How unusual was last week’s cold snap?

Through Friday, Madison experienced 10 straight days with temperatures at or below 32 degrees, or freezing.

And though that streak was interrupted (delightfully) over the weekend, it appears we will experience a return to sub-freezing temperatures by Tuesday.

If anyone needed more evidence of the unusual depth and duration of this early season cold snap, consider this: The most recent time Madison endured a longer streak of consecutive freezing-or-below days in November was in 1880 — 134 years ago.

In fact, this November’s 10-day period of freezing-or-below temperatures in Madison ties it with seven other Novembers, all of which are second only to November 1880, during which there were 15 such days.

Although we are not likely to reach that record, we are very likely to end up alone in second place in this category by the time this November is over.

In addition to the length of this cold period, we have also experienced nine straight days of snowfall through Nov. 19.

Although we have only experienced a trace of snow on five of those nine days (a trace is less than 0.1 inch), such a consecutive snowfall streak in November is quite unusual – much more characteristic of mid-winter.

Over the previous five Novembers, no streak of longer than two consecutive snowfall days has occurred. In those same five winters, streaks of 10 days occurred only three times; in December 2009 (10 days), February 2010 (10 days), and January/February 2013 (11 days). By nearly any measure, this has been a remarkable early season cold snap.

Category: Meteorology, Seasons

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What kind of winter are we expecting?

Seasonal climate forecasts rely heavily on established relationships between climate and key climate forcing mechanisms, such as El Niño.

On seasonal time scales, the influence on the atmosphere of ocean temperature anomalies such as El Niño or La Niña is probably the single most crucial forecast component. This is especially true for forecasts of Wisconsin winters.

It appeared that an El Niño was developing last spring, but that has dissipated and is of little help in this year’s winter forecast. Seasonal forecasts also take account of known atmospheric oscillations.

Monthly and seasonal climate forecasts look very different than weather forecast maps.

There are no low- and high-pressure systems, no fronts and no specific numbers for high and low temperatures.

These seasonal forecasts are limited to predicting changes versus normal conditions instead of giving precise numbers like a weather forecast.

Seasonal forecast maps show chances of above- or below-normal temperature and precipitation.

Three classes of conditions are forecast on seasonal time scales: A, for above normal; B, for below normal; and EC, for equal chances of either above or below normal.

In the case of equal chances, the percentages are roughly 33 percent apiece for above normal, below normal, and normal conditions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seasonal forecast has equal chances of our winter being colder, milder or normal.

The northern-most regions of Wisconsin have a chance of having below normal temperatures.

The seasonal forecast for precipitation is below normal for most of the state.

Our winter last year was exceptionally cold. While November has gotten off to a cold start leading into winter, it is unlikely we will have another extreme like last year.

Category: Climate, Meteorology, Seasons

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What location has the lowest average wind speed in the United States?

This question requires consideration of the number of factors that conspire to produce the wind.

Large-scale weather systems are perhaps the best-known features that impact the winds at a location.

Unsettled weather is nearly always associated with low sea-level pressure and relatively strong gradients of pressure (differences from one location to another in a region) that drive the winds associated with major storms.

Regions of high sea-level pressure often characterize fair weather and such weather systems are associated with small gradients in pressure and, consequently, light winds.

Aside from the influence of highs and lows, which can visit any location, proximity to a coast (whether it be the ocean or one of the Great Lakes) can also be a major influence on the windiness.

The local topography also exerts a major influence on average wind speeds with sheltered valleys being less windy than the open plains, for instance.

Thus, it is not surprising that inland locations, away from the coasts of large lakes and near or within valleys are among the least windy.

Among the largest 50 cities in the U.S., Phoenix has the lowest average annual wind speed at 6.2 mph.

For comparison, Milwaukee has an average breeze of 11.5 mph.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, appears to be the least windy city in the U.S. with an average annual wind speed of 4.1 mph.

Interestingly, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Valdez, Alaska, all have average annual wind speeds around 4 mph even though it can occasionally be very windy in those cities.

Light winds in interior Alaska are a consequence of the terrain.

Category: Meteorology

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Did we have an Indian summer this year?

We are not sure of the origin of this expression, but it has been used for over 200 years in reference to a weather phenomenon that occurs in the fall, usually in October for our state. It occurs when the autumn weather is characterized as sunny and warm.

Indian summer can occur only after the first frost but before the first snowfall. It occurs after the leaves have turned color and includes dry weather conditions with maximum temperatures greater than 65 degrees and minimum temperatures greater than 33 degrees.

We usually get these conditions when a high pressure system is over the eastern United States. This anticyclone pushes dry southwest winds into our area, resulting in what many consider pleasant weather conditions.

Given the above definition, Indian summer usually occurs in the first three weeks of October, and Wisconsin has, on average, eight days of Indian summer each fall. These days don’t have to be consecutive. We can have a year without an Indian summer as well as a year with more than one Indian summer.

This year, our October mean temperature was close to the average temperature for most of the state, and precipitation in southern Wisconsin was slightly above. We also have had a minimum temperature below freezing, and no snow fall. So, we are in a time when Indian summer can occur if the temperature is warm enough, like it was on Oct. 27 when the high temperature hit 75 degrees and the minimum was in the low 50s. This ties for the ninth-latest 75-degree or warmer day in a calendar year. On average, the last 75-degree day occurs on Oct. 9.

Category: Climate, Seasons

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Is human activity to blame for climate change?

A recent debate between candidates for Congress in the Wisconsin’s 1st District — U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and Democratic challenger Rob Zerban — included questions about the role of human beings in producing discernible changes in the climate over the last 150 years.

Unfortunately, this question, which is a matter of evidence, analysis and conclusion as all scientific questions are, has become a source of partisan political divide.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body created by the United Nations to inform the UN regarding “scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change,” has issued five reports on this question since 1990.

These reports are a synthesis of many hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the issue.

With each successive report — they have been issued in 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2014 — the IPCC has increased the certainty of its conclusions.

The language in these reports has changed from “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate” (1995) to “most of the observed warming is likely (a greater than 66 percent chance) due to human activities” (2001) to warming “over the last 50 years is very likely (a greater than 90 percent chance) due to human activities” to “It is extremely likely (a 95-100 percent chance) that human influence was the dominant cause of global warming between 1951-2010.”

This makes two things quite clear.

First, that scientists are a skeptical bunch and will move toward increased certainty only as evidence accumulates in favor of that conclusion.

Second, that human-induced global warming is a reality with which we must reckon.

During the debate, when asked if humans have a role in global warming, Ryan answered, “I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think science does either.”

He may well be correct in his first response, but he is certainly wrong in his second.

Category: Climate

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