Winter solstice in the South

It’s 21 June, it’s Winter Solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere, and at just after 5pm in the afternoon in New Zealand, the shortest day of the year is already dwindling fast.

And what a winter solstice it has been for the country – some of the worst snow storms in recorded history covering much of the South Island in a thick white blanket, while other areas are bludgeoned by extreme tropical storms. Over the last two days, the capital Wellington has been one of the worst hit areas, with flooding and winds of up to 200km/h.

A chilly winter solstice down south. (© All Rights Reserved)
A chilly winter solstice down south.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Scary stuff, but then again, winter solstice does kind of give one that feeling that from here it can only get better – longer days, increasing temperatures, new growth, new life…

And if nothing else, crisp winter mornings are just the greatest for some amazing frosty photo opportunities all around us. That’s the joy of photography – no matter how cold, or how extreme the conditions, there’s always something amazing to photograph (often the more extreme, the better, in fact!).

To everyone in the southern hemisphere, enjoy the opportunities the cold bring. And for my northern friends, have a great summers day (hard to imagine down here, I have to admit)!

Striving for the holy grail of accurate weather forecasting

It’s Weatherman’s Day today. Or Weatherperson’s Day, to be more politically correct. Celebrated mainly in the US, today is the day to recognise people working in the field of meteorology and weather forecasting – those people partaking in the massive task of trying to forecast the weather patterns which, let’s face it, are getting more and more crazy and chaotic each year. The date of 5 February was chosen because it is the birthday of John Jeffries, one of the first weather observers in the US – he collected daily weather data from 1774 to 1816.

Weatherperson’s Day links up thematically with World Meteorological Day that we celebrate in May, but where that day focuses on the weather itself, today we focus on those working to forecast it.

Rain! They said it was going to RAIN! (© All Rights Reserved)
Rain! They said it was going to RAIN!
OK, so the weather forecasters don’t always get it right…
(© All Rights Reserved)

From predicting whether it’s going to rain tomorrow, to developing seasonal weather forecasts, weather forecasting is a hugely complex and computationally intensive endeavour. As such, weather services are often some of the main users of supercomputers around the world. Weather forecasting activities include gathering raw weather data, analysing the data and developing intricate computer models to simulate natural weather systems. One of the (many) challenges of weather modelling is that natural weather and atmosphere systems are near-chaotic – small changes in boundary conditions can result in huge changes in outcome.

These difficulties, however, do not deter the good guys and gals at weather services around the globe who continually strive for more accurate and more timely weather forecasting. According to the US National Weather Service, for example, “lead time for flash flood warnings improved from 22 minutes in 1993 to 78 minutes in 2008. Accuracy over the same time period increased from 71 percent to 91 percent. Lead time for tornado warnings has increased from 6 minutes in 1993 to 13 minutes today. Tornado warning accuracy increased from 43 percent to 72 percent. Winter storm accuracy in 2008 was 89 percent with an average lead time of 17 hours. Since 1990, the Tropical Prediction Center’s 24 to 72 hour tropical storm forecast track errors have been reduced by more than 50%.”

These improvements are quite significant, and can potentially be the difference between life and death for communities in the path of an extreme weather event.

So spare a thought today for all the weather people through the ages who have dedicated their working lives to the holy grail of accurate weather forecasting. After the scorchingly hot, dry weather we’ve had for weeks now, they predicted rain for this week, and lo and behold, it has rained! 🙂

Celebrating the wonder of snow on World Snow Day

Today, 20 January, is World Snow Day. Given that there’s much more snow falling in winter in the Northern Hemisphere than the relative sprinkling we typically get here in our Southern winters, I suppose it only makes sense to align World Snow Day with the northern snow season. But it still feels kinda strange to celebrate snow in January when you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Having said that, I’m sure many parts of Australia, currently experiencing their hottest summer in history, would not mind a miraculous bit of snow today!

Having fun in the snow during a mountain hike. (© All Rights Reserved)
One of the only ways to celebrate natural snow in January in the Southern Hemisphere is hiking high up in the mountains, above the snow line.
(© All Rights Reserved)

World Snow Day was started by the International Ski Federation, FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), as the second phase in their “Bring Children to the Snow” campaign to promote snow and snow-sports around the world. The campaign started with “Snowkids” in 2009, which introduced children in FIS member countries to snow sports. With World Snow Day, the idea is to go beyond the FIS countries and to “celebrate all things snow around the world simultaneously”, with a specific focus placed on young people in the 4-14 age category.

2013 is the first time World Snow Day is celebrated, but the plan is to have it staged annually for years to come. The day is themed around three E’s – Explore (discover something new), Enjoy (have fun in and on the snow) and Experience (generate great memories and inspiration to continue enjoying the snow).

Having personally never lived in a region where snow is common, I have to admit the concept of snow sports completely passed me by as a kid. But that did not diminish my fascination with snow one bit – perhaps when you don’t grow up with snow around you, the fascination with curious icy flakes falling from the sky is even greater than when it is a commonplace occurrence.

Water vapour cooling down to form miniature ice crystals, that start to combine as they fall to form intricately shaped snowflakes – often amazingly complex hexagonal plates – that float down to the ground to create snow that can be up to meters deep. How magic is that? No wonder snow holds such fascination. And of course for any kid the best part of it is that the world becomes one giant playground… and if it snows enough, there’s even the possibility of missing school!

Only a light dusting of snow can turn any scene into a winter wonderland.(© All Rights Reserved)
Only a light dusting of snow can turn any scene into a winter wonderland.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I can just hear some grown-ups complaining about the ‘joys’ of cleaning driveways, commuting etc in heavy snow, and the mess made when snow turns to icy sludge. Very true, it’s not all fun and games, but then again World Snow Day is aimed primarily at the youngsters, so perhaps from a grown-up point of view this is a great day to not complain about the snow, and to just enjoy the pure wonder of it.