Record lows, a stunning lack of signals, and lots of frustration. Those words sum up the 2017 Sporadic E-Skip season in Northern Virginia.
Sporadic E is a method of signal propagation that, when in effect, allows broadcast signals to be received up to 1500 miles away with clear local reception. It can happen any time of the year, but it is most common during the summer months.
I’ve been writing annual reviews of E-Skip seasons since 2011 and although I’ve often wrote that the current year’s season was bad, I really didn’t think it could get worse. 2017 is, categorically, the worst FM Es season that I’ve experienced since I started DXing in 1999 (monitoring daily for Es since 2006). There’s no nice way of saying it.
Think of it this way: FM Es was observed in Northern Virginia for 33 minutes total during the entire 2017 season. Yes, you read that right. Compare that to 6.9 hours of skip just a year ago, and a whopping 21.9 hours of FM Es in 2012. Skip just wasn’t happening at all this year, and interestingly enough, many other DXers exhibited the same thing nationwide, based on online reception reports.
Occurrence of FM Es Openings
The chart above shows the first FM Es opening of the calendar year, the first and last substantial openings of the season, and the last opening within the season, which I consider to be May 1-July 31. For purposes of this review, I consider a substantial opening one that has many strong, sustained signals with at least a handful of RDS and/or HD Radio decodes and/or distant signals overpowering local stations.
2017 is the first year I’ve seen which did not have one substantial Sporadic E opening. Although I had a few RDS decodes from Es signals in my car, this is first year since I added HD Radio capabilities in 2008 that I did not receive one HD Radio decode via Sporadic E. Even last year, which wasn’t anything to write home about by a long shot, I got many HD Radio decodes. There just simply wasn’t much skip at all, and the few openings that happened always occurred during business hours when I’m unable to DX due to being at work. Although I’m home every weekend and evening and available to DX, the skip simply wasn’t there.
There was a 14-day stretch in early July–an otherwise fertile month–that I saw no Sporadic E during. This seemed to mirror the 2016 season, which had no signals received at all in May, and the 2015 season, which had no signals at all received in July. This is the third year that this pattern has happened. There hasn’t been a “normal” FM Es season in terms of date of occurrence since 2014.
Total FM Es Openings
I’ve been monitoring the amount of observed FM Es openings for a decade. 2017 seemed to follow a recent trend of under 10 openings per season, which isn’t necessarily something new.
Total New Stations Logged
I’m shocked that I was able to receive seven new FM logs in an otherwise dismal year. This is the only redeeming quality of the 2017 season. It would be unfair to compare 2017 to previous years beyond the past few, given there is, more or less, a set amount of FM stations in the country that can be received via Sporadic E. Take 2013 for example–it was a year with more openings than years surrounding it, yet, it didn’t fare much better in this area than the rest of the 2010s. Either way, I’m just glad the totals in this area for 2017 isn’t zero.
For the next sections, an asterisk (*) next to the date denotes an opening that was partially missed, while two asterisks (**) means an opening completely missed and heard on unattended recordings.
New Stations Logged per Opening
6/4/17: 0 **
6/7/17: 0 *
6/30/17: 0 *
7/6/17: 0 *
7/21/17: 0 *
This is the first year since 2007 where I didn’t log one new FM station via unattended recordings. All new FM logs in 2017 were received live while actively DXing a radio.
Location of FM Es Openings
5/28/17: LA, MS, TX
6/13/17: AR, NE, KS, MN, WI
7/21/17: NE, MO
This is the third year in a row that I have not received any FM Es signals from the Canadian Maritimes. Otherwise, the general regions I usually get skip from were represented in 2017, albeit at a greatly reduced level. Texas, Louisiana, and Florida are the most common states heard annually via skip, yet, I received those states exactly one day each this year. It’s baffling.
Duration of FM Es Openings
5/28/17: 10 minutes
6/4/17: 3 minutes **
6/7/17: 2 minutes *
6/13/17: 10 minutes
6/30/17: 2 minutes *
7/6/17: 3 minutes *
7/21/17: 3 minutes *
This is where the entire season fell flat. Every single FM Es opening in 2017, similar to most of the openings in the 2016 season, simply had no strength. Signals were often weak, static-filled, and short lived. Although I didn’t get to DX every minute of every opening in 2017, the portions I did work had signals that were here one minute, gone the next. The average signal faded in for maybe 10 seconds before disappearing. During the two 10-minute openings, signals often were spread out over a long period of time with many minutes passing devoid of skip heard.
MUF of FM Es Openings
5/28/17: 106.1 FM
6/4/17: at least 89.9 FM **
6/7/17: at least 89.1 FM *
6/13/17: 105.3 FM
6/30/17: at least 95.1 FM *
7/6/17: at least 92.1 FM *
7/21/17: at least 98.1 FM *
Given the downfalls in all other areas of this year’s season, the MUFs, or maximum usable frequency–the highest frequency at which FM Es was observed–wasn’t that bad at all. There’s not really much to say here, as the MUFs were average.
2018 E-Skip Season Prediction
Each year I predict what the next year’s FM Es season will bring. In 2016, I predicted that this year’s season would bring in 5 new FM logs from 6 total openings, resulting in 385 minutes of total FM Es heard. I was way off with my prediction of the duration of skip openings this year, but almost right on the mark for the new logs and amount of openings.
My prediction for 2018: 3 new FM logs from 4 FM Es openings with 25 cumulative minutes of skip heard. Given how horrible this year was, I am going to be very conservative and not get my hopes up. I honestly would not be surprised if skip just didn’t happen at all in 2018.
Something’s definitely wrong. Just a decade ago, I had so much skip that I could barely pry myself from my radio. Almost every time I would turn on the dial, there’d be skip at least midway up the band. My social life even suffered. Skip has been getting worse and worse since 2009 and it isn’t getting any better. After the 2017 season, I wonder if it will.
Such a reality makes me wonder what is causing the lack of skip. It’s one of the few phenomenons on Earth that nobody, after over 75 years of research, could figure out how and why it happens. Perhaps something man-made that was plentiful in the past decades that caused Sporadic E as a byproduct (i.e. pollution from factories) is no longer being made or done.
I may be alone with this theory, but consider this: tropospheric signal enhancement exists today exactly like it did when I started DXing in 1999. Granted, IBOC, translators, and other degenerations on the FM band limits the amount of tropo compared to the golden years of FM DXing, but it still happens. Given the fact that Sporadic E obviously uses a different mechanism to reflect signals back to Earth, maybe something’s missing–something that if we could figure out what it was, Sporadic E would be in its heyday once again. That remains to be seen.