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Mitch's Blog


Friday, February 24, 2006

Olympics Junkie

Edit: Click here to read an article about the curling team that appeared in last Wednesday's USA Today.

Sadly enough, the one thing that has occupied my life for the last two weeks – the 2006 winter Olympics – will be coming to end on Sunday. I suppose it’s for the better, since I have two major essays that are due in the next couple weeks, but, still, I must admit, I am a big Olympics junkie. Though I tend to prefer the winter sports more, no matter if they’re the summer games or the winter games, I absolutely love watching the Olympics on television.

So, even though I don’t want to make this another “why I love getting the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)” post, I have to say that, when I found out that Grand Forks’ cable system has the CBC, I was very excited precisely because I knew that the CBC (until the Vancouver games in 2010) has the rights to show the Olympics in Canada. It’s not that “the networks of NBC” do a poor job covering the Olympics – in fact, I think that utilizing the sister networks of CNBC, MSNBC, USA, and, during the summer games, Bravo to cover the more obscure sports has been an excellent success. I would imagine that many Olympics enthusiasts like myself absolutely love the hours of extra coverage that these secondary networks provide.

Still, my main qualm with NBC’s Olympic coverage is how ratings and, therefore, profit-driven the primetime coverage is. The primetime Olympics coverage is packaged just like any other ordinary TV show that lives and dies by its ratings. As a result, in order to get as many people to tune in as possible, it seems like NBC turns the Olympics during primetime into too much of an entertainment spectacle rather than the sports spectacle that they should be. Furthermore, in order to keep the advertisers happy by bringing in viewers, NBC has a strict rule of not showing any of the most popular sports (snowboarding, speed skating, bobsleigh [in the winter] and swimming, track & field, gymnastics [in the summer]) live when the Olympics occur in a place with a large time difference compared to the United States. CBC, however, as a partly-public entity, does not need to worry as much about ratings or advertisers. As a result, it has striven to show as many events as possible live as they happen in Turin. Over the last two weeks, I’ve become quite accustomed to getting up a little earlier than usual, as Turin is 7 hours ahead of the central time zone, to catch the live Olympics coverage on CBC. I’ve been able to watch quite a few events that didn’t end up getting shown by NBC until up to 12 hours until they actually happened.

Something to keep in mind is that CBC also runs a primetime show that recaps all of the major happenings of the past day. Unlike NBC, however, which presents the primetime coverage in a “plausibly live" format, CBC lets its viewers know that it is only repeating coverage so that people who couldn’t see it when it happened live (between 3 AM-1 PM CST) have the chance to see it again.

Plus, it’s always good to see something as international as the Olympics from a different perspective. As I’ve picked up from my viewing of CBC since last August, there are some differences between living in a country of 298 million and one of 32 million.

Nevertheless, curling is one of those Olympic sports that even NBC is willing to air live. Actually, there’s no reason not to – MSNBC and CNBC consistently get higher ratings with live curling that they ever would with regular programming. Even so, I became hooked on this sport this year ever since getting up in the morning and seeing the live coverage. After reading all of the rules and regulations of play, I became even more interested in the sport that probably gets the least amount of coverage out of all at the winter games.

My interest in curling peaked once I found out that all 8 people in the men’s and women’s U.S. Olympic curling team are relative “locals.” Both teams play for Bemidji’s curling club, and all but one of the 8 players grew up in northern Minnesota towns like Bemidji, Cass Lake, Duluth, Chisholm, and Virginia. As The Brainerd Dispatch has reported, the skip – or captain – of the men’s team also owns Dave’s Pizza in both Bemidji and Baxter. Even more, one of the other curlers on the men’s team is a current mechanical engineering student here at UND.

I took full advantage of the fact that my roommate is down in Mankato running this weekend to go to bed early on Thursday so that I could get up at 6 AM to watch – live on both MSNBC and CBC – the men’s curling bronze metal game between the United States and Great Britain. Happily enough, the United States ended up winning the bronze by a score of 8 to 6. Here’s an article from the Associated Press that I found on

U.S. men win curling bronze medal

PINEROLO, Italy (AP) – “Pizza Pete” Fenson is bringing home a slice of the Olympics - the first U.S. curling medal ever.

The American men won the bronze by beating Britain 8-6 on Friday in the consolation game, jumping to an early lead and then clinching the victory with a simple draw to the middle of the target in the final end. That put the United States on the medal stand along with more traditional curling powers Finland which won the Torino silver, and Canada, which won its first curling gold.

Fenson, a Minnesota pizzeria owner, broke into a smile and gave a salute with his broom as his last shot settled into the scoring area. But the victory was especially emotional for teammate Shawn Rojeski ; it was the second anniversary of his mother's death.

"I knew it was going to be an extremely difficult day for me today," Rojeski said. "This team is extremely satisfied with the way they played today - and for myself, it's that much of a better moment, for sure."

In addition to being shut out at the three previous Olympics where curling was a medal sport, the American men hadn't medaled at the world championships since 1978.

"Everybody was not expecting us to do well here," Rojeski said. "But we were pretty confident coming in that we could be contenders. We were definitely OK with coming in here and not being the No. 1 favorites."

Britain was shut out of a medal one Olympics after Scottish housewife Rhona Martin threw the "Stone of Destiny" to win the gold medal in Salt Lake City. David Murdoch 's team is also from Scotland, which is considered the birthplace of curling.

"It's massively disappointing," Murdoch said.

With the Americans holding the big last-rock advantage known as the hammer for the final end, or inning, they played defensively and kept the British from building any protection. Murdoch had one rock in the target area, and he put his last rock out front as a guard.

But Fenson had an open draw around the right to get inside of Murdoch's rock and give the U.S. the bronze. The Americans took control with three points in the third end and made it 6-2 with a pair of points in the sixth. But the British rallied with three points in the seventh end when Murdoch knocked out an American rock and left his in the scoring zone, along with two others.

Britain's best chance to win came in the ninth, when it held the big last-rock advantage known as the hammer. But it could only manage one point - essentially holding serve.

The hammer went over to the Americans in the 10th end, and they used it to set up the winning shot. "As soon as that shot stopped," Fenson said of Britain's last rock in the ninth, "I knew I would be drawing for the win. The guys just had to keep it open so I would have a path."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Anyway, in conclusion, the main purpose of this post was to make you aware of the fact that northern Minnesota now has some Olympic medallists in a sport where no American had been able to capture a medal before. If you ask me, that’s pretty exciting.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

February Chill

It’s actually not all that uncommon for a warmer-than-average month to be followed by a colder-than-average month. It’s all part of nature’s way of balancing everything out.

Though February in Minnesota has not been as cold as January was warm, the weather has taken on a more “normal” appearance, drastically differentiating itself from January. In Brainerd, February has had almost exactly normal temperatures.

In Grand Forks’ case, however, February has so far been quite cold; whereas January was 16 degrees above normal, February has so far been 7 degrees below normal. Case in point, the temperatures of the last few days:

Tuesday, February 14 – High 33°F, Low -18°F
Wednesday, February 15 – High 8°F, Low -21°F
Thursday, February 16 – High -5°F, Low -23°F
Friday, February 17 – High -10°F, Low -26°F
Saturday, February 18- High 10°F, Low -20°F

Friday, with its high of -10°F, was by far the coldest day I’ve experienced in Grand Forks since moving here. The cold temperatures were accompanied by very strong winds that produced very cold wind chills – probably some of the coldest I’ve ever been outside in. All through Thursday afternoon and night the winds howled from the northwest at about 20-30 mph. Combined with the air temperatures that were already in the teens below zero, the entire Red River Valley experienced dangerous wind chills in the -40°F to -60°F range. By Friday, the winds had lifted somewhat, but, still, when I went out at 10AM, the air temperature was -21°F, the wind was blowing from the west at 15 mph, and the wind chill was -46°F. It was thrilling for me to finally be able to experience some true North Dakota winter chilliness.

Here are some pictures I took:
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When the coldest of the cold air arrived in Grand Forks, it started to snow and freezig fog began to form. In this picture, the air temperature was -9°F and the wind chill was -38°F.

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With the wind blowing right in my face in this photo, it was a really cold walk back to my dorm. Shortly after I took this photo (with my old camera), the gear to make the lens zoom in and out froze up. I had to wait until it warmed back up to room temperature for it to work correctly again.

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I really like how the matter that comes spewing out of smokestacks looks in really cold weather. Here, you can see the water vapor coming out of the steam plant at 10:30 PM. The air temperature when I took this photo was -16°F; the wind chill was -41°F (or -41°C). Incidentally, after I took this photo, I tried to go into an academic hall next door to warm up. Unfortunately, all of the doors were locked. Even more unfortunate, however, was the fact that I inadvertently took my glove off to open the door and ended up touching a very cold aluminum handle. My fingers immediately became numb, painful, and frozen feeling. I had to rush over to the one place I knew was open – the library – to warm them up. Luckily, it didn’t take all that long for the feeling to return, and I’m pleased to say I didn’t suffer any damage.

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Here is another picture of the cloud of steam, but this time you can see the full moon that was outside at the time. At 11:30 PM when this photo was taken, the air temperature was -18°F, while the wind chill was -44°F.

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The temperature sensor I have outside my window registered -22°F sometime on Friday morning.

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If your window isn't shut during extremely cold weather, the water pipes tend to freeze.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Record January 2006

The NCDC (National Climatic Data Center), the climate monitoring arm of NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), issued its January 2006 weather overview today. To probably no meteorologist’s surprise, January 2006 was the warmest January in the contiguous 48 states since national records began in 1895. To put the incredible warmth of January into perspective, here’s the graphic from the NCDC that shows how January 2006 ranked in comparison to all of the other years on record.

Astonighingly, Florida’s January was the closest to being “normal,” even though it was still the state’s 22nd warmest January in the past 112 years. Also astounding is the fact that 15 states, including Minnesota, reported January 2006 as being the warmest January on record.

So why was this past January so warm? That’s a good question, and, in order to provide the best response, I’ll quote what NOAA’s summary of the NCDC report said:
"The jet stream remained unusually far to the north during January 2006, trapping cold air in Canada and Alaska, while allowing relatively warm Pacific air to influence the temperatures across the contiguous U.S. This led to the nationally warm conditions....However, north of the jet stream, temperatures across Alaska were much-below average. Fairbanks reached a minimum temperature of minus 51 degrees F Jan. 27, with a high of only minus 40 degrees F for that day. The last time the temperature in Fairbanks reached minus 50 degrees F, or below, was in December 1999. The normal minimum for Fairbanks in January is minus 19 degrees F and a normal high is zero degrees F. For the month, Fairbanks had a mean temperature 12.4 degrees F below normal."
You may now be wondering, how does January’s weather in Brainerd, Minnesota connect to all of this? It’s sort of hard to say right now, because the data from the weather reporting station in Brainerd is not made public until a few months after the date it was recorded. Thus, the only temperature data available right now for analysis is that from the automatic sensor at the Brainerd airport. Still, taking a peek at this data, the average temperature in January in Brainerd was 25°F, a whopping 19.7°F above the long-term average. Judging by the fact that January 2006 was likely the warmest January in Minneapolis since 1846, it’s probably safe to assume, since Brainerd was founded in 1871, that January 2006 in Brainerd was the warmest in the town’s history. It’s also probably safe to assume that no other month has deviated from average as much January 2006. Deviations of 10° or more from average tend to be pretty rare and statistically significant, so a deviation of 19.7° is even more anomalous.

I’ll apologize right now if this post has bored you, but, if you didn’t know already, I have a strong interest in the weather. For reasons I can’t really explain, I always have. Still, I also really enjoy chemistry, so that’s why I’m at UND involved in that rather than atmospheric sciences. Even so, I’m going to announce here right now that I’ve made a decision to get involved in UND’s seemingly good atmospheric sciences department (it is connected to the aviation department, after all) and take some courses in the subject next year, when I’ll be able to fit them into my schedule. I haven’t made plans year, but, if I wanted to, I feel that I definitely could strive for a minor in atmospheric sciences. There is such a thing as an atmospheric chemistry field to work in, so getting a major in chemistry with a minor in atmospheric sciences may not be all that bad of an idea.

Getting back to my subject, I think it’s fascinating to look at past weather statistics and see how dynamic and ever-changing weather can be. To that end, I highly prize the efforts that an atmospheric sciences professor at St. Cloud State University has gone though in putting together “The Ultimate Saint Cloud Climate Page.”

For the past two years or so, I’ve been going through the historical data available on the Minnesota Climateology Working Group's website to try to replicate the St. Cloud climate page with one showing roughly the same statistics based on Brainerd’s past weather. With the exception of a list showing all the lows of 32°F or lower as well as a chart showing the average temperatures of every month and year on record, my “Ultimate Brainerd Climate Page” is nearly complete. I was originally going to publish it all as a website, but I’ve held off on it largely because I’m not all that ambitious and I also doubt that many people would find it that interesting anyway.

Nonetheless, I think there’s something to be gained from looking at the data for Brainerd I’ve accumulated and comparing it with the preliminary January 2006 data from the airport in Brainerd. First of all, Brainerd only had 3 days with lows of 0°F or lower this past January. An average January would have 18.5 days of zero-or-below lows. If January 2006 officially ends up having a mere 3 days with lows of 0°F or colder, it will tie January 1931 with having the fewest number of days with lows of 0°F or colder in January.

January 2006 will more than likely help ensure that the winter of 2005-2006 has a very low number of days with lows of zero-or-below. The record for the fewest number of these days in an entire winter is 19, set during the winters of 1930-1931 and 1997-1998. Unofficially, as of February 6, Brainerd has seen only 11 lows of zero-or-below.

It’s just about a given, due to the fact that the arctic air in Canada will continue to get less and less cold as the sun moves higher and becomes stronger, that Brainerd will not see any temperatures of -20°F or lower until the winter of 2006-2007 at the earliest. If there are no lows of -20°F or lower in the next few weeks, the winter of 2005-2006 will tie those of 1930-1931 and 2001-2002 with being the only ones not to have such temperatures. Likewise, if there are no highs of zero-or-below in the next few weeks, the winter of 2005-2006 will be only the 9th since 1898-1899 not to have days meeting this criterion.

Of course, all of this warmth, which is not just confined to the winter of 2005-2006 – the winters of the past 8 years have, by and large, averaged quite a bit above average – brings up the whole topic of global warming. Delving into this subject is outside the scope of this post, but, someday, sometime, I hope to share some insight on it and how it may be affecting the Brainerd area.

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Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001