Weather & Climate

Words on Weather & Climate — October 7, 2010

October 7, 2010 // 0 Comments

Peshtigo Horror by CRAIG JAMES Peshtigo is a small town in northeastern Wisconsin about 50 miles north of Green Bay. Most people have likely not heard of Peshtigo, but on the night of October 8, 1871, it was in the middle of the deadliest fire in United States history. Very little news of this horrible event spread across the nation because, at almost exactly the same time, the Great Chicago Fire was destroying much of that city, capturing most of the attention. Almost unbelievably, that same night saw fires destroy much of Holland, Manistee and Port Huron, Mich. as well as a good bit of forested area in the central part of our state. The exact cause of the Chicago fire is unknown, but the blaze started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8, in or around a small shed that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who created the cow story, admitted in 1893 that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy. Would news reporters just make up facts? But I digress. The fire encompassed almost 2,000 acres of the city. More than 73 miles of roads were destroyed, 120 miles of sidewalks, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and two to three million books. The death toll was between 200 and 300. The Chicago Water Tower is one of the few structures still standing that survived the fire. The Chicago fire was small compared to what happened in northeastern Wisconsin that same evening. The fire in this area consumed over 1.2 million acres of land, which is approximately twice the size of Rhode Island. At least 12 communities were completely destroyed with death toll numbers ranging between 1,200 and 2,500 people. The following account gives a vivid description of what happened in Peshtigo, Wis. that night beginning around 9 p.m. “A sound resembling a thousand stampeding cows or the ‘heavy discharge of artillery’ preceded the horrors that followed. The thick smoke made it difficult to see even a few feet ahead. […]

Words on Weather & Climate by Craig James, September 30, 2010

September 30, 2010 // 0 Comments

The Long Island Express  by CRAIG JAMES  In last week’s article I wrote about the extreme weather that occurred in 1888, 1896 and 1899. This week I want to take a look at the incredible hurricane that devastated New England on September 21, 1938. This is another amazing weather event most people have never heard about. Back in 1938, there was no weather radar, no satellites and no ocean buoys. Ocean weather observations came from ship reports and occasionally an aircraft. The U.S. Weather Bureau, now called the National Weather Service, knew that a storm had formed in early September just off the African coast. The storm had probably reached category five status as it passed north of the Bahamas on the 19th. Charlie Pierce, a young research forecaster for the Weather Bureau, concluded that the storm would not curve out to sea and miss the United States, as most storms in this area do, but would instead track due north. But as so often happens in many organizations, he was overruled by more senior meteorologists and the official forecast called for nothing more than cloudy skies and gusty conditions in New England. Because the official forecast contained no cause for alarm, even as the winds picked up speed and the waves rolled in, nobody realized that a catastrophe was only a few hours away. Instead of re-curving out to sea, the storm moved due north from off the coast of Virginia and accelerated in forward speed to 70 mph. In the history of hurricanes, this is the fastest known forward speed recorded. Because of its speed of movement, the storm became known as the “Long Island Express.” As residents of Long Island and southern New England looked off to the south, what they thought was a bank of fog moving north actually turned out to be the storm surge, or wall of water, over 15 feet high with waves of over 30 feet on top of the surge. Millions of tons of sea water swept entire homes and families into the sea. The impact of the storm surge was so powerful that it was actually recorded on the earthquake seismograph at Fordham University in New York City. The storm created a new inlet separating […]

Words on Weather & Climate

September 9, 2010 // 0 Comments

Summer 2010  I’ve mentioned before that meteorologists consider the full months of June, July and August to be the summer season. I guess that means summer is over and it is now fall. It certainly felt like fall last Friday and Saturday. The older I get the longer winter seems to last and the summers go by more quickly. It seemed like a warm and humid summer this year so let’s take a look at the numbers. According to the National Weather Service, this was the fourth warmest summer of record in Grand Rapids. It was warmer in 1921, 1901 and 1933. In Muskegon, it was the warmest summer of record. What is amazing is that there were no record high temperatures set across the area. Grand Rapids had eight days with highs of 90 degrees or more. The average is nine. The highest summer temperature was just 93 degrees. In the hot summer of 1988, the last time it hit 100 degrees, there were 37 days with highs of 90 or higher and 14 days with highs of 95 degrees or higher. What made this summer so warm were the warm nights caused by high humidity. The warm nights produced some of the tallest corn I have ever seen. Grand Rapids had 20 days with lows of 70 degrees or higher, which is tied with 1921 for the greatest number of summer days with lows of 70’s degrees or warmer. There were very few cool Canadian air masses this summer to give us cool nights and beautiful blue skies during the daytimes. At least it was sunny. We received 71 percent of possible sunshine. Out of the 102 days between June 1 and August 31, there were only 12 cloudy days. There was measurable rain on just four days in August. How did the rest of the country turn out? Here is a map showing temperature departures from average across the U.S. for the summer season.   You can see that from the Central Plains to the East Coast, this was a hot summer, especially just south of the Ohio River where some of the heaviest snow fell last winter. It was the warmest June & July of record in Washington D. C. and […]

Words on Weather & Climate

August 26, 2010 // 0 Comments

  Weather is not climate   by CRAIG JAMES Everybody please repeat after me: weather is not climate, weather is not climate. It seems all the rage now days to blame every extreme weather event on what is called climate change (if it is a cold event) or global warming (if it is a warm event). But you simply cannot blame any one weather event, or even a short series of events, on climate change.   The big news this summer was the heat wave in Moscow and the flooding in Pakistan. What actually caused these events to happen? Very simply, the weather systems got stuck, or blocked from their normal west to east movement for a while. Here is the meteorological explanation: “The immediate cause of the problem is the behavior of the jet stream, a band of high-level wind that travels east around the world and influences much of the weather below it. Part of the jet stream’s meandering is tied to regular shifts of air towards and away from the pole, called Rossby waves. The Rossby waves set up wiggles in the jet stream, wiggles, which left to themselves, would move westward. Since the jet stream is flowing eastward, though, the net effect of the Rossby waves varies. When the waves are short, they go with the jet’s flow and the resultant wiggling heads downstream to the east. When they are long they go against the flow, and the jet’s wiggling is transmitted upstream to the west. In between, there is a regime in which the waves move neither west nor east, and the weather stays put.” When weather patterns get stuck, extremes of temperature and precipitation always occur. It is not, as an article in last Sunday’s Grand Rapids Press stated “a sign of troubling climate change already under way.” Even NOAA, one of the world’s biggest promoters of global warming said on August 13: “…greenhouse gas forcing fails to explain the 2010 heat wave over western Russia. The natural process of atmospheric blocking, and the climate impacts induced by such blocking, are the principal cause for this heat wave.” Also, “The extreme surface warmth over western Russia during July and early August is mostly a product of the strong and […]

Words on Weather & Climate

June 17, 2010 // 0 Comments

Putting things in perspective  by CRAIG JAMES  Technology has developed some wonderful tools that truly boggle the mind. One of them is a new satellite system called GRACE, which stands for Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment. It is composed of two satellites flying in formation. Measuring the distance between the two satellites to the nearest micron (a hundredth of the width of a hair) allows scientists to calculate the weight of things on the earth very accurately. To get an idea of how this works, you can find an article about it at One of the things being calculated is the ice loss from the Greenland Ice Cap. The article states:  “the island has been losing weight, an average of 183 gigatons (or 200 cubic kilometers)—in ice—annually during the past six years. That’s one-third the volume of water in Lake Erie every year. Greenland’s shrinking ice sheet offers some of the most powerful evidence of global warming.” Sounds pretty scary doesn’t it? But to get a proper perspective of just how much ice is melting and how significant the ice loss is, a scientist by the name of Willis Eschenbach has written an article, which can be found at He first determined the total mass of the ice on Greenland from a fascinating book called “The Physics Handbook” and found there are approximately three million cubic kilometers of ice covering Greenland. So the annual loss of 200 cubic kilometers represents just 0.007% of the total mass each year. That is just seven thousandths of one percent each year. Which means, of course, if that terrifying rate of loss continues unabated it will all be gone in a mere 15,000 years—by the year 17,010! What is occurring is actually a trivial change in a huge block of ice made to sound like an imminent catastrophe. If this is “some of the most powerful evidence of global warming,” I think we can sit back and relax a bit. There is another item of perspective I want to mention. You’ve probably seen a graphic like the one here of how much carbon dioxide has been increasing in the atmosphere. However, let’s change the graphic just a little. Since carbon dioxide represents about 0.0039% of the atmosphere, […]

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