Red River rising: 18th consecutive year of flooding--why?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:08 PM GMT on March 19, 2010

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The Red River at Fargo, North Dakota continues to rise, with a peak expected Sunday at the 4th highest flood level observed in the past century. "Major" flood level is 30 feet, which the river surpassed on Wednesday, and the river is expected to crest near 38 feet on Sunday, just 2.8 feet below the record set last year. Flood stage is eighteen feet, and the Red River has now reached flood stage at Fargo for eighteen consecutive years, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to this remarkable stretch of flooding (which began in 1993), the river flooded in just 29 of 90 years. This year's flood is rated as somewhere between a 50-year and 100-year flood. Last year's record flood was a 100-year flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lists the 10-year flood level for the Red River at Fargo to be 10,300 cubic feet per second. A 10-year flood, historically, has a 10% chance of occurring in a given year. In the last twenty years, the Red River has had eight 10-year floods--one every 2.5 years, on average. This year is the fourth year out of the past five with a 10-year flood. Clearly, flooding has increased significantly along the Red River over the past twenty years.


Figure 1. Current and forecast flood stage for the Red River of the North at Fargo, ND. You can access images like these using our wundermap for Fargo with the "USGS River" layer turned on. Click on the icon for USGS station 05054000, then hit the "click for graph" link.

Reasons for flooding: landform factors
According the U.S. Geological Survey, the unique landform characteristics of the Red River Valley make it highly susceptible to flooding. These factors include:

1) A relatively shallow and meandering river channel--a shallow channel holds less water and the meandering can cause flow to slow down as the channel makes its turns, causing over-bank flooding.

2) A gentle slope (averaging 0.5 to 1.5 feet per mile) that inhibits channel flow and encourages overland flooding or water "ponding" (especially on even, saturated ground) in the basin.

3) The northerly direction of flow--flow in the Red River travels from south (upstream) to north (downstream). The direction of flow becomes a critical factor in the spring when the southern (upstream) part of the Red River has thawed and the northern (downstream) part of the channel is still frozen. As water moves north toward the still frozen river channel, ice jams and substantial backwater flow and flooding can occur.


Figure 2. Peak flow of the Red River at Fargo, North Dakota through time. The two largest flow rates occurred last year (2009), and in 1997. The projected crest for Sunday (red circle) would be fourth greatest flood since reliable records began in 1901. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

Reasons for this year's flood: highly unfavorable weather conditions
The USGS also cites five weather factors that can act to enhance flooding along the Red River. All five of these factors occurred to a significant degree this year:

1) Above-normal amounts of precipitation in the fall of the year that produce high levels of soil moisture, particularly in flat surface areas, in the basin. North Dakota had its 22nd wettest fall in the 115-year record in 2009.

2) Freezing of saturated ground in late fall or early winter, before significant snowfall occurs, that produces a hard, deep frost that limits infiltration of runoff during snowmelt. Fargo had a November that was much warmer than average, followed by a sudden plunge to below-zero temperatures by the second week of December. This froze the saturated ground to a great depth.

3) Above-normal winter snowfall in the basin. North Dakota had a top 15% winter for precipitation, with the period December 2009 - February 2010 ranking 15th wettest in the past 115 years.

4) Above-normal precipitation during snowmelt. Precipitation for March 1 - 18 has been 1.41", compared to the average of 0.61".

5) Above-normal temperatures during snowmelt. High temperatures in Fargo have averaged 6°F warmer than normal for March 1 - 18.

Urbanization increases flooding
Urbanization has had a major impact on increasing flooding not only along the Red River, but in every river basin in the U.S. Many cities and developed areas are located in flood plains next to major rivers and their tributaries. Highways, streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and buildings now cover large areas of the ground that used to absorb excess rain water and slow the rate at which run-off from precipitation and melting snow reached rivers. By developing large portions of our flood plains, run-off now reaches rivers more quickly, generating higher floods.

Building levees and flood defenses increases flood peaks
Defending ourselves against floods has made floods worse. Every time a new levee is built, or an old floodwall raised in height to prevent overtopping, more and more water is forced into the river bed, which raises the height of the flood. Flood waters that used to be able to spread out over their natural flood plains are now forbidden from spilling out over newly developed land in flood plains. For example, proposed improvements to the flood defense system in Fargo could cause a 4 - 10 inch rise in floods immediately downstream from the city, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Precipitation is increasing
As the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 IPCC report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. Satellite measurements (Trenberth et al., 2005) have shown a 1.3% per decade increase in water vapor over the global oceans since 1988. Santer et al. (2007) used a climate model to study the relative contribution of natural and human-caused effects on increasing water vapor, and concluded that this increase was "primarily due to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases". This was also the conclusion of Willet et al. (2007). This increase in water vapor has very likely led to an increase in global precipitation. For instance, over the U.S., where we have very good precipitation records, annual average precipitation has increased 7% over the past century (Groisman et al., 2004). Precipitation over the Red River drainage basin increased by about 10 - 20% during the 20th Century (Figure 3.) The same study also found a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events over the U.S. in the past century. These are the type of events most likely to cause flooding. Kunkel et al. (2003) also found an increase in heavy precipitation events over the U.S. in recent decades, but noted that heavy precipitation events were nearly as frequent at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, though the data is not as reliable back then.


Figure 3. Change in precipitation over the U.S. between 1900 - 2000, from the U.S. Cooperative network. Precipitation in the Red River drainage area increased by 10 - 20% over the 20th century. Image credit: Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends (Groisman et al., 2002).

The future of flooding
As the population continues to expand, development in flood plains and construction of new levees and flood protection systems will continue to push floods to higher heights. With global warming expected to continue and drive ever higher precipitation amounts--falling preferentially in heavy precipitation events--it is highly probable that flooding in the Red River Valley--and over most of the northern 2/3 of the U.S. where precipitation increases are likely--will see higher and more frequent floods. With these higher and more frequent floods comes the increased risk of multi-billion dollar disasters, when a record flood event overwhelms flood defenses and inundates huge areas of developed flood plains. Obviously, we need to make smart decisions to limit development in flood plains to reduce the cost and suffering of these future flooding disasters.

References
Kunkel, K. E., D. R. Easterling, K. Redmond, and K. Hubbard, 2003, "Temporal variations of extreme precipitation events in the United States: 1895.2000", Geophys. Res. Lett., 30(17), 1900, doi:10.1029/2003GL018052.

Groisman, P.Y., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004, "Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends Derived from In Situ Observations," J. Hydrometeor., 5, 64.85.

Milly, P.C.D., R.T. Wetherald, K.A. Dunne, and T.L.Delworth, Increasing risk of great floods in a changing climate", Nature 415, 514-517 (31 January 2002) | doi:10.1038/415514a.

Santer, B.D., C. Mears, F. J. Wentz, K. E. Taylor, P. J. Gleckler, T. M. L. Wigley, T. P. Barnett, J. S. Boyle, W. Brüggemann, N. P. Gillett, S. A. Klein, G. A. Meehl, T. Nozawa, D. W. Pierce, P. A. Stott, W. M. Washington, and M. F. Wehner, 2007, "Identification of human-induced changes in atmospheric moisture content", PNAS 2007 104: 15248-15253.

Trenberth, K.E., J. Fasullo, and L. Smith, 2005: "Trends and variability in column-integrated atmospheric water vapor", Climate Dynamics 24, 741-758.

Willett, K.M., N.P. Gillett, P.D. Jones, and P.W. Thorne, 2007, "Attribution of observed surface humidity changes to human influence", Nature 449, 710-712 (11 October 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06207.

Links
A good way to track the flooding event is to use our wundermap for the Red River with the USGS River layer turned on.

The Fargo Flood webpage of North Dakota State University, Fargo, has some excellent links.

I'll have a new post on Monday or Tuesday.

Jeff Masters

Red River Flood 2006 (mw25)
The water level of the Red River when I took this photo was 47.2 feet, 19.2 feet above flood stage and the 6th highest level in Grand Forks' history. The river is expected to crest at 47.4 feet on Wednesday morning. Luckily, no homes have been lost in the Grand Forks area as of yet due to the flooding.
Red River Flood 2006
Fargo Flood 2009 - Elm & 15th Ave. N. (tliebenow)
Picture says it all. Clay dike built to contain the Red River in North Fargo.
Fargo Flood 2009 - Elm & 15th Ave. N.

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Quoting beell:
The jet axis is located at about lat. 2%u2009N close to the Guinean Coast in winter and at lat. 14%u2009N in summer.

Link

So, here we are midway between winter and summer. Which should place the mean jet axis at about 8 N...



The climatological mean position for March is 2-3N:

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26547
Quoting Patrap:




My desk looks like it has been turned over most da time Chief.
but like i tell my wife don't touch anything cause i know where everything is
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 169 Comments: 53296
Cyclone Ului making headway Inland

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 420 Comments: 127536
Quoting StormW:


LOL!

Then turn the desk over! lol!




My desk looks like it has been turned over most da time Chief.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 420 Comments: 127536
605. beell
The jet axis is located at about lat. 2° N close to the Guinean Coast in winter and at lat. 14° N in summer.

Link

So, here we are midway between winter and summer. Which should place the mean jet axis at about 8° N...

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
I just checked the ir picture before entering this site ant said to my self . " what a tropical wave this early " but why not here in belize the dry seson has started a month early why not a early tropical wave
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
My Monitor looks silly upside down..
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 420 Comments: 127536
601. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
6:13 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 169 Comments: 53296
600. wunderkidcayman
6:12 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting StormW:
Quoting wunderkidcayman:


so surface trough or tropical wave


We'll see which one the NHC calls it at 18z.



Turn this upside down...what do you have?


not sure a backward tropical wave
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 10938
597. Drakoen
6:11 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting StormW:
Turn this upside down...what do you have?



a trough
Member Since: October 28, 2006 Posts: 57 Comments: 29886
596. Hurricanes101
6:09 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting StormW:
Turn this upside down...waht do you have?



The Flying V? lol
Member Since: March 10, 2010 Posts: 1 Comments: 7361
594. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
6:08 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting atmoaggie:

Boing!

High in the 50s tomorrow in SE LA...
crazy weather this time yesterday we were near 70 degrees for a high today right now its 38 what a difference 24 hrs can make
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593. Patrap
6:05 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Roughest Place on Earth this Hour..



128 km Bowen Radar Loop
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592. Levi32
6:03 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting atmoaggie:

Boing!

High in the 50s tomorrow in SE LA...


Low 40s here :/
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26547
591. Patrap
6:02 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Pour your misery down on me..
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 420 Comments: 127536
590. atmoaggie
6:01 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
spring was todaty at 132 est or 28 mins ago

Boing!

High in the 50s tomorrow in SE LA...
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
589. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
6:01 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 169 Comments: 53296
588. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
6:00 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Patrap:
GOM IR Loop





dev.gale centre
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587. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
5:59 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting ElConando:
Isn't spring tomorrow?
spring was todaty at 132 est or 28 mins ago
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586. Patrap
5:58 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
GOM IR Loop



Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 420 Comments: 127536
585. Levi32
5:52 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting nrtiwlnvragn:
ITCZ AXIS IS CENTERED ALONG 7N11W 5N23W 4N25W CROSSING THE
EQUATOR NEAR 43W AND INTO NE BRAZIL NEAR 1S47W. CLUSTERS OF
SCATTERED MODERATE/STRONG CONVECTION ARE FROM THE EQUATOR TO 7N
E OF 07W. A SURFACE TROUGH IS EMBEDDED WITHIN THE AXIS FROM
2N-8N ALONG 24W. SCATTERED MODERATE CONVECTION IS FROM 2N-8N
BETWEEN 19W-28W. THE CONVECTION ASSOCIATED WITH THE SURFACE
TROUGH CONTINUES TO BE ENHANCED EAST OF AN UPPER LEVEL LOW
CENTERED OVER THE TROPICAL ATLC NEAR 6N34W.


Link


K there we go. As I figured most of the convection is being enhanced by the large upper low to the west. It is an interesting feature to have this early in the year though. The AEJ is still quite impressive for March.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26547
584. atmoaggie
5:51 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting wunderkidcayman:
SO TROPICAL WAVE OR SURFACE TROUGH VOTE NOW !!!

Vote? It's an election day?
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
583. Tropicsweatherpr
5:48 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Surface Trough:

...ITCZ...

ITCZ AXIS IS CENTERED ALONG 7N11W 5N23W 4N25W CROSSING THE
EQUATOR NEAR 43W AND INTO NE BRAZIL NEAR 1S47W. CLUSTERS OF
SCATTERED MODERATE/STRONG CONVECTION ARE FROM THE EQUATOR TO 7N
E OF 07W. A SURFACE TROUGH IS EMBEDDED WITHIN THE AXIS FROM
2N-8N ALONG 24W. SCATTERED MODERATE CONVECTION IS FROM 2N-8N
BETWEEN 19W-28W. THE CONVECTION ASSOCIATED WITH THE SURFACE
TROUGH CONTINUES TO BE ENHANCED EAST OF AN UPPER LEVEL LOW
CENTERED OVER THE TROPICAL ATLC NEAR 6N34W.
Member Since: April 29, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 13995
582. nrtiwlnvragn
5:48 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
ITCZ AXIS IS CENTERED ALONG 7N11W 5N23W 4N25W CROSSING THE
EQUATOR NEAR 43W AND INTO NE BRAZIL NEAR 1S47W. CLUSTERS OF
SCATTERED MODERATE/STRONG CONVECTION ARE FROM THE EQUATOR TO 7N
E OF 07W. A SURFACE TROUGH IS EMBEDDED WITHIN THE AXIS FROM
2N-8N ALONG 24W. SCATTERED MODERATE CONVECTION IS FROM 2N-8N
BETWEEN 19W-28W. THE CONVECTION ASSOCIATED WITH THE SURFACE
TROUGH CONTINUES TO BE ENHANCED EAST OF AN UPPER LEVEL LOW
CENTERED OVER THE TROPICAL ATLC NEAR 6N34W.


Link
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581. ElConando
5:47 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Isn't spring tomorrow?
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580. Levi32
5:45 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting wunderkidcayman:


so surface trough or tropical wave


We'll see which one the NHC calls it at 18z.
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579. wunderkidcayman
5:43 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Levi32:


The thing that's confusing about it is a surface trough in the ITCZ actually IS a tropical wave, if it's during the summer. That's what a tropical wave is by definition, an inverted trough. If the NHC calls it just a trough then it would be because they don't think Africa is capable of producing a "real" tropical wave this early. That's because "real" tropical waves are created by the AEJ (African Easterly Jet). But that's why this could be so impressive because the AEJ actually is there, much further north and stronger than it should be this early in the year. Based on the trough's position, it actually could be a real tropical wave, if the signature is strong enough.

The thing is there really is no difference between a surface trough embedded in the ITCZ and a tropical wave. The only real difference is their methods of formation. You usually don't get a trough in the ITCZ if it's not a tropical wave or a monsoon trough.


so surface trough or tropical wave
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578. JRRP
5:42 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
may 2, 2008
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577. tropicaltank
5:39 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
It looks like a tropical wave to me.
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576. Levi32
5:38 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting weatherbro:


What's The AEJ?


African Easterly Jet, a belt of winds strongest at the 650mb level that travels across west Africa during the summer. Tropical waves form baroclinically and barotropically within and just south of this jet.
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575. weatherbro
5:36 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Levi32:


Lol, yeah I bet. The NHC is probably just like no way it's March, a month early, but the AEJ is further north than normal so it's possible. I don't know as much about analyzing tropical waves as weather456 does, and he's not here to help. From what I can tell it is definitely a weak surface trough, and it's in the right position south of the AEJ core, but it has a very weak signature, so I'm not sure what to make of it.


What's The AEJ?

[Edit-Nevermind, I know now.]
Member Since: May 26, 2007 Posts: 47 Comments: 1270
574. Levi32
5:35 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Bordonaro:


My vote: Surface Trough


The thing that's confusing about it is a surface trough in the ITCZ actually IS a tropical wave, if it's during the summer. That's what a tropical wave is by definition, an inverted trough. If the NHC calls it just a trough then it would be because they don't think Africa is capable of producing a "real" tropical wave this early. That's because "real" tropical waves are created by the AEJ (African Easterly Jet). But that's why this could be so impressive because the AEJ actually is there, much further north and stronger than it should be this early in the year. Based on the trough's position, it actually could be a real tropical wave, if the signature is strong enough.

The thing is there really is no difference between a surface trough embedded in the ITCZ and a tropical wave. The only real difference is their methods of formation. You usually don't get a trough in the ITCZ if it's not a tropical wave or a monsoon trough.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26547
573. JRRP
5:32 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 5327
572. Levi32
5:32 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Skepticall:


Why do you say former?


He decided to leave WU last December. He has new things to do in life. We all hope somehow he might come back but we can't count on it. He will be missed.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26547
569. Levi32
5:28 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Here we go, courtesy of our beloved former blogger, Weather456:

Date of first tropical wave since 2004:



Note: after he made this list, the first 2009 tropical wave rolled off Africa on May 13th.
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568. Bordonaro
5:27 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting wunderkidcayman:
SO TROPICAL WAVE OR SURFACE TROUGH VOTE NOW !!!


My vote: Surface Trough
Member Since: August 25, 2009 Posts: 20 Comments: 6785
567. Levi32
5:26 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Skyepony:


Me too. It's so low, ~5N. The ITCZ dives south as you go west. Not sure how much persistence we may see.

RGB loop..


Yeah. I'm actually really impressed with the AEJ right now. It's not even supposed to fully develop or be north of the equator during March, and yet it's up between 5N and 10N with stronger winds than normal right now. That's the only reason this could actually be a wave. I need to find 456's list of dates over the past 5 years when the first tropical wave formed. I believe they were all in late April and early May.
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566. wunderkidcayman
5:25 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
SO TROPICAL WAVE OR SURFACE TROUGH VOTE NOW !!!
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 10938
565. Bordonaro
5:24 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Drakoen:
Water vapor imagery and 200mb analysis from the RUC 16z shows an upper level trough over Western Texas. At the surface a cold front is pushing its way through eastern Texas with most locales behind the front already achieving the maximum temperature for the day. Radar imagery and surface observations show wrap around moisture behind the low is producing snow around Amarillo and points eastward. This snow should continue to push southeastward throughout the day. Ahead of the front showers and thunderstorm associated with frontogenetical forcing could produce an inch to 1.5 inches of rain from Houston to Corpus Christi.

The NAM AND GFS differ on the amount of precipitation that will fall but they agree on surface temperatures generally slightly above freezing in the Fort Worth and Dallas areas during the event. The NAM shows weak lifting and lack of moisture in the dendritic growth zone to support anything more than trace amounts. The GFS shows the snow growth zone up around 7,000-8,000ft and the saturation in the mid levels and a dewpoint depression from 900mb to the surface. This should allow for evaporative cooling to the freezing wetbulb temperature. Up to a 1/2in of snow for Fort Worth and Dallas possible with areas further north can expect 1-3 inches especially those areas close the Texas/Oklahoma Border.



Thanks Drak! We have had 1.05" of rain at the Dallas-Ft Worth Int'l AP here in N TX already today! And I saw a few light snow flurries flying around at about 12:10PM CDT!
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564. Levi32
5:24 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Closer look on the TPW
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563. Skyepony (Mod)
5:23 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting Levi32:


Oh you're right...didn't notice it was only the 6z discussion. Can't wait to see what the 12z says.


Me too. It's so low, ~5N. The ITCZ dives south as you go west. Not sure how much persistence we may see.

RGB loop..
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 161 Comments: 37326
562. Levi32
5:22 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Quoting pottery:
Yep, it sure looks like a trop. wave.
But check the water vapour image for the Atl.
It will get swallowed up whether its a wave or something else LOL.


Well yeah it's not going anywhere lol.

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26547
561. pottery
5:20 PM GMT on March 20, 2010
Yep, it sure looks like a trop. wave.
But check the water vapour image for the Atl.
It will get swallowed up whether its a wave or something else LOL.
Member Since: October 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 24018

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.