Why did the end of July have nice weather?

A bicyclist enjoys relatively cool weather while viewing the backdrop of the La Crosse River Marsh and the bluffs beyond while riding along Lang Drive on July 26. The cooler temperatures across Wisconsin and much of the Midwest in the last week of July resulted from a Canadian high-pressure system that settled over the central U.S. (Photo credit: Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune)

During the last week of July — the 25th through 31st — the temperatures across Wisconsin were 1 to 4 degrees below normal. In fact, much of the Midwest was cooler than normal.

The cooler temperatures resulted from a Canadian high-pressure system that settled over the central U.S. during that final week of July.

The Canadian high-pressure is a semi-permanent atmospheric high-pressure system that is associated with generally low temperatures over northern Canada. The Canadian Rockies keep the relatively warm air over the Pacific Ocean from warming Central Canada and the air masses that form there.

In winter the Canadian high consists of cold dense air, and extends only about 2 miles above the surface. When the system moves southeastward in winter, it can bring frigid air to the Midwest. In summer, it provides refreshing cool dry air to our region.

High-pressure systems have sinking air above that inhibits rain clouds from developing. Large areas of southern Wisconsin had less than half the normal amount of rainfall for this time of year. The sinking motions also lower the humidity. High pressures are accompanied by light winds.

The Canadian high-pressure system is generally associated with nice weather in summer. Other high pressure systems, particularly those that form over the Gulf of Mexico and move northward, can be accompanied by high humidity and pose a threat if the heat index is high.

Category: Climate, Seasons

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How much summer is left?

GOES-16 image from 27 July 2018 that shows the terminator and the tilt of the Earth (1 month after the summer solstice).

The welcome respite we just enjoyed from the prolonged heat and humidity of late June and July may have inspired fond thoughts of autumn to many in southern Wisconsin.

Of course, there is still a lot of summer left, though we have just passed the climatologically warmest day of the year in Madison – July 14/15. This closely coincides with the date on which air with a temperature of 23 degrees at about 1 km above the surface shrinks to its annual minimum extent.

In some years, such cold air completely disappears over the entire Northern Hemisphere. In the past five years, for instance, the cold air has completely disappeared for a short period of time in 2013 (July 16), 2015 (July 17-19) and 2016 (July 23) while tiny puddles of such cold air hung on during both 2014 and 2017.

It appears that this year (thus far) the 23-degree air will hold on as it did last year, barely, with its smallest areal extent having occurred unusually early (June 30).

In recent research concerning global warming, we have tracked the areal extent of such air for the last 70 winters (December, January, February), finding that the wintertime coldpool has systematically shrunk since at least 1948. By late January, the coldest point in the Northern Hemisphere winter, its areal extent grows to about 25 million square miles.

So, as you rejoice at our recent relief from the summer’s heat and humidity, be aware that the enormous reservoir of cold air that will occupy the Northern Hemisphere this winter is just beginning to grow and nothing can stop it from spreading.

Category: Climate, Meteorology, Seasons

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How fast do raindrops fall?

The typical speed of a falling raindrop depends on the size of the drop. A large raindrop, about the size of a house fly, has terminal fall speeds of about 20 mph. (Photo Credit: John Hart, State Journal Archives)

Gravity pulls everything downward. As an object falls, it experiences a frictional drag that counters the downward force of gravity.

When the gravity and frictional drag are balanced, we have an equilibrium fall speed that is known as the terminal velocity of the object. The terminal velocity depends on the size, shape and mass of the raindrop and the density of the air. Thus, it is worth talking a bit about the shape and size of raindrops.

While cartoonists typically draw raindrops in a teardrop or pear shape, raindrops are not shaped in those forms. They are drawn as teardrops to give the image of falling through the atmosphere, which they do.

As the raindrops fall they are flattened and shaped like a hamburger bun by the drag forces of the air they are falling through. Raindrops are at least 0.5 millimeters (or 0.02 inches) in diameter.

You will not find a raindrop any bigger than about one-quarter of an inch in diameter; larger than that, the drop will break apart into smaller drops because of air resistance. Precipitation drops smaller than 0.02 inches in diameter are collectively called drizzle, which is often associated with stratus clouds.

The terminal velocity of cloud droplets, which are typically about 10 microns in radius or 0.0004 inches, is about 1 centimeter per second, or about 0.02 miles per hour. Tiny cloud droplets can stay in the atmosphere because there is upward moving air that overcomes the force of gravity and keeps them suspended in the cloud. Only a very gentle upward movement of air is required to keep them afloat.

Raindrops are larger. A large raindrop, about one-quarter of an inch across or about the size of a house fly, has terminal fall speeds of about 10 meters per second or about 20 mph. That kind of speed can cause compaction and erosion of the soil by the force of impact.

Raindrops are of different sizes, and the smaller raindrops are traveling about 2 mph.

Category: Meteorology

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Does lightning add nitrogen to the soil?

Lightning mapped by the GOES-16 satellite in April 2017. Each lightning bolt carries electrical energy powerful enough to break atmospheric nitrogen bonds.

Yes, lightning adds nitrogen to soil, but not directly.

The atmosphere’s composition is 78 percent nitrogen, but the nitrogen in the air is not available to our bodies. The two atoms in the airborne nitrogen molecule are held together very tightly. For our bodies to process that nitrogen, the two atoms must separated.

Our bodies need proteins that contain nitrogen. The way our bodies normally get nitrogen is by eating plants or animals that eat plants.

Plants absorb nitrates in the soil and when we eat plants, we get the nitrogen in a form that our bodies can use. Plants also cannot make use of the nitrogen in the atmosphere so fertilizer is one way to add nitrogen to the soil.

Lightning is another natural way. Nitrogen in the atmosphere can be transformed into a plant-usable form, a process called nitrogen fixation, by lightning.

Each bolt of lightning carries electrical energy that is powerful enough to break the strong bonds of the nitrogen molecule in the atmosphere. Once split, the nitrogen atoms quickly bond to oxygen in the atmosphere, forming nitrogen dioxide.

Along with the lightning in the cloud are cloud droplets and raindrops. Nitrogen dioxide dissolves in water, creating nitric acid, which forms nitrates. The nitrates fall to the ground in raindrops and seep into the soil in a form that can be absorbed by plants.

Lightning does add nitrogen to the soil, as nitrates dissolve in precipitation. This helps plants, but microorganisms in the soil do the vast majority of nitrogen fixation.

Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, the ‘Weather Guys’, are professors in the UW-Madison department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month.
Category: Meteorology

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Is warmer air ‘heavier’?

Explore physics involved in hitting a baseball
via the CIMSS Baseball WebApp at

We are now in the heart of the baseball season and even the casual fans begin to tune in a bit more regularly to the summer game. One of the long-standing pieces of baseball wisdom suggests that the heat and humidity of oppressive summer heat waves render the air “heavy” and lead to a decrease in offensive power, particularly in home runs.

The veracity of this “wisdom” is testable.

The air we breathe is a mixture of many gases (but mostly molecular nitrogen and oxygen). Since we know the constituents and their fractional amounts, it is fairly easy to determine the molecular weight of the mixture.

The most highly variable constituent of the mixture is water vapor, so it is useful to calculate the molecular weight of so-called “dry air” — air without any water vapor in it. That weight is 29.87 grams/mole. The molecular weight of water vapor (water as a gas) is only 18.02 grams/mole.

Consequently, when any amount of water vapor is mixed into dry air, the resulting mixture is less massive than the purely dry air. On the very humid days that attract our attention in the summer, this effect is at its height and the weight of the humid mixture is often much less than that of dry air. Sir Isaac Newton was the first to demonstrate this truth.

Thus, this piece of baseball “wisdom” is utterly false — it is much more likely that any decrease in power production observed during a mid-summer heat wave is a function of the human body’s inability to perform at its peak efficiency in the heat and humidity. It is definitely not because the air is “heavier.”

Category: Meteorology, Phenomena

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