Friday, January 9, 2015

Our Sobering Snow Year

Friday, January 9, 2015
12:05 pm

If you read my winter weather outlook for this winter on WeatherOn, you'll note that I predicted warmer-than-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation for this year in the Pacific Northwest. The precipitation has been near normal or slightly less, but temperatures have been well above normal. When you have well-above-normal temperatures, it doesn't matter how much precipitation you get. You aren't gonna get snow at Snoqualmie Pass.

Retrieved from Western Regional Climate Center

Retrieved from Western Regional Climate Center

Snoqualmie Pass is the main gateway through the Cascades over Washington. At 3,000 feet, it is certainly the lowest, and this attribute keeps it snow-free much of the winter. But Snoqualmie Pass' elevation, while being its greatest attribute, can also be the Summit at Snoqualmie's greatest enemy. The Summit at Snoqualmie benefits from being the closest major ski area to Seattle and the easiest to get to, especially when you consider the width of I-90 compared to other highways crossing the Cascades and the abnormal amount of snowplows working to keep the roads clear. But at 3,000 feet, it can be snowing buckets at Stevens, Baker, and Crystal, only to rain at Snoqualmie.

The evidence is apparent in the photos.

Alpental base, 3140 feet

Summit Central base, 3,000 feet

Snoqualmie Pass facing west, 3,086 feet

Hyak, 2,600 feet

Things are a little better at Stevens, but not by much.

West Stevems Summit, 4,061 feet

Snow Water Content at SNOTEL Sites: Retrieved from Western Regional Climate Center

Looking at the picture above, you can see that the region with the greatest negative anomaly in snow water content (i.e. the amount of water you would get if the snowpack at a region was melted) is western Washington. Even worse - there is very little new snow this year. Only 64 inches of new snow have fallen at Snoqualmie Pass. On average, we would 128 inches - over twice of that - by now. To make matters worse, much of the snow that has fallen has just been washed away by "Pineapple Express" events, the most recent of which brought major flooding to the Tolt and Snoqualmie Rivers near Carnation. And even when it's not raining, the freezing levels have still been high. The freezing levels in the Cascades are above 8,000 feet right now.

It ain't pretty folks. As for the rest of the month? I'm pretty pessimistic. As for the rest of the season?

I wouldn't bet your bonnet on it.


Monday, January 5, 2015

A Major Breakthrough in Numerical Weather Prediction for the United States

Monday, January 5, 2015
1:10 pm

There is currently major flooding on the Tolt and Snoqualmie Rivers near Carnation, and I had just Google'd 'NWS' to get to the Seattle NWS homepage ( is too much work) when I stumbled upon a rather important headline.

Retrieved from the original press release from NOAA.

No hyperbole can describe how euphoric I was when I saw this. The United States has lagged behind other countries (most notably a coalition of European countries that have formed the 'ECMWF' model) in numerical weather prediction for as long as I can remember, and the reason is largely because we have a lack of computer power compared to them. This means that we cannot run our models at as high of a resolution and that our initializations are not as accurate as they could be, as a good model initialization (i.e. a good representation of the initial conditions from which the forecast is based off) is necessary for a good forecast and improves as the number of observations (and the computer power to process them) increases.

Additionally, the additional computer service has obtained will greatly assist in developing ensemble forecasting and helping it become a more viable tool to potentially overtake traditional deterministic forecasting. Deterministic forecasting is the type we are all familiar with; you take your initial conditions, plug them into the models, and voila! You get a forecast. With an ensemble forecast, you put a slightly different set of initial conditions into each of the ensemble "members," and as a result, you get a variety of results. Ensemble prediction is the prediction of the future as it offers many advantages that simple deterministic modeling does not, such as accounting for uncertainty in a forecast.

The computers we have now are not mediocre by any means; we have two of them, and each one can perform 213 trillion operations per second. However, by the end of the month, they are expected to triple their operating capacity, and by October, each should be able to perform 2,500 trillion operations per second. That's a lot. Imagine playing a ridiculously hi-resolution version of Call of Duty on one of those things. Unfortunately, that's not what these computers were made for.

This upgrade will cost 44 million bucks, which sounds like a lot of money. However, I did some calculations, and seeing as the U.S.' GDP in 2013 was 16.8 trillion (thanks Google), the amount of money the U.S. pulled in was over a half million bucks per second. Setting aside a minute-and-a-half of the year to fund something that, by providing accurate forecasts, could save billions of dollars in the long run, sounds like a good plan to me. It should have been done far earlier, but I'm glad it has been done now.

I'm not as "in-the-know" about this stuff as one of my professors at the UW, Cliff Mass. He has a blog, and I noticed that he wrote a post on it this morning as well. Read his blog here for more information on this monumental achievement by the NWS.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Decider

Friday, January 2, 2014
11:49 p.m.

Charlie the ~sixth grader

It's hard to believe that 10 years ago, when I was just a wee little sixth-grader, I played my first real prank on my mom. It was, of course, weather-related. There was a slight chance of snow in our area at the time and the National Weather Service had issued a "winter weather advisory" to address this. I decided it would be fun to take the advisory and change a few words to make it into a "blizzard warning" to give my mom a good scare. It worked; she totally fell for it. Of course, the blizzard never came to pass (in fact, we only got a rain-snow mix) but we still have the fake warning posted somewhere around our house. It was definitely one of my finer moments.

I've done many things since those days to propel myself into the meteorological community. I started a blog on Facebook during my freshman year of high school, and then moved it over to Blogspot during my sophomore year. An article was written about me that year in the "Garfield Messenger," Garfield's local newspaper, and I continued to stay fairly active as Garfield's unofficial meteorologist, issuing forecasts both over the intercom and to individual classes (especially when snow was in the forecast). I even joined the "Garfield News Network" (GNN) as their weatherman, and although the work I did there was not super extensive, it was pretty damn fun nonetheless.

I continued blogging throughout college, and had my blog mentioned in "The Daily," which is the UW's official newspaper my freshman year. During my sophomore year, I made a decision that would shape the course of my career; I joined my friend Tanner Petersen in being a blogger and editor for WeatherOn, a student-run organization that provides forecasts and blogs for the Pacific Northwest and beyond. I worked at KOMO News my junior year with the legendary Steve Pool, and also collaborated with Shannon O'Donnell, Scott Sistek, and Seth Wayne. Most recently, I was contacted via WeatherOn to write a report on hurricanes for the University of North Carolina's School of Government. Needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity and wrote, if I may say so myself, a pretty good article.

And here I am, about to graduate the University of Washington with a degree in atmospheric sciences.

I spent this weekend at the American Meteorological Society Student Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, and I gained a lot of insight into what I need to look out for in the future. I talked to some graduate schools, I learned about job opportunities, I handed out some resumes, I learned not to take Seattle's tap water for granted, and I even met a few weather celebrities.

Jim Cantore is as awesome as his head is shiny.
And while hanging out with Jim Cantore is great, it's not something I can do for a lifetime, let alone 30 seconds (there was a pretty long line of people waiting to get pictures taken). All of this begs the question: now that I'm graduating, what do I do with my life?

Just like the vast majority of atmospheric scientists, I got hooked on weather at a very young age. I was five years old, and my family was visiting some friends in Albuquerque. We woke up very early to drive to Northern New Mexico and came across an intense thunderstorm. It was still pitch-black, and the air was very humid. A light rain began to fall once we got on the freeway heading north, but this rain quickly crescendoed to a downpour as lightning danced over the mountains to my right. Just when I thought it couldn't rain any harder, it began to hail, and all the cars on the freeway slowed to 10 mph, with many deciding to pull over until the storm had lifted. From that moment on, I knew knew I wanted to spend my life studying the weather. I didn't know what I wanted to study, but I didn't need to worry about that yet. How could I? I couldn't even derive the hypsometric equation.

But the years went on, and I still found myself in the same situation: being very interested in weather, but being unsure of what field to go into. I was able to discover one thing; I loved sharing my knowledge of weather with the public. So I started my blog. Building upon that paradigm, I thought it would be really cool to be a TV broadcaster. But I thought about it some more, and then figured that being a broadcaster could be kinda boring. There's only so much excitement you can obtain from explaining the difference between partly sunny and partly cloudy (btw, I don't know what the difference is/if there is one/why they have the different terms in the first place). Then, I thought about going to graduate school and getting a Ph.D and becoming a professor/science educator to the public, like Cliff Mass at the University of Washington or Neil deGrasse Tyson at, well, a lot of different places. But I didn't know if I wanted to be affiliated with academia my whole life, and, to be honest, I didn't know if I was prepared to put in another 6-7 years of intensive schooling before graduating. I would have loved to be a hurricane hunter with the Air Force, but I have epilepsy, and this prohibits me from doing such a thing (too bad, cause that'd be a pretty sweet gig). And I'd love to see if I could make some cash being a storm chaser, but, then again, I'd like to be able to afford fresh vegetables every now and then.

My internship at KOMO was awesome, and it made the broadcasting side a whole lot more attractive, even if I wasn't in front of the camera. There was free food (big plus) and everybody was super nice. For a while, I decided that I wanted to become a tv weathercaster that did a whole bunch of on-site reporting for severe storms whenever they would pop up. But then I saw the other people around me, and I realized that I had some extremely stiff competition. In fact, at the AMS conference, multiple people told me my chances of making it were slim, not because I was some ugly, tongue-tied monstrosity, but just because it is such a competitive field.

The truth is, it's pretty hard to find a job in atmospheric sciences no matter what. Here's an example: it's common for over 200 applicants to apply for one job at a regional National Weather Service forecasting office. Getting into graduate school is not exactly a walk in the park either. It's easier to get jobs in the private sector, but it's still very competitive there as well. The takeaway lesson that I learned from the conference is that if a job pops up, grab it. Even if the job sucks and is in an even worse location, it's better than nothing.

But one thing is for sure. At this point in my life, I'm the Decider. And while you can't decide to win, you can always decide to try.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Review Of The Windstorm

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
1:46 pm

Last Thursday night, right after I had finished my final, my mom and I decided to trek up to Sandy Hook, which is a little coastal community situated on Cultus Bay on the southern tip of Whidbey Island, to catch what ended up being the biggest windstorm of the year thus far for the Pacific Northwest as a whole, and some of the strongest winds I have experienced in my entire life. Here, I'll just give a general overview of the storm, and I'll show you some pictures and videos that I took up at Sandy Hook Thursday night and Friday morning.

First off, let's take a look at an animation of the windstorm. The loop below shows water vapor satellite imagery from November 29th to December 14th. Our windstorm begins forming to our southwest at about 0:21 and passes over our area at around 0:24.

Here's a more in-depth picture when it was near peak strength. Look at the beautiful, symmetrical form of the cyclone, and how tightly the bent-back-occlusion wraps around the center of circulation. It almost looks like a hurricane. Pretty extraordinary.

8 pm December 10, 2014 (PST). Retrieved from NOAA WRH Satellite Loop.

As I explained in my previous post, this cyclone was a "Sou'wester." Most of our major regionwide windstorms have been of the "Sou'wester" type. The Hanukkah Eve Storm was the most destructive storm for Puget Sound since the great Columbus Day Storm of 1962, but it was not a truly region-wide storm. This storm affected everywhere from San Francisco (they actually closed schools due to the wind and rain from this storm... wimps) to Vancouver Island and Southern British Columbia. Seattle did not experience anywhere near the amount of damage it experienced with the Hanukkah Eve Storm, but if this storm had kept its strength as it tracked northward and if it had tracked a bit further east through the Chehalis Gap, the winds could have approached Hanukkah Eve levels.

One of the most striking things about this storm is how closely its track mirrored that of the Columbus Day Storm. Take a look at this picture below comparing it to other famous Sou'westers to strike the Pacific Northwest. You can see that its central pressure is much higher, hence the lower winds over much of the area. However, it tracked much more closely to the coast, and if it had deepened to 960 millibars or lower, there is a distinct possibility that it could have caused the tremendous winds witnessed in 1962.

Credit: NOAA

I wasn't able to find a definitive list of the highest gusts throughout the entire Pacific Northwest region, but I was able to find some gust information for some individual areas. I put a small list together of gusts that I thought that were particularly notable. Values given are in mph. I have a more complete list of gusts below from the Seattle, Portland, and Pendleton NWS forecast offices. I looked but I could not find any reports from California NWS offices

NWS Portland gusts
NWS Seattle gusts
NWS Pendleton gusts


White Mountain: 139
Mount Lincoln: 135
Slide Mountain: 112
Mammoth Summit (yes, the ski area): 111
Alpine Meadows: 109

San Francisco: 50
Oakland: 46


Mt. Hebo (3160 ft): 90
Sea Lion Caves: 89
Marys Peak (4137 ft): 88
Newport (120 ft): 72
Portland (30 ft): 67
Garibaldi: 64
Salem: 53


Crystal Mountain (6870): 97
Mission Ridge: 78
Mt. Baker (5000 ft): 78
Naselle Ridge (2008 ft): 77
Port Townsend (28 ft): 70
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station (47 ft): 69
Hood Canal Bridge : 63
Cape Disappointment: 63
Paine Field (Everett): 62
Useless Bay: 59 (this is the closest location to where I was)
Hoquiam (12 ft): 56
520 Floating Bridge: 51
Boeing Field: 49
Sea-Tac (370 ft): 49
Tacoma Narrows Airport: 48

As you can see, the highest winds generally occurred on mountain ridgetops. I heard rumors of Mt. Hebo having a 130 mph gust, but this figure did not show up in the official NWS list. Portland's gust of 67 mph was actually the strongest gust since the great Sou'wester of December 12, 1995, so this storm was no slouch.

Also, just for funsies, let's take a look at all the rain that fell in California. While Seattle and Oregon weren't extraordinarily wet, California, particularly San Francisco and areas north, got absolutely soaked. This storm was fantastic for drought relief, but it would take 4-5 more of these to end what is the worst drought for California in at least 1,200 years.

Going back to our region, some of the highest winds in all of Western Washington were located right where I was. Useless Bay is that larger Bay that is to the west of Scatchet Head on the southern tip of Whidbey Island. This lines up well with what the UW's WRF-GFS model was predicting at the time; note how the highest winds are there and regions to the south over the water.

Valid 10:00 pm PST, Thu 11 Dec 2014 - 18hr Fcst

Anyway, let's take a somber look at some of the catastrophic damage inflicted upon the residents of Sandy Hook.

Play structures were ripped to shreds...

Furniture across our backyard was slaughtered...

And I would have loved to witness the gust that put this chair in this precarious position.

But all dishevelment of lawn furniture and children's play structures aside, there was some moderate property damage as well. Our "crab shack" got slightly de-roofed, which may end up being a blessing in disguise, as we now have an excuse to give it a new one. I didn't take a picture of it, but our 18-20 foot aluminum canoe got blown right off our dock and drifted a good quarter-of-a-mile down the man-made canal that our dock lies on. We are very lucky to have found it!

A big wooden fence that surrounded the community swimming pool toppled over under the storm's strong gusts.

Also, some similar fences right off the bay slightly leaned over due to the strong winds coming off the Sound. All in all, the structural damage doesn't look like much, but after witnessing how strong the winds were and how they hardly caused any damage, I've really gained an appreciation for the extreme strength of winds when significant structural damage is evident.

When we drove out to go back to Seattle, there were tons of branches all over the road and many downed trees that had taken out power lines. Our power was out for two days.

Lastly, here's something that's unrelated to the winds but is related to the low pressure system itself. With such low pressure over us in tandem with astronomically high tides, the observed tide was as high as I had ever seen it and almost passed over our dock. Pretty incredible.

On a final note, I'll leave you with some videos that I took. Here's one that shows how noisy our house was on that night, with some tasteful lighting to boot.

And here's the piece de resistance... an on-site video of the storm itself. I was recording right above a breakwall on the coast that was actually very close to the children's play structure that got thrown around. I'd estimate that winds were a good 50-55 on the water at that time, but as they went over the breakwall they accelerated as the wind was noticeably stronger there than right on the water.

I'll have more blogs coming soon, including ones regarding the potential for cold in the extended future. However, the short term forecast holds flooding, primarily for Oregon, where over 15 inches of rain may fall in select locations over the weekend.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Major Windstorm Tomorrow?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014
12:30 pm

I've got one more final tomorrow at 11:30 am, but here I am, blogging away my anxiety. Why on Earth would I put 40% of my grade on the line to write a stupid weather blog (and yes, I'm going to need all the time I have to study for this test. Kids, beware of atmospheric motions 441.)?

Because we might see a major windstorm tomorrow. 

Now, this isn't going to be a catastrophic windstorm for the Puget Sound lowlands, at least not at this point. Believe it or not, there were a couple models that were advertising that it could be. I define a "catastrophic windstorm" to be a storm with widespread gusts to 60-70 mph in our region. While that may not be a lot for the coast, it's a pretty big deal for the inland areas west of the Cascades. And with our saturated soils and excess of giant evergreens, you can bet that 60-70 mile per hour winds here are going to cause a lot more damage than equivalent winds in the Great Plains or even New York City. I would say our last catastrophic storm was the Hanukkah Eve Storm of 2006. This storm doesn't look to equal that one in magnitude for our region, but it could be one of the strongest since then. It could be. 

Why all the uncertainty? The storm is 24 hours out, so shouldn't we be smart enough to know if we're all going to die a grisly death? Well, the answer is yes, but the reality is no. The models have been inconsistent with the storm, but honestly, that's not the biggest problem. It's the very nature of the storm that were dealing with.

You know those Nor'easters they get on the East Coast? Well, this is its Northwestern cousin, the "Sou'wester." These are the storms that are historically the most damaging storms to our area, and they tend to impact the entire west coast. The last really big one was in December 1995, creating gusts of 72 mph from Cape Mendocino, CA to 76 mph up in Bellingham, WA. Portland hit 74, Sea-Tac hit 60, and Mukilteo, just to the north of Seattle, hit 86. And Cannon Beach, Newport, and Sea Lion Caves on the Oregon Coast all hit well above 100 mph.

The Columbus Day Storm of 1962 was also a Sou'wester, and any Pacific Northwest weather aficionado is familiar with "The Big Blow." With 179 mph winds at Cape Blanco, 116 mph winds in Portland, 127 in Corvallis, 100 in Redmond... you get the point. The Columbus Day Storm was the David Banner of Pacific Northwest windstorms, and we likely will not see one like it for hundreds of years. All these diagrams were taken from Wolf Read's The Storm King website.

I'd love to go on and on about massive Sou'westers, but you get the point. These are the big storms. They typically form south of Eureka around 135 West, and from there, they rapidly intensify and curl northward. Depending on how close they get to the coast, they can bring strong winds to an extremely large area. The Columbus Day Storm nearly paralleled the coast from California to Vancouver Island and remained just offshore, giving all areas a tremendous blow. Conversely, the Hanukka Eve storm came from the WSW and crossed Vancouver Island, only delivering its main blow to Washington as it never got close enough to the California and Oregon coasts for them to feel the full effect. Take a look at the pics below and notice the difference in tracks.

You can see how the Columbus Day Storm would have impacted a much wider area. Additionally, it was much deeper, so that contributed to the breadth and magnitude of destruction. AND, it occurred, on, well, Columbus Day, when many trees still had their leaves. Truly a worst-case scenario for destruction, yet a fascinating one from a meteorological point of view.

Now that you have a little background on Sou'westers, let's get back to talking about our forecast. As the track from the Columbus Day Storm shows, even a slight displacement to the west would have weakened the winds significantly across the region. Storms like the Hanukkah Eve Storm shown above that smash into southern Vancouver Island from the SW are not nearly as sensitive to changes in track. That's what makes this forecast so hard. Tiny changes in track with these types of storms mean major changes in effects. Remind you of another type of forecast here? (hint: it starts with an 's'). The National Weather Service sums this up well with their latest "weather story."

This specific storm has changed wobbled from making a direct pass right over Seattle to passing right off our coast, sparing us major winds. It will not even approach the Columbus Day Storm, and it will not be as strong as the Hanukkah Eve Storm even in a worst case scenario. The storm itself has a much higher pressure than the CDS; it bottoms out at around 970 off of the Californian Coast, and then it slowly weakens as it travels northward. Let's compare some previous model runs just so ya'll know what I'm talking about.

Here are the two most recent model runs from the UW. Last night's is below, and this morning's is below that.

Valid 01:00 pm PST, Thu 11 Dec 2014 - 45hr Fcst - Retrieved from UW mm5rt

Valid 01:00 pm PST, Thu 11 Dec 2014 - 33hr Fcst - Retrieved from UW mm5rt

You can see that the low this morning is further south (it is arriving later), weaker, and further offshore (this becomes even more apparent during later slides). However, I just checked the European model, and it is slightly closer with the low.

Credit: Weather Underground

Additionally, I just checked the latest 18z GFS, and it is ever so slightly closer with the low, although still offshore.

The bottom line:

I don't think this will be a major event for the Puget Sound lowlands. It will get windy, and there will be power outages. But I don't expect this to be a widespread, damaging event. The main reason is that regardless of the track, the low looks to be weakening too quickly as it heads up north.

However, as I said before, tiny changes will have big effects. We have a high wind watch over our area.

OK, NOW it's time to study. I might make a webcast tonight if I get some stuff done. Maybe.