Ready or not (for a tornado)

June 28, 2013

If I had grown up in the Midwest, I suppose I would already know answers to questions like the ones I’ve been wondering about. But I grew up on the East coast, and tornadoes weren’t something I remember ever hearing anyone talk about.

When we moved to Michigan fifteen years ago, during new employee orientation at my new job I learned about “severe weather” alarms. I didn’t even know what the phrase meant, let alone why it meant I needed to go to the nearest restroom.

As far as I can remember, we never heard one of those alarms during the five years I worked there. But here in eastern Iowa, we’ve heard quite a number of them in the past eight years.

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Not your average Easter bunny

March 24, 2013

Most Easter bunnies are made of chocolate. Some are plush. But this weekend’s wintry weather has produced some snowy Easter bunnies.

And while we’re on the subject of unusual Easter bunnies, check out these unfortunate Easter bunny costumes.


February 3, 2013

I don’t normally use my cell phone while driving, but Friday morning it was the only way I could think of to get a photo of what I was seeing. Unfortunately, the camera on my phone is not very good, so the photo didn’t come out well enough to be worth saving.

This morning at church I described what I had seen – two short columns of “rainbow” light, each topped with bright white light – and someone identified them as sundogs. I had also seen one at sunset Thursday afternoon, while driving home, and wondered what it was. They normally appear on either side of the sun, so perhaps I saw two on Thursday and didn’t realize it that sometimes I was seeing one and sometimes the other. Or perhaps they were not both easily visible from the road in the direction I was driving.

When I looked at various web pages about sundogs, most of the photos do not look all that much like what I saw. A lot of them are higher up in the sky, whereas what I saw was at the horizon. But then, the sundogs are always at the same level as the sun, and I saw them when the sun was near the horizon either rising or setting. A lot of the photos also show very bright light, with little of the rainbow range of colored light visible. But then, perhaps that is difficult to capture in a photo – my camera phone photo only showed bright light in the center and everything else rather dark.

Since I wondered if what I had seen really was sundogs, I googled “sundogs” and “Quad Cities” and sure enough, here are better photos than mine of what I saw Friday. The first one is the closest to what I saw – I did not see the full circle as shown in the last photos of the slideshow.

Next time we’ve been having such cold weather – from what I read this is probably why I saw them when I did – I’ll try to take my good camera with me. And maybe find a good place to pull over and take a good picture.

The challenge of winter driving

January 30, 2013

I wish they had one of these Winter Driving Skills Clinics around here. I don’t know how many Iowans would think they needed it, but the ones who ended up in the ditch today might agree to take such a class.

I wouldn’t be surprised if people around here need it even more than those in Colorado, because we don’t get a lot of chances to practice driving in winter weather. We had a bad storm the third week of December, then hardly any snow until today. Yesterday, Moline (where I work, across the river in Illinois) had a low of 37 degrees, tying the record (warm low) set in 2006. And Dubuque had a record high of 55 degrees, breaking the record of 54 set in 1914.

Then this morning the rain changed to snow right before I left for work. I spent the next forty minutes driving on snow-covered roads (I saw plows on the highway heading in the opposite direction, but they hadn’t gotten to our side yet), most traffic going about 45 mph instead of the usual 70 (speed limit is 65). A few times I passed cars going only 35 or 40 mph – I hate having to pass in bad weather, because the passing lane is even more snow-covered, but I prefer not to have other cars close by either in front or behind if one of us starts skidding.

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Predicting the weather

July 28, 2012

I was getting my hair done this afternoon, and the hairdresser and another customer were discussing the weather. With the drought we’ve been having, the lawns are turning brown and no one has needed to mow their lawn for weeks. (While I know we need rain, personally I don’t mind at all not having to mow.) The sky was overcast, and they were discussing whether we would get rain today.

The customer said she thought the forecast said 20% chance of rain – meaning 80% chance of no rain. The hairdresser said that there had been dew on the grass this morning, which meant there would be no rain today. I had never heard of predicting the rain based on dew, and I asked her about it. She said it was an old wives tale, but it seemed to be accurate more often than not.

I know there is a lot of lore about predicting the weather (among many other topics) that is very useful, though I’ve never learned any of it myself. (Not being a farmer, and working indoors, it has never seemed all that important to me to know ahead of time what the weather will be.) I tried to think what scientific principles might explain the success of this particular bit of lore at predicting the weather.

I couldn’t think of anything.If anything, it seemed that dew should be an indicator that there was a lot of moisture in the atmosphere, which would lead to rain before long, though not necessarily the same day. Why, I wondered, would a lack of dew be an indicator that it would rain that day?

So naturally I made up my mind to check it out on the internet later – and post the explanation on my blog. The answer I found makes perfect sense – but it isn’t about how much moisture is in the air, but rather the temperature during the night.

On a clear night the ground cools, radiating its heat away into space. When the ground gets cool enough, dew forms, like beads of condensation on a can of cold soda.

If the sky is cloudy at night, however, the Earth’s surface doesn’t cool as much. Some of the heat radiates into space, but much of it bounces off the cloud layer and goes back into the ground. If there are lots of clouds, the ground won’t get cool enough to form dew. The saying works because, chances are, all those nighttime clouds might also cause a rainstorm during the coming day.

As I said, it makes perfect sense. But it’s not a perfect predictor. By the time I left the hairdresser, it was raining. The cloud cover must have been somewhat scanty, however, because by the time I got home the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. So I suppose the dew was partly right – just like most weather forecasters.


Snow like I remember it

February 2, 2011

As the Northeast got pummeled with snow earlier this winter, I realized how much shoveling I would be doing if I still lived in Connecticut, where I grew up, or Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where I lived as a young adult. I was not at all sorry to miss out on all that snow.

Yesterday we finally got our own big snowfall, which shut down schools and even many businesses. Like most of my co-workers in the IT department, I worked from home today, using remote access to monitor my email and use the company intranet. When the connection got too slow to get anything useful done, I headed outside to shovel the walk.

As a girl I could never understand why adults treated shoveling as such unpleasant work. Sure, it was tiring, but I had plenty of energy. Now I scoop off the top several inches of snow in front of me, scoop off some more, take a swipe at the bottom few inches – and then take a quick break to catch my breath and straighten my back. Foot by foot, I clear a path, but I’m grateful for the teenage neighbor we’re paying to do the driveway (our own teenage son being five hours away at college – where, he tells me, the piles left by the snowplow reach his chest).

As I walk between knee-high walls of snow, I realize that this is more like the snow I remember from my youth than anything I’ve seen in a very long time. (We saw a lot of snow where I worked in northern Michigan for six years, but that was largely because it fell every day; we rarely got a foot of snow dumped overnight.)

For a long time I wondered if I remembered more snow in my childhood because older people always seem to remember the weather having been worse back then, or because the snow came up higher on me when I was smaller. Or because I grew up in Connecticut, and we simply couldn’t expect to get as much in the greater Philadelphia region.

But apparently there really was more snow in those decades. At the National Climatic Data Center website, you can look up snowfall records for the country as a whole and by state. For Connecticut, the year (from August to July) with the greatest snowfall was 1967. The 7-day snowfall record was in December 1970.

For Iowa, where I live now, the 7-day snowfall records and greatest monthly total were in 1968, and the greatest daily snow depth was in 1969. Granted, all the records are for a specific location within the state, and other parts may have had much less, but it seems likely that in the snowiest years, all parts of the state got more than in the years when no records were set.

I wonder if 2011 will show up in any of those records next year.

‘Til the storm passes by

June 18, 2010

Until we moved to Michigan twelve years ago, I never heard of “severe weather” alarms. I might have described a blizzard as severe weather, but not thunderstorms. I didn’t like being outside in thunderstorms, but so long as I was indoors I felt safe.

Where I worked in Michigan, I had to learn not only where to exit the building in case of fire, but also where to go within the building in case of severe weather. Because my job took me all over the plant, I had to learn where all the safe locations were – usually these were rest rooms, as it has to be a room with no windows. I don’t remember actually having to ever take shelter in one of those, however.

When I got a job here in Iowa, I learned that my desk happened to be in the designated area to go to in case of severe weather (inside the data center, which is built to withstand very high winds). The first time the severe weather alarm went off, I was happy to be able to sit at my computer and keep busy, while dozens of my co-workers milled around waiting for the storm to pass.

This spring I moved to a desk outside the data center, and for the most part I have been glad of the move. But Monday afternoon when the alarm sounded and we all crowded into the data center, I thought how nice it would be to have a computer to sit down at. Most of my co-workers have laptops, and some had brought their computers with them. There wasn’t much place to sit, but at least they could access the network and do something.

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Fire and ice

April 19, 2010

My younger son wasn’t too impressed with this photo, but I think it’s pretty cool. Jagged forks of lightning on the left side, huge puffy columns of ash in the middle, and a few glimpses of fire poking out of the darkness on the right. It takes a while to even notice the layer of cloud over ice-covered rock down below. What an inhospitable place to be – yet what a stark beauty in the sight.

I always wonder, seeing photos like that, how the photographer managed to capture it. Was he in a plane, flying through clouds of ash? And how do photographers always manage to catch the lightning right as it flashes? I suppose they must take a lot of pictures in rapid succession, then keep only the frames that came out well. I have had cameras that let me do that, but I still don’t come out with spectacular pictures. I guess that’s why I’m not a professional photographer.

Losing our marble

March 3, 2010

Two days ago, I parked in front of the county courthouse so I could renew my vehicle registration. (It was due back in January, which is when my birthday is, but they give a month’s grace period. I really hadn’t meant to wait until the very last day of the grace period, but then I forgot about it.) At the other end of the lawn in front of the courthouse, there were a bunch of people gathered around a statue, which appeared to be wrapped in a harness and suspended from a crane.

I couldn’t tell if they were putting the statue up, or taking it down. I tried to remember whether I had seen the statue before, but my attention is more commonly drawn to the nearby cannon and pile of cannonballs. I remember how eagerly I used to get in line to climb onto the cannons on the grounds of Trinity College in Hartford, CT. (They had weekly carillon recitals in the summer, and while the grownups relaxed on picnic blankets or in lawn chairs, the children had fun rolling down the grassy slope or sitting on the cannons.) I wondered if children ever played on this one.

Yesterday I read in the local paper about the removal of the 135-year-old statue. A close-up photo shows a face so eroded that a mustache is the only easily identifiable feature. (As I glanced at it Monday, the mustache made me wonder if it was Mark Twain, who at one time worked for the newspaper here.) Indentations show the location of the eyes and mouth, but just barely. I was amazed to learn that this statue is made of marble.

I always thought marble was so durable. Apparently the people who first put up the statue thought so too. “Back then, they thought marble would last forever,” according to the commander of the local VFW, who is also on the Civil War Memorial Committee (which hopes to get a new soldier for the memorial).

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The acoustics of snow

February 12, 2010

As I headed back up the walk this morning, after dropping my older son off at school, I listened to the crunch of the snow under my shoes. I don’t generally associate snow with crunchiness – except when it has developed a crust on the top. The other day, I dropped something in the snow and it made no sound. Then when I reached over to retrieve it, I fell in the snow also. I wasn’t really paying attention to the sound of the impact, as I was more concerned with how cold and wet it felt. But the snow seemed to swallow any sound that was made.

That’s usually how it is when there’s a blanket of snow on the ground. Not only do the snowflakes themselves fall silently, they seem to absorb whatever other sounds might be made nearby. I wondered if it was my imagination, or if it’s just that lots of the usual sources of noise stay inside when it’s snowy (other than children). But I found a website devoted to snow research that confirms what I thought.

The pores in the snow cover are responsible for the quiet conditions. When acoustic waves travel horizontally above the snow, the increased pressure of the wave momentarily pushes some air into the pores. This air returns to the atmosphere after the wave passes, but some energy has been lost from friction and thermal effects. Over a short distance, this mechanism can significantly reduce the sound energy in the acoustic wave.

So if snow tends to dampen ambient sound, why does it make so much noise when I walk on it? It doesn’t always do that, of course. I noticed that the noisy snow this morning was a pretty thin layer, and that there was ice underneath in at least some spots. Was it the snow being pressed against the ice that made the scrunchy sounds? I know I’ve heard snow crunch in some conditions, and not in others, but had really never paid close attention to what factors affected the sound. Today I decided it would be a good subject for a blog post.

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