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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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.
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Quoting Skyepony:
You can spot it on TPW


Nice. Hmm...
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
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.

Member Since: October 28, 2006 Posts: 57 Comments: 29927
Some 850mb vorticity, but not much:

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
The "wave" is embedded of course in the ITCZ which you can see as the belt of converging winds and high moisture content:

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
556. Skyepony (Mod)
You can spot it on TPW
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 161 Comments: 37433
Quoting Skyepony:
The discussion came out before the surface map. The ITCZ is a little more north than it was, off Africa this morning. Pretty warm there.


Oh you're right...didn't notice it was only the 6z discussion. Can't wait to see what the 12z says.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
Visible Loop....hard to tell lol. It certainly looks like it doesn't it.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
553. Skyepony (Mod)
The discussion came out before the surface map. The ITCZ is a little more north than it was, off Africa this morning. Pretty warm there.
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 161 Comments: 37433
Quoting Hurricanes101:


doesnt mean it wont be labeled, I would imagine that this blog catches the tropical waves before the NHC recognizes them lol


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.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
Quoting Hurricanes101:


doesnt mean it wont be labeled, I would imagine that this blog catches the tropical waves before the NHC recognizes them lol

LOL!! :)
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 11177
Well, it's 12:07PM CDT here in Arlington, TX with SNOW FLURRIES!
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Tiny bit of potential vorticity:

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
But speaking of the AEJ, it looks to be going pretty strong and further north than it's supposed to be at the moment:

650mb Analysis



Climatology for March (it's 600mb not 650 because ESRL doesn't have that level):

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
Quoting Levi32:


I'm confused as well wunderkid, but the NHC did not label it a tropical wave or it would be in their tropical discussion, and it's not.


doesnt mean it wont be labeled, I would imagine that this blog catches the tropical waves before the NHC recognizes them lol
Member Since: March 10, 2010 Posts: 1 Comments: 7397
Quoting wunderkidcayman:

well ok then why is there a surface trough on the map for 12Z


I'm confused as well wunderkid, but the NHC did not label it a tropical wave or it would be in their tropical discussion, and it's not. It could be just a regular surface trough. By the NHC's reckoning a tropical wave may not be capable of forming within the AEJ this early in the year, so they aren't going to call it that.
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
Quoting Levi32:


It's just an area of convection along the ITCZ supported by upper divergence to the east of a large upper low.


well ok then why is there a surface trough on the map for 12Z
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 11177
Well Skye here's the 900mb Analysis from 12z and there might be a little bit of a kink...but I dunno.



650mb....still not all that much there:

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
Quoting Drakoen:


I'm working on an analysis for you with the incoming bufkit data


Thanks! It will be interesting to see even snow flurries this late in March!! Usually by now, we have a few days in the lower 80's!! Not this March, the warmest was 75F earlier in the week!!
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Quoting wunderkidcayman:
hey guys is that a surface trough of a tropical wave out there






It's looks like just an area of convection along the ITCZ supported by upper divergence to the east of a large upper low. The 850mb vorticity map doesn't go down that far though so I can't tell what it looks like at the surface.

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
541. Skyepony (Mod)
Wow.. looks like our 1st tropical wave of the season...
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 161 Comments: 37433
Quoting wunderkidcayman:
hey guys is that a surface trough of a tropical wave out there






Oh my, the cape-verde-casters start in MARCH now?? Sorry, no chance, come back in June where it's still crazy to suggest something like that will form, but actually possible. That is just the ITCZ.

Anyway, Australia with Ului on the right making landfall. Looks like it spun up to a pretty nasty storm last minute.
Member Since: July 29, 2006 Posts: 28 Comments: 1777
Ugh these Australian stations....so sparse and nearly all of them are down. Mackay stopped reporting 3 hours ago too.

Webcam is all we have now...updates as fast as you can refresh it:

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
hey guys is that a surface trough of a tropical wave out there




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537. Skyepony (Mod)
I never could find a cam in Ului's eye path.
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 161 Comments: 37433
536. Skyepony (Mod)
All the fires & smoke around me in Central FL on Wundermap. Overnight I had smoke from the one in Indian River County. Glad that cleared. Smoke looks horrid north of Tampa along the west coast.
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 161 Comments: 37433
Proserpine Airport ceased reporting observations nearly 3 hours ago. They just passed through the eyewall and are now in the eye.
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534. Skyepony (Mod)
GOM RGB loop. Looks interesting with the front coming.
Member Since: August 10, 2005 Posts: 161 Comments: 37433
Quoting Bordonaro:


This feels like mid winter here in Arlington, TX! Yesterday afternoon, we reached 74F, now it is 38F, cloudy, with NW winds at 15-30MPH. And snow moving towards us from the NW! What a great first day of Spring!!


I'm working on an analysis for you with the incoming bufkit data
Member Since: October 28, 2006 Posts: 57 Comments: 29927
Hamilton Island coming out of the eye and encountering winds from the other side of the eyewall now:

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
Good morning all.

It looks like Ului is indeed strengthening as she comes ashore, making her much more dangerous than the weakening storm that she was forecasted to be. Reading some of these obs she may have actually made it up to a Cat 2 on our scale. Maybe I shouldn't have backed down on the intensity after all.

The residents were well-prepared for this storm, and are hopefully staying inside even as the eye passes over Hamilton Island. Strong winds on the other side of the eyewall are already bashing Hamilton Island.


Current Conditions

Hamilton Island, AU (Airport)
Updated: 11 min 9 sec ago

104 °F
N/A
Humidity: 90%
Dew Point: 100 °F
Wind: 52 mph from the NE

Wind Gust: 63 mph
Pressure: 28.94 in (Falling)
Heat Index: 202 °F
Visibility: -
Elevation: 56 ft

Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26562
WPAC storm starting to look nasty, though still a bit unorganized. I don't know why, I just like tracking NHEM storms so much more.

Wait, I mean...

I think i see a eye!
Member Since: July 29, 2006 Posts: 28 Comments: 1777
Quoting Drakoen:
Snow pushing southeastward and should affect areas generally north of Interstate I-20.



This feels like mid winter here in Arlington, TX! Yesterday afternoon, we reached 74F, now it is 38F, cloudy, with NW winds at 15-30MPH. And snow moving towards us from the NW! What a great first day of Spring!!
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Quoting altesticstorm10:
With the boiling SSTs in the E. Atlantic it's not at all impossible that we don't get a CV storm in late June. Bertha formed on like, the 3rd day of July in 2008, and 2008 wasn't even anomalous like 2010.


SST maps anyone?
Member Since: July 29, 2006 Posts: 28 Comments: 1777
Snow pushing southeastward and should affect areas generally north of Interstate I-20.

Member Since: October 28, 2006 Posts: 57 Comments: 29927
Rest easy Aussie,thanx for all the updates too
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127636
It's 3am and i am going to bed, I'll be back in the morning with an update.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________
Just Issued.


TROPICAL CYCLONE ADVICE NUMBER 21
Issued by the Bureau of Meteorology, Brisbane
Issued at 1:52am EST on Sunday the 21st of March 2010

A Cyclone WARNING continues for coastal areas from Townsville to Yeppoon and
inland to Hughenden, including Charters Towers and Clermont.

The Cyclone WARNING from Cardwell to Townsville has been CANCELLED.

At 1:00 am EST Severe Tropical Cyclone Ului, Category 3 was estimated to be
130 kilometres north northwest of Mackay and
235 kilometres east southeast of Townsville and
moving west at 30 kilometres per hour.

At 2:00 am EST the cyclone is estimated to be
42 kilometres east of Bowen and
136 kilometres north northwest of Mackay.

The cyclone is currently crossing the coast near Airlie Beach as a severe
tropical cyclone. The large eye of Ului is expected to continue inland crossing
Proserpine, Bowen and Collinsville in the next hour or two. The cyclone is then
expected to gradually weaken as it moves further inland later today.

VERY DESTRUCTIVE wind gusts to 205 km/hr are currently affecting the coastal and
island communities between Ayr and Seaforth and will continue for the next few
hours.


DAMAGING winds are expected in areas between Townsville and Yeppoon over the
next few hours, then extending to adjacent inland parts during today.

TIDES between Bowen and Mackay are currently near the highest tide of the year
with very rough seas and dangerous conditions along the foreshore.

HEAVY RAINFALL and flooding are likely to continue about coastal and adjacent
inland areas between Bowen and St Lawrence.

DANGEROUS SURF conditions are expected to continue about exposed beaches south
of the cyclone until later today. A separate Severe Weather Warning is
current for these conditions.

People in the path of the dangerous cyclone should stay calm and remain in a
secure shelter while the very destructive winds develop over the next few hours.
Do not venture outside if you find yourself in the eye of the cyclone as winds
may remain light for up to an hour - very destructive winds from a different
direction could resume at any time. Heed the advice and follow the instructions
of Police or State Emergency Service personnel.

People from Townsville to Yeppoon and inland to Hughenden, including Charters
Towers and Clermont should have completed preparations and remain in secure
shelter.
.Boats and outside property should now be secured.
.For cyclone preparedness and safety advice, visit Queensland's Disaster
Management Services
website [www.disaster.qld.gov.au].
.For emergency assistance call the Queensland State Emergency Service [SES] on
132 500 [for assistance with storm damage, rising flood water, fallen trees on
buildings or roof damage]

Details of Severe Tropical Cyclone Ului at 1:00 am EST:
.Centre located near...... 20.0 degrees South 148.9 degrees East
.Location accuracy........ within 30 kilometres
.Recent movement.......... towards the west at 30 kilometres per hour
.Wind gusts near centre... 205 kilometres per hour
.Severity category........ 3
.Central pressure......... 965 hectoPascals


The next advice will be issued by 3:00 am EST Sunday 21 March.

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Highest wind recorded during the Front Eyewall,Hamilton Island

12:30 AM 78.8 °F 77.0 °F 94% 0.00 in - SE 89.8 mph 125.4 mph N/A
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127636
The last Graphic from Hamilton Island..

Note the pressure Bottom out.

Sea Level Pressure:
Sea Level Pressure 28.91 in
Wind:
Wind Speed 74 mph ()
Max Wind Speed 107 mph
Max Gust Speed 125 mph
T = Trace of Precipitation, MM = Missing Value

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127636
The temperature gauge at that Hamilton Island station probably malfunctioned by the winds, but the winds are still recording...
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Quoting CrazyC83:
Hamilton Island recently reported a 1-min sustained wind of 172 km/h (translates to 107 mph or 93 kt) about 1 hour ago in the core of the eyewall.

That would make the storm intensity about 95 kt in terms of 1-min winds (strong Cat 2 on our scale).

correct
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Ului looking like strong category 1/weak category 2 right now.
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Hamilton Island recently reported a 1-min sustained wind of 172 km/h (translates to 107 mph or 93 kt) about 1 hour ago in the core of the eyewall.

That would make the storm intensity about 95 kt in terms of 1-min winds (strong Cat 2 on our scale).
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Quoting Patrap:


Bunker good place to be as the Cyclone really is impressive Aussie.

She got her act together once she got close to land, really sucked up the energy from the warm waters up there.
Latest obs,
Hamilton Island Winds 40kts Gusts 47kts
Proserpine Winds 37kts Gusts 54kts
Mackay Winds 28kts Gusts 47kts



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Quoting severstorm:
Tampaspin, I'm 20-12 on the brackets. How are you doing? Finally feeling warm outside.


Your doing much better than me.......i am 18-14
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Quoting AussieStorm:

The obs site is at the airport, There is a purpose built bunker, not sure how many it can hold.


Bunker good place to be as the Cyclone really is impressive Aussie.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127636
Tampaspin, I'm 20-12 on the brackets. How are you doing? Finally feeling warm outside.
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Current webcam from Mackay


i wonder what it will look like in about 7hrs
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Quoting Patrap:


They have the backside to come next..so they most likely lost all Power on the Island as that front side came through.

The obs site is at the airport, There is a purpose built bunker, not sure how many it can hold.
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Seven days ago:



Today:
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Quoting AussieStorm:

Automatic observations have stopped coming in from the Island.


They have the backside to come next..so they most likely lost all Power on the Island as that front side came through.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 421 Comments: 127636

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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.