Watch: North Texas storms drop golf ball, softball-size hail

Severe weather blanketed portions of North Texas Sunday night, dropping hail and damaging outdoor property.

Hail ranging from pea to softball-size hail fell across Denton and Collin counties.

According to the Dallas Morning News, forecasters are working to confirm at least one tornado touched down in the area near Justin, Texas.

A video compiled by The Weather Channel shows golf ball size hail reported in Argyle, Texas, north of Fort Worth, while softball-size hail was seen in the Denton area.

Weather FAQ: What is the vernal equinox and why is spring starting Monday (again)?

Spring will finally be here – by every way of measuring its arrival.

Monday is the vernal equinox, the starting point of spring, as determined by people who base their seasons on the Earth’s position relative to the sun and stars. (Or, more generally, who base their calendar on the sky.)

On Monday, at 5:28 a.m., the sun will be positioned such that it shines directly on the equator. The northern and southern hemispheres will receive exactly the same amount of the sun’s rays. Night and day will be almost equal length. This is an important milestone if you’re into traditional calendars or pagan rituals.

Why is Monday important?

In many parts of the ancient world, four important dates delineated the seasons: the summer solstice (when spring gives way to summer), the autumnal equinox (when summer gives way to fall), the winter solstice (fall to winter) and vernal equinox (winter to spring). These have been important markers on mankind’s journey through time. In the olden days, before our iPhones told us everything, the solstices and equinoxes helped people to know things like when to plant crops or bust out the short pantaloons.

So, um, why are those particular dates important? Why do they separate the seasons?

On just two days a year – the equinoxes – the sun is exactly above the equator. That was a reliable way to mark spring and fall. And for only twice a year –the solstices – the sun hits a maximum high or minimum low point in the noon sky. These were also also deemed a reliable way to mark seasonal transitions.

Why are there only two days when the sun in directly above the equator?

The Earth’s equator is on a tilted axis relative to the sun — the axis is actually tilted 23.5 degrees. That means that as the Earth rotates around the sun, its northern and southern hemispheres trade places in receiving more light from the sun. At the equinoxes, the axis is neither inclined toward nor away from the sun.

Why do they call today the vernal equinox?

No idea. Next question.

No, seriously – there has to be good reason to call it the vernal equinox, right?

You sure about that? #Fakenews! (Googling … Googling …) OK, according to Merriam-Webster, vernal is a derivation of the Latin term for “of spring.”

The term equinox has something to do with Latin, right?

Correct. “Equinox” is derived from the Latin term aequinoctium, which combines equal (aequus) and night (nox).

But day and night won’t be exactly the same length today, will they?

Already covered that. No, day and night will not be exactly the same length. There is another designation, equilux, sometimes used to refer to a day when the amount of light and dark are equal, a day when the Force is in proper balance. (Okay, Disney would never allow the Force to achieve proper balance because that would make for a boring movie and, c’mon, there is no way Jar Jar Binks could be a Sith lord.)

So spring starts with the equinox? But didn’t spring start awhile back?

Yes. Kind of. We’ve had spring-like weather for much of the last few months, what with this winter being the warmest on record in Central Texas and all. So it’s felt like spring almost all winter along. We also had wildflowers blooming – a harbinger of spring – back in February.

But didn’t spring arrive March 1?

That also happened. March 1 was “meteorological spring.” Meteorologists prefer a calendar in which the seasons start on the same days every year. It helps for record keeping, among other reasons. But the Earth, sun and stars do not quite conform to the western calendar — thus the vernal equinox does not fall on the same day every year. The vernal equinox follows celestial trends, at the expense of syncing precisely with the western calendar. That’s why the vernal equinox is often said to usher in “astronomical spring.”

(Side note: commentators mean something different when they say Tony Romo’s salary is “astronomical.”)

How our not-so-polar winter polarized Republicans, Democrats on climate change

Photo by Ralph Barrera

This past winter was the warmest on record in Austin, a remarkable period during which more than a quarter of the days at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport topped 80 degrees. (!!!) Such an unusual winter was lovely but, in the context of global climate change, naturally raised the question of what to make of it.

A recent study suggests Democrats and Republicans see such weather quite differently – and that such weather tends to make them double down on their natural inclination to accept or reject climate science.

The study, “Is it hot in here or is it just me? Temperature anomalies and political polarization over global warming in the American public,” found that “political polarization over global warming is more pronounced in states experiencing temperature anomalies.” The study was conducted in 2013-14, so it doesn’t take this winter into account. And some findings will not exactly surprise Texans.

Yes, the research confirmed, conservatives are generally leery of climate science, liberals generally accepting its conclusions – and it may all be the media’s fault.

Researcher Jeremiah Bohr of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh did unearth some potentially interesting findings, though. Chiefly, unusually hot or cold weather intensifies one’s predisposition toward climate science: “Republicans are less likely to conform to the scientific consensus on global warming during very cold or very warm periods while Democrats display the opposite trend.”

Bohr also found that, among Republicans, skepticism of climate science is a uniting force that grows stronger as the temperature diverges from the norm. In a typical year, moderate Republicans tend to be less inclined to reject climate science than their tea party peers. But during unusual weather, warm or cold, the views of the center-right and the right converge. (Perhaps it could even bring House Speaker Joe Strauss and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick together.)

Per Bohr: “… we see that both kinds of Republicans converge in their global warming beliefs during extreme temperature anomalies but diverge during more seasonable temperature conditions.”

Bohr also found that media framing could feed the political hardening of opinion during weirdly warm or cold seasons. During those seasons, climate science tends to get more coverage. (Hi, everybody!) And the coverage, Bohr wrote, tends to be filtered through the lens of how liberal or conservative an outlet is, “discount(ing) or affirm(ing) temperature anomaly as an indication of global warming.”

“This,” Bohr continues, “could plausibly explain why disagreement between Democrats and Republicans widens during periods of greater temperature anomaly, as Democrats are likely exposed to greater amounts of opinion within the scientific mainstream while Republicans are likely exposed to disproportionate amounts of climate contrarian messages.”

(Commence jabs at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in 3, 2, 1 … and now, on to the American-Statesman in 3, 2, 1 … can someone lend me a very tiny violin?)

For what it’s worth: Climate scientists say that seasons like this past winter are not, in and of themselves, proof that the planet is warming and that man is contributing to that warming. But state Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said this winter’s temperatures are in line with a long-term warming that Texas has been experiencing since the 1970s, a time Nielsen-Gammon said was unusually cool. University of Texas climate researcher Kerry Cook told the American-Statesman that this winter was also the kind of winter Central Texans can expect more of – along with more extremely hot days, drought and sudden deluges.

The comments section is now open for business. Y’all have fun.

Should we worry about the great winter weather?

Photo by Ralph Barrera
Photo by Ralph Barrera

What should Texans make of this freakishly warm winter that just ended – particularly those worried about global climate change?

The winter was the warmest on record in Central Texas. It also was unusually warm in many other parts of the country. A recent Washington Post blog entry gave an impassioned plea for people to not feel guilty about enjoying such weather in places where winter was mild.

Maybe the lesson, as the Post blog argued, is that climate change could be a mixed bag — a conclusions with which Texas climate experts agree.

By itself, the winter was not proof of global climate change. But the winter temperatures were in line with what climate scientists say Texas will probably experience over the coming decades, University of Texas climate scientist Kerry Cook said.

Cook, asked by the American-Statesman to put this winter into a climate-change context, said it will probably happen more often. Climate models show the average winter temperature in Texas rising by 2 degrees by 2050 (with summer rising by nearly 4 degrees). Temperatures will still vary from year to year, of course; some years will be unusually hot, some unusually cold, some unremarkable.

But a warmer climate is a more energetic climate, with more extremes: more extremely pleasant winters, more extremely hot summers, even more extremely hot days. (The best climate models show the number of 100-degree days in an average Central Texas year doubling by 2050, from 13 now to 26.)

Another thought to keep in mind as you enjoy spring-like weather that people in Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle would envy, were they not too busy trying to keep warm: Central Texas is probably in for other kinds of extreme weather. The average summer rainfall totals are expected to drop 10 percent to 15 percent between now and 2050. And slow soaking rainfall will probably become less common, according to the climate models, while deluges – the kind that tend to produce flooding – will probably become more common.

Even so, people should not think of this winter as a gift that Central Texans will soon have to pay for. A warm winter does not mean a hellish summer is particularly likely, as there is “very little correlation” between winter and summer temperatures, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon told the American-Statesman.

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang also sought to assuage misgivings about the warm winter in its blog post. It argued that “feeling sad about it, while well-intended, is not necessary,” adding that the occasional “warm winter days are fortunate aspects of our climate, and their increase is one of few positive effects of climate change.”

The Post’s post also noted a New York Times piece about warm weather helping peoples’ mental well-being, as well as highlighting a study in Nature that found that “virtually all Americans are now experiencing the much milder winters they prefer.”

Even Katharine Hayhoe, the Texas Tech University climate scientist who has warned Austin of more extreme weather to come, told The Atlantic recently that people should enjoy the upside of climate change because enjoying it “doesn’t make it any better or worse than it would be otherwise.”

Perhaps this is the time to double down on one of the popular climate-change metaphors. A warmer planet may be a mixed bag – but even a mixed bag could hold more bad things than good. So for now, enjoy the early arrival of the bluebonnets.

Austin ends warmest winter on record, meteorologists say

 

Austin just experienced the warmest winter on record.

Photo by Jay Janner
Photo by Jay Janner

As the 26 days of 80-degree-plus temperatures and already blooming wildflowers can attest, this winter – which ended Tuesday for meteorologists (but not for astronomers, who are waiting for the spring equinox later this month) – was freakishly warm. The average temperature at Austin’s Camp Mabry, 58.6 degrees, was nearly a full degree higher than the next-warmest winter season, the winter of 1999-2000.

In only one previous year were freezing temperatures banished earlier than this winter. Though no formal data on footwear was readily available, this winter appears to have seen the most widespread use of flips-flops in memory, experts say.

“We’ve just really had no winter,” said Troy Kimmel, a University of Texas meteorologist and instructor. “We saw winter on the calendar, but we didn’t see it in real life.”

Perhaps this will lend perspective: the 26 days at or above 80 degrees this winter at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport smashes the previous record of 16, according to the National Weather Service.

At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, this winter was the second-warmest on record, according to the weather service. Kimmel adds this caveat, though: It’s more difficult to draw historical conclusions from the airport’s data because it kept its historical records slightly differently until the mid-1990s, when it became a civilian facility.

The warmest winter on record ended with the warmest February on record at Camp Mabry. The average temperature was 9.1 degrees higher than the month’s historical average at Camp Mabry, according to weather service data. This February’s average temperature was 64.5 degrees – remember, that’s not the average high, that’s the average across the entire day – and was more than 2 degrees higher than the next-warmest, in February 1999.

This was also the warmest winter in many parts of Texas, including Houston. That city finished with 22 days above 80 degrees – meaning a quarter of winter was above 80 degrees, Houston-based meteorologist Matt Lanza said.

To commemorate winter’s end, Lanza Tweeted out a picture of a tombstone rendered in the pixilated style of the old Oregon Trail computer game, bearing the inscription: “Here lies winter 2016-17, tried to ford the atmospheric river and lost.”