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Look Out! Heavy Snow and Strong Winds Are Heading to the Northeast

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Bigfoot takes on a Boston nor'easter. Image Credit: Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

A major nor’easter will bring heavy snow and gusty winds to the northeastern megalopolis on Thursday, February 9, dropping at least a half-foot of snow across the most heavily populated region of the United States. The dose of intense winter weather will snarl travel and likely bring daily life to a halt through the beginning of the weekend. The heaviest accumulations are possible between New York City and Boston, where some locations could see a foot or more of snow by sunrise on Friday.

The catalyst behind the classic winter storm is a strong disturbance digging its way east across the country. The same system that will trigger the nor’easter brought snow and subzero temperatures to the Upper Midwest earlier this week; morning lows dropped lower than -20°F in North Dakota and Minnesota on Wednesday morning. The upper-level trough will cause a low-pressure system to develop at the surface in Virginia on Wednesday night. This low will quickly strengthen as it moves over the Atlantic Ocean and tracks parallel to the East Coast. It’s a scene that repeats itself every winter—one that snow lovers and winter haters alike are all too familiar with.

The Weather Prediction Center’s most likely snowfall forecast for the three-day period beginning at 7:00 AM EST on Thursday, February 9, 2017. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

The latest forecast from NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center calls for about half a foot of snow between eastern Pennsylvania through southern New England. The greatest chance for heavy snow stretches from northeastern Pennsylvania through eastern Massachusetts, where the most productive snow bands are expected to develop. Precipitation will begin on Thursday morning in the Mid-Atlantic and work its way north through the afternoon hours. The last of the snow should taper off on Friday morning in New England. It’s worth noting that there will be a relatively sharp gradient between having to crack out the shovel and a dusting on the grass—a boundary that’s likely to set up right along the Mason-Dixon Line. Precipitation will fall mostly as snow north of this line, while the storm will start as rain and could end as some snow to its south. It’s likely too warm for the Washington D.C. area to see more than a light coating of snow at the most, but its far northern suburbs could see a few inches from this system.

A weather model simulation of the nor’easter on Thursday morning, showing the heaviest snow bands on the northwest side of the storm. Image Credit: Pivotal Weather

Like so many nor’easters before it, this storm will play tug of war between unusually warm temperatures to the south and bitterly cold Arctic air to the north. The sweet spot for the heaviest snow will be where the cold air intersects with the area that has the highest moisture and the strongest lift, a region called the deformation zone. The deformation zone is almost always on the northwestern side of nor’easters, resulting in a swath of heavy snow that parallels the coast. Sometimes the heaviest snow bands set up far enough inland to miss the big cities, and sometimes they form right over the cities and result in those blockbuster blizzards that people remember for years.

The fact that the heaviest snow falls in such a narrow area makes forecasting nor’easters a tricky business. Warm air is a plague in East Coast winter storms; it can turn a potential snowstorm into an icy disaster or just a cold, miserable rain. A small eastward or westward shift—just one or two dozen miles—can render a snowfall forecast completely useless. This happened just last month during the significant snowstorm in the Carolinas and Virginia. The storm tracked a little farther inland than expected, allowing warm air to chew away at the snow and result in mostly ice around cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, while giving heavier snow to Greensboro, two hours to the west of Raleigh.

Temperatures have been a roller coaster leading up to this snowstorm, and that trend will continue soon after it leaves. It’s been so warm on the East Coast lately that some cities are easily setting daily high temperature records, including Washington D.C’s major airports on Tuesday and every airport around New York City on Wednesday. Temperatures behind the nor’easter will remain frigid during the day on Thursday and Friday as Arctic air drains in with the westerly winds behind the storm, aided by the icebox effect of having snow on the ground. Low temperatures on Thursday night will fall into the teens and single digits in areas with snow on the ground, and high temperatures on Friday will struggle to climb out of the 20s. Highs will quickly climb back above normal on Sunday and last through early next week, helping to melt any snow that falls from this hard-hitting but ultimately fleeting burst of winter.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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