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.”

Texas wildflower season arriving early, may last longer

Photo by Brenda Jackson, courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center
Photo by Brenda Jackson, courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Bluebonnets are already beginning to bloom, more than a month ahead of the typical April flowering season. As are the purple spiderworts near Lake Austin. And they will probably be joined shortly by many other Central Texas wildflowers.

The relatively rainy 2016 and warm winter have triggered an early wildflower season, according to experts at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

“Wildflower season is taking off faster than you expect,” said Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the Wildflower Center’s director of horticulture.

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The wildflowers are yet another example of winter seeming to have come and gone (before February is over!). The wildflowers could be killed if a cold snap blows through and drops temperatures near freezing.

But some forecasters say that possibility is increasingly unlikely. The last freeze was in early January. Of the 50 days since 2017 started, 35 have topped 70 degrees at Camp Mabry. Monday, whose daytime high should be in the mid-70s, will be nearly 10 degrees warmer than the norm of 66 degrees. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s three-month forecast also predicts warmer than average weather for Central Texas.

Courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

According to a Wildflower Center release, pink evening primrose — aka buttercups — could be in for a big year, after having bloomed inconsistently during the past several years, “sometimes sparsely dotting roadsides and other times strikingly dominating great patches from the airport through the Hill Country.”

“Other plants just beginning to put on a preseason show include elbow bush (Forestiera pubescens), golden groundsel (Packera obovata) and agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata),” according to the release. It also noted that redbuds beginning to produce pink overhead blossoms.

Courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

El Nino is over

elnino

El Niño is dead. Long live El Niño.

The weather pattern in the Pacific, characterized by unusually warm surface water near the equator, has dissipated as temperatures returned to normal, according to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

In layman’s terms, “El Niño has ended,” said Bob Rose, an Austin-based meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Rose has particular reason to monitor El Niños. Central Texas tends to enter wetter-and-cooler-than-normal periods during El Niño. That often means more storms. This has been a wacky weather year: a wet fall, a historically dry start to the year, and then a wet and stormy spring. As Rose noted, the past 12 months have been the wettest May-to-May stretch in Camp Mabry’s history, with 59.61 inches recorded there. Thought El Niño has dissipated, most forecasters expect a few more storms — after all, May is by far the most severe-weather-prone period of the year here — before summer settles in.

At its peak, this El Niño was among the strongest on record. It quickly earned the nickname of “the Godzilla El Nino.” (I’m going to miss linking to that image.)

The Godzilla El Niño battled The Omega Block. It took a winter siesta. It delivered a storm during which a Houston forecaster threatened on air to “kick someone’s behind.” Though it is gone now, its influence endures. This summer will probably be mild by Central Texas standards, according to most forecasts.

Our luck will probably end this fall. Forecasters say there is a high probability that later this year we will enter La Niña, El Niño’s bizarro twin. That probably means a period of hotter-and-drier-than-normal weather. And Central Texas is naturally hot and dry.

And so, in memory of an El Niño that is now only that, please enjoy this final tribute:

Forecasters offer best guesses for how many hurricanes we’ll see

On Wednesday — as Lower Colorado Meteorologist Bob Rose gave his summer forecast — Rose also noted a few forecasters’ projections for the number of major storms that could hit the United States later this year.

Colorado State University tropical-storm forecaster Phil Klotzbach is anticipating “average activity” — 12 named tropical storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

Accuweather, Rose said, is projecting not only a higher number of named storms (24 named storms) but also more hurricanes: eight total, with four falling into the major category and three making landfall.

Joe Bastardi gives himself a little more wiggle room: he is projecting 11 to 14 named storms, six to eight hurricanes and two to five major hurricanes.

Rose said that national forecasts call for a “brutally hot summer” in most the country, as the Benevolent Godzilla El Niño that brought so much rain to Central Texas gives way to its bizarro twin, La Niña. (Do they have air conditioning in Oklahoma?)

It’s time to talk about flooding

flood risks by deborah

No, seriously — it’s time to talk about flooding.

The fall rains saturated the ground. In the past 48 hours Austin has seen more than two inches of rainfall in places such as the Onion Creek area, with nearly three-and-a-half inches in portions of the Hill Country where runoff feeds the Highland Lakes, which are nearly full. Rains are expected to continue through the week and, though the heaviest is probably behind us, even a relatively modest downpour in the right place could cause flooding.

El Niño is still spinning the Pacific, as well, and will likely continue into summer,  producing a rainy spring, most forecasters say. And — March is traditionally a month that brings severe storms.

“When I talk about severe storms, I’m referring to storms that can produce damaging winds, large hail, tornadoes and even flooding,” Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority, said in a recent blog post. Add El Nino to the typical pattern and you get a strong possibility of a spring “with more severe storms than we’ve seen” in recent years.

The LCRA manages the Highland Lakes, a series of connected bodies of water that are dammed to limit flooding. There is no imminent flood threat, according to the agency. But lakes Travis and Buchanan, which rise and fall and are often used to absorb flooding, are 95 percent and 83 percent full, respectively. A good rainfall in the right place can cause a rapid rise “with very little warning,” said John Hofmann, who oversees river operators for the agency.

That can put homes and businesses along the lakes at some risk. The agency must strike a balance during a flood between releasing water down the lakes and ensuring it does not release so much it imperils downstream communities such as Austin, which the dams were built partly to protect. The agency recently advised property owners to repair docks and generally prepare for the possibility of flooding.

Other areas are also at risk in “flash flood alley.” The soil is still plenty moist, diminishing its absorptiveness and putting places such as Southeast Austin’s Onion Creek neighborhood, which was hit with devastating floods in 2013 and 2015, at greater risk. Last Memorial Day weekend, San Marcos was hit with floods so devastating that the city still has not fully recovered. That led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs to recently take the unusual step of earmarking $25 million relief to the city, specifically, along with Houston ($67 million) and the rest of Texas ($51 million).

Though floods are generally the most devastating creation of Central Texas storms, they can bring other damaging phenomenon. One day to watch this month: March 25. That’s a day to park the cars in the garage, if possible, because the hail that tends to come in spring has a nasty habit of hitting hard that day. Three of the six costliest hail storms in Austin history, Rose said, struck on March 25.

Forget the calendar or astronomy, spring starts today . . . sort of

As Forbes (among others) points out, today is not just Super Tuesday — it’s also meteorological spring.

That’s different from astronomical spring, which is more commonly known just as “spring.”

NASA-seasonalvariations
NASA

Unlike astronomical spring, which has to do with the Earth’s position relative to the Sun, “meteorological seasons are related to the annual temperature cycle,” Forbes contributor Marshall Shepherd writes.

In some cases, it’s useful to group the seasons by temperature, which tends to be close but not the same as where the Earth is in its orbit around the sun, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Click on either the Forbes link or the NOAA site for more details explanations of meteorological spring. And, c’mon, let’s drop the technicalities, Central Texas banished winter quite some time ago.

 

Happy Leap Day! 5 simple things to know about a (surprisingly complicated) moment in time

Once every four years, today happens: Feb. 29. But why do we have leap days, and leap years? With the help of Keely Finkelstein, a University of Texas astronomer, we have five things you should know about leap days:

  1. The Western calendar, which uses leap days, is based on the Earth’s rotation around the sun. It takes the Earth 365 days to complete a circuit around the sun. Thus 365 days in a year.
  2. Well, it takes roughly 365 days. The actual number is 365.2422 days. Back in 46 BC, when Julius Caesar ordered the creation of a new calendar, his astronomers knew this. The discrepancy meant that every four years, a day was missing, which could mess with endeavors such as agriculture.
  3. There was a solution, though. Every four years, that missing day should be added back. Thus, today: February 29.
  4. But wait – Caesar’s solution doesn’t quite work. Leap day actually adds too much time to the calendar. Pope Gregory’s people noticed this, too. To account for that discrepancy, the pope decided in the 1580s that every so often we should skip a leap year. So as part of the Gregorian calendar, which we use today, we skipped leap year at the start of every century: in 1700, in 1800, and again in 1900.
  5. But wait … wasn’t 2000 a leap year? Yes, it was, actually. That’s because the pope’s astronomers also figured out that skipping leap year every 100 years would take too much time off the calendar. So to account for that discrepancy, some leap days were added back. We observed Feb. 29 in 2000, and we will again in 2100, 2200 and 2300. But to make the math work, there will be no Feb. 29 in 2400 – at least for those people still living on Earth that point.

leap year