Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Our Corrupt Political System

It's not often that I touch on non-science topics in this blog. But I have some thoughts about what's been happening this political season, and I thought I'd share them here. I'm not a political scientist, and I admittedly don't know as much about our government as I should. What I do know, however, is that the system seems more "rigged" than ever before. With caucuses, superdelegates, lobbyists, and the possibility of a contested Republican Convention, this election season has opened my eyes to just how undemocratic the United States voting system is.

Crazy Republicans!

I always knew our voting system wasn't perfect, but it really hit me when Lyin' Ted and 1 for 38 Kasich announced they were "teaming up" and splitting their time and resources to prevent Donald Trump from clinching the nomination. I always despised Lyin' Ted, but I found Kasich somewhat reasonable, so much so that I called him "Good Guy Kasich." But when they announced that they were doing this, I lost even more respect for Lyin' Ted (which I didn't think was possible) and I no longer hold Kasich in as high esteem. I despise Donald Trump, but I actually felt sorry for him, and angry that these politicians were trying to get to a contested convention, where the Republican nominee would be decided by several thousand delegates instead of several million citizens. It's one thing to feel sorry for Bernie with the superdelegate disaster, but when you feel sorry for Donald Trump, you know that something is wrong with either you or the political system. At this point, I'm hoping it's the latter.

One of my personal heroes, Albert Einstein, once said that "everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." I apply this quote to many things in my life, and I think it applies to my political views as well. I would say I am a moderate democrat - more liberal than most, but not as liberal as many of my millennial compadres in uber-liberal Seattle. Like many people my age, I like Bernie Sanders because I think he puts his priorities in the right places. And I also think he's been treated terribly by the party elite.

As you can see, Clinton holds a substantial lead over Bernie in total delegates. While she leads him substantially in pledged delegates, she really gets a boost from the superdelegates, who are free to back any democratic candidate they so choose. In Washington, Sanders got nearly 3/4ths of the state's vote, but 10 of 17 superdelegates have pledged to support Clinton, including Jay Inslee, our governor. Bernie won 25 delegates in Washington, while Hillary won 9. If Hillary were to hypothetically get all the superdelegates (which wouldn't be that much of a stretch), she would have 26 delegates to Bernie's 25. Doesn't seem fair to me, and it doesn't seem fair to the Republican frontrunner as well.

If there is a saving grace for Bernie supporters, it's that he has done well in caucuses. I would have liked to go to Washington's democratic caucus, but my plans were already all filled up for the day. If you don't have the free time or resources to go to a caucus, your voice isn't heard. This results in different populations having higher caucus turnout rates, and since many of Bernie's supporters are young, white, middle-class millennials who have the time and resources to go to caucuses, he has done very well in caucus states. On the other hand, Trump, who is very popular with those who have little or no higher education, has not done as well in the caucuses as he has done in the primaries. Keeping in line with the aforementioned Albert Einstein quote, caucuses and superdelegates are unnecessarily complex and unfair, and I would get rid of them if I could.

However, I think that something even worse is happening in the Republican Party (with regard to party corruption... the nativism, ignorance, and fear-mongering by both Trump and Cruz is downright scary). And that is that the person with the most delegates - by a wide margin - could end up not being the nominee. If Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich or even Jeb! were to get the nomination at a contested convention, that would be an indictment of our voting process as undemocratic. But it's a very real possibility.

When I first learned about the Citizen's United decision, it seemed like a reasonable decision to me. Why should there be limits on how much money a corporation can donate to a politician? Anybody should be able to support the candidate of their choice, and they should be free to donate as much money as they please. But as time went on, I realized the repercussions of having this type of corporate influence in politics. A 27 dollar donation from Joe Schmoe isn't going to influence a politician's policy decisions, but a million dollar check from Exxon Mobil absolutely will. And then there's the mainstream media, but that is another can of worms.

Hopefully you found this post insightful, even if I didn't articulate it very well. But it sure felt good to write! Showers and sunbreaks with highs in the low 60s for the remainder of this week before we once again surge into the upper 70s for next week.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Transition To More Seasonable Weather

We've been so hot recently, many of us (including myself) have forgotten that it is only April. Although mountain snow at Snoqualmie Pass becomes increasingly hard to come by after mid-April, it is still relatively common, and we can even have snow there into May. Of course, when you get to 89 degrees in Seattle like we did on Monday, it's hard to imagine how this month could feature snow at the top of Mt. Rainier, let alone the major passes. We usually see around 27 inches of snow in the month of April at Snoqualmie, but this month, we've only seen one inch. Sometimes we see much more; the winter of 2010-2011 saw 84 inches of snow in the month of April there, more than both January and February. You can find snowfall totals back to 1950 for Snoqualmie Pass here.


My skiing friend and teaching buddy Tessa Harvey headed up to Alpental today and took this video. Amazingly, there is still quite a bit of snow up there, though it is quite patchy. Remember, it takes energy for snow to melt, meaning it cools the air around it as it melts. This acts to slow melting and let us hold on to our precious snowpack for a little bit longer. Still, our snowpack, which was normal just a couple weeks ago, has taken a beating so far this April.

Credit: National Water and Climate Center

Looking ahead, we should cool down for the foreseeable future as we return to a more traditional onshore flow. We should still be slightly warmer than normal, but the days in the 80s look like they are past us... for now.

Credit: Climate Prediction Center

It sure was nice while we had it though! And we won't be cold by any means... we'll be up near 70 with mostly sunny skies by the end of next week. It sure took us a while to get to drier and warmer weather, but we're here now, and we aren't looking back.

Thanks for reading,

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Viva La Niña!

Credit: NOAA

Earlier this week, my good friends at NOAA (well, hopefully we'll be best buds someday) issued a La Niña watch for the Tropical Pacific. Some of the models were showing a transition to a La Niña for next winter in the months before, but there was enough spread and uncertainty in the models that the climatologists at NOAA did not put out an official watch. However, as spring rolled on, more and more models hopped on board with the idea of a La Niña for the 2016-2017 winter. Of course, there is still a lot of spread in the models, and some well regarded ones (such as NOAA's own CFSv2 model) actually show yet another El Niño developing next autumn and hanging around for the winter.

Credit: NOAA

At this point though, we look to be headed towards a La Nina not only because the model consensus but because of what has happened during previous strong El Niños. After the record-breaking El Nino of 1997-1998, we saw a massive La Niña the following winter, and it was because of this La Niña that Mt. Baker ski resort got 95 feet snow in a single year, making it the snowiest year ever for anywhere in the world where snow measurements are taken (there are snowier places, including some on Mt. Baker, but observations are not taken there). The models and history are on our side, and that's why the CPC decided to go ahead and issue a La Nina watch.

El Nino refers to a periodic warming of water in the tropical Pacific due to weaker trade winds and less upwelling, while La Nina refers to the opposite. Just like El Nino, La Nina affects weather patterns all over the world, and in many areas, the effects are nearly opposite to what we would expect during an El Nino. While El Ninos shift tropical convection over Indonesia eastward (often resulting in massive fires over southeast Asia), La Ninas shift the convection westward, meaning that Indonesia and many areas in Southeast Asia will likely see enhanced precipitation this year. Hurricanes are often more plentiful in the Atlantic but less plentiful in the Eastern/Central Pacific during El Ninos, so a stormier-than-average Atlantic hurricane season looks on tap for the summer and autumn of 2016.

Credit: NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

In our neck of the woods, La Ninas tend to create a regime nearly opposite to the one that typically shows up during an El Nino year. Instead of having a big low pressure system in the eastern Pacific that allows the jet stream to sag south into California, we have a substantial ridge which nudges the jet stream northward, allowing it to sag into our area from the NW. Indeed, our La Nina years are stormier, cooler, and wetter than average, with mountain snowfall well-above normal. They generally don't have the biggest storms - those tend to occur on neutral years - but they have the most. And that isn't to say we can't have strong storms - one of the strongest storms in Pacific Northwest history, the "Great Coastal Gale" of 2007, pummeled the coast with hurricane force winds and caused massive flooding across much of Western Washington, including submerging a 10-mile stretch of I-5 under 10 feet of water. 2007-2008 was a strong La Niña year and the Cascades got plenty of snow - Alpental was open until Memorial Day (and I was lucky enough to ski the backcountry then!).

Let's take a look at what's happening in the tropical Pacific right now.

Credit: NOAA

As the animated .gif above shows, sea-surface temperatures throughout the tropical Pacific had dropped precipitously over the past month, and they are continuing to drop at a pretty impressive rate. Also, note that there is still a significant amount of warmer-than-average water in the Northeast Pacific. Strong El Niños tend to grow and fizzle out quickly, and this one is no exception. Take a look at the measured SST anomalies in each of the "Niño Regions" across the Pacific. The higher the number, the further west the region.

Temperatures are clearly decreasing everywhere. Niño 1+2 had a little rebound in March, but they'll cool off soon enough. One interesting fact - the El Niño of 1997-1998 that everybody likes to compare to this one had a far bigger influence in the far Eastern Pacific (Niño Region 1+2), while this one was mainly situated over the Central Pacific. The distribution of water plays a significant role in how weather is affected by El Niño, and an El Niño centered over the Central Pacific has different effects than one over the Eastern Pacific. As this year showed, our seasonal forecasts weren't very good at all - so studies into how the distribution of warm water throughout the Pacific affects the effects of an El Niño throughout the world should be further studied.

One of the most telling signs that our El Nino is ending is that even though the temperatures at the sea surface are above normal, those just beneath the surface are actually below normal. In fact, the total heat contained in the upper ocean (upper 300 meters of water) is actually below average now. Ol' El is clearly on his way out.

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

Adios, El Niño. You and your record-breaking, horribly predicted rains will be missed. See you in a couple years.

In the meantime, Viva La Niña!

Clearing snow at Chinook Pass in June 2011. The 2010-2011 winter was a moderate La Niña winter.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Record Heat Today?

Frying an egg and two strips of bacon on the side of the road in Death Valley, California.
Credit: www.catholic.org

What a change a month makes! Back on the 10th and 13th of March, we had two powerful windstorms roll through the area, with the one on the 10th causing lots of damage to the Northern Interior and creating a lot of coastal flooding and the one on the 13th making my last day of teaching ski lessons to kindergartners up at Alpental an adventure for the ages. Now, here we are, less than a month later, and we're expected to hit the 80s throughout the area today. Springtime isn't known for dramatic shifts in weather, but we can get these big ridges of high pressure that bring us exceptionally warm days, and after all the rain we've had, the change has never felt so dramatic.

One of my favorite tools for predicting the temperature on these warm days is the ProbCast tool developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory at University of Washington. As we obtain more and more computer power, ensemble forecasting (where we run a whole bunch of models with slightly perturbed initial conditions) is going to take over our more traditional, "deterministic" forecasting, where we run one model and base our forecasts off of that. The ProbCast tool gives the estimated high temperature based on multiple models, and also lists the 10% probability of the observed temperature exceeding or not reaching a certain temperature. My most memorable ProbCast experience was during our record heat wave of 2009, when Seattle hit 103 degrees, which was exactly what the Probcast was predicting.

Many news outlets are predicting the high temperature to be around 80 degrees or so. Let's see what the ProbCast says!

Credit: University of Washington Applied Physics/Atmospheric Sciences

85! Yikes! And there is a 10% chance that the temperature could exceed 89, meaning there is an outside chance the temperature could exceed 90! I personally think this is a little bullish and I don't think we'll hit 85, but low 80s is a good bet.

Credit: University of Washington Applied Physics/Atmospheric Sciences

Here's the ProbCast map throughout all of the Pacific Northwest for today. As you can see, many places west of the Cascades are forecast to be in the 80s - not just in Washington but in Oregon as well. If you want to escape the heat, go to Wyoming.

A big ridge of high pressure over our area is enough to make us warm and sunny, but the key to our record warmth is the offshore winds that are forecast to come down the Cascades into our area. As air sinks, it warms, and even though the air in the upper atmosphere is generally cooler than the air in the lower atmosphere, it warms at such a rate that by the time it reaches the lower atmosphere, it is often warmer than the air that was previously in place. The key to having offshore flow is to have higher pressure in Eastern Washington and lower pressure in Western Washington, and as the map below shows, we will have that today. It isn't the biggest pressure difference, so winds won't be too strong, but it is enough to bring us that warm, offshore flow while preventing the cooler, maritime, onshore flow from cooling off our neck of the woods.

Valid 05:00 pm PDT, Thu 07 Apr 2016 - 12 Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

On Friday, we'll start to cool down in Western Washington, but we'll still be pretty darn nice.  Eastern Washington will see it's warmest weather of the year. By Saturday, stronger onshore flow returns, cooling us off dramatically back into the 60s.

 Enjoy the sun!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Another Beautiful Week On Tap

Wow, what a change in weather we have had! From the wettest winter on record to two consecutive weeks with temperatures above 70 degrees! Our transition from autumn to winter is swift, but our transition from winter to spring usually takes a little bit more time. It certainly hasn't taken much time so far!

Last week, many places around Western Washington, including Sea-Tac, got into the 70s on Thursday and Friday. Although some morning clouds prevented us from reaching those same temperatures in the lowlands on Saturdays - temperatures were extremely warm in the mountains. I was skiing up at Alpental and was absolutely boiling. It was stunningly beautiful though, and I had a lot of fun.

The reason last week was so nice was because we had a large, persistent "Omega Block" right over our area, giving us clear skies, warm temperatures, and for some people (including myself), terrible allergies. We will also be warm and sunny later this week, but the warmth won't last for an extended period of time. However, Thursday in particular will be much warmer than any day last week.

Let's take a look at the WRF-GFS 1000-500 hPa thickness chart. I love this chart because it does a great job of quickly showing which areas are expected to be warm and which areas are expected to be cool. This is because "thickness" between two pressure levels is a function of density, and the less dense the air, the higher the thickness.

Here's what the thicknesses are like over the West Coast around 11 am this morning. As you can see, we have a ridge to our south with relatively high thicknesses over the area, but in order to get into the 70s, you'd want that ridge to become stronger and you'd want thicknesses to be in the 560s or higher.

Valid 11:00 am PDT, Tue 05 Apr 2016 - 6hr Fcst
 Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

Wednesday morning, we look a little better. Right now, I think that Sea-Tac will stay below 70 on Wednesday, but I would not be surprised if they got all the way into the low 70s.

Valid 08:00 am PDT, Wed 06 Apr 2016 - 27hr Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

But wow, look at Thursday afternoon! Thursday is expected to be our warmest day of the week, with temperatures in the upper 70s for many locations. Sea-Tac's record high for that date was 78, set back in 1996. I think we are going to break it!!!

Valid 05:00 pm PDT, Thu 07 Apr 2016 - 72 Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

Another thing to look at is what the actual temperatures are like in the upper levels of the atmosphere. The Storm Prediction Center has a really cool tool where you can see the average and record values for a given parameter throughout the entire year. These parameters were measured using radiosondes - those big weather balloons with instruments that travel up to 100,000 feet through the atmosphere, taking measurements along the way.

850 hPa temperature climatology at Quillayute (UIL)
Credit: Storm Prediction Center

The 850 mb temperatures at 5 pm Thursday are forecast to be 16-17 degrees Celsius, which would set a new record not only for April 4th but for all of February and March as well, and possibly even January and April. Needless to say, it will be extremely warm in the upper atmosphere, and that warmth will make its way down to the surface.

Valid 05:00 pm PDT, Thu 07 Apr 2016 - 60 Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

A key factor for making temperatures really toasty here in the lowlands is the existence of offshore winds. We should have offshore flow on Thursday, with the foothills getting the strongest offshore flow and thus warming up the most. This will hold true for the coast as well - places like Forks (and, to a lesser extent, Quillayute) get a warming, offshore flow from the Olympics. I suspect that most places on the coast will set new record highs on Thursday.

On Friday, the ridge moves east of the area, but we should still have enough residual warmth to squeak out another day in the 70s. We cool off for the weekend, and beyond that, we look seasonable, with highs in the upper 50s to lower 60s with periods of light rain at times. Definitely a far cry from the intense windstorm we saw less than a month ago!


Monday, April 4, 2016

The Demise of The West Antarctic Ice Sheet

On Wednesday, the New York times came out with an alarming article. It said that a new, high-resolution model was showing that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), a massive ice sheet west of the "Transantarctic Mountains" that divides the continent into eastern and western sections, could melt far faster than previously thought, with sea levels rising as much as 6 feet by the end of the century. This is twice as high as what other models, such as those used in the reports given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, were showing for a similar emissions scenario.

I am always skeptical of these types of articles. New York Times likely wouldn't publish a story like this if sea-level rise with this new model was a meter or less. That's simply not an exciting story to write. And the problem with publishing these types of articles is that it gives the impression to the public that a significant portion of the scientific community believes that the sea level could rise higher than Russell Wilson by the end of the century when, in reality, this is just one study in a field where a lot of uncertainty currently exists.

Credit: NASA

I minored in oceanography at the University of Washington and was pondering double majoring in it and atmospheric sciences, but I ultimately decided to simply go for the atmospheric sciences major because doing both of these wonderful majors would require me to stay at the UW for two additional years. Still, I took plenty of oceanography classes, and in multiple classes, my professors stressed the importance of the WAIS in deciding how much our sea-level could rise by the end of the century. 

Like many glaciers and ice caps around the world, the WAIS has been shrinking since the end of the "Little Ice Age," and global warming has accelerated this process. However, there is a lot of uncertainty as to how the WAIS will react to warming in the future. This is because large parts of Antarctica, including much of the WAIS, actually lie below sea level due to the massive weight of the ice above the continent weighing it down in a process known as isostatic depression.

Subglacial topography and bathymetry of Antarctica.
Credit: Paul V. Heinrich

As the picture above shows, land generally slopes downward as you go inland in West Antarctica due to isostatic depression. In fact, some inland areas are actually over a mile below sea level. Because of this unique feature, the ice sheet is unstable, meaning that even a little bit of a retreat of the WAIS could start a destabilization process that would lead to a collapse of the WAIS. Our current computer models do not have the capabilities to simulate this process, and significant uncertainty in the scientific community exists as to how quickly the WAIS will continue to melt, and if there ever will be a catastrophic collapse of a large section of the ice sheet.

As such, sea-level rise estimates span a pretty darn wide range, even for given "emissions forecasts" looking into the future. As shown below, there is a degree of overlap between the sea level rise with RCP 8.5 (the high-emissions scenario) and RCP 2.6 (the low-emissions scenario), suggesting that there is considerable uncertainty in how much the sea level will rise over the next century. And much of this uncertainty has to do with our poor handle on how the WAIS will behave in the future.

Credit: IPCC 5th Assessment Report

The New York Times article was based on this study on the "Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise recently published in Nature. In the study, scientists showcased the results of a new, high resolution model that attempted to correctly model the response of the WAIS to subtle shifts in temperature. With this model, scientists were able to correctly reproduce the sea levels around 125,000 years ago, which are estimated to have been between 20 and 30 feet higher than today. Once they modeled this correctly, they used this model to forecast how the sea level would change in the future. According to the study, Antarctica alone has the potential to contribute one meter of sea-level rise by 2100 and over 15 meters (50 feet!) by 2500 if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the current rate.

Credit: Deconto and Pollard, 2016

Even more startling is the predicted rate of sea-level-rise. Since 1950, the sea level has been rising at about an inch per decade. Under the high-emissions (RCP 8.5) scenario, this new Antarctic model predicts that sea levels could rise as much as a foot per decade by the middle of the 22nd century. This would have tremendous impacts around the world, and while many large cities such as Miami, New Orleans, and New York City would be able to adapt to the increasing sea levels, it would be cost-prohibitive to build a seawall around the entire United States to protect all coastal areas from flooding. Donald Trump likes walls, but I believe our biggest threat in the future is from the ocean, not from our neighbors to the south. Developing countries would have an even harder time adapting.

Even though this all sounds very scary, it is important to remember that this is just one study. It is a very important study because it offers new insight into the fate of the WAIS, but in the coming years, more accurate, higher resolution models will be created, and we'll see if they come to similar conclusions. One thing is for sure - we need to decrease our CO2 emissions immediately, because we are just digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole. Honestly, when you consider the impact on future generations, I think it is quite selfish of us to be as lackadaisical as we have been. Global warming can't be avoided, but it can be mitigated. 

My challenge to you is to think about one thing you could do every day that would reduce your carbon footprint. Maybe it's taking the bus instead of driving to that doctor's appointment, or maybe it's wearing a sweater in the winter and turning down the thermostat a bit. Maybe it's simply going for a walk instead of watching TV, or maybe it is educating other people about climate change, ocean acidification, and sea level rise. Although our individual impacts on Earth's climate are negligible, we are having a profound impact on the Earth as a whole, so if we could all just work together to try and decrease that impact, that would be awesome.

Thanks for reading!!!