Yellowstone Winter, Part II: Snow and Sun Dogs

Sun Dogs and Halo Over Sepulcher MountainThe author of Skywatch West: The Complete Weather Guide, introduces the chapter on halos and sundogs with a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI, "Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?" Today, I was rewarded for venturing outside in below zero temperatures with the dazzling sight of the three-sun phenomena, called parhelia (Greek for 'beside the sun') or more commonly sundogs.

During my stroll up Old Gardiner Road, I had an excellent view of one of the sundogs over Sepulcher Mountain; the red and bluish light banished the whiteness of cirrus clouds, opening a door into the sky. At one point, it appeared that I could step through that door from the top of Sepulcher into a wondrous universe--and I was tempted to try.

Sun dog in Tuolumne MeadowsIce crystals refracting the sunlight create sun dogs and halos. The two hexagonal crystal types most likely to create these optical phenomena are shaped like six-sided wafers and columnar pencils. Both have eight surfaces capable of refracting light. As depicted in the photo with this entry, sundogs and halos can accompany each other.

Sundogs appear in a diverse cross-section of history and literature, as a entry in Wikipedia demonstrates. Artistole's work mentions "two mock suns," and Cicero's On the Republic examines the parhelion. In The War of the Roses, the appearance of sundogs was viewed as an omen of victory for the Yorkists.

In modern times, sundogs appear in Nabakov's novel, Pale Fire, provides the title for a Stephen King novella and Jack London short story, and even warrant a mention in the rock group Rush's song "Chain Lightning" (band member Neil Peart is a weather fanatic).

Being a dog-lover, I wanted to know the origin of the name and oddly enough most of my weather books remained mute on the topic. But I dug up the answer in my Weatherwise magazine archives (yes, I am that much of a weather geek). In the November 2002 issue, author Stephen Wilk answers the question 'whose dogs are the sun dogs?' in the article "Every Dog Has Its Day." He provides a few explanations, one of them being that the Germanic sky god Odin possessed two hounds/wolves, Geri (Ravener) and Freki (Glutton).

For more information on sun dogs, you can read an excellent description on The Weather Doctor's site.

Sierra Wave Over Half Dome

Sierra Wave Over Half Dome (Shad Stites)Cloud-watching ranks as one of my favorite pastimes. Much like birding has its "life-list" species, cloud gazing also boast some premiere sightings. In my opinion, one of the most spectacular clouds is the Sierra Wave, an enormous lenticular cloud that stretches over the Sierra Nevada Range; it's formed by a complex pattern of the wind interacting with the surrounding terrain.

My partner Shad took a recent photograph of a Sierra Wave over Half Dome in Yosemite. Over seven years ago, Shad and I were hiking on the Kuna Crest in Yosemite when we saw our first wave--although at the time I had no idea what the monster cloud above us represented. Aside from its striking appearance, the cloud possesses a fascinating history that involves the famed explorer Clarence King, the first cooperative international meteorological study, and a record setting ascent in a sailplane. 

Sierra Wave Over Tenaya Lake in 2006Here's an excerpt from an article I wrote about the Sierra Wave:

The sky expresses itself in a poetry of clouds. That poetry resounds with a nautical flavor, for the sky is an ocean of air, an ocean we tend to forget for its invisibility. This sea of air does reveal itself in the clouds at times, its complexities and motions made perceptible. In a sense, clouds are the waves of the air, the visible manifestations of the atmospheric tide.

The Sierra Nevada adds its own special verse to the poetry of the sky. Known as the Sierra Wave, this cloud formation perfectly illustrates the sea above our heads. Imagine staring up at the sky on a clear day and being confronted by a white cloud that challenges the reach of the mountain range before you. Or suppose that you are standing beneath a giant crest of surf on the verge of breaking. Such is the Sierra Wave. "

Clouds always tell a true story, but one which is difficult to read," said meteorologist Ralph Abercromby. The story of the Sierra Wave not only reveals the truth of the weather behind a cloud, but it also discloses a landmark tale of scientific discovery.

Want to read the full story? Visit Sierra Nature Notes. You can also check out some of my old blog entries on the Sierra Wave. Visit the website of the very talented photographer Bob Kolbrener for a spectacular black and white photograph of the cloud.

Yellowstone Winter (Of My Discontent!)

Please Don't Make Me Go Outside!I am quite possibly the only person in the entire Yellowstone area not happy about the recent development in the weather (see below for the horror filled forecast). You can take the girl out of California, but you can't take....

Last week the press coverage centered around how Yellowstone's winter season lacked enough snow in areas for even skiing. Perhaps Mother Nature likes a last minute challenge as this weekend's storm should remedy the situation. Please pay special attention to the windchill forecast for this evening (yes--that's 20 to 30F below zero).

As I write, the temperature outside registers at a balmy 6F compared with the predicted low. Just for fun, I've bundled up in my long underwear and Patagonia parka for a stroll outdoors. Why not? I need to embrace the horror.

Oh, the Weather Outside Is FrightfulWinter Storm Warning
Statement as of 10:54 AM MST on December 13, 2008

...Winter Storm Warning remains in effect until 11 PM MST this evening...

A Winter Storm Warning for heavy snow and blowing snow remains in effect until 11 PM MST this evening.

Snow...blowing snow...and dangerously cold wind chills will occur today through this evening. Snow will continue...heavy at times...through early this evening with total snow accumulations of 4 to 6 inches. However...6 to 11 inches of snow can be expected over and near area mountains. Northerly winds of 15 to 30 mph with gusts to 40 mph today will decrease this evening. The strong winds will combine with the falling snow and snow on the ground to create occasional whiteout conditions with near zero visibility into the evening. With temperatures falling to near zero this afternoon the gusty winds also create wind chills of 20 to 30 degrees below zero by late this afternoon.

A Winter Storm Warning means significant amounts of snow are expected. Strong winds...blowing snow...and bitterly cold conditions will occur as well. This will make travel very hazardous or impossible. Those with vulnerable livestock should take precautions to protect them from the bitter cold.

Snow Gone Wild

My car is slowly being consumed by snow--we're going to attempt to drive back to Yellowstone this afternoon. I regret not bringing my skis as it would be easier to ski than drive through the Beartooths.

The Subaru Gets Buried

Beth's Sense of Snow (She's A California Wimp)

Help! The Snow Is Attacking!Yellowstone and the surrounding area is under siege from winter. The storm attacked last night, banishing 50 and 60 degree pleasant fall weather with billions of white snowflake soldiers. By Sunday, the landscape will be vanquished with up to four feet of white. 

Despite my attempts to surrender and negotiate a few more weeks of fall, the storm continues to assault us. Today, I'm teaching at a conference on green business in Red Lodge, at the center of the battle, and the snow just keeps on falling. Luckily we have plenty of cookies and hot chocolate, so I don't anticipate any Donner-like scenarios.

Old Faithful in Autumn, California Friends, and the Abrupt Arrival of Winter

Tre and Susan, two of my good friends from California, visited me this week in Yellowstone. We enjoyed warm autumn weather for most of their trip, but a storm system is moving into the region tonight. After reading the forecast calling for 6-12 inches of snow, my friends promptly fled south—I had to exercise self-control not to join them. My winter anxiety became heightened since the special weather statement announced, “fall weather is about to come to an end with a sudden switch to winter conditions.”   I guess I’ll pack my shorts away until next July!

Here’s a selection of photos from our travels in the park:

Fall at Old Faithful Basin

Tre & Susan in Yellowstone

Young Elk Calf

Old Faithful

Gibbon Falls

Fall Landscape Near Lower Geyser Basin Tre, Susan and Beth

Rainbow Peak

Rainbow on Shoulder of Mt. Everts My new nickname for Mount Everts is “Rainbow Peak.” After two recent thunderstorms, rainbows have decorated the shoulder of Mount Everts, bathing the hillsides in an ethereal light that resembles the mythologized landscape of an Albert Bierstadt painting. One of the appearances included a primary and secondary rainbow.

Remember the song we learned in grade school: “red, and yellow, and green, and gold....?” According to the book, The Rainbow Bridge, although we recognize discrete bands of color in the bow, the number of actually hues can be indefinite, with shades imperceptible to our sight hiding in between the bands.

Perfect Storms

storm clouds over gardiner.jpg.jpgThe wind wanders restlessly today, and its movement reminds me of the ocean of air above me. Currents and eddies, ripples and waves, swirl overhead, visible only when clouds betray their secret travels.

I’ve been working at my desk today, and enjoying the view of cumulus clouds gathering around Electric Peak, and of the wind rushing through my window, reminding me of the gathering storm outside. I am hoping for a natural firework’s show tonight, nature’s delayed Fourth of July celebration.

Half%20Dome%20Storm.JPG.jpgNothing mesmerizes me as much as watching a thunderstorm. To some, storms are an annoyance, to others a danger—for me I am utterly admiring of such a terrible, beautiful force--as long as I am happily situated in a safe location!

When hiking the John Muir trail, I once got caught at 12,000 feet on Pinchot Pass when an unusual morning thunderstorm suddenly struck. I still remember the crackle in the air, my body hair standing up on end, and my ears ringing from what sounded like gunshots firing next to me. At that point is was all dependent on luck whether or not I survived.

Sheep%20Peak.jpgSome fun lightning facts: Over 8.6 million lightning strikes hit the ground each day (which works out to 100 strikes per second). The temperature of a lighting bolt can also reach a level five times hotter than the surface of the sun. A bolt can also travel up to 7 million mph. All of these speak to the awesome force one witnesses when gazing a thunderheads on the horizon.

One last fun weather fact for the day: Montana holds the US record for weather extremes. The highest temperature in Montana was recorded today in 1937, while in January of 1954 a record 70 below zero registered on the thermometer. The range of 187 degrees between the two extremes is the largest in the United States.

I do not have enough photographic skill to capture lightning (that requires knowledge of foreign concepts like apreture and shutter speed), but I've included photos of some of my favorite storms.

The Rainbow Connection in Yellowstone

rainbow over yellowstone.jpg.jpgTruly a spectacular weather watching evening. A thunderstorm raced into Yellowstone and painted the sky with a spectrum of color. I watched the landscape and sky change from blue to gold to black to pink. And as if the cloud's display of color wasn't enough of a delight, a magnificent rainbow suddenly appeared to complete the scene.

A quote from the excellent book, The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science seems appropriate:

"But why should not the glorious Rainbow be included among the gods? It is beautiful enough, and its marvellous loveliness has given rise to the legend that Iris is the daughter of Thaumas [the Greek god of wonder]. And if the rainbow is a divinity, what will you do about the clouds? Cicero

rainbow over my house.jpg.jpg

Storm Over Electric Peak

storm over electric peak.jpgCumulus clouds have been building almost every afternoon for two weeks near my home, but not until today did I get to watch a true thunderstorm. Electric Peak finally lived up to its name---streaks of lightning danced over the peak amidst a dark grey backdrop of storm clouds.

Last week on a trip to Bozeman I found a treasure in a used bookstore--the book Montana Weather: From 70F Below to 117F Above. For a weather junkie like me, this was a great find. Published in the early 1980s, the book has numerous delightful chapters including: Montana Twister, Surviving West Yellowstone in Winter, and Great Falls' Wonderful, Winterless Winter (where I wish I could relocate after this winter!).

According to the book, "the soldiers who manned old Fort Yellowstone used to say that 'in Yellowstone there are only two seasons, winter and July.'" That's certainly been the case this year!

Transportation Conference in the Grand Tetons

mt moran.jpgThe last two days I’ve been attending a conference on transportation strategies for the Greater Yellowstone area at the Grand Teton Lodge, sponsored by the Yellowstone Business Partnership. The keynote speaker, Todd Litman, provided some inspirational and thought provoking ideas about our perceptions of transportation—he is the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. I attended other interesting sessions on transportation in national parks, “smart streets,” and regional trail networks.

The Grand Tetons lent the conference a spectacular setting. The main room at the Grand Teton Lodge has a breathtaking view of Mount Moran in its enormous floor-to-ceiling window. Moose and grizzly bears often wander on the property. Last night I stood outside of my room and watched the first thunderstorm I have seen since leaving California. Lightning danced on the high peaks and the downdraft from the energetic clouds felt wonderful (and not chilly!) on my face.

Mount Moran, pictured at right, stands 12,605 feet high and was named for the famed landscape artist Thomas Moran.

My Weather Station

I'm now a proud member of the Weather Underground network of personal weather stations. Now I can see just how cold it is outside and share my misery with thousands! When you think of me, you can visit my station and observe the wind speed or dew point at my house. I'm sure you're all just as excited as I am at this new way to stay connected.

Weather Underground PWS KMTGARDI2

Skiing on the Blacktail Plateau Trail

some mountain.jpgYellowstone is truly a cross country skier's paradise. I glided on soft powder from last night's snowstorm while relishing the expansive views of the surrounding basin. I have no idea what peak is pictured at left--my guess from the topo map is Bunsen or Sepulcher.

The clouds rising over the white hills looked like the snow trying to escape into the sky. The rolling terrain appeared endless--the scale of the Yellowstone area is somewhat daunting as Yellowstone is almost three times the size as Yosemite.

fawn.jpgDuring my ski, I waved as I passed several napping bison, and stopped to examine some coyote tracks. The sunshine and blue skies were welcome after the constant snowstorms we've been experiencing. I am also happy to report that after this trip I have officially adjusted to the cold. Even at 18F today, I skied in only my base layer with long underwear, and no hat--and I was hot!

When I arrived home, three mule deer greeted me in my driveway. Apparently the Ungulate Festival has not finished yet.

And here's the sunset over Electric Peak from my front porch tonight.

This Day in Weather History

My 2008 weather calendar has entries for each day with fascinating weather history and ancedotes. Today's was not all that comforting given that I live close to Belgrade, MT!

"February 2, 1996: How cold does it have to get for school to cancel classes? The temperature fell to a record -40F at Belgrade, MT. The extreme cold caused Belgrade schools to cancel classes for the first time in seven years."

Electric Peak

Moon%20Over%20Gardiner.jpgTruly, a beautiful morning. Even in the bitter cold I had to stand outside and admire the full moon gazing out of a purple sky as it gently shone over Gardiner. I even took my gloves off in order to take a photograph.

The wash of blue—the last remenant of dawn—on Electric Peak also captured my attention. Standing 10,969 ft tall, it’s the highest peak in the Gallatain Range and the sixth highest in Yellowstone. I enjoy being greeted by such a striking neighbor every day from my home.

Given my passion for all things weather, the peak’s name has an appropriate backstory. According to author W. Blevins in his book, A Roadside History of Yellowstone Park, the peak was named in 1872 after a team making a geological survey almost died in a lightning storm. Their leader, Henry Gannett, described the incident:

Electric%20Peak.jpg"A thunder-shower was approaching as we neared the summit of the mountain. I was above the others of the party, and, when about fifty feet below the summit, the electric current began to pass through my body. At first I felt nothing, but heard a crackling noise, similar to a rapid discharge of sparks from a friction machine. Immediately after, I began to feel a tingling or prickling sensation in my head and the ends of my fingers, which, as well as the noise, increased rapidly, until, when I reached the top, the noise, which had not changed its character, was deafening, and my hair stood completely on end, while the tingling, pricking sensation was absolutely painful. Taking off my hat partially relieved it. I started down again, and met the others twenty-five or thirty feet below the summit. They were affected similarly, but in a less degree. One of them attempted to go to the top, but had proceeded but a few feet when he received quite a severe shock, which felled him as if he had stumbled. We then returned down the mountain about three hundred feet, and to this point we still heard and felt the electricity."

Summer thunderstorms are going to be quite delightful from my porch.

I am happy to report that today I walked from my office to the IT department across the street without a coat and I did not freeze to death!

P.S. Forgot to post this photo the other day of a bull elk.

California Dreamin' on Such a Winter's Day

Let me share the forecast for Yellowstone:

"Rest of Tonight--Partly cloudy early in the evening then becoming cloudy. A 50 percent chance of snow after midnight. Lows 7 below to 13 below zero. West winds around 15 mph after midnight. Wind chill readings 23 below to 33 below zero."

You read that correctly-33F BELOW ZERO!!!!!!!

This morning my car staged a revolt and made awful noises when I started it. And you know it's really cold when the bison standing in front of the Mammoth Hotel are coated in ice. I almost wept when I unpacked my shorts--I won't be needing them until maybe July.

Zion in a Blizzard!

Storm%20over%20Zion.jpgAs a student of weather, I loved seeing the red rocks of Zion highlighted by dark grey storm clouds and frosted with snowflakes. The blizzard-like conditions, however, were not so delightful for driving. After a serene drive up Zion Canyon under red cliffs with names like The Great White Throne and The Temple of Sinawava, I headed east via the Zion Mount Carmel Highway (through a mile long tunnel) to catch 89 north to begin heading to Salt Lake City.

Snow%20in%20Zion.jpgAbout an hour later, the rain turned to snow and the snow turned into a full-fledged blizzard with white out conditions. When the unplowed snow reached the level of my bumper, I deemed it wise to turn around. I headed south back through Zion and picked up 15 north. Soon the highway became a white vortex and I passed many accidents. Even though the new Subaru handled the conditions admirably, I decided a night at the next exit, in the big metropolis of Cedar City (pop. 27,000), seemed appropriate. IMG_0501.jpg
After checking into the hotel right off the highway, I pondered whether or not to risk the mile drive to the Chili's across the overpass. I decided not to risk my life for an order of enchiladas and hit the hotel vending machine. I am now cozy in my motel room watching movies on TBS. Steel Magnolias just started.

Footnote: Being stranded by a blizzard was worth it--I just got to see Viggo Mortensen and Dennis Kucinich debate Sean Hannity on Fox News.