It all began in the Mojave Desert
(Note - this was originally posted at my old blog, Berkeley, Naturally! on 2009/12/03. I’ve reworked it and added some new images for its new home here at The Nature of Berkeley.)
I’m a weather nut. Have been since I was a little boy. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Mojave desert. Except for the often spectacular heat, the weather in my home town of Las Vegas is deadly dull.
Sure, we would get our annual summer “monsoon” thunderstorms as moist air pushed up from Baja and Mexico:
(Note: you can click on any of the images in order to see them full-size.)
The lightning from them could be truly spectacular and delighted a little boy’s heart:
And yes, every four or five years a strong winter storm would leave an inch or more of snow in the Vegas Valley, to the amazement of both locals and tourists:
We kids loved it, but lots of people freaked out, and there was always a spate of car crashes as people not used to ice on the roads drove like Vegans usually do—way too fast!
But for extreme weather, that’s about it. Except for the heat. (You really can cook eggs on the sidewalk in the height of summer. I did it as a kid on a number of 115 degree °F days.)
New England—now for some real weather!
|Tornado at UMass, Amherst|
In New England you have it all: rainstorms, snow storms, wind storms, blizzards, fierce nor’easters, flash floods, heat waves, brutal cold snaps, and even the occasional tornado and hurricane!
How many places can you think of that have blizzards and hurricanes and tornadoes? New England gets them all! In fact, there was quite a tornado outbreak in New England this year, which was part of a disastrous pattern of violent storms this spring.
My most memorable New England weather event was, without a doubt, the Great Blizzard of '78. (I wish I still had my original photographs of this amazing storm, so I could scan them into my computer!) I'll never forget walking around the eerily quiet streets of Boston at the level of the rooftops of the cars buried in the drifts! Much of New England was totally paralyzed:
As Mark Twain famously noted:
“There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger's admiration -- and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.”
The Dynamic Duo of New England Weather
The reason New England gets all of this weather is because it happens to be located near the semipermanent low pressure area called the Icelandic Low. Much of the time in winter this low pressure area looks something like this, as huge storm systems develop in it:
Located between Iceland and southern Greenland, the Icelandic low tends to pull the continental air masses of North America towards it, and thus, toward New England. If New England weather “sucks,“ it’s because the Icelandic Low literally sucks—all the weather masses of North America toward it.
But the Icelandic Low has a partner in crime—the Azores or Bermuda High:
This huge semipermanent area of subtropical high pressure is the other pole of what is called the North Atlantic Oscillation. In the summer, the high pressure area shown in this map tends to move toward North America. Its clockwise rotating air pumps warm, moist air up the Atlantic coast to New England. This is why a place that gets blizzards and below-zero weather also gets sweltering, humid 90 and 100-degree °F heat in the summer. Don’t you just love it? As a typical New Englander, I loved to complain about it!
Not only that, the Azores High’s clockwise rotation tends to create tropical waves off of Africa and send them toward North America. These pressure waves often become tropical storms, and sometimes, in a process not fully understood, the waves become hurricanes.
The Azores High‘s clockwise rotation sends them all toward the Caribbean and North America. When the high moves even further west, it will even shunt hurricanes up the East Coast, and that’s why New England can also get hurricanes. Here's a typical track of a hurricane sweeping around the Azores High and roaring up the Atlantic Coast toward New England and the distant Icelandic Low.
This double-whammy of the Icelandic Low and the Bermuda High is why there’s always some weather mass or storm merrily marching through New England.
If you love weather, and lots of it, move to New England!
So, if I love wild weather so much, why did I leave New England?
As an amateur meteorologist, I loved my time in New England. I relished her nor’easters, hurricanes, blizzards, cold snaps, snow storms, and heat spells. The skies were often magnificent, with beautiful clouds of every variety. Over time, however, the long, cold New England winters started to get to me as the initial novelty of them for a “desert rat” wore off.
While i was beginning to dread winter, I loved fall in New England. Who wouldn’t? In my opinion, it’s New England’s best and most beautiful season. Here's an image from a great hill Malden (where I lived just outside of Boston). The shot was taken in the fall of 2008, my last Fall in the Boston area. (click the image a large desktop-sized image)
But for all the glory of autumn in New England, more and more I was dreading the brutal, long, cloudy winters.
It wasn’t just how early winters started and how long they lasted. It wasn’t just the damp, penetrating wind-driven cold. (Forget it Chicago, Boston is the real windy city!) The coup de grace was day after day of grey, overcast skies. I need sun! I need to see blue skies, even in winter—even if howling winds make the windchill 10 below zero! Just gimme some sun!
California, here we come!
Getting ready to move across the country took a lot of hard work and effort. Despite all our preparation and research, we finally ended up just taking a leap into the blue—moving out with no jobs, and only a general sense of where we wanted to live—maybe San Francisco, maybe Berkeley, maybe Walnut Creek. All that mattered was that it was California!
As a final send-off, just before we left for California in the last days of 2008, New England got in one last nor'easter. Not a record setter, but afterwards, the snow and slush all froze, and it was bitter cold from November until we took the Amtrak Zephyr to the Golden West in early January of 2009. Adiós New England! Hola California!
Yes, I know the Bay area has its winter rainy season. I know it can be rainy for days, even weeks. (We arrived in the middle of winter when we moved here.) I now know what the fogs of summer are all about (and thye are not nearly as bad as advertised.)
Bay area weather at its worst is just not in the same league as bad weather in New England. In New England, you get more of everything—more cold, more clouds, more rain, more heat, more humidity, more wind, more....just more! And less—less sunny days, less time you can spend outside, less truly comfortable, pleasant weather. (Of course, I speak as someone who lived in Boston; I know there are places in New England that can be more mild than Bean Town! But even there, you get real winter!)
The Glorious Weather and Climate of the San Francisco Bay Area
So, now I turn my weather eyes to the amazing climate and weather of the San Francisco Bay area. It may not be as “exciting” weather-wise here, but there’s plenty going on, and the big picture is very interesting.
Here on the West Coast, we have our own weather-making version of the Icelandic Low. It called the Aleutian Low, and not surprisingly, it’s generally located in the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska. But instead of pulling continental weather to it, this semipermanent low pressure area spins off storm after storm toward central and northern North America, creating most of the big weather systems for North America. The cyclonic storms that form in the Aleutian Low are some of the biggest and most powerful on Earth.
In winter, these huge storms spin out of the Gulf of Alaska and crash into Canada, the Northwest, and Northern California. After dropping huge quantities of rain and snow, they still have enough moisture and energy to move on and create rain and snowstorms across the entire United States.
Another big weather maker in California—and all around the world, for that matter—is what is commonly called El Niño. The scientific term for El Niño is the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, often abbreviated by meteorologists as ENSO. El Niño not only has dramatic effects on California weather, it affects weather all over the world, producing floods, droughts, and destructive storms.
As a newcomer here in California, I've not personally experienced a strong El Niño event, but as a long-time student of weather, I sure know how damaging a strong ENSO event can be, as these pictures show:
I’ll be talking a lot more about these fascinating aspects of California weather. But for now, I’m just going to kick back and enjoy this sunny Berkeley day in early December (when this post was written in 2009).
Wow, I can wear my t-shirt outside! Wow, I don’t have to wear my heavy New England winter jacket. Wow, the wind isn't freezing my face off! This year (2009) in Boston, it snowed heavily in October, and at night there, it’s already in the low 30s and high 20s °F.
My New England friends tell me they are having a warm spell right now, after the "summer that wasn't." (Boy, do I remember a lot of those in New England, actually!) But, alas, they are still doomed. Winter is coming to New England, and there's no stopping it!
Dear New England, I loved you! I loved your people, your culture, and your wild and crazy weather. But your long, cold, dark winters will grind me down no more! I’ve found my personal paradise here in Berkeley and the Berkeley Hills. And I'm here to stay!