Last week the news broke that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft had flown by and photographed what looks like the “snowman of the universe,” two icy chunks stuck together like a snowman and spinning out there in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.
Yes, this object spins. Here’s a time lapse from NASA on New Years Day 2019.
The snowman is reddish and tiny, only 20 miles long, so he can’t be seen from Earth. We wouldn’t even know about him except that a few years ago the New Horizons team looked for something interesting for the spacecraft to explore after it passed Pluto. They saw him as a dot using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and chose him because he’s a classical Kuiper Belt object with low inclination and low eccentricity.
Sun dogs, also called parhelia, are bright spots to the right and left of the sun on the same horizontal level. If you know how to measure angles in the sky you’ll find them at 22 degrees from the sun, sometimes with rainbow colors.
Sun dogs are best seen when the sun is near the horizon but in Pittsburgh clouds often obscure one sun dog or even the sun itself. Pictured above is a lefthand sun dog, pictured below is one on the right. You can tell, even without seeing the sun, because the red end of the rainbow is nearest the sun.
If you’re really lucky you’ll see the sun between two very bright sun dogs. The “three suns” effect shows the origin of their name in Greek mythology — Zeus (the sun) walking his two dogs.
In the old days, three suns were considered an omen and not a good one. During the Wars of the Roses (England’s civil wars in the late 1400’s), the future king had to convince his panicky troops that three suns meant good news.
Though this prediction is old news it will affect us very soon. It looks like Pittsburgh will have normal weather in the next three months, whatever that means in these crazy climate days.
According to NOAA’s precipitation outlook (above), Pittsburgh has an equal chance of being exceptionally wet or dry during January through March 2019.
The big news, but not for Pittsburgh, is that it’s going to be incredibly warm in western North America — especially in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Canada — and colder than normal in the Southern Appalachians. This is due to climate change and a developing El Niño in the eastern Pacific.
The southern (or winter) solstice will occur in Pittsburgh this evening at 5:23pm. By then we’ll have lived through a very short day, 9 hours and 17 minutes of rainy gloomy overcast daylight.
If we were in Manchester, UK there would be even less daylight. Today they have rainy overcast skies too, but they also have fewer hours daylight, 7 hours 28 minutes. The flip side is that Manchester has more sunlight in June.
Scott Richards decided to compare both solstices in Manchester side by side. He filmed the entire day — sunrise to sunset — on June 21 and December 21, then sped up the film so we don’t have to watch for 20 hours. Instead it lasts six minutes.
I’ve started his video, above, near sunset on the winter solstice (right) side. If you watch for a minute you’ll see the moon rise in winter while the summer sun is still so high that it leaves the video frame.
There’s a dramatic difference in the amount of daylight from solstice to solstice. No wonder I feel sleepy in December.
After 1.5 inches of rain fell over the weekend the ground here in Pittsburgh is super soggy. Meanwhile it’s been warm since last Thursday but the temperature dropped below freezing last night. These are perfect conditions for needle ice.
Needle ice forms when the soil is warm and the air is freezing. While ice is forming on top of the soil it draws up subsurface water by capillary action. The ice grows from the bottom creating a structure that looks like needles or even tiny barricades. Since there’s little or no soil on top of the ice, it stands up in the air.
From the top it doesn’t look interesting — basically a frozen lump — but seen from the side it’s very cool. In the patch shown below some ice needles keeled over so I captured both the top and sides in one shot.
When the soil itself freezes, needle ice can form underground and create a frost heave on the surface. I’ve never opened a frost heave but here’s what one looks like in a photo from Vermont.
As you watch your footing today, look for the delicate structures of needle ice.
We don’t have flowers in December but we do have ice and it comes in many forms. Here’s the first in a series on ice, starting with my favorite: Rime.
The word “rime” comes from Old English hrim which meant hoarfrost or a chill mist or fog. Nowadays hoarfrost and rime are not the same thing. Hoarfrost doesn’t form in fog. To get rime there has to be cold fog or the location has to be in the clouds. For that reason, “Rime shouts, Mountains!” It’s easy to find rime at high altitudes.
The best part about rime is that it can form in a light wind. When it does it points toward the wind because each new crystal is deposited on the windward side. This is counter-intuitive; it’s the opposite of rain.
What direction did the wind blow through this fence?
Rime can even coat snowflakes. Graupel, which looks like hail, is actually a rime-coated snowflake. I wonder if these pop when you step on them.
This month is a good time to find rime in the Laurel Highlands. My best experience with it was during an east wind at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch. No one else was up there to enjoy it. It was way too foggy!
On Thursday it rained. Then it sleeted. Then it snowed in the wee hours of Friday morning, especially north of Pittsburgh.
In the old days most of the trees would be bare by now, but this year many still have leaves.
Ice and snow made the leaves heavy and some of the trees came down, hitting power lines as they fell. By Friday morning KDKA reported that 65,000 households north and east of the city were without electricity. No power, no heat, and for those with well water, no water. It may take until Sunday evening to get all of the power restored..
The City is warmer than surrounding counties so Schenley Park had snow on the leaves, but no ice.
Here’s what my favorite hillside looked like yesterday. 50% of the trees still have leaves.
The power failures wouldn’t have been so bad if most of the trees had been bare.
The sun will rise an hour early tomorrow in Pittsburgh.
At 2:00am on 4 Nov 2018 the cell networks will push out the new time (1:00am Standard Time) to our mobile phones. We’ll gain an hour of sleep and will be surprised when the sun sets just after 5pm. Rush hour will start at dusk on Monday.
Now that we’ve passed the autumnal equinox we’re losing daylight every day. Tomorrow we’ll lose two minutes!
Meanwhile, birds are unaffected by our trick with clocks and will still cue on daylight. When the crows show up in Oakland at rush hour, lots of people will be surprised.
Monday will be the first time people and crows are on the same schedule. 😉