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Weather Journal: Persistence, not intensity, puts 2020 summer heat on verge of historic streak

A historic streak begins with little fanfare.

Joe DiMaggio bats 1-for-4 in a 13-1 New York Yankees loss to the Chicago White Sox on a Thursday afternoon in 1941.

Similarly, there was no reason to think a 92-degree high temperature on the first day of July was the start of anything that could turn historic for Roanoke weather. Surely, a 93-degree June 23 in 1966 made Roanokers sweat, but didn’t evoke feelings of anything extraordinary starting to happen.

But here we are, with 21 uninterrupted days of 90-plus heat and another day in the 90s forecast on this Wednesday that would tie 1966 for longest unbroken string of high temperatures at or above 90 degrees in Roanoke weather history, dating to the start of official records in 1912.

And Thursday likely breaks the record.

Seemingly, only an early arriving thunderstorm over the official weather sensor at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport, before it can make it to 90 degrees with no recovery back to 90 afterward, can stop the streak from tying or breaking the 1966 record of 22 days.

Just as DiMaggio needed a ninth-inning hit, a favorable ruling on what could have been a third baseman error and a pitcher ignoring a manager’s call to walk him, among other breaks, to keep his hitting streak going to a record 56 games, the current 90-degree streak limped through some days it looked like it would end.

Five of the 21 days made it only to 90 on the button.

Last Thursday, with low clouds blotting out the sun through the morning and showers dotted all around as the temperature crept upward through the 80s, it didn’t appear it would make it. But it squeaked it out.

The 1966 streak was similar, with 13 of its 22 days in the 90-92 range.

This may be why, if you’re an older resident of the Roanoke area, you don’t remember 1966 being especially hot, or if you’re a younger citizen or more recent transplant, you don’t hear exclamations about the heat wave of ’66 the way you would for eight 100-degree days in July 1977 or 105 degrees in August 1983 or the derecho-pocked dozen days of searing heat in 2012.

There have been far more intense heat waves than what we are currently experiencing. But this hot spell is poised to make history for its persistence.

Only one day in the 1966 22-day 90-plus streak made it to 100 degrees — the last one, July 14. The next day actually started its own record streak of 10 days short of 11 years when Roanoke never hit 100 degrees.

Monday’s 100-degree high temperature was Roanoke’s first since July 8, 2012, snapping a run of 8 years and 11 days without a triple-digit temperature. That is actually the third longest such gap between 100-degree days, about three weeks short of a similar stretch from 1999 to 2007.

Roanoke averages a single 100-degree day per year, but it doesn’t really spread out that evenly. We tend to see them in clusters, with four in 2007, two in 2011 and four in 2012, but none since, until Monday.

History leans toward us getting at least one more 100-degree day this summer now that we’ve had one — although, a second 100-degree day never happened in 1966.

Whether or not there is another 100-degree day, or even if the 90-degree streak somehow ends unexpectedly before tying or breaking the 1966 mark, there are other ways the current hot spell can make history.

Through Monday, Roanoke’s average temperature for July, the mean of both lows and highs over the first 20 days of the month, was 81.5 degrees. The warmest July on record was in 2012, at 80.8 degrees. The warmest month at any time of year on record was August 2007 at 82.1 degrees.

The July record looks likely to fall and the August 2007 all-time mark is in play.

Roanoke has only recorded 0.22 inch of rain over the first 21 days of July. Some places in the region have gotten thunderous downpours at times, but those haven’t fallen in the official gauge at the airport.

The first half of 2020 was Roanoke’s rainiest on record with over 35 inches, but this has a shot at being the driest July on record if a quarter-inch of rain doesn’t fall over the last third of the month.

The cause of the hot, dry first three weeks of July is a broad area of high pressure that has expanded through the atmosphere 2 to 6 miles up over much of the central and eastern United States.

Often called a “heat dome,” this is a common feature of a summer weather pattern over North America, its breadth, intensity and location varying from year to year.

Warm air aloft slowly sinks toward the surface under the high pressure, compressing and heating as it does. The sinking air and warm air “capping” convection aloft also discourages the development of widespread rainfall, though some scattered storms do manage to pop up almost daily with heat and humidity trapped underneath.

The problem is that once the heat dome gets locked in place, it’s hard to move, with stagnant midsummer upper-air flow.

There is little evidence in the extended outlook that there will be a major break from this hot weather pattern, although disturbances and cold fronts may chew into it just enough from time to time for increased thunderstorm chances and, occasionally, a brief influx of somewhat cooler, drier air.

This weekend may provide such an opportunity, when highs are expected to fall back nearer to 90 than 100. Daily thunderstorm chances will increase in the days before that.

Climatologists project that the frequency and intensity of extreme heat will continue to increase as carbon dioxide from human industrial activities traps more solar heating in the atmosphere.

Locally, thus far, such warming has not manifested in a dramatic rise in afternoon summer high temperatures, as the sparsity of 100-degree readings in the last three decades partly exemplifies, but overnight low temperatures have noticeably warmed in the summer.

Morning low temperatures have averaged 70.1 degrees over the first 20 days of July at Roanoke. If that average remains above 70, it would be only the third such month, joining July 2012 (70.7) and August 2007 (70.6) with an average daily low temperature 70 or above.

The 10 warmest summers for average low temperature at Roanoke and 15 of the top 20 have happened since 2000.

Global warming has sometimes been compared to steroid use in baseball, meaning that already extreme patterns that develop naturally will be enhanced, just as powerful hitters who can already hammer 50 home runs without steroids hit 70 of them with steroids.

A streak like the current one, however, hinges more on whether a few particular days at one temperature sensor fall out at 89 or 90 than what is happening with continental or global weather patterns.

It’s not how many 450-foot homers he can hit, but whether or not DiMaggio’s blooper falls into the grass in the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox.

Weather Journal appears on Wednesdays.

Photos:100 degree temperatures create a splash along the Roanoke River at Wasena Park

With local COVID-19 testing events open to anyone, questions arise about use of resources

Only 22 of the 508 people tested for the coronavirus during an open event last week at the Salem Civic Center tested positive for the disease, and two already knew they were infected.

“What we see is a lot of what I call the worried well. People who are curious. So is this a good use of resources? I don’t know,” said Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the response to the pandemic for the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts.

A number of similar testing events are scheduled in the coming week. Anyone can drive up and be tested, unlike at other events that required people to be pre-screened and showing symptoms or having had contact with someone known to be infected.

O’Dell said the recommendations as to who should be tested have not changed: people with COVID-19 symptoms, those who have been in contact with someone who tested positive or who live in a setting where people have been exposed.

Community testing can find people who are infected and contagious but who do not have symptoms.

The type of test used, involving swabs, detect only people currently infected. It is not an antibody test that shows past infections.

Also, someone can be exposed to the coronavirus, test negative one day, and develop symptoms the next, because the viral load was too low for the test to register on the day it was administered.

O’Dell said that while other parts of the country are experiencing shortages of tests and seeing long turn-around times stretching to nearly two weeks for results, the local area still has supplies and is benefiting from a lab set up by Virginia Tech.

Still, she is concerned about using resources wisely.

“To me, I know our primary role of containment is disease investigation and contact tracing. We need testing in order to do that,” O’Dell said. “The question is over-testing or testing more than contacts of individuals or symptomatic individuals. I think only time will tell the usefulness of that.”

However, she said, different people learn about the disease in different ways.

“I cannot predict all the various ways the message of COVID is driven home to each individual in our community, and I’m open to doing whatever I can to offer whatever it takes to get people to take it seriously,” she said. “This is a pandemic and we are going to continue to see people get sick. And as you can see already this week, we have more deaths.”

O’Dell reported that 26 people have died so far in her health districts. Another 26 were in the hospital on Tuesday.

Other testing events will be held Thursday at Northside Middle School, July 28 at the Roanoke City Health Department and July 29 at the Craig County Health Center. All of the events are from 5 to 7 p.m.

O’Dell said both of the local health districts are meeting the Virginia Department of Health’s testing goals.

Roanoke’s testing encounters have risen from a couple of hundred a day in May to nearly 1,000 a day last week, according to the department’s website.

But so, too, has the percentage of positive test results risen. About 7% of tests in the city come back positive. The rate was less than 5% until mid-June, when Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, vacationers brought the virus home with them, causing a spike in cases.

In the Alleghany District, which includes Salem and the counties of Roanoke, Botetourt, Craig and Alleghany, testing encounters average about 300 a day with a 6.4% positivity rate.

Statewide, about 14,000 tests a day are given with a 7.7% positivity rate. Both testing encounters and the rate of positivity have been increasing since restrictions were lifted July 1 to allow larger indoor gatherings.

The Virginia Department of Health’s Central Office Testing Team has coordinated testing for some outbreaks, hosted community events and conducted point prevalence surveys for long-term care.

The department provided data for some of the events that were held in Virginia between May 1 and July 15.

During community testing events that were open to anyone, more than 20,000 tests were given at 113 events. From those, 2,370 people, or 11.8%, tested positive.

Testing events at 13 businesses that were experiencing outbreaks had the highest percent positivity. Of 345 people tested, 55, or nearly 16%, tested positive.

Widespread testing at correctional facilities, where more than 8,800 inmates and staff were tested at 15 facilities, returned just two positive cases.

The team has also conducted 183 events at long-term care facilities, testing 34,117 residents and staff, with 647, or almost 2%, testing positive.

These include baseline surveys that are required in order for the facilities to begin opening up.

Federal agents, local streets: A 'red flag' in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. — Federal officers’ actions at protests in Oregon’s largest city, hailed by President Donald Trump but done without local consent, are raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis — one that could escalate as weeks of demonstrations find renewed focus in clashes with camouflaged, unidentified agents outside Portland’s U.S. courthouse.

Demonstrators crowded in front of the U.S. federal courthouse and the city’s Justice Center late Monday night, before authorities cleared them out as the loud sound and light of flash bang grenades filled the sky.

State and local authorities, who didn’t ask for federal help, are awaiting a ruling in a lawsuit filed late last week. State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in court papers that masked federal officers have arrested people on the street, far from the courthouse, with no probable cause and whisked them away in unmarked cars.

Trump says he plans to send federal agents to other cities, too.

“We’re going to have more federal law enforcement, that I can tell you,” Trump said Monday. “In Portland, they’ve done a fantastic job. They’ve been there three days, and they really have done a fantastic job in a very short period of time.”

Constitutional law experts said federal officers’ actions in the progressive city are a “red flag” in what could become a test case of states’ rights as the Trump administration expands federal policing.

“The idea that there’s a threat to a federal courthouse and the federal authorities are going to swoop in and do whatever they want to do without any cooperation and coordination with state and local authorities is extraordinary outside the context of a civil war,” said Michael Dorf, a professor of constitutional law at Cornell University.

“It is a standard move of authoritarians to use the pretext of quelling violence to bring in force, thereby prompting a violent response and then bootstrapping the initial use of force in the first place,” Dorf said.

Homeland Security was planning to deploy about 150 of its agents to Chicago, according to an official with direct knowledge of the plans who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

They were expected to stay in Chicago at least two months and could be deployed to other locations at some point, the official said. Homeland Security said in a statement that the department does not comment on “allegedly leaked operations.”

The ACLU of Oregon has sued in federal court over the agents’ presence in Portland, and the organization’s Chicago branch said it would similarly oppose a federal presence.

“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said on Twitter. “We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the President of the United States.”

The Department of Homeland Security tweeted that federal agents were barricaded in Portland’s U.S. courthouse at one point and had lasers pointed at their eyes in an attempt to blind them.

“Portland is rife with violent anarchists assaulting federal officers and federal buildings,” the tweet said. “This isn’t a peaceful crowd. These are federal crimes.”

Top leaders in the U.S. House said Sunday that they were “alarmed” by the Trump administration’s tactics in Portland and other cities. They have called on federal inspectors general to investigate.

Trump, who’s called the protesters “anarchists and agitators,” said the DHS and Justice Department agents are on hand to restore order at the courthouse and help Portland.

Nightly protests, which began after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, have devolved into violence.

The Trump administration’s actions run counter to the usual philosophies of American conservatives, who typically treat state and local rights with great sanctity and have long been deeply wary of the federal government — particularly its armed agents — interceding in most situations.

But Trump has shown that his actions don’t always reflect traditional conservatism — particularly when politics, and in this case an impending election, are in play.

One prominent Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is from the libertarian-leaning flank of the party, criticized federal policing.

“We cannot give up liberty for security. Local law enforcement can and should be handling these situations in our cities but there is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will,” Paul said in a tweet Monday.

The protests have roiled Portland for 52 nights. Many rallies have attracted thousands and been largely peaceful. But smaller groups of up to several hundred people have focused on federal property and local law enforcement buildings, at times setting fires to police precincts, smashing windows and clashing violently with local police.

Portland police used tear gas on multiple occasions until a federal court order banned its officers from doing so without declaring a riot. Now, concern is growing that the tear gas is being used against demonstrators by federal officers instead.

Anger at the federal presence escalated on July 11, when a protester was hospitalized with critical injuries after a U.S. Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a less-lethal round. Video shows the man, identified as Donavan LaBella, standing across the street from the officers holding a speaker over his head when he was hit.

Court documents filed in cases against protesters show that federal officers have posted lookouts on the upper stories of the courthouse and have plainclothes officers circulating in the crowd. Court papers in a federal case against a man accused of shining a laser in the eyes of Federal Protective Service agents show that Portland police turned him over to U.S. authorities after federal officers identified him.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has been under fire for his handling of the protests, said on national TV talk shows Sunday that the demonstrations were dwindling before federal officers engaged.

“They are sharply escalating the situation. Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism. And it’s not helping the situation at all,” Wheeler said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“They’re not wanted here. We haven’t asked them here,” Wheeler said. “In fact, we want them to leave.”

Indeed, crowds of demonstrators had begun to dwindle a week ago, and some in the liberal city — including Black community leaders — had begun to call for the nightly demonstrations to end.

But by the weekend, the presence of federal troops and Trump’s repeated references to Portland as a hotbed of “anarchists” seemed to give a new life to the protests and attract a broader base.

On Sunday night, a crowd estimated at more than 500 people gathered outside the courthouse, including dozens of self-described “moms” who linked arms in front of a chain-link fence outside the courthouse. The demonstration continued into Monday morning.

“It seems clear that there were at least some federal crimes committed here,” said Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas. “But the notion that a handful of federal crimes justifies a substantial deployment of federal law enforcement officers … to show force on the streets is, to my mind, unprecedented.”

“Federal law enforcement,” Vladeck said, “is not a political prop.”

Going in the water again: 'Jaws' boat clone supports sharks

The Orca is headed back to the waters of New England, but this time, its mission isn’t to hunt sharks. It’s to help save them.

A group of ocean advocates and movie buffs is turning an old lobster fishing vessel into a replica of the Orca, the boat captained by the grizzled shark hunter Quint in “Jaws.” The work is taking place on Martha’s Vineyard, where Steven Spielberg shot the blockbuster movie in the 1970s.

The occasion doesn’t call for a bigger boat so much as one with a different purpose, said Vineyard native David Bigelow, who acquired the craft and is heading up the project. When finished, he said, Orca III will be used as an educational tool to help the public understand sharks and as a research vessel for scientists.

The project is dear to the heart of Bigelow, who appeared as an extra in “Jaws,” and to that of his drama teacher Lee Fierro, who played the mother of a shark attack victim. Reports of shark sightings on some New England beaches in recent years moved him to take on the project.

“The need to educate people about the new ecosystem we’re living in, because of climate change and the seal population, is probably our only defense,” Bigelow said, citing two possible drivers of increased shark sightings. “We have basically taken on this role where the boat is going to be used for education.”

Bigelow said that he believes the retrofitting work can be completed by this fall and that the boat can start helping people study sharks by next spring.

The boat will be called Orca III because there were actually two vessels in “Jaws”: Orca, seen in much of the film, and Orca II, a prop vessel.

Others working to bring back the Orca have a connection to “Jaws,” too. Joe Alves was production designer on the movie, and Chris Crawford retrofitted a boat called Warlock into the original Orca in 1974.

The conservation group Beneath The Waves has signed on to use the new Orca on expeditions.

The group’s board of directors includes Wendy Benchley, widow of Peter Benchley, who wrote the 1974 novel on which the 1975 movie is based.

“The return of the Orca is a celebration for the fans of ‘Jaws,’ as well as an exciting new resource in the pursuit of a greater understanding about our oceans and the life teeming in it,” she said.