Though temperatures were running slightly below normal for much of the past week, sunny skies and light winds actually made for some pleasant weather conditions across the area. The thaw continues, and flooding has not been an issue thanks to sparse precipitation in the last several days.
Local weather has probably not been much of a hot topic lately, when you consider that meteors were streaking across the sky Tuesday morning and on Wednesday folks were able to enjoy a lunar eclipse. Despite the fact that the word “meteor” is in the title meteorologist, flying space rocks and likewise eclipsing lunar events were never in my field of study. I can’t even get my $30 telescope to focus in on the full moon on a clear night. With my physics background, however, I can explain briefly how a small piece of space rock can turn into a bright ball of fire seen in the dark sky.
The answer is simply friction. Rub your hands together and feel the heat generated. Because of friction, the energy of motion (moving your hands together) is converted into heat energy. The faster you rub your hands, the warmer they get. As a meteoroid enters the earth’s atmosphere, it is traveling at an extremely high rate of speed and encounters friction with the air. This heats up the meteoroid, which then reaches high temperatures and catches fire.
Usually the size of the meteoroid is small, and the heat is enough to completely disintegrate it before it hits the ground and becomes a meteorite. You may see many “shooting stars,” but few craters. Our space shuttles also have to deal with this frictional force and resulting heat when they re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. Without heat shields and other methods of dispersing the heat, our shuttles would end up as balls of fire as well.
Back to weather: While we have been experiencing rather quiet conditions across the Inland Northwest, a look around the rest of the U.S. shows that Mother Nature has been busy wreaking havoc elsewhere. A “super outbreak” of tornadoes during the first week of February brought damaging storms across the southern states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. There were 12 tornadoes in Tennessee alone.
The Southeast continues to suffer with exceptional drought, with the infamous Lake Lanier in Northern Georgia seeing little improvement after reaching record low levels this past December. More recently, just last weekend, a winter storm shut down the Kansas City International Airport for five hours, its longest shutdown in history. And just a few days ago, I was checking observations across the northern plains states of Minnesota and North Dakota and found temperatures ranging from 25 to 30 below zero with wind chills from 45 to 50 below zero. Let’s take a moment to thank the Rocky Mountains for shielding us from most of those bitter cold air invasions.
Looking ahead toward the end of winter and into early spring, it looks like moderate to strong La Niña conditions across the equatorial Pacific will continue. This scenario usually means a trend toward above average precipitation across the Pacific Northwest in the coming months. The latest 90-day temperature outlook from the Climate Prediction center calls for equal chances of above or below normal temperatures. Weather history for this area shows that chilly temperatures and significant snows can still whiten the area well into March, so keep the snow blowers handy. We’re not out of the woods of this record snowy season yet.
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