Unprecedented Cut in Colorado River Flow Ordered, Due to Drought

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:20 PM GMT on August 20, 2013

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For the first time in history, the U.S. government has ordered that flow of Colorado River water from the 50-year-old Glen Canyon Dam be slashed, due to a water crisis brought about by the region's historic 14-year drought. On Friday, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation--a division of the Department of Interior that manages water and electric power in the West--announced that it would cut water released from Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam by 750,000 acre-feet in 2014. An acre-foot is the amount of water that will cover an acre of land one foot deep; 750,000 acre-feet is enough water to supply at least 750,000 homes for one year. The flow reduction will leave the Colorado River 9% below the 8.23 million acre feet that is supposed to be supplied downstream to Lake Mead for use in California, Nevada, Arizona and Mexico under the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and later agreements. "This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years," said Upper Colorado Regional Director Larry Walkoviak in a Bureau of Reclamation press release.

In the winter of 2005, Lake Powell reached its lowest level since filling, an elevation 150' below full pool. Lake levels recovered some in during 2005 - 2011, but the resurgence of severe to extreme drought conditions have provoked a steep decline in 2012 and 2013, with the lake falling 35' over the past year. As of August 18, 2013, Lake Powell was 109' below full pool (45% of capacity), and was falling at a rate of one foot every six days.


Figure 1. Satellite comparisons of water levels in Arizona and Utah's Lake Powell between 1999 and 2013 show a huge reduction in the amount of water in the lake. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory.


Figure 2. From October 1, 2012 - July 31, 2013, precipitation over the Colorado River Watershed was about 80% of average. Image credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

Las Vegas' Water Supply, Lake Mead, Near a Record Low
Downstream of Lake Powell lies Lake Mead, filled in 1936 when Hoover Dam was completed. Lake Mead supplies Las Vegas with ninety percent of its drinking water, and the water level of Lake Mead is expected to fall by eight feet in 2014 due to the lower water flow levels out of Lake Powell ordered on Friday. Lake Mead has fallen by 100 feet since the current 14-year drought began in 2000, and the higher of the two intake pipes used to supply Las Vegas with water from the lake is in danger of running dry. As a result, a seven-year, $800 million project is underway by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to build a third intake pipe that will tap the deepest part of the reservoir. This so-called "third straw" is scheduled to be available late in 2014, which may be cutting it close, if the Colorado River watershed experiences another year of drought as severe as in 2012 - 2013. Southern Nevada has done well to reduce water usage, though--the region's annual water consumption decreased by nearly 29 billion gallons between 2002 and 2012, despite a population increase of more than 400,000 during that span.


Figure 3. Lake Mead water levels from 1938 - 2013 in July show a precipitous drop since drought conditions gripped the Western U.S. in 2000. The Lake Mead photo was taken by wunderphotographer LAjoneson June 29, 2007, when the lake had a "bathtub ring" 109' tall. Water level data from The Bureau of Reclamation.


Figure 4. Workers handle the main drive sections of the tunnel boring machine that is drilling a 3-mile long tunnel through solid rock to supply Las Vegas with water from Lake Mead. The new intake tunnel is designed to maintain the ability to draw upon Colorado River water at lake elevations as low as 1,000 feet above sea level. The lake already has two intake pipes, and the higher of these will go dry when the lake level hits 1050' - 1075'. As of August 2013, the Lake Mead water level was 1106' above sea level, which is 114' below full pool, but 24' above the record low water level of 1081' set in November 2010. Image credit: Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Drought conditions worsen over Southwest U.S. in August
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the Western U.S. drought peaked in July 2002, when 79% of the West was in at least severe drought, and 45% of the region was in the two highest categories of drought--extreme to exceptional. However, drought conditions have been steadily intensifying this summer. The August 13, 2013 Drought Monitor report showed that drought conditions in the Western U.S. are now the worst since 2004, with 78% of the West in at least severe drought, and 20% in the two highest categories of drought, extreme and exceptional. The latest U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, issued on August 15, calls for drought to remain entrenched over the large majority of the Western U.S. through the end of November.


Figure 5. As of August 13, 2013, severe to exceptional drought gripped nearly all of the Colorado RIver's watershed in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, California, and Colorado. Image credit: NOAA/NESDIS/NCDC.

Causes of the great Western U.S. drought
It is well-known that natural variations in sea surface temperature patterns, such as seen from the El Niño/La Niña oscillation, can influence storm tracks and can cause prolonged periods of drought. These natural variations likely had a hand in causing the great 2000 - 2013 Western U.S. drought. However, changes in the amount of sea ice covering the Arctic can also have a major impact on Northern Hemisphere atmospheric circulation patterns. We must consider if global warming, which has led to a 50% decline in summer Arctic sea ice extent since 1979, may be altering storm tracks and contributing to drought. In 2004, Lisa Sloan, professor of Earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and her graduate student Jacob Sewall published an article in Geophysical Research Letters, Disappearing Arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west. An accompanying news release explained that their climate models found "a significant reduction in rain and snowfall in the American West” as a result of Arctic sea ice loss:

What they found was a change in atmospheric circulation patterns that caused a small northward shift in the paths of winter storms over western North America. This shift in winter storm tracks resulted in significantly reduced winter precipitation from southern British Columbia to the Gulf of California. In some areas, average annual precipitation dropped by as much as 30 percent. The reductions were greatest along the West Coast, with lesser changes further inland. But even as far inland as the Rocky Mountains, winter precipitation fell by 17 percent.

The sea ice acts like a lid over the ocean surface during the winter, blocking the transfer of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere, Sewall explained. Where the sea ice is reduced, heat transfer from the ocean warms the atmosphere, resulting in a rising column of relatively warm air. The shift in storm tracks over North America was linked to the formation of these columns of warmer air over areas of reduced sea ice in the Greenland Sea and a few other locations.


A follow-up paper by Dr. Sewall in 2005, "Precipitation Shifts over Western North America as a Result of Declining Arctic Sea Ice Cover: The Coupled System Response", used a more sophisticated modeling technique but confirmed the results of the 2004 paper. In a June 2013 interview with climateprogress.org, Dr. Sewall commented:

"I think the hypothesis from 2004 and 2005 is being borne out by current changes. The only real difference is that reality is moving faster than we thought/hoped it would almost a decade ago."


Figure 6. The area of the Western U.S. in drought peaked during 2002 - 2004, but during 2013 has been approaching levels not seen since 2004. Image credit: U.S. Drought Portal.

Western North America drought of 2000 - 2004 the worst in over 800 years
The Colorado River's water woes are due to an extraordinary 14-year drought that began in 2000, which peaked during 2000 - 2004. A 2012 study titled, Reduction in carbon uptake during turn of the century drought in western North America, found that the 2000 - 2004 drought was the most severe Western North America event of its kind since the last mega drought over 800 years ago, during the years 1146 - 1151. The paper analyzed the latest generation of climate models used for the 2013 IPCC report, which project that the weather conditions that spawned the 2000 - 2004 drought will be the new normal in the Western U.S. by 2030, and will be considered extremely wet by the year 2100. If these dire predictions of a coming "megadrought" are anywhere close to correct, it will be extremely challenging for the Southwest U.S. to support a growing population in the coming decades.


Figure 7. Normalized precipitation over Western North America (five-year mean) from 22 climate models used to formulate the 2013 IPCC report, as summarized by Schwalm et al., 2012, Reduction in carbon uptake during turn of the century drought in western North America. The horizontal line marks the precipitation level of the 2000 - 2004 drought, the worst of the past 800 years. Droughts of this intensity are predicted to be the new normal by 2030, and will be considered an outlier of extreme wetness by 2100. The paper states: "This impending drydown of western North America is consistent with present trends in snowpack decline as well as expected in-creases in aridity and extreme climate events,including drought, and is driven by anthropogenically forced increases in temperature with coincident increases in evapotranspiration and decreases in soil moisture. Although regional precipitation patterns are difficult to forecast, climate models tend to underestimate the extent and severity of drought relative to available observations. As such, actual reductions in precipitation may be greater than shown. Forecasted precipitation patterns are consistent with a probable twenty-first century megadrought." Image credit: Schwalm et al., 2012, Reduction in carbon uptake during turn of the century drought in western North America, Nature Geoscience 5, 551-555, Published online 29 JULY 2012, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1529, www.nature.com/naturegeoscience.

Related posts
Lessons from 2012: Droughts, not Hurricanes, are the Greater Danger, my November 2012 post.

National Geographic has an excellent interactive satellite image that shows the difference in Lake Powell water levels between 1999 and 2013.

How Two Reservoirs Have Become Billboards For What Climate Change Is Doing To The American West, August 12, 2013 climateprogress.org post by Tom Kenworthy.

Scientists Predicted A Decade Ago Arctic Ice Loss Would Worsen Western Droughts. Is That Happening Already?, June 2013 post by Joe Romm at climateprogress.org.

Twenty Cities At Risk of Water Shortages, August 14, 2013 wunderground news post by Nick Wiltgen

References
Sewall, Jacob O., 2005, Precipitation Shifts over Western North America as a Result of Declining Arctic Sea Ice Cover: The Coupled System Response, Earth Interact., 9, 1–23. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/EI171.1

Sewall, J.O., and L.C. Sloan, 2004, Disappearing Arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west, Geophys. Res. Lett., 31, L06209, doi:10.1029/2003GL019133. Accompanying news release.

Jeff Masters

Lake Mead - low water (clicks4fun)
Colorado River has been struggling to survive. Predictions of its future are grim in the headlines. Hopefully scientists will figure out how to resolve this bad situation.
Lake Mead - low water
Storm Clouds over Lake Powell, Glen Canyon NRA (catjuice)
Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, AZ
Storm Clouds over Lake Powell, Glen Canyon NRA

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This is my first read of the blog and I wish to thank you for quality information in a very professional manner.
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1559. IKE
12Z GFS..... quiet in the ATL.
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Quoting 1557. Relix:


I've been reading that.... for 2 months now :P! We know the season will wake up, definitely, but its just hard to think it will be as active as forecast. I remember Levi once saying that the MJO didn't matter that much for the actual season but here we are begging for it to get here so we get an uptick in cyclogenesis.


LOL xD
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1557. Relix
Quoting 1526. unknowncomic:
Also, once that large area of dry air is gone in the CATL, things will be more conducive there.




I've been reading that.... for 2 months now :P! We know the season will wake up, definitely, but its just hard to think it will be as active as forecast. I remember Levi once saying that the MJO didn't matter that much for the actual season but here we are begging for it to get here so we get an uptick in cyclogenesis.
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1555. hydrus
Largest known galaxy in the universe IC-1101.- 6 million light years across...Link
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 20332
Morning all. Mid 90s expected here in Austin today with a chance for some isolated storms. I did some gardening yesterday and it looks like my artichokes are popping back up for a second go this year. It was a mild winter so the first season started early. I also found yesterday a nest of baby rabbits among the artichoke plants. Probably the cutest thing I've seen in a while.
Member Since: June 9, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 836
Quoting 1544. SouthernIllinois:

That's gonna change now?


Normally it should because the peak of the hurricane season (sept 10) is getting closer....... BUT noting is written in stone. I really hope something will clean the dry air for the rest of the season.
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.
Member Since: July 14, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 9628
In terms of the most developed areas of Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area(say from South Beach to Ft. Lauderdale) a huge storm surge (15 feet or higher) would obviously devastate/flood all of the barrier island locations (Miami Beach/Sunny Isles/Hollywood Beach/Dania, etc).

Then you have to consider the seawalls and houses - buildings - condos along Biscayne Bay or the Intracoastal Highway next to the seawalls. Usually about 5-7 feet of clearance from the water to the top of the seawall at high tide.

Assuming that a huge storm (near the landfall location) generates a storm surge of 10-20 feet, at high tide, then all of the seawall locations on the West flank of Biscayne Bay or the Intra-coastal would flood.

Andrew came ashore South of Miami Beach and the city centers but they will face this type of destruction some day if the right storm comes along..........This does not take into account potential sea level rise in the future.
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1550. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
JeffMasters has created a new entry.
Quoting 1507. hurricanes2018:
no hurricanes and tropical storms for the next 378 hours from now because of the dry air and some wind shear!


There is something over the N Leewards though... but it will never happen.
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1548. GatorWX
Nea, sent you mail. I'll start with a question.
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1547. VR46L
Quoting 1522. weathermanwannabe:
Good Morning. Lust lurking. Here is the current batch of pending African waves.

Link


Funny Typo .:)

Good Morning to you !
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Quoting 1539. SouthernIllinois:

For you Folks there along with western Gulf Coast, your cane season will be winding down sooner than the rest of the GOM basin.


Usually end of September, unless fronts start sweeping in sooner than that
Member Since: July 14, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 9628
My first college class wasnt so bad....should be a fun semester
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Quoting 1529. SouthernIllinois:

What ever happened to that giant blog south of PR?


The same thing that happened to almost every blobs this year.
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1540. hydrus
GFS still has tropical cyclone affecting the S.W. U.S.
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 20332
Quoting 1526. unknowncomic:
Also, once that large area of dry air is gone in the CATL, things will be more conducive there.




That day could never come
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Quoting 1512. GatorWX:


I hope we just leave it alone. We don't need them, so what would be the point? It's interesting, but I don't think we should mess with things we don't truly understand. Weather modification is another good example. Humans think they know it all, but unless we've (mankind) experienced or witnessed it, it's always a theory.


They would only end up being slaughtered by poachers, who'd be selling bits of them to the people of the world with too much money and too little soul, just like why so many endangered animals are hunted down now.


Wow, that's a big batch of lightnening way up north in Canada there.

The talk of season being off timewise and jet stream patterns, has made me think of how the wonky jet patterns might affect the Bermuda high in the future. Obvs no idea until/if a new pattern started happening consistantly, so just saying really LOL
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I'll see everybody next year! 2014 season is 200+ days out
Member Since: July 14, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 9628
1535. GatorWX
Quoting 1521. Neapolitan:
Later--much later. Climate scientists are fairly certain that climatic heating won't level off for several centuries due to the ongoing buildup of greenhouse gases, and then it'll take a few more centuries for things to return to some type of normalcy. (Of course, a supervolcano eruption, a massive asteroid/comet strike, or prolonged global thermonuclear war would help to cool things much quicker, but then neither GC nor GW would be the biggest issue.)That's a faulty supposition. Basic physics says the climate's only going one way, and will continue to do so.That's chilly, but far from unheard of.We're far closer than most people think. But, yes, changes must be made--and Mother Nature will see to it that changes are made. She always does.


I used the saranac reference as an example. I remember 40's when I was 2100 feet up in the Catskills for a lot of the summer. I know it may have been a bad example. A better example could perhaps be the swings we saw in the Dakota's. even then, it was only a single year in reference. The swings in the jetstream are particularly alarming however. Physics, ahhh. I have lots of theories. Email if you'd like me to elaborate. Knowledge isn't always power, your mind is power. We try to understand it all, but when it comes down to it, we really don't know. I think that's the best attitude we should have in this regard. I'd be interested in talking more if you'd like.
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1533. csmda
Wasn't there something pushing dry air into the gulf the other day? Did it push it somewhere else instead?
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Quoting 1481. mitthbevnuruodo:


I'd be more worried about long dormant/extinct microbes and/or viruses that could rock the world. Though would be cool to see many long extinct animals, just not sure we should go there. be nicer if we could save what we have and not let them go extinct :/


I totally agree with you!
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Quoting 950. lobdelse81:
e, and b. I think Boston is a city that does not know squat about hurricane preparedness (I have friends that live there who think they only have to worry about the occasional noreaster and that is it). If another Carol, 1938, or even a Sandy-type storm were to come onshore between Fall River and Providence, that would put Massachusetts Bay and the Boston Harbor in the right-front quadrant with a massive storm surge being funneled into that area. Logan Airport, which sits right on the water, would be under water and the financial district could have the same issues (or worse), that was experienced in the NYC/Jersey shore area when Sandy hit.
but with Boston (or even New York) most of the city is very close to a hill, so if you live in Back bay, and your area starts flooding, its a 5 minute walk to Beacon hill, or South Boston is close to Dorchester hights, even East Boston has highlands. Its not like New Orleans, or Miami where you would have to leave the city.
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Good Morning Class!
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1527. GatorWX
Quoting 1520. sar2401:

...after they replaced the hood that was lost to the Dominator called an EF-5 tornado. The hubris of that bunch never fails to amaze me.


Lol, they do seem to be happy doing what they're doing though. Perhaps a bit overconfident in their machines, but they're enjoying it all. I'd love to be in the eye o a powerful hurricane. I know the dangers, but I'd be happy. I run from lighting with my tail between my legs however.
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Also, once that large area of dry air is gone in the CATL, things will be more conducive there.


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Quoting 1497. biff4ugo:


That is one of the issues with the "bring them back" effort.
None of the associated organisms that develop with them come back. There is no mommy mammoth that can lick her baby and give it the microbes it needs for it's stomach to work right.
The same with the huge seed bank in Svalbard. They aren't saving the bees and moths or fruit bats or nitrogen fixing bacteria that the plants need to survive.

P.S. have you tried the Met ED 3D water vapor visualization course? It is free.
If they brought us back based on our nuclear DNA, "they" would be missing over 80% of our biome genetics that make up my body and guts. We really are all connected to everything.


No, will look into that sometime.

I'm not saying it's a totally valid worry though...just the kind of thing 'I' would worry about with it, cause the thought of weird microbes and bacteria etc gives me the heebiejeebies haha
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Quoting 1517. barbamz:
As recently on this blog the question arouse how common tornados in Germany would be, I've tried to put together some informations on my blog update for those who are interested. It was a question I had to answer for myself as well :)


Mate, I know how common Tornadoes are in Europe, especially this year. It's still not over as I guess most of the "action" heads south before it dies out. Nice blog btw.
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Quoting 1439. fireflymom:
Texas Gulf Coast here, we need tropical moisture a Tropical storm with out the Hurricane winds will be fine.



OK, let me be more specific, the FL Gulf Coast, I would love to send you a soaking tropical storm without the high winds!
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Good Morning. Lust lurking. Here is the current batch of pending African waves.

Link
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Quoting 1495. GatorWX:
1485, I am under the assumption that sooner or later GW will transition to GC.
Later--much later. Climate scientists are fairly certain that climatic heating won't level off for several centuries due to the ongoing buildup of greenhouse gases, and then it'll take a few more centuries for things to return to some type of normalcy. (Of course, a supervolcano eruption, a massive asteroid/comet strike, or prolonged global thermonuclear war would help to cool things much quicker, but then neither GC nor GW would be the biggest issue.)
Quoting 1495. GatorWX:
I suppose it could go either way.
That's a faulty supposition. Basic physics says the climate's only going one way, and will continue to do so.
Quoting 1495. GatorWX:
We saw 33 degrees up in saranac, ny about 3 1/2 wks ago. Not a harbinger by any means, but it caught my eye.
That's chilly, but far from unheard of.
Quoting 1495. GatorWX:
I don't think we've reached the absolute tipping point yet, but we're headed there. Changes must be made.
We're far closer than most people think. But, yes, changes must be made--and Mother Nature will see to it that changes are made. She always does.
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13442
1520. sar2401
Quoting AussieStorm:
Dominator 3


...after they replaced the hood that was lost to the Dominator called an EF-5 tornado. The hubris of that bunch never fails to amaze me.
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Quoting 1476. AussieStorm:
First image of CFS 396hrs...












Take these with a truck full pinch of salt.... it's crazy....

loop
396 HOURS!!!!!!!!! LOL. SAL still in control. SAL scoffs at MJO. Dr. Masters didnt even mention the tropics yesterday!!!!! 7-1-0
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Current World Lightning













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1517. barbamz
As recently on this blog the question arouse how common tornados in Germany would be, I've tried to put together some informations on my blog update for those who are interested. It was a question I had to answer for myself as well :)
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1516. csmda
Quoting 1402. sabres:
Actually, over here on the FL east coast we are really hurting for some rain compared to points further north and west. I've had less than 0.75" for the entire month of August!! Take a look at the Keetch Byram numbers south of the Cape near Cocoa Beach ...

http://flame.fl-dof.com/fire_weather/KBDI/4km_mai n.html


Geeze! Hope you get some much needed rain.
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1515. sar2401
Quoting wunderweatherman123:
when will the atlantic wake up!

The whole thing is that no one know when or if anything in the long term will happen, and conditions that will actually cause tropical storms are probably the most baffling of all, since we understand so little about why they happen. There has never been a satisfactory explanation of the 2004-2005 seasons, and none for out current drought of majors either. Anything you read will something that ranges form a good educated guess to pure wishcasting. Just sit back and watch what does or does not happen.
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1514. csmda
duplicate post
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what sucks is that now the GFS model drops significant CV storms :(
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1512. GatorWX
Quoting 1506. 69Viking:


I guess a giant ground sloth or woolly mammoth would be too bad, just need a big area for the Mammoth to roam.


I hope we just leave it alone. We don't need them, so what would be the point? It's interesting, but I don't think we should mess with things we don't truly understand. Weather modification is another good example. Humans think they know it all, but unless we've (mankind) experienced or witnessed it, it's always a theory.
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Quoting 1493. AussieStorm:


so... what happened there this year. TWC was still naming Winter Storms late April and named 27 storms. April is Spring, right?? Wasn't there reports of snow during May? I would call that a late start.


I totally agree with you. I guess I should have had my sarcasm flag on because that was my intention.
Member Since: June 12, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 924
1510. csmda
Quoting 1426. 69Viking:


LOL, Destin, FLORIDA has yet hit 90 degrees this summer!


We had a couple days in June and July where it was 90, even had a day or 2 above. We've had more 90 days this month, though. Of course 97% of each month was wet and overcast.

Now I am waiting for grass in the backyard to dry out so I can cut it. St. Augustine grass while wet makes my lawn mower choke and sputter. I am so tired of this...
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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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