Battle of the Epic Whirlwinds: Hurricane Vs. Tornado

Earth Satellite Space

Versus

Destructive Powerful Tornado

In the Free State of South Africa, 2012 was a year marked by an outbreak of severe thunderstorms. This province lies quite far inland of the subcontinent, to the northeast of Cape Town and to the west of the Drakensberg; the magnificent mountain chain that borders the eastern coastline of South Africa. These severe thunderstorms caused quite a bit of grief for the inhabitants of the Free State, levelling 55 houses and hospitalising 5 people, according to All Africa online publication. But in addition to the heavy rains, lightning and wind damage, these thunderstorms had the ill-grace to drop a couple of tornadoes too!

To put things into perspective, South Africa is not a country known for tornadoes. If you’re thinking of tornadoes, your imaginative context is probably located in the aptly named ‘Tornado Alley’ in the mid-western states of America. Now, as someone who has a degree in atmospheric science, you can imagine how many questions I was fielding from people who had heard about the severe weather events I just mentioned. Not questions as such: statements rather. People rarely ask me questions about the weather. I think they’re afraid of the answers. I can handle that… but what I couldn’t handle was the fact that people were confusing hurricanes with tornadoes!

“Did you hear about the hurricanes in the Free State?”

Portrait of young woman slapping hand on head having a duh momen

To anyone in atmospheric, Earth, ocean or any related sciences – regardless of your specialization – confusing tornadoes with hurricanes is like confusing your grandmother with Megan Fox. It’s like confusing an elephant with a pineapple. The concept of a hurricane tearing across the Free State is about as alien to the weather educated as a giraffe cavorting around the North Pole. Wearing snow shoes.

But, before you cringe at the memory of you making this rather Herculean error, one must take into account that the majority of you out there aren’t weather educated. That’s perfectly all right! We’re going to change that right now. Hurricanes and tornadoes: what’s the difference? Moreover, what’s the big deal if you get them confused? Well, when it comes to these two somewhat (ok, VERY) tempestuous weather phenomena, size really, really, REALLY…

… really, REALLY, really, REALLY, REEEEEEEEALLY does count.

Hurricanes: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Hurricane Fran satellite image

Satellites captured this fairly terrifying image of Hurricane Fran hurtling towards North Carolina on the 5th September 1996. “Fran” caused so much trouble that they decided to NEVER call another hurricane “Fran” again. 

FYI, hurricanes are named alphabetically according to their order of development during the hurricane season. The first to appear will be named something beginning with an ‘A’, the second ‘B’ and so on and so forth. Hurricane Fran was therefore the 6th fully fledged tropical cyclone to develop that season and one whose limelight was solidly claimed in 2005 by Katrina and again in 2012 by Sandy. Those bitches!

Hurricanes are large tropical storms born over the equator. Fed by prodigious updrafts of hot, moist, sexy air, these giant swirling monsters generate, via condensation alone, 200 times the electrical generating capacity of the entire freaking planet, according to the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. For those of you who like numbers or are easily impressed by them, this equates to 600,000,000,000,000 Watts. This is not even to mention the amount of energy generated by hurricane winds, which is an additional 1,500,000,000,000 Watts of unbridled weather rage!

I don’t even know what that number is… a billion million? A trillion zillion billon million?

Ooh! Aah! Hurricane Statistics

Windy Coast huge waves

  • Damage: Should they make landfall, hurricanes can cause tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Katrina was only a category 3 storm when it had its fender-bender with the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And yet its damage was estimated at $81,000,000,000!
  • Storm Diameter: Hurricanes are huge systems with an average diameter of 800 km (500 mi), although Hurricane Carla, which raged into the Texas coast in 1961, was an especially big girl at 1280 km (800 mi) across.
  • Wind speeds: Hurricanes are wrathful systems with category 5 storms (you do not get larger) generating winds of over 250 km/hr or 156 mi/hr.
  • Associated Severe WeatherHurricanes are social creatures. They have loads of friends they like to bring to the party they tend to gatecrash. These include torrential rainfall, thunderstorms, lightning, hail and storm surges, which is an increase in average sea level that can be in excess of 5 meters or 19 feet! To add insult to grave injury, hurricanes can even generate tornadoes.
  • Weakness: For all their size, energy and capacity for total annihilation, these tropical super storms cannot survive over land. They require a tireless volume of hot, moist air – as is found over the equatorial oceanic regions – in order to preserve storm motion and momentum. That dry continental air just won’t do. Plus, all the friction and turbulence caused by onshore topography (mountains and such) tend to break up the party pretty quickly.

Tornadoes

“Cow…

‘Nother Cow!”

“Actually I think that was the same one”

– ‘Twister’, 1996

I regard tornadoes the same way a sadomasochist regards nipple clamps: they’re deliciously terrifying. Having said this, my opinion is fantastically unfounded because I have never, ever witnessed or had my house relocated by a tornado. If I had, I would probably drop the enthusiasm a notch.

Strong tornado in Kansas

 A Kansas tornado tears across a country roooooad, take me hooooome.

A tornado is a raging column of rotating air that extends from the ground to the base of its parent cumulonimbus cloud, “Cumulonimbus” being the longest and fanciest word everyone remembers from High school geography. I know this because every time I tell someone I have a background in weather, they say, “Oh! So you, like, studied cumulonimbus clouds!”

Yeah, something like that buddy.

Tornadoes are generated by severe thunderstorms in atmospheric environments full of wind shear and abundant lower level moisture, amongst other ingredients. Next time you’re in the bath or swimming pool, make your hand flat, put it in the water and paddle. You’ll notice tiny little vortices or whirlpools that spin off in either direction.

“Wind shear” really just refers to two masses of air moving at different speeds and/or different directions to each other. And, just like your hand in the pool, shear in the atmosphere generates the same kind of ‘whirlpools’ in the air, although you can’t see them because air is invisible. What happens next in tornado genesis is a powerful updraft of air, which pushes these horizontal columns of rotating air vertical. And this is when shit starts getting real.

Severe weather thunderstorm.png

A gorgeous supercell thunderstorm at sunset. This cloud formation, known as a “mesocyclone” to academics and a “mothership” to nerds, is the atmospheric platforms from which tornadoes are commonly spawned.

Ooh! Aah! Tornado Statistics

  • Damage: It just takes one tornado straying into a heavily built up area to rack up damage totals that would bankrupt an entire country. In May of 2011, a single tornado tore through Joplin in Missouri – a city of 50,000 inhabitants. The reports that emerged at the time estimated the damage of insured property alone to be in the region of $3,000,000,000 (billion), and all from a single tornado. This doesn’t even take into account the uninsured losses suffered.

Tornado damage in Lapeer, Michigan.

On the brighter side – Tornado, 1: Insurance companies, 0.

  • Wind Speeds: Tornadoes are violent creatures. The wind speeds that tear around the funnel, more specifically, of F5 tornadoes, have been clocked in at over 500 km/hr or 315 mi/hr. This is more than half the cruising speed of a commercial airliner.
  • Associated Severe Weather: Like hurricanes, tornadoes are social. You will generally find them hanging out with lightning, torrential rain, giant hailstones, wind (duh) and the occasional cow or 18-wheeler semi-trailer.
  • Lifespan: For all their fury, tornadoes are relatively short-lived with the longest ‘twister’ on record having raged on for 3.5 hours. This suspected F5 tornado, dubbed the Tri-State Tornado, tore through 350 km (220 mi) of Illinois, Missouri and Indiana on the 18th March in 1925, leaving almost 700 people dead in its wake.

While hurricanes may boast more impressive size statistics than a single tornado, one should note that the kinds of thunderstorms that generate tornadoes are rarely isolated and often travel in waves with one thunderstorm cell feeding the formation of several others. In 2011, in fact, the National Severe Storm Laboratory recorded the most prolific outbreak of tornadoes in American history! Between April 25th and April 28th 2011, a staggering 358 tornadoes were recorded, with the majority of them having touched down within a single 24-hour period. Thanks to a much more sophisticated weather forecasting and tornado warning system, this outbreak caused half the death toll as the single Tri-state Tornado of 1925.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

real airport weather map Hurricane Frances

There are many big and important differences between hurricanes and tornadoes, most of which are related to scale: scale in size, in wind speeds, in damage done and in lifespan. Hurricanes are huge weather systems that last days and can cause widespread destruction. Tornadoes are much, much smaller weather phenomena generated by severe thunderstorms. Yet, in spite of their exponentially smaller size and shorter life spans, they can do incredible localized damage and frequently boast wind speeds greater than even a Category 5 hurricane.

So, to sum it all up and pack it in a nutshell:

Tornadoes can rearrange your back garden and perhaps relocate your house.

Hurricanes can rearrange your province and perhaps the entire eastern coastline of your country.

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The 2015 "Slushy" Waves of New England

It’s too bad that seawater is salty, because with a bit of sweet flavouring, everyone would have had access to unlimited slushy “Slurpee” a year ago, courtesy of Mother Nature!

Video Source: “Giant Frozen Waves Nantucket Beach” Uploaded by Galaxy 11

The United States spent much of February of last year in the frigid grips of a record-breaking icy winter. Yet, in addition to the usual suspects, which include deep snow and biting winds, the cold would seem to have even won over the briny seawater of the north Atlantic Ocean. This video shows a series of images of ocean waves breaking on the shores of Nantucket in New England (northeast USA), only, there seems to be something distinctly different about these waves!

The photographer, Jonathan Nimerfroh, is an avid surfing enthusiast and on a trip to the beach, he noticed something odd about the horizon. As it turns out, the temperatures are so low in the area the water has begun to freeze and so, what we are looking at are giant slushy waves! These icy waves have also been aptly called “Slurpee waves”

The maximum temperature on the day these pictures were taken was at a teeth-chattering -7 degrees celsius (17 degrees Fahrenheit).

What’s truly amazing about this is that salt is known to lower the freezing point of water to well below zero degrees celsius. This is precisely why we throw salt over our driveways to prevent them from icing up. The fact that even the salty seawater in northeast United States began to freeze is testament to the uncharacteristically cold winter they had last year.

Gird Your Loins, It's El Niño Time!

Paris Weather funny

It took two long haul flights, six plastic wrapped airline meals, three movies, two cantankerous airhostesses and a dangerous brush with halitosis for me to learn about the latest crisis throwing a spanner in the works of the mankind’s (mostly shoddy) attempts to run things smoothly on planet Earth.

I’m talking, of course, about El Niño.

I had to come to Los Angeles to learn that we’re actually teetering on the edge of what the western media is referring to as a “monster El Niño event” and by the time I publish this, we may very well have taken the dive. Where I come from – South Africa – the media and moreover the government pay scant attention to weather and climate issues. This is extremely ironic considering our economy is based on primary industry and that El Niño years are linked with drought in Southern African’s interior. So, in keeping with this relationship, we’re currently facing critical drought conditions for which the government has done nothing to prepare.

Alas! Here in South Africa, the government is far too distracted by President Zuma’s antics in and out of parliament and the country’s courtrooms to worry about the fact that our crops are about to shrivel up faster than Zuma’s manhood when it was explained to him that showering after intercourse does not in fact prevent the transmission of HIV. And unfortunately, they would also rather spend taxpayers’ money on private jets, fancy cars and extravagant lifestyles for its unprecedented number of officials than on research into, and mitigation for climate change and global climate phenomena like El Niño. If you were a selfish, uneducated pack of pricks, wouldn’t you too?

Anyway, that is where my political rant ends. The point is this: I only recently learned that the planet is facing the meanest El Niño event since 1997 and is set to become one of the three strongest on record, like, ever. It’s already causing all kinds of interesting weather anomalies across the world, especially in the United States. So, it’s time for a new blog in which we’ll meet “the boy” wreaking an incredible amount of wanton mischief on our biology, biomes and backyards.

Joffrey Game of Thrones
Vainglorious little swine…

Who Is This “Boy” And Why Does He Mischief Thusly?

El Niño refers to the periodic, unusual warming of the ocean waters of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific and it’s named “the boy” in Spanish after the baby Jesus, since it typically occurs around Christmas time. Understanding why El Niño has such extensive impacts upon weather requires us to take a closer look at a very important variable (sea surface temperature) as it usually is versus what it becomes when El Niño buggers around with ocean and atmospheric circulations. And so, the instigator of it all – the key player I need to introduce you to first is…

The Easterly Trade Winds!

Easterly trade wind diagram

 Image Source: mrspruillscience.weebly.com

Over the tropical Pacific Ocean, in other words around the equator, the trade winds blow roughly from east to west (see diagram above). Now, wind may seem like nothing more than moving air until your house gets relocated by a tornado; only then do you realize it’s a force to be reckoned with! So, the effects the northeast and southeast trade winds have on the ocean surface in the equatorial Pacific are quite significant.

The easterlies exert a force on the warm surface water, pushing it and causing it to pile up in the west, so much so that there is actually a 500-milimetre difference in sea surface height between Indonesia (west) and Ecuador (east)! This does a few things:

  1. With the warm surface waters being piled up in the west, an 8°C temperature difference is created between the eastern and western equatorial Pacific, with the west being beautifully toasty. A warm ocean surface makes for a sexy, moist atmosphere and the result is a lot of rainfall. This is why Indonesia is beautifully lush.
  1. On the other side of the Pacific, the wind pushing the surface waters away from the South American coast causes cold water from depth to rise to the surface (upwell), thereby leaving the ocean here chilly enough to embarrass you if you were dude wearing a speedo swimsuit. And, of course, the air overlying a cold ocean is typically dry and promotes little rainfall.

Ocean upwelling is a really important process, so it deserves a little conversation before we continue. When ocean creatures and critters die, their bodies sink, making the waters at depth wonderfully fertile. The upwelling of this water to the surface brings all this organic matter into the glorious sunshine and this leads to a surge in primary productivity. Of course, with great volumes of delicious algae, plankton and other tiny sea squishies available, every critter in the food chain is given the energy influx it needs to prosper, which essentially means lots of rodgering, lots of babies and lots of biological success. It also means lots of sushi for us.

Swarm of krill
Oh look! Krill!

Photo Source: http://www.krillfacts.org

So, we have a warm western equatorial Pacific with a rainy atmosphere and a cool eastern equatorial Pacific and a dry atmosphere. That’s the way it USUALLY is with the northeast and southeast trade winds happily blowing.

However: every two to seven years – and there doesn’t appear to be any strict rhyme or reason as to the frequency of this – the normally healthy trade winds stagger and weaken and you would scarcely BELIEVE the cluster f**k of consequences that follow.

 A Specific Account of the Cluster of F**ks That Follow

With the easterly trade winds fizzling out, all the beautifully warm water that is usually swept to the west is allowed to slough back into the east. This causes a tongue of warm water to spread out from the western coastline of North America (see diagrams below).

El Nino Pacific SST
This diagram shows us December sea surface temperatures (SST) as they normally are over the Pacific Ocean (first image), as El Niño is setting in (middle image) and during the event’s crescendo (final image). You can really see the distribution of heat moving away from the west and becoming concentrated over the eastern equatorial Pacific.

 Image Source: El Niño Southern Oscillation, http://www.ic.ucsc.edu

If this picture series doesn’t tickle your fancy, the following video will…

Video Source: “Amazing New El Niño Animation Reveals Shocking New Details” Uploaded by ShantiUniverse on Youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc2wYXK3qRk

A key point you must remember is that the ocean and atmosphere seldom, if ever, act independently of each other. One minor change in sea surface temperature can cause the atmosphere to overreact like your girlfriend approximately one week before Aunt Flo arrives for her monthly visit. A warm sea surface leads to greater evaporation, a more humid atmosphere and therefore more rainfall.

So, with ocean heat draining from the usually wet western Pacific, the region is typically left in drought while the east, which is usually dry, becomes unusually wet. On the ground, Indonesia and Australia can experiencing drought and, in Australia’s case, a much greater risk of catastrophic bush fire. On the eastern side of the Pacific, where the ocean has become anomalously warm, unusually heavy rainfall can lead to flooding with the risk being greatest to the southern states of America and Peru.

El Nino flooding in Peru
The El Niño event of 2010 was believed to drive the devastating floods that affected Peru.

 Image Source: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2014/08/ancient-piles-clams-reveal-peek-el-ni-os-past

The weakening of the trade winds also negatively affects the upwelling that usually occurs off the western coast of South America and by throttling the source of nutrients these marine ecosystems rely on, organisms of all echelons in the food chain take a major blow. Less importantly (in the grand scheme of things – don’t tell any local fisherman I’m saying this) our fishing industries also suffer. That’s right: less sushi.

Leave Britney alone
Leave sushi alone!

If you thought that’s where it ends, think again. El Niño’s impacts spread further than a desperate housewife’s legs. The accumulation of vast reservoirs of heat energy at the eastern periphery of the equatorial Pacific drive significant changes in global atmospheric circulation, which essentially means that no matter where in the world you live, you can possibly expect the next few months’ of weather to be, uh… interesting.

Crappy Weather Coming To a Neighborhood Near You

Global warming disaster

Air in the atmosphere is constantly on the move and it’s thanks to our major global atmospheric circulations that all the crap going down in the Pacific is felt in varying degrees across the globe.  Here are some cherry-picked samples of other global consequences:

El Niño events are linked with wilder hurricane seasons in the Pacific. This is terrible news for the Philippines, which is already one of the most disaster-struck countries in the world. According to Colorado State University, there have been 21 Category 4 and above (read: holy crap that’s big!) hurricanes in the north Pacific this year alone. This total has obliterated the previous record of 17, which was set during the monster El Niño of 1997. The good news for Florida and southern Texas is that hurricanes in the Atlantic tend to stay home and pursue their hobbies during El Niño months.

Africa may be half the planet away, but the continent has a decent sized serving of interesting weather to expect. Southern Africa is currently in the throes of severe drought, while several East and North African nations are being pelted by heavy rainfall. I mean, can’t we ever just get the RIGHT amount of rain?? Why must it be one extreme or the other?

And, of course, we can’t leave out the main character in this story of wanton weather: MURICA! The following prediction maps for temperature and rainfall have been issued by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on their amazing website, which you can view at www.climate.gov.

DJF_Temp_outlooks_2015 El Nino
Temperature forecast for the period December 2015 to February 2016

 What we can tell from this map (aside from the fact that NOAA doesn’t give a hoot about Canada) is that there is a good chance of temperatures being hotter than usual in much of Alaska, Washington and the northern U.S. with dark red indicating a 70%+ probability of hotter than usual conditions. Texas and much of the southern states, on the other hand, may actually have to invest in a sweater or two. 

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message
Sexy blonde walking away from explosion
Is it the end of the world? Should you start looting your neighborhood grocery store and stocking up on bottled water and canned beans? No. Well, no to the first one: no harm ever came from having an extra can of baked beans, but you may want to prepare your home if you’re in an area that’s at risk of flood or drought. The question on the media’s lips is: is this particularly strong El Niño event proof of climate change and the severe weather we can come to expect from a globally warmer atmospheric environment?

Until we can say what causes the easterly trade winds to die down every two to seven years, we won’t be able to define the relationship between El Niño events and global warming. What is pretty evident – and has been talked about by climate scientists for years – is that a warmer atmosphere contains more moisture (due to greater evaporation) and more energy and is therefore more prone to the development of severe storms.

Your take-home message is this: The atmosphere is like the movie Cloud Atlas: It’s complicated and no matter how closely you study it, you still wonder what the f**k happened in the end. Just remember that the next time you hurl insults at the weatherman for getting the forecast wrong!

Funny weather man meme

Goodness, Gracious Great Balls of Ice! The Story of Hail

Large hailstone picture

Source: A massive 2.4 inch aggregate hailstone (about 6cm): “Granizo” by nssl0001, National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some things on our planet are so ridiculous, they could very well be the brainchildren of biblical authors. Frogs falling from the sky, crop circles, giant swirling hurricanes, belching volcanoes, sulphur-based life forms and Paris Hilton’s immense wealth (and equally as immense lack of IQ). And then there’s hail. The fact that the updrafts within a thunderstorm can be strong enough to hold grapefruit-sized hail in suspension is nothing but ridiculous and wholly impressive.

Great balls of ice!

How Hail is Made

Hail consists of balls of ice shockingly called “hailstones”. You may even say that hail is frozen rain, but it deserves a slightly more complex explanation than that…

Hail is made within powerful thunderstorms or cold fronts. Cold fronts tend to produce smaller hail that might inconvenience your dog’s plans to go do his business outside, thereby inconveniencing your plans to keep your house hygienic. The large hail responsible for denting cars, destroying crops and severely upsetting your herd of cows is typically associated with large thunderstorm systems that are well-endowed in the vertical and are sustained by powerful updrafts. These traits are especially exhibited by the “Big Daddy” of all small-scale tempests: supercell thunderstorms. These you will find skipping across “Tornado Alley” during the northern hemisphere’s summer months.

Severe thunderstorm across US Great Plains

Supercell thunderstorm with rotating mesocyclone (*swoon!*). The presence of such large frozen water particles within the cloud selectively reflects light towards the lower energy (green) end of the color spectrum, which is why thunderstorms that produce large hail can make the sky appear a ghostly green.

What cold fronts and thunderstorms have in common is that they are both low pressure systems that suck in air and expel it out their rear. Thunderstorms pull in great volumes of warm and moist air, which rise, cool and condense to form towering cloudy behemoths of cumulonimbus clouds. The air, once cooled, loses its momentum and proceeds to sink towards the ground. Together, these two channels of air comprise the updraft and downdraft zones that sustain a thunderstorm: its lungs if you’ll indulge a bit of poetic licence.

Now, as you should know, temperature decreases with height in the atmosphere. That’s why the tops of high mountains are frozen and it’s why you should always, ALWAYS go for a pee before sky diving. At a certain altitude within a thunderstorm, which can soar to as high as the interface between the troposphere and stratosphere at approximately 10km above sea level, the temperature reaches zero degrees Celsius – the temperature at which water freezes. Above this 0°C isotherm (an obnoxious way of saying “line of equal temperature”) all the water droplets in suspension are frozen.

The strong updrafts within a thunderstorm sweep water droplets above the 0°C isotherm where they freeze (consult the pretty diagram below). These pellets of ice then fall back down towards Earth in the downdraft zone, plummeting below the 0°C isotherm and defrosting into big globs of water. This is why thunderstorm rain gets you soaking wet faster than Channing Tatum’s dirty dancing in “Dirty Mike”.

hail-formation-diagram

Image Source: University of South Florida, scholarcommons.usf.edu

However, some of these falling frozen pellets of rain get caught up in the updraft zone again and are swept back up above the 0°C isotherm. Only, they’ve gained a layer of water, which they collected as condensation while chilling out below the 0°C isotherm. This additional layer of moisture freezes, forming a new layer of ice over the original ice pellet.

Large hailstone concentric circles Concentric layers of ice in a hailstone.

 Image Source: “Hagelkorn mit Anlagerungsschichten” by ERZ – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This process can repeat itself several times and each time, the hailstone will grow larger and larger and larger as it collects more and more layers of ice. The next time you’re in the middle of a raging supercell storm, run outside, collect a couple of decent-sized hailstones, run back to the tornado shelter, bolt the trapdoor, watch your dad arm wrestle said trapdoor with an F5 tornado, watch your dad lose, resolve to become a hardcore white vest-wearing, tornado chasing sexpot with a serious death wish. Oh! And remember those hailstones you collected? Cut them open to see those concentric circles of icy awesomeness.

When a hailstone finally gets too heavy for the thunderstorm’s updrafts to hold in suspension depends entirely on the strength of those updrafts. The stronger they are, the heavier the hailstones. This is why larger hailstones are associated with powerful thunderstorms, such as the Midwest super cells that are sustained by incredibly strong updraft zones.

And when hailstones get heavy, it’s time to run for cover.

Hailstorm damage

Sorry Boys… Size Really Does Matter

Farmers are more obsessed with size than that clutch of vacuous floozies and jockstraps in Jersey Shore. Considering their livelihood depends on it (and not their egos), this is easy to understand and empathise with. But, in no other aspect are they more obsessed with size than with hail. The happiness and health of their livestock and crops depend on it.

Some thunderstorms can create hailstones that are big enough to cave your head in. Even if you do have brains. The next time you’re at a party, scoop an ice cube out your rum and coke and toss it at your mate (preferably the one who’s hitting on your girlfriend). Listen to the dulcet sounds of squealing as it clobbers him in the noggin. Now imagine something easily ten times the size of that ice cube falling thousands of metres (or feet) from the heavens. Yup! Ouch.

Record_hailstone_Vivian,_SD

Ermagherd! Ferkerng HUGE herlsterne!

 Source: “Record hailstone Vivian, SD” by NWS Aberdeen, SD. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On 23rd June 2010, the largest hailstone in recorded American meteorological history fell in Vivian, South Dakota (image above). This great ball of ice weighed in at 0.88 kg (1.93 lbs) and was a staggering (if it had hit you in the head) 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter.

That’s two inches longer than your average you-know-what, tee hee!

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Big Hail Thunderstorm

Hailstones are physical evidence of the incredible air circulations going on inside a thunderstorm. Can you imagine how strong air must be to prevent something that weighs almost a kilogram from succumbing to gravity? I don’t know about you, but that blows my mind in the most delicious way. And so we see that thunderstorms are about so much more than just thunder and lightning and the occasional airborne cow.

Climate Change: A World Finally Warming Up To The Idea PART 1

Climate change and severe weatherBeneath the fads, the fashion, the loud headlines, media threats and intimidating claims lies a totally rational story; the bare science of a shifting environment that, once explained, is simply irrefutable. You can be skeptical about going on a blind date or about eating Indian food before said blind date, but you can’t be skeptical about the fact that humankind has and is having a definite and permanent effect on the climate of our planet. That’s naivety at its worst.

In this blog post and the next, we’ll be taking a journey through the fancy terms thrown around by the media and redefine them to yield a totally new and more scientifically accurate understanding. We’ll come to appreciate what’s normal (historically speaking) and what definitely isn’t in terms of climate variability. We’ll also take a closer look at Earth’s atmosphere in order to get a better perspective on how our relentless and ruthless industrial activities are able to cause such significant global-scale changes in weather patterns and climate.

And so, let’s begin…

Weather and Climate: The Difference Between Them And So Help Me If You Don’t Remember This!

Bart Simpson chalkboardYou know what sand is, you know what clouds are and you definitely know a week old breakfast burrito when you smell one. We know all of this because we are exposed to it just about every day (maybe not the burrito, but point made). And yet, in spite of the fact that we are directly exposed to weather and climate all the time, very few people actually know the difference between them.

That ignorance ends today!

Weather is the day-to-day expression of the atmosphere as it is experienced on the ground. It’s the warm sun beating down upon the beach, it’s the rain on your parade, it’s the tornado relocating your house and it’s the humidity causing you to sweat like George Bush Junior’s publicity team during a press conference. The weather encompasses a great variety of atmospheric parameters and they include things such as wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and precipitation. All of these come together to either put a skip in your step or to totally ruin your day.

Extreme weather frozen rain
February 5th 2012: a severe storm blows in to Versoix, Switzerland, bringing with it super-cooled rain known aptly as “freezing rain”. The temperature of this precipitation is well beneath the freezing point (0°C), but because the air is beautifully clear of dust, pollution and other particulates, the water has no condensation nuclei around which a crystal lattice can form and grow. As a consequence, this water exists as a supercooled liquid rather than freezing to form snow or hail. That is, until it hit this person’s car. It then found the solid anchor it needed to which the crystal lattice could grow causing the rain to freezes instantly upon impact, thereby trapping the world in a crysallis of ice that is very reminiscent of Hans Solo becoming frozen in carbonite in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Nerd reference!

Climate, on the other hand, describes the average weather characteristics of a region over a minimum period of 30 years. Texas is hot and prone to severe thunderstorms in summer; New York is balmy and mostly clear in autumn, Cape Town is pissy and freezing cold in winter and Seattle is just pissy and freezing cold all year round. THAT’S what the climate is.

It makes my eye twitch when I hear people saying: “The climate is great today!”

Imma stab a bitch!

Orange is the new black crazy-eyes

Climate Change Lost In Translation

“Climate Change™” has become celebrity verbiage to such an extent that I felt the need to add capitalize the first letter of each word even though it’s grammatically incorrect to do so. Al Gore has used climate change so much in his political campaigning in the past that he really should have trademarked it. And so, climate change has become so easily tossed about by the media that few people truly understand what it is anymore. It’s almost as though it has become totally divorced from its original and true meaning. The consequence of this and of the sensationalism with which the media presents its information on the science of climate is that the lay man and woman will look outside their window, see an unseasonably cold, wet, hot or windy day, blame it on climate change and become convinced that the end is nigh. You can catch these people on National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers.”

Waterspout, Tampa Florida
Somewhere in Tampa, Florida… “Aw sheeet babe, ma boat’s just gon an disappeared up one o’ them water tornadas. Global warming be at it again. When the gov’ment gon feex that?”

Climate change is a complex concept because it pertains to the long-term characteristics of Earth’s atmosphere and the atmosphere is incredibly complex. It consists of several sort-of distinct layers, a multitude of parameters, countless variables and infinite outcomes based upon the precise interaction and behavior of these variables. This is why the weatherman doesn’t always get the forecast spot on: not because he or she is an idiot, but because true accuracy in that job is about as impossible as an adrenalin spike at a dentures convention.

And so, climate change is something that should be treated with great humility and reverence. Even I am reluctant to make any broad or sweeping statements with regards to climate change and I have a Masters Degree in Atmospheric Science.

Name drop!

Awesome WomenNow that we know the difference between weather and climate and can appreciate that one day of unseasonable weather doesn’t mean the apocalypse is upon us, we can FINALLY get around to discussing exactly what climate change is. We can also meet its celebrity cousin, global warming, because believe it or not these two are NOT the same thing.

What IS Climate Change?

earth clouds-from-space1Climate change is a lasting shift in average global weather patterns and characteristics. This shift is also significant enough for us, our fancy equipment and, of course, Mother Nature to notice it and it usually takes place over a time period of decades to millions of years. What causes the climate of Earth to change?

All sorts of things actually!

Climate change has, historically, been caused by factors that range from variations in solar energy and plate tectonic activity to volcanic eruptions and meteorite strikes. Any one of these can cause local climate to change over varying periods of time. For example, a particularly violent and belchy volcanic eruption can release enough gas, dust and ash into the atmosphere to create gorgeous sunsets halfway around the world and deflect sufficient sunlight to cause very slight global cooling. It might not be much and the degree of cooling may be more isolated to the regions surrounding the eruption, but it is by definition climate change.

Augustine volcano at sunsetChanges in land surface type – what covers the crusty portions of our globe – can also lead to climate change. Dark verdant forests soak up sunshine like the delinquents from Mötley Crüe soaked up Jack Daniels, whereas concrete jungles, with all their reflective shiny surfaces sends sunshine right back where it came from. This changes the heat characteristics of the land, which, in the long term, has an impact on climate. So, climate change, in the traditional sense of the word, refers to any shift in local or global climate and it is caused by a myriad of factors. Climate Change™ on the other hand is believed to be the cause of the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

Wait!! Come back!! I swear I can explain! It’s not as difficult as it sounds!

Greenhouse Gases: Baking the Lower Atmosphere Since, Like, Ever

pollution and climate changeThe word “anthropogenic” quite simply means of human origin or to be generated by human beings. So, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases would be those generated by human-related activities such as those clearly shown in the above picture.

Now what the hell are greenhouse gases?

Our atmosphere is composed predominantly of nitrogen (78,09%), oxygen (20,95%) and argon (0,93%). The remaining fraction consists of a soup of other trace gases, many of which are “greenhouse gases.” Carbon dioxide and water vapor are two super important ones; methane, sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrous oxide are others. Molecules of these gases absorb the thermal energy emitted by the sun and they then re-radiate this energy as heat in all directions, including down upon our little heads. The effect this has upon the lower atmosphere is to warm it. This is why it’s referred to as the “greenhouse effect,” since green houses, which aren’t actually green at all, are purposefully built to achieve this same effect and in doing so provide a warmer growing environment for plants and flowers that would otherwise die from the cold.

greenhouse effect climate changeIn the absence of greenhouse gases, sunshine would pass through our atmosphere as per usual, except it would hardly be absorbed by the air at all and as a result, tits would be frozen off around the world. In fact, the greenhouse effect is a vital atmospheric process for life on Earth because without it, the average surface temperature of our planet would plummet by an approximate 30°C or 60°F. So, whatever average temperatures you’re used to in winter, knock off another 30°C or 60°F. You may as well live in Antarctica. Even midday at mid-summer in the tropics would warrant a warm sweater and a scarf. So, greenhouse gases are good! But, too much of a good thing is definitely bad, as tequila repeatedly demonstrates to me every Saturday night.

Thank God for amnesia or else I’d remember not to drink tequila every Saturday night.

drink tequila happy friday!Anthropogenic climate change is the change in global weather patterns and characteristics that have arisen as a direct result of human activity: our factories, our refineries, our agriculture, our motor vehicles and more.

Stay Tuned for Part 2

 We’re getting there! Now that we understand the terminology and the concepts behind weather, climate, climate change and the greenhouse effect, we’re finally ready to discuss anthropogenic climate change and just why the skeptics out there – the people who tell you it’s all a hoax – are full of the proverbial.

Goodness, Gracious Great Balls of Ice!

Large hailstone damage

Some things on our planet are so ridiculous that when you really think about them, it’s enough to make you go biblical. Frogs falling from the sky, crop circles, giant swirling hurricanes, belching volcanoes, sulphur-based life forms and Paris Hilton’s immense wealth (and equally as immense lack of IQ). And then there’s hail. The fact that the updrafts within a thunderstorm can be strong enough to hold grapefruit-sized hail in suspension is nothing but ridiculous and wholly impressive.

Great balls of ice!

How Hail is Made 

Falling hail thunderstorms

Hail consists of balls of ice shockingly called “hailstones”. You may even say that hail is frozen rain, but it deserves a slightly more complex explanation than that…

Hail is made within powerful thunderstorms or cold fronts. Cold fronts tend to produce smaller hail that might inconvenience your dog’s plans to go do his business outside (thereby inconveniencing your plans to keep your house hygienic). The large hail responsible for denting cars, destroying crops and severely upsetting your heard of cows is typically associated with large thunderstorm systems that are well-endowed in the vertical and are sustained by powerful updrafts. These traits are especially exhibited by the “Big Daddy” of all small-scale tempests: supercell thunderstorms. These you will find all over the world, but most notoriously skipping across “Tornado Alley” during the northern hemisphere’s summer months.

Supercell thunderstorm
Supercell thunderstorm with rotating mesocyclone (*swoon!*). The presence of such large frozen water particles within the cloud selectively reflects light towards the lower energy (green) end of the color spectrum, which is why thunderstorms that produce large hail tend to make the sky appear a ghostly green.

What cold fronts and thunderstorms have in common is that they are both low pressure systems that suck in air and expell it out their rear. Thunderstorms pull in great volumes of warm and moist air, which rise, cool and condense to form towering cloudy behemoths. Yes, cumulonimbus clouds. The air, once cooled, loses its momentum and proceeds to sink towards the ground. Together, these two channels of air comprise the updraft and downdraft zones that sustain a thunderstorm: its lungs if you’ll indulge a bit of poetic licence.

Now, as you know, temperature decreases with height in the atmosphere. That’s why the tops of high mountains are frozen and it’s why you should always, ALWAYS go for a pee before sky diving. At a certain altitude within a thunderstorm, which can soar to as high as the interface between the troposphere and stratosphere at approximately 10 km above sea level, the temperature reaches zero degrees Celsuis – the temperature at which water freezes. Above this 0°C isotherm (an obnoxious way of saying “line of equal temperature”) all the water droplets in suspension are frozen.

The strong updrafts within a thunderstorm sweep water droplets above the 0°C isotherm where they freeze (consult the pretty diagram below). These pellets of ice then fall back down towards Earth in the downdraft zone, plummeting below the 0°C isotherm and defrosting into big globs of water. This is why thunderstorm rain gets you soaking wet in 10 seconds flat. Just like Channing Tatum in “Magic Mike”.

hail-formation-diagram

However, some of these falling frozen pellets of rain get caught up in the updraft zone again and are swept back up above the 0°C isotherm. Only, they’ve gained a layer of water, which they collected as condensation while chilling out below the 0°C isotherm. This additional layer of moisture freezes, forming a new layer of ice over the original ice pellet.

Concentric layers of ice_hailstone
Concentric layers of ice in a hailstone. Just kidding! It’s a microscopic image of a bacterium’s nipple.

This process can repeat itself several times and each time, the hailstone will grow larger and larger and larger as it collects more and more layers of ice. The next time you’re in the middle of a raging supercell storm, run outside, collect a couple of decent-sized hailstones, run back to the tornado shelter, bolt the trapdoor, watch your dad arm wrestle said trapdoor with an F5 tornado, watch your dad lose, resolve to become a hardcore white vest-wearing, tornado chasing sexpot with a serious deathwish. Oh! And remember those hailstones you collected? Cut them open to see those concentric circles of icy awesomeness.

When a hailstone finally gets too heavy for the thunderstorm’s updrafts to hold in suspension depends entirely on the strength of those updrafts. The stronger they are, the heavier the hailstones. This is why larger hailstones are associated with powerful thunderstorms, such as the Midwest supercells that are sustained by incredibly strong updraft zones.

And when hailstones get heavy, it’s time to run for cover.

large hailstone damage

 Sorry Boys… Size Really Does Matter

Farmers are more obsessed with size than that clutch of vacuous floozies and jockstraps in Jersey Shore. Considering their livelihood depends on it (and not their egos), this is easy to understand and empathize with. But, in no other aspect are they more obsessed with size than with hail. The happiness and health of their livestock and crops depend on it.

Some thunderstorms can create hailstones that are big enough to cave your head in. Even if you do have brains. The next time you’re at a party, scoop an ice cube out your rum and coke and toss it at your mate (preferably the one who’s hitting on your girlfriend). Listen to the dulcet sounds of squealing as it clobbers him in the noggin. Now imagine something easily ten times the size of that ice cube falling thousands of metres (or feet) from the heavens. Yup! Ouch.

Largest hailstone on record
Ermagherd! Ferkerng HUGE herlsterne!

On 23rd June 2010, the largest hailstone in recorded American meteorological history fell in Vivian, South Dakota (image above). This great ball of ice weighed in at 0.88 kg (1.93 lbs) and was a staggering (if it had hit you in the head) 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter.

That’s two inches longer than your average you-know-what, tee hee!

 Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

hail_storms-on-road

Hailstones are physical evidence of the incredible air circulations going on inside a thunderstorm. Can you imagine how strong air must be to prevent something that weighs almost a kilogram from succumbing to gravity? I don’t know about you, but that blows my mind in the most delicious way. And so we see that thunderstorms are about so much more than just thunder and lightning and the occasional airborne cow. These bad tempered weather systems can also be that jerk at a party who throws ice at you.

But, then again, you were chatting up his cherry.