Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 28, 2014

"Graupeling" with the weather

Having grown up on a farm in this place famous for the Dust Bowl and tornadoes, it's no wonder I'm more interested in the weather than many people. This interest was ingrained in me from an early age because my parents were always concerned about what tomorrow would bring. The crops and vegetables did OK if we didn't have too much rain or too little rain, if it wasn't too hot or too cold or if the wind didn't blow too hard.

I don't really need to think about the weather that much now because my exposure to the elements is confined to the time I walk between my vehicle and work, home or a store. But habits are hard to break. You can't take the country out of the girl.

In contrast, husband Art rarely pays much attention to the weather unless he is embarking on a long trip or heading out on a trout-fishing expedition. Two weeks ago marked the beginning of three such trips and so his eye was on the weather as well. The plan was to pick up our German "kids" Nadja and Tim, who had spent a week sightseeing in Chicago after flying from Germany. He added a side trip to visit high-school friend JoAnn in southwestern Wisconsin.

The forecast along the 550-mile northward trip showed possible snow or sleet for all days except Sunday, so that was the day he selected. The three to six inches predicted arrived Monday, so he felt good about his choice as they watched it fall from the snugness of her Civil-War-era farm home.

But during the 200-mile journey to Chicago on Wednesday night, the radio warned of bad weather starting around midnight. So once he reached the hotel, he spent considerable time studying the weather. His usual route was predicted to be hit with nearly a foot of snow and white-out conditions the next day. He eventually settled on a plan involving a route he had never taken before.

Manhattan was also hit by that storm. Jeremy Goodwin, the meteorologist we regularly watch on a Topeka TV station, said the high temperature for the day was 48 degrees, about average for a February day. But then he commented there wasn't much else that was average. Within a time span of two hours, we had rain accompanied by thunder, then sleet, some snow, a bit of blowing snow, winds up to 50 miles per hour and nearly white-out conditions, followed by sun and blue sky. The county southwest of ours reported 10 accidents, while ours had 15 during the morning commute to work. Some 5,000 Kansans were without power due to high wind and part of the Interstate system had been closed.

And then he mentioned graupel.

Say what? Graupel? In all my weather watching, I'd never heard the word. To the Internet!

"Graupel forms when snow in the atmosphere encounters super-cooled water. In a process known as accretion, ice crystals form instantly on the outside of the snow and accumulate until the original snowflake is no longer visible or distinguishable. The coating of these ice crystals on the outside of the snow is called a rime coating... Also known as snow pellets, soft hail, small hail, tapioca snow, rimed snow, ice balls."

This made me think about another weather term I had never heard before this year - "polar vortex." I first heard the term when we were in Wisconsin after Christmas. "Polar" was about all a person really needed to know to understand what it meant, but I wanted to know more. I learned it's really just an ordinary low-pressure area that drifts southward from the Arctic Circle and gets stuck in place due to opposing winds. The southbound winds on its eastern edge keep pulling cold air from the north to the south. In 1947, one transformed Britain from a place of normally mild winters to one where the Thames River froze and snow piled as high as double-decker buses.

From the Farmers Almanac, I learned that a mackerel sky is "a formation of cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds that look like the pattern of scales on a mackerel's back" and that a mare's tail is "a formation of cirrus clouds that are wispy and stretch across the sky like a mare's tail blowing in the wind. Weather lore about them says, 'Mackerel scales and mare's tails, make lofty ships carry low sails.'"

The Travel Channel site also listed some weird weather words:

*Haboob - a dust or sandstorm caused by the down-draft of a desert thunderstorm

*Anvil zits - a slang term for frequent, localized lightning discharges that occur within a thunderstorm anvil - the flat spreading top of a thunderstorm

*Derecho - a widespread, long-lived windstorm that is associated with a band of rapidly-moving showers or thunderstorms.

But I think my favorite new weather term is "glory:"

"an optical phenomenon consisting of a series of concentric colored rings visible against the background of a cloud, fog bank or mist. A glory can be seen when an airplane flies in sunlight above a layer of cloud consisting of water droplets. The rings generally resemble a corona."

I often tell my young journalism students that if they're going to write stories about the weather, they need to accurately describe particular meteorological terms, such as blizzard, dust devil or tsunami. Now I can give them a few more words to "graupel" with.

Effect of a polar vortex on London, England in 1947. Left: passengers could enter a double-decker bus' upper deck directly; right: bicycle riding on the frozen Thames.

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