Sunday, May 31, 2015

Does Monday still look like a severe day?

A few days have come and gone since our last post about the potential severe weather event for the first day of June. So how are things looking now that the event is nearing? Well according to the water vapor imagery below, it's looking pretty good. See the swirl off the northern California Coast? That's the deep low-pressure system which will deliver the active weather as it moves toward the Inland Northwest. Why is this low important? Well for a good thunderstorm day we need three key ingredients: lift, instability, and moisture. The low will provide us with the first ingredient.

Animated water vapor imagery. Note the swirl off the Northern California coast. 

The models are very consistent in taking this low from its current position off the California Coast toward the Washington/Oregon border by afternoon and then toward the Washington/BC border by evening. This pattern resembles the typical negative tilted pattern we associate with severe weather in the Inland Northwest. The track of the low will ensure that the region will be subject to strong lifting potential beginning in southern Washington and central Idaho in the morning and spreading northward through the day. 

500 mb forecast with precipitable water forecast

Notice the shading in the 500 mb map above? That represents the precipitable water forecast. The greens, blues, and purples depict where the juiciest air will be located, Initially the pool of moisture, currently over far northern Oregon, will shift northward tonight and then become enhanced with even more moisture from the incoming low. How much moisture will we see? We forecast that using  a parameter termed precipitable water. Precipitable water is a figure used to represent how much water the atmosphere is holding. The precipitable water forecasts are expected to reach  values are forecast to exceed an inch over portions of the Inland Northwest by afternoon. How unusual is that? According to the graphic below, it would be placed in the 97.5-99th percentile for this time of year. So it will be far from typical. 

Precipitable Water anomaly
So with the two key pieces in place, what about the third, instability? Well it looks like that piece of the puzzle will be realized as well. If you recall our previous blog post, one of the ways to measure potential instability is looking at the lifted index values. If we see negative lifted index values, that indicates potential instability. So as early as 5 am, we begin to see some of this instability. Notice the yellow and orange shading over southeast Washington? This is enough instability to support thunderstorms even without the benefit of daytime heating. 
5am Monday Lifted Index Forecast
How about later in the day? Suffice it to say the instability will not be lacking. The entire region is expected to see negative lifted index values, with the best instability represented by the -6 to -8 values over extreme eastern Washington and north Idaho. That's about as good of a lifted index as you can expect to see over the region. 
5 pm Monday Lifted Index Forecast
So with all the pieces in place what would we expect to happen? We think there will be a band of showers and thunderstorms early in the morning spreading across the Washington/Oregon border, which should slowly work their way northward through the morning. How extensive this band will be remains rather uncertain. One of the weather models is forecasting the radar to look like the image below. Notice the nice cluster of showers and thunderstorms near the Blue Mountains in SE Washington. This coincides nicely with the good pocket of instability forecast by another model.  

7 am simulated radar image

By midday, this band is expected to drift farther north, but could lose some of its definition and strength.  
11 am simulated radar
However, the first band which moves through will further moisten and destabilize the atmosphere before the strong upper-level disturbance tracks toward our region. So what will the afternoon look like? This is far from certain, and there are as many answers as there are high-resolution models. Here's just one of the forecasts for 5 pm. 

5 pm simulated radar
That is a pretty impressive simulation with strong thunderstorms located across the northern portions of Washington as well as in the southern Idaho Panhandle. However recall that the best instability (or lifted index values) were located over the Idaho Panhandle. So we have better faith in the eastern portions of this radar simulation verifying. Another thing we can look at is an ensemble of simulated radar returns. The image below shows where the greatest risk will be for the biggest thunderstorms (chances of having a 40 dbz or stronger radar echo). The regions shaded in purple have the best chances (over 90%) followed closely by the reds (over 70%). This would highlight two areas. The Cascade crest and over the southeast corner of Washington and the southern Idaho Panhandle.
Ensemble chances for 40dbz or higher echoes
So what will the main risk of severe weather involve tomorrow? Based on the instability, the biggest risk looks to be large hail. If we look at the model soundings they are likely a little too moist to support widespread wind damage, however, we still expect to see some strong wind potential with a few of the storms. 

So what is the typical weather we experience with this type of upper-level pattern? We can utilize a fascinating tool produced by the Cooperative Institute for Precipitation Systems (CIPS) at Saint Louis University. They created a tool that makes an analog of the 15 closest weather patterns (since 1980) to what the forecast weather pattern is supposed to be. So below we see the forecast for tomorrow in red compared to the mean of the top 15 analogs (or pattern matches). This looks like a pretty good fit.

500 mb forecast for tomorrow (red) plotted against the 15 top weather analogs since 1980
So what weather was experienced on those days? Interestingly enough, quite a bit. Of those 15 days that matched Mondays expected weather, there were widespread severe reports. Most of them were related to hail, but a good sample of the reports were related to wind as well. Also, notice there were 3 tornado reports in the Inland Northwest. We do not expect to see tornadoes on Monday, as the wind patterns are not quite right to support violently rotating storms, however, they have occurred in this weather pattern before. 
Severe reports from the top 15 analog days to Monday's weather pattern

The other risk we see tomorrow will be for flash flooding. The storms which develop tomorrow will obviously contain copious amounts of moisture. And more importantly they could be slow movers. 
The risk of heavy rains will likely continue through Monday night before tapering off. Here's a look at the 24-hour precipitation forecast from 4 different weather models.

Precipitation forecast from 11am Mon-11am Tue
That's a lot of precipitation (purple amounts are above  0.75") and there is a fairly consistent message that the bulk of it will occur across the northern quarter of Washington, the Cascade Crest, and over the Idaho Panhandle. Since much of this will be attributed to thunderstorms, there is likely to be a high variability over short distances, with some areas likely to receive much heavier amounts. 

Stay tuned for updates to the forecast as this will likely be a very active weather pattern. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Severe Weather Monday?

You may have heard about the potential for severe thunderstorms on Monday, June 1st.  We've been talking about it in our forecasts for the past couple of days.  So how likely is this?  Let's take a look at a few things.

First, thunderstorms rely on instability.  There's several ways that meteorologists assess the instability of the atmosphere.  One of the more straightforward methods is called the Lifted Index, or LI.  There are more sophisticated methods, but we'll stick with the LI for simplicity sake.  Essentially, if the LI is less than 0, then the atmosphere could be unstable, leading to thunderstorms.  The more negative the LI value is, the stronger the thunderstorms could be.

So here's 4 LI forecasts for Monday afternoon.

Lifted Index forecasts from four models valid Monday afternoon, 1 June 2015

The yellow, orange, red, and pink colors show areas of LI less than 0, with pink showing the areas with LI less than -4.  So as you can see, these 4 models all show instability on Monday afternoon, with some areas of rather strong instability (pink shading).  The exact location varies a bit, but in general they agree on the southern Idaho panhandle.  So from an instability standpoint, Monday certainly looks favorable for strong thunderstorms.

Another parameter we look at is wind shear.  We look at this over a layer of the atmosphere, typically from the surface up to about 4 miles.  Shear measures the change in wind speed as you go up.  For strong storms, we want lots of shear.  This helps the thunderstorm develop.  Weak shear means the storms will be more vertical, which isn't as good for strong storms.

Here's the shear forecast from the GFS model (the others are similar to it)
Forecast 0-6km Wind Shear for Monday afternoon, 1 June 2015

The colors of purple indicate shear of less than 30 knots.  This isn't very strong.  The cyan color shows shear of 30-40 knots, which is moderate, but still not strong.  So the shear forecast doesn't look very promising for strong thunderstorms.  

We also need a "kicker", something to get the ball rolling so to speak.  Often times this can just be the sun warming the ground.  So let's see what the forecast looks like for clouds.

Relative Humidity Forecast for Monday morning, 1 June 2015

This is the Relative Humidity forecast from the GFS model for Monday morning.  The green shading shows the atmosphere nearly saturated, which usually means clouds.  As you can see, there's the potential for a lot of clouds Monday, which would limit surface heating from the sun, and thus diminish the thunderstorm chances.

But there are other ways to make thunderstorms without sunshine.  A strong low pressure system can do the trick.  And that's what is causing the spiral of green off the Oregon coast in the above image.  This low could bring enough "dynamic" lift to kick off thunderstorms.  In fact, for  strong/severe storms, we usually want both (sunshine and strong low).

Here's the model precipitation forecast from 4 models.  Again, there's fairly good agreement.  These would seem to indicate that the best activity could fire off in the Panhandle and quickly move into western Montana.

Forecast precipitation from four computer models, valid Monday evening 1 June 2015

This is still a few days away, so there's still time for the models to refine their forecast.  Timing will be critical.  If the low comes in too fast, there will be too much clouds; too slow, and the sun will be setting before things can get going.  So as always, stay tuned to the forecast.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Is it still looking wet for this Memorial Day Weekend?

So a couple days have passed since our last blog post about the weather outlook for the Inland Northwest for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. Consequently, our confidence in what sort of weather to expect should be increasing. Recall that in the last post, there were suggestions that this could be a very wet weekend. In fact, perhaps the wettest Memorial Day weekend since 1997 and the second wettest on record (since 1970). So is that still the case?

Saturday 500 mb height
Above is the 500 mb map for Saturday from the GFS. This is a similar setup to the maps we explored earlier this week with a deep low centered over the Pacific Northwest. So is this GFS run an outlier or do other model agree with the solution?

4 different models showing 500 mb heights for Saturday (upper left model did not come in fully)
Here's is a look at 4 models compared to each other and they all show a low focused somewhere over the Pacific Northwest on Saturday. So where is this low on Sunday?

500 mb maps for Sunday
Again there is great agreement that there will be a low focused somewhere over the Pacific Northwest. The top 2 models take the low into southern Oregon, whereas the bottom two models drop the low into southern Oregon. Now, what the positioning of the low on Memorial Day?

500 mb maps for Monday
Again all the models keep the low over the region, however, the consensus is to drop the low south of the Washington/Oregon border.

So our confidence in this event is quite high. We are certain this low will form and move over portions of the Inland Northwest however how long it will remain over the area and where its precipitation  band will set up is the big question. Looking at the GFS for the Saturday and Sunday yields a significant northwest to southeast orientated band of precipitation.

48 hr precipitation amounts for Saturday-Sunday (latest model run )
This is quite similar to the previous model run we looked at a couple days ago(see below). Both model runs show a similarly oriented band of precipitation, however,  the latest version has the band a little farther to the west leaving places such as Sandpoint and Colville much drier than the previous forecast.

Rainfall forecast for Saturday and Sunday (Monday's model run)
Obviously wherever this band sets up will determine who gets a lot of rain and who doesn't. If we decide to consult another model solution it also shows a similar NW-SE band setting up, but this time it's displaced even further west. If this solution were to pan out even Spokane would miss out on the bulk of the rain as would the Silver Valley. 

Another Saturday-Sunday 48 hr precipitation forecast

So given these uncertainties it will be hard to pinpoint exactly where the band will take up residence. This is where ensemble model forecast can sometimes help to pinpoint the band (s) of heavy precipitation. So once again referring to the GEFS/NAEFS ensemble forecasts we see that it maintains a NW-SE oriented band of heavy precipitation as well. However the model has backed off from previous runs which suggested this would be a 99-99.9 percentile event for this time of year. Nonetheless the model still suggests this is potentially a 90-97 percentile event which is still significant. 

NAEFS/GEFS Ensemble 48 hr rainfall Sat-Sun

So what about the temperature forecast? We are holding onto our thoughts of hitting near 70° each day in Spokane this weekend, however if the band hits our area what will our temperature be? To say there is some uncertainty in this forecast would be an understatement. The 12z run of the GFS (dark blue line) has our high hitting the mid-70s that day. How about the 18z run of the GFS? A chilly mid-50s! That is about as uncertain as things can get. Its pretty much the same story for other parts of the Inland Northwest including Moses Lake (bottom meteogram)

Meteogram for Spokane
Meteogram for Moses Lake

This forecast remains a problematic one. Suffice it to say a good portion of the Inland Northwest is going to see a soggy beginning to the holiday weekend. Specifically where that will be, we still can't say with good confidence.  We expect the wettest day of the three-day weekend will be Saturday with a gradual improvement expected after that.

Monday, May 18, 2015

How is this Memorial Day Weekend looking weather-wise?

Last year at this time, we composed an extensive blog discussing the connotations associated with Memorial Day weekends in the Inland Northwest.  In many parts of the country, this weekend typically kicks off the summer season. However here in the Inland Northwest that really isn't the case, due to continued cool and unsettled weather. So is this year going to fit the weather mold, or will we see warm and dry weather?

Before we delve into this year's weather scenario, lets look at what the typical weather pattern is for this time of year. Looking at the mean 500 mb (18k ft MSL) maps below we see that the typical weather pattern is to see moist southwest flow pointed into the Pacific Northwest with a ridge setting up just downstream of the Continental Divide in western and central Montana. 

500 mb mean map 5/23-5/31
So what about the temperatures associated with this average pattern? Here's  the average temperatures for a couple locations as well as the average chance of precipitation:

So not bad. An average high around 70°F with rain expected on roughly 1 out of 4 days doesn't sound too terrible. But that's climatology and this weekend's weather could vary significantly from the norm. Why you ask? Well, let us take a look at the 500 mb pattern for this weekend to get an idea what sort of weather we might be dealing with. First off, here's a look at the weather for Saturday. 

GFS 500 mb heights for Saturday
This does not look promising if you enjoy plenty of sunshine and warmth. Note the closed low-pressure system (yellow L) centered over northwest Washington. Low-pressure systems like this are typically associated with cool and unsettled weather, especially if your are under or near the low. But this is only one model run. Surely there are other ideas out there in weather land. Well, here's a look at 4 distinct weather models for the same time period.
500 mb pattern from 4 different weather models for Saturday
Notice all these model runs place a low somewhere over the Pacific Northwest. That raises our confidence that the weather will be cool and unsettled over portions of the region, but maybe this unsettled weather will only last for a day. So let us take a look at the Sunday weather pattern.

500 mb pattern from 4 different weather models for Sunday
If the upper left model solution verifies (the GFS), the Inland Northwest could really be stricken with another cool and wet day. The other model solutions would hint at some modest improvements, but far from what we would deem summer like weather. How about Monday then?

500 mb pattern for Monday
The upper left solution (the GFS) still keeps the low parked over Washington while the others either drop it south of the region or weaken it. We shall see. But what if the GFS solution were to verify? What would our weather be like? If you love rain, well then you will love this forecast. Here's a look at the total precipitation forecast for Saturday and Sunday.
Rainfall forecast for Saturday and Sunday
The swath of red shading indicates rainfall amounts in excess of an inch. This includes Spokane, Kellogg, Coeur d'Alene, Pullman, Lewiston, Banks Lake, Lake Roosevelt, and Colville. If you look even closer there are a few locations which are expected to see in excess of 2 inches (shaded in tan)!
Now that is a lot of rain, regardless of the time of year. If the precipitation were to materialize, it would equate to our wettest Memorial Day weekend since 1997 and the second wettest on record (since 1970). So what is our confidence level in this precipitation panning out at this point?

Another tool we can look at in addition to just a few deterministic model runs is from an ensemble forecast approach. This is where you look at multiple model runs (initialized from the same model) and try to gather where the forecast confidence in the precipitation swath is greatest. Using this approach, the news isn't great either.

NAEFS/GEFS Ensemble precipitation amounts for the 48 hrs ending Sunday Afternoon
Without delving too deep into the specifics of the image above, the black lines depict the average precipitation amounts from the ensemble mean precipitation forecast while the green and blue shading (well any shading really) is bad if you like dry weather.  Notice the black lines hint at a swath of precipitation extending from southern British Columbia to the central Idaho Panhandle. The green and blue shading suggests the 48-hour precipitation amounts are in the 99-99.9% percentile for an early April-early July event. In other words, it is a 1 out of 100 or 1 out of a 1000 event for this particular time of year! There is even a small area of pale blue which hints that rain of this magnitude for this time of year has not been experienced since between 1985-2011!  This map suggests the GFS isn't entirely alone in forecasting a wet weekend, but we would like to see much better model agreement before buying off on this solution.

Now, if the rain does materialize, what impact will  this have on our temperatures?
7-day Spokane Forecast
Our current forecast is showing highs above average through the workweek with a cooldown by the weekend. Notice by the weekend we are forecasting highs right around 70 each day. That's not bad. Right around average actually. But we discounted the wet GFS solution. What if the GFS were to verify? How warm would it get then?

7-day temperature meteogram for Spokane
See the green line on the chart above? That is our official NWS forecast. However the blue lines (from the GFS) show the highs on Saturday could struggle to escape the mid-50s on Saturday and then slowly rebound into the lower to middle 60s for Sunday and near 70 on Monday.

Stay tuned to later forecasts this week to see how wet this weekend might really get. In the meantime, you might want to procure yourself one of these if you have camping plans this weekend.