Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Hazy Pacific Northwest

More than one person has commented to me about about how hazy the skies have been lately.  In contrast, early in the summer, the skies were often starkly blue with the mountains sharply silhouetted on the horizon.

Want to see the difference between early July and now?  Look at these samples from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency visibility cameras, one from July 7th and the other from yesterday morning:

The reason for the loss of visibility?

Smoke from wildfires all around us.  There are many fires in British Columbia to our north (see map)

And lots of fires over Washington, Oregon,  Idaho, and California (see image)

So if the winds are from North to East to South, smoky air is moving over us.  During the past few days we have gotten smoke from British Columbia fires, smoke that first moved west and then south.   Here is the MODIS satellite imagine on Monday...can you see the smoke over the interior of BC that is moving towards the coast?

We can run a trajectory calculation (Hysplit) to see where the air over us Monday night came from (see graphic)...yep...from coastal British Columbia.

The wildfire smoke has caused the air quality in a number of Northwest locations to decline to moderate.  Here is an example from Seattle...Queen Anne Hill.

This is not the only summer we have experienced worsening visibility from regional wildfires and won't be the last.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Yakima and and Central/Southern WA Cascades Gets Hit by Thunderstorms

This is really getting to be an amazing year for thunderstorms over the Cascades and the eastern Cascade slopes.   It just doesn't stop!

Today's storms were focused from Yakima into the central and southern Washington Cascades.  The 24-h rainfall ending 7:30 PM Sunday is shown below: 1/2 inch in Yakima, with as much as .80 inches near Snoqualmie Pass and .5-1 inch over the eastern slopes of the northern Oregon Cascades.

Rain gauges can, of course, miss some significant rain features, particularly from thunderstorms.  Here are the "storm totals"--mainly for this afternoon-- from the Pendleton, Oregon radar.  In limited areas along the eastern slopes of the WA Cascades there was 1-2 inches.

The National Weather Service had a flood warming out this afternoon for the Yakima area and there was some localized flooding over roadways.  Here is a report from a NWS spotter near Tampico (east of Yakima, see map below).  The spotter estimated 2 inches of rain (consistent with radar) and water running over Ahtanum Rd.

Time:0340 PM
Magnitude:E2.00 INCH
Location:2 E TAMPICO

A storm-total precipitation map from the Portland radar shows the Yakima precipitation and the heavy rainfall south of Hood River.

The thunderstorms today brought lots of lightning...here is the lightning strike map for the 24h ending 9 PM Sunday.  Lots of lightning over the central and southern WA Cascades, as well as eastern Oregon. Some new fires have been reported.

For example, one small fire started near Selah, Washington, but was quickly extinguished (see picture)

Picture courtesy of MASON TRINCA/Yakima Herald-Republic

It looks like the lightning and thunderstorms will take a break for a few days, staring tomorrow (Monday)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thunderstorms and Flooding in Northeast Washington

This is turning out to be the summer of thunderstorms in parts of eastern Washington and yesterday was no different.  Strong thunderstorms hit Okanogan County, including much of the area of the Carleton fire, resulting in mudslides and flooding.  At least ten homes were destroyed and both SR 20 and 153 were closed (see pics from Methow Valley News and Wenatchee World).

Take a look at the "storm total" of the precipitation from Thursday to Friday morning based on the Spokane National Weather Service radar:  1-1.5 inches fell, with most of that happening within an hour or so.

The thunderstorm tops were so tall (about 35,000 ft) that they were picked up by the Camano Island radar (see image at 5:08 PM yesterday).

As an aside, I should note that radar coverage is very poor over the eastern slopes of the Cascades, with the radar beams from the Seattle, Spokane, and Pendleton radars being quite high (about 6000 ft!) by the time they get to say Wenatchee.   Thus, shallow rain can be missed by these radars. The solution to this problem would be to secure smaller, gap-filler radars.   Folks in Wenatchee, Ellensburg, and Yakima might lobby for decent coverage.

The heavy precipitation caused some of the rivers to rise very fast;  here is an example of the river stage of the Methow River near Pateros.  Nice spike from a passing thunderstorm.

Why the thunderstorms?  Same old story...a weak upper trough moved through when potentially unstable air was over Washington (see upper level map for 5 PM Thursday below)

Let me give you an idea about how unusual things have been.  Here is the departure from normal of precipitation over the last month.  Except for the Olympic Peninsula, it has been wetter than normal and MUCH wetter than normal over the Cascades and eastern slopes of the Cascades.

 Want to be impressed?  Here is the percentage of normal for the same period. Much of eastern Washington has received 300+% of normal (but keep in mind that normal is modest this time of the year).

 It looks like things will dry out this weekend as the trough moves eastward.  Nice weekend.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Will this be the warmest summer in Northwest history?

Although summer still has one more month to run, the extraordinary warmth of the past two months is putting us on a track whereby we might achieve that record.  Here is the average departure of the maximum temperature from normal from June 21st until now.  The Northwest is well above normal, particularly over and east of the Cascade crest.

Minimum temperature?  Same picture.

We can compare the temperatures at Seattle Tacoma Airport, Yakima, and Spokane against the normal highs and lows (see figures).  For roughly 2/3 of the days, the max temperatures are higher than  normal (the red line), with many days 5-10F warmer than normal.
July was the first or second warmest for many stations around the Northwest and, as shown above, August was even more anomalous.

The latest Climate Prediction Forecast for the next 6-10 days is...  you guessed it.  Warmer than normal over Washington and Oregon.

Temperatures this summer are running roughly 3F above normal.  Following the median global warming scenario, this is like advancing 30-50 years into the future.  So this summer you are getting an idea of the conditions you or your children will experience in approximately 2050.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Why Is Washington State Experiencing More Wildfires than Southern/Central California?

The drought in California has been given extensive coverage in the media, with stories last spring predicting a heavy toll from major wildfires over the summer.   This has not come to pass.

After a few early wildfires near San Diego in April, California has seen few major wildfires, but Washington State has been hit very hard, with many major fires in the Cascades and eastern Washington (see graphic).  Eight major fires are now burning over Washington (red circles), twice the number found in California.

Looking at the U.S. Drought Monitor diagnostics (which show the moisture content of the surface layer), you would think that California would be FIRE CENTRAL, with FAR drier conditions than in Washington (I show the maps for August 12th and July 1st).

But that has not been the case.  So why are so many fires occurring in Washington while California has been spared the worst so far?

As I will explain below, the initiation of wildfires is a complicated issue, with far more involved than drought and a dry surface.   A number of factors need to come together to get major fires, and Washington (and particularly eastern WA) has had them.  These situation also has implications for what might happen under global warming, as the Southwest dries out.

The situation over the Northwest has been ideal for fires this summer.   We have had long periods of warm, dry conditions that has dried out the surface and caused relative humidities to plummet.  And then weak troughs have approached us, covering the area with lots of lightning that have initiated fires.

Consider Wenatchee, on the eastern slopes of the Cascades and close to several major fires.  Below you can see the temperatures, relative humidity, and temperature.  In mid July temperatures rose into the 90s and low 100s F, with relative humidities dropping below 15%.  And then rain and thunderstorms hit around July 23, setting off a series of fires.  Then the warming started again and the humidity plummeted.   And then ran and thunderstorms hit again last week, causing more fires.

Each of the lightning events was caused by the approach of an upper level trough, like the one shown below, that interrupted a warm, high pressure regime.  The passage of the trough was associated with strong winds on the eastern slopes that stoked the fires, sometimes causing them to explode into uncontrollable infernos.

So for us in the Northwest, we have had perfect conditions for fires...long warm, dry periods interspersed with brief periods of thunderstorms.

By why has California lucked out?    First, other than April they have had a general absence of dry, Santa Ana conditions in which strong, offshore flow brings extremely low humidities, heat, and powerful winds rev up fires.

They have not had much lightning because the troughs moved in over the Northwest and not over southern and central CA.

And they have actually had quite a bit of precipitation over the Sierras, with a stronger than normal wet Southwest Monsoon.  To show this, here is the percent of normal precipitation over the western U.S. for the last 60 days.  The blues and purples are well above average.

The summer is not over yet, and the great Santa Ana fires generally hit California in the fall, so California is not out of the woods yet.  But the big message is that the initiation of major wildfires is a complicated affair, and simplistic arguments about drought and fire can be pushed too far if we are not careful.