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Fall colors depend on spring rains, first frost

in News/weather

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

It’s that time of year again. The pumpkin spice is flowing, the birds are flying south, and according to social media, the leaves are turning.

But for most Wyomingites, fall colors only appear for a few days before the world turns dead and gray. 

In southeast Wyoming, it can feel like it takes longer to rake all the brown leaves than it did for them to die and fall to the ground. In northwest Wyoming, however, residents report fall looks more like the story books with yellows and reds dotting the landscape for weeks at a time.

“The intensity of the colors depends on three different things: Sunlight, temperature and moisture,” said Katie Cheesbrough, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department habitat biologist. “But frost is your major color killer.”

Working primarily in the Saratoga region, Cheesbrough said she couldn’t say for sure why northwest Wyoming experienced brilliant fall colors longer than other parts of the state, but it could be related to wind.

“I think the secret in Jackson is they just have less wind,” she said. “Down here, the wind tends to blow the leaves off the trees before they’ve had a chance to fully turn.”

Most leaves are green in the spring and summer because of the chemical chlorophyll, which is essential to the photosynthesis process, allowing trees to absorb energy from light.

As the weather changes, “The green pigment breaks down rather quickly,” Cheesbrough said. 

Without chlorophyll, red and yellow pigments, which are present throughout the year, come to the fore.

Yellow pigments are caused by carotenoid and red pigments are the product of anthocyanin, Cheesbrough explained.

“You’re going to see the best, most intense colors if you have a moist growing season early on, drier periods in the late summer and warm, sunny days in the fall with cool nights that don’t drop below freezing,” she said. 

Tree species also play a role in leaf color.

“Maples will have red leaves and aspens are primarily yellow, but do have some red,” Cheesbrough explained.

Leaf colors are genetic traits passed down through generations of trees, which is why an aspen copse tends to be monotoned, she said. But, occasionally, a person might see a bright red aspen floating in a sea of yellow.

“Most people think aspens only reproduce through cloning,” Cheesbrough said, explaining cloning is the process of a single tree growing new stems upward from a single root system. “But they also reproduce through seeds. When you see a lone aspen with different color leaves among others, you’re seeing a different tree’s genes at work.”

Deciduous trees shed their leaves while conifers, like pines and firs, retain their needles.

“They’re completely different organisms with completely different strategies,” Cheesbrough said. “Like some animals migrate to avoid winter and others hibernate, (deciduous trees) basically ditch these energetically expensive parts of themselves. Meanwhile, conifers still need their needles to photosynthesize, but in winter, they go into a dormant state to prevent them losing water through their needles.”

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos said it is common to see leaves in an area change colors at different times.

“We do see a really wide variety of when leaves change throughout Medicine Bow National Forest, and how leaves change color,” Voos said. “This year, a lot of our trees turned much later than normal.”

One of the scientific theories Voos said is predominant in arborist circles is leaves turn based on the length of available daylight, rather than specific weather patterns. No matter the science, he said the early bird gets the worm.

“The best bit of advice I’ve ever got is, ‘When they’re turning, go see them,’” Voos said. “They may not be around that long.”

Is long-range weather forecasting more than a tabloid gimmick?

in weather
Long range forecast

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Anyone who’s waited five minutes in a supermarket checkout lane can attest to the rows of weird publications waiting on the sales racks. From half-horse, half-human babies to the latest Hollywood gossip, the periodicals scream, “Read me.” 

In the same vein, hiding among the intimacy tips and health crazes, are the farmers’ almanacs. Pocket-sized, printed in black and white and typically with a hole punched in the corner, presumably to facilitate dangling the book from a peg board between the rusty sickle and chipped screwdrivers, these magazines are packed with astronomy charts, gardening advice, and most notably, long-range weather forecasts.

The most well known of these are probably the Farmers’ Almanac and Old Farmers Almanac, but there are others. The random facts are fun, and it’s a valuable tool for those wondering the position of the stars on a set date, but is the weather accurate?

Dayweather, Inc., Meteorologist Don Day Jr. said at times, the almanacs are more accurate than computer-generated predictions.     

“I think, some years, they outperform some of the long-range computer models,” Day said. “But the tricky thing is they say they have a secret formula, so not knowing what they use to predict things makes it hard to create a fair comparison.”

Down the divide

The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2020 calls for a colder winter than average in eastern Wyoming, while the west side of the state could experience a milder winter.On the other hand, the National Weather Service Climate Forecast System (CFS) is calling for above-average temperatures across the country and into Alaska.

“When Alaska is colder than normal, the lower 48 are warmer than normal, which always trips people up,” Day explained. “So, this (CFS) model contradicts itself.”

Meteorologists take three approaches to long-range forecasting: Using historical data to create an analog forecast, relying on the CFS modeling to generate predictions or mixing the two sources together.

“What I think the (Old) Farmers Almanac does is all analog,” Day said. “Personally, I use a mix of both. I’ve been burned in previous years by relying solely on analog or computer modeling, so I don’t trust one more than the other.”

Another problem with the current CFS forecast is the Continental Divide, which splits Wyoming in two. Whereas the almanacs provide weather predictions based on regions — Wyoming is located in both the High Plains region and Intermountain region — a CFS model produced earlier this week colors the entire nation in hues of red, yellow and orange, indicating warmer than average temperatures regardless of geography.

“It’s really hard to paint a broad brush for Wyoming,” Day said. “The Continental Divide does tend to guide where the air goes.”

Low-to-the-ground arctic blasts don’t always cross over the mountains, which he explained creates different winter conditions for people living on either side of the divide.

While the Old Farmers Almanac predictions for this year are in line with Day’s, he said almanac forecasts tend to derail when they try to pinpoint the time and location of a weather event.

“One of the challenges is how precise (the almanacs) try to get,” Day said. “You’ll read something about a blizzard near Kansas City, Kansas, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 17, but in my opinion, it’s a wild-ass guess.”

Down by the sea

Using sea-surface temperatures, Day said meteorologists are learning more about how to compare prior years with similar oceanic data and weather patterns to current conditions.

“A lot of weather forecasting is pattern recognition,” he explained. “Being able to recognize past patterns and what caused them has made better forecasting for the future.”

The almanacs also track ocean activity in a section most likely overlooked by many Wyomingites, the tide table.

But, Day said the publications keep their prediction practices under wraps, so it’s not possible to speculate whether their sources are using a similar process.

Accurate or not, the almanacs inspire thoughtful weather conversations. 

“The … almanac is fun — it gets people talking,” Day said. “And it heightens their sense of thinking forward.”

As long-range weather forecasting improves, it could become a valuable tool for private businesses across the world.

“I think we’re getting to the point where people in business can really use this data,” Day said. “A snowblower company could stock more snowblowers in regions expecting colder winters. There’s a lot of money to be made or lost as long-range forecasting gets more accurate.”

Meteorology is a ways off from providing consistent, spot-on, 180-day forecasts, but between analog forecasts, computer modeling and sources like farmers’ almanacs, Day said he looks forward to seeing what future holds.

Firefighters catch a break in Shoshone National Forest’s Fishhawk blaze

in News/weather

In Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, the Fishhawk Fire has burned more than 11,000 acres near Cody.

The Fishhawk Fire grew from 500 to more than 10,000 acres in just three days and is billowing smoke from the mountains across Park County.

Favorable conditions slowed the growth of the blaze over the weekend and gave firefighters an opportunity to establish protective firelines that starve the fire of fuel and direct flames away from structures.

Evacuations of mountain cabins and Camp Buffalo Bill Boy Scout camp were lifted Saturday as crews and fire managers from multiple agencies contained the burn.

Fire managers expect that the fire will smolder until snow blankets the mountains of the Shoshone National Forest.

Climate Change? Faulty Sensors, Less Rigorous Standards Could Be Skewing Data

in News/weather

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Few would disagree the West is getting warmer, but how much warmer is a matter for debate and temperature sensors play a key role in the discussion, according to Cheyenne meteorologist Don Day.

Automatic Surface Observation Systems (ASOS) started replacing human weather observers in the U.S. around the 1980s and by the 1990s, they made their way to Wyoming.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, the process of observing and recording weather has gone to these automated systems,” Day explained. “The sensors usually set out at the end of the (airport) runway or somewhere close in order to get the information that is going to be most critical for aviation.”

Jared Allen, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said an array of people and businesses use weather data, but the aviation industry is a major player in the market.

“The majority of your National Weather Service offices across the country are co-located at airports,” said Allen, who serves as a liaison between the weather service’s Weather Forecast Office and the public. “And about 99 percent of the time, (the ASOS sensors) are going to be at airports.”

The weather service collects data from 15 ASOS sensors across Wyoming, and all but one are at airports, he added.

While data collected by sensors at airports is adequate for pilots and their instruments, Day said it falls short of creating a full picture of climate change.

A recent article in the Washington Post, provides a map, which highlights Cheyenne as a center of extreme climate change. A big, red blob covers the southeastern portion of the state indicating temperatures rose about 2 degrees Celsius from 1835 to 2018.

The weather did get warmer, Day said, but what the map does not take into account is the ASOS recording some of those changes is located in the center of a growing urban area at an airport surrounded by miles of concrete and tarmac. Additionally, the sensor is recording weather data for aviation, not climatology.

“If you’re piloting a (Boeing) 747, you don’t care if it’s 49 degrees or 50 degrees — you want to know what the visibility and the wind are doing,” Day explained. “But if you’re trying to track climate and are going to argue over a one-tenth degree temperature change, it is a big deal.”

Prior to the proliferation of ASOS sensors, Day said weather data collection was subject to rigorous standards and protocols.

“The temperature sensor off the ground had to be a standard height,” he said. “The shelters that housed the weather instruments had to be painted white, had to be certain dimensions and had to have a certain amount of airflow.”

The list of requirements goes on. Nowadays, Day said those standards have fallen by the wayside.

One extreme example of how far the standards have dropped was reported by the New York Times in 1991. An early-stage electronic thermometer consistently recorded temperatures at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than actual, creating a new all-time high for Tucson, Arizona. The faulty readings became part of the official climate record and still stand today on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.

“What has happened with the automation process — it’s not nefarious,” Day said. “As technology was developed and airports started getting away from having to pay somebody to make the observations by installing these systems, that international standard really got washed away.”

Allen agreed some deviations exist.

“There certainly can be some slight discrepancies,” he said. “There can be an urban heat island affect. If you have an ASOS that is directly inside the city, surrounded by houses, concrete or asphalt, that might read, temperature-wise, a touch warmer.”

But Allen said the weather service still uses standards for installing the sensors.

The placement, typically in the middle of an airfield or nearby the runway, is tested to ensure jet exhaust won’t affect temperature readings and trees won’t distort precipitation gauges.

“There should be a half-mile radius of nothing around the ASOS, so the tarmac temperatures don’t fully influence the temperature readings,” he explained.

Previously, temperature readings were recorded in the shade and at a specific height, Day said. But that’s not always the case with ASOS sensors, which can skew previously recorded temperatures to appear cooler than current temperatures. 

“You are putting a temperature sensor in an environment that deviates from well-known and established standards,” he said. “Right off the bat, that’s not rigorous scientific protocol.”

To compensate for the discrepancies, Day said climatologists use varying formulas, depending on what they are extrapolating from the data. 

“There is a lot of statistical analysis and equations put on the data to try to ‘account for the deficiencies of temperature measuring,’” he explained. “It makes it very ripe for people to take the data and make it whatever they want it to be.”

The climate change debate often hinges on temperature variances of less than 1 degree, many of which are determined after being processed through corrective equations, Day said. 

“Very hard political decisions are being made around the world based on what people think is happening,” he said. “People need to tread very lightly and have an understanding of the sausage-making process. Everyone loves a hot dog, but no one wants to know how it’s made.”

Parched: 102-year-old irrigation canal collapse threatens livelihood of 800 farm and ranch families

in Agriculture/News/weather

Over 100,000 acres of farm and ranch land in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska have been without irrigation water for more than two weeks after an 102-year-old irrigation canal collapsed.

For the roughly 800 farm and ranch families whose operations straddle the Wyoming-Nebraska state line, the situation is dire and the clock is ticking.

“It was the worst timing in the world,” Goshen County Irrigation District manager Rob Posten said. “17th of July when it’s 90 degrees everyday and not much rain. Couldn’t have been any worse timing.”

“It’s my worst nightmare,” Posten added.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts have both signed emergency declarations allowing the use of state resources to get the old canal repaired and running water.

“I have been in crop insurance for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this.”

CSD: Crop insurance might not cover irrigation canal collapse losses (July 29, 2019)

The massive canal, constructed during World War I, runs 85 miles through Wyoming and another 45 miles in Nebraska.

“If there was a hundred year warranty it ran out last year,” said Shawn Madden with Torrington Livestock Auction.

There is hope to salvage at least part of the year’s crop yield as Wyoming meteorologist Don Day predicts some rain may be on the way for eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. The bad news, Day warns, is that late August in Wyoming tends to be bone dry.

For the livelihood of 800 families, the window to get the canal operational is small and getting smaller.

However, Cactus Covello of Points West Bank said the farming families of the region will find a way through the crisis.

“Agricultural people in Nebraska and Wyoming, they’re the most resilient you’re going to come by,” he said. “They’re tough. They’ll find a way. We may lose some, but you won’t lose many. They’ll find a way to survive.”

40 Years Later: Tornado Rips Through Cheyenne, Wyoming

in Community/weather

On July 16, 1979, Cheyenne was hit by the largest tornado (F3) to ever hit the state of Wyoming.

The tornado was responsible for one death, dozens of injuries, and damage to hundreds of homes. 

Don Erickson was Cheyenne’s mayor and he recalls what happened that day 40 years later.

Five Questions With… Meteorologist Don Day

in weather

Wyoming meteorologist Don Day accurately predicted our cold, snowy spring and late-starting summer. Is this the first time a meteorologist got everything right? Can he do it again for the next 90 days? Is he a modern-day Nostradamus? If so, let’s bet on the Super Bowl while the odds are good.

Introducing “Five Minutes With” — where we ask five random questions to our favorite Wyomingites. By the way, his prediction for our summer weather is fantastic (no comment on his Super Bowl pick).

You can check out Don’s DayWeather podcast every weekday at 7AM.

Statewide moisture outlook positive, wildfire outlook is average to below average

in News/weather
Statewide moisture outlook positive, wildfire outlook is average to below average

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Ample spring precipitation statewide is helping southeast Wyoming bounce back after a dry year in 2018, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist said.

“We’re a little above normal for precipitation across the state,” NOAA Hydrologist Jim Fahey said. “The Laramie Range, the Snowies and the Sierra Madres are all looking a lot better this year than previous years.”

Wyoming’s precipitation in April was 115 percent to 120 percent above average, and mountain snowpack across the state is close to 100 percent of median, according to NOAA’s water supply outlook for May 2019.

“The snow level is lowering, but there probably won’t be much runoff next week,” Fahey said Friday, May 17. “With cooler temperatures in the forecast, it may even accumulate a little bit.”

Although most of the state has above average precipitation rates, north central Wyoming around the Tongue and Powder River basins only received about 80 percent of average precipitation, the outlook states.

“Concern areas for too little precipitation would be the northern part of Powder River and the Tongue River, but they have some time catch up a little bit,” Fahey explained. “Right now, we don’t really have any concern areas for too much precipitation.”

The state’s reservoirs reached about 80 percent of capacity by early May, which Fahey said is a marked improvement from years past.

“The storages for early May are above average,” he said. “That’s a good thing. During the drought years, our reservoirs’ capacities were down to 40 percent.”

Fire outlook

Increased precipitation statewide could mean reduced fire activity this summer, but U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Aaron Voos said too much precipitation could also be problematic.

“There is a danger associated with good moisture years,” Voos explained. “In years of good precipitation, you’ve got more moisture in your fuels, but you also have more fine fuels, like grass.”

If the fine fuels dry out later in the season, they can carry a wildfire over a wider area than heavy fuels such as trees, he said.

Despite the dangers associated with higher precipitation years, Voos said data from the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center indicated Wyoming could experience average or below average fire season.

“I have to point out, we received a similar outlook around this time last year,” he added. “Then we had the Badger Creek Fire, Ryan Fire and Silver Creek Fire, which all burned more than 20,000 acres each.”

Both the Badger Creek Fire and Ryan Fire affected large portions of Southeast Wyoming, primarily in the Snowy Mountains, while the Silver Creek Fire blazed across the Routt National Forest in Colorado.

Fahey said NOAA was also monitoring the possibility of drier conditions in late May and early June.

“Hopefully, we don’t get a warm up then a rainfall in early June,” he said. “That’s a worst-case scenario for us, because that’s usually where we can get our worst cases of flash flooding. But, the long range forecast for May continues to look wet with below average temperatures, so we’re looking good.”

Storm makes travel around southeastern Wyoming difficult

in weather

By Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Highway Patrol urged drivers in southeastern Wyoming to stay off of roads as a strong storm blasting the region with snow and brisk winds left highways icy.

Sgt. Jeremy Beck of the Wyoming Highway Patrol said although the snow that fell during the day Wednesday only left roads wet, dropping temperatures would turn that water to ice.

“We’re expecting the temperatures to drop a little bit and that will cause all the melted snow that’s on the roadway right now to freeze up, which will cause the roadways to get pretty slippery and icy and … hazardous for people to drive on,” he said. “It’s very hard to maintain traction on icy roads and also, once you get some snow over the top of that, it can really cause … treacherous driving.”

Most highways in eastern Wyoming remained open on Wednesday evening, although Interstate 80 east of Cheyenne was closed because of weather conditions in Nebraska.

As the storm hit eastern Wyoming, schools and government offices in Cheyenne, Torrington and Gillette were closed and Goshen County School District officials announced that classes would be canceled for Thursday.

The storm was expected to continue through Wednesday and into Thursday, with more snow and high winds expected overnight. Snow was predicted to taper off on Thursday before ending on Friday.

Schools close in advance of predicted blizzard

in weather

By Cowboy State Daily

Schools in eastern Wyoming closed Wednesday in anticipation of a winter storm expected to bring blizzard conditions to portions of the state.

Schools in Goshen and Campbell counties were closed and Laramie County schools were set to release students early in the face of the storm expected to drop from 4 to 8 inches of snow on Cheyenne and up to 15 inches of snow on Lusk.

Heavy, wet snow began falling in eastern Wyoming on Wednesday morning, but Jeff Garmon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cheyenne, said as temperatures dropped through the day, the snow would become less wet and more prone to being pushed by winds expected to gust to 55 mph in some areas.

“It’s going to be a little deceptive,” he said. “We expect conditions this afternoon to start going downhill.”

A blizzard warning was in effect for southeastern Wyoming from Laramie and Cheyenne north to Torrington and Wheatland, while most of the rest of eastern Wyoming was under a winter storm warning.

Highways remained open throughout the state Wednesday morning, but roads around Cheyenne and Torrington were reported to be slick in spots.

The predicted high winds prompted the Weather Service to issue the blizzard warning for southeastern Wyoming and the Nebraska Panhandle, Garmon said.

He added that while snowfall had tapered off Wednesday morning, the fluffier, lighter snow was expected to move north into the region by the afternoon, creating blizzard conditions.

“I’d say by 3 p.m., things will look a lot different,” he said. “You can’t judge it by what’s outside the window right now.”

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