What is the weather like on Inauguration Day?

President Ronald Reagan, with first lady Nancy Reagan, gives a thumbs up to the crowd during his inaugural parade in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1981 — the warmest of all the January inaugurals with a high of 55 degrees. Reagan’s second inaugural on Jan. 20, 1985 was the coldest, with a noontime temperature of 6 degrees. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

Despite the fact that the presidential inauguration has moved from March 4 to Jan. 20 in the course of our history, on a number of occasions it has been strongly influenced by the weather.

Though many blamed the weather for sparking the fever that led to President William Henry Harrison’s death just 31 days into his term, this was almost certainly not the case. In fact, the noontime temperature on March 4, 1841, was 48 degrees with overcast skies and a stiff wind from the northwest.

President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural was sparsely attended — though his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was there — because the day was rainy and cold with a temperature in the high 30s. President William Howard Taft was inaugurated in a blinding snowstorm on March 4, 1909 — a storm that Weather Bureau forecasters had, just a day before, dismissed as a minimal threat.

Since the date was moved in 1937, the average temperature on Inauguration Day has been lower, not surprisingly, as late January is the coldest time of the year.

A couple of the Jan. 20 inaugurations have been characterized by notable weather. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated the day after a powerful snowstorm covered Washington, D.C., with 8 inches of fresh snow on a sunny day when the temperature barely reached 20 degrees. In fact, his was the second-coldest Inauguration Day in history, topped only by President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration on Jan. 20, 1985, when the noontime temperature was 6 degrees after a record-setting morning low of minus 2. As a result of the bitter cold, the inauguration took place in the Capitol Rotunda, and the parade was canceled. In contrast, Reagan’s first inaugural was the warmest of all the January inaugurals, enjoying a high of 55 degrees.

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

Category: History

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When was the use of computers for weather prediction first considered?

Shane Hubbard, a CIMSS researcher at the UW-Madison, is framed by computer monitors showing weather models at the university’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Building.  (Photo credit: John Hart, State Journal archives)

As we have opined a number of times before in this column, the development of numerical weather prediction (NWP) — the use of computers to mathematically produce weather forecasts — is one of the most unheralded scientific advances of the 20th century.

Coupled with the ubiquitous mobile phones we all use, this revolution has enabled us, at a glance, to get a sense of the coming weather days in advance.

It turns out that the first meeting ever convened to discuss the possibility of developing NWP took place just over 75 years ago, on Jan. 9, 1946, at the then-Weather Bureau’s headquarters less than a mile from the White House.

Present at this initial meeting was the chief of the Weather Bureau, Francis Reichelderfer, his top staff, a number of military meteorologists and the Princeton mathematician John von Neumann. Accompanying von Neumann to the meeting was Vladimir Zworykin, a physicist employed by RCA who had invented the scanning television camera. They had come to discuss their proposal to use the electronic digital computer von Neumann was then developing to not only forecast the weather, but also to control it.

As amazing as it sounds to us today, the original impetus for the development of NWP was to calculate where, and to what degree, nuclear explosions might be set off to alter the weather when destructive storms appeared on the forecast horizon. It was thought that this “intelligent” control of the weather would be rooted in reasonably accurate prediction of it for a couple of days in advance.

Fortunately, the evolving ethics of the nuclear age along with the extraordinary challenge presented by the originally secondary problem of providing computer-based forecasts quickly forced a humbler approach to this spectacular advance in weather prediction.

Category: History, Meteorology

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How do ice crystals form and grow?

Snowflake photographed by Wilson Bentley

This question was considered by astronomer Johannes Kepler about 400 years ago.

Kepler published an article on the topic in 1611. He hypothesized that the crystals were made of subunits that combined to form the symmetrical shapes of ice crystals.

Perhaps the most well-known person to study ice crystals was Wilson A. Bentley, a Vermont farmer. He captured more than 5,000 exquisite photographs during his lifetime. His photographs document that ice crystals are all six-sided. Their beauty is echoed by the complexity of how they form and grow.

Physical chemistry explains the geometry. Ice crystals are made of water molecules, which are formed by two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The two hydrogen atoms form an angle of 104.5 degrees from the atomic nucleus. The oxygen atom attracts a larger share of electrons, making the water molecule slightly negative on one side and slightly positive on the other. When water freezes, the bipolar molecules are attracted to each other, forming a hexagonal crystal lattice.

When ice crystals form, water molecules cannot deposit onto the crystal haphazardly. The molecules must fit into the shape of the crystal.

The shape of a crystal is called its habit. As Bentley’s photographs captured, there are four basic habits of ice crystals: the hexagonal plate, the needle, the column and the dendrite.

Rime ice from freezing fog

Temperature and the vapor content of the environment determine the particular crystal habit. As the crystal moves through the atmosphere, the temperature and humidity change, which can change the growth habit, producing very complex shapes. The final shape of the crystal will vary according to environmental factors it experienced as it traversed the atmosphere.

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

Category: Meteorology, Phenomena

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What were the memorable U.S. weather events of 2020?

This NOAA map denotes 16 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that impacted the United States from January-September 2020.

The year 2020 will be noted for some memorable and record-breaking weather.

This year saw the most active and seventh-costliest Atlantic hurricane season on record. There were 13 hurricanes, six major hurricanes and 12 storm systems that made landfall in the U.S., causing 409 deaths and more than $40 billion in damages. Hurricane Laura was the strongest land-falling U.S. hurricane of the season; it hit the Louisiana coast with 150 mph winds and higher than 15 feet of storm surge.

A strong derecho moved through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana on Aug. 10-11. The storm front moved at an average speed of 55 mph with winds peaking at 110–140 mph. It caused severe damage to corn and soybean crops.

There were 1,022 confirmed tornadoes in the U.S. this year, killing 78 people. This included a widespread and deadly tornado outbreak over the southeastern U.S. on Easter Sunday and the following Monday. There were 20 weak tornadoes in Wisconsin, which climatically has an average of 23 a year.

Between Sept. 28 and Oct. 4, there were 232 waterspouts over the Great Lakes. There was also another waterspout outbreak on the Great Lakes between Aug. 16-18, when the count was 88 spouts. These large outbreaks resulted from a cold Canadian air mass moving over the Great Lakes.

The winter storm that hit the Northeast Dec. 16-17 covered much of Pennsylvania, New York and New England with heavy snow cover. Some cities observed 3 to 4 inches of snow per hour.

The western U.S. experienced a series of major wildfires in 2020. The fires burned more than 8.2 million acres and covered large regions of the U.S. with veils of smoke.

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

Category: Meteorology, Severe Weather

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What and when is the winter solstice?

The winter solstice — in Latin, sol or “sun” and stice, “come to a stop” — is the day of the year with the fewest hours of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. This year it occurs at 4:02 a.m. Monday.

As Earth orbits the sun, its axis of rotation is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees from its orbital plane. Because Earth’s axis of spin always points in the same direction — toward the North Star — the orientation of Earth’s axis to the sun is always changing as Earth orbits around the sun.

As this orientation changes throughout the year, so does the distribution of sunlight on Earth’s surface at any given latitude. This links the amount of solar energy reaching a location to the time of year and causes some months of the year to always be warmer than others — in other words, the seasons.

On the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, the northern spin axis is pointed away from the sun, and latitudes north of the Arctic Circle — 66.5 degrees North — have 24 hours of darkness.

Solstice from space.

On this day we have our shortest day and longest night of the year in terms of daylight. But our earliest sunset happens before the December solstice, and our latest sunset occurs after the winter solstice. Why?

The time when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky is called solar noon. The number of daylight hours before solar noon is the same as the amount of light after solar noon.

Solar noon rarely occurs exactly at clock noon. In early December, solar noon comes nearly 10 minutes earlier than clock noon than it does at the winter solstice. In early December, since solar noon comes earlier relative to clock noon than at the winter solstice, by our clocks the time of sunrise comes later on the solstice.

Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month.

Category: Seasons

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