Thursday, March 29, 2012

Great forecast for Easter ... and Easter break

Putting a lot of faith in a forecast 10 days away is a bit risky, but there seems to be agreement among meteorologists that the Charlotte region will enjoy a warm and dry Easter this year.

And the news is good for the many Charlotte-area students who will be on spring break next week. The run of May-like weather is forecast to continue all the way through Easter weekend.

We're in need of rain, but there isn't a sign of a major rain-producing system in our forecast for at least the next 10 days. A cold front will cross the region late Tuesday, and that might trigger some thunderstorms, but the rest of the forecast is dry.

First, for Easter.

Dry conditions are likely, and forecast highs are 82 degrees from Accu-Weather and 78 degrees from the Weather Channel. NOAA's long-range forecast for that period calls for above-average temperatures, but that's nothing new. We've been basking in very warm conditions for months.

The only sticky point comes from a few computer models that indicate a back-door cold front could push into the area from the north, on the day before Easter. Accu-Weather takes stock in that, calling for a high of 69 degrees a week from Saturday. The Weather Channel ignores it, with a predicted high of 76.

So it's probably safe to plan on nice weather.

If you're off next week, prepare to have a good time. Forecast highs are in the low 80s early next week, falling back a bit to the mid 70s on Wednesday and Thursday after a weak cold front comes through.

A sad note: If you've ever been in an area which uses Pennsylvania-based Accu-Weather for its forecasts (WBT is a client here in Charlotte), you undoubtedly heard Ken Reeves give the forecast from time to time.

Reeves was with Accu-Weather for 29 years, and by all accounts, he was a friendly, helpful meteorologist and a good human being.

Reeves, 50, was killed Sunday in a freak accident at his Pennsylvania home. Accu-Weather officials say he was on the roof of his house, taking down Christmas lights, when he fell. Our prayers and condolences go to his family and the fine folks at Accu-Weather.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Saturday night: A memorable hail storm

I was up in Ohio for several days and wasn't here to experience the hail storm last Saturday evening, but it appears as if it produced some unbelievable amounts of hail in Iredell and Rowan counties north of Charlotte.

People told me large hail fell for several minutes in parts of Charlotte, too, but the amount that fell to the north of the city was truly astounding.

I returned home late Sunday afternoon, and someone in our vehicle noticed white patches on the ground near Mooresville.

"Did it snow?" someone asked.

After a few moments, it was obvious we were looking at hail -- still on the ground (in shaded areas), almost 24 hours after it fell.

The hail was so heavy, in fact, that the N.C. Department of Transportation had to send out snowplows to clear the roads in a 5-mile area between Mount Ulla and Woodleaf, in western Rowan County. The hail -- 6 to 8 inches of it -- left some of the roads impassable, according to Dara Demi of the state's DOT.

She said the hail drifted against buildings, measuring more than 4 feet deep in places.

By early Sunday morning, Demi said, the DOT sent crews out in a dump truck and a grader, to push the hail off the roadways.

"They worked for six hours to clear the roads," Demi said.

Snowplows ... clearing hail from a thunderstorm!!!

"Our crews say they have never seen anything like it," Demi added.

Fortunately, it appears as if the hail was not big enough to cause severe damage, like the storms that struck Lancaster, York, Chester, southern Mecklenburg and Cherokee counties early last April. Last Saturday's hail was the product of thunderstorms that pushed high into the atmosphere but had a pocket of very cold air at the middle levels of the atmosphere. That cold air prevented the hail from thawing into large raindrops as it fell.

You can find a page of photos from the storm at a DOT website.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sky-high pollen count? Blame mild winter

The temperature isn't the only thing that has climbed far above average this March in the Charlotte region.

So has the pollen count.

The Charlotte area has reached extremely high levels of pollen count the past two days, and the total reportedly is at record levels in Atlanta. Meteorologists say we can blame it on the mild winter.

The situation is obvious to anyone who has gone outdoors. Certainly, you've noticed the coat of yellow dust on your vehicles. That's pine pollen, and it's making a mess of everything ... and probably bringing joy into the hearts of people who operate car washes.

Doctors say pine pollen is ugly but isn't the big health problem that some of its smaller brethren are. As WBTV meteorologist Al Conklin said Wednesday morning, it's the pollen we can't see that causes the problems.

And in the Charlotte area, that's oak pollen.

First, for some numbers. The Charlotte Asthma and Allergy Center says the pollen count Tuesday in the city was 9,790. That's a measurement of the pieces of pollen per cubic meter. That's a ridiculously high number. Officially, Charlotte has been in the "very high" category the past two days.

Of that 9,790 count, more than 8,800 were oak pollen. And oak pollen is particularly troublesome to a lot of people with allergies. That's why many people are miserable these days, dealing with the oak pollen. In comparison, the pollen count for pine -- which we're seeing on cars and trucks -- was about 550.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the pollen count of 8,164 Monday in Atlanta set a record -- about 35 percent higher than the previous high of 6,013 measured on April 12, 1999.

Frank Strait, a Rock Hill native who now works as a meteorologist at Pennsylvania-based Accu-Weather, says we can blame it on the mild winter.

"When it starts hitting the 60s and 70s regularly, as it did in February, you start to get the trees out of their dormant state and the flowers blooming," Strait said.

"A small part of the high pollen may also be attributed to people getting an early start to their spring gardens and flower beds, thanks to the unseasonably mild weather," he added.

There's some good news. In areas where it rained Tuesday evening, the pollen count will be lower today, although it is forecast to remain in the "high" range. And with more showers and thunderstorms forecast daily through Saturday, we can expect some relief.

Lasting relief will have to wait until the flowers and trees stop producing pollen in another few weeks, though.

Friday, March 16, 2012

How strong was Charlotte's tornado?

The tornado that touched down two weeks ago Saturday morning in the Reedy Creek area of northeast Charlotte has triggered a lot of conversation, behind the scenes, by meteorologists not only locally but across the nation.

While the somewhat unusual conditions that accompanied the tornado likely will spur some research papers, a more interesting question has surfaced:

How strong was the tornado? Or more specifically, was it really stronger than an EF2.

Larry Gabric, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service's office in Greer, S.C., and the office's warning coordinator, Tony Sturey, visited the tornado site -- a 3.8-mile stretch from near Reedy Creek Elementary School to the Steeple Chase subdivision along the Mecklenburg-Cabarrus line -- several hours after the storm hit.

Gabric and Sturey surveyed the damage and decided it was an EF2, with top winds of a bit more than 130 mph. That rating is on the Enhanced Fujita scale, than runs from EF0 (the weakest) to EF5.

Some of the TV meteorologists in the Charlotte area, and their counterparts elsewhere, asked if the storm might have been an EF3. They pointed to some of the damage -- specifically, a house blown off its foundation; and a house losing its second story -- and said it was more typical of what you'd see in an EF3 storm.

Even Greg Forbes, the severe weather specialist at the Weather Channel, weighed in. Forbes didn't visit the area and certainly wasn't second-guessing Gabric and Sturey, but he said (based on what he was told) that it sounded like EF3 damage from winds of 145 to 150 mph.

Gabric and Sturey are sticking with their guns, however, saying the overall damage in the area is more consistent with the 130 mph winds.

Granted, to the people who lost their homes or had them heavily damaged, it seems trifling to quibble over the strength of the tornado. This is a scientific issue, but an EF3 rating would have been interesting, because since 1950 -- the start of the data base kept by NOAA -- there has not been a tornado stronger than an EF2 recorded in Mecklenburg County.

Mike Dross, a former Duke Energy meteorologist who operates the Wright-Weather website, notes that the scenario could have been much worse.

"Had this cell developed the tornado about 10 minutes earlier, it would have touched down near uptown Charlotte," he said. The amount of damage, Dross said, would have multiplied several times.

The March 3 tornado remains an interesting topic to meteorologists.

It formed from a thunderstorm with cloud tops of about 35,000 feet -- relatively shallow, compared to the 55,000-foot storm tops in the supercells that produced killer tornadoes March 2 in the Midwest and South. And the tornado developed in an area that had been locked in a cool and relatively stable air mass for much of the preceding 24 hours.

The March 3 tornado in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties will provide research material for the meteorologists who have studied this storm -- Dross, WCNC's Brad Panovich, WBTV's Eric Thomas and Al Conklin, and News 14's Jeff Crum, among others.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Warnings ... you can't have it both ways

Probably the biggest story to emerge from Saturday morning's tornado in the Reedy Creek area was the lack of a watch or warning preceding the storm.

Some of the same people who regularly criticize meteorologists and me for reporting about the possibility of severe weather are now complaining that there was no tornado watch and no severe thunderstorm or tornado warning issued.

(I didn't include myself among the meteorologists, because I'm not one ... and I had the high school Physics grades to prove it.)

You can't have it both ways.

The tornado watch that was issued for parts of the Charlotte area in the early-morning hours Saturday came only as far east as Gaston County, and didn't stretch above the N.C.-S.C. border. That's because a wedge front -- separating warm, unstable air over South Carolina from a cool air wedge pocket in North Carolina -- was sitting somewhere near the state line.

Mecklenburg was in the cooler, more stable side.

Obviously, in the early-morning hours Saturday, that front pushed northward -- just long enough for a line of powerful thunderstorms to roar through. No severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings were issued, and that topic has been fully covered already this week. Whether the Charlotte area needs a better radar system is another topic, for another day.

I've been told that forecasters wrestled with the issue of whether to include Mecklenburg and some other N.C. counties in the tornado watch area.

In the past, though, some people have complained that the media engages in scare tactics, warning about snowstorms, ice storms, thunderstorms and floods that never happen. The critics call it sensationalism.

I understand that. People probably feel as if they're being jerked around.

The problem is that meteorology is not an exact science. Astronomers can't figure out where the universe ends. Biologists and botanists are still discovering new types of plants and animals. Medical doctors have many, many questions that need answers.

Meteorologists don't have all the answers either. They have more resources now than they had 30 years ago, with computer modeling and satellites and more. But doctors have more information and resources than they had 30 years ago, and we still don't have a cure for the common cold or stomach viruses.

One day, long after I'm gone, meteorologists will know exactly when and where tornadoes will form, and they'll hit the forecasts on the money every time.

Until then, there's guesswork. Maybe the next time, the Storm Prediction Center and the National Weather Service offices that cover the Carolinas will be a bit more aggressive when they list counties for a thunderstorm or tornado watch area. Maybe the storms will never form. And some people will complain that TV meteorologists are scaring them needlessly.

Perhaps meteorologists can't win, in this case.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Blustery? Yes. Wet? No.

We've had so many run-ins with severe weather this winter that it seems as if we should've gotten plenty of rain. But that hasn't been the case.

A trend has developed in the last two months, and it's not the kind of trend we want.

Storm systems largely have followed a track north of the Carolinas. While clusters of showers and thunderstorms -- and, occasionally, large areas of moderate to heavy rain -- have started moving toward the Charlotte region, they've fizzled out before arriving.

A couple times, moisture in low pressure systems headed toward the western Carolinas was "robbed" by the development of thunderstorms over the Gulf of Mexico. Those storms blocked the transport of moisture into the Carolinas, and we were left with paltry amounts of rain.

And twice in the last week, areas of heavy showers and thunderstorms have rolled across the Mid-South but have disintegrated when they moved into North Carolina's mountains. Only .06 of an inch of rain fell from the system that moved through Charlotte late Wednesday and early Thursday.

We finished February with 1.3 inches of precipitation, which is a bit more than 2 inches below average for the month. January precipitation, 2.28 inches, was 1.13 inches below average. So for the year, we've received about 55 percent of what we normally get.

Another storm system is predicted to rattle the Midwest and South on Friday and Saturday, and once again, we could get little or no precipitation from it.

The cold months of the year are when groundwater supplies typically are built up, so our farms and lawns can handle the Southern summer heat. There's plenty of time to get the rain, but the pattern will have to change.