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Tornadoes can form anytime of year, but occur most frequently in April, May, and June, due to favorable weather conditions. Earlier this week a massive 200-mile-per-hour EF5 tornado hit Moore, Okla., killing some two dozen people, damaging thousands of structures, and causing an estimated $2 billion in damage. This year, twisters have already touched down in Kansas, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, and Alabama. ( 46 photos total)
A woman carries a child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., on May 20. A tornado as much as half a mile wide with winds up to 200 mph roared through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday, flattening entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct blow on an elementary school. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)     

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WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
International pressure mounted on the Assad regime in Syria following a massacre of 108 people, nearly half of them children, in the Houla region. Olympic hopefuls trained for the London Games in far flung locations and Joplin, Missouri, marked one year since tornadoes ripped through the area.

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Over the course of five days last week, more than 150 tornadoes were reported across a dozen states. Belonging to two separate weather systems, they left enormous trails of wreckage strewn across the southern United States and Ohio River Valley and took the lives of 39 people. At least two of the tornadoes were given the severe rating of EF4, with sustained winds of between 267 and 322 kph (166 - 200 mph). Many residents have now returned to their damaged farms and neighborhoods to search for items that may have survived the storms, assess the damage, and plan their next steps. The images gathered here show the ferocity of these forces of nature and the fragility of even the strongest man-made structures. [39 photos]

Greg Cook hugs his dog Coco after finding her inside his destroyed home in the East Limestone, Alabama, on Friday, March 2, 2012. (AP Photo/The Decatur Daily, Gary Cosby Jr.)

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Powerful storms leveled two small towns in southern Indiana, transforming entire blocks of homes into piles of debris, tossing school buses into a home and a restaurant and causing destruction so severe it was difficult to tell what was once there. As night fell, dazed residents shuffled through town, some looking for relatives, while rescue [...]

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Before the Lights Go Out
is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order now. (E-book pre-orders coming soon!) Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

Steve_Saus submitterated this video that combines 14 years of weather radar images with a soothing piano concerto. It's a neat thing to watch a couple minutes of (though I'm not sure I needed to sit around for all 33 minutes of the video). It also reminded me of something really interesting that I learned about U.S. weather patterns and alternative energy.

Weather data, like the kind visualized here, can be collected, analyzed, and turned into algorithms that show us, in increasingly granular detail, what we can expect the weather to do in a specific part of the United States. Today, you can even break this information down to show what happens in one small part of a state compared to another small part. And that's important. As we increase our reliance on sources of energy that are based on weather patterns, this kind of information will become crucial to not only predicting how much power we can expect to get from a given wind farm, but also in deciding where to build that wind farm in the first place.

Take Texas as an example, which has the most installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. That's great. Unfortunately, most of those wind farms are built in places where we can't use the full benefit of that wind power, because the wind peaks at night—just as electricity demand hits its low point. A simple change in location would make each wind turbine more useful, and make it a better investment.

It works like this ...

Wind patterns vary a lot from place to place and season to season, says Greg Polous, Ph.D., a meteorologist and director of V-Bar, LLC, a company that consults with energy companies about trends in wind patterns. In general, though, wind farms from Texas to North Dakota are subject to something called the Great Plains Low Level Jet.

This phenomenon happens because said Plains are flat. There's very few geographic features out there to impede the strong winds that blow through the region. During the day, heat rising off the ground causes turbulence and friction in the atmosphere above the Plains, slowing the wind down somewhat. But at night, that turbulence disappears, and the wind accelerates.

There are exceptions to this rule, however, and they are really interesting. If you build a wind farm out in far West Texas, you have to deal with the Great Plains Low Level Jet—hitting the peak in wind power and potential electric production at the same time the grid hits its nadir in electric demand. That's no good, because there's no storage on the electric grid. All that potential electric power the turbines could be producing at night simply goes to waste if nobody wants it.

But, if you build your wind farm on Texas' Gulf Coast, you don't have that problem. Instead, a coastal turbine would be subject to the Sea Breeze Effect, caused by differences in temperature between the air above the water and the air above the land. In those places, wind power—and electric generation—actually peaks on summer afternoons, right when demand for electricity is peaking, too.

Today, oil and gas companies spend a lot of time and money prospecting for new reserves of fuel. In the future, we'll prospect for wind and solar, too, using weather pattern data to spot the best sites where we get the most energy bang for our infrastructure buck.

Image: Mystery Photo, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from randa's photostream

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Shannan Bowen / Wilmington Star-News via AP

A funnel cloud in Wilmington, N.C., on Thursday, Aug. 18. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Southern New Hanover County until 11 a.m. The Weather Service also confirmed that there are numerous water spouts off the coast of Southeastern North Carolina. The Carolina Beach Police Department has reported that two water spouts came in and touched the ground in the Alabama Avenue vicinity.

See more weather-realted images on PhotoBlog here.

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