2014 FM E-Skip Year in Review

2014reviewAfter a summer of deadband radio dials and yawn-inducing static on every empty frequency, DXers may be wondering “where’s the skip?”

But that question will likely remain unanswered until mid-2015, as this year’s FM Es season ended without fanfare on July 31.

Sporadic E-Skip is a phenomenon which allows broadcast signals from up to 1500 miles away, on average, to be received in one location during the warmer months.  This review focuses on its effect on the FM band in Northern Virginia.

After an acceptable 2013 E-skip season, I had high hopes that this year would compare, in terms of performance, with the great seasons of 2006-2008.  Unfortunately, 2014 didn’t meet the mark.

READ MY PREVIOUS YEARS’ E-SKIP SEASON REVIEWS

Openings were few and far between this year.  When one occurred, the openings were often full of relogs and lacked the strength to remain in FM for over an hour (an average opening length based on local historic observation).  The longer openings often had long periods of ‘yo-yo’ Es, where the MUF, or Maximum Usable Frequency (the highest frequency FM Es was received on) would dip out of FM, go to the mid-band, then dip out of FM all within a span of minutes–often making signal identification impossible as stations had deep fades during periods of identification.

The season largely ended on July 14, with two small openings occurring before the season’s end at July 31.  I also found it rare to have a local station overpowered by an Es-reflected signal this year.  Even last year, this was very common.  In 2014, only semi-locals were gone during moderately-strong Es openings.  Another interesting thing this year was that HD Radio and RDS rarely decoded from Es signals, even if the signal was strong as a local.  In years’ past, I’d get countless HD decodes and RDS readouts, but this year they were few and far between.

But the 2014 season wasn’t a complete failure.  Surprisingly, in the midst of garden-variety events that rarely brought in signals higher than 92.9 FM, I netted a new closest FM Es record from a new state: 92.9 WEZF Burlington, VT, at 465 miles on July 5.  WEZF was a relog, having been received before via meteor scatter, but it was thrilling to pick it up by Sporadic E.  The same opening which brought in WEZF also reflected Quebec City, QC signals into Virginia for the first time in my 15 years of DXing.  On June 12, an unusually-for-this-year strong opening brought in Atlanta, GA signals — something not received here since the historic July 6, 2004 opening.

Occurrence of Es Openings

The charts below show the calendar ‘spread’ of every Es season since 2007.  The chart is divided in three sections, one for each month.  Every dot represents one day that an FM Es opening was observed.  For example, if FM Es was observed on June 5, a dot will be seen in the ‘early’ section of the month, close to May’s section while an opening on June 20 will be on the grid closer to July’s section.

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The openings were spread out almost evenly in 2014.  Save for a few days in a row in early July, almost a week went by before the next FM Es opening occurred.  This was easier for me because I wasn’t constantly ‘bombarded’ by skip, but it made me almost forget the skip season was going on.

An interesting phenomenon I found this year was that almost all of the 2014 openings occurred either after 6 p.m., or during the weekends.  Thankfully, these were times where my work schedule allowed me to fully DX openings.  I only missed a few openings that occurred during my work hours.  This is in a stark contrast to the 2012 season, when FM Es seemed to have a “Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.” schedule and rarely occurred outside of that time frame.

Total Es Openings

 

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Almost all of the 2013 gains in the amount of FM Es openings were negated this year, putting me back slightly higher than 2011 season levels.  Even with the 2013 uptick, a general downturn in amount of FM Es openings continues since 2007.

An interesting trend that I have first noticed this year is that every even year has less openings than the odd year before.  In other words, Es seasons 2009, 2011 and 2013 all had more openings than the preceding odd-numbered year (and 2014).  I would like to think this is a coincidence, given how the ‘gains’ each odd year (save for 2009 and 2011) were remarkably different.  It’ll be interesting to see if the 2015 season has more Sporadic E openings, and if the 2016 season will have downturns much like 2014 has had.

Total New Stations Logged

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The low totals for 2014 above is kind of an illusion.  There is, more or less, a fixed amount of FM signals available to log in my Es range every year.  After DXing for 15 years (8 of them actively monitoring daily for FM Es) with over 1800 FM stations received, it is expected to log less and less new FM signals each year.

Additionally, the figures above do not paint an accurate picture of the breadth of FM signals received.  For example, the 6/12/14 opening had 4 new logs.  However, at least 43 signals came in via E-Skip that night — 24 of them positively identified.  A new DXer would’ve netted 24 new logs from the exact same opening and may have a completely different view of the season in terms of reviewing it.

The ‘up, down, up, down’ trend seen in the previous section also rings true from 2011 to the present.  Once again, odd years have seen more new stations logged than even years since 2011.

New Stations Logged Per Opening

5/11/14: 0 new logs **
5/18/14: 0 new logs *
5/21/14: 0 new logs **
5/26/14: 0 new logs
6/9/14: 1 new log
6/12/14: 4 new logs
6/15/14: 0 new logs
6/22/14: 10 new logs
6/30/14: 0 new logs *
7/1/14: 0 new logs*
7/2/14: 0 new logs
7/5/14: 5 new logs
7/6/14: 1 new log **
7/14/14: 3 new logs
7/18/14: 0 new logs
7/30/14: 0 new logs *

* = missed opening
** = partially missed opening

Above we have the 2014 new log totals broken down by opening.  What I said above regarding the fixed amount of FM signals making it more difficult to log more stations as time goes on still holds true here.  I consider it lucky if I log more than 2 new logs in one opening.

Location of FM Es openings

5/11/14: AR, LA, MO, TX **
5/18/14: MN *
5/21/14: MN, SD **
5/26/14: FL
6/9/14: LA, MB, TX
6/12/14: AL, GA, LA, MS, FL, TX
6/15/14: LA
6/22/14: AR, FL, KS, MO, OK, TN, TX
6/30/14: NB, ME *
7/1/14: IA, MO*
7/2/14: LA
7/5/14: OK, QC, VT
7/6/14: AR, KS **
7/14/14: NL, NS, PE
7/18/14: AL, MS
7/30/14: FL *

* = missed opening
** = partially missed opening

What I find interesting is how 25 percent of openings this year were into Canada.  In comparison, the 2013 season, albeit more active, only saw 0.04 percent of openings into Canada.  Florida, a common visitor on my dial, was largely absent this year.  Save for the brief opening of May 26, signals from the Sunshine State only came in piggybacking on regional openings largely into neighboring states.  The upper Midwest was largely absent this season, too, claiming only 19 percent of openings this year (compared to 24 percent in 2013).  As usual, openings into Arkansas and Texas dominated the few openings received this year.

Duration of FM Es openings

Totals in the chart below only reflects Es either observed while at my radios, or heard on unattended recordings (which I run on two frequencies 24/7).  Times from multiple openings spanning different times of the day are combined for a grand total in this category.  This is because I’m not sure if what appeared to be two openings in one day was, in fact, the same opening which dipped below 88.1 FM for a while.

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5/11/14: at least 56 minutes**
5/18/14: at least 1 minute *
5/21/14: at least 49 minutes **
5/26/14: 15 minutes
6/9/14: 68 minutes
6/12/14: 120 minutes
6/15/14: 37 minutes
6/22/14: 177 minutes
6/30/14: at least 3 minutes *
7/1/14: at least 15 minutes *
7/2/14: 5 minutes
7/5/14: 52 minutes
7/6/14: at least 225 minutes **
7/14/14: 41 minutes
7/18/14: 14 minutes
7/30/14: at least 17 minutes *

* = missed opening
** = partially missed opening

2014 took a nosedive when looking at the sheer amount of minutes of skip observed.  Although I knew totals would be worse than 2013, I thought this year would only net about 150-200 minutes worse than last year, not almost 10 full hours less of E-skip reception when compared to the previous years.  In comparison, even with record length of all-season opens in 2013, last year seemed to be (in retrospect) as active as 2014.

MUF of FM Es openings

5/11/14: at least 96.7 FM **
5/18/14: at least 92.9 FM *
5/21/14: at least 100.7 FM **
5/26/14: 92.9 FM
6/9/14: 97.5 FM
6/12/14: 107.5 FM
6/15/14: 92.1 FM
6/22/14: 107.5 FM
6/30/14: at least 92.7 FM *
7/1/14: at least 95.3 FM *
7/2/14: 92.9 FM
7/5/14: 102.1 FM
7/6/14: at least 99.7 FM **
7/14/14: 103.1 FM
7/18/14: 92.9 FM
7/30/14: at least 92.7 FM *

* = missed opening
** = partially missed opening

The MUF hit the top of the FM band only twice this year.  This was surprising, given in previous years (even with the aforementioned ‘drought’ of yearly Es performance), the MUF often hit 107.9 at least 4 times a year, if not much more.  I also noticed several times this year that there was almost no FM Es between 104.3 and 106.9 FM, while at the same time skip was received below 104.3 and above 106.9.  I’m not sure why this ‘chunk’ of MHz did not get any FM Es.

Why do FM Es conditions get worse and worse each year?

It may be apparent by now that 2014 has been a very disappointing, although not the worst imaginable, year for Sporadic E (the worst would be no FM Es at all).  Given that I’ve now actively monitored for FM Es for 8 years, I also wonder what can be at the root of the continued poor Es conditions.  When I started to actively monitor Es openings in 2006, it seemed like there were openings every day.  My life was always put on hold as I was ‘held captive’ by my radios with skip signals being received.

Maybe the explosion of stations turning on IBOC/HD Radio signals everywhere could affect how Sporadic E signals are received.  Prior to IBOC, my local FM signals’ first adjacent frequencies were prime spots for some good FM Es.  After the IBOC turned on, depending on how my antenna was oriented, many first adjacent signals were very difficult to DX due to the IBOC ‘hash.’  I predict that with signals in my Sporadic E range also adding IBOC sidebands to their signal, this causes major interference during a strong FM Es opening.  Radios (especially those not IBOC-compatible) likely receive the digital hash from Es-reflected IBOC signals which block analog signals from being heard on the same frequency (resulting in the appearance of no FM Es when it would be strong and audible if the distant Es-reflected IBOC signal weren’t there).  Low signal strengths reflected via Es that fall below the ‘digital cliff’ but are strong enough to silence analog activity on any given frequency would likely cause these same reflected IBOC signals to not be received by IBOC-equipped radios.

The timing with my IBOC theory seems to hold some weight.  As previously mentioned, 2009 seemed to be the ‘turning point’ where E-skip performance took an overall performance nosedive.  Although IBOC turned on locally in 2006, I’m sure that more rural areas (locales likely received by me via Es, such as in the midwest USA) were likely just getting their IBOC equipment turned on by 2009.  According to web reports, IBOC signals have since increased their power, too, limiting the chance of Es-reflected signals to come through.

Another theory with the drought is the proliferation of FM translators in urban areas.  Visit any major metropolitan area and you’d likely find at least 5-6 strong translator signals that were not there 5 years ago.  Although FM translators don’t often make it out via Es, these pesky signals often are just strong enough to block FM Es on the same frequency, giving the illusion of no Es where it could be occurring, just not on an empty frequency.

I’ve heard other DXers say that Sporadic E has historic ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ that fluctuate among several years at a time, creating historical patterns where a chunk of years have great FM Es, while the next decade or so is horrible.  Perhaps we’re just in a lull at the moment.  However, my uneducated hunch is that this theory likely is true largely for the amount of E-skip openings observed in any given year — less likely to the strength of each opening due to my previously-mentioned theories on why skip is not heard as much nowadays.

2015 E-Skip season prediction

Last year, I predicted 20 new FM logs from 17 total FM Es openings.  In reality, I had 25 new FM logs from 15 total openings.  I was not too off in my prediction at all.

Looking ahead, I believe that the 2015 Sporadic E season will continue to bring back slight improvements in all areas, but perhaps not as good as seen between seasons 2012 and 2013.  I’m going to play it safe and issue a slightly lower prediction for the 2015 season: 15 new logs from 12 total FM Es openings.  Although 2013 was better than previous years and this year, I’m more skeptical than ever that the next year will bring any huge improvements over 2014.  The good news, however, is I do predict there will be Sporadic E openings in 2015.  Barring any out-of-season anomalies, there’s only about 280 days until E-Skip is likely to return.

 

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