Mississippi State University Weather


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Meteorological vs. Astronomical Winter

Posted by on Dec 8, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Astronomical winter starts on December 21st, but for meteorologists, it started on December 1st.

Seasons for meteorologists and climatologists are grouped into time periods of three months. This is based on the annual temperature cycle as well as the calendar. For example, meteorological winter lasts from the beginning of December through the end of February. Seasons are grouped this way because it would be more accurate for weather observations, forecasting purposes, and recording climatological data (NCDC, 2013). Meteorological seasons also have a more consistent length. During a non-leap year, fall and winter are approximately 90 days, whereas spring and summer are about 92 days. The consistency of the climatological records since meteorological seasons first started taking place in the mid-1900s have helped with many industries across the United States, such as agriculture and commerce.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, the natural rotation of the Earth revolving around the Sun forms the astronomical calendar and its seasons (2013). The seasons can last anywhere from 89-93 days, depending on the Earth’s rotation. The astronomical calendar has two solstices and two equinoxes. The solstices, which occur in winter and summer, note when the Earth’s equator is farthest from the Sun. The equinoxes, which occur in spring and autumn, note when the Sun is directly over the Earth’s equator. For example, the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is when the Sun’s path is the farthest North it can be from the Earth’s equator (NCDC, 2013). However, the astronomical seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere. When it is winter in the United States, it is summer in Australia.


The astronomical seasons also determine the length of day. For example, because the Northern Hemisphere and the Sun are so far apart during the Winter Solstice, the length of days near the middle of December are much shorter. In addition, the annual temperature cycle is based off of the astronomical seasons; because of this, meteorological winter and astronomical winter are usually separated by about three weeks.  ~ Scott Sincoff


Works Cited:

National Climatic Data Center, 2013: Meteorological Versus Astronomical Summer—What’s       the Difference?. National Climatic Data Center. National Oceanic and Atmospheric       Administration. Web. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/meteorological-versus-      astronomical-  summer%E2%80%94what%E2%80%99s-difference.

Weather Radar: How Does It Work?

Posted by on Nov 23, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Doppler radar is one of the most important tools a meteorologist uses to determine what is happening in real-time where he or she is forecasting. Most people are familiar with the green, yellow, and red pictures that radar generates because they see them on TV, but radar actually gives a meteorologist more information about the atmosphere than a simple image of rain.


Image Credit: Hong Kong Observatory


A radar sends out a beam of radiation into the atmosphere. If there is rain falling, the radiation hits that rain and bounces back to the radar. Depending on how much energy is reflected back to the radar and how fast that radiation is bounced back, we can determine where and how heavy the rain is.


Image Created Using Gibson Ridge Software

The radar then sends this information through a computer that gives us the pretty green, yellow and red maps you see on TV when we are tracking storms and rain. Typically, the heavier the rain, the warmer the color. So, green usually means light rain, yellow means moderate rain, and red means heavy rain or hail.

Radars can also measure winds, but that is a bit more difficult to interpret. A radar uses the same physical principles that explain why an ambulance siren sounds higher pitched as it is moving towards you and lower pitched as it moves away to measure winds inside of thunderstorms. By determining the frequency of the radiation reflected back to the radar site, the radar can determine whether the rain is moving towards or away from the radar, and how fast. From this information, a meteorologist can infer wind speed and direction inside a storm.


Image Created Using Gibson Ridge Software

This is the image a meteorologist would look at to determine wind speed and direction inside a thunderstorm. The green colors indicate winds moving towards the radar, and the red colors indicate winds moving away from the radar. The brighter the color is, the faster the winds are. That yellow box is a Severe Thunderstorm Warning that was issued because meteorologists used this image to estimate the storm was producing winds of 60 miles per hour.

One of the biggest limitations with radar is that the radar can’t see what is happening at the surface because of the curve of the earth. The radar beam, which is emitted in a straight line, overshoots the surface because the earth’s surface is curved.


Image Courtesy National Weather Service

Because of this limitation, good forecasters take what radar is showing and add it as a piece of the puzzle rather than assume it is correct. In severe weather situations, storm spotter reports can help a forecaster confirm that what he or she is seeing on radar is making an impact on the surface.  ~ Alex Puckett

A Crash Course in El Niño

Posted by on Nov 16, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

1. Introduction

Perhaps you have recently heard about the climate teleconnection referred to as “El Niño”. It has been making headlines throughout the course of 2015. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (ENSO Tracker), El Niño conditions have been present since May 12th, 2015.   Since being declared, it seems at times as if El Niño could be responsible for or linked in some way to any number of observed weather events. Why did it rain so much in South Carolina? El Niño. Why was there flooding earlier this year in Texas & Oklahoma? El Niño. Can you explain how the drought developed in Mississippi and Alabama late this summer? Sure, El Niño. Why are the tropics so quiet? El Niño. Joaquín? El Niño. Perhaps you would like to know more about what El Niño is and gain better understanding of how it can impact our everyday lives. You are in good luck, because I hope to answer those questions in this post. Before delving straight into the impacts of El Niño, we need to make sure that we are aware of and understand a few things first.

2.The Southern Oscillation Index (SOI)

In order to more fully understand El Niño, you have to first grasp the fact that it is just one of many climate patterns embedded within other more encompassing climate patterns. In the case of El Niño, the larger more encompassing pattern is known as the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI).  The SOI in simplest terms is the measure of the pressure differences between the Island nation of Tahiti and Darwin, Australia. Now why would anyone care about these pressures differences? They serve as a general measure for the intensity of the Walker Circulation which I will discuss more momentarily. The SOI consists of three distinguishable phases: La Niña, Neutral and El Niño. For the purposes of this post, I will only cover the latter two.

3.The “Neutral Phase”

Before you run, you walk, before you walk you crawl. It also true that before you can fully understand something that is abnormal (El Niño), you must understand the “normal” relationship between the atmosphere and ocean. In the neutral state (neither El Niño nor La Niña) trade winds blow east to west across the surface of the tropical Pacific Ocean, bringing warm moist air and warmer surface waters towards the western Pacific and keeping the central Pacific Ocean relatively cool. The thermocline is deeper in the west than the east (see Figure 1). Warm sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the western Pacific pump heat and moisture into the atmosphere above. In a atmospheric process known as convection, this warm air rises high into the atmosphere and, if the air is moist enough, causes the formation of towering cumulonimbus clouds and rain. This now-drier air then travels eastward before descending over the cooler eastern tropical Pacific. The pattern of air rising in the west and falling in the east with westward moving air at the surface is referred to as the Walker Circulation. Measuring the intensity of the Walker Circulation is at the heart and soul of determining the current phase of the SOI. The Walker Circulation can be most fully comprehended as a planetary-scale vertical circulation occurring in the tropics. It is best visualized by taking a vertical cross-section along the equator extending across the Pacific Ocean basin (see Figure 2). The convective cells are primarily driven by pressure gradients produced by air rising over the warmer areas of the oceans and continents, and subsiding over the cooler regions.  The surface-based segment of the circulation describes the motion of the trade winds which typically blow from the northeast (southeast) in the northern hemisphere (southern hemisphere).


Figure 1


Figure 2

 4.What exactly is El Niño?

Now that we have some basic understanding, let’s address the main question: “What is El Niño?” The term “El Niño” is derived from the Spanish language meaning “The Christ Child”. We can thank Peruvian fishermen for this name, because they are largely believed to have grown intuitively familiar with the effects of El Niño over the course of many centuries. It is considered to bring respite from the Cold Peru Current (aka the Humboldt Current, see Figure 3), and provide welcome rains to an otherwise parched coastal region of South America.  Scientifically speaking, El Niño is an Oceanic-Atmospheric coupling that occurs when according to Australian BOM (ENSO Tracker), any three of the following four criteria are simultaneously met:


Figure 3

       i.      Sea surface temperature: Temperatures in the NINO3 or NINO3.4 regions of the Pacific Ocean are 0.8 °C warmer than average. (See figure 4)


Figure 4

       ii.      Winds: Trade winds have been weaker than average in the western or central equatorial Pacific Ocean during any three of the last four months.

iii.      SOI: The three-month average SOI is –7 or lower.

iv.      Models: A majority of surveyed climate models show warming to at least 0.8 °C above average in the NINO3 or NINO3.4 regions of the Pacific until the end of the year.

El Niño can also be recognized as the warm phase of the SOI. Whereas La Niña is an exaggeration of the neutral phase, El Niño is a reversal of normal conditions. During an El Niño event, the trade winds weaken or may even reverse altogether, allowing the area of warmer than normal water to move into the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. These warmer than normal ocean temperatures are associated with a deepening of the thermocline (due to less upwelling) in the central to eastern Pacific. A weaker upwelling of cooler ocean waters from below also contributes to warmer SSTs (See Figure 5). SSTs around northern Australia are cooler than normal and the focus of convection migrates away from Australia eastward towards the central tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño is a fairly common phenomenon. It occurs roughly every two to seven years while and typically lasts anywhere between twelve and eighteen months.



Figure 5

There are several impacts that El Niño seems to bring upon the United States including:

  • Wetter conditions to the central and southern Pacific west coast are more common. (Especially in California)
  • A reduction or suppression of tropical activity in the Atlantic Basin and Gulf of Mexico.
  • The latter is due to an increased intensity of the subtropical jet stream which tends to create a high shear environment in the upper troposphere that works against tropical development.
  • The active subtropical jet also leads to stormier conditions across the southern tier of the country.

These are just a few of the impacts that become more likely or probable during El Niño events. With all that said, I must caution that no two El Niño events are ever identical.

There you have it that is El Niño in a nutshell. If you are still confused, do not feel bad. Even some professional meteorologists deal with confusion over what El Niño is and how much of an impact it can have on global climate. We are currently still in the El Niño phase of the SOI which many climate experts and seasoned weather forecasters are suggesting is now at or near its peak. If this is truly the case, then El Niño conditions should lessen in the months to come, and we may even find ourselves in a La Niña by next spring. That would be an equally interesting set up as La Niña comes with its own interesting set of impacts.

~Alan Matthew


“ENSO Tracker: An Alert System for the El Niño–Southern Oscillation.” ENSO Tracker, Bureau of Meteorology. Bureau of Meteorology. Web. 13 Nov. 2015. < http://www.bm.gov.au/climate/enso/tracker/#tabs=Summary>.

“ENSO Tracker: An Alert System for the El Niño–Southern Oscillation.” ENSO Tracker. Bureau of Meteorology. Web. 13 Nov. 2015. <http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/enso/tracker/#tabs=Criteria>.