Voices

January was polar opposite of 2009

I remember last winter, when it seemed as if every column I wrote each week had something to do with snow and cold. Leave it to Mother Nature to balance things out, as I write another column about above-normal warmth and the lack of snow this season.

For Spokane, January has gone down in the record books as the eighth warmest since 1881, and the fourth least snowy (1.4 inches). Surprisingly, though it probably seemed like a distant memory after January 2008 and 2009, January 2006 was the seventh warmest, with an average temperature of 35.5 degrees, compared to this January’s 35.1 degrees. As far as snowfall was concerned, only January 1900 (trace), 1994 (0.9 inch), and 1934 (1.3 inches) were drier. Our neighbors to the west were even toastier. This year Seattle saw the warmest January on record, with average temperatures warmer than a typical March.

And just when meteorologists thought forecasting couldn’t get complicated enough, imagine if we added another layer of information to your nightly weathercasts – storm forecasts for the sun. Scientists have recently studied the correlation between solar storms and sunspots with weather and climatological events here on earth. Some scientists have gone so far as to say that a dramatic drop in sunspot activity would result in significant global cooling in the near future. This is based in part on what was observed during the Maunder Minimum, a period between 1645 and 1715, when very few sunspots were observed.

This period coincided with the middle of the Little Ice Age during which much of the world suffered bitterly cold winters. Long-term forecasts aside, however, solar storms have a greater immediate impact on our planet. While the last two years have been a virtual calm in regard to solar storms, with a lack of sunspots not seen since 1913, it looks like things are starting to “heat” up again. Scientists are seeing signs that sunspot activity is increasing, and are forecasting that the activity could peak in 2012. These vast solar storms send out billions of tons of charged particles toward the earth, jamming telecommunications satellites, causing power outages, and even exposing astronauts and passengers on commercial flights over the poles to dangerous levels of radiation.

This week, NASA is set to launch a satellite for monitoring solar activity called the Solar Dynamics Observatory. This will likely help the folks at the Space Weather Prediction Center. Like the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., where meteorologists work to give the public a heads-up on hazardous weather, scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center have developed a computer model that can forecast solar flares two to three days ahead of time.



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