Local Storms, International Headaches

January 10, 2011 · 0 comments

With most of us focusing so much on the weather in our hometown, it can be easy to forget that a local weather event can exert global influence. But given recent events in New York City and Panama, it appears that Mother Nature has been trying to reinforce that point.

The post-Christmas snowstorm that hammered much of the eastern United States produced chaos for travelers in a number of states, but it was the 20 inches that fell in New York City that had the farthest reaching impact. The closure of all three NYC metro airports caused a ripple effect that spread across the country and throughout other parts of the world. Not only were throngs of holiday travelers stranded at terminals in New York, but more than 5,000 domestic flights–as well as many in other countries–were canceled and countless more were backed up for days while waiting for LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark airports to get up and running. So, for example, more than 200 flights were canceled at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports solely because of the East Coast snow, disrupting the plans of thousands of travelers even though the blizzard was hundreds of miles to the east.

(Aside 1: What could be a better use of your time when stuck in a snowstorm than this cool time-lapse video shot during the blizzard in the New Jersey shore town of Belmar…)

(Aside 2: There’s that old meteorologists’ adage, “Nobody lives at the Airport”, which happens to be the title of Larry Heitkemper’s presentation at our Seattle meeting, Wednesday 26 January. Heitkemper discusses how to transform official airport observations into data relevant to energy demand where people actually live; apparently, however, when blizzards strike far too many people really do live at the airport.)

Meanwhile, heavy rains last month in Panama forced the Panama Canal to close for just the third time in its 96-year history. Torrential rainfall inundated parts of Central and South America throughout November and early December.  Two artificial lakes (Gatun and Alhajuela) in Panama that flow into the canal rose to record-high levels, forcing the canal to close for 17 hours so that one of the lakes could be drained. While the closing was short-lived, the global effects were still significant. About 5% of all international trade utilizes the canal, with approximately 40 ships winding through its 48 miles each day. While sections of the canal have been blocked at times, it was the first time the entire canal was closed since the United States invaded Panama in 1989. The only other closures were caused by landslides in 1915 and 1916, not long after it first opened.