Storms Head Across the U.S. This Week

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

We just lived through one of the warmest winters in recent memory. The warmth and relative lack of storminess was odd compared to a normal year, but the weather was downright quiet compared to what we've seen over the last couple of years. Unfortunately, our luck is running out as the Sun creeps into the Northern Hemisphere and the atmosphere slowly warms up. The clash of the seasons will cause a steady train of storms to glide across the country through the end of March, bringing along with them noticeably rapid changes in weather from day to day, including the risk for severe thunderstorms and some beneficial heavy rainfall.

The forecast position of the jet stream from the GFS weather model on the evening of Monday, March 27, 2017, showing three troughs (southward dips) in the jet stream as they cross the United States. Image Credit: Tropical Tidbits

 
Current weather models suggest that a series of upper-level troughs—elongated areas of lower air pressure—will come ashore on the West Coast every couple of days for the next two weeks, each wave taking about three days to traverse the length of the United States before retreating over the Atlantic Ocean. Each trough will be sandwiched between ridges of high pressure, which are associated with warmer air and calmer skies. This trough-ridge combination will allow warm, unstable air to flow north from the Gulf of Mexico before the trough arrives to take advantage of the favorable atmosphere ahead of it. The end result will be heavy rain and thunderstorms, some of which could turn severe.

The greatest risk for severe thunderstorms with each wave will lie across the southern Plains and interior sections of the Gulf Coast states, exactly where you'd expect dangerous weather to develop at the end of March. The extent of the severe weather depends on how much instability, moisture, and wind shear are present when the storms bubble up. If the right mix of ingredients doesn't come together at the right time, the weather won't be much more than an inconvenience. If storms are able to take advantage of the right conditions, though, all types of severe weather—damaging winds, large hail, and tornadoes—will be possible with each outbreak of severe thunderstorms.

It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that severe weather is ramping up as we get closer to April. We're rapidly approaching prime season for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The average number of tornadoes that touch down each day climbs rapidly between the end of March and the beginning of summer, with each day of spring becoming historically more favorable for nasty severe weather outbreaks.

The Weather Prediction Center's precipitation forecast (in inches) between March 24 and March 31, 2017. Image Credit: NOAA/WPC

 
The silver lining to the cycles between calm and stormy is that it will bring much-needed rain to just about everyone east of the Rockies who are currently experiencing drought conditions. The same weather pattern that allowed California to climb out of its drought in just a couple of months also dried the eastern half of the country to the point of drought. Moderate to severe drought conditions covered nearly 16 percent of the contiguous United States on the U.S. Drought Monitor's analysis for March 21, with the worst drought covering the central Plains and much of the East Coast.

Rain from the upcoming train of storm systems will drop several inches of rain over a widespread area, helping to put a small dent in the drought. It won't be enough to cure the parched earth in many places, but as Californians will tell you, any amount of rain can help.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

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]

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