Error Prompts Question: How Cold Can it Get?

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Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service predicted weekend low temperature for the San Jose area of minus 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The forecast is a computer error, and the temperature is physically impossible. But what would those sorts of temperature mean?


Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we don't normally tell you about local weather. But today we came across one extraordinary forecast. According to the National Weather Service Web page, the weather in San Jose, California, this coming weekend look to be, let's say, inclement - a bone chilling negative 30,000 Fahrenheit.

And combine that with a 30,000 percent chance of precipitation. It sounded like a weekend south of the San Francisco Bay when you'd be better off staying indoors. We spoke with the forecaster at the National Weather Service office who assured us that this was not the actual forecast for this weekend. He chocked the error up to a computer glitch during the graveyard shift. But we couldn't help but wonder, what would weather like that mean for the San Jose area?

Well, Alison Bridger is chair of the meteorology department at San Jose State University.

ALISON BRIDGER: The coldest temperature in San Jose I've seen is about 17 Fahrenheit.

SIEGEL: She told us that the temperature anywhere near 30,000 below zero, would obviously be record breaking, but there wouldn't be anyone around to record the record.

BRIDGER: We'd be unconscious and dead long before it got that cold. I shutter to think. I mean, everything would freeze up obviously, and the atmosphere would condense out. There'd be nothing to breathe.

SIEGEL: Alison Bridger said the actual weather right now in San Jose isn't a picnic either.

BRIDGER: The big event that's going on tonight is the high winds that we've experiencing and various pieces of garden furniture flying by. And we have a small dog and we don't dare let her out. She might blow away.

SIEGEL: But despite the wind chill, it not going to get anywhere near negative 30,000 degrees this weekend, which is good news to Paul Grant.

PAUL GRANT: My son and I are going skiing tomorrow and we're hoping for cold weather, but not really that cold. I mean, that's a real howler.

SIEGEL: Mr. Grant is a visiting scholar of applied physics at Stanford University and he lives in San Jose.

GRANT: To have a temperature of minus 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit would violently violate all the known laws of physics.

SIEGEL: And even at the more temperate absolute zero, skiing wouldn't be very fun.

GRANT: Well, that's true. And it is thermodynamically impossible to lower the temperature of anything to absolute zero. It would take all the energy of the universe and in a refrigerator to get there. And just for the record, Steve Anderson of the National Weather Service in Monterey, California, gladly gave us this weekend's actual outlook.

STEVE ANDERSON: And the forecast for the remaining of the weekend, through the weekend, overnight lows are ranged from 40 to 45 degrees.

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