Red River Rising: a Top-Ten Fargo Flood in 4 of the Past 5 Years

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:44 PM GMT on April 29, 2013

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The Red River at Fargo, North Dakota surpassed major flood level on Sunday and continues to rise, with a peak expected Wednesday at the 9th highest flood level observed since 1897. On Friday, the President an emergency declaration for North Dakota because of the flooding, and millions of sandbags have been filled in anticipation of the huge flood. This year will be the fourth time in the past five years that Fargo has experienced a top-ten flood in recorded history. Flood stage is eighteen feet, and the Red River has now reached flood stage at Fargo for an astounding nineteen of the past twenty 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. The Army Corps of Engineers calculates that in the last twenty years, the Red River has had ten 1-in-10 year floods--one every two years, on average. Two of these floods (1997 and 2011) were greater than 1-in-50 year floods, and one (2009) was a 1-in-100 year flood. That year, the Red River hit a record high-water mark of nearly 41 feet, or 23 feet above flood stage. Thousands of people had to leave home for higher ground, and about 100 homes were badly damaged or rendered unlivable. This year's flood will be somewhere between a 1-in-10 year to 1-in-50 year flood. Since a 1-in-10 year flood, historically, has a 10% chance of occurring in a given year, the incidence of flooding along the Red River over the past twenty years has clearly been extraordinarily abnormal.


Figure 1. View of the Red River of the North at the Fargo gauge taken on April 24, 2013 (top) and April 29, 2013 (bottom.) The river rose from 17' on the 24th (flood stage is 18') to 31' on the 29th. Image credit: USGS.

Reasons for this year's flood: unfavorable weather conditions
The USGS cites five weather factors that can act to increase flooding along the Red River. Four out of 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 9th wettest fall since 1895 during 2012.

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 temperatures that hit 50°F on December 2 - 3, 2012, followed by a sudden plunge to below-freezing temperatures that began on December 7. Temperatures remained below freezing the rest of December, and this froze the saturated ground to a great depth.

3) Above-normal winter snowfall in the basin. Fargo received 68.4" of snow during the winter, which is well above the city's average of 50".

4) Above-normal precipitation during snowmelt. Fargo has received 2.06" of precipitation so far this April, compared to the average of 1.23".

5) Above-normal temperatures during snowmelt. Fargo got lucky here. High temperatures in Fargo have been above average only two days during April, on the 26th and 27th.


Figure 2. Current and forecast flood stage for the Red River of the North at Fargo, ND. The river passed major flood stage on Sunday, and is headed for a crest near 35.5' (which is 17.5' above flood stage) on Wednesday. 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: increased urbanization
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.

Reasons for flooding: building more levees and flood defenses
Defending ourselves against floods has made floods worse. Every time a new levee is built, or an old flood wall 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, a 2010 proposed improvement 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.


Figure 3. Peak flow of the Red River at Fargo, North Dakota from 1901 - 2012. Three of the top five floods since 1901 have occurred since 2009. The projected crest for 2013 would be the seventh greatest flood since 1897. 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 (cfs), and a 50-year flood to be 22,300 cfs. 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 ten 10-year floods--one every two years, on average. Two of these floods (1997 and 2011) were greater than 1-in-50 year floods, and one (2009) was a 1-in-100 year flood. This year will be the fourth year out of the past five with a greater than 1-in-20 year flood. Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

Reasons for flooding: precipitation is increasing
Over the past century, precipitation over the Red River of the North drainage basin in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota has increased by about 15%--more than any other region of the country. This fits the pattern expected by climate change models, which predict that winter and spring precipitation will increase by another 15% by the year 2100 over the Red River of the North drainage basin. 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).


Figure 4. The colors on the map show annual total precipitation changes (percent) for 1991-2011 compared to the 1901-1960 average, and show wetter conditions in most areas (McRoberts and Nielsen-Gammon 2011). The bars on the graphs show average precipitation differences by decade for 1901-2011 (relative to the 1901-1960 average) for each region. The far right bar is for 2001-2011. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC/CICS-NC. Data from NOAA NCDC.) Note that precipitation over the Red River of the North drainage basin in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota (outlined in red) has increased by about 15%--more than any other region of the country. Image credit: National Climate Assessment Draft, 2013.


Figure 5. Projected seasonal precipitation change for winter and spring (percent) for 2071-2099 (compared to1901-1960) as projected by the climate models used to formulate the 2013 IPCC climate change report, assuming we keep emitting heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at current rates. Teal indicates precipitation increases, and brown, decreases. Hatched areas indicate confidence that the projected changes are large and are consistently wetter or drier. In general, areas that are wet are expected to get wetter, and areas that are dry will get drier. White areas indicate confidence that the changes are small. The Red River Valley is expected to see a precipitation increase of at least 20%, which would lead to bigger and more frequent spring floods. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC. Data from CMIP5; analyzed by Michael Wehner, LBNL.) Image credit: Preliminary draft of the 2013 U.S. National Climate Assessment report.

A permanent fix for Fargo's flooding problems: a $2 billion diversion canal?
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 1/3 of the U.S. where precipitation increases are likely (Figure 5)--will see higher and more frequent spring 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.

A permanent fix for Fargo's flooding woes may lie in the construction of a 36-mile long canal that would steer flood waters around Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, according to an April 28, 2013 Associated Press article. The proposed canal could cost $2 billion and take ten years to complete, but has drawn strong opposition from farmers, homeowners and businesses who lie in the path of the proposed diversion channel. The http://www.redriverbasincommission.org/ has the latest long-term options on new flood control options for the Red River.

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.

McRoberts, D. Brent, John W. Nielsen-Gammon, 2011, "A New Homogenized Climate Division Precipitation Dataset for Analysis of Climate Variability and Climate Change," J. Appl. Meteor. Climatol., 50, 1187–1199.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/2010JAMC2626.1

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 Wednesday at the latest.

Jeff Masters

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 CybrTeddy:


I hadn't even noticed that I have 20,000 posts. That's a lot.


Indeed. Get a life, Teddy. LOL.

Don't worry. TA has been on his handle for far less time than you or me and he has about 25k comments. You are A-ok. :-)
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Quoting MississippiWx:


Mine too. Spent the 2005 season under a different handle.


I hadn't even noticed that I have 20,000 posts. That's a lot.
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24015
Quoting Tropicsweatherpr:


Although I have been since 2009 it was in 2012 when I really was much more active here and here I am on the virge to participate in the discvussions and at the same time to learn some things from the experts in the field of meterology.


I've been on this handle for 3 more years than you have been on yours and you are only 500 comments behind me. I don't post enough. Lol. That's probably a good thing because when I get bored I start pointing out very stupid things. :-)
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Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 38389
Quoting CybrTeddy:
Here's something unbelievable to me - the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season will be my 9th hurricane season I've spent actively tracking on wunderground. 8 years.


Although I have been since 2009 it was in 2012 when I really was much more active in WU and here I am on the virge to participate in the discussions and at the same time to learn some things from the experts in the field of meteorology.
Member Since: April 29, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 14243
Quoting CybrTeddy:
Here's something unbelievable to me - the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season will be my 9th hurricane season I've spent actively tracking on wunderground. 8 years.


Mine too. Spent the 2005 season under a different handle.
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561. 7544
morning checked the sat. are we on a official blob alert in the gulf and will it be moving east ? is this the possible low everyone was showing for this week tia
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Widespread 1-3" rains
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Here's something unbelievable to me - the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season will be my 9th hurricane season I've spent actively tracking on wunderground. 8 years.
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24015
Quoting amatuermet:



What is that large blob?


Yeah, what *is* it? (what we really mean is 'what's it gonna do?')
Member Since: August 4, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 3231
Quoting biff4ugo:
Great attitude on here this morning!
Yea!

Wonderfull big blob due to drench some of drought stricken North Central Florida.
More Yea!


Looks like South Louisiana will get it on the way to Florida, 80% chance of heavy rain next two days. Houston caught flooding it this weekend. My brother in Baton Rouge mentioned Tropical Storm Allison this morning.
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Great attitude on here this morning!
Yea!

Wonderfull big blob due to drench some of drought stricken North Central Florida.
More Yea!
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TC Zane..





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Pretty decent line of storms in central MI headed toward me. I hope it stays together unlike most storms that come my way.
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Good Morning Everyone..difficult times forecasting for our national offices..

EXTENDED FORECAST DISCUSSION
NWS WEATHER PREDICTION CENTER COLLEGE PARK MD
1032 AM EDT TUE APR 30 2013

VALID 12Z FRI MAY 03 2013 - 12Z TUE MAY 07 2013


THE GLOBAL NUMERICAL GUIDANCE CONTINUES TO ADVERTISE YET ANOTHER
EXTREME MERIDIONAL EVENT FOR MUCH OF NORTH AMERICA AT THE MEDIUM
RANGE--AN ALL-TOO-FAMILIAR SIGNATURE TO THIS "YEAR OF THE COLD
SPRING." THERE WILL BE VIRTUALLY NO WEST-TO-EAST PROGRESSION OF
SYSTEMS BY DAY 5, WITH SOME FEATURES RETROGRESSING. RELIED ON THE
STEADFAST ECENS MEAN FOR THE SYNOPTIC SCAFFOLDING, WITH A ROBUST
INCORPORATION OF THE 00Z/30 DETERMINISTIC ECMWF THROUGH EARLY DAY
4 TO AFFORD REALISTIC MASS FIELD GRADIENTS. THE GFS AND GEFS MEAN
HAVE SIMPLY BEEN TOO VOLATILE OVER THE PAST SEVERAL MODEL CYCLES
TO USE AS GUIDANCE.


Short range discussion:
Meanwhile, an upper-level disturbance just off the Southern
Mid-Atlantic/Carolina coast will trigger mainly light rain over the area
through Wednesday evening. Additionally, a developing upper-level low
along the Central Gulf Coast will aid in developing showers and
thunderstorms over the Western Gulf Coast, migrating to the Central Gulf
Coast by Tuesday evening and continuing through to Wednesday evening.

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
"The Pliocene is the geologic era between five million and three million years ago. Scientists have come to regard it as the most recent period in history when the atmosphere’s heat-trapping ability was as it is now and thus as our guide for things to come".

Link
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06Z GFS TOTAL PRECIP OUT TO HR 144

Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 170 Comments: 53767
Is 91L her yet?
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548. MahFL
That disturbance in the Gulf seems to be going east, was it not progged to go ESE ?
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Looks like it's going to be a rainy day in S.W. FL.
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Quoting amatuermet:
Hello all,

does anyone think that this hurricane season is going to look something like 2004?

if so, then will the amount of cat. 5s pan out?
no not every season is a like it all depends on the conditions that are present when a storm is in a specific area.
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545. VR46L
Quoting Tropicsweatherpr:


Don't worry as this is only beginning.


Yep the seasons not begun and we are already hunting for waves LOL
Member Since: March 1, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 6898
Quoting amatuermet:
Hello all,

does anyone think that this hurricane season is going to look something like 2004?

if so, then will the amount of cat. 5s pan out?


Scroll up a few posts if you want to see my input on that.
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24015
543. VR46L
Quoting amatuermet:



What is that large blob?


Looks like clouds to me .....:P



Actually looks like there is some thunder storms in it

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542. VR46L
Quoting pcola57:


It's ok VR46L..
I share your grief..Lol..
Alot more to come..
How was B'Day celebrations?..


Aw Grand ! Just a few drinks, nice dinner

Oh Yeah there will be plenty More to come LOL .. and hopefully not too many ...

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533. GeoffreyWPB 9:57 AM EDT on April 30, 2013
Tropical Storm Fay was something else. I had jury duty that day and didn't release us until the worse of Fay was over us.


Parts of North Florida really took a big flooding hit from that storm.......Jax had some major flooding/damage and the Big Bend/Tallahassee area got in the training bands. I live North of Tallahassee, with a stream in the back of the property, and I was sandbagging the back of the house as the waters kept on rising. Took the bags into the back with the truck and it "sank" where I could not drive it out. I was lucky that the water level just missed the bottom of the door jams by about 2 inches. My neighbor pulled the car out with his tractor (a John Deere of course) two days later when the waters receeded..........No damage to the engine or interior; I got lucky.
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Quoting VR46L:
Good Morning Folks!!


My Wave Disintegrated!!!!






Don't worry as this is only beginning.
Member Since: April 29, 2009 Posts: 75 Comments: 14243
Hello all,

does anyone think that this hurricane season is going to look something like 2004?

if so, then will the amount of cat. 5s pan out?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Link radioactive-water-imperils-fukushima-plant

solar and wind are looking betta and betta...

"Tepco is clearly just hanging on day by day, with no time to think about tomorrow, much less next year," said Tadashi Inoue, an expert in nuclear power who served on a committee that drew up the road map for cleaning up the plant.

But the concerns extend well beyond Tepco. While doing a more rigorous job of policing Japan's nuclear industry than regulators before the accident, the Nuclear Regulation Authority has a team of just nine inspectors to oversee the more than 3,000 workers at Fukushima.

And a separate committee created by the government to oversee the cleanup is loaded with industry insiders, including from the Ministry of Trade, in charge of promoting nuclear energy, and nuclear reactor manufacturers like Toshiba and Hitachi. The story of how the Fukushima plant ended up swamped with water, critics say, is a cautionary tale about the continued dangers of leaving decisions about nuclear safety to industry insiders. "
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Quoting VR46L:Post# 535
Good Morning Folks!!


My Wave Disintegrated!!!!






It's ok VR46L..
I share your grief..Lol..
Alot more to come..
How was B'Day celebrations?..
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Quoting Grothar:


I don't throw Grocon around easily. However, last night I did say write that pressure would be falling around Florida and a high pressure would probably building to the North. Blobs usually like that. I also wrote back in January that it would be an early season. I do expect to see a strong system by mid-May.

One interesting observation I saw in the Crownweather map was that the "Southwest coast" of Florida seemed to have a higher strike probability than the east coast. Something with which I agree. It would appear that systems this year will be lower altitudes.



As someone living in coastal SW Florida, I can't help but anxiously wonder what Crown Weather sees that puts us so strongly in a target zone, since general statistics place higher likelihoods on SE FL rather than SW in an "average" hurricane season.

Also, all you lucky Floridians who got rain yesterday/last night, that hole-in-the-sky prevailed over Cape Coral and we've seen not a drop.... I'm wondering if we are going to get any rain this whole week, since earlier graphics I saw showed a southwesterly flow increasing later this week, which would push all of our clouds inland.

Le sigh....
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535. VR46L
Good Morning Folks!!


My Wave Disintegrated!!!!




Member Since: March 1, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 6898
Quoting Grothar:


Even though it is way to early to tell, I believe their thinking is that the systems will be moving west at a much lower latitude and there could be troughs which could move systems back east if they are in the Gulf.


Yes, it is too early to tell so that's what I'll hang my hat on :)
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Tropical Storm Fay was something else. I had jury duty that day and didn't release us until the worse of Fay was over us.

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What is that large blob?
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Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 38389
18 hr RAP model........
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 38389
Quoting FtMyersgal:


I hope you are wrong on the Southwest Coast of Florida having a higher strike probability Gro. Otherwise, I agree with your anaylsis above.


Even though it is way to early to tell, I believe their thinking is that the systems will be moving west at a much lower latitude and there could be troughs which could move systems back east if they are in the Gulf.
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26110
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 38389
Quoting Chicklit:
Link GOM WV Loop



looks like its going to grow in size in that loop run huh..whew
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 38389
Just a few t-storms rolling through this morning. Not as much lightning as there is heavy rain. We really don't need anymore heavy rain at this point.

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Quoting GeoffreyWPB:


I was trying to sound like Gromyko. Don't make me take my shoes off!


LMSO!!
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26110
Quoting Grothar:


I don't throw Grocon around easily. However, last night I did say write that pressure would be falling around Florida and a high pressure would probably building to the North. Blobs usually like that. I also wrote back in January that it would be an early season. I do expect to see a strong system by mid-May.

One interesting observation I saw in the Crownweather map was that the "Southwest coast" of Florida seemed to have a higher strike probability than the east coast. Something with which I agree. It would appear that systems this year will be lower altitudes.



I hope you are wrong on the Southwest Coast of Florida having a higher strike probability Gro. Otherwise, I agree with your anaylsis above.
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Quoting fmhurricane2009:


I love this map being from Fort Myers (West coast S. of Tampa) its been nearly 5 long years since Fay.


What about a dating service?
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26110
Quoting Grothar:


Please refer to post #6 in this blog. Hurry up before the Doc comes on with a new blog and wipes out all our good comments this morning.

He's not posting another blog until Wednesday.
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Quoting GeoffreyWPB:


I posted it first! :)


Please refer to post #6 in this blog. Hurry up before the Doc comes on with a new blog and wipes out all our good comments this morning.
Member Since: July 17, 2009 Posts: 71 Comments: 26110
Link GOM WV Loop

Quoting LargoFl:
That Low in the gulf, is that the low thats supposed to cross over florida thursday?


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blob alert below cuba lol............
Member Since: August 6, 2011 Posts: 4 Comments: 38389

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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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