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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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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Dominator 3

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maybe we will get a big hurricane in the year of 2015!!
Member Since: March 12, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 11007
no hurricanes and tropical storms for the next 378 hours from now because of the dry air and some wind shear!
Member Since: March 12, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 11007
Quoting 1424. GatorWX:


I'm hoping for a giant ground sloth. How cool would that be?


I guess a giant ground sloth or woolly mammoth would be too bad, just need a big area for the Mammoth to roam.
Member Since: August 25, 2006 Posts: 1 Comments: 2996
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Quoting 1494. Grothar:


That's close to my birthday.


I see all kinds of comments referring to your age... but 99? Wow :)

Also, I think we're neighbors. Oakland Park here.

WX related: There are some good popcorn showers in SEFL this morning.
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1503. GatorWX
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.


It was 85 and snowed two days later in the Dakota's. I'm not sure I would necessarily call that a late start, but an unusual scenario. It was summer two days before winter returned. The jetstream....makes me think.
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Quoting wunderweatherman123:
when will the atlantic wake up!


The Elevator weatherman says a little rain for the gulf coast but fine elsewhere. LOL
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Back from Calculus class and meeting my health professor... had to walk across campus multiple of times so I'm pretty worn out.
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Quoting 1416. SouthernIllinois:

Oh my! Forget the lawnmover, you need a Hovercraft. By the way, LUV what you did with the landscaping bricks and mulch around the tree Viking. :-)



Yeah that's a young live Oak Tree, I'm glad to see it thriving despite how water logged the ground around it is. I'll have to get pictures of my other trees. I have a small yard but when we built the house in 2005 I planted 6 tees around the North and West side of the house where I don't have to worry about tropical systems with their southeast winds blowing them down on the house.
Member Since: August 25, 2006 Posts: 1 Comments: 2996
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 :/


With you on your thoughts - also would have reservations as to just where some of these long extinct but regenerate animals would be "housed" to replicate how and where (climatic, food/prey, territory etc.) they originally existed. They could also end up being very lonely exhibits - but there again mankind does exemplify, at times, the height of cruelty or disregard for animals - domestic and wild - often just for money.

Back to nice quiet weather in the Caribbean.
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Quoting 1451. LAsurvivor:


I am just fine with no season at all. I've been through Betsy, Camille, Andrew, Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Issac. Louisiana could use a break. Perhaps people just want a thrill. I can think of other ways to get thrills. Go ride a roller coaster or something.


Sitting thru Rita all night in the dark made me dislike Hurricanes very much - our town was already over run with Katrina evacuees - grocery stores empty, no gas, then we got all the Rita evacuees from Houston. Not fun. I'll be happy with zero hurricanes this year.
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Quoting 1481. mitthbevnuruodo:


I'd be more worried about long dormant/extinct microbes and/or viruses :/


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.
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1496. GatorWX
Quoting 1491. unknowncomic:
Looking at the latest European MJO, in a few days it will be in Octant one which should help jump start the Atlantic cyclone season. They say the MJO is not as important this time of the year. However, the strong high pressure has kept the stability high, so the strong pulse might be the missing ingredient.



I agree, it's always a factor. It's a region of moist air with a greater tendency for lift. It is certainly beneficial to any developing storm any time of year. I think it's effects are less conducive to a major hurricane, but for a developing system....
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1495. GatorWX
1485, I am under the assumption that sooner or later GW will transition to GC. It's the transitional seasons that alarm me. The jetstream is a big factor. I suppose it could go either way. 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. We're headed either for water world or a cold world. It'll be interesting. I don't think we've reached the absolute tipping point yet, but we're headed there. Changes must be made.
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1494. Grothar
Quoting 1492. unknowncomic:
Reschedule to 6/1/14?


That's close to my birthday.
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Quoting luvtogolf:


That's a good observation. However, Dr Masters has written blogs about the effects of global warming and that summers are starting earlier. So who knows......


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.
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Quoting 1475. Grothar:
I am revising my seasonal forecast

4-0-0.
Reschedule to 6/1/14?
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Quoting 1479. AussieStorm:


I've noticed how your seasons have been a little late starting. I think maybe 6 weeks late. So I am guessing early September the real season will start.
Looking at the latest European MJO, in a few days it will be in Octant one which should help jump start the Atlantic cyclone season. They say the MJO is not as important this time of the year. However, the strong high pressure has kept the stability high, so the strong pulse might be the missing ingredient.

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Quoting 1486. clwstmchasr:


Oh, so you are throwing one back:)


It is part of the new Forecast and release program.
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Quoting 1482. stoormfury:
AREA 10N 35W IN A FEW DAYS 95L AND THEN FERNAND. KEEP ON WATCHING. MODELS WILL SOON LATCH ON

Low-rider, huh.... well, there won't be any Texas Death Ridge, so we're receptive....
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This hurricane season is like most of our New Orleans Saints' football seasons: wait till next year!! LOL!!
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Quoting 1472. luvtogolf:


That's a good observation. However, Dr Masters has written blogs about the effects of global warming and that summers are starting earlier. So who knows......


Yes, but that is a climatology pattern; I am talking on a much more short-term basis! And this summer has been, well, a bit different than previous summers. (The summer that naysayers will use for the next decade to say that GW is an imaginary concept!)
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look at all the dry air moving west!
Member Since: March 12, 2013 Posts: 7 Comments: 11007
AREA 10N 35W IN A FEW DAYS 95L AND THEN FERNAND. KEEP ON WATCHING. MODELS WILL SOON LATCH ON
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Quoting 1422. 69Viking:


Makes you wonder what other animals they might find fully preserved under the glaciers. Not sure we should be bringing them back though. Can you imagine a Saber Tooth Tiger on the prowl again and I'm sure there's others that would be worse!


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 :/
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when will the atlantic wake up!
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Quoting unknowncomic:
A back-weighted season seems apparent at this point. It does seem more unstable in South Florida, as we are getting the ocean showers typical for September. More will be revealed soon.


I've noticed how your seasons have been a little late starting. I think maybe 6 weeks late. So I am guessing early September the real season will start.
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Good morning

One post then back to work. Hostile conditions put paid to the wave below Hispaniola last night. The ULL in the NW Caribbean that was lifting slowly to the N reversed course and now sits squarely over the Isle of Youth and moving ever so slowly to the ENE. It anchors the base of a TUTT that is sinking down just North of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola

No chance of anything developing in the Western Caribbean while this set up prevails.

Back to quiet times for now

Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 15671


2013-14 Preliminary Winter Forecast (Long Range-Low Confidence)
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First image of CFS 396hrs...












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

loop
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1475. Grothar
I am revising my seasonal forecast

4-0-0.
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A back-weighted season seems apparent at this point. It does seem more unstable in South Florida, as we are getting the ocean showers typical for September. More will be revealed soon.
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1473. GatorWX
Quoting 1454. stayawaycantore:
I have a question for the more weather-learned. Is a drought considered part of climate change, or is it situational?



I don't think I saw anyone else comment. Take for example the drought Dr M commented on. This could perhaps be conceived as climate change. Look for duration and severity. The Colorado river has been drying up for a long time and although human interaction is most certainly partially to blame, climate is part of the issue. Climate change so far has contributed to worse droughts and intense moisture as well. More heat, more evaporation. Works both ways. It all depends on what's going on way up in the atmosphere at that given moment. High pressure and low pressure. I'm not a climatologist nor a meteorologist and others on here know more than me, so I assume if any of my statement is false, someone will say so. Enjoy
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Quoting 1465. ProphetessofDoom:
Good morning all! Just a thought - I think we can all agree that winter was somewhat extended this year! Here in South Fla, we really didn't even get any cool weather until March. What if hurricane season is following the same pattern? Is it possible that this season's peak might be through October, with a number of storms still forming in November? I'm not wishing for any - I think 10 storms throughout my lifetime is enough, but I do have a funny feeling that we might be looking at a late October, early November outbreak. No, I do not have evidence to support that, just an instinct!


That's a good observation. However, Dr Masters has written blogs about the effects of global warming and that summers are starting earlier. So who knows......
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Quoting TampaSpin:


when we start looking at over 300 hours out ....that is crazy.....not you of course tho...:)


yeah, as I said... a loooong ways out. I haven't even checked the CFS which goes 1000++ hours out.

brb. lol
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1470. etxwx
Good morning, day and evening to all. We are being teased with rain chances, but it's not happened so far...pond levels are dropping pretty quickly and the pasture is a bit crunchy, but there's plenty of hay baled and put up. Temps aren't bad for August in East Texas though...gotta look on the bright side.




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LOOK at Saturday mornings Temps! Pretty cool HUH......you tell me what this does to the Tropics? Gotta run....NO FIGHTING KIDS!

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Quoting 1454. stayawaycantore:
I have a question for the more weather-learned. Is a drought considered part of climate change, or is it situational?



The weather-learned will say that no one weather situation (IE: a drought) can be attributed to climate change, the long term impacts or series of droughts or severity of the drought over years can be.
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Quoting 1461. AussieStorm:


336hrs out.






a looooooong way out.


when we start looking at over 300 hours out ....that is crazy.....not you of course tho...:)
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1466. hydrus
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Good morning all! Just a thought - I think we can all agree that winter was somewhat extended this year! Here in South Fla, we really didn't even get any cool weather until March. What if hurricane season is following the same pattern? Is it possible that this season's peak might be through October, with a number of storms still forming in November? I'm not wishing for any - I think 10 storms throughout my lifetime is enough, but I do have a funny feeling that we might be looking at a late October, early November outbreak. No, I do not have evidence to support that, just an instinct!
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Quoting 1459. GetReal:


IMO it is amazing there here we are, nearly in the heart of the hurricane season, and the only current activity is an ULL in the SE GOM....


I said over a month ago why this might happen....and it is exactly as I suggested. Still might get active....but the pattern currently is not good for tropical development....that early winter that hit the Artic was the sign.
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Poof went the Atlantic
Poof went the Carb
Poof went Gulf
Poof went the season
Poof went me!
Be back when (if)the crayons come out
Lurk mode on
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1462. GatorWX
Quoting 1457. TampaSpin:
NOT MUCH of any weather change pattern over the ConUs for the next 10 days ......So what might change in the Tropics? MJO maybe...but less Shear I doubt it. MORE ULL probably!

http://climate.cod.edu/flanis/model/mod/index.php ?type=06-GFS-US-500-spd-18-1


A B C D E five. I know you knew. I pay no attention to models. They're all over the place anymore. I watch the sats. It's been an interesting season thus far. Wonder how long things will persist.
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Quoting TampaSpin:
Not much on the Models for the next 7 days...NOTHING! So we go into probably September with 4 named storms and NO Hurricanes it appears.


336hrs out.






a looooooong way out.
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1460. sar2401
Quoting AussieStorm:
‏@TxDPS
Will you need assistance getting out of town during an evacuation? Call 2-1-1 or visit http://bit.ly/KQZhbA @texasgov

The key part being to register right now if you need assistance. Assuming the system works at all, it surely won't work if people wait until warnings are posted before they try to get assistance with evacuations. If they plan for providing transport for 25,000 and the number balloons to 100,000 two days before landfall, the whole transport system will fall apart
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About JeffMasters

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