Category Archives: Weather & Sky

High Tide On The Allegheny

High water at Highland Park Dam, 11 July 2019, 4pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday morning heavy rain caused flash floods, road closures, landslides, basement and first floor flooding, and car accidents in Pittsburgh.

The rain gauge at the airport measured 2.32″ for the day. All but .01″ of it fell in just four hours.

Precipitation at Pittsburgh International Airport, 11 July 2019 (graph from National Weather Service)

There were three huge rain events so thick that you couldn’t see to drive.

  • Half an inch (0.53″) in 50 minutes, 7:05a-7:50a
  • More than a third of an inch (0.38″) in 25 minutes, 7:55-8:17a
  • 1.4 inches in an hour, 10:05a-11:05a

If you want to see what it was like, click here for great footage from WPXI.

Hours later, at 3:30pm, a friend and I made our way from Indiana Township (between Fox Chapel and Cheswick) to Churchill. It took over an hour to get there. The traffic was horrendous and the roads that were open were littered with debris. Nadine, Sandy Creek, and Washington Boulevard were all closed.

But I got two photos of the river in flood.

High tide on the Allegheny!

p.s. This rain didn’t even set a record at the airport though there may have been localized records. My friend Julie had 4″ in her rain gauge in her Squirrel Hill backyard. Sue Vrabel commented below that she had 4.5″ in Churchill.

(photos by Kate St. John, rain graph from the National Weather Service)

Beat The Heat With Trees

It’s been hot in Pittsburgh lately but nothing like the heat wave that’s sweeping Europe with highs above 100 degrees F. @JeremyDBarrell tweeted a long term solution with a compelling image by Meg Caffin.

Meg Caffin is an urban forest consultant from Australia who provides guidance for cities looking to beat the heat. Her image at top used an infrared camera to show the temperature difference between a paved churchyard and the trees behind it. I’ve made a Fahrenheit translation below. Yes, it’s 113oF on the pavement and only 77oF under the trees.

Tree shade is cooler than building shade because buildings merely block the sun while the trees actually lower the temperature.

Schenley Park near Bartlett entrance (photo by Kate St. John)

Trees cool the air by transpiring. They take up water from the ground and release it from the stomata in their leaves. The release doesn’t usually drip from the leaves as shown below. Instead it evaporates and that’s what cools the air.

Transpiration droplets from a leaf (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Evaporation — changing a liquid to a gas — uses energy. According to the Transpiration blog, “Energy is absorbed into liquid water. This reduces the temperature of the surrounding plant tissue and nearby atmosphere. To evaporate 1 gram of water 590 calories of energy is required.”

So more trees mean less heat.

If that isn’t enough reason to like trees, here’s another benefit. Trees increase your property value as shown in the EPA cost-benefit analysis below.

Trees increase property value far beyond cost of maintenance (EPA)

Plan to plant a tree this fall or plan to keep one. It’s cheaper to keep an existing tree than to plant a new one and mature trees increase property value even more.

Meanwhile if you’re feeling hot right now, visit a local park.

Schenley Park Upper Trail, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beat the heat among the trees.

(embedded Tweet from Jeremy Barrell; infrared heat image by Meg Caffin for the City of Geelong, Australia (Fahrenheit added); transpiring leaf from Wikimedia Commons; photos of Schenley Park by Kate St. John)

In Nome On The Longest Day

Sunrise in Nome on the summer solstice (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Nome Alaska 21 June 2019

Today we’re in Nome, Alaska on the summer solstice. If we were at the Arctic Circle the sun would never set today but Nome is 143 miles south. The sun does set here, but barely. It never gets completely dark. Instead, twilight lasts for 2.5 hours and then the sun is up again.

The photos above and below were taken at sunrise during the 2013 summer solstice from the Bering Land Bridge Preserve office in Nome. The photo caption says, “Up here in Bering Land Bridge, summer solstice means almost 24 hour days. Sunrise at our office here in Nome on the solstice is around 04:18 am, and the sun won’t set until 01:47 am the next day.”

Summer solstice sunrise over Anvil Mountain, Nome, Alaska (photo from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Flickr)

The sun just skims below the horizon, then circles the town.

Indeed it is the longest day.

(photos from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

Pennsylvania Fire Season

Fire in the Wayne National Forest, March 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring is fire season in Pennsylvania. 85% of our wildfires occur in March, April and May.

There’s no drought in Pennsylvania right now, nor in most of the U.S. — as shown on the map below.

US Drought Monitor for 28 March 2019

But you don’t need drought to have a fire. All you need are dry conditions, fuel, and a spark. In Pennsylvania we have all three in the spring: low humidity, gusty winds, and lots of old leaf litter drying out in the sun. The spark comes from people.

98% of Pennsylvania’s wildfires are caused by people and most of those are caused by people burning debris. On a sunny windy day those fires blow onto dry grass and escape to the wild. In April 2016 more than 10,000 acres burned in Pennsylvania.

Yesterday the fire danger was high in our state because the weather was so nice — warm and sunny with gusty winds. Across Pennsylvania people were out doing yard work. Some were probably burning piles of debris. I haven’t heard if there were any fires. (The fire danger is lower today, 4 April 2019, because the weather changed.)

U.S. Forest Service Wildfire Danger Forecast

If you live in a place that allows outdoor trash burning be careful out there! Spring is Pennsylvania fire season.

(photo of fire from Wikimedia Commons (actually a prescribed burn). Maps from US Drought Monitor and U.S. Forest Service Wildfire Danger Forecast; Click on the captions to see the originals)

Note: Allegheny County does not allow outdoor trash burning.

Is It Spring Yet?

Honeysuckle leaves in the City of Pittsburgh, 16 March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2019

Today is the astronomical First Day of Spring when the sun crosses the celestial equator at 5:58pm EDT. But is it Spring yet? It depends on where you live.

The USA National Phenology Network tracks spring across the continental U.S. based on first leaf out conditions for honeysuckle (Lonerica) and first bloom conditions for lilacs (Syringa vulgaris). The plants are non-native, and honeysuckle is invasive, but they make good indicators because they’re early responders to springtime warmth.

Monday’s animated Spring Leaf Index (18 March 2019) shows that leaf out was ahead of schedule through late February but fell behind in northern Virginia, the southern Great Plains, and the Pacific Northwest when cold weather hit in early March.

Spring Leaf Index as of 18 March 2019 (animation from USA NPN)

According to the model, spring hasn’t reached Pittsburgh yet but I’m conducting my own Leaf Out Survey in my neighborhood. I took the honeysuckle photos below on 11 March and 16 March 2019. Both were cold days after a spurt of exceptionally warm weather. The tiny leaves on the right show the effect of 77 degrees F on March 14!

Honeysuckle leaf out, City of Pittsburgh, 11 March and 16 March 2019 (photos by Kate St. John)

Do you have leaves in your neighborhood yet? Is spring on time?

Follow spring’s progress at the USA National Phenology Network. For blooming times click here for the latest Spring Bloom map.

(animated map from the USA National Phenology Network. photos by Kate St. John)

What Will Our Climate Feel Like in 60 Years?

Clouds in hot summer (Creative Commons license on Flickr)

We know our climate is changing compared to 30 years ago because we see obvious signs:

Science predicted this more than a generation ago, but most of us couldn’t imagine how it would feel. Now that we’ve seen 30 years of change and more is in store, we’re anxious to know what our climate will be like in the future.

Matt Fitzpatrick and his colleagues at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have answered this question by visualizing the future on an interactive map. Their study analyzes 540 cities in the U.S. and Canada, mapping their predicted climate in the 2080s to an existing climate today.

I tried out the map for myself at I looked up Pittsburgh, PA of course and got the answer shown in the screenshot below.

It shows that Pittsburgh’s 2080 climate will feel like Jonesboro, Arkansas does today. Jonesboro is 665 miles away from here, near Memphis, Tennessee. (Click on the image to see the website. Use website controls to see more complex answers.)

What will Pittsburgh’s climate feel like in 60 years? (screenshot of climate prediction at

The map bubbles explain: Our winters will be 10.8F warmer and 46.8% wetter. Our summers will be 10F warmer and 17.6% drier.

Let’s compare current to future using graphs. Pittsburgh’s current climate averages are shown below from U.S. Climate Data.

Sixty years from now our average winter lows will barely reach freezing. July and August average highs will be 93+ degrees F but watch out for the highest highs. August record temperatures in Jonesboro are all above 103oF!

Graph comparing current average high/low temperatures by month to 2080 prediction, Pittsburgh, with 100+ degrees maximum (graph by Kate St. John using current averages, adding UMCES prediction)

Our precipitation will be really different. We’ll go from a fairly steady 3 inches of rainfall per month to a rainy season in November-to-May and a dry season June-to-October. This might resemble California’s wet (flood) and dry (fire) seasons.

Graph comparing current average rainall by month to 2080 prediction for Pittsburgh (graph by Kate St. John using current averages, adding UMCES prediction)

Try the app for yourself at

We’re in for a wild ride.

For more information read about the study here at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

(credits: Cloud photo from Flickr, Creative Commons license. Map screenshot from Pittsburgh current climate graph from U.S. Climate Data. Graphs of Pittsburgh’s future temperature and rainfall by Kate St. John. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Zooming Past Jupiter

What is it like to get close to Jupiter?

In this NASA video a robotic spacecraft called Juno makes its sixteenth fly-by (Perijove) since arriving in mid-2016. Its closest approach is almost dizzying. I feel better when the spacecraft zooms away and we see the swirling clouds.

Did you notice that Jupiter is on the sound track, too? The fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets is called Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity. Listen to the entire majestic movement here.

This video was featured on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day on 5 February 2019.


Glaze ice on a Japanese maple (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

An article about ice on a very icy day, 8oF and falling.

Considering how often the temperature has fluctuated in Pittsburgh this winter I’m surprised we haven’t seen more glaze ice.

Glaze ice is the name for the icy coating caused by freezing rain or freezing drizzle. If the accumulation is small, the effect is beautiful and the electricity stays on. The photo above from Wikimedia Commons is more beautiful than my own below.

Glaze ice on a tree, overcast sky, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

When glaze ice is 1/4 inch thick or more the Weather Service calls it an ice storm. A quarter of an inch doesn’t sound like much but it’s so heavy that it weighs down the trees and they fall on power lines, streets, parked cars and houses. Power lines and power towers can fall, too. According to Wikipedia, “just one quarter of an inch of ice accumulation can add about 500 pounds (230 kg) of weight per [power] line span.” No wonder things come crashing down.

In January 1998 I wasn’t in Maine for the Great Ice Storm but I remember its results quite vividly. We visited central Maine in September and there were still broken trees everywhere. Folks who lived through it said they were without power for weeks. Everyone was stuck near home — couldn’t drive anywhere — so the radio stations connected people by announcing supplies and requests for help. Everyone pulled together.

The Great Ice Storm of January 1998 was even worse in upstate New York and Canada. Here are four photos from NOAA.

Effects of the Great Ice Storm of 1998 (photos from 10th Anniversary, NOAA)
Great Ice Storm of 1998 in upstate New York (photos from 10th Anniversary, NOAA)

Pretty as glaze ice is, I’m glad to do without it.

(photo credits: Japanese maple glaze ice from Wikimedia Commons, glaze ice in Pittsburgh by Kate St. John, photos of the Great Ice Storm of 1998 from NOAA, 10th Anniversary. click on the captions to see the originals)