Full cold moon competes with Geminid meteor shower this week

December’s full cold moon will compete with the bright Geminid meteor shower this week as the celestial events vie for our attention.

This month’s full moon, also known as the “long nights moon”, becomes full tonight at 7:05 p.m. and coincides with its perigee – the closest it comes to Earth in its monthly orbit.

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The full moon sets among the pine trees alongside the Beeline Highway Thursday morning July 2, 2015 . This is the first of two full moons this month; the next one is July 31. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
The full moon sets among the pine trees alongside the Beeline Highway Thursday morning July 2, 2015. This is the first of two full moons this month; the next one is July 31. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

At the same time, the reliable Geminid meteor shower will peak early Wednesday morning, although will be ongoing through the week.

The Geminid shower is considered one of the more robust celestial shows of the year as the Earth crosses the path of asteroid 3200 Phaethon.

First discovered in 1983, 3200 Phaethon was long thought to be an asteroid but is now classified as an extinct comet. Before the discovery, no one knew the source of the Geminid shower, which has been recognized as an annual event since 1862.

A comet is a roiling cauldron of gas, dust, ice and rock that has a glowing head and tail, while an asteroid is inactive, basically a large chunk of rock in space that doesn’t shed debris. That’s why 3200 Phaethon is a bit of a mystery and has been dubbed a “rock comet” by some scientists.

Early morning hours are usually best to view the Geminids, which is named after the constellation Gemini. EarthSky.org says anytime between today and early Thursday morning will be good for viewing the Geminids.

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“These meteors are known for being bright, so some Geminid meteors may well overcome this  year’s moonlit glare,” writes Bruce McClure in EarthSky.

Courtesy EarthSky
Courtesy EarthSky

No special equipment is needed to view the Geminids, and McClure notes to make sure to look for the planet Jupiter, which will rise in the east during this week’s early morning hours.

“Be sure to give yourself at least an hour of observing time,” McClure says. “It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark.”

Unfortunately  in South Florida, the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies tonight, which won’t make for great viewing. But the sky begins to clear some on Wednesday when you should still be able to see meteors falling.

“The Geminid meteor shower is the favorite of most meteor observers as it usually provides the strongest display of the year,” wrote Robert Lunsford in a blog for the American Meteor Society. “The Geminids are one of the few annual meteor showers that are active all night long.”

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South Florida steams with abnormally warm temperatures, but cool down coming

Typical autumn cold snaps that blast arctic-chilled air through the Sunshine State have yet to make forays into South Florida as La Nina takes control of the upper atmosphere.

The periodic climate phenomenon that usually follows El Nino can straighten out the polar jet stream – shooting the ribbon of fast winds straight across the country like an arrow and preventing deep dips into the south.

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That means cooler air remains bottled to its north and that South Florida gets piddling fronts that spit rain but don’t do much to bring down temperatures.

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“Florida is in its own little world right now because cold air just hasn’t been coming down,” said Dan Kottlowski, a meteorologist with the Pennsylvania-based Accuweather. “If the polar jet doesn’t dip far enough down over the central and eastern U.S., it’s not going to slip into Florida.”

This month, the average temperature is about five degrees above normal as measured at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, with only three days near or below the normal daytime high of 77 degrees.

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On Dec. 6, the record high temperature of 87 set in 1972 was tied in West Palm Beach, with the low of 74 degrees also tying a 1972 record for the warmest overnight temperature.

Monday’s high temperature of 83 was six degrees above normal, but was far from the 1997 record high of 87 degrees.

“By the time (the fronts) get to us, they’re not that cold anymore,” said Larry Kelly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. “All we are getting is our temperatures set back to normal.”

This week, the coldest air of the season is forecast to spill out of Canada into the northern Plains before moving east. Temperatures in parts of the Central U.S. could drop 20 to 30 degrees below average with Chicago likely dipping below 0 at night. Highs only in the teens are expected in areas from Washington, D.C. to Boston on Thursday.

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“A lot of people think this is really cold, and they are right,” Kottlowski said. “It’s more typical of what you might see in January and definitely colder than last year at this time.”

While Florida will get a front meandering through on Thursday, it’s expected to only drop temperatures a few degrees. Thursday and Friday are still expected to reach into the mid to high 70s. Saturday could be back up to 80 degrees.

“With the jet stream being displaced so far north and the wind flow out of the southwest, fronts weaken significantly as they move down the Florida peninsula, resulting in our mild and humid weather for most of this month,” said Robert Molleda, warning coordination meteorologist for the NWS in Miami.

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Successful launch of CYGNSS mission

NASA’s CYGNSS mission of unique weather satellites launched successfully this morning after two delays.

The eight satellites are so small they were all carried on a  Pegasus rocket.

With core technologies the size of a loaf of bread and weighing just 64 pounds each, the innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System will belt the Earth between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn to monitor hurricane hot spots.

Watch live here on NASA TV. 

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Artist’s concept of one of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System satellites deployed in space above a hurricane. Courtesy NASA

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The convoy of mini-satellites uses GPS to measure wind speeds at the warm surface core of tropical cyclones — where ocean meets air. It’s a region shrouded from even the most advanced radar technologies by rain drops, but believed to be critical in predicting cyclone intensity, girth and potential storm surge.

And unlike the 6,280-pound behemoth GOES-R weather spacecraft that was successfully launched Nov. 19 from the Cape, the minis will spread out around the globe providing full-time coverage of all the tropics all the time.

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“This isn’t the first set of micro-satellites, but this is the vanguard of new satellites, it’s the beginning,” said Christine Bonniksen, NASA’s program executive for the system, dubbed CYGNSS. “These smaller satellites, with all the advances in technology, are becoming much more capable and can provide more frequent readings.”

Read more about the groundbreaking technology of CYGNSS here and what it will mean to weather forecasting in the U.S. 

The satellites are being carried on a Pegasus rocket which is air-launched, released from a carrier aircraft at about 40,000 feet.

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The project is the first space-based system selected for funding by NASA’s Earth Venture Program, which focuses on lower-cost, science-driven missions that can be rapidly developed.

About $155 million was awarded for CYGNSS, which includes $102 million to principal investigator Chris Ruf, a professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Climate and Space Sciences, and $53 million for the Pegasus rocket. Because the satellites are so light, they can all launch on one rocket.

“This has not been done before on a satellite,” said Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center. “It’s experimental and very intriguing with the promise that it may help us quite a bit.”

While forecasting the path of a hurricane has improved 50 percent over the past 15 years, forecasting storm intensity has lagged.

Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Florida Oct. 6, 2016
Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Florida Oct. 6, 2016

James Franklin, chief of the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane specialist unit, said the error rates for intensity were basically flat between 1990 and 2010. They’ve since fallen, and Franklin said there appears to have been about a 20 percent improvement in intensity errors the past 5 to 7 years.

Still, October’s Hurricane Matthew caught forecasters off guard when it intensified by 80 mph in 24 hours to become a dangerous Category 5 hurricane with 160 mph winds.

Part of the challenge in forecasting intensity is penetrating the hurricane eyewall to gather information about a storm’s inner core and the critical interactions happening in a slice of atmosphere just above the surface of the sea where the strongest winds are found.

Frank Marsik, an associate research scientist with University of Michigan’s Department of Climate and Space Sciences, said wind speeds are currently measured by satellites with radar scatterometers that emit microwave pulses toward the ocean’s surface and measure the subsequent backscattered signals.

The idea is a calm ocean will reflect very little microwave emissions back to the satellite, while wind-whipped waves will reflect more, helping forecasters determine wind strength.

But the signals break apart in the intense rainfall typically found at the eye of a hurricane.

CYGNSS will use already available GPS signals from existing satellites that are transmitted all day all over the globe and at a lower frequency than the scatterometers.

“As a result, the GPS signals can penetrate through the intense tropical rainfall associated with a hurricane eyewall, allowing the CYGNSS team to probe the inner core of hurricanes for the first time,” Marsik said. “This is critical, as improved forecasts of hurricane intensity (wind speed) will also lead to improvements in the forecast of the storm surge associated with land-falling hurricanes.”

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Thunderstorms, some strong, expected this afternoon

The Storm Prediction Center is warning that strong thunderstorms are possible this afternoon in South Florida as a cold front moves through the state.

Cold front moving through North Florida is expected to reach Palm Beach County late this afternoon.
Cold front moving through North Florida is expected to reach Palm Beach County late this afternoon.

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A southerly wind flow is pulling up warm moist area that will collide with the front, causing the storms to increase into the evening hours.

Forecasters in Miami said the storms could bring gusty winds and hail. There is a chance West Palm Beach will be missed by the storms if the sea breeze kicks up and pushes cloudiness and rain west where thunderstorms could form after colliding with a Lake Okeechobee breeze.

Cold front location valid at 2 p.m.
Cold front location valid at 2 p.m.

But the sea breeze depends on how warm we get today. If clouds increase and keep temperatures low, there’s a better chance that the storms could develop along the coast and dampen tonight’s lighting of West Palm Beach’s 35-foot Sandi Christmas Tree.

“Some strong storms are possible,” said Robert Garcia, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. “We’re thinking the primary hazards are lightning, gusty winds and the potential for small hail.”

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Last year, Sandi got swamped by widespread rains the first week in December and had to be repaired to the tune of $5,100. The heavy rain and winds knocked down Sandi’s star and blew out lights.

The deluge, which set rainfall records across South Florida and flooded streets in Miami-Dade County, left a sheet of sand puddled near part of the tree as carved candy canes and lollipops dissolved in the swamping.

Tonight’s lighting event runs from 6 to 10 p.m. 

A worker sprays a fine mixture similar to glue and water to keep sand from blowing away in this 2015 photo of Sandi being repaired after torrential rains.
A worker sprays a fine mixture similar to glue and water to keep sand from blowing away in this 2015 photo of Sandi being repaired after torrential rains.

Garcia said up to a half-inch of rain is expected through Saturday in South Florida.

The cold front will cool things off a little tomorrow and through the weekend, but overnight lows will remain slightly above normal for this time of year.

Saturday and Sunday are expected to have high temperatures near 80 degrees with lows near 70. The normal overnight low for this time of year is 63 degrees.

“This front struggles to be classified as a cold front,” Garcia said. “We’ll see a couple degrees of cooling but otherwise we’re looking to be in pretty much the same shape.”

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Palm Beach County at highest risk for increasing wildfire threat, Forest Service warns

A parched autumn has increased the chances of dangerous wildfires in South Florida and Forest Service officials are warning of the potential for widespread damage.

Scott Peterich, wildfire mitigation specialist for the Florida Forest Service, said Palm Beach County is at the highest danger for wildfires of in the tri-county area including Broward and Miami-Dade counties.  Vegetation dries out quickly in parts of Florida because of the sandier soils.

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A brushfire burns near Timber Trace Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens, July 1, 2015. ( Eric Paquarelli /WPTV, News Channel 5)
A brushfire burns near Timber Trace Elementary School in Palm Beach Gardens, July 1, 2015. ( Eric Paquarelli /WPTV, News Channel 5)

According to the South Florida Water Management District, most of eastern Palm Beach County and further west to the north of the county has a more than seven inch deficit of rainfall from June through November. November’s deficit is more than three inches.

A cold front moving through Florida today could mean thunderstorms this afternoon, which forecasters said could mean heavy rainfall in the east coast metro areas.

“Our drought index has been steadily increasing the past several weeks due to lower than normal rainfall,” Peterich said. “These dry conditions have resulted in an increase of wildfires throughout the district.”

A sandy line encircles Clear Lake in West Palm Beach, which is part of the city's water supply. Photo by Post photographer Bill Ingram
A sandy line encircles Clear Lake in West Palm Beach in this 2015 photo. Photo by Post photographer Bill Ingram

Peterich said there were eight wildfires in the Everglades District in November, compared to four last year.

Peterich uses the Keetch-Byram Drought Index to gauge wildfire risk. The index measures drought on a 0-to-800 scale with 800 being desert and 0 being saturated ground.

According to the index, which is updated daily, Palm Beach County scored 457, with Broward and Miami-Dade counties scoring 444 and 367, respectively.

Ferocious wildfires are being blamed for seven deaths in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park that gutted more than 700 structures.

Some areas of Florida are facing abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions.

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Incredible images of Florida tornado as severe storms roll through Panhandle

National Weather Service forecasters are warning of severe storms moving into Gulf Coast states, including areas of Florida’s Panhandle.

Several people just tweeted photos of a tornado that formed near Destin including this incredible video of it forming.

https://twitter.com/JustIN_Disaster/status/804025598150578176

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Five named storms hit the U.S. this hurricane season, most since 2008

Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project released its summation this morning of the 2016 hurricane season, noting the number of powerful, long-lasting storms.

According to the project, which is headed by hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach, 2016 had three major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher, which is the first year with at least three major storms since 2011.

A major hurricane has winds of 111 mph or higher. Hurricane season runs June through November. The season also had 9.75 major hurricane days, which is the most in a single Atlantic season since 2010.

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This  year’s major hurricanes included Gaston, Matthew and Nicole. Matthew, which topped out with 161-mph winds,  was the first Category 5 storm in the Atlantic basin since Felix in 2007.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center also released its year-end report today. Researchers there focused on the fact that five named storms made landfall in the U.S. this season – the most since 2008 when six storms struck.

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Hurricane Hermine approaches Florida

Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Matthew struck South Carolina. Tropical Storms Colin and Julia, and Hurricane Hermine, made landfall in Florida. Hermine was the first hurricane to hit Florida since 2005.

“What’s been unusual is the break we’ve had in storms over the past many years,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal forecaster for the Climate Prediction Center. “Getting back to  more storms threatening the Caribbean and the U.S. is getting back to a more typical season.”

Bell said the number of major storms was a function of a more conducive atmosphere. He noted Hurricane Matthew as a standout.

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Other notable Matthew facts provided by CSU  include:

  • 80 mph intensification in 24 hours – the third strongest rapid intensification in the Atlantic on record, following Wilma in 2005 and 2007’s Felix.
  • Lowest latitude Atlantic Category 5 on record.
  • Longest-lived Category 4-5 hurricane in the eastern Caribbean.
  • Maintained Category 4-05 hurricane strength for 102 hours in October – the longest that a hurricane has maintained Cat 4-5 strength on record during October in the Atlantic.
  • Maintained major hurricane strength for 7.25 days – the longest-lived major hurricane forming after Sept. 25 on record and longest lasting at any time since Ivan in 2004.
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Hurricane Matthew near Florida on Oct. 6, 2016

The report notes that the project’s forecast was a little off for this season, calling for only six named storms when there were seven, and expecting only five major hurricane days, when there were 9.75.

That’s more than 2 times the average number of major hurricane days between 1981 and 2010.

Other noteworthy characteristics of the 2016 season include:

  • A total of 78.25 named storm days and 26.25 hurricane days occurred in 2016. Both are the most in an individual Atlantic hurricane season since 2012.
  • The 9.75 major hurricane days are the  most in a single Atlantic season since 2010.
  • Alex was the second strongest hurricane on record in January in the Atlantic.
  • Hermine made landfall in the Big Bend region of Florida on Sept. 2 – ending the state’s record-long hurricane drought of 3,966 days.
  • Otto was the latest calendar year Atlantic hurricane on record to make landfall.
Hurricane Otto heads toward Costa Rica and Nicaragua on Nov. 22, 2016
Hurricane Otto heads toward Costa Rica and Nicaragua on Nov. 22, 2016

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2016 hurricane season made history, ended with a bang

The tropics awoke early and furious in 2016, brewing up January’s Hurricane Alex, sending Hermine to shatter Florida’s unprecedented hurricane drought, and terrorizing coastal communities from Palm Beach County to the Carolinas with Category 4 Matthew.

And in the end, Otto reminded everyone why hurricane season lasts through Nov. 30.

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Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Florida Oct. 6, 2016
Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Florida Oct. 6, 2016

The rare November hurricane grew in the only area left this late in the year for tropical development – the deeply warm waters of the southwest Caribbean Sea. Otto gained hurricane status on Tuesday, making it the latest hurricane on record to form in the Caribbean.

“I think this could go down in the record books as one of the longest hurricane seasons,” said Bryan Norcross, a hurricane expert with The Weather Channel, who is also known for walking South Florida through 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. “It is extremely unusual to have Alex so early in the year and have Otto so late in the year.”

Not since 2012 has the Atlantic produced an O-named storm, but seasonal forecasters predicted 2016 would be the year.

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With the exception of Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin, 2015 was a mostly forgettable season that was marked by a cyclone-suppressing El Nino of record strength. The atmospheric phenomenon of warming equatorial Pacific waters is typically followed by a cooling La Nina phase that can be more accommodating to tropical cyclones.

Hurricane Otto takes aim at Costa Rica and Nicaragua
Hurricane Otto takes aim at Costa Rica and Nicaragua

But La Nina was waffling as the 2016 hurricane season neared and climate scientists tried to weigh that uncertainty.

“I remember thinking there could be lingering wind shear from El Nino, but in the back of our minds we thought the water temperatures were so warm along the southeast coast and in the Gulf of Mexico that those could be the determining factor,” said Dan Kottlowski, a hurricane expert with the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather. “The season kind of unfolded like we expected.”

Find out how the forecasters did with the 2016 predictions in the rest of the story. 

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South Florida temperatures this week 5-8 degrees above normal

As winter storm Blanche dumps up to 12 inches of snow in the northern plains, South Florida will see temperatures reach as high as 5-8 degrees above normal this week.

The sun rises behind the Worth Avenue clock tower on Nov. 29, 2016
The sun rises behind the Worth Avenue clock tower on Nov. 29, 2016

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A surface high pressure system sitting near Bermuda is to thank for what will become mostly sunny skies by Wednesday and daytime temperatures that climb to 83 degrees.  Overnight lows are expected be near 70 degrees.

The normal high temperature for this time of year is 78 degrees, the normal low is 63 degrees.

See what the next winter storm will be named? 

National Weather Service forecasters said the high will block any cold fronts from moving through South Florida for the time being and keep the persistent blustery east winds going for at least another day.

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Rain chances remain low through the week, although tick up slightly to 30 percent Sunday.

Forecasters aren’t ruling out a coastal shower or two as the east winds blow in moisture off the Atlantic. Tonight, a 20 percent chance of rain may still give you a chance to see the space station flyover visible from Palm Beach County at 5:56. Look to the southwest where the station will appear and be visible for five minutes.

A high risk of rip current alert was issued this morning for Palm Beach County beaches. This is expected to last at least through Wednesday as the southeast winds remain persistent. It could drop to a  moderate risk of rip currents Wednesday.

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rip current

 

South Florida lawns dusted in flowery “snow” with dry November

Winter storm Blanche may be dumping snow in the frigid northern Plains, but South Florida has its own dusting of white with the fall proliferation of the pusley plant.

The delicate flower dotting lawns and swales thrives during autumn’s drier months and can take over large swaths of grass stressed by insects, improper mowing, disease or lack of water.

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With funnel-shaped flowers of white, pink or light purple, pusley, nicknamed “Florida snow”, can be a burden or beauty depending on perspective. It’s drought tolerant and attracts butterflies, but turf purists may rebuke the invading ground cover as a weed.

“Some people see it and think it looks so pretty along the road they want to know where to get it,” said Joel Crippen, horticulturist for Mounts Botanical Garden in unincorporated West Palm Beach. “We have a little here and there, but don’t really worry too much about it because when it’s not blooming, it stays green.”

Pusley thrives in drier soil and November has been more parched than normal. According to the South Florida Water Management District, much of Palm Beach County is down nearly three inches of rain for the month, and is running a 7-inch deficit since June.

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Because pusley — formally known as Richardia scabra — grows very low to the ground, it often escapes mower blades that are usually recommended to be set at 3 to 4 inches so as not to scalp grass.

Once the ground cover is established, each flower produces three sticky nutlets. With each plant cluster containing 20 flowers, it has a lot of seeds to spread.

Ed Skvarch, St. Lucie County Extension director and horticulturist, said his office gets several calls this time of year about the pusley plant, wanting to know what it is and, often, how to get rid of it.

“I explain that we call it Florida snow and that they should embrace it and use it in their winter wonderland Christmas decorations outside,” Skvarch said.

Skvarch took his own advice. He said he once had a large patch of white-flowering pusley in his front yard. He put skies down on it and sat a snowman on top.

“It looked like he was skiing,” he said.

For people who strive for a pristine green lawn of pure St. Augustine or Bahia turf, removing pusley can be a challenge.

A 2011 paper written by a horticulture agent for the University of Florida said hand weeding may be fruitless because the plant’s small seeds will spill to the ground unnoticed, growing new plants. There are three varieties of pusley, which is related to tropical plants such as gardenia, ixora, penta firebush and wild coffee, according to the paper.

“What people are calling pusley, may actually be large-flower pusley or Brazilian pusley,” said Laurie Albrecht, Palm Beach County environmental horticulture extension agent.

Horticulturists steer away from recommending herbicide to fight the pusley, suggesting changes in lawn care maintenance that will improve turf health to help overcome the weed. Those changes can include watering more and setting the lawn mower higher.

But if 50 percent or more of a lawn is overcome, Albrecht said the cure is total turf replacement.

“If it’s over 50 percent, there is no recommendation except to start over and re-sod,” she said. “The problem is, all the flowers turn to seed and they spread and pretty soon there are a lot more.”

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