And Now, the Weather (On Mars)

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Mars rover engineers have begun publishing regular reports on the red planet's frigid climate, dust devils, and wild winds.

The Spanish scientists behind the rover Curiosity's onboard weather station—the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, or REMS—say they want to keep ordinary folks apprised of what they're learning.

REMS instruments measure surrounding air temperature, ground temperature, wind speed, air pressure, dust levels, and circulation, allowing scientists to develop a pretty good picture of what's going on up there.

Illustration of the Curiosity rover on the Martian surface.

Martian weathermen Jorge Pla-García, Antonio Molina, and Javier Gómez Elvira of the Spanish National Center of Astrobiology analyze the enormous influx of data and translate it into reports that feel both alien and very familiar to readers of the morning newspaper.

Spring, for example, is dust season. "Dust is highly influential in the Martian atmosphere, causing most of its variability," the team writes in their July 2017 report. "The suspended dust particles have a double effect, retaining the infrared radiation coming from the ground but reflexing the incident visible radiation, providing an anti-greenhouse effect in this case. Because of that, nighttime temperature rises, while the daytime temperature decreases."

Weather superfans (we know you're out there) can download the REMS app for regular updates on Martian cloud cover, radiation index, and sunrise and sunset times. The reports offer more in-depth analysis of how these conditions came about and what they can tell us about our dry, chilly cosmic neighbor.

While it may not involve standing in the path of a hurricane, interplanetary weather watching can still be hard on its practitioners.

"We used to be on watch on Martian time," Pla-García told Atlas Obscura. "And a Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes long, so our work schedule was different every day. That included weekends, New Year's Eve, Thanksgiving, you name it."

The team has since transitioned to Earthling time. But that doesn't mean they're loafing on the job.

"We do it because it's the public's right," Pla-García says. "They fund us with their taxes, so they deserve to know what their money is being spent on!"

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Storm Leaves Homes Along Lake Erie Covered in Up To Three Feet of Ice

Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
John Normile/Getty Images

This past weekend, lakeside residents of Hamburg, New York, awoke to find their neighborhood transformed into a full-scale replica of Frozen’s ice-covered kingdom, Arendelle.

According to CNN, gale force winds produced giant waves that sprayed the houses along Lake Erie with sheets of water for two days straight, covering them in layers of ice up to three feet thick.

“It looks fake, it looks surreal,” Hamburg resident Ed Mis told CNN. “It’s dark on the inside of my house. It can be a little eerie, a little frightening.”

While the homeowners are anxious for the ice to melt, they’re also concerned about what could happen when it does.

“We’re worried about the integrity, of structure failure when it starts to melt, because of the weight on the roof,” Mis said.

He added that this is the worst ice coating he’s seen since he moved to the area eight years ago—but it’s not because they’ve had a particularly harsh winter. In fact, just the opposite is true. According to The Detroit News, warm winter temperatures have caused ice cover on the Great Lakes to drop from 67 percent in 2019 to less than 20 percent this year.

“Lake Erie typically has significant ice cover by this time of the year, and that protects the shoreline from these battering storms,” The Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol explained in a video.

The phenomenon has created another unforeseen issue for Hamburg’s coast, too: Tourism. The local police department posted a message on Facebook on Sunday, March 1, asking people to keep off both the “extremely unsafe and unstable” ice and people's private property.

[h/t CNN]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

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