Weather wars

The weather gods are doing battle over the Northern Plains, and Leon Osborne Jr., may be the only one who knows it. In early November, he correctly predicted that month's temperatures to be higher than October's.

The weather gods are doing battle over the Northern Plains, and Leon Osborne Jr., may be the only one who knows it. In early November, he correctly predicted that month's temperatures to be higher than October's.

The president and chief executive officer of Meridian Environmental Technology Inc. in Grand Forks, N.D., says a moderate El Nino is beginning to assert itself, warming the atmosphere around the Earth's equator, while a sun whose solar flare activity is at an 11-year low is allowing the atmosphere in the Arctic Circle to become more frigid.

"That sets up a kind of a battle zone between the very cold air that's up around the North Pole and the warm air around the equator," he says.

The Northern Plains are a part of that battle zone where cold and warm clash. Osborne thinks these clashes probably are responsible for the recent unusual temperatures and, perhaps, the recent massive snowstorm that hit the Midwest.

And he may be on to something.


Sun cooling

The variations in the warming radiation that the sun provides our planet often is absent from discussions about weather. But Osborne, who studied solar modeling as part of his graduate work, sees the sun's solar output as a key component of weather.

"Oftentimes, it will set the stage for giving us a significant change in our short-term as well as our long-term climate," he says.

The amount of radiation reaching the Earth can be tracked by monitoring sunspots, he says.

Sunspots are areas of increased magnetic activity on the surface of the sun around which most solar flares originate; therefore, increased sunspot activity invariably coincides with increased solar output, while a decrease in sunspot activity denotes a reduced solar output. Based on 400 years of observations, which were first recorded by Galileo, sunspot activity peaks every 11 years. Halfway between each of these peaks, sunspot activity reaches its least active period.

The sun now is in this period.

"We have gone the longest time period in the last 12 months without sunspots than we've seen in over 54 years," Osborne says. "This is one of the major reasons we saw an unusually cool year this last year. It's because we just were not receiving the same amount of radiation for the sun that we would normally expect."

El Nino heating


At the other end of this atmospheric tug-of-war is El Nino. The name refers to the Christ child, since its effects typically become apparent around Christmas time. The periodic phenomenon is one of warming of the surface waters in the tropical eastern and central Pacific Ocean. The cycle for El Nino, ranging from every three years to every eight years, is not as stable as the 11-year sunspot cycle.

The oceanic warming leads to distinct changes in weather patterns across the North American continent. El Nino has been blamed for floods, droughts and other climatic events around the globe. In the Northern Plains, it means warmer, often drier winters.

Stuck in the middle

As both phenomena vie for control of the Northern Plains climate, the situation on the ground is keeping everyone guessing.

Weather patterns have flip-flopped on a virtually monthly basis since summer. Farmers and ranchers have seen an unusually cool August this year, followed by a warmer-than-normal September. A cool October led into a surprisingly warm November, and then a cooler December.

The Pacific weather patterns are transitioning to stronger El Nino conditions, while the lack of solar radiation is providing stronger cooling.

Simply put, the two are taking turns controlling our weather.

"It has taken on a peculiar timing that is about every four weeks, and it comes right about the time we pull that next page off of our calendar," Osborne says. "It sets up a thermal imbalance in the atmosphere, and it can only last for certain amount of time before it has to change."


These cycles begin with one or the other dominating the weather, as El Nino did in November, evidenced by record-high temperatures. The colder weather then took its turn in the first week in December, changing rain to snow and dropping the temperatures from 35 degrees to 2 degrees below zero in seven days.

Osborne thinks the weather will continue to cycle this way into the new year.

"We're going to see ourselves transition out of this cold probably a little bit before New Year's," he says. "You can almost set your weather, based upon your calendar, at this point."

As El Nino reasserts itself, January weather may provide another surprise.

"It is possible that January may set a record for warmth," Osborne says. "We could see a lot of the snow disappearing in January."

He says this monthly cycling should continue into next spring.

2010 outlook

According to Osborne's weather models, the outlook for the 2010 growing season will be marked by general warming.


"We are going to see some significant impacts with El Nino as we go through the rest of this year," he says. "Once we come out of the present 30-day cycle we are in . . . we will start to feel the effects of this El Nino situation, and we're going to start to see a significant increase in temperatures."

He expects to see below normal snowfall for the 2010 portion of winter, followed by a potential for a late March to early April storm period, likely to hit in the form of "a blizzard or two," he says.

As spring progresses, he expects that precipitation will pick up and stretch spring rains out into early summer.

"I think excessive rainfall could be common across the Northern Plains, so we're looking for above normal precipitation from mid-May through probably early July," he says.

By that time, the El Nino conditions should be fading, but as the sunspot activity -- by then on the upswing -- increases, temperatures should continue to trend upwards, he says.

"After that, we do expect that our precipitation is going to be near normal to maybe slightly below normal precipitation, for the latter part of July and into August."

As summer turns into autumn, Osborne expects above-normal precipitation and above normal temperatures to settle in for the fall.

He says, after that, the long-term effects of increasing sunspot activity should begin to make themselves felt.


"We would expect to see a corresponding warming of the atmosphere, gradually, over the next few years, reaching a peak around the year 2013 or 2014," he says.

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