Thursday, May 31, 2012

Beryl gave Carolinas a good-bye kick

Beryl was officially "just" a tropical depression when it moved off the Carolinas coast Wednesday, but it caused quite a ruckus with its departure.

The storm had near-hurricane force winds when it made landfall last weekend near Jacksonville, but it lost much of its wind power as it meandered over inland Florida and Georgia for two days.

By late Tuesday, Beryl was on the move, pushing with increasing speed across eastern South Carolina and then sweeping over southeast North Carolina on its way to sea. Its top sustained winds were 35 mph, but Beryl was probably back to tropical storm force as it moved ashore.

The immediate Charlotte area escaped with little impact from the storm. A couple bands of heavy tropical showers moved over the region, and there were scattered reports of an inch or more of rain. But as Beryl moved northeast late Tuesday and early Wednesday, several bands of heavy rain and thunderstorms circulated around the center of the depression.

That rain drenches places like Florence and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and Fayetteville and Wilmington in North Carolina. The closest heavy rain to Charlotte was in eastern Chesterfield County in South Carolina and Scotland County in North Carolina.

A look at the waves triggered by Beryl at Wrightsville Beach (Ryan Lyttle photo)
My son Ryan was in the area Thursday on a work assignment and said the rain was torrential. He said the radar echoes didn't look that strong, but it rained so hard that visibility was near zero much of the time.

The strongest wind gusts I saw measured officially were 56 mph, at 4:30 p.m. at Jennette's Pier in Dare County; 55 mph, at 6:48 p.m. at the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Hatteras Island; and 54 mph at 4:30 p.m. on Piney Island in Carteret County.

The feeder bands around Beryl triggered an EF1 tornado, with 110 mph winds, that damaged or destroyed about 70 homes in Carteret County.

Rainfall measurements included 4.6 inches near Whiteville, in eastern North Carolina; almost 4.3 inches in Nichols, S.C., east of Bennettsville, near the Carolinas border; and 4.14 inches in Dare County. About 3 inches fell in Myrtle Beach and 2 inches in Wilmington.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tropics still primed for trouble

By now, we've been through all this.

The Atlantic season for tropical storms and hurricanes doesn't begin, officially, until Friday, the first day of June. Yet we've already had two named storms, Alberto and Beryl.

Beryl remains an active storm, and while it has been downgraded to a Tropical Depression, it continues to dump heavy rain on parts of Florida and Georgia. More than 12.6 inches of rain has fallen since Sunday at Midway, Fla., and rainfall amounts of 3 to 4 inches are common in Georgia and Florida.

Believe it or not, there is still disturbed weather in the area where Alberto and Beryl formed, and some meteorologists say it wouldn't be beyond the realm of imagination for a third storm system to form this week. Justin Roberti, of Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, said meteorologists are keeping an eye on the area, which is in the western Caribbean, for possible development.

To be fair, AccuWeather has been talking about that area of showers and thunderstorms for a few weeks and had warned that pre-season tropical development would be possible.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Surprise! Beryl gets stronger

Tropical Storm Beryl is proving to be a surprise this Sunday afternoon, as it pushes toward a rare landfall in a place where tropical storms and hurricanes rarely make landfall.

That would be near Jacksonville, or perhaps up near the Florida-Georgia border, and it is expected to happen late Sunday night or early Monday.

Earlier Monday, Beryl was changed from a subtropical to a tropical storm,as it developed a warm core (center of circulation).

The original thinking was that Beryl, which was meandering with 45 mph top winds Saturday, wouldn't grow much in strength before making landfall. That proved to be wrong.
Fueled by warm water over the Gulf Stream, Beryl has consolidated its center and grown stronger Sunday. At 2 p.m., the top sustained winds were 65 mph -- considerably stronger than the original forecast. That leaves the storm only about 10 mph below hurricane status, although Beryl is not predicted to reach that level before landfall. The storm will be traveling over cooler water between the Gulf Stream and the coast, and that's not conducive to strengthening.

(Update at 9 p.m. ... Beryl is still about 75 miles east of Jacksonville, and top sustained winds are now 70 mph. It could become a minimal hurricane before making landfall.)

This storm is unusual in a couple ways.

Tropical systems rarely make landfall between Savannah and Daytona Beach. The last hurricane to make landfall near Jacksonville was Dora, in the mid 1960s.

And Beryl is the second named storm of the season -- yet the season hasn't even started officially. June 1 is the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. The last May hurricane in the Atlantic was 42 years ago -- Alma. That one never made landfall in the U.S.

The last time a storm with winds of 60 mph or stronger hit the U.S. mainland in May was a Category 1 hurricane that hit the Outer Banks 104 years ago.

The National Hurricane Center said a buoy south of the storm's centered recorded a sustained wind of 43 mph and a gust of 52 mph around 1:30 p.m.

Incidentally, the storm's future is also being watched closely.  Originally, the thought was that Beryl would move inland and become stationary. That would weaken the storm to tropical depression status, and forecasters then expected it to be swept out to sea by an advancing cold front.

But some computer models now indicate Beryl's remnants will push northeast, along the I-95 corridor of the Carolinas. If that were to happen (probably on Wednesday), it could mean heavy rain will fall east of Charlotte -- and possibly not very far east of Charlotte.

Stay tuned.  This storm has proved difficult to predict.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Beryl a bother from Charleston southward

Tropical Storm Beryl -- in one way, a once-in-a-century storm -- continued to move slowly toward the Southeast Coast on Saturday morning toward an expected landfall late Sunday near Jacksonville.

Beryl is actually a subtropical storm, because of its structure, but the differences to the general public are negligible. For all intents and purposes, it is a tropical system.

And it marks the first time in at least a century that two named tropical systems have developed before June 1, which is the traditional start of the hurricane season in the Atlantic and Caribbean basins. Tropical Storm Alberto formed last weekend, in almost the same spot as Beryl.

Beryl isn't a strong storm,  with top sustained winds Saturday morning of 45 mph. It's expected to peak at 50 mph shortly before reaching the coast late Sunday. But it will make a mess of beachgoers' Memorial Day weekend celebrations, with showers, gusty winds and rough surf along parts of the Carolinas coast.

A tropical storm warning is posted from south of Charleston down to near Daytona Beach, Fla. A tropical storm watch is in effect from near Charleston up to near Georgetown, S.C.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington say they expect frequent showers Saturday and Sunday along the coast, with winds gusting to 25 mph from the northeast. The cut-off line between Beryl's bad weather will be quite sharp -- generally speaking, along Interstate 95. Areas east of I-95 will see mostly cloudy skies this weekend, with a good chance of rain. West of I-95, there'll be mostly sunny skies and just a few showers.

National Weather Service meteorologists in Wilmington also are predicting a high risk of rip currents Saturday and Sunday, especially south of Murrells Inlet and north of Cape Fear. Lifeguards along the coast will have their work cut out for them this weekend. And it won't be a good weekend to head out in a boat, with waves of 3 to 7 feet predicted into Monday.

The National Hurricane Center says that once Beryl moves inland, near the Florida-Georgia border, it is expected to stall for much of Sunday and all of Monday, before an approaching cold front grabs the weakened system and carries it out to sea. By Monday, hurricane forecasters say, Beryl will only be a tropical depression.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

1st summer weekend, 1st summer heat

Forecasters are pretty much certain about it now ... we're in for a real taste of summer for the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer season.

There are still some hints that a tropical system could bring showers and thunderstorms to the coast by late in the weekend, but the odds are still against that happening.  Otherwise, the forecast is for hot and humid conditions, with little or no chance of rain.

High pressure is expected to strengthen over the next day or two across the Southeast. That will squelch the chances of thunderstorm development and help the heat build. High temperatures, which were in the middle 80s across much of the Charlotte region Thursday, will be pushing 90 degrees from Friday into Monday.

Chris Horne, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C., said the holiday weekend forecast depends on the track of the possible tropical system. But if the system were to move westward across Florida, as the computer models were hinting late Thursday afternoon, then Horne said the precipitation would remain south of the Charlotte region.

Right now, Horne and other meteorologists are betting on that horse.  So will I.

And if the tropical low doesn't push northward into the Carolinas, what does all that mean for our Memorial Day weather and some of this weekend's big events?

Speedway events: If there are yellow or red flags at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it won't be because of the weather.  Look for nice conditions Thursday night for the pole events, with temperatures around 80 degrees.

For Saturday's Nationwide Series race, bring the sun screen and make sure you drink plenty of water. It'll be sunny, with temperatures around 90 degrees.  That's mighty hot to be sitting in those speedway grandstands.

It'll be much the same Sunday afternoon, during pre-race activities for the Coca-Cola 600. By the time the race starts, about 6:20 p.m., it'll be in the upper 80s with sunny to mostly sunny conditions. Temperatures will drop through the 80s during the event.

Food Lion Speed Street: It'll be warm and humid in the evenings, with temperatures in the upper 80s.

Piedmont weather: No problems. Expect mostly sunny days and partly cloudy nights through Monday, with daily highs near 90 and morning lows in the middle 60s.

Mountains: There might be a few isolated thunderstorms Sunday and Monday afternoons, but most people will have dry conditions. Expect daytime highs in the middle 70s (higher elevations) to the lower 80s (mountain valleys) and morning lows in the middle to upper 50s.

Beaches: This one is a bit iffy, given the uncertainty about that potential tropical system off the Florida coast. But let's be optimistic.  There could be a few thunderstorms Friday, but it'll be mostly sunny on Saturday through Monday, with daily highs in the mid to upper 80s and morning lows in the upper 60s. It will be humid.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Great forecast for Speed Street, races ... probably

This is among the most important outdoor forecasts of the year in the Charlotte region, as hundreds of thousands of people will be enjoying the races and other activities at Charlotte Motor Speedway; the festivities at Food Lion Speed Street in Charlotte's uptown; and all the other things we have planned for the first summer holiday of the year.

Fortunately, the forecast is really good.

You might have noticed that "probably" word in the headline above this post. Let's deal with that first.

Some of the longer-range forecasts are hinting that another tropical system could develop near the Bahamas in a few days and then possibly drift toward the Carolinas by the weekend. For now, forecasters are a bit skeptical.

Harry Gerapetritis, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C., said the forecast bears watching, but he adds that high pressure expected to strengthen later this week over the Southeast could serve as a block to any tropical system.

And Mark Bacon, a Weather Service meteorologist at the office in Charleston, notes that climatology argues against such a system forming. It's simply too early in the season, he says. Then again, Bacon notes, that didn't stop Tropical Storm Alberto from springing into existence near Charleston last weekend.

Let's assume, for a second, that there's no tropical system -- the likely scenario.

Then we're looking at a taste of summer weather.

Unsettled conditions today will still be around Wednesday, and there might even be a thunderstorm or two left in the region Thursday afternoon. But for the most part, it will turn dry across the Charlotte area after Wednesday.

Temperatures likely will climb steadily through the weekend, although an east wind off the ocean could cut a few degrees off Monday's highs.

What does all this mean for your plans?  Let's make it simple.

GOING TO THE SPEEDWAY?  Take the sunscreen. It looks warm and dry, with highs in the mid 80s Thursday, the upper 80s Friday, and near 90 degrees Saturday and Sunday. That means the Nationwide Series race Saturday afternoon will be run under hot conditions. On Sunday night, it looks now as if temperatures will be near 90 degrees when the drivers are introduced, with readings falling back through the 80s during the race.

FOOD LION SPEED STREET.  Once again, it looks good. You can expect clear to partly cloudy conditions each evening, with temperatures in the upper 80s around 6 p.m., falling back to the lower 80s by late evening.  Rain should be no problem.

GOING TO THE BEACH?  Great weather.  Mostly sunny during the days and clear at night, with highs in the middle 80s and lows in the middle 60s. 

HEADING FOR THE MOUNTAINS?  It looks good there, too.  You can expect clear to partly cloudy skies each day, but conditions will remain dry. Highs will be near 80 degrees in most tourist areas, with lows in the upper 50s.

STAYING IN THE CHARLOTTE AREA?  This will be a good weekend to test the swimming pool or head for the lakes.  Expect sunny to mostly sunny skies each day, with mostly clear nights. Daily highs will be in the upper 80s Friday and near 90 degrees Saturday and Sunday. Monday's highs might only hit the middle 80s, but it'll remain nice.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

La Nina's gone. Now what?

NOAA's scientists made it official this week, burying the La Nina conditions that have been in control for about two years.

Meteorologists say water temperatures in the eastern Pacific basin have warmed, and the La Nina has become what is called Enso-Neutral. What that means is we're in between El Nino and La Nina.

La Nina was one of the factors in our incredibly mild winter, and it played a role in the very mild late February and March in 2011. It also was considered a factor in the above-average number of hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean last summer, although nearly all those storms never hit the United States.

So now what?

NOAA's forecast is for Neutral conditions to continued through September, although meteorologists say a few of the computer models predict an El Nino could form by late summer.

And beyond that? The forecast is for an equal chance of Neutral or El Nino conditions for the end of the year, taking us through autumn and into next winter.  La Nina conditions are not expected to develop again in the near future.

So here's what that means:

HURRICANE SEASON ... Just about all scientists expect fewer tropical storms and hurricanes in 2012 than in 2011. In La Nina seasons, the low-level winds from the Pacific to the Atlantic are weak. That allows thunderstorm clusters to develop in the Atlantic and Caribbean, which helps tropical systems develop.

There are plenty of other factors at work, such as Atlantic Ocean surface water temperatures. But La Nina is one player involved.

This season, those winds across the United States won't be as weak. That means conditions won't be quite as ripe for tropical storms and hurricanes to form.

Of course, only one storm -- Hurricane Irene -- affected the United States last year, even though there were an above-average number of systems.  If there are only two hurricanes in all of 2012, and both of them hit the U.S. mainland, we'll consider 2012 worse than 2011.

NEXT WINTER ... In La Nina winters, conditions in the South tend to be warm and dry. That's pretty much what happened this past winter.  Once again, however, there are other factors involved.

La Nina was in place for the winter of 2010-11, but there also was a Greenland block -- strong high pressure over Greenland, sending cold air funneling southward into the eastern United States. The result: a very cold December and January, and then a warm mid and late February when La Nina took control from the Greenland block.

But with no La Nina next winter, it's safe to say we won't have it as mild as in the winter of 2011-12. Then again, few winters are as mild as 2011-12.  You can pretty much count on using the heat at home a lot more, and we'll probably be at least looking at the chances of snow and ice more than we did last winter.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Same old story ... where's the rain?

It seems like we can't go more than five or six months around the Carolinas without having to talk about drought, but it's back in the conversation again.

Conditions are nowhere near as bad as a few years ago, when much of the Charlotte area was classified by NOAA as being in "exceptional drought," but the entire region has now moved into the "moderate drought" area -- the second-worst of five levels of dry soil conditions.

And there's isn't a lot of rain in sight.  In fact, we have only one really good shot at it in the next week, on Wednesday.

What happened Saturday is typical of how things unfold in drought conditions. Two separate systems could have brought thunderstorms to the Charlotte area, but the storms instead drifted over Winston-Salem and Greensboro and then into the Raleigh area. Granted, that kept the weather nice for the Wells Fargo Championship and other weekend plans, but we need the rain.

So far this year, precipitation is 5.22 inches below average at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. To put that in perspective, we've received less than two-thirds of what we usually get.

A cold front is predicted to cross the region Wednesday, and computer models suggest there could be a fairly widespread outbreak of showers and thunderstorms. In fact, rainfall predictions are between a half-inch and an inch for Wednesday. Thunderstorms are also in the forecast for Tuesday, but those will probably not move out of the mountains.

After the frontal passage later Wednesday, we'll be under the control of a fairly strong high pressure system, and that means dry weather through Sunday. Temperatures will be a bit cooler than we've seen recently, but they'll be around seasonal averages, and at this time of year, seasonal averages are pretty nice (highs in the upper 70s, lows in the upper 50s).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A tricky Saturday forecast

Meteorologists are having a tough time getting a handle on what will happen Saturday afternoon and evening in the Charlotte area, and it has a little more importance than usual, with about 35,000 people outdoors at Quail Hollow Club for the Wells Fargo Championship.

The bottom line is that forecasters are expecting thunderstorms to develop at some point in the afternoon, but there are several moving pieces to the weather situation, and we could wind up with absolutely nothing happening.

One piece of the puzzle are the remnants of a thunderstorm cluster that moved into northwest North Carolina early Saturday from Kentucky and Tennessee. Those storms died out, but the outflow boundaries -- the unsettled air at the end of the storms -- has pushed into the Carolinas Piedmont. Those outflow boundaries often are a trigger for storms.

And that outflow boundary is expected to cross the Charlotte area early Saturday afternoon.

Another piece of the puzzle is a weak low pressure system, expected to move across the region a bit later in the afternoon. With an unstable atmosphere today, such a system could serve as the trigger for storms.

Meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., have part of the Charlotte area in the "Slight Risk" zone for severe thunderstorms today. That zone includes the immediate Charlotte area and points east and south. In other words, we're talking about Mecklenburg, Union, Stanly, Anson and Richmond counties of North Carolina, and all of South Carolina.

But nothing had developed, as of late Saturday morning, and it's possible the afternoon will remain  storm-less.

However, if you're at the Quail Hollow Club, or if you're planning any other kind of outdoor activity today, be forewarned ... the risk of strong thunderstorms is there.

Sunday, by the way, should be much calmer.

Friday, May 4, 2012

2 views of our summer forecast

The start of meteorological summer is still nearly a month away (June 1), but a lot of people already are talking about what type of summer we can expect in the Charlotte region.

Our unusually warm winter and very mild March stoked conversation that summer will be very hot. It's the old "If it's this hot in March, wait until summer" argument.

So I've taken a look at forecasts from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center and from Accu-Weather, and they seem to agree. Both are calling for warmer-than-average temperatures and a rather hazy prediction on precipitation. The CPC's rainfall forecast is for "an equal chance" of above-average, average or below-average precipitation. Accu-Weather, meanwhile, puts the Charlotte region at the southern edge of what it expects to be an area of wet weather with violent storm outbreaks.

Here are some highlights of the forecasts:

Warmth: There's pretty much a consensus on this. Meteorologists expect it to be warmer than usual across the region. Given the conditions we've had since winter, that's no surprise.

CPC rainfall forecast: That "equal chance" designation has been placed over most of the United States by NOAA meteorologists. They say it's difficult to predict rainfall, and it's especially tough this summer.

Accu-Weather's storm forecast: Meteorologists for the Pennsylvania-based company expect June and August to be the wettest months in our region. They also expect an active severe weather season from Indiana and Michigan southeast to Virginia and Maryland. That area includes the northern part of North Carolina (Greensboro and Winston-Salem, especially). Accu-Weather thinks that zone will separate warm conditions from cooler temperatures for a chunk of the summer.

Florida drought: Both NOAA and Accu-Weather expect rainfall to be rather plentiful this summer in the Sunshine State. That's good news for an area that is hard-hit by drought.

Where will it be dry?: The highest chances of hot and dry conditions appear to be in a band from southern Montana down to the Texas Panhandle. That includes much of Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado, along with western South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

Where's the cool weather?: New England and the West Coast.

How about hurricanes?: I plan to write about this subject next week, since several early-season forecasts are out. But meteorologists say they expect the atmospheric steering currents later this summer to be northward along the East Coast.  That could push tropical storms and hurricanes up the coast, similar to what happened last summer with Hurricane Irene.

It also means any system that develops in the eastern Gulf of Mexico could be steered up into Georgia and the Carolinas.