Archive for the ‘Blog Article’ Category

Are Personal Drones Dangerous Enough to be Banned?

Friday, November 21st, 2014

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus quadcopter with gimbal-stabilized HD video camera.

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus quadcopter with gimbal-stabilized HD video camera.

For months I’ve been wrestling with the urge to get a quadcopter drone for photography, and I would be interested in readers’ opinions on the subject of safety.

When people hear “drone” they often think of the large, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used to fire missiles at terrorists. But there is a new class of very small drones that are inexpensive and are usually used for aerial photography. Currently the most popular is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus.

These are legal to operate below 400 ft altitude, but not in the vicinity of airports. The National Park Service has temporarily banned them due to reports of excessive noise and disturbing wildlife (they sound like a swarm of bees when flying).

There are also a few reports of these things hitting people. Here in Alabama, someone operating one at the Alabama football stadium last weekend accidentally hit a pedestrian (who wasn’t injured).

The machines aren’t toys. You have to learn how to fly them (which is pretty easy). They typically weigh several pounds, which isn’t much…unless you smack someone in the head with it at 40 mph.

You don’t just turn them on and fly them. You have to go through a checklist of procedures, to make sure the drone isn’t going to get confused when you send it on its merry way. Sometimes the drones can experience “flyaways”, usually the result of the operator not making sure the drone had sufficient GPS signal to monitor its location and speed.

Now, it would be tempting to say we should just ban all drones, even for pleasure use.

But do we ban bicycles when their use (even for pleasure) leads to many hundreds of injuries, and even a few deaths, among pedestrians each year?

It’s only a matter of time before someone is accidentally killed by one of these things, and there might well be a knee-jerk reaction to ban them altogether.

I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. I’m curious what you think.

Is Global Warming Causing More Snowstorms? No, It Isn’t

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Lancaster, NY received 6 feet of snow in the recent storm. (AP - Gary Weipert)

Lancaster, NY received 6 feet of snow in the recent storm. (AP – Gary Weipert)

It has become axiomatic (and fashionable) that any change we see in nature is caused by global warming climate change.

Global warming was going to make snow a thing of the past. Until someone looked out the window and decided global warming causes more snow.

The epic Buffalo, NY storm this week was still in progress when that opportunistic organization Climate Central announced that more lake effect snow could be expected with global warming.


Except that the Great Lakes were unusually cold this year, after near record cold last winter. Then, an even more unusual cold blast of air that started over eastern Siberia made it’s way to the U.S. and the cooler lake waters were not enough to depress the lake effect snow machine: over 6 feet of snow has fallen south and east of downtown Buffalo this week.

So, in what universe does a cold winter, a cool summer, cold lake water, and an unusually cold fall air mass result from global warming?

Not in our universe.

The computerized climate models that provide the basis for climate change proclamations produce less snow with warming. Yes, a warmer world has more water vapor in the atmosphere to feed snowstorms, but you need atmospheric circulations driven by large-scale temperature contrasts to form low pressure systems. And since the equator-to-pole temperature contrast has decreased in recent decades, we should be seeing less storminess.

Yet, there are a few researchers (e.g. Jennifer Francis at Rutgers) who claim the reduced equator-to-pole temperature contrast is being accompanied by more storminess. But this does not make physical sense from a basic atmospheric energetics standpoint. You cannot have more storminess from a reduced temperature gradient. It’s like getting something from nothing, like a perpetual motion machine. The consensus on the idea is that it is wrong, even from pro-global warming researchers.

There has been no substantial trend in Northern Hemisphere wintertime snow cover since records began in the late 1960s, but spring snowcover has decreased, due to spring tending to arrive earlier in a slightly warmer world.

What DOES affect Northern Hemisphere weather patterns are known climate cycles: the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which can change our average winter weather for about 30 years…before changing again. In recent years, we have entered the negative phase of the PDO, which could mean winters more typical of the 1960s and 1970s for the next 20+ years. But no one really knows.

On shorter time scales, El Nino and La Nina, as well as the Arctic Oscillation, can strongly impact individual winters.

But when people immediately point to ‘global warming’ anytime something unusual happens, it is (in my opinion) just intellectual laziness — or money-driven advocacy.

It’s just weather, folks.

That Epic, Fickle, Shovel-off-to-Buffalo Snow: An All-Time U.S. Record?

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

(NEW: Is Global Warming Causing More Snowstorms?)

I have a special place in my heart for lake effect snow. Living in Sault, Michigan as a teenager is what got me interested in weather and started me down my career path.

But it’s hard to compete with what Buffalo, New York gets for lake effect snow. Over six feet of snow fell in some areas on the south side of town in the last 48 hours, most of it in a 24 hour period.

Just getting to your garage can be a problem (Steve Frost).

Just getting to your garage can be a problem (Steve Frost).

The all-time U.S. record for a 24 hour snowfall is 76 inches in Silver Lake, Colorado way back in 1921, and it is possible this was exceeded yesterday. We will have to wait and see what NOAA decides. (There’s a rumor going around Facebook that the record was beat, but I think that was just a misunderstanding of a Facebook post by NWS/Buffalo personnel.)

The reason why Buffalo gets pounded so bad is the shape of Lake Erie…long and narrow, so a cold wind blowing down its length generates a single, intense snow band. You are either in it or out of it. Driving down the road, you can be in sunshine one minute, and in white-out conditions the next. This pair of pictures taken at the same time only 5 miles apart in Buffalo during the storm illustrates the fickle nature of lake effect storms.

Lake effect snow bands - either you are in or out (Shannon Clare).

Lake effect snow bands – either you are in or out (Shannon Clare).

Imagine your boss says he needs you at work…after all, there’s almost no snow downtown at the office! Yet, your house looks like this.

Buried house in a Buffalo suburb (Jackie Parker).

Buried house in a Buffalo suburb (Jackie Parker).

You open your front door, and are greeted with this:

West Seneca, NY (Jessica Marie).

West Seneca, NY (Jessica Marie).

A second round of lake effect snow started again last night — and again with thunder! Thunder in lake effect snow is quite unusual, indicating very strong cloud updrafts from the very cold air mass sitting over the “warm” lake water.

Do I need to remind everyone it’s only mid-November?

So, when winter fall gives you too much snow, you just make the best of it:



Here’s an interesting summary of what it considers the 6 snowiest cities in the U.S.

Guess what? Buffalo (despite the early teaser) isn’t one of them.

NEW: Is Global Warming Causing More Snowstorms?

Frost Flower Growing Time Lapse

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

When I left the house for work yesterday morning, I saw what looked like tissues on the ground in the woods behind our house. They were something I’ve never witnessed before — “frost flowers”. They only form from a relatively few kinds of weeds in the fall or early winter when there is enough moisture in the soil (we just had two inches of rain) and it gets cold quickly (the temperature dipped to 21 deg. F overnight). Water “wicks up” through the stem (which appears to split) and turns to ice, which slowly grows into delicate ribbons.

It this case it looks like they formed on the “frost weed” (White Crownbeard), and there were about a dozen of them of different shapes, generally several inches across.

I set up my camera and tripod at 8:30 a.m. and collected 6.5 hours of photos which I made into this time lapse video, which is 900 times faster than real time. The ice flower can be seen to still be slowly growing, until it warmed enough for the flower to fall apart. I cut the video off before I noticed new ice starting to grow out the stem again.

Click on the full-screen icon for the best viewing…the video is high-definition.

Buffalo Area Reeling from Snowstorm

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Update 10:20 a.m. EST Wed. Nov. 19: Local NWS has stated isolated areas on the south side of Buffalo could have received as much as 70 inches of snow. It is very difficult to measure snow accumulations in these conditions. Some vehicles were stranded for many hours, and the National Guard was called in to help. Four Six area deaths have been attributed to the storm. After a brief break today, a new round of lake effect snow is expected in the same area tomorrow. Here’s time lapse of the snow squalls coming in off Lake Erie into South Buffalo on Tuesday (iPhone 6 time lapse video by Alfonzo Cutaia):

As predicted, the lee shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are being clobbered by lake effect snow right now.

Here’s a photo just posted to Facebook by someone stuck in traffic, obviously sitting under the main snow band coming off Lake Erie:

Cars stuck in a heavy snow squall on Tuesday morning, Nov. 18, 2014, presumably on the south side of Buffalo, NY.

Cars stuck in a heavy snow squall on Tuesday morning, Nov. 18, 2014, presumably on the south side of Buffalo, NY (photo: Jeremiah William).

Already, 2 to 3 feet of snow are being reported, and the storm is expected to continue throughout the day. Local totals to 5 feet or more are possible…it all depends on how long the snow bands stay anchored over one spot.

Here’s the advice just posted by NWS Buffalo on their Facebook page:

“Travel within the lake effect band is IMPOSSIBLE, if you attempt to travel through the band you WILL GET STUCK. If you live in the south towns STAY PUT! If you live in the north towns DO NOT try traveling to the south towns.

I’m sure we will be hearing similar stories from the Watertown, NY area (to the lee of Lake Ontario) as the day progresses.

Here is today’s NASA MODIS image (Terra satellite) of the region, mostly covered in lake-generated snow shower clouds, with the heavy-snow areas near Buffalo and Watertown marked with red circles (click for full-size):

Note that all of the Great Lakes are producing lake effect snow today to the east of the lakes.

A Year in the Life of CO2

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

This is pretty cool. A NASA model simulation of how CO2 (and carbon monoxide) is transported after it is emitted. They also have hi-res movies for other regions, but here’s one for the globe:

If you go to their website you can download the hi-res versions. The files are huge, but on a large monitor the detail in them is astonishing… as mesmerizing as watching a fire in the fireplace.

This kind of simulation could be done for any atmospheric tracer, not just carbon dioxide. The color range represents only 20 ppm in CO2 concentration (plus or minus 2.5% of the average concentration). Try not to get freaked out by all of this “pollution”…it is, after all, necessary for life on Earth. Some of the sources in the simulation are also vegetation over land….but the urban and industrial sources are more dramatic.

(h/t Cal Beisner)

Up to 4 ft. of Snow Expected in Upstate New York

Monday, November 17th, 2014

UPDATE: 7:30 a.m. EST Nov. 18, 2014: Lancaster NY has already received 29 inches, another location southeast of Buffalo is reporting 32 inches on the ground. Thundersnow was reported at Buffalo last night, which is pretty rare for lake effect snow systems.

The severe cold just now entering the northeast U.S. is forecast to cause intense lake effect snow bands to form over Lake Erie and Lake Ontario late tonight through tomorrow night.

Areas impacted will be at the eastern ends of those lakes, mainly over upstate New York between Watertown and Oswego to the lee of Lake Ontario, and mainly south of Buffalo at the east end of Lake Erie.

The latest hi-res model forecast shows the areas of the heaviest snow accumulations, approaching 4 feet by Wednesday (click image for full size):

Total snow accumulations forecast by Wednesday evening, Nov. 19, 2014 (graphic courtesy of

Total snow accumulations forecast by Wednesday evening, Nov. 19, 2014 (graphic courtesy of

These forecast model calculations assume a 10:1 snow:water ratio, but lake effect snow is usually fluffier, leading to deeper snow. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see totals in excess of 4 feet by Wednesday.

Early winter lake effect snowstorms tend to be the heaviest, because the Great Lakes have not had time to cool off yet, and it is the relatively warmer water evaporating into the cold air that causes lake effect snow bands to form.

What causes lake effect snow? (from

Winter Advisories in 24 States; Cold Nearly Everywhere This Week

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

The early season polar outbreak continues over most of the U.S., with snow advisories (purple), winter storm warnings (pink), or lake effect snow watches (light blue) covering portions of at least 24 states:

The geographic extent and longevity of the current cold wave is unusual, with temperatures averaging 10 to 20 deg. below normal over most of the country for the coming work week:

GFS model forecast of 5-day average temperature departures from normal through Friday, Nov. 21, 2014.

GFS model forecast of 5-day average temperature departures from normal through Friday, Nov. 21, 2014 ( graphic).

Heaviest snow amounts over the next 5 days will be to the lee of Lakes Ontario and Erie in the lake effect snow belts, where 1-2 feet of snow is possible mainly Wednesday through Friday:

GFS 5-day total snowfall forecast through Friday, Nov. 21, 2014.

GFS 5-day total snowfall forecast through Friday, Nov. 21, 2014 ( graphic).

With repeated reinforcements of cold air rotating through the U.S. out of Canada, relief from the winter-like weather is at least a week away.

Alaskan Volcano Pavlof Erupting

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

One of the most active volcanoes in the U.S., Pavlof, has been erupting in a remote section of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands over the last couple of days. MODIS satellite imagery shows the ash plume, estimated to be 35,000 ft in altitude, blowing northwest from Mt. Pavlof out over the Bering Sea.

Eruption of Alaskan Volcano Pavlof on Nov. 14-15 as seen from the NASA MODIS satellite imager.

Eruption of Alaskan Volcano Pavlof on Nov. 14-15 as seen from the NASA MODIS satellite imager.

In the second image above (from yesterday), the high-altitude ash cloud casts a shadow on the low clouds below it.

Here’s what last year’s eruption of Pavlof looked like as viewed from the International Space Station.

2013 eruption of Pavlof as seen from the International Space Station.

2013 eruption of Pavlof as seen from the International Space Station.

Pavlof is a stratovolcano, the type which can produce explosive eruptions, which in rare instances leads to temporary global cooling if enough sulfur is ejected into the stratosphere. It is not known how long Pavlof will continue to erupt, but it has been quiet for the last several hours.

Details and near-realtime monitoring can be found at the Pavlof page of the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

The Huntsville Tornado: 25 Years Later

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the tornado that tore through Huntsville, AL during rush hour, cutting the city in half, killing 21 people, injuring 463, and destroying 259 homes.

The EF-4 tornado formed just as the the storm entered the city from Redstone Arsenal and traveled right down Airport Road at 4:35 p.m. It rode up and over the hill at the east end of Airport Road, and intensified as it swept back down the hill, destroying Jones Valley Elementary School.

It then traveled through a residential area, destroying many homes. As it traveled up the mountain where I now live, debris rained down on the forest some of which is still visible today. Some of the trees in the woods behind our house permanently lean toward the northwest, a daily reminder of the event.

This photo taken after the tornado from the hill at the east end of Airport Road looking west can be compared to the same view that I photographed today, on the 25th anniversary (click for full size):

Airport Road seen exactly 25 years apart, showing the devastation from the Nov. 15, 1989 tornado and a quiet Saturday morning Nov. 15, 2014

Airport Road seen exactly 25 years apart, showing the devastation from the Nov. 15, 1989 tornado and a quiet Saturday morning Nov. 15, 2014

The twister took out businesses, apartment buildings, churches, power poles, and many cars were mangled almost beyond recognition (many more photos and storm details are provided in this story).

Photo credit: Bob Gathany,

Photo credit: Bob Gathany,

Photo credit: Bob Gathany,

Photo credit: Bob Gathany,

I worked at NASA/MSFC at the time and we were tracking the storm by a special satellite feed, since we didn’t have the many web-based resources back then. It was the especially dangerous situation of an isolated storm that looked like it might merge with an approaching squall line in advance of a strong cold front.

I went home early to watch from the vantage point of our home on the southwest edge of town, with an unobstructed view to the west.

Out of my 30+ years of storm watching, I can say it was the only time I was fearful of a storm.

The closer it got, the stronger the wind was flowing into the storm. I called my wife on the north side of town and told her to not let anyone leave the ice rink where she had taken our 2 young daughters until the storm had passed.

I left immediately, and took side streets. I don’t remember how I found out the tornado had hit, but it would be about 4 hours before we would all make it back home. Much of the city was without power. The town had been cut in half, separating the residential areas to the south where most people lived from where they worked. The two main north-south roads (Memorial Parkway and Whitesburg Drive) at either end of Airport Road were impassible. Traffic was being routed through Redstone Arsenal.

A curving brick memorial with 21 bricks missing still stands today at the busy corner of Whitesburg Drive and Airport Road. Nearly everyone in town was touched by that storm… if not directly, they knew someone who was killed or injured.

Photo credit: John Hampton

Photo credit: John Hampton