Heavy snowfall in a warming world

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:29 PM GMT on February 08, 2010

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A major new winter storm is headed east over the U.S. today, and threatens to dump a foot or more of snow on Philadelphia, New York City, and surrounding regions Tuesday and Wednesday. Philadelphia is still digging out from its second top-ten snowstorm of recorded history to hit the city this winter, and the streets are going to begin looking like canyons if this week's snowstorm adds a significant amount of snow to the incredible 28.5" that fell during "Snowmageddon" last Friday and Saturday. Philadelphia has had two snowstorms exceeding 23" this winter. According to the National Climatic Data Center, the return period for a 22+ inch snow storm is once every 100 years--and we've had two 100-year snow storms in Philadelphia this winter. It is true that if the winter pattern of jet stream location, sea surface temperatures, etc, are suitable for a 100-year storm to form, that will increase the chances for a second such storm to occur that same year, and thus the odds have having two 100-year storms the same year are not 1 in 10,000. Still, the two huge snowstorms this winter in the Mid-Atlantic are definitely a very rare event one should see only once every few hundred years, and is something that has not occurred since modern records began in 1870. The situation is similar for Baltimore and Washington D.C. According to the National Climatic Data Center, the expected return period in the Washington D.C./Baltimore region for snowstorms with more than 16 inches of snow is about once every 25 years. This one-two punch of two major Nor'easters in one winter with 16+ inches of snow is unprecedented in the historical record for the region, which goes back to the late 1800s.


Figure 1. Car buried in Virginia by "Snowmageddon" on February 8, 2010. Image credit: wunderphotographer Brabus Cave.

Top 9 snowstorms on record for Philadelphia:

1. 30.7", Jan 7-8, 1996
2. 28.5", Feb 5-6, 2010 (Snowmageddon)
3. 23.2", Dec 19-20, 2009 (Snowpocalypse)
4. 21.3", Feb 11-12, 1983
5. 21.0", Dec 25-26, 1909
6. 19.4", Apr 3-4, 1915
7. 18.9", Feb 12-14, 1899
8. 16.7", Jan 22-24, 1935
9. 15.1", Feb 28-Mar 1, 1941

The top 10 snowstorms on record for Baltimore:

1. 28.2", Feb 15-18, 2003
2. 26.5", Jan 27-29, 1922
3. 24.8", Feb 5-6, 2010 (Snowmageddon)
4. 22.8", Feb 11-12, 1983
5. 22.5", Jan 7-8, 1996
6. 22.0", Mar 29-30, 1942
7. 21.4", Feb 11-14, 1899
8. 21.0", Dec 19-20, 2009 (Snowpocalypse)
9. 20.0", Feb 18-19, 1979
10. 16.0", Mar 15-18, 1892

The top 10 snowstorms on record for Washington, D.C.:

1. 28.0", Jan 27-28, 1922
2. 20.5", Feb 11-13, 1899
3. 18.7", Feb 18-19, 1979
4. 17.8" Feb 5-6, 2010 (Snowmageddon)
5. 17.1", Jan 6-8, 1996
6. 16.7", Feb 15-18, 2003
7. 16.6", Feb 11-12, 1983
8. 16.4", Dec 19-20, 2009 (Snowpocalypse)
9. 14.4", Feb 15-16, 1958
10. 14.4", Feb 7, 1936

Heavy snow events--a contradiction to global warming theory?
Global warming skeptics regularly have a field day whenever a record snow storm pounds the U.S., claiming that such events are inconsistent with a globe that is warming. If the globe is warming, there should, on average, be fewer days when it snows, and thus fewer snow storms. However, it is possible that if climate change is simultaneously causing an increase in ratio of snowstorms with very heavy snow to storms with ordinary amounts of snow, we could actually see an increase in very heavy snowstorms in some portions of the world. There is evidence that this is happening for winter storms in the Northeast U.S.--the mighty Nor'easters like the "Snowmageddon" storm of February 5-6 and "Snowpocalypse" of December 19, 2009. Let's take a look at the evidence. There are two requirements for a record snow storm:

1) A near-record amount of moisture in the air (or a very slow moving storm).
2) Temperatures cold enough for snow.

It's not hard at all to get temperatures cold enough for snow in a world experiencing global warming. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the globe warmed 0.74°C (1.3°F) over the past 100 years. There will still be colder than average winters in a world that is experiencing warming, with plenty of opportunities for snow. The more difficult ingredient for producing a record snowstorm is the requirement of near-record levels of moisture. Global warming theory predicts that global precipitation will increase, and that heavy precipitation events--the ones most likely to cause flash flooding--will also increase. This occurs because as the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. This extra moisture in the air will tend to produce heavier snowstorms, assuming it is cold enough to snow. Groisman et al. (2004) found a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events in the U.S. over the past 100 years, though mainly in spring and summer. However, the authors did find a significant increase in winter heavy precipitation events have occurred in the Northeast U.S. This was echoed by Changnon et al. (2006), who found, "The temporal distribution of snowstorms exhibited wide fluctuations during 1901-2000, with downward 100-yr trends in the lower Midwest, South, and West Coast. Upward trends occurred in the upper Midwest, East, and Northeast, and the national trend for 1901-2000 was upward, corresponding to trends in strong cyclonic activity."

The strongest cold-season storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent for the U.S.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) began as a presidential initiative in 1989 and was mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-606), which called for "a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change." This program has put out some excellent peer-reviewed science on climate change that, in my view, is as authoritative as the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. In 2009, the USGCRP put out its excellent U.S. Climate Impacts Report, summarizing the observed and forecast impacts of climate change on the U.S. The report's main conclusion about cold season storms was " Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent".

The report's more detailed analysis: "Large-scale storm systems are the dominant weather phenomenon during the cold season in the United States. Although the analysis of these storms is complicated by a relatively short length of most observational records and by the highly variable nature of strong storms, some clear patterns have emerged (Kunkel et al., 2008).

Storm tracks have shifted northward over the last 50 years as evidenced by a decrease in the frequency of storms in mid-latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere, while high-latitude activity has increased. There is also evidence of an increase in the intensity of storms in both the mid- and high-latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere, with greater confidence in the increases occurring in high latitudes (Kunkel et al., 2008). The northward shift is projected to continue, and strong cold season storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent, with greater wind speeds and more extreme wave heights".
The study also noted that we should expect an increase in lake-effect snowstorms over the next few decades. Lake-effect snow is produced by the strong flow of cold air across large areas of relatively warmer ice-free water. The report says, "As the climate has warmed, ice coverage on the Great Lakes has fallen. The maximum seasonal coverage of Great Lakes ice decreased at a rate of 8.4 percent per decade from 1973 through 2008, amounting to a roughly 30 percent decrease in ice coverage. This has created conditions conducive to greater evaporation of moisture and thus heavier snowstorms. Among recent extreme lake-effect snow events was a February 2007 10-day storm total of over 10 feet of snow in western New York state. Climate models suggest that lake-effect snowfalls are likely to increase over the next few decades. In the longer term, lake-effect snows are likely to decrease as temperatures continue to rise, with the precipitation then falling as rain".


Figure 2. The annual average number of snowstorms with a 6 inch (15.2 cm) or greater accumulation, from the years 1901 - 2001. A value of 0.1 means an average of one 6+ inch snowstorm every ten years. Image credit: Changnon, S.A., D. Changnon, and T.R. Karl, 2006, Temporal and Spatial Characteristics of Snowstorms in the Contiguous United States, J. Applied Meteorology and Climatology, 45, 8, pp. 1141-1155, DOI: 10.1175/JAM2395.1.

More heavy snowstorms occur in warmer-than-average years
Another interesting result from the Changnon et al. (2006) paper (Figure 2) is the relationship between heavy snowstorms and the average winter temperature. For the contiguous U.S. between 1900 - 2001, the authors found that 61% - 80% of all heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches occurred during winters with above normal temperatures. In other words, the old adage, "it's too cold to snow", has some truth to it. The authors also found that 61% - 85% of all heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches occurred during winters that were wetter than average. The authors conclude, "a future with wetter and warmer winters, which is one outcome expected (National Assessment Synthesis Team 2001), will bring more heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches than in 1901 - 2000. The authors found that over the U.S. as a whole, there had been a slight but significant increase in heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches between 1901 - 2000. However, a separate paper by Houston and Changnon (2009), "Characteristics of the top ten snowstorms at First-Order Stations in the U.S.", found that there was no upward or downward trend in the very heaviest snowstorms for the contiguous U.S. between 1948 - 2001, as evaluated by looking at the top ten snowstorms for 121 major cities.

Commentary
One can "load the dice" in favor of events that used to be rare--or unheard of--if the climate is changing to a new state. It is quite possible that nature's weather dice have been loaded in favor of more intense Nor'easters for the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, thanks to the higher levels of moisture present in the air due to warmer global temperatures. It's worth mentioning that heavy snow storms should be getting increasingly rare for the extreme southern portion of the U.S. in coming decades. There's almost always high amounts of moisture available for a potential heavy snow in the South--just not enough cold air. With freezing temperatures expected to decrease and the jet stream and associated storm track expected to move northward, the extreme southern portion of the U.S. should see a reduction in both heavy and ordinary snow storms in the coming decades.

The CapitalClimate blog has a nice perspective on "Snowmageddon", and Joe Romm of climateprogress.org has some interesting things to say about snowstorms in a warming climate.

References
Changnon, S.A., D. Changnon, and T.R. Karl, 2006, , "Temporal and Spatial Characteristics of Snowstorms in the Contiguous United States", J. Appl. Meteor. Climatol., 45, 1141.1155.

Groisman, P.Y., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004, "Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends Derived from In Situ Observations," J. Hydrometeor., 5, 64-85.

Kunkel, K.E., P.D. Bromirski, H.E. Brooks, T. Cavazos, A.V. Douglas, D.R. Easterling, K.A. Emanuel, P.Ya. Groisman, G.J. Holland, T.R. Knutson, J.P. Kossin, P.D. Komar, D.H. Levinson, and R.L. Smith, 2008: Observed changes in weather and climate extremes. In: Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate: Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands [Karl, T.R., G.A. Meehl, C.D. Miller, S.J. Hassol, A.M. Waple, and W.L. Murray (eds.)]. Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.3. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, Washington, DC, pp. 35-80.

Congratulations, New Orleans!
Congratulations to everyone in New Orleans, for the Saints' Super Bowl victory! It's great to the see the city celebrating after enduring so many years of hardship in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Jeff Masters

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Quoting CaneWarning:
If everyone would just report this person and
"-" all of it's posts, the troll would maybe leave.

How dare some post actual published scientific paper's!!!!! I am soooooooo mad at this freak right now!!!!!
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Quoting CaneWarning:
Notice our troll uses many of the same techniques as outlined in post #245.
Perfect match to him! wow! Amazing! Who would have thunk it? haha! Great picture, by the way!
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If everyone would just report this person and
"-" all of it's posts, the troll would maybe leave.
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
Quoting mrnicktou:


Ok I totally agree with you. But when we have La Nina we get told its MMGW when it's not, and there is one big word you used in your last sentence and its CYCLES it seems some can't agree that the Earth has its own cycles that we can't stop or help along.

Yep, I agree. There are cycles, without a doubt. Whether any overall long-term warming is or is not manmade is really not a judgement to be made by us. We should be looking on a path of sustainability, rather than looting and pillaging all our planet has to offer. By fossil fuels, strip mining, and polluting the earth like there is no tomorrow, we are just doing the equivalent of using the restroom in our own bed. Eventually, it is going to cause some serious problems.
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Quoting tornadodude:


Lol.. this is almost sad
No, it IS sad! lmao
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Quoting NRAamy:
who is the troll this time?

You're supposed to look under the bridge to find out!
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JFV?
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 316 Comments: 31944
Quoting NRAamy:
who is the troll this time?


It is our repeat offender troll.
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
who is the troll this time?
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 316 Comments: 31944
Quoting JFLORIDA:
241.

Dont complain constantly or be rude when the discussion isnt about you or your favorite topic. Dont be disrespectful to your host or their other guests. Dont encourage that behavior.

Most of you BTW - your posts dont even show up to people visiting. Try to make referenced, thought out positions, not opinions based anti scientific on innuendo.


You are actually the rudest one here. Plus its your clique that makes it so we aren't shown which is outrageous and since WU uses this kind of "ranking" system shows you how much they care about the blog.
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Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Notice our troll uses many of the same techniques as outlined in post #245.
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
Quoting tornadodude:


LOL dude, check my blog out. Pretty good one that raised money for Portlight.

and I have been discussing the blog topic, snow. I guess we could talk about football as well since Jeff mentioned it in his blog too.


WHO DAT!

(sorry, had to)
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Oh yes
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
244. XLR8
Quoting 1900hurricane:

GFS 5 day snowfall totals *Note* this is only one forecast model shown several days in advance.



Am I reading that right 6" to 8" of snow for north of Jackson, MS????
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Oh no
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
Quoting JFLORIDA:
221 with that I will agree. Technical discussion is ALWAYS better.

232 dont hide behind that.


Lol.. this is almost sad
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Quoting NRAamy:
mr nick!

:)


He can't hide from me forever haha
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Quoting tornadodude:I guess we could talk about football as well since Jeff mentioned it in his blog too.


OK... you can say that Payton Manning threw a bad pass in the fourth quarter... or you can say that the Saints played an awesome defensive scheme... but some of these yahoos on sports radio this morning are now calling Manning a terrible quarterback and a 'fake.'...

Can't understand that one at all...
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Quoting jeffs713:

My apologies for blasting you earlier.

That said, one season's worth of mostly below normal temperatures in one location is not an indication of a global trend. It is an indication of cold winter. If sites on several continents were reporting the same for 5-10 years running, sure, if could be a global trend. All I have seen is year-to-year variability in an El Nino year. (in El Nino years, winters here tend to be colder and more damp than usual... which this year has been).

When you combine El Nino storm patterns with NAO and AO cycles, you are going to get cold outbreaks like this.


Ok I totally agree with you. But when we have La Nina we get told its MMGW when it's not, and there is one big word you used in your last sentence and its CYCLES it seems some can't agree that the Earth has its own cycles that we can't stop or help along.
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lol, I knew JFV/Weather Student went to my school but I never thought I'd stumble upon his Facebook due to a mutual group. Either that or this bloke looks just like him :o
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For those quoting the IPCC, lets remember that it has recently been discovered that they often use non-peer reviewed studies to prove their point. Also, India has left the IPCC due to "climate evangelism".
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
Quoting JFLORIDA:
Hey tornado dude as I discus blogg topics and have been here longer - why dont you leave. You obviously dont like the climate discussion.

Make your own blog and see who shows up. You shouldn't be a parasite on someones blog (and notoriety) you consistently dont agree with and wont discus with. None of you should.

None of you have to be here if you refuse to discus climate. And you shouldn't if you consistently encourage the deriding of others.



Wait you just said something about cliques or what not then you say to leave and you can have the alone time with your clique.
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Quoting JFLORIDA:
Hey tornado dude as I discus blogg topics and have been here longer - why dont you leave. You obviously dont like the climate discussion.

Make your own blog and see who shows up. You shouldn't be a parasite on someones blog (and notoriety) you consistently dont agree with and wont discus with. None of you should.



LOL dude, check my blog out. Pretty good one that raised money for Portlight.

and I have been discussing the blog topic, snow. I guess we could talk about football as well since Jeff mentioned it in his blog too.

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Hey, folks...does anyone here have any connections to Royal Caribbean? If so, please WUMail me? Request is on behalf of Portlight...

TIA!
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Quoting mrnicktou:


You have yet to ask me for my sources and my bad I misread what you said. I saw somebody posting something about china in the other blog and thought it was the same thing whoo I misread it lets knock him down.

Plus dude you live in houston you've seen months of below average temperatures and maybe 3-6 days of above average temperatures you still believe in MMGW cause I don't. I know you can't tell what the climate does in one day I've read articles saying MMGW will make the Himaliyains (sp) glacier disappear in 2035 now thats false how much more false data is everybody going to listen to before they realize that hey we didn't do anything.

My apologies for blasting you earlier.

That said, one season's worth of mostly below normal temperatures in one location is not an indication of a global trend. It is an indication of cold winter. If sites on several continents were reporting the same for 5-10 years running, sure, if could be a global trend. All I have seen is year-to-year variability in an El Nino year. (in El Nino years, winters here tend to be colder and more damp than usual... which this year has been).

When you combine El Nino storm patterns with NAO and AO cycles, you are going to get cold outbreaks like this.
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[Edit: re emergency mngmnt blog]
Quoting TampaTom:


I would be willing to start one, but the bickering would give me hives... :-)


No kidding. You'd have to have a thicker skin than I; although I'd really like to see one, and would try to help...prob. would fail (again).







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mr nick!

:)
Member Since: January 24, 2007 Posts: 316 Comments: 31944
Quoting largeeyes:
Accuweather seems to be thinking a snowstorm is coming end of the week for the deep south...including SC. Any chances this is accurate? I'd like to see some models showing this.

GFS 5 day snowfall totals *Note* this is only one forecast model shown several days in advance.
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Quoting jeffs713:
213.
You know, it helps to read what I post, instead of trying to twist words. I was using China and Russia as examples for people who believe communism is a good form of government. NOT as an example for CC. Its called an analogy. Look it up.

Secondly, I'm not going to waste my time with you. You constantly cite "my data" or "the data I'm looking at"... but yet you haven't posted a link to this data, or provided any of it for review that I've seen. That generally means you a.) don't have a scientific basis for the data, or b.) don't have any of that data in the first place.

Either way, I'm not going to waste my time feeding your trolling. Go find someone else's time to waste. If you were willing to back up your assertions, and have an open mind, I would be happy to converse with you. But as long as you are leveling accusations without backup and refusing to listen, I would get more accomplished by talking to a wall (or maybe doing some work).


You have yet to ask me for my sources and my bad I misread what you said. I saw somebody posting something about china in the other blog and thought it was the same thing whoo I misread it lets knock him down.

Plus dude you live in houston you've seen months of below average temperatures and maybe 3-6 days of above average temperatures you still believe in MMGW cause I don't. I know you can't tell what the climate does in one day I've read articles saying MMGW will make the Himaliyains (sp) glacier disappear in 2035 now thats false how much more false data is everybody going to listen to before they realize that hey we didn't do anything.
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Oh my, I see the troll has returned.

*CaneWarning runs in opposite direction of the blog.
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
and by the way wheres stormtop he said the saints would never win a superbowl lol. well he knows as much about football as al and jipper gore know about weather.
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Accuweather seems to be thinking a snowstorm is coming end of the week for the deep south...including SC. Any chances this is accurate? I'd like to see some models showing this.
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Enough already with the argument that day-to-day weather trends is proof of climate changes, good or bad. There is a HUGE difference between climate change and weather trends, otherwise every winter we'd all be in a panic that we're headed for an ice age, no?

There is incontrovertible evidence that the climate is changing. We can argue all day its causes, but shouldnt the potential effects at least make us want to do something?

I just dont understand this mentality that we need to make it political. We're the only country so bent on that.

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well check in and see gw propoganda again arghh. well nothing can ruin today after a 43 year wait whoooooodatttt back to the nfl network website.
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213.
You know, it helps to read what I post, instead of trying to twist words. I was using China and Russia as examples for people who believe communism is a good form of government. NOT as an example for CC. Its called an analogy. Look it up.

Secondly, I'm not going to waste my time with you. You constantly cite "my data" or "the data I'm looking at"... but yet you haven't posted a link to this data, or provided any of it for review that I've seen. That generally means you a.) don't have a scientific basis for the data, or b.) don't have any of that data in the first place.

Either way, I'm not going to waste my time feeding your trolling. Go find someone else's time to waste. If you were willing to back up your assertions, and have an open mind, I would be happy to converse with you. But as long as you are leveling accusations without backup and refusing to listen, I would get more accomplished by talking to a wall (or maybe doing some work).
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Quoting HurricaneHunterGal:
HAHA! Man, we cudda used it!


I try not post anything on here during hurricane season but read the blog everyday but when they bring MMGW into the mix it just gets under my skin and watching Jflorida bring flawed science in here I have to step in.
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Quoting AwakeInMaryland:

Good idea; I don't think so, currently(?) I nominate you to administer -- I usually got a severe case of blog rash if I even dared to post a National Sit Report from the Fema website.

I noticed the Northeast Florida Red Cross has started blogging again; lots of good RC information, not limited to NE Florida.

NEFL Red Cross Blog


I would be willing to start one, but the bickering would give me hives... :-)
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Quoting jeffs713:

No kidding. I left my can of TROLL-B-GONE at home today.
HAHA! Man, we cudda used it!
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Quoting TampaTom:


Right over us in Florida...

Gray, rain and cold for the next few days in the Tampa Bay area.. LOVELY....

Just an aside... is there an Emergency Management blog here on WU? I notice some folks from that discipline... would like to exchange some ideas...

Good idea; I don't think so, currently(?) I nominate you to administer -- I usually got a severe case of blog rash if I even dared to post a National Sit Report from the Fema website.

I noticed the Northeast Florida Red Cross has started blogging again; lots of good RC information, not limited to NE Florida.

NEFL Red Cross Blog
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Quoting JFLORIDA:
Science and truth isnt about a blog or cliques - or how many logins you can get to agree with yourself its about reference and building on your knowledge.


And its based on how many times you can get your side to click the little "-" button by the side that doesn't agree with you just so you don't have to read the truth.
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Quoting jeffs713:

See:
China.
See:
Russia

Hundreds of scientists that feel climate change is real? I don't see a list. Don't make assertions without backup.


Oh so those 2 scientist from Russia and a whole 3 from China agree.
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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.