Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Historic East Coast Snowstorm

Wednesday, January 28, 2015
11:50 am

I think of my commitment to school like a sinusoidal function - specifically, a sine wave shifted 90 degrees to the right so that it becomes a cosine wave.

I tend to start off school hot. I'm well rested from summer, and I can't wait to get back into the swing of things. As the difficulty increases, my stress level increases, and unfortunately, I find myself procrastinating more, which makes things even worse. Still, all things considered, I'm doing pretty darn well autumn quarter. By the time finals come around, I notice an upswing in my performance, as I tend to perform well under pressure. Therefore, if we take the x axis (θ) to be time and the y axis (-1 to 1) to be my performance, you'll see that my performance is not a perfect sine wave - rather, a Fourier Series - i.e. a function that is an addition of a given number of sine waves - would be a better analogy. 

But when I get out of school for winter break, I'm absolutely exhausted, and I use that time to sleep. By that time, my performance has gone into the negative category - I'm not productive at all. It's not necessarily a bad thing - I need the rest - but I'm just not getting anything done.

The problem is that when winter quarter comes, I'm generally not yet ready to adjust back to the routine of actually doing work. It takes me a little while to get my stuff back together and be more productive. But now that we are 3 and a half weeks into the quarter, the sine wave now has a y-value above 0, and I'm ready to get back in business. And that begins with writing more weather blogs.


Combined day-night band and infrared satellite imagery from NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite of the storm at peak strength. Taken January 27, 2015 at 1:45 am EST

As many of you know, the Northeast just got absolutely clobbered by a giant snowstorm (it's been called Winter Storm Juno, but I personally think that names should be reserved for tropical systems). This storm was a "Nor'Easter," which is a type of storm that, well, not only effects the Northeast but travels to the northeast as well. The graphic below showing the track and intensity of the storm reflects this well.

Track and strength of the storm according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Blue = sustained winds of 39-73 mph (tropical storm force), yellow = sustained winds of 74-95 mph (category 1)

The storm had a peak low pressure of 970 hPa, which isn't unheard of but is still pretty darn strong. However, the real story with this storm was the tremendous snow amounts seen throughout the Northeast. Take a look at some of these totals! These were retrieved from Wikipedia from a list compiled from, the National Weather Service Eastern Region Headquarters, and the Tuanton, Massachusetts NWS Spotter Reports.

Amount (inches)City/locationState
24.4West GloucesterRI
24.0West BabylonNY
As you can see, Boston got over two feet of snow! New York City didn't as much, but their 9.8 inches are nothing to sneeze at. See the link for some excellent charts showing the snowfall distribution.

"Massachusetts-New Hampshire border during the January 2015 Nor'Easter" by Medeis - Cell phone capture taken at 11am in NE Massachusetts. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

"Thayer Street, Rhode Island during Juno" by RGloucester. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

"The storm touches down in St. John, New Brunswick on January 27" by CTV news. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
"January 2015 Nor'Easter New York 08" by Krish Dulal. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I could go on and on with pictures, but you get the idea. Unlike the lake-effect snowstorm that impacted south Buffalo earlier this winter, this storm impacted the entire eastern seaboard. While the snowfall totals were not as high as the extraordinary amounts witnessed in Buffalo, they were still extremely high for a region-wide storm. The most snow occurred in Massachusetts, but as the pictures above show, the storm had an extremely wide range. There were also pretty high winds with this storm - the peak gust reached 95 mph. This storm will definitely go down in history as one of the snowiest Nor'Easters to effect the Northeast in recent memory.


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 darn 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.