Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Heating Season Temperature Data and a Couple More Charts

A few weeks ago, we shared the data that indicated our winter temperatures were about as close to average as possible this year.  As we look at the entire heating season, the data looks a bit different.  If these charts look unfamiliar, see the footnote at the bottom of this post for an explanation of the data presented in the charts.

The entire season can be summarized by the position of the red curve at the right side of the chart, where it's apparent that over the entire season our daily average temperatures were considerably warmer than normal.  We accumulated 361 degrees of daily deviation above the average, which means each of the 244 days of our heating season (yep, that's about 8 months!), averaged about 1.5 degrees warmer than normal.

An interesting phenomenon to note is that in early March our heating season was close to the historical norm.  Predominately warmer than normal temperatures since early March have produced our entire cumulative deviation from normal, indicating that the 78 final days of the season averaged over 4.6 degrees warmer than the historical norm.

Recently it occurred to me that all our readers may not have gleaned all the information these temperature charts can communicate, so I present the next chart as an educational tool.

I include the red cumulative deviation curve on these temperature charts for two main reasons: (1) the ability to determine how the data as a cumulative total compares to historical norms, and (2) to recognize trends in the temperature data that may not be easily apparent in the blue daily deviation bars.  On this chart I've added red (warmer) and blue (colder) arrows to illustrate the trends indicated by the red curve (feel free to click the chart for an enlarged view).  In case you hadn't noticed, when the red curve slopes up from left to right, that indicates that the daily deviations from normal have been predominately warmer than average.  Likewise, when the curve slopes down from left to right, colder deviations have predominated.  One can easily recognize at least seven extended temperature trends through the last heating season: four when warmer temperatures prevailed, and three when the daily averages below normal outweighed those above normal.

Since temperatures that were near normal would present a red curve that was roughly flat from left to right, I found it interesting that we seldom observe that characteristic in our temperature data.  Instead, it seems our temperatures are either well above normal or well below normal, leaving very few "normal" days!  This lead me to conjecture that a histogram of the daily temperature deviations for an entire year might look different than the normal distribution, or "bell curve" that one might expect.

To my surprise, the histogram showed our weather to be a lot more "normal" than I expected.  A histogram is a chart in which each bar represents the number of times (or frequency) that a certain temperature deviation was attained.  In the chart above, each bar actually represents a range of temperatures three degrees wide.  For instance, the short bar at the far right indicates that there was one day in which the deviation from average was greater than 21 degrees, but less than or equal to 24 degrees.  The next bar to the left shows five days in which the deviation from average was greater than 18 degrees, but less than or equal to 21 degrees, and so on.  As expected, there aren't many instances at the extreme temperature deviations represented, but there are quite a few days in which the average temperature was very close to the historical average.

The most populated group is that in which the average temperature was the same as the historical average or one or two degrees colder.  The number of days in 2014 when the mean temperature was within 5 degrees colder to 6 degrees warmer than the historical average was 182, just shy of half of the days of the year.  Since 2014 ended a little colder than normal, it might be surprising that 168 days were colder than the historical average, while 179 were warmer, and 18 days matched the historical mean.

Footnote: The blue bars in the upper two charts represent the daily temperature deviation from the historical average for Central Illinois as measured at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport.  Since each day has a historical average high and low temperature, the average of the high and low represents the historical daily average or mean.  The average of the actual high and low temperature represents the actual mean, and the difference between the historical mean and the actual mean represents the daily temperature deviation.  On these charts, all temperatures are shown in degrees Fahrenheit.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- week 2

May 17

The plants sprouted to a height of about 5.5 inches for our second measurement which is about average by our experience, and the green covering of the field was noticeably thicker.  We had over 38% more growing degree days than the historical average for the seven days prior to these photos, which extended the warmer-than-normal trend started the week before.  After 11 days of growth above ground, the crop appeared to be making good use of the excellent conditions.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

This looks promising...

I don't want to count my cherries before they ripen, but our little tree appears to be ready to bear another large crop this year. Like any crop, lots of things can happen before harvest, but our biggest concern now is probably wind or pests. We've seen previous crops survive freezing weather without much damage at this stage, and the closer we get to summer the smaller our chances of another freeze.

We were blessed with a beautiful show of blossoms about a month ago, which was our first indication that we may get a good crop this year. Less than a week after this photo was taken on April 18, however, we had a couple of consecutive nights in which our thermometer recorded temperatures below freezing. The blossoms wilted and disappeared within a few days, but it wasn't obvious to me at the time whether the flowers were frozen before they were pollinated, or whether they faded because they had been pollinated. Within a couple of weeks the fruit was visible thanks to the diligent work of the bees in the neighborhood, and most of it appears to be faring well.

We'll continue to watch the tree, pray for good fruit ripening weather, and will try to report back here when harvest begins.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- week 1

May 10

We noticed evidence of planting in the field behind our house on April 28 this year, and by May 6 the first of the plants were emerging from the soil.  That's not the earliest emergence we've seen here, but it comes pretty close.  Although the temperatures were near nomal around the end of April, warmer weather in the early half of the month had evidently warmed the soil enough to make planting viable by the 28th.  The plants shown above measured 2.5" tall by May 10 when these pictures were taken, and since we've enjoyed plentiful rain this spring, I suspect they'll get a good start.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Farewell, Old Spruce

Our observant readers probably noticed something unusual in the photo accompanying the last post. As is my custom after the first mowing, I included a photo of our yard that showed an empty spot where we used to have a spruce tree. I had to make the painful decision recently to remove that tree, and I hope my experience can help someone else avoid the loss we've endured.

About a year ago I noticed some brown spots on a few branches of the tree, but since they were high in the crown and limited in number I didn't give them much thought. The brown sections grew in size and number over the next few weeks, prompting me to investigate more closely. Although the image below was taken this spring, the general appearance of the tree approximates what I observed early last summer.
On closer observation I found small clusters of dead needles hanging from the defoliated branches. The needles were held together by silky thread surrounding a small, black worm that would actually navigate a tree branch collecting needles for its cocoon. One could detach these worms from the tree with a slight pull near the base of the cocoon, so I spent most of one afternoon pulling worms off my tree. Unfortunately, many branches had already been defoliated, and although I removed hundreds of worms, there were still hundreds (if not thousands) of worms remaining, destroying more needles every day.

A little online research identified the pests as a bagworm that feeds on both evergreens and deciduous trees, but since spruce trees don't regenerate their needles, the damage to conifers is more noticeable than when these pests attack deciduous trees. My only consolation was the fact that the worms finished stripping branches by mid summer. The males emerge from the cocoons in a few weeks as a moth to fertilize the females that remain in their cocoons, and the fertilized eggs remain in the cocoon until late spring the next year.

This image from a few weeks ago shows several cocoons that had remained intact through the winter, some of which may have contained eggs ready to hatch into thousands of worms this spring. I removed a few hundred of these nests before I gave up. The tree was already badly damaged, especially in the crown, and if only one nest remained unpicked, I would have hundreds of worms to deal with by early summer. Since I have another spruce about 50 feet from this one from which I've already removed a handful of cocoons, I decided to destroy the damaged tree in an attempt to arrest the spread of the bagworms.

Even though I felt my options were severely limited, the decision was still hard. I considered the tree an exemplary specimen of its genus, and enjoyed watching it grow larger each year. The image above from December 2013 shows the beauty of both the tree and the snow, in my opinion. Ironically, there were obviously bagworm cocoons in the tree when this picture was taken, since the worms showed up just a few months later. That winter was also the coldest we've had here in recent memory, which doesn't offer much hope that cold weather might kill off the bagworms.

I vaguely recall seeing a few cocoons on this tree in 2013, but they didn't excite enough curiosity in me to cause me to investigate. Now that I recognize bagworm cocoons, I won't delay in acting in the future. Hopefully others will learn from my experience and will save their trees before it's too late.

Monday, April 20, 2015

First mowing of 2015

Spring growth was pretty minimal this year until about a week ago. Suddenly, trees are flowering, budding, or leafing out, and the grass is not only green, but long enough to cut. Although the yard could have waited a few more days for the first cutting, the weather on April 18 was well suited to mowing. It was evidently well suited to farming also as farmer neighbors in the two fields adjacent to our property were both out working, one planting corn in the field to the north, and the other performing a second fine tilling operation in preparation for planting in the field to the west. Although I'd seen tilling in other fields in the area earlier in the season, I hadn't noticed much planting until the 18th.

Time will tell how many more times we'll mow before the season is over, and I'm sure I'll tire of the experience at least once before next winter, but for now I'm glad to see green growth again!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Central Illinois Winter Temperature Summary, 2014-2015

Now that winter is officially finished, we can look back at the temperature data and compare reality to what we remembered. I think everyone here in Central Illinois perceived our latest winter to be warmer than the one before it, but prolonged cold (and warm) spells have a way of making comparisons difficult from year to year. The data is presented again this year in the form of combined bar and line charts. The blue bars represent the deviation of the daily mean temperature from the historical average where each bar represents one day. The red curve represents the cumulative deviation from the historical average, and indicates whether the season as a whole was colder or warmer than what we'd typically expect.

The first observation I'd like to bring to your attention is the value of the red curve at the right side of the chart. Including data from March 20, the cumulative deviation from average was -3 degrees. That's almost as close to "normal" as one can get. That means, on average, the daily mean temperature was about 0.03°F colder than the historical average each day. That's a temperature difference most of us can't perceive. It's also probably a smaller number than the error in the measuring equipment at the National Weather Service in Peoria, not to mention the fact that the daily mean temperatures I use are reported as integers that have already been rounded a fraction of a degree each day.

It's also interesting to note that the winter as a whole was warmer than normal until the last week of February, indicated by the red curve crossing the x-axis into negative territory on February 26. February 27 added momentum to that move by recording the largest deviation from average of 28 degrees F below the historical mean. The deviation of 23 degrees F above normal on March 23 recorded the largest deviation on the warm side.

By comparison, we can look again at the data from the winter of 2013-2014 and notice that the cumulative temperature that winter was above normal only a few days all season. I think most of us are happy not to repeat those temperatures this year.

To illustrate just how unusual our temperatures were last winter, I've plotted the cumulative deviation curves for both winters on the same scale on this chart. In both cases, February contributed the largest cumulative degrees below normal, but this year a significant warming trend began on March 7 that carried through the end of the season. Another significant difference this winter was the 18 consecutive days of warmer than normal temperatures beginning on January 15. Those days averaged 10.5 degrees above normal and contributed greatly to counteracting the colder than normal periods.

Since our historical mean temperatures are still low enough to expect heating degree days this time of year, we are technically still in our heating season. We'll continue to compile data to see whether this heating season as a whole was warmer or colder than average.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Maple Sap Harvesting

Our neighbors had good success last winter harvesting maple sap and converting that to syrup, so we all anticipated the products of this year's harvest. Even though the trees were tapped a week earlier than last year, the weather this year has not been as ideal for producing lots of sap.

The sap flows best when nighttime temperatures are well below freezing, and daytime temps are well above freezing, preferably with some sunshine thrown in. Prior to March 6, the temperatures tended to be too cold, but the forecast for that day and those following looked promising enough to put Philip and his sidekick Josh into action. I didn't see Josh helping with the tapping last year, so I presume he was in training when they stopped by our house this year. In this shot it appears I distracted Josh from his responsibilities.

With all three of our trees tapped, the guys were ready to move on to the next target.

Unfortunately, the weather has tended to be too warm most of the nights over the last two weeks, so the sap hasn't been flowing as well as it did last year. This picture shows the first 24 hours of production on one of our trees that had two taps running into this container. The low temperature that first night was 29°F while the high the next day was 51°F. There appears to be a little less than a gallon in this jug since I think the container holds about 5 gallons when full.

After 48 hours the container appears to be over half full. The low hit 27°F the night before, and 51°F again during the day, so conditions were sufficient to keep a decent flow of sap moving.

We've had a few good days since, but more poor days than good ones so far. It appears that the sap production may be lower than last year's harvest, which means the syrup may be in shorter supply. Our neighbors have boiled down a couple of batches of sap in the last two weeks, producing about 9 gallons of syrup which is a far cry from last year's total.  Although the near term forecast doesn't look ideal, the maple syrup season may not be done yet!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Happy Pi Day 2015!

Once every century our calendar and clocks order themselves in such a way to duplicate more than just a few digits of pi (the number representing the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter). Using American dating format, today's date is 3-14-15 which is the first four digits (not including the 3 on the left side of the decimal), and only occurs every 100 years. If one includes the time of day, we could represent 9:26:53 which would give us another 5 digits.  Since seconds can be represented with fractional parts, we could technically represent an infinite number of pi digits: 3-14-15 9:26:53.589793238462643383... I think you get the idea.  We'll stop at nine digits today and be happy with that.

To celebrate, we ate three pies for supper this evening as shown in the photos below. 

The overview of the table before we began this evening.  Not visible in this view is the bunting that crossed the room five times. It added an air of festivity to the celebration, but alas, it wasn't directly related to the number pi.

Our first course was this Chile Chicken Potato Pi decorated with the first 15 digits of pi on little banners around the rim of the pedestal supporting the pi. This was our first try for this recipe, which received thumbs up from the family and will be repeated again some day!

The first dessert course was this Chocoroon Pi that is a family favorite.

Costco provided the second dessert course with their jumbo Apple Pi. We had one of these a few months ago, and found it to be one of the best apple pies we've ever tasted, hence it's appearance on our table again tonight. At 75 ounces, this monster would challenge any contestant at a pie eating contest!

As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that there was one moment in history when the date and time matched pi even better than today: March 14, 1592, at 6:53:58. I guess we'll have to content ourselves with the second most significant celebration of Pi Day.

I'm also aware that some guides to the Greek language suggest pi should be pronounced "pee." When considering celebrating this important number, I'd rather trust the common modern pronunciation than spend more than a few seconds contemplating celebrating per the other pronunciation.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas: A Beautiful Saturday

Our first full day in town on this trip included delightful weather which was about 15 degrees F warmer than average for December 27, and gloriously sunny.  Not surprising then that the crowds in the Historic District were the largest we've ever seen here any time of year.  Combine beautiful weather with the weekend between Christmas and New Years and festive decorations around Colonial Williamsburg, and it's not difficult to understand why others would want to be there with us.

 The decorations around CW are different at each building (as far as we could tell), and usually consisted of a wreath or similar arrangement of natural materials, often including food. Here's an example on one door whose peacock feathers caught our eyes.

Although Bassett Hall is a modest home from the Rockefeller's perspective, I think the main entrance has some elegance and is enhanced by these holiday decorations.

A closer view of one of the arrangements next to the door...

... and a closer shot of the wreath above the door.

This arrangement graced the entrance to one of the taverns.  Apples seemed common to many of the decorations, and often included apples of different colors like in this example.

Finally, lest you doubt the beauty of the weather, I include this shot of the girls approaching Bassett Hall -- beautiful enough to almost make you wish you lived there.