunging into the western part of the US, and California may get some unusually cold weather in the next few days. Eventally that will probably find its way east to us too.