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January-February 2011

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From the Editor

“We should take advantage of the sun and go outside…it could be the last nice day we have for a while!” I can't even count how many times I have uttered that phrase this fall, and somehow, magically, the beautiful weather continues here in northern Virginia. A searingly hot summer has given way to an autumnal pattern of beautifully sunny, mild days punctuated by the occasional prototypically chilly, blustery fall day. Yesterday, while walking outside, I marveled at the colorful leaves fluttering frantically through the air in the wind, knowing that the gusty display could portend the arrival of cooler weather.

The forecast for the Washington, D.C., area for this coming winter stated the following: “equal chances of a below average and above average snow year.” While the statement seems a bit vague, one thing is almost certain; we won't see the record-breaking snowfalls we witnessed last year. The snowfall on the eastern seaboard in the winter of 2009–2010 was a once-in-a-century event, thrilling snow lovers, snarling everyday routines for weeks on end, and providing ample fodder for meteorological record keepers.

In this issue, as we get into the thick of cold weather once again, in his annual snow report David Robinson looks back at the winter that was. Although this article normally accompanies the annual Almanac issue, publishing this year in the May/June edition, we wanted to strike while the iron is hot and get the snow report into print early as a way of providing a comparison for the winter of 2010–2011. As Robinson notes in his article, it was an “upside-down” winter, with areas that normally are inundated, such as Vancouver, Canada (the site of last year's winter Olympics), and Boston, Massachusetts, receiving below-average amounts, and sites farther south, including the D.C. area, receiving far-above-average amounts.

While those of us who are unaccustomed to impressive snowfalls might have, in the midst of one of last year's storms, called the precipitation “biblical” in nature, this issue of Weatherwise actually features a missive that is biblical in nature. In an article based on his master's research, Carl Drews speculates that there could be a meteorological basis for the legendary parting of the Red Sea. In a story told in the Christian Bible's Exodus—as well as the Qur'an—the Israelites are able to flee from the pursuing Egyptians by crossing the Red Sea after “the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” In his article, Drews discusses his research findings that a meteorological phenomenon called wind setdown could, in fact, have created a dry crossing for the Israelites.

An equally impressive meteorological phenomenon is the subject of this issue's cover story. Volcanic lightning—in which lightning is generated by a volcano's ash plume—has been the subject of numerous historical and contemporary accounts, but until recently it had not been studied. Now, with remote sensing capability and improvements in lightning mapping technology, a group of researchers has begun to get a handle on this spectacular phenomenon. In the article, Bradley Muller gives us a front-row seat into the function and beauty of this thrilling lightshow.

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