U.S. had most extreme spring on record for precipitation

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:20 PM GMT on June 14, 2011

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Nature's fury reached new extremes in the U.S. during the spring of 2011, as a punishing series of billion-dollar disasters brought the greatest flood in recorded history to the Lower Mississippi River, an astonishingly deadly tornado season, the worst drought in Texas history, and the worst fire season in recorded history. There's never been a spring this extreme for combined wet and dry extremes in the U.S. since record keeping began over a century ago, statistics released last week by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reveal. Their Climate Extremes Index (CEI) looks at the percentage area of the contiguous U.S. experiencing top 10% or bottom 10% monthly maximum and minimum temperatures, monthly drought, and daily precipitation. During the spring period of March, April, and May 2011, 46% of the nation had abnormally (top 10%) wet or dry conditions--the greatest such area during the 102-year period of record. On average, just 21% of the country has exceptionally wet conditions or exceptionally dry conditions during spring. In addition, heavy 1-day precipitation events--the kind that cause the worst flooding--were also at an all-time high in the spring of 2011. However, temperatures during spring 2011 were not as extreme as in several previous springs over the past 102 years, so spring 2011 ranked as the 5th most extreme spring in the past 102 years when factoring in both temperature and precipitation.


Figure 1. Nine states in the U.S. saw their heaviest precipitation in the 117-year record during spring 2011, with record-breaking precipitation concentrated in the Pacific Northwest and along the Ohio River. Seven other states had top-ten wettest springs. Texas had its driest spring on record, and New Mexico and Louisiana had top-ten driest springs. When compared with Figure 2, we see that this is a classic winter La Niña pattern, but at extreme amplitude. Image credit: NOAA/NCDC.


Figure 2. La Niña events since 1950 have brought wetter than average conditions to the Pacific Northwest and Ohio River Valley in winter, and drier than average conditions to the South in both winter and spring. Spring 2011 (Figure 1) had a pattern very similar to the classic winter La Niña pattern (left image in Figure 2.) Image credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.


Figure 3. The percent area of the Contiguous U.S. experiencing much above average heavy 1-day precipitation events in spring 2011 hit a record high, nearly 16%. The 102-year average is 9%. The previous record of 15.5% was set in 1964. Heavy springtime 1-day precipitation events in the U.S. have been increasing since 1960, in line with measured increases in water vapor over the U.S. due to a warming climate. See also Figure 4 below. Image credit: NOAA/NCDC.


Figure 4. Percent increase in the amount falling in heavy precipitation events (defined as the heaviest 1% of all daily events) from 1958 to 2007, for each region of the U.S. There are clear trends toward more very heavy precipitation events for the nation as a whole, and particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Climate models predict that precipitation will increasingly fall in very heavy events, similar to the trend that has been observed over the past 50 years in the U.S. Image credit: United States Global Change Research Program. Figure updated from Groisman, P.Ya., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004: Contemporary changes of the hydro-logical cycle over the contiguous United States, trends derived from in situ observations. Journal of Hydrometeorology, 5(1), 64-85.

What caused this spring's extremes?
During a La Niña episode in the Eastern Pacific, when the equatorial waters cool to several degrees below average, abnormally dry winter weather usually occurs in the southern U.S., and abnormally wet weather in the Midwest. This occurs because La Niña alters the path of the jet stream, making the predominant storm track in winter traverse the Midwest and avoid the South. Cold, Canadian air stays north of the jet stream, and warm subtropical air lies to the south of the jet, bringing drought to the southern tier of states. La Niña's influence on the jet stream and U.S. weather typically fades in springtime, with precipitation patterns returning closer to normal. However, in 2011, the La Niña influence on U.S. weather stayed strong throughout spring. The jet stream remained farther south than usual over the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, and blew more strongly, with wind speeds more typical of winter than spring. The positioning of the jet stream brought a much colder than average spring to the Pacific Northwest, with Washington and Oregon recording top-five coldest springs. Spring was not as cold in the Midwest, because a series of strong storms moved along the jet stream and pulled up warm, moist Gulf of Mexico air, which mixed with the cold air spilling south from Canada. The air flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico was much warmer than usual, because weaker winds than average blew over the Gulf of Mexico during February and March. This reduced the amount of mixing of cold ocean waters from the depths, and allowed the surface waters to heat up. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Gulf of Mexico warmed to 1°C (1.8°F) above average during April--the third warmest temperatures in over a century of record keeping (SST anomalies were a bit cooler in May, about 0.4°C above average, due to stronger winds over the Gulf.) These unusually warm surface waters allowed much more moisture than usual to evaporate into the air, resulting in unprecedented rains over the Midwest when the warm, moist air swirled into the unusually cold air spilling southwards from Canada. With the jet stream at exceptional winter-like strengths, the stage was also set for massive tornado outbreaks.


Figure 5. A La Niña-like positioning of the jet stream, more typical of winter than spring, brought much colder air than normal to the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest during the spring of 2011. Washington and Oregon had top-five coldest springs, and near-record snowfalls and snow packs were recorded in portions of the Northern Rockies and Northern Plains. South of the mean position of the jet stream, top-ten warmest springs were recorded in Texas, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Image credit: NOAA/NCDC.

Was climate change involved?
Whenever an unprecedented series of extreme weather events hit, it is natural to ask how climate change may be affecting the odds of these events, since our climate is undergoing unprecedented changes. This spring's unusual precipitation pattern--wet in the Northern U.S., and dry in the South--does fit what we'd expect from a natural but unusually long-lived winter La Niña pattern (Figure 2). However, it also fits the type of precipitation pattern climate models expect to occur over the U.S. by the end of the century due to human-caused warming of the climate (though shifted a few hundred miles to the south, Figure 6.) This drying of the Southern U.S. and increased precipitation in the Northern U.S. is expected to occur because of a fundamental shift in the large scale circulation of the atmosphere. The jet stream will retreat poleward, and rain-bearing storms that travel along the jet will have more moisture to precipitate out, since more water vapor can evaporate into a warmer atmosphere. The desert regions will expand towards the poles, and the Southern U.S. will experience a climate more like the desert regions of Mexico have now, with sinking air that discourages precipitation. A hotter climate will dry out the soil more, making record intensity droughts like this year's in Texas more probable. So, is it possible that the record extremes of drought and wetness this spring in the U.S. were due to a combination of La Niña and climate change. It is difficult to disentangle the two effects without doing detailed modelling studies, which typically take years complete and publish. One weakness in the climate change influence argument is that climate models predict the jet stream should retreat northwards and weaken due to climate change. Indeed, globally the jet stream retreated 270 miles poleward and weakened during the period 1970 - 2001, in line with climate model expectations. Thus, a stronger and more southerly jet stream over the U.S. during the spring is something we should expect to see less and less of during coming decades.


Figure 6. The future: simulated change in precipitation during winter and spring for the years 2089 - 2099 as predicted by fifteen climate models, assuming we continue high emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Confidence is highest in the hatched areas. Compare with Figure 7, the observed change in precipitation over the past 50 years. Image credit: United States Global Change Research Program.


Figure 7. U.S. annual average precipitation has increased by about 5% over the past 50 years, but there has been pronounced drying over the Southeast and Southwest U.S. Even in these dryer regions, though, heavy precipitation events have increased (see Figure 4.) Thus, rainfall tends to fall in a few very heavy events, and the light and moderate events decrease in number. Image credit: United States Global Change Research Program. Data plotted from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/ushc n/.

Keep in mind, though, that climate models are best at describing the future global average conditions, and not at predicting how climate change might affect individual continents--or at predicting how rare extreme events might change. Major continent-scale changes in atmospheric circulation are likely to result over the coming few decades due to climate change, and I expect the jet stream will shift farther to the south in certain preferred regions during some combination of seasons and of the natural atmospheric patterns like La Niña, El Niño, and the Arctic Oscillation. For example, there has been research published linking recent record Arctic sea ice loss to atmospheric circulation changes in the Arctic Oscillation that encourage a southwards dip of the jet stream over Eastern North America and Western Europe during late fall and winter. Until we have many more years of data and more research results, we won't be able to say if climate change is likely to bring more springs with a circulation pattern like this year's.

One thing we can say is that since global ocean temperatures have warmed about 0.6°C (1°F) over the past 40 years, there is more moisture in the air to generate record flooding rains. The near-record warm Gulf of Mexico SSTs this April that led to record Ohio Valley rainfalls and the 100-year $5 billion+ flood on the Mississippi River would have been much harder to realize without global warming.

I'll have a new post by Thursday.

Jeff Masters

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Quoting ShenValleyFlyFish:
I had the same thought. Would be an interesting video if someone serious did it with proper set up. Of course he may have found out it's hazardous to your health. Reassuring some how that the "Hey Y'all Look at Me!" phenomenon Isn't confined to the Good Old US of A.


Maybe he heard the phrase as - "Making an ash of yourself."
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1364. bappit
Quoting wpb:
dr.neil frank best nhc director

Certainly most charismatic on television.
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1363. MrMixon
Quoting alfabob:

Isn't chaff more of little strips of metal instead of particulates? Haven't watched all of this because I just found it but here is a documentary someone put together on the subject.


Chaff is made of either small, thin pieces of aluminium, metalized glass fiber, or plastic. When they release chaff, they tend to release massive amounts of it... (one little aluminum strip ain't gonna fool a missile). In some cases, multiple planes will release chaff simultaneously, creating a chaff cloud that can effectively cripple enemy radar and/or guided missiles.

Either way, chaff is purposely designed to show up on radar (thus hiding the plane from enemy surveillance). So it's not surprising at all that we'd see chaff on weather radars.

Also, the individual chaff particles are tiny and light enough that they can stay aloft for many hours... even a day or two under the right conditions.
Member Since: March 26, 2006 Posts: 44 Comments: 1520
1361. bappit
Link to video of motion of moon over an entire year condensed to 2.5 minutes.
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1360. NRAamy
1355. PcolaDan 11:43 PM GMT on June 15, 2011
Quoting ShenValleyFlyFish:
Wonder what he found out.

If ash sinks?


hahahahahaha!!!!

:)
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
1359. MrMixon
Quoting Rainman32:
I do believe you are right. the smoke plume turned into clouds, hopefully rain coming with it to wash away some of all this smoke and ash! very interesting, I don't know if it would have formed without ripe conditions, note of course the natural storm/cloud formation to the west of it.



There's even a term for them - Pyrocumulus clouds. <--- click for a link to the wikipedia article on them.


Member Since: March 26, 2006 Posts: 44 Comments: 1520
TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
500 PM PDT WED JUN 15 2011

FOR THE EASTERN NORTH PACIFIC...EAST OF 140 DEGREES WEST LONGITUDE..

AN ELONGATED SURFACE TROUGH OF LOW PRESSURE EXTENDING FROM CENTRAL
AMERICA WESTWARD FOR SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES CONTINUES TO PRODUCE A
LARGE AREA OF SHOWERS AND A FEW THUNDERSTORMS. AS A TROPICAL WAVE
NEAR CENTRAL AMERICA BEGINS TO INTERACT WITH THIS AREA OF DISTURBED
WEATHER...SOME GRADUAL DEVELOPMENT IS POSSIBLE DURING THE NEXT
COUPLE OF DAYS. THERE IS A LOW CHANCE...20 PERCENT...OF TROPICAL
CYCLONE FORMATION DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

ELSEWHERE...TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE
NEXT 48 HOURS.

$$
FORECASTER BERG
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Quoting MrMixon:


Probably found out that there's very little light to see anything when you're under 8 inches of floating ash...
I had the same thought. Would be an interesting video if someone serious did it with proper set up. Of course he may have found out it's hazardous to your health. Reassuring some how that the "Hey Y'all Look at Me!" phenomenon Isn't confined to the Good Old US of A.
Member Since: September 9, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 4687
Quoting ShenValleyFlyFish:
Wonder what he found out.


If ash sinks?
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Quoting ScottLincoln:


I actually wonder if that might be thunderstorms forming because of the fires. The reflectivity of ash/dust vs. water is much higher, and my gut tells me that it would be hard to really get into the 50 dbz range without liquid water. Could be wrong, but if it is rain maybe it will help with the firefighting efforts...
I do believe you are right. the smoke plume turned into clouds, hopefully rain coming with it to wash away some of all this smoke and ash! very interesting, I don't know if it would have formed without ripe conditions, note of course the natural storm/cloud formation to the west of it.



Hmm watching the loop, it appears the seabreeze triggered the cloud formation. don't know how much it will help with the fire, probably not much with it all going away from it with the plume.
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1353. MrMixon
Quoting Chucktown:


We have chaff off of our coast here in Charleston all the time. Air Force Base here usually do their exercises when there isn't a threat for any precip, that way we can tell the difference. That stuff in the Gulf was definitely chaff.


At first I thought the "blobs" were far too large to be chaff, but this website explaining what chaff looks like on radar suggests that the chaff blobs can be much larger than I expected:

Chaff on radar

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1352. NRAamy
Shen, exactly!!!!!!!

:)
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
Quoting NRAamy:
1337. PcolaDan 11:07 PM GMT on June 15, 2011
Is this guy nuts or what!!!!


Diver trying to swim in Lake Nahuel Huapi, which is covered by a thick layer of volcanic ash emitted by the volcano Puyehue.



Maybe he's related to cyclone?
Lol I had the same thought. Same color suit.
Member Since: September 9, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 4687
1350. MrMixon
Quoting ShenValleyFlyFish:
Wonder what he found out.


Probably found out that there's very little light to see anything when you're under 8 inches of floating ash...
Member Since: March 26, 2006 Posts: 44 Comments: 1520
Quoting FLWeatherFreak91:
Yes, I agree that these aren't unusually strong storms for today's profiles, but if you had been watching the radar for the past 36, you would notice that the chaff has been there the past 2 days, and as the storms crossed over the nearly stationary area of chaff, they would increase in intensity quite rapidly.


We have chaff off of our coast here in Charleston all the time. Air Force Base here usually do their exercises when there isn't a threat for any precip, that way we can tell the difference. That stuff in the Gulf was definitely chaff.
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Quoting PcolaDan:
Is this guy nuts or what!!!!


Diver trying to swim in Lake Nahuel Huapi, which is covered by a thick layer of volcanic ash emitted by the volcano Puyehue.
Wonder what he found out.
Member Since: September 9, 2007 Posts: 36 Comments: 4687
1347. MrMixon
Quoting PcolaDan:
Is this guy nuts or what!!!!


Diver trying to swim in Lake Nahuel Huapi, which is covered by a thick layer of volcanic ash emitted by the volcano Puyehue.


My vote is for "nuts". That or the straps from his diving gear are cutting off blood flow to the part of his brain responsible for his survival instinct.
Member Since: March 26, 2006 Posts: 44 Comments: 1520
Quoting txjac:


Scary world we live in ...did things like this always occur and I am just now paying attention?


Seems a yearly thing around here with all the pine forests and more bogs/peat.
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1345. wpb
dr.neil frank best nhc director
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Quoting NRAamy:
1337. PcolaDan 11:07 PM GMT on June 15, 2011
Is this guy nuts or what!!!!


Diver trying to swim in Lake Nahuel Huapi, which is covered by a thick layer of volcanic ash emitted by the volcano Puyehue.



Maybe he's related to cyclone?


:)
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Not a drop of rain here in central west palm beach today, all the rain has stayed further inland, yesterday the showers remained to our south and east, and the day before that it rained for a whole 2 minutes. Rain shield in full effect
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1342. txjac
Quoting largeeyes:
Nice aroma of smoke this morning here in eastern NC thanks to the Pains Bay fire.


Scary world we live in ...did things like this always occur and I am just now paying attention?
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Nice aroma of smoke this morning here in eastern NC thanks to the Pains Bay fire.
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1340. NRAamy
1337. PcolaDan 11:07 PM GMT on June 15, 2011
Is this guy nuts or what!!!!


Diver trying to swim in Lake Nahuel Huapi, which is covered by a thick layer of volcanic ash emitted by the volcano Puyehue.



Maybe he's related to cyclone?
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 317 Comments: 31946
Quoting alfabob:

There is probably multiple things going on, from cloud seeding to whatever else they are doing. I've seen a lot of people showing water test with high amounts of barium and aluminum which are the byproducts of trying to dump sulfur into the troposphere. Even my local water supply test is now showing barium after showing none since the tests begun around 10+ years ago. People are reporting this activity worldwide, but it is difficult to tell the difference between contrails, clouds and actual aerosols.
Whatever it is, it's entering my lungs, and no can tell me what it is definitively.
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EGLIN IS A TEST BASE THEY DO ALL KINDS OF WEAPONS TESTING SOME OF IT OVER THE GULF.
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Quoting FLWeatherFreak91:
Come on guys, what are your explanations for the radar occurrence offshore Tampa? I have lived here for 20 years and am working on my BA in Atmospheric Sciences.... When I ask the professors about this "chaff" reflectivity, they tell me directly that it is from military testing. I have heard local weathermen say it is military, and I can tell you it's not natural... So wtf is it?


Many of the chaff examples I've seen on radar do not look quite like that. Many things can line up with the mid-level and low-level winds and send energy back to the radar. What makes you certain that it is no natural?
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Quoting Jedkins01:


I'm not talking about the chaff, I was talking about the thunderstorms, they were just strong thunderstorms. The US military does all kinds of tests often around here, there is a major air force base at Mac Dill, I often see all kinds of military air craft doing training exercises around the whole bay area as well as offshore.

I'm pretty sure there wasn't any cloud seeding going on. The atmospheric profiles easily support those storms you saw earlier without any cloud seeding help.
Yes, I agree that these aren't unusually strong storms for today's profiles, but if you had been watching the radar for the past 36, you would notice that the chaff has been there the past 2 days, and as the storms crossed over the nearly stationary area of chaff, they would increase in intensity quite rapidly.
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Quoting FLWeatherFreak91:


Those three bands off the coast are not precipitation, nor are they any kind of false return caused by high pwats. Those would appear in circles around the radar, not in bands in the mid levels.


I'm not talking about the chaff, I was talking about the thunderstorms, they were just strong thunderstorms. The US military does all kinds of tests often around here, there is a major air force base at Mac Dill, I often see all kinds of military air craft doing training exercises around the whole bay area as well as offshore. I see that chaff on radar often off the coast of Florida, it just isn't always being extended and blown into Florida.

I'm pretty sure there wasn't any cloud seeding going on. The atmospheric profiles easily support those storms you saw earlier without any cloud seeding help.
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1331. srada
18z GFS still calling for a storm on the NC coast next week..actually it looks like VA/NC/SC and GA look to be stormy in the last two weeks of June.

Link
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Quoting txjac:


I love that you are on this blog ...you bring such interesting topic and links ...thanks so much


Agree 100%! IMHO possibly the most interesting blogger here. And with no drama. TY Skyepony.
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Quoting Jedkins01:


Interesting thought, but most likely just pure coincidence. The atmosphere is moist with PWATS near 2 inches and very unstable, the atmosphere didn't exactly need cloud seeding to produce those storms lol. And, they wouldn't cause much of a noticeable difference on radar either.


Those three bands off the coast are not precipitation, nor are they any kind of false return caused by high pwats. Those would appear in circles around the radar, not in bands in the mid levels.
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1328. j2008
Epac looks like it could get active soon. That low is getting better convection in my opinion.
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Quoting Skyepony:


The induction magnetometer was fired up too..lol. We are paying way too much attention to all this.
I don't see this being any kind of electromagnetic phenomena- that is rather unlikely.

If you observe the bands you can tell they are flowing with the mid-level winds from north to south. (Refer to local skew-t's). They appeared very quickly from west to east. This is something being dispersed.
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Quoting FLWeatherFreak91:
Looking into the chaff echo off the coast of Florida, I fairly confident in saying that this was a cloud-seeding operation. The line of chaff in the gulf, extending across the state of fl, corresponds perfectly with the line of strong thunderstorms dropping south over the spine of the state. If you watch a long loop of Tampa's radar, you will see what I mean clearly. Answers for such an occurrence would be greatly appreciated, but I know I'll never get one.


Interesting thought, but most likely just pure coincidence. The atmosphere is moist with PWATS near 2 inches and very unstable, the atmosphere didn't exactly need cloud seeding to produce those storms lol. And, they wouldn't cause much of a noticeable difference on radar either.
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Come on guys, what are your explanations for the radar occurrence offshore Tampa? I have lived here for 20 years and am working on my BA in Atmospheric Sciences.... When I ask the professors about this "chaff" reflectivity, they tell me directly that it is from military testing. I have heard local weathermen say it is military, and I can tell you it's not natural... So wtf is it?
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1323. txjac
Quoting Skyepony:


The induction magnetometer was fired up too..lol. We are paying way too much attention to all this.


I love that you are on this blog ...you bring such interesting topic and links ...thanks so much
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1322. Skyepony (Mod)
~
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1321. txjac
Quoting bohonkweatherman:
Any kind of rain helps in a drought, clouds help, anything that blocks the sun helps. Baby steps in a drought. At least you don't have a high pressure on top of you if you have storms in your state. Be happy there is rain in Florida, I am and I am in Texas where we have had Clear skies most of 2011.


In Texas here too ...my electric bill needs some relief! Rain, rain come our way
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area of convection in the southwest caribian deserves watching.
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6:30 pm EDT 06/15/11. Not a cloud in the sky but prevalent smoke.

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Quoting Skyepony:


Odd how the chaff was layed/caught up along the edge of the storms pushing south.
It's not caught up along the edge, but rather it is causing the "edge."
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Looking into the chaff echo off the coast of Florida, I fairly confident in saying that this was a cloud-seeding operation. The line of chaff in the gulf, extending across the state of fl, corresponds perfectly with the line of strong thunderstorms dropping south over the spine of the state. If you watch a long loop of Tampa's radar, you will see what I mean clearly. Answers for such an occurrence would be greatly appreciated, but I know I'll never get one.
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Quoting hurricanejunky:


Yeah! Breaking News...we received over 1.5" of rain in North Fort Myers, FL. Big cell dumping at times up to 4"/hr rain rates according to the Davis Weather Station. Hopefully more locations will receive the same without severe weather. It's a start...

Here's a video of your storm as seen from Bonita. I recorded it because I really hoped it would come this way, but coastal Collier has been blanked. Again. There are a lot of anvil tops to our north and east, but nada here:



(Excuse the odd little glitch a few seconds in; I'm not sure why the intervalometer hiccuped...)
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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.

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