Does the Thunderstorm "Bubble" Really Exist?

Have you ever watched a promising thunderstorm barrel toward you, only to see it fall apart or shift course at the last second? It can be frustrating to expect the cooling relief of a nice deluge—only to be left high and dry as you watch the dark clouds fade away on the horizon.

It’s common to describe this phenomenon as a “bubble,” a perceived forcefield hovering over your town that seems to deflect storms when you want them the most. There’s even an XKCD comic about it. Of course, those mythical deflectors don’t exist, but why do storms seem to consistently hit certain areas, while often skipping nearby towns?

Some local features, like large, cool bodies of water or tall mountains, really can affect how thunderstorms behave. But for the most part, a storm suddenly missing one location is mostly the result of how these bubbling masses of air and moisture evolve throughout their short lifecycle.

There are three common types of thunderstorms—single-cell, multicell (think squall lines), and supercells. The latter two categories are commonly associated with organized severe weather outbreaks. By far the most common type of thunderstorm around the world is a single-cell. This is a small, localized burst of convection often called a pop-up, popcorn, or garden-variety thunderstorm.

If there isn’t a focus point for thunderstorms to develop—something like a cold front or a sea breeze—the exact location where one of these warm weather torrents develops is usually pretty random. A storm will pop up, produce lots of lightning and heavy rain for a little while, and then start to dissipate. The cold air rushing away from the decaying storm will serve as a focus for more thunderstorms to develop nearby. Whether or not you get hit by an approaching thunderstorm depends on how healthy it is, and if any other storms form in its wake. In other words, if a storm falls apart a block away from you, it’s usually a stroke of atmospheric luck.

If you average out precipitation trends over a long period of time, the data show that rainfall is pretty evenly distributed between neighboring communities. One storm could miss you and hit the town next door, while the storm that hits you missed your neighbors down the street. It balances out with time.

However, there are some cases where certain towns benefit from their surroundings when a thunderstorm is on its way. Thunderstorms can start to weaken as they approach more stable air near cool bodies of water like the Atlantic Ocean or the Great Lakes. There is also some truth that mountains are less conducive to storms, as the rough terrain and cooler temperatures can disrupt the updraft and temporarily weaken storms as they traverse the terrain. That certainly isn’t always the case, though—there are plenty of rocking storms along the coast and in the mountains every season.

So for the most part, if a thunderstorm looks like it’s coming straight for you and then disappears into thin air, it has less to do with where you live and more to do with the fragile, fluid structure of these magnificent natural formations.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

Why You Need to Keep Your Car's Gas Tank Full in Cold Weather

iStock.com/Chalabala
iStock.com/Chalabala

Schools, trains, and the U.S. Postal Service have shut down this week as a polar vortex brings negative double-digit temperatures to the Midwest. Even if residents won't be doing much traveling as long as the dangerous weather persists, they'd benefit from keeping a full tank of gas in their cars: According to the Detroit Free Press, it's an easy way to prevent fuel lines from freezing.

One common reason cars struggle to start in cold weather is blocked-up fuel lines. These tubes are thin, and if there's any moisture in them when temperatures drop to extreme levels, they can freeze, causing blockages that prevent fuel from flowing.

Gasoline, on the other hand, doesn't freeze as easily. It maintains its liquid state in subzero temperatures, like those currently hitting parts of the U.S., so when a gas tank is full, those fuel lines are better equipped to handle to the cold.

If you filled up your tank before the recent cold snap and your car still won't start, it may have something to do with your antifreeze levels. Your car's radiator needs water to work properly, and antifreeze is what keeps the water liquid when temperatures dip below 32°F.

Of course, if temperatures have already dropped to dangerous levels in your area, it's not worth it to drive to the gas station to refuel or run out to stock up on antifreeze. Instead, keep these car maintenance tips in mind for the next time an arctic blast rolls in to town. And when it is safe enough to drive again, resist heating up your engine in the driveway: Letting your car idle in the cold can actually shorten the engine's lifespan.

[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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