Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A clue to our April pattern?

It's not often when most of the long-range meteorologists agree, but there seems to be consensus building on what we can expect from the weather in April and even into May. A number of forecasters -- including the team at Accu-Weather and Joe Bastardi, now with the fledgling WeatherBell service -- are painting a cold picture over the eastern United States and parts of the Midwest.

This would be a departure from last April's mild conditions in the same part of the country. The consensus seems to be that the cold air will mostly remain north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but I think that pattern provides a solid clue on what we can expect in the Carolinas.

First, let's get the next 10 days out of the way. Today's sunshine and 60-degree readings (which are quite a warm-up, but still well below average for this time of year) will be fleeting. Wednesday, Thursday and possibly even Friday will be ugly. We can expect at least an inch of rain, and a cold air wedge will keep high temperatures in the low to mid 50s.

Then comes a warmup, starting this weekend and extending through next week, possibly through the weekend of April 9-10. The outlook is for temperatures at or above the seasonal averages. Translated: 70s, and maybe some low 80s. There could be a few days in the mid and upper 60s when it rains, but it looks nothing like this week's 40s.

Then the long-range forecasters see an outbreak of cold air spilling southward from Canada into the northern U.S. after April 10. The theory is that the outbreaks of cold will continue through the month -- and even into May in the Great Lakes and upper Midwest. Occasionally, some of that cold might filter into the Carolinas (as happened this week), but for the most part, we'll remain mild.

The main impact, though, will be the storm track. Forecasters seem to think many of the low pressure systems that move eastward across the United States will take a path along the boundary between the cold air and the milder air to the south. That boundary often will be in the vicinity of the Carolinas. So if all this comes to pass, it probably means April and even May will be unsettled -- stormy at times, with temperatures probably above average. That will be wetter and cooler than the last two Aprils.

And if you're headed north during the Easter break, take a heavy coat. It looks like spring might be late in the North this year.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bastardi finds a new home

As many people surmised when Joe Bastardi abruptly resigned from Accu-Weather last month, it wouldn't take long for him to find a new home.

In fact, a lot of us are wondering if he left because he had a new home.

Anyways, Bastardi, probably the best-known meteorologist on Accu-Weather's staff, has become long-range meteorologist at WeatherBell Analystic LLC, a New York-based company which provides meteorological products (forecasts) for companies that worry about what the weather will do.

Joining Bastardi is Joseph D'Aleo, who was director of meteorology for the Weather Channel when the cable TV channel was launched.

Bastardi has become well-known in meteorological circles for his long-range forecasts and his feisty demeanor. Those apparently will be on full display at WeatherBell, but you'll have to pay for it.

His blog (and that of D'Aleo) is free for now, but WeatherBell says it will begin charging a fee for their columns on April 1.

Then again, Accu-Weather charged a fee for people to read Bastardi, so it's nothing new.

His new job is outlined in this Washington Post story, http://wapo.st/gCWnaB.

You can find WeatherBell at www.weatherbell.com.

Incidentally, Bastardi is predicting a severe outbreak of cold weather for much of April in the East, although it appears as if he believes the worst of the cold will be bottled north of Interstate 70.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A minor quake for the Charlotte region

It seems almost silly to talk about the 2.9 earthquake that shook portions of four counties Monday evening southeast of Charlotte, because it pales in comparison with the 9.0 quake that devastated northeast Japan less than two weeks ago.

But Monday's shake is a reminder that the Carolinas certainly are not a stranger to the shifting earth.

Most Carolinas residents are familiar with the story of the 7.3 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 1, 1886, near Charleston. That temblor killed at least 60 people and caused millions of dollars of damage. It was felt 600 miles away and was among the most damaging earthquakes in U.S. history.

There have been other quakes, however, and the N.C. mountains experience minor earthquakes fairly frequently.

Monday's earthquake was reported at 6:02 p.m., and the U.S. Geological Survey pinpointed the center as being 4 miles north-northeast of Chesterfield, S.C. It originated about a half-mile below the earth's surface.

Residents in Chesterfield, Lancaster, Richmond and Anson counties reported feeling the shake, but there were no reports of major damage.

The Charleston earthquake was South Carolina's biggest ever.

In North Carolina, the biggest quake was a 5.2 magnitude shake on Feb. 21, 1916. It was centered near Waynesville, not far from Asheville. According to records at the time, damage was reported in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia. The quake broke windows and knocked chimneys off buildings near the epicenter.

Even the Charlotte area has received a shaking. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there was a quake of about 4.0 magnitude in the early-morning hours of Dec. 13, 1879, centered in southeast Mecklenburg County. That earthquake awakened residents in places like Pineville, Matthews, Waxhaw, Lancaster and southeast Charlotte. No major damage was recorded, however.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan quake ... and Super Moon?

It's absolutely the first thing I thought of this morning, when I heard of the horrendous earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan.

Super Moon!

I wrote about Super Moon earlier this week (check out my earlier blog entry), but to bring you up to speed, here's the theory ... on March 19, the moon will reach its closest point to the earth in almost two decades. And it will be a full moon.

An astrologer, Richard Nolle, has given the name Super Moon to any case when the moon is either at its new or full status when it is close to the earth. Some have theorized that the stronger gravitational pull of the moon can cause earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes and other natural disasters on our planet.

They support that theory with the earthquake and killer tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004 (a Super Moon happened two weeks later) and a devastating cyclone which hit Darwin, Australia, in the 1970s.

Scientists dismiss the talk, saying the moon's gravitational pull is nowhere near strong enough to cause disasters on earth.

Now, with Super Moon a week away, we have this morning's devastating quake and tsunami in Japan. And an earthquake with a 4.2 magnitude hit Hawaii overnight. You want more? How about the eruption of a volcano in the Philippines?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a supporter of this Super Moon theory.

Earthquakes will happen, and many devastating quakes -- along with hurricanes and volcanoes -- happen when the moon is not close to the earth.

But the Super Moon believers certainly gained some fuel from this morning's events on the other side of the world.


Mike Persinger, a co-worker here at The Observer, pointed out a couple other interesting facts/coincidences concerning Super Moon.

There was a Super Moon a few days before the October 1989 earthquake that caused heavy damage in San Francisco and Oakland, and a Super Moon within a few days of the devastating August 1886 quake in Charleston.

I found yet another ... a Super Moon three days before Krakatoa, the famed Pacific volcano, began erupting in August 1883. A few days later, the mountain exploded, sending a 100-foot tsunami into some Pacific islands and leaving enough dust in the atmosphere to cause chilly summers for two years across the globe.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Get ready for .... Super Moon!

As if we didn't already have enough to worry about, with skyrocketing gasoline prices, high unemployment rates, and Charlie Sheen having his own Internet show.

Now we've got to worry about Super Moon, and all the natural disasters it will bring.

I'm joking, but some people aren't laughing about March 19, the date when the moon will have its closest approach to our humble planet in 18 years. On that day, the moon will be a mere 221,567 miles away. And it will reach its full cycle.

Some people believe proximity of the moon will unleash disasters on the earth -- sort of a 2012 preview.

Astrologer Richard Nolle has coined the term Super Moon for any time when a full moon or new moon takes place when the moon is 90 percent or more of its closest approach to earth. In other words, if the moon is within about 250,000 miles and is either full or new, it's called a Super Moon.

Apparently, some astronomers have adopted the term.

Followers of the theory blame the Indonesian earthquake and resulting gigantic tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, on a Super Moon. One minor problem ... Super Moon didn't happen until two weeks later. But I guess that's close enough.

And a Super Moon took place Dec. 25, 1974, when Cyclone Tracy slammed into the northwest coast of Australia and heavily damaged the city of Darwin (a city made famous in the latter part of the movie "Australia").

Most scientists say any fears are ridiculous. The relative nearness of the moon will mean high tides are a bit higher and low tides a bit lower, but they expect no other impact.

Like I said ... if you want to worry about it, knock yourself out. I've got other things on my mind.

Then again, if all sorts of craziness takes place -- earthquakes, cyclones, tidal waves, Charlie Sheen behaving himself -- you've been forewarned.

Monday, March 7, 2011

I-77 at Fancy Gap ... a spectacular nightmare

The Virginia Department of Transportation closed a portion of Interstate 77 near the North Carolina border late Sunday and early Monday because of high winds.

Some motorists probably wouldn't mind that portion of I-77 being closed permanently ... except that the alternatives are worse.

If you've ever driven I-77 into Virginia -- and most of you have, at one time or another -- you know what I'm talking about.

At the North Carolina border, headed northbound, you encounter a 10-mile stretch in which the road climbs about 1,500 to 2,000 feet. It's less scary northbound, because everyone is climbing, and that limits the speed at which most vehicles can drive.

But southbound, from Virginia into North Carolina? Yikes! Tractor-trailers, other types of trucks, campers, SUVs, minivans and regular sedans tend to fly down that mountain, and they often roll into a thick fog bank that forms on the embankment.

It's actually the Blue Ridge Escarpment, and it's where the North Carolina Piedmont rises into the Appalachian Mountains. That change in topography occurs all along the mountain line in North Carolina, but it's particularly vivid on I-77 because of the high traffic volume and the unusual makeup of the ridge in that area.

Dave Wert, of the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg, Va., said the Blue Ridge line typically is southwest-northeast, but it's on more of an east-west line in the Fancy Gap, Va., area at I-77.

When a moist south or southeast wind from the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico piles up against the mountain range, it forms dense fog. And when the wind is strong out of the south -- as was the case late Sunday -- it creates a tunnel effect up I-77. Winds can blow at 40 to 50 mph, causing motorists to lose control of their vehicles.

The fog-induced wrecks can be nightmarish. One minute, you're driving south on I-77 in cloudy weather. The next minute, fog limits visibility to a 100 or 200 feet.

Last Nov. 16, dense fog was blamed for pileups that claimed 75 vehicles and left two people dead. There was a 50-vehicle pileup in May 2001 and a 46-vehicle wreck in October 1998.

The Virginia Department of Transportation did a study on that section of I-77 about a decade ago and found that most of the wrecks happened between mile markers 5 and 7, about halfway down the steep grade. And most happened on the southbound side, where motorists were traveling faster.

So Virginia officials installed devices to measure fog and wind, and to alert motorists in advance with overhead signs. Unfortunately, the warnings sometimes don't slow motorists.

In the headline, I called this section of I-77 a "spectacular nightmare."

That's because when conditions are clear, the visibility can be 25 to 40 miles, and motorists can see far southeastward, into the North Carolina Piedmont. Of course, drivers shouldn't be looking at the scenery. That section of the road is frightening enough in good weather. But if you're a passenger and the weather is clear, the view is great.

I also said at the beginning of this article that the alternatives to I-77 are worse.

Before this section of road was completed in July 1977, motorists headed from North Carolina to Virginia had to use twisting, turning U.S. 52. A trip of 10 miles could take a couple hours, and portions of that roadway were scary, too.

So keep the speed in check, make sure drivers keep their eyes on the road, and follow advice on the road signs. If you do all that, and if the fog and winds aren't bad, it'll be a quick and scenic way of negotiating the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Our winter: Nasty, except the finish

You'll see a variety of winter-in-review articles in the next few days, because for meteorologists, it's now spring.

The meteorological seasons run on a slightly different schedule than on the traditional calendar. Spring, for example, is March 1 to May 31. Summer is June 1 to Aug. 31. You get the idea.

So for the weather world, winter has ended. Those dates seem to work well in the South, because the change to winter seems to happen often around Dec. 1 ... and around March 1 for spring (don't tell me about those March snowfalls ... I remember them, but they don't last long).

Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist at WCNC-TV, our news partner, has a nice recap on the winter of 2010-11 at www.wcnc.com/news/local/Looking-back-at-our-crazy-winter-weather-117325038.html.

I'll try to add a few observations of my own.

1. It started almost on cue. After a 67-degree high on Dec. 1, temperatures tumbled. And with only a few exceptions, they never recovered until the last half of February. The high on Dec. 2 was 47. Eight more days in December, the high never escaped the 30s.

2. December was awful. In addition to it being the second-coldest December ever in Charlotte (see Brad's column), there was a sleet storm on the morning of Dec. 16, and, of course, we had our snowfall on Dec. 25-26. People who really wanted a White Christmas probably will take exception of my description of December as "awful," but it really wasn't pleasant. I don't think anyone enjoyed paying those heating bills.

3. January was no better. After a mild start to the new year, with highs in the 60s on Jan. 1 and 2, it went downhill. The pits came Jan. 9-13, with a 4.1-inch snowfall Jan. 10. The worst of that storm was the coating of ice on top of the snow, which made roads nearly impassable for a day or so.

4. February started the same way. We had a close call to a winter storm on Feb. 4, when nearly an inch of rain fell in Charlotte -- with temperatures only a degree or two above freezing. The rain was badly needed, but temperatures started quite cold again.

5. When it ended ... well, it ended! It was as if someone flicked a switch Feb. 12, and brought mild weather back again. It reached 58 degrees that day in Charlotte, then 62 on the following day, and 71 degrees on Valentine's Day. Just like that ... winter was over.