Category Archives: Weather & Sky

Will Pittsburgh Get Cold Enough for Rare Gulls Next Week?

Watching gulls at the Point, Pittsburgh, PA Jan 31, 2015 (photo by Tim Vechter)
Watching gulls at the Point, Pittsburgh, PA, 31 Jan 2015 (photo by Tim Vechter)

11 January 2024

Only a few days ago I was lamenting that we weren’t having a snowy winter, neither snow nor snowy owls. Well, be careful what you ask for! A few days of bitter cold are coming to Pittsburgh next week. If Lake Erie freezes, arctic gulls will fly south to find open water on the rivers. The photo above shows some cold and happy birders looking at rare gulls at the Point in January 2015.

So what are the chances this will happen next week?

As of this morning, the forecasted low temperature for dawn on Wednesday 17 January is 9°F. This map for next Monday sure looks like we’re in a “polar vortex.” Cold, right?

Low temperature forecast for Monday 15 January 2024 as of 11 Jan ( from the NWS)

But will it be cold long enough to freeze Lake Erie and send the gulls south? Probably not. The eastern Great Lakes ice map as of yesterday, 10 Jan 2024, shows nearly 100% open water (white).

Eastern Great Lakes Ice Chart as of 10 Jan 2024 (map from North American Ice Service)

There’s not even a hint of ice (blue) on most of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes ice-to-date graph for winter 2023-24 indicates that ice is at a near record low. There’s a lot of cooling off to do before the lakes will freeze.

So next week I’ll have to wear my Minnesota gear to go outdoors but it’s unlikely there will be any unusual birds out there. Will I want to go out in 9°F anyway? I’ll have to wait and see.

(credits are in the cations)

Aurora from Above

Aurora borealis (photo from Wikimedia Commons, originally taken by Marcelo Quinan on Flickr CC)

3 January 2024

As I mentioned last month, though winter is the best time of year to see the aurora borealis it is rare if not impossible to see it anywhere but in the far north. The photo at top was taken in Norway while the one below gives a different perspective from an airplane at 36,000 feet above Canada.

Aurora Borealis as seen from an airplace 36,000 ft above Canada, 22 January 2004 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In both cases the photos were taken inside our atmosphere below the aurora. What if you could see the aurora from above?

On 21 January 2016 NASA astronaut Scott Kelly took photos of the aurora from the International Space Station (ISS) as it traveled over Canada. Here’s what the aurora looks like from above in his series of photos.

Aurora borealis over Canada, seen from ISS on 21 Jan 2016 (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

The ISS also saw the aurora australis, the southern lights near the South Pole, in July 2012.

Aurora australis from ISS, 15 July 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Want to know if there will be an aurora soon and where it will show up? Check here for NOAA’s Aurora Viewline predition for tonight and tomorrow.

If Only We Could See The Stars

How light pollution affects the dark night skies (image from Wikimedia Commons)

28 December 2023

We usually take for granted that even on a clear night there aren’t many stars to see. When the news reminds us to watch for an astronomical event such as the Geminid meteor shower on 13 December, we realize that most of us have to drive somewhere to find a dark sky. Even rural skies show fewer stars than a dark sky site, and Dark Sky locations are getting harder to find as light pollution proliferates.

Earth City Lights, 1994-1995 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a universe above us that most of us cannot see. Learn more in this vintage article:

It’s the Best Time of Year for the Northern Lights

Northern lights (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

22 December 2023

The short days of winter give us longer nights at the best time of year for viewing the northern lights.

Pittsburgh is generally too far south and always has too much light pollution from city lights for viewing the aurora borealis so let’s enjoy beautiful scenes from the arctic.

video embedded from Richard Sidey on YouTube

Wondering what areas are due to see the northern lights tonight or tomorrow? See NOAA’s 2-day aurora forecast maps or the 30-minute forecast for predictions of beauty in the sky.

Merlin at Schenley Park

Merlin at Schenley Park, 12 Dec 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

16 December 2023

Nearly every winter since the late 1990’s when Bill Hintze(*) first reported them, you can usually find a merlin or two at Schenley Park golf course at dusk. Charity Kheshgi and I went looking on 12 December and right on time a large merlin, probably female, arrived 20 minutes before sunset.

The temperature was relatively warm but it was very windy and felt quite cold. The merlin didn’t care. As the sun set she flew to the top of a pine tree across the road. (She’s in this photo as a dot.)

Sunset at Schenley Park’s golf course, 12 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Charity photographed her as a silhouette.

Merlin in Schenley Park after sunset, 12 Dec 2023

Interestingly she didn’t roost at the golf course. When it got darker she flew away to the south-southeast.

If you’d like to see a merlin, stop by the golf course about 40 minutes before sunset and walk around looking at the treetops. Parking is available at the First Tee parking lot.

(*) Bill Hintze and the merlins: I think Bill was the one who first found the merlins but I might be misremembering. If I’m wrong please leave a comment so I can correct the text.

Seen This Week

Sky reflected on Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 8 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

9 December 2023

There were just hints of ice floating on Panther Hollow Lake yesterday morning when the water reflected blue sky and whispy clouds.

Yesterday was unusually beautiful after the tumult of hail and thunder during the Steelers game last Sunday 3 December. After the storm a double rainbow glowed in the east.

Double rainbow on 3 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The pot of gold seemed to be on Morewood Avenue.

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is at Morewood Avenue, 3 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you look closely in the double rainbow photo you can see crows flying just above the trees.

Crows have become less reliable in my neighborhood since they moved the roost about a month ago. When they came through after the storm I went out to see them, counted 3,000 and recorded a video.

Crows flying toward the roost at dusk, 3 December 2023, Shadyside, Pittsburgh (video by Kate St .John)

Only 3 WEEKS until Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird (Crow!) Count. The crows are getting tricky. Keep me posted! Thanks to Carol S for reporting them at North Shore last night.

p.s. If the reflection in the top photo is puzzling, here’s another perspective.

Sky and bridge reflected in Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 8 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Seen at Some Point

Sunrise seems to pierce Central Catholic’s steeple, 28 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

2 December 2023

Saturday blogs usually show what I’ve “Seen This Week” but I have only one worthy photo, shown above. For the rest I’ve chosen sights that are timely for the season and seen at some point.

This Wednesday the water was low in the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, just as it is in this photo from Nov 2020. However the sky was not so blue and it was very cold!

Nine Mile Run outflow at Duck Hollow, 29 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wednesday’s low was 21°F but today will warm to nearly 60°F. No frost today like the bit shown below from Nov 2021.

Frost on the grass, 4 Nov 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trees are bare now and showing off their silhouettes. Here are three typical sights on the cusp of December.

Bare trees at dusk, Schenley Park, 15 Nov 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

You can identify young American elm trees by their twig arrangement that look like fish skeletons.

Twigs on young American elms look like fish bones, 2 Dec 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

Black locust trees are always gnarly but this one was made worse when it was trimmed away from the utility wires in 2012.

Black locust tree looks twisted after powerline cutback, 28 Jan 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

El Niño Snows in DC But Not Pittsburgh

Snow on sweetgum seed balls, 17 Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

27 November 2023

Last week a friend remarked on the wide variety of winter forecasts being touted for Pittsburgh from “Swamped With Snow” to “No Skis in Our Forecast.” How could the predictions be so different? I think it’s the Beltway effect.

Right now the world is in an El Niño year of warm sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific at the equator and along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru.

Sea surface temperatures during 1997 El Niño (map from Wikimedia Commons)

According to Wikipedia, this warming causes a shift in the atmospheric circulation with rainfall becoming reduced over Indonesia, India and northern Australia, while rainfall and tropical cyclone formation increases over the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño seriously affects South American weather and ripples out to North America as well. The U.S. seasonal outlook, Dec 2023 to Feb 2024, shows higher temperatures in the north and wetter weather in the south this winter.

Seasonal temperature and precipitation outlooks for the U.S., Dec 2023-Feb 2024 (maps from NOAA)

Of course this affects snowfall. El Niño’s winter history in 1959-2023 shows more snow in some places (blue color) and a lot less in others (brown color). Interestingly, Pittsburgh is in the Less Snow category while Washington, DC has More Snow than usual.

Snowfall during all El Niño winters (January-March) compared to the 1991-2020 average (after the long-term trend has been removed). Blue colors show more snow than average; brown shows less snow than average. NOAA map, based on ERA5 data from 1959-2023 analyzed by Michelle L’Heureux.

News organizations have a big presence in the DC Beltway area and write stories for the region. Some weather stories originate there and cross the Appalachians but when the news gets to Pittsburgh it might not apply to us. The typical example is when 2 feet of snow are forecast for D.C. and hardly any falls here. I think of this as the (DC) Beltway news effect.

So when we hear dire predictions for Pittsburgh’s winter this year I plan to wait rather then worry. My guess is that we’re likely to have rain.

Raindrops on twig (photo by Kate St. John)

I sure hope the temperature doesn’t hover near freezing when it rains. Fingers crossed that we’ll be fine.

Glaze ice in Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

Read more about snow and El Niño at NOAA’s S(no)w pain, S(no)w gain: How does El Niño affect snowfall over North America?

Getting Serious About Winter

Gray squirrel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 November 2023

This week is the coldest we’ve had since last March or early April. Squirrels are getting serious about winter in @YardGoneWild‘s North Carolina backyard.

(photo of squirrel in Woodbridge, VA from Wikimedia Commons)

Six Times Larger Than The Moon

Witches Broom within Cygnus Loop Nebula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 November 2023

There’s an object in the sky that we can barely see through a telescope equipped with special filters. Even though it’s faint to us the Hubble Space Telescope assures us this object is six times larger than the moon.

The Cygnus Loop Nebula is the expanding remnant of a supernova explosion that occurred 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. The little we can see of it is beautiful, especially a portion of the veil called the Witches Broom, pictured at top and on the right side of the complete nebula photo below. (The bright star, 52 Cygni, is in both photos.) Click here for a large beautiful photo of the Witches Broom at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Cygnus Loop Nebula, visible light (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There is more to this nebula than meets the eye. In addition to visible light it’s emitting radio waves, infrared, X-rays and ultraviolet. Here it is in the ultraviolet range.

Cygnus Loop Nebula, ultraviolet light (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Since birds can see ultraviolet light the nebula probably looks brighter and better to them.

Side-by-side comparison of Cygnus loop nebula, visible vs ultraviolet light (same photos from Wikimedia)’s video shows the nebula’s size and location in the Cygnus constellation.

video from on YouTube

Six times larger than the moon!

If we could see what birds see, what would that look like? Here’s my best guess, by superimposing the nebula’s UV image next to the moon.

Moon at Thrissur (Wikimedia) + Cygnus Loop Nebula comparison

It’s amazing what we humans are missing.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)