Sunday, September 24, 2017

Resilience to Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Can This Be a Bipartisan Effort?

The news the past several months has been full of disasters associated with extreme weather and wildfires.  Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  Flooding in Houston, power outages in Puerto Rico.  Wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.

The media and some politicians often suggest that global warming is a major explanation for many of these contemporary disasters.  As noted in previous blogs, I believe that scientific evidence and reports by authoritative groups (e.g., the IPCC) suggest a much more nuanced conclusion about global warming's role in recent weather-related disasters.


Specifically, global warming has played only a minor role in enhancing some of the recent extreme weather events, and that the current problems are mainly the result of poor infrastructure, inadequate planning, and the lack of resilience.  This is particularly true for the Pacific Northwest, downwind of the slowly changing eastern Pacific Ocean.

Our society is not resilient to past and current weather extremes, ones driven overwhelmingly by natural variability and not by human-caused global warming.  So instead of the partisan fighting about the impacts of global warming, which has resulted in little progress, why not work together as a State and a nation to make ourselves more resilient to the current climate and extreme weather?

 Furthermore, putting the blame on global warming has allowed politicians, major institutions, and others to shuffle off their responsibilities in allowing inadequate infrastructure and planning regarding to current extreme weather. Easy to point the finger at global warming and not their failings.

Lack of Resilience is Obvious

Outside of the Pacific Northwest.

Houston has had a number of floods during the past few years and it is clear that lack of planning for heavy rain and abysmal infrastructure has been the primary cause of the problems.

New Orleans flooded during Katrina for many reasons, including inadequate, poorly constructed, and poorly maintained levees, destruction of protecting wetlands, and subsidence from the use of underground aquifers and drilling operations.

In New York City during Hurricane Sandy, subways flooded due to inadequate watertight doors, power failed due to poor placement of electrical infrastructure, and homes located in inappropriate coastal locations were flooded.

In Puerto Rico last week, massive power outages have occurred due to an irresponsibly neglected power system.

In California, the Oroville Dam spillway failed after a heavy rainfall event.  Poor construction and lack of maintenance were the key issues.

There is a virtually an  unlimited number of examples of this:  lack of planning and poor infrastructure has made millions of people vulnerable to current extreme weather.

The Pacific Northwest

 Our region has done relatively little to deal with susceptibility to the effects of weather extremes.

Take wildfires and smoke.    There has been several major fires during the past several years and a number of media outlets/politicians have been pointing the finger at climate change.

Wrong direction.   Temperatures in our region have only warmed up about 1 F during the past several decades and precipitation/snowpack has remained steady over the period (little trend).

But our forests east of the Cascade crest are in terrible condition and prone to burn.  We have suppressed fires for over a half-century allowing unhealthy conditions to develop, with lots of debris on the forest floor and excessive density of timber. Invasive cheatgrass (grassoline) has replace much of the less fire-prone natural bunch grass.

Too many people have been allowed to build homes and buildings in and near forests, endangering them and those sent to protect their homes during wildfires.

Our current State leadership has been irresponsible in this area, investing far less in restoring forest health than other states, and even opposing US Forest Service attempts at expanding proscribed burns.   Instead, they have pushed an ineffective agenda regarding global warming.  And little has been done to discourage building at the urban/forest interface.


Heavy rain, flooding and landslides.   Our region can get heavy precipitation during the winter from atmospheric river events, some with 10-20 inches over a few days.  The result is flooding near rivers and slope failures .  In the future, global warming will enhance the most extreme global rivers by 30-40% (I have done research on this with Mike Warner, of the US Army Corps of Engineers).

Our region is not prepared for even current rain events.   Recently, a very modest rain period caused the failure of King County's West Point treatment plant, resulting in a catastrophic ejection of raw sewage into Puget Sound.

The State and local government agencies allow folks to build in vulnerable locations, such as the homes in Oso, WA that were wiped out a few years ago.

 Too many people live near rivers in highly vulnerable locations.  For example, there are a number of communities living next to rivers, including in bends of rivers (see an example for Big Bend, WA near the Skykomish River, as an example).  Disasters waiting to happen.


The State must identify all vulnerable areas to flooding and landslides, prevent future construction at such sites, and begin the process of buying out vulnerable properties.  This is will not be cheap, but the process needs to start immediately.

Water Resources

During the past fifty years there has been no downward trend in precipitation or snowpack over the Northwest, although there have been some poor years in one or the other (such as the warm temperatures and poor snowpack of 2015).

 Models indicate that global warming will slightly enhance annual precipitation, but significantly reduce April 1 Cascade snowpack by the middle-end of the century.   The Columbia River will be less affected by the warming since many of its sources are from higher terrain.

During the 2015 warm summer, water resources were stretched for the Yakima Valley and for some cities near the Olympics.  There were substantial agricultural losses.  To deal with these issues, more efficient use of water in agriculture (e.g, more drip irrigation, less water-intensive crops, reduce loss/waste) is needed as well as enhanced reservoir capacity, something this being discussed/planned as part of the Yakima Valley Integrated Water Management  Plan.  A statewide plan for dealing with occasional dry years is needed immediately, with extensive planning and infrastructure development for the second half of the century when temperatures will be warmer (more evaporation) and snowpack will decline.

A Key Resource for Resilience and Adaptation:  Knowing the Past and Future

To take the necessary steps to make our region more resilient to the current climate and to prepare for future changes, society needs information on the nature of historical extremes and our best projections of what will occur as the planet warms.   Unfortunately, our state is not investing sufficiently in these areas.

The Office of the Washington State Climatologist (who is Nick Bond) is acutely underfunded and can not collect and make available comprehensive and up-to-date climate information.  The State has not invested in regional climate modeling, an effort that several of us have been trying to spin up.   A modest State investment in documenting past climate information and producing improved projections of future climate, will greatly enhance regional resilience efforts.

Emergency Assistance

Finally, resilience also represents the ability of the nation and world to effectively and quickly move in supplies and assistance to locations where disasters occur.  How effective we are in this area is being tested in Puerto Rico, whose infrastructure was decimated by Hurricane Maria.  The U.S. needs to have a large rapid response infrastructure to bring food, water, and assistance to those facing environmental disasters, and the ability to provide extended assistance with housing and other needs. There has been suggestions that our region is woefully unprepared for the next major earthquake or for an historical record flood.


Many of the above suggestions should be of interest to folks on both sides of the aisle.  Don't believe in global warming?   You can still support making our society resilient to current extreme weather.  You can support getting better climate information.   A middle ground is possible...


Friday, September 22, 2017

Autumn Starts Today Following the Driest and Warmest in Seattle Records

Autumn started today at 1:02 PM, with night and day being equal; thus it is given the name autumnal equinox.   The other neat thing about today is that the border between day and night, called the terminator, is oriented exactly north-south, as seen in the following visible satellite image:


As suggested in my previous blog, this is a summer for the record books.    As shown by a table prepared by the Seattle National Weather Service forecast office, Seattle-Tacoma Airport had the driest summer on record, with only .52 inches.    This table has an issue...they combine the downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac records (Sea Tac only goes to 1945), which is really a problem since the precipitation climatology of the two is different.  As shown in my previous blog, the lowest previous summer precipitation at Sea-Tac was 1.28 inches, making this years record even more impressive.


The summer was also very warm, and we tied the record for average summer high with 78.6F.

Really quite an amazing year, with the wettest winter on record and the driest summer on record.  Both were due to persistent upper atmospheric flow anomalies (differences from climatology).  This summer a persistent ridge of high pressure was parked over us, with a trough of low pressure over the eastern U.S.  They were unusually cold and wet, we were unusually warm and dry.  

Why such anomalies?   We don't know.   Could be typical chaotic behavior of the atmosphere.  At this point, there is no reason to believe such patterns are associated with global warming--climate models forced by increasing greenhouse gases don't produce them.  

Our feathered friends know the season is turning, with a massive southward migration going on.  How do I know. Weather radar!

Here is the radar image from 11:03 PDT last night.  Lots of echo..but no rain.  Those are birds.  How can I be sure?  There was no echo before sunset and then the radar let up as it got dark.  Lots of birds prefer to fly after dark.  Probably safer for them (predators can't see them well) and perhaps they use the stars for navigation.

Weather radar even tell us which direction the birds are flying using the Doppler velocity output. Here is the Doppler Velocity at roughly the same time using the Camano Island radar.  It tells you the component of motion towards or away from the radar.  Cold colors (like blue) indicate incoming, warm colors (orange/yellow) for outgoing.   Clearly, our feathered friends are heading south.




Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Driest Summer in Seattle's History

I am now entirely confident in this. We are going to break a major record in two days:

The driest summer in the history of observations at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.

And we are not simply going to beat the record, we are going to smash it.


Let me give you the numbers.   Logan Johnson, head of the NWS forecast office in Seattle, provided these number for the driest calendar summers (roughly June 21st-Sept 21st) at Seattle-Tacoma Airport:

1988 1.28"
1987 1.33"
2000 1.36"
1990 1.39"

Seattle-Tacoma Airport records go back to 1945-- so over 70 years!

As of noon today (Wednesday June 20th), Seattle-Tacoma Airport has received only .50 inches of rain. LESS THAN HALF of the previous summer record.  And most of the rain is over for a while.

According to the latest forecast model runs, it is possible that we could get a few sprinkles today, but nothing of any significance.   Here is the latest NWS SREF (short-range ensemble forecast) that show the cumulative precipitation prediction at Sea-Tac for a number of model runs starting 5 AM this morning.  No model run provides enough to threaten our record (most produce a few hundredths of an inch).


Folks--we have this in the bag....the driest calendar summer in Sea-Tac Airport history.  

Here is a plot of the observed (purple) and normal (blue line) precipitation at Sea-Tac.  We are about 3 inches behind for the summer!
Another way of appreciating our dry conditions is the following figure, showing the percent of average precipitation since June 21st.  Most of Washington State is below 25%, with some below 5% of normal.


Why have we have been so warm and dry this summer?  The same reason the eastern U.S. has been cool and wet:  an anomalous upper level wave pattern, with high pressure over the west and low pressure over the east.   This is illustrated by the upper level height anomalies (difference from normal) for 500 hPa (about 18,000 ft) for the past 90 days.
The yellow/orange colors indicate higher than normal pressures/heights. Blue the opposite.

Some folks will get upset with me for saying this, but there is no reason to believe that such a pattern has anything to do with global warming.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Normal Weather Returns to the Northwest (Hint: Mountain Snow, Heavy Rain, Wind, Clean Air)

Just when folks thought that heat and smoke would continue forever, normal weather returned to the Northwest.

Let's see....we had light snow above 5-6 thousand feet, providing a dusting at Timberline Lodge.

Air quality improved over nearly the entire region (green circles) as strong onshore flow brought in clean air and the cool/wet weather put down the current fires.


The infrared satellite imagery shows one system after the other, with an upper level trough and very unstable air moving through the region, bringing heavy showers and even some lightning, as I write this.


The radar image for around 8 PM (Monday) shows bands of moderate to heavy (yellow-orange) precipitation moving through.


And the precipitation totals for the 24h ending 7 PM Monday show rain all over the region, with some places (western Olympic Peninsula and the southern WA Cascades) getting over a inch.  Some locations east of Portland got two inches.  The weather gods want to stop the fires in the Columbia Gorge.


The cause of all this frisky weather?  An upper-level trough that replaced the unending upper level ridge of the western U.S. (see below)


 But there is still a possibility we could achieve an amazing record:  the driest calendar summer (June 22-Sept 21) in the history of Seattle.  

Yes, it is still possible.  The record is .58 inches.  So far we have had about .30 inches.  More rain is coming...   Keep your fingers crossed.





Saturday, September 16, 2017

La Nina and This Winter's Weather

I am always nervous about predicting the character of the upcoming winter's weather for a number of reasons.  Seasonal forecasting skill is not good, with our long-range numerical models having very little skill past three weeks. Furthermore, our main seasonal forecasting tool with any skill, the relationship between El Nino/La Nina and local weather, only explains some of the interannual (between years) variation.  In addition, the state of the tropical Pacific (which determines whether we are in El Nino, La Nina or La Nada) often changes during the spring/summer.

Earlier in the year it appeared that we would have a neutral (or La Nada) winter, but recently the waters of the tropical Pacific have cooled and the National Weather Service has released a La Nina Watch (see below).

La Nina is associated with cooler than normal waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, with enhanced easterly trade winds near the equator and the shifting of convection (thunderstorms) westward in the Pacific.


Moving the convection to the west has huge impact on the rest of the atmosphere, even outside of the tropics.  This is the source of long-range forecast skill with El Nino/La Nina.

Let's look at the change in tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures for the Nino 3.4 region (see map below)


Examining a map of anomalies (differences from normal) reveals that during the past few months, the Nino 3.4 area ocean temps have dropped below normal (blue color).

Just as important, the temperatures BELOW the surface have also cooled. Here are a series of views below the surface at the equator (the x axis in longitude across the Pacific, and the y axis is depth below the surface) for July through now.  Cooler than normal temperatures (blue) have developed.


 Atmosphere/ocean coupled models, such as the National Weather Service CFS, are predicting the tropical Pacific will cool further this winter (see graphic below of several of their predictions in time).
 And with all this input, the official NOAA/NWS Climate Prediction Center forecast for this winter is that La Nina will be observed (see below).


 OK, what does all this imply for the Northwest winter?  Generally cooler and wetter than normal.  More snow than average in the mountains.

Here are some statistics from the National Weather Service for the region encompassing western Washington and the western slopes of the Cascades. The eastern side of the State is similar.

For precipitation, two plots are shown, one for fall (OND) and the other for mid-winter (JFM).  The red line is the mean and 50% of the years are within the blue boxes. The extremes are shown by the "whiskers".    La Nina years tend to be wetter than normal (neutral) and El Nino years.


 What about temperatures?  A bit cooler in the autumn, but much cooler during mid-winter.


 The implications for snow is clear, especially after January 1.... a higher probability of the white stuff, particularly in the mountains.  Yes... a reasonable year to get an annual pass at your favorite ski area.

The strength of this relationship depends on the amplitude of La Nina, and at this point the models are only going for a modest one.  And the La Nina/El Nino connection is not dominant, with natural variability being larger.  Finally, one should NOT expect more precipitation than last winter, which was the wettest on record by several measures.

But after the smoke and heat of last summer, I suspect many Northwesteners are breathing a sigh of relief.  And the upcoming week promises plenty of clouds and rain to get us in the mood.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Hurricane Irma Forecast: Triumph or Disappointment?

The quality of the National Weather Service forecast model projections for Hurricane Irma have received a lot of comments in the mainstream and social media.  Some have been positive, but others have been critical, suggesting that the NWS models have performed poorly, lagging behind the well-known European Center model.



Others have criticized the changing hurricane track, particularly the uncertainty over which side of Florida that hurricane would traverse.


Other media outlets noted apparent errors in the storm surge forecasts.

So how good were the American and other weather forecast models when it comes to Irma?
Have we made progress? 
Are there still problem with U.S. forecast models, something that became well-known during Hurricane Sandy in 2012? 

This blog will take on these questions.

My bottom line:  the Irma forecast was a triumph for the weather prediction community, but it also revealed continued problems with U.S. numerical weather prediction and our ability to communicate the uncertainty in model forecasts.

The Triumph

In many ways, the extended forecast of Hurricane Irma was an extraordinary triumph for weather prediction technology, with major global modeling systems (e.g., US GFS, European Center, Canadian, UKMET) suggesting a major threat to Florida a week or more out.   Even a decade ago, we could not have done this well.


Let us begin with a review of Irma's track (see below with legend).  Starting offshore of Africa as weak tropical disturbance, it headed westward, revving into a hurricane east of the Cape Verde Island, and by the time it approached Puerto Rico, Irma had exploded into a category 5 storm.   Subsequently, it moved WNW until it paralleled the northern Cuban coast before taking a sharp right turn that sent it across the Florida Keys and then northward over the western side of the Peninsula.  Irma made landfall on Florida on Sept. 10th.


Below are the ensemble track forecasts for Irma from the U.S. GEFS system (21 members or individual forecasts) and the European Center (ECMWF, 51 members) for the ten-day forecasts initialized on August 30th at 1200 UTC.  We use ensemble forecasts to get an idea of forecast uncertainties and to produce probabilities.

Starting with the European Center ensemble, although uncertainty increases in time, most of the ensemble members are taking a strong storm towards Florida.  A big warning MORE THAN TEN DAYS AHEAD of U.S. landfall.  Amazing.


The smaller U.S. ensemble (GEFS) initialized at the same time is also bringing Irma towards the U.S., but has a greater tendency to bring to storm up the Atlantic coast.


Now, let's examine the ensemble predictions for the two systems for the forecasts initialized two days before landfall (Sept 8th at 0000 UTC).  I will use the wonderful graphics produced by Professor Brian Tang of University of Albany (as an aside I just finished a wonderful visit there, meeting with Brian and his colleagues/students).  The individual ensemble are shown by the thin white lines and probabilities based on these tracks are shown by the shading.  The official (National Hurricane Center) forecast is shown by the black line and high-resolution version of the modeling system by the red-dashed line.

Starting with the European Center forecast, the model predicted the sharp right turn and the high probability for the storm to pass along the western half of Florida. Quite good.


The U.S. GEFS forecast also had a right turn, but it was taking the storm more along the eastern side of Florida, which was not correct.


Although the European Center solution was clearly superior, both U.S. and EC forecasts are very good....showing the threat to the U.S. more than a week ahead of time and predicting a sharp right turn days before. Other major modeling systems, such as the United Kingdom and Canadian models, did the same thing.  Predicting the exact location of the right turn days ahead is simply beyond the science at this time and may always be, but the models were all excellent in predicting that such a turn would occur in the vicinity of Florida.

A triumph for the technology of numerical weather prediction, with substantial credit going to those who have built the complex observing and modeling systems that made this possible.

Whispering warnings

During ancient Roman triumphs, a slave would stand behind the victorious general whispering in his ear "remember you are mortal" and I will act in this role now, at least for the American conquerors.

The U.S. global model was clearly inferior to the European Center model for this hurricane, as it was for Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Harvey last month, and for many others.

To show this, here are the forecast errors for the hurricane locations (track errors)for the high-resolution forecasts of various global models and some of the U.S. hurricane models for 12 to 120 hours (the graphic produced by Brian Tang).  Track errors increase with time, as would be expected.  The U.S. global model (GFS, shown as AVNO--dark red) track errors are MUCH larger than the European Center (orange, ECWF), particularly for the longer forecasts (370 km error for the U.S. and 185 km error for the EC at 120 hours).  For many hours, the U.S. track error is TWICE the EC error.

Just as concerning, the high-resolution U.S. hurricane models had track errors that were substantially worse than those of ECMWF, including the newest U.S. hurricane model (HMON, light green) and the model that was developed (at a cost of tens of millions of dollars) over the past five years, HWRF (aquamarine).

Hurricane Harvey?   Simliar story,  with HMON going wacky at some hours.

Many of the HMON forecasts were completely out to lunch, producing unphysical results.  For example, here are the pressure forecasts for HMON (green), HWRF (purple),  and observed (black).  HMON took the storm down to a completely unrealistic 850 hPa central pressure (observed was around 930 hPa).  With crazy pressures and often large track errors, HMON clearly has very serious problems and should not be shown publicly.  Why it is even necessary is another major question.

 The general superiority of the European Center model is also suggested by other statistics, including the 48h track errors for tropical storms and hurricanes produced by the National Hurricane Center for the last several decades.   Clearly, there has been great progress since 1984, with track errors going from around 200 km to less than 100 km.   That is the triumph stuff.  But this sample of many storms shows that the European Center is consistentlythe best (light blue dots).  The EC would be even more dominant at longer projections.


So, if was whispering in the ears of an American weather general, I was note the following:

  • The ability of the U.S. to forecast hurricanes has clearly improved. Congratulations.
  • Five years after Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. has not caught up to the European Center, with both improving at roughly the same rate.   We need to do better.
  • The European Center does a better job at assimilating a wide variety of observations and their model has better physics (e.g., descriptions of moist processes) than the U.S. models--we need to up our game.  The proposed new U.S. modeling system (FV-3) is not going to fix these areas.
  • The U.S. has spent large amounts of money on hurricane models (e.g., HWRF and now HMON), but in many ways they are inferior to a coarser global model (EC), particularly for track forecasts.  
  • A clearly deficient hurricane model has recently been developed (for reasons that are not clear)...HMON.  It is not ready for prime time, so why show it?
  • There was a lot of confusion about which side of Florida would be hit by Irma.  Much of this confusion can be traced to inadequate communication by the National Weather Service and the media, with substantial misunderstanding of ensemble prediction by the lay community.  We need to do much better in this domain (more in a future blog).
  • National Weather Service verification of model quality and hurricane forecast skill is very poor.  Why do we have to depend on an innovative professor (Brian Tang), and unofficial web sites (e.g., weathernerds) to supply such information?
A triumph for sure but many problems remain for U.S. hurricane and numerical weather prediction.