The Seasonal Almanac: Weather Phenomena of Fog and Comet Hale-Bopp

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
"The fog comes on little cat feet."

The Seasonal Almanac shares information on the weather phenomena of fog, and Comet Hale-Bopp.

Fog may not seem like the most dramatic of weather
phenomena to study. But if we think for a second we realize
it is the entire background and setting for many a
drama–certainly in spooky movies but also, and more
important, in real life. It is a setter of mood, stirring
various kinds of pondering in people. Unfortunately, it’s
also a danger. Late summer and early autumn are famous for
those vast and majestic, but terrible beasts, known as
hurricanes. I wonder, however, if more people have not died
in cars on the roads in thick fog than have been killed in
all hurricanes put together. The weather phenomena of fog is beautiful and
evocative, but it is also well to know some things about it
to protect oneself–most notably, of course, when and
where fog is likely to occur.

Actually, there are many
kinds of fog. You can get fog by suddenly adding moisture
to the air (steam fog or frontal fog). But most of us are
more familiar with fog that occurs when air cools rather
rapidly to the “dew point”–the saturation point of
the air. The temperature doesn’t have to drop much after a
heavy rain soaks the ground for fog to materialize (though
often such a rain could be associated with a frontal
passage and brisk wind, which is, of course, fatal to the
formation of fog). On the other hand, in August and
September and for a while into the fall (periodically in
winter), the temperature of a clear calm night may drop
rapidly and enormously–and, if the air is not dry
enough, fog will indeed form.

If the air temperature drops
to a low enough reading, moisture may instead be deposited
as frost. But it is quite possible to have ice
fogs–in fact, they are common in some climates.

By
definition, fog occurs when horizontal visibility is less
than 1 kilometer (0.62 mile) and heavy fog when it is less
than 0.4 kilometer (0.25 mile). According to weather
historian and expert David M. Ludlum, the foggiest place on
the U.S. West Coast is Cape Disappointment, Washington, at
the mouth of the Columbia River. It averages 2,552 hours
(which would add up to 106 complete days) of heavy fog a
year. August and September tend to be the foggiest months
of the year there. Pacific coastal locations may have fog
every morning for long stretches in the summer. It is
surprising that in number of days per year of heavy fog,
San Francisco Airport’s 18 days ranks behind those of San
Diego and Los Angeles, which have 29 and 47 days,
respectively … but surely this is a matter of the precise
locations of the airports.

The windward slopes of mountains
actually produce more frequent fog at some inland locations
than anywhere else. Places in West Virginia experience more
than 100 days a year of heavy fog. On the Atlantic Coast,
the heaviest fog is 1,580 hours a year at Moose Peak
Lighthouse in Maine. Moose Peak Lighthouse is located on
Mistake Island, by the way.

Fog is “nothing but cloud on
the ground.” Nothing but cloud on the ground? But that’s an
amazing concept! And more than one poet, amateur and
professional, has written his or her own re action to it,
if less famous than Carl Sandburg’s:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over the harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

One More Chance to See Comet Hale-Bopp?

Comet Hale-Bopp was all that we could wish for this past
spring. Almost everyone saw it and was thrilled by it. But
it was still shining rather brightly back in May when it
began setting too soon after the sun to see any longer.
Now, in August and September, the comet actually emerges
before morning twilight to provide one last view to folks
in the Northern Hemisphere. It may still be bright enough
to glimpse with the naked eye, but it will probably require
binoculars because it will be quite low in the south. So
your best bet is to get details in a magazine like Sky
& Telescope, or seek out your nearest amateur astronomy
club for help.