Monday, December 22, 2014

Odds for a White Christmas: Update

OK, we're only 3 days away from the Big Day, and snow is still hard to come by in my Inland Northwest locations.  Is there any hope for a White Christmas?  Here's the current snow depth analysis:

Pretty pathetic.  Folks in the Cascades are doing well, as are those in some of the northern valleys (e.g. Omak, Republic, etc).  Otherwise, lots of bare ground.  

Just to refresh your memory, here was last year's snow cover at this same time. Not stellar, but better than this year.

But there's still time to change this, right?  Actually, the answer is "yes", for some locations anyway.  As we've been discussing in earlier blogs, the computer models have been suggesting a Christmas Eve storm for over a week now, but they've been waffling on the exact timing, track, etc.  And these small differences play a HUGE role in who will get precipitation, and in what form will it fall.  But now, the models are in fairly close agreement. So let's take a look at what they're saying.

Below is the GFS forecast precipitation for the 12 hours ending 4pm Wednesday.

While this looks encouraging, unfortunately almost all of this will fall in the form of rain.  Snow levels during the morning hours will be around 6000' but will rapidly fall through the day as cold air moves in from the north.  Can the snow levels drop all the way to the valleys before the precipitation ends?  Maybe, but this is typically a poor pattern for valley snow.  And even if it does snow in the valleys, it will have a hard time accumulating on the ground during the afternoon/evening hours.

Here's the probability of 1" or more snowfall on Christmas Eve. 

Things are looking up for folks in the Idaho Panhandle.  Meanwhile things look bleak for locations in central/eastern Washington, with locations west and south of Spokane having next to no chance for snow.

So, looks like a brown Christmas for many folks.  The interesting climate tidbit in all this is that we could set an obscure record at Spokane.  The latest that it's ever taken for the Spokane Airport to have it's first 1" or greater snowfall from one storm is Dec 24th 1976.  Unless the forecast changes in a hurry, we'll break that record.  But not by much.  Why you ask?  Because it's is now looking very good for a decent snow event after Christmas.

Here's the 24-hour precipitation forecast from the GFS ending Saturday evening:

Looks similar to the Christmas Eve storm, right?.  The difference is that just about all of this will fall in the form of snow instead of rain.  The reason is that while the Christmas Eve storm might not bring much snow, it will bring colder air.  So by the time this second storm arrives, we'll be much colder.  Different models have different amounts of snow, but in general they all have a solid 2-4" for most locations with the potential for higher amounts.

Here's the snowfall forecast from the NAM (red) and GFS (blue/purple) for Spokane. 

There are different forecasts here using different techniques.  But in general they give a similar message.  Snow will start Friday evening and continue into Saturday evening.  The ECMWF (not shown) has a similar story, but doesn't start the snow until Saturday morning and continues it into Sunday.  Either way, there is the potential for several inches of snow.

It's too early to hang-your-hat on this forecast.  But one of the things we like to see is that each model forecast is similar to the previous one (GFS runs every 6 hours, ECMWF every 12).  And they've been saying a similar message for about the last 24 hours.  So that's a good sign and gives us confidence that this forecast could indeed pan out.  But the overall pattern for this storm isn't necessarily a favorable one for heavy snow in the Inland Northwest.  The mountains will almost assuredly pick up some snow from this, but the lower elevations might not see much. Stay tuned to the forecast, especially if you plan to travel this weekend.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Are the chances of a White Christmas improving?---UPDATED 12/18/14

...Here's an update to yesterday's blog. We replaced the images with the latest weather forecasts...  

 Since our last post, we have gotten a little more resolution on the prospects of seeing a White Christmas across the Inland Northwest. But before we answer that question we need to deal with a weak weather system tonight and Friday and then a much stronger system for the weekend. As of our latest forecast (issued 3pm Thursday). Tonight and Fridays weather system is calling for light snow, mainly confined to the mountains. Valley snow chances will be reserved for the Cascade valleys, Okanogan Valley, and a small part of the Waterville Plateau. These locations will generally see amounts ranging from 1-3 inches with locally heavier amounts near the Cascade Crest. There will likely be some travel concerns going over the Cascade passes.

Snow forecast for tonight-Friday

The storm system for Saturday and Sunday stands a much better chance of producing significant snowfall as it will contain much more atmospheric moisture. This will be care of a very well-defined atmospheric river that has its sights set on the Pacific Northwest. Here's what the atmospheric river is expected to look like by Saturday morning. This river will draw its moisture from well south and west of Hawaii.
Atmospheric river forecast for Saturday morning. The darker the colors, the more moisture content. 

While the river will assuredly produce widespread precipitation, it will also deliver steadily warming temperatures. Our confidence is high that snow levels will be low enough to produce moderate to heavy snows near the Canadian border and in the Cascades. It would not be surprising to see snow amounts approach a couple feet in the Cascades.  Meanwhile, the forecast for the nearby valleys is a much tougher call as temperatures will be critical. If they warm much above 32°F the snow accumulations could be less than forecast, in fact much less. Right now, we are forecasting temperature very close to freezing over most of these lower elevation locations and putting moderate snow accumulations in the Cascade Valleys. Most of this valley snow threat would occur between Saturday morning and early Saturday evening.

Weekend Snow forecast

By Sunday afternoon, temperatures will warm significantly as the warmth associated with the sub-tropical moisture continues its northeastward surge. Snow levels will rise to 4000' or higher over the entire Inland Northwest. This will translate to melting snow over most of these valley locations. The big question is can we melt what falls? That depends on how much accumulates over these locations. The warming will be accompanied by breezy conditions which will help melt the snow especially as the dewpoint temperatures and nighttime lows rise above freezing. And that's what we are expecting as of our latest forecasts. Here's a look at the high-temperature forecast for Sunday.

Sunday Forecast Highs

 So based on the current forecast the only valley locations which stand a chance of snow before Christmas Eve would be near the Canadian Border, or the Cascades. How about the remainder of the region? Well, as we talked about in our last blog entry we are expecting a big pattern change, right around Christmas Eve. That's still true. Our mild west-southwest flow of late will take a decided cooler turn to the northwest. Here's what the upper-level pattern is going to look like (at least something like it anyway). The wind flow will be parallel to the yellow height lines and it will deliver cooler air into the area (blue and purple shading is cold air, other colors are relatively warm) via the Gulf of Alaska. Meanwhile, the remnants of the weekend moisture stream will get hung up somewhere over the Pacific Northwest. The big question is where is that going to happen? Most likely it will occur immediately downstream or east of the curve in the yellow lines. In the picture below that suggests that will be somewhere over extreme southern Washington and northern Oregon.

500 mb Heights and temperatures

So is there good model agreement in where that curve is going to form? That is the key to this forecast. As of the latest model runs, consensus is growing. Here's a look at four various model runs all looking at the afternoon hours of Christmas Eve. We placed the precipitation forecast on top of the 500 mb yellow height lines. Notice, they all show a similar curve in the height lines or flow, however they vary on how far north to place it.  Model trends continue to support the band forming well south of I-90. Notice some don't place any precipitation over eastern Washington, while others only give us light precipitation amounts. Based on the trends, our confidence in seeing precipitation remains highest for locations near the Oregon/Washington border, such as Lewiston and Pullman. However, even in these locations temperatures may remain just a little too warm for snow.

Various weather models for Christmas Eve. Shading represents the precipitation. 

So to answer our original question. Are the chances for a White Christmas improving? For locations such as Mazama, Republic, or Plain the answer is a decided yes. For Lewiston or Pullman the answer is a maybe. Folks in Spokane, Couer d'Alene, Moses Lake, or Wenatchee the odds are not great. Of course, Christmas Eve is just under a week away and much can change between now and then. So stay tuned and maybe just maybe the yellow curve will decide to set up over the entire Inland Northwest resulting in a White Christmas for all. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Looking for significant snow? Is there any hope soon?

  Well, another week into December and much of the Inland Northwest has yet to see any significant snow. The only exceptions have been near the Cascades and a small part of the Okanogan Valley. As of this afternoon, here what the snowpack summary looked like. Notice there is very little if any snow in the valleys. If you wanted to see significant snow, you'd have to trek into the mountains north and west of Wenatchee and Omak  or north of Sandpoint.
Snow depth as of 5pm Monday 12/15/14
Although these areas were shaded in purple indicating anywhere from 20" to 50" of snow on the ground, that pales vs. where we are supposed to be this time of year. Here's a look at the amount of water that's in the current snowpack. Generally speaking, it's right around half of where it should be this time of year (orange shading) and is actually far worse across most of the Cascades!

Snow water equivalent vs. normal

So is there any hope we can add some more snow to the forecast this week? Actually there is some hope however it won't add up to much. We have several weak weather systems set to impact the Inland Northwest this week. The first will arrive late tonight and into Tuesday. For now, here is our forecast of snow.
Snow forecast for late tonight-Tuesday
As you can see we have light snow forecast across much of the region. We are most confident about the snow totals near the Cascades and northern Valleys. Elsewhere, it looks like the snow might begin too late in the day so it might make accumulations difficult to come by. But that's not the only hope for snow. A couple weak disturbances look like they will impact the region through the remainder of the workweek. Here's our latest forecast of snow for late Thursday through Friday night. Confidence is not high as these will be weakening and warming winter storm systems. Temperatures away from the Cascades and northern valleys could be marginal for snow, especially accumulating snow.

Snow potential for Thursday afternoon-Friday night
Even if the snow materialises, it won't likely stick around long as we will see a yet another round of very warm and wet weather. This weather will be brought to us by another atmospheric river or Pineapple Express. Here is the model depiction of the latest plume. The moisture is represented by the stream or river of greens colors extending across the eastern Pacific to the Washington Coast. Notice the plume originates to the west of Hawaii (lower left corner of the picture), suggesting it will be a very juicy airmass. Temperatures should surge well above freezing over most locations which will melt most of not all of the valley snow which falls this week.
Atmospheric river forecast for Saturday

So this warm air is only forecast to persist through Monday night or so which doesn't bode well for a White Christmas. But is all hope lost? First off this would be a good time to show what the climatological odds are of seeing a White Christmas. There is a very large variability across the Inland Northwest ranging from near 100% for the northern valleys of Washington, and most of the Idaho Panhandle to less than a 25% chance by the time you go south toward the Tri-Cities and Lewiston. For a more detailed look of the map below check out this link from the National Climate Data Center.

Odds of a white Christmas. 
So enough about climatology, what about this years weather? There are actually some good indications that we could see a moderate to major winter storm on Christmas Eve. Well, why is that? It looks like we will see a very good setup where the moisture from early next week sticks around and is intercepted by much cooler arriving from the northwest.
500 mb pattern showing northwest flow from BC and Gulf of Alaska

Notice the kink in the flow setting up near the Washington/Oregon border. Where this sets up gives us a clue for where we can expect the heaviest snow.While there are model uncertainties as to where this kink sets up most of the model solutions are showing this. Here's a look at several solutions for Christmas Eve. Notice they are all showing a band of moderate to heavy precipitation (purple and red shading), they differ significantly on where to place the band.
Various model solutions for precipitation on Christmas Eve
 As this forecast period nears, we should be getting a better handle on where the band of precipitation sets up. The good news is whatever falls should easily fall as snow as we rid ourselves of the above freezing temperatures. So if you are wishing for a White Christmas this year, your wishes just might come true!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Where's the Snow?

We're now into the second full week of December, and most of us in the Inland Northwest haven't seen much snow yet.  The notable exception is the folks in the Methow Valley, which received up to 18" from a storm just before Thanksgiving.  Outside of that, most locations have seen a dusting here, half an inch there, but nothing that survived for very long.  

So the first question often is "Has this ever happened before?"  Our climate records for this area generally go back into the early 1900's with some sites having data into the late 1800's.  And some sites have good, continuous data, while others are a bit spotty.  So lets take a look at a few sites that have good data and are representative of the area.

First we have to define how to look at the early season snow.  The first measure is fairly obvious: "How much snow do we normally have by this date?"

Avg Snow through   7 Dec
Total Snow 
7 Dec 2014
Lowest Snow through 7 Dec
Spokane Airport
0.3” in 1954
Wenatchee WP
0” in 2012
0” in 1904
Priest River
0” in 2002
Trace in 1943
Trace in 1969
0” in 1920

As you can see, in most locations, we're behind our Average snow fall through December 7th.  But we're still doing better than other bleak years.  So no records there.

Another way to look at it is the average date of the first inch of snowfall. 

Avg Date First 1” Snow
2014 First 1” Snow
Latest First 1” Snow
Spokane Airport
Nov 19th
Not Yet
Dec 23rd 1976
Wenatchee WP
Dec 6th
Nov 22nd
Feb 1st 1963
Nov 22nd
Nov 29th
Jan 4th 1990
Priest River
Nov 14th
Nov 25th
Dec 15th 1926
Nov 13th
Nov 22nd
Dec 23rd 1976
Nov 12th
Nov 22nd
Dec 11th 1936
Nov 20th
Dec 4th
Dec 25th 1954

Again, most locations got a late start, but nothing that would break any records.  The exception is the Spokane metro area, which has yet to even have it's first inch of snow.

So what's been the cause of this lack of snow?  Here's the average temperature for the Nov 1st - Dec 5th period.

As you can see, for the past 30 days it's been actually colder than normal for the Inland Northwest.  Of course, this is an average of 2 cold snaps with some rather mild weather in between.  Here's the daily temperature data for Spokane:

The blue bars are the daily temperatures, while the red and blue shading shows the daily records.  Spokane hasn't had any record highs or lows during this period, but they've come close.  The mild temperatures are certainly not conducive to snow.  But what's frustrating is that the cold snaps didn't equate to much if any snow.  Typically, cold air that moves in from Canada is very dry and doesn't provide much snow, which was the case with both of these systems.  But then eventually a Pacific storm will bring moisture into the area and it will fall as snow until the cold air can be pushed out of here.  But in both of these events, that didn't happen.  Instead, the Pacific storm went south of our area, leaving the Inland Northwest largely dry.

The percent of average precipitation shows that after a promising start to the wet season in late October, we've been fairly dry over the past 30 days.

So what has this meant for the mountain snow pack?  It's not good.  Here's the Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) analysis (i.e. how much water is in the snow that's on the ground).  The color shading represents the comparison of this year to how much is typically in the snow pack by December 8th:

It shows that most of our area is lagging behind normal at this point.  While this is bad news for ski enthusiasts, it's way too early to worry about it from a water supply standpoint.

Is there any hope of a change in the weather?  Not really.  Here's the 8-14 day outlook for temperatures and precipitation from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC).

The folks at CPC see warmth for next week across just about the entire US, while precipitation is expected to be near to below normal for mid-December.  This is an average outlook for a 7 day period.  So there can still be a weak snow event buried in there, but it's not likely.  And since this outlook ends on December 22nd, the issue of a White Christmas is starting to come into play.