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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1210. flsky
Quoting 1204. Grothar:
Don't you people ever go to bed?

And your excuse is?
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Quoting 1204. Grothar:
Don't you people ever go to bed?

Tell,us.a.story.first?
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Quoting 1204. Grothar:
Don't you people ever go to bed?


Nope
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting 1204. Grothar:
Don't you people ever go to bed?


We do now since the NHC is in 'don't call us, we'll call you' mode with the new 5 day outlook format.
Member Since: August 4, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 3280
Quoting 1202. redwagon:


The sun forces moisture to rise from land while the rays are beating on it. At night, over water, with no warming sun, the air is cooler above which causes the warmth over the water to rise as the cool air falls, providing 'elevator' type pathways. This has been missing lately.


Aha. Thank you!
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1204. Grothar
Don't you people ever go to bed?
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1203. flsky
Quoting 1176. Skyepony:
Starting to hear the thunder from the rain coming.

Can you scoot some of that up here to Ponce Inlet. Haven't had any rain for days and days!
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Quoting 1182. tornadodude:


Well I meant in general. It seems like when we get a weak tropical system, the thunderstorm activity wanes and waxes at completely opposite times of typical thunderstorms.


The sun forces moisture to rise from land while the rays are beating on it. At night, over water, with no warming sun, the air is cooler above which causes the warmth over the water to rise as the cool air falls, providing 'elevator' type pathways. This has been missing lately.
Member Since: August 4, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 3280
TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS CENTRAL PACIFIC HURRICANE CENTER HONOLULU HI
800 PM HST TUE AUG 20 2013

FOR THE CENTRAL NORTH PACIFIC...BETWEEN 140W AND 180

1. A LOW LEVEL CIRCULATION ABOUT 675 MILES SOUTHEAST OF HILO HAWAII
IS MOVING SLOWLY WEST. INTENSIFICATION OF THIS FEATURE...IF ANY...
OVER THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS WILL BE SLOW. IT HAS A LOW CHANCE...
NEAR 0 PERCENT...OF BECOMING A TROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE NEXT 48
HOURS.

ELSEWHERE...NO TROPICAL CYCLONES ARE EXPECTED THROUGH THURSDAY
EVENING.

$$

KINEL
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1200. Skyepony (Mod)
Trami
Link
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1199. Skyepony (Mod)
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Quoting 1195. moonlightcowboy:
Nite Tampa, Civic, Comic and all. Have a good sleep. The Fort looks fairly safe for awhile. Thanks for your good contributions. Hard to beat the nightshift! ;)


Nite MLC...see ya tomorrow!
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Quoting 1195. moonlightcowboy:
Nite Tampa, Civic, Comic and all. Have a good sleep. The Fort looks fairly safe for awhile. Thanks for your good contributions. Hard to be the nightshift! ;)


G'nite.
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GFS is extremely inconsistent lol.... but shows an interesting TS moving NW through the Lesser Antilles (reminds me of Jose and Marilyn.... hmm) Good night xD
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Nite Tampa, Civic, Comic and all. Have a good sleep. The Fort looks fairly safe for awhile. Thanks for your good contributions. Hard to beat the nightshift! ;)
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TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
1100 PM PDT TUE AUG 20 2013

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

1. A BROAD AREA OF LOW PRESSURE LOCATED ABOUT 500 MILES SOUTHWEST OF
MANZANILLO MEXICO CONTINUES TO SLOWLY BECOMING BETTER ORGANIZED.
ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS APPEAR TO BE CONDUCIVE FOR ADDITIONAL
DEVELOPMENT...AND A TROPICAL DEPRESSION COULD FORM DURING THE NEXT
COUPLE OF DAYS. THIS SYSTEM HAS A MEDIUM CHANCE...40 PERCENT...OF
BECOMING A TROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS...AND A HIGH
CHANCE...80 PERCENT...OF BECOMING A TROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE
NEXT FIVE DAYS WHILE IT MOVES NORTHWESTWARD AND THEN
NORTH-NORTHWESTWARD.

2. A POORLY-ORGANIZED AREA OF DISTURBED WEATHER IS LOCATED ABOUT
900 MILES SOUTHWEST OF THE SOUTHERN TIP OF THE BAJA CALIFORNIA
PENINSULA. SOME DEVELOPMENT OF THIS SYSTEM IS POSSIBLE DURING THE
NEXT SEVERAL DAYS. THIS DISTURBANCE HAS A LOW CHANCE...
10 PERCENT...OF BECOMING A TROPICAL CYCLONE DURING THE NEXT
48 HOURS...AND A MEDIUM CHANCE...40 PERCENT...OF BECOMING A TROPICAL
CYCLONE DURING THE NEXT 5 DAYS WHILE IT REMAINS NEARLY STATIONARY
OR MOVES SLOWLY NORTHWARD.

FIVE-DAY FORMATION PROBABILITIES ARE EXPERIMENTAL IN 2013. COMMENTS
ON THE EXPERIMENTAL FORECASTS CAN BE PROVIDED AT...

HTTP://WWW.NWS.NOAA.GOV/SURVEY/NWS-SURVEY.PHP?COD E=ETWO

FORECASTER BEVEN
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Might get sum nasty booms in the morning if these storms keep popping up.. well I am out.. Y'all have a great night and hopefully I will be back.. Its good to be back but been real busy.. Have a good one!

JG
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Quoting 1181. TampaSpin:
just checked the surface winds and could not really find nothing at the surface I could find with the Caribbean blob!


And, you're right here - no surface rotation observed so far.
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Quoting 1186. TampaSpin:


Read 1179


Gotcha. LOL, we're on the same page. Glad you posted that.
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TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
200 AM EDT WED AUG 21 2013

FOR THE NORTH ATLANTIC...CARIBBEAN SEA AND THE GULF OF MEXICO...

TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT FIVE
DAYS.

&&

FIVE-DAY FORMATION PROBABILITIES ARE EXPERIMENTAL IN 2013. COMMENTS
ON THE EXPERIMENTAL FORECASTS CAN BE PROVIDED AT...

HTTP://WWW.NWS.NOAA.GOV/SURVEY/NWS-SURVEY.PHP?COD E=ETWO

$$
FORECASTER BEVEN
NNNN
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Quoting 1183. TampaSpin:


Yep that is generally always true. Think about it and why...what is a tropical system....it is a heat engine. When nite falls....we get some cooling occurring from above on a Heat engine which cool air sinks. BOOM BOOM


Agreed.
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Quoting 1184. moonlightcowboy:


TS, respect, but I'ma have to disagree with you a bit on that. Outflow is concentric, not elongated as it would be more apt to if it were being more directly affected by the ULL or even more so by the TUTT immediately north of the system. There's inflow, albeit considerably smaller. And, there is cyclonic turning, though maybe not yet at the surface, but concentric vorticity is quite apparent at the 850-700mb layers.

Granted, it may not get going, but let's not just write it off just yet.


Read 1179
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Link
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Quoting 1165. TampaSpin:
Interesting spin in the Caribbean appears mostly to be Divergence from the ULL to its north....


TS, respect, but I'ma have to disagree with you a bit on that. Outflow is concentric, not elongated as it would be more apt to if it were being more directly affected by the ULL or even more so by the TUTT immediately north of the system. There's inflow, albeit considerably smaller. And, there is cyclonic turning, though maybe not yet at the surface, but vorticity is quite apparent, and somewhat concentric too, at the 850-700mb layers.

Granted, it may not get going, but let's not just write it off just yet.

I do think there's a little mid-level shearing on the northern side due to the TUTT, but not inhibiting.
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Quoting 1182. tornadodude:


Well I meant in general. It seems like when we get a weak tropical system, the thunderstorm activity wanes and waxes at completely opposite times of typical thunderstorms.


Yep that is generally always true. Think about it and why...what is a tropical system....it is a heat engine. When nite falls....we get some cooling occurring from above on a Heat engine which cool air sinks. BOOM BOOM
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Quoting 1180. TampaSpin:


Because what we are seeing is mainly divergence caused by the ULL or trough to the north.


Well I meant in general. It seems like when we get a weak tropical system, the thunderstorm activity wanes and waxes at completely opposite times of typical thunderstorms.
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
just checked the surface winds and could not really find nothing at the surface I could find with the Caribbean blob!
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Quoting 1177. tornadodude:
Interesting that our "blob" is losing its heavy thunderstorms, especially as we approach diurnal max.




One thing I have never really understood is why do storms in the tropics thrive at night, when storms over land thrive in the afternoon?


Because what we are seeing is mainly divergence caused by the ULL or trough to the north.
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Quoting 1168. tornadodude:


To an extent, wouldn't divergence help to get something spinning?

I know when forecasting severe storms, you look for divergence in the jet stream, which allows for pressure falls..


Yes divergence is the vent needed....but you need Convergence of winds at the bottom....currently not much appears to be there.....there is some Vorticity at 850mb but not much above 700mb. Need to watch this for sure.
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Quoting 1175. TampaSpin:


Yes I seen a full spectrum rainbow today also....amazing!


sure is..
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Interesting that our "blob" is losing its heavy thunderstorms, especially as we approach diurnal max.




One thing I have never really understood is why do storms in the tropics thrive at night, when storms over land thrive in the afternoon?

Say, in the plains, you have peak heating around 4-6pm, and that is usually when CAPE is maximized. Since CAPE is often the main fuel for storms, why would storm thrive late at night in the tropics?
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
1176. Skyepony (Mod)
Starting to hear the thunder from the rain coming.
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Quoting 1170. FLPandhandleJG:


crazy stuff tampa.. hope u like that rainbow pic i just posted..


Yes I seen a full spectrum rainbow today also....amazing!
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sheesh...nobody light a match...

Link WV Loop Central ATL




0h well, have to be up in 5 hours so better call it a day. night all.
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1173. Skyepony (Mod)
Quoting 1159. GTstormChaserCaleb:
Interesting, you think this makes it to SO CAL, Skye? I'm thinking if it does it will be remnant low by then, but we have seen stranger things happen before.


I did say this Sunday.. it might be headed that way. I do think it would be most likely a dying low if it even made it..best chance was really for Sharknado references in 10 days.. I'd half expected it to peak higher than what models are calling for.
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wow moist conditions in the Caribbean and GOM

Shear not much of a hindrance either.
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Quoting 1169. FLPandhandleJG:
Heres a pretty double rainbow near tampa, FL where my friend sent me a pic earlier today.. Hope u like!



Not only is it an end-to-end rainbow (sorry, I'm sure there's an official name for it!), there's another rainbow if you look to the right. Wicked cool photo.
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Quoting 1167. TampaSpin:


The DOWNDRAFT line that hit Tampa today toppled trees today. Blew over my Orange tree and broke it off at the base. We had tree limbs down everywhere this evening.


crazy stuff tampa.. hope u like that rainbow pic i just posted..
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Heres a pretty double rainbow near tampa, FL where my friend sent me a pic earlier today.. Hope u like!

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Quoting 1165. TampaSpin:
Interesting spin in the Caribbean appears mostly to be Divergence from the ULL to its north....


To an extent, wouldn't divergence help to get something spinning?

I know when forecasting severe storms, you look for divergence in the jet stream, which allows for pressure falls..
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Quoting 1163. FLPandhandleJG:
Near Panama City, FL earlier today during sum good thunderstorms..





Water Spouts in Destin, FL earlier today ..











Sum images that I wanted to share..


The DOWNDRAFT line that hit Tampa today toppled trees today. Blew over my Orange tree and broke it off at the base. We had tree limbs down everywhere this evening.
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Since July 21st, we have hit 90 degrees once here. That was on August 9th. We have hit 90 degrees 6 times since June 21st.

This is in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is about 3 miles from my apartment lol I love this summer

Also, our max temp. all year is 93 degrees. We have had 51 inches of rain this year.
Member Since: June 28, 2006 Posts: 25 Comments: 8360
Interesting spin in the Caribbean appears mostly to be Divergence from the ULL to its north....
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Near Panama City, FL earlier today during sum good thunderstorms..





Water Spouts in Destin, FL earlier today ..













Sum images that I wanted to share..
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1162. Gearsts
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1161. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
India Meteorological Department
Tropical Cyclone Advisory #5
DEPRESSION BOB04-2013
5:30 AM IST August 21 2013
=====================================

At 0:00 AM UTC, The depression over Gangetic West Bengal and adjoining areas of northwest Bay of Bengal, north Odisha and Jharkhand moved north northwestwards and now lays centered near 23.5N 86.5E, about 85 km north northeast of Jamshedpur and 60 km northwest of Bankura over Gangetic West Bengal and adjoining areas of Jharkhand & north Odisha.

The system would move slowly west northwestwards and weaken gradually into a well-marked low pressure area during next 24 hours.
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Quoting 1152. Skyepony:
94E


Skye, some models have (had) it becoming a hurricane, threatening Baha. Will be interesting to watch.
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 17 Comments: 10284

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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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