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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Quoting 196. TimSoCal:


Nice. I wish it was a little further west, so it could put a damper on fire season here in SoCal, but those folks in the interior west probably need it more than we do.

I hope some of that tropical moisture makes it up your way. That would be a nice treat especially in the dry season. Where in So Cal are you?
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Quoting 204. CybrTeddy:
Assuming if the GFS remains consistent with the possible Cape Verde storm, our activity ramp up may only be a few days behind 2010s.

GFS showed 3 Cape Verde System on the 12Z run...
Quite an interesting next two weeks ahead.
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Quoting 202. Patrap:
Where are 40 million in Tokyo to go when the Spent Fuel Pool in Bldg #4 collapses or go's all Chain reaction on us ?




I like this RT channel a lot. They aren't PC like the FOX, CNN and the rest of mainstream media.
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GFS shows a pretty wet scenario for much of the desert southwest this weekend, hopefully this verifies!

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205. MahFL
Convection is increasing on ex Erin and it still has a nice circulation.

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Assuming if the GFS remains consistent with the possible Cape Verde storm, our activity ramp up may only be a few days behind 2010s.
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Quoting 198. Tropicsweatherpr:


Good discussion by him.
I miss ole Storm W. That's not going to get me banned is it? lol
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Where are 40 million in Tokyo to go when the Spent Fuel Pool in Bldg #4 collapses or go's all Chain reaction on us ?




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Quoting 161. nocanesplease:
I know the Atlantic is quite but I beleive there is some broad circulation around 8N, 34W with some convection going. Somebody see that too?


Very elongated


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Quoting 178. 69Viking:


Oh great, another washout of a weekend. Florida might as well just cancel summer, it never arrived this year and forget the nickname the Sunshine State!


Summer never arrived? What? Frequent heavy rain and the Florida summer are pretty much synonymous.

I think if we were too dry, then you could ask if summer never arrived.

There's a reason why getting 7 to 10 inches of precip is normal here while more abnormal in many other places during the summer.

Yes 15 to 20 inches is abnormal, but to me, it certainly is more reasonable to see above normal rainfall during what is normally a period dominated by deep moisture and frequent heavy rains as apposed to below normal rainfall and drought. Yes, rainfall "normals" are a mean, so mathematically there has to be below normal as well to produce such a mean.


However, high mean rainfall totals of course do signal a lot more years with very heavy rain and thunderstorms during the summer as apposed to dry weather.


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so 12z GFS shows a fish storm barrage. interesting in 5 days it has a storm develoing . tme to me consistency
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Quoting 171. hydrus:
The latest GFS has a tropical system moving ashore the Northern Baha Peninsula, then bringing heavy rain to the S.W. U.S...Interesting.


Nice. I wish it was a little further west, so it could put a damper on fire season here in SoCal, but those folks in the interior west probably need it more than we do.
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Heavy from possible tropical cyclone over Baha and S.W. shown by GFS.
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Quoting 118. StormTrackerScott:
12Z GFS was boring. Waves develope and hit the shear near the Caribbean and go poof.
I think all the storms will go out to sea because to far to the north about 35 west to 40 west!! I guess how all the cape v storms for this year.
Member Since: March 12, 2013 Posts: 50 Comments: 82400
Quoting 175. SouthernIllinois:

Surfers are happy then I am too. Sweet! Let's get this tape made. Have a creek that runs along the back of my property so I'll even through in a creek noise session.

Flowing water...... Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh


LOL, we have lots of flowing water down our streets and through our yards everytime we have a downpour because the ground is so saturated it has no place to go!
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Quoting 157. redwagon:


Does this blog topic drive you to depression or what? Glad the Doc didn't post any Lake Travis pics, I couldn't bear looking at the pics along with my own eyes while this blog lasts.

Hey, yesterday on the radio news did you catch where LCRA was warning everybody to get ready to control their dry-docked docks soon due to flash flooding? No, I did not hallucinate that. How on earth are we going to get 20" of rain that will float the lowest tier of landed docks? Let alone 40" for the rest?


Ahh I heard that also. Is the LCRA planning a gate release in the highland lakes that we are unaware of? Something doesn't add up with that report. Anyways did you see the article this morning on Carlos N Charlies closing? The pics were just dreadful. Lake Travis will soon be repurposed as Circuit of the Americas Track #2 at this rate.

http://www.kxan.com/news/local/austin/lake-landma rk-carlos-charlies-to-close
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Quoting 174. GTstormChaserCaleb:
I think what he means is we have La Nina like sst's as evident by the cool tongue of water in the EPAC, yet the atmosphere is behaving like an El Nino.
Quoting 179. StormTrackerScott:


Thank you. Saved me a post

Eh, I wouldn't call the current state of the atmosphere "El-Nino like", but that's just me.
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Quoting 174. GTstormChaserCaleb:
I think what he means is we have La Nina like sst's as evident by the cool tongue of water in the EPAC, yet the atmosphere is behaving like an El Nino.

Nearly impossible, unless we are in a scenario where we flip from A Potent El Nino to a Potent La Nina.
The main feature keeping shear in the Atlantic is the TUTT, which is present every season, it just tends to be stronger in some seasons.

EDIT: The Waters in the ENSO regions are what determines the Upper-level wind patterns across the Western Hemisphere... Just saying.
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Quoting 180. TylerStanfield:

I say that, meaning that a lot of people on the blog are here to keep track of the Tropics and make sure their families won't be in harm's way, Yes?
But some of us, like me, are here to enjoy our passion of Tracking Storms even if they go out to sea or are even on the otherside of the World. I know that everyone has their differences, I'll try to put it behind me and stop making a big deal over some of your comments. I just don't particularly enjoy reading all of what you have to say all the time. No hard feelings, but as you can probably tell, I just enjoy my passion enough to put it to the test sometimes.


Feeling is mutual.
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Quoting 160. TylerStanfield:

TUTT's are common every year. They just tend to be enhanced further during El Nino Years.
Trolls are common too.
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So Reading the blog heading above it crosses my mind that maybe later on some of the inhabitants of the mid West might have to move to Detroit's 80,000 abandoned homes where the is plenty of water, as the situation is to say or think the least in the mid west grave as far as water supply now and later is concerned.
Supply and demand are some of the least considered factors of the future of humanity.
Leaving out the sea level probable rise and other "natural?" Occurrences, drought is going to play a big part in future conflicts after possibly fuel.
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Quoting 35. hydrus:
The lack of an El-Nino is responsible for some of the severe drought in my opinion. It brings a substantial amount of rain to the South West U.S, where La-nina episodes bring much dryer conditions.

El-Nino-

La-nina-


I agree, El Nino or Neutral leaning El Nino has not happened nearly enough in far too long. La Nina or La Nina I believe has mostly dominated for at least 3 to 4 years now. Very strange if you ask me.

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Quoting 172. Bluestorm5:
First two meteorology classes of my college career starting at 1:45 pm until 4:30 pm with break between two classes. I already met one (OU grad school graduate/storm chaser/tornado researcher) but I'm interested to see what other is like. He's a hurricane specialist professor from U of Miami.

Good luck Kyle! I'm doing an online meteorology college class that starts this Monday. Should be interesting.
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Quoting 168. Patrap:
Using names off the list, is not what sells.

It only confuses folks .

What if a GOM or Carribean spinner pops up with a Name before your's?


Its folly best left out.


Good point...guilty party here. Will try not to do it again. Pat if you have some Fresca left over my want to pass one over to Scott and Tyler. ;)
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Quoting 165. StormTrackerScott:


Your putting words in my mouth. Most people on here and all over the world loves watching storms from a far but if they aren't coming your way and going out to sea not harming anyone then what's the big deal.

I say that, meaning that a lot of people on the blog are here to keep track of the Tropics and make sure their families won't be in harm's way, Yes?
But some of us, like me, are here to enjoy our passion of Tracking Storms even if they go out to sea or are even on the otherside of the World. I know that everyone has their differences, I'll try to put it behind me and stop making a big deal over some of your comments. I just don't particularly enjoy reading all of what you have to say all the time. No hard feelings, but as you can probably tell, I just enjoy my passion enough to put it to the test sometimes.
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Quoting 174. GTstormChaserCaleb:
I think what he means is we have La Nina like sst's as evident by the cool tongue of water in the EPAC, yet the atmosphere is behaving like an El Nino.


Thank you. Saved me a post
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Quoting 151. StormTrackerScott:
Weather is going to turn very rainy and windy across FL as a back door cold front moves in later this weekend creating a nice convergence zone over C & N FL.



Oh great, another washout of a weekend. Florida might as well just cancel summer, it never arrived this year and forget the nickname the Sunshine State!
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Quoting 171. hydrus:
The latest GFS has a tropical system moving ashore the Northern Baha Peninsula, then bringing heavy rain to the S.W. U.S...Interesting.
Yes that is what they need hydrus, count me in as a Southwest Wishcaster. ;)
Member Since: June 30, 2013 Posts: 12 Comments: 8682
Hopefully I can ask my 2nd met professor what he think about 2013 hurricane season since he research tropical cyclogenesis.
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Quoting 167. wxchaser97:

Lol what.

I think what he means is we have La Nina like sst's as evident by the cool tongue of water in the EPAC, yet the atmosphere is behaving like an El Nino.
Member Since: June 30, 2013 Posts: 12 Comments: 8682
Quoting 159. StormTrackerScott:


I guess he has some issue with me.
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First two meteorology classes of my college career starting at 1:45 pm until 4:30 pm with break between two classes. I already met one (OU grad school graduate/storm chaser/tornado researcher) but I'm interested to see what other is like. He's a hurricane specialist professor from U of Miami.
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The latest GFS has a tropical system moving ashore the Northern Baha Peninsula, then bringing heavy rain to the S.W. U.S...Interesting.
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Quoting 159. StormTrackerScott:


I guess he has some issue with me.
u are right about the wind shear in the Caribbean how long the wind shear going to be there.
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Quoting 121. SouthernIllinois:

Haha! I TOTALLY hear ya! It's been that way the past couple weeks. Not to rub it in but I SO AM. :) Had the chance to have the windows open each night for the past TWO weeks hearing nothing but the sounds of crickets, the birds in all the trees, and the occasional woodpecker. I swear I could tape record the sounds and send it to the Sound effects companies that make the sleep machines. I'll leave you in charge of recording the ocean wave noises since you are down there by the coast. :-)


I could definitely get recordings of that. The waves have been up with all the storms in the Gulf, the surfers are happy!
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Using names off the list, is not what sells.

It only confuses folks .

What if a GOM or Carribean spinner pops up with a Name before your's?


Its folly best left out.


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Quoting 136. StormTrackerScott:


It does it's like we have La-Nina in regards to the enso region but the atmosphere is responding in more of a El-Nino pattern. Very strange and this could set up to be a very cold and interesting Winter coming up across the US.

Lol wut.

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Quoting 163. prcane4you:
Waves,waves,waves and nothing happens every day.


xD
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Quoting 156. TylerStanfield:

There's a difference between Bickering, and discussing someone's thoughts and feelings toward a forecast. Your comment just makes you come off as a Smart aleck, and makes it sound like a Potent Hurricane in the Atlantic isn't a big deal.
Just don't understand why you insist on making a big deal about how I'm "bickering" with you everytime I try to discuss something.


Your putting words in my mouth. Most people on here and all over the world loves watching storms from a far but if they aren't coming your way and going out to sea not harming anyone then what's the big deal.
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right now the wind shear to high in the Caribbean for a tropical storm or a hurricane! any storm go to the Caribbean it will die out for the next few weeks.
Member Since: March 12, 2013 Posts: 50 Comments: 82400
Quoting 116. TylerStanfield:
Fernand weakening and clipping the Islands.
Gabrielle becoming a potent Hurricane in the Central Atlantic.


Another wave emerging off of Africa.
Waves,waves,waves and nothing happens every day.
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Quoting 57. JLPR2:
Hmm...



Still neutral, but interesting.


If only that could bring more rain... later in the season.
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I know the Atlantic is quite but I beleive there is some broad circulation around 8N, 34W with some convection going. Somebody see that too?
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Quoting 153. StormTrackerScott:


Tutt's are very common during El-Nino years. Obviously this is no El-Nino year but the atmosphere is behaving weird lately. I guess we can blame Global Warming for the weird weather patterns.


TUTT's are common every year. They just tend to be enhanced further during El Nino Years.
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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.