Saturday, February 6, 2016

National Weather Service: Time to Fix the Stampede Pass Weather Station!

One of the most important weather stations of our area has been offline for the better part of last year, and was intermittent at best during the previous years:  the National Weather Service's  Stampede Pass weather station.  Located at 4000 ft at Stampede Pass in the central Washington Cascades, this reporting location provides key information for pilots, travelers across the mountains, and those attempting to understand how climate change is impacting the weather of our region.

To orient you, here is a map of the station's position.    Stampede Pass is a full National Weather Service/FAA ASOS station, with very high quality instrumentation.  In addition to standard observations (like temperature, pressure, and winds), it has a ceilometer (tells the altitude of the cloud base), freezing rain sensor, visibility sensor, and precipitation type sensor.  The ASOS observation system is the gold standard in the U.S., located at major and minor airports around the nation.

For civil aviation, the Stampede Pass weather station has been very important, since Stampede is one of the lowest passes across the Cascades and represents a relatively straight shot, unlike the dangerous hairpin turns of Snoqualmie.  Having ceiling and visibility information is important for flight safety.  

Stampede Pass provides a detailed view of the weather at crest level and helps characterize the meteorology of the central Cascades.   There is nothing remotely like it.  The NW Avalanche Center and WSDOT have some sensors at ski areas and on major roadways, but these have less weather parameters, often have poor exposure (e.g., the WSDOT roadway sensors), and are sometimes not available (avalanche sensors during the summer).   

In these days of concern about global warming, Stampede Pass is unique:  a high-altitude weather station in an area without development that goes back a very long time--in this case, since June 1935. Extraordinarily valuable and a terrible loss to have data collection there interrupted.

So what is the current situation?   The sensors are fine and being maintained.  The observations are being taken.  But the National Weather Service has had severe problems maintaining communication (i.e., telephone lines) to the station and the 1980s technology of ASOS observations can not store information for long.  Thus, not only is the information being lost for operational use, it is being lost for climate studies.  Very bad.

Take a look at a plot of temperatures at Stampede Pass (SMP) for the past few years.   You will see the big gaps.

Fixing the communications to Stampede Pass has been relatively low priority for the National Weather Service.   In January, there tried to set up an alternative approach using cell phone communication, but failed.  Perhaps one of the tech firms in town could help.

A major problem for Stampede Pass, and virtually all National Weather Service/FAA ASOS observations, is that the communications/data technology is from the 1980s.  I was at the Seattle NWS forecast office and they showed me how they communicate with local ASOS stations (in this case, Boeing Field).    They had to use an ancient 9600 baud telephone modem.   You remember those, with the blinking lights and strange sounds?   For younger folks probably haven't seen them, here is what one looks like.   They probably have them in Paul Allen's computer museum.

The National Weather Service and FAA need to modernize the data handling for the still important ASOS observational system, using 2016 data loggers, digital storage, and communication.  This is not rocket science and not expensive.

I think it is time for those of you who are interested in Stampede Pass to let NWS management know about your concerns.  The NWS Western Region is responsible for Stampede Pass:  so they are the ones to contact.  They have a web page to leave comments on:

 The director of the NWS Western Region is Grant Cooper (grant.cooper at

Thursday, February 4, 2016


The radioactive revenger has visited the U.S. in many forms during past year,  including Godzilla El Nino and Snowzilla.   But starting on Sunday, the fearsome monster will morph into a terrifying RIDGEZILLA, a weather phenomenon of amazing strength and persistence.

Sunday morning at 8 AM?  Huge ridge of high pressure over the U.S. (this upper level map is for 500hPa)

8 AM Monday?   Still here and even stronger.
 Tuesday at 8 AM?  You guessed it.

A view on Monday at 1 PM shows that there are troughs on both sides of the ridge.  The result is ann an omega block, since it looks like the greek letter omega, and is very stable and hard to change.

This is a very dry pattern for the West Coast, so that once a front moves through on Saturday morning, we will rapidly dry out and stay dry.  But the eastern U.S. will become very cold as strong northerly flow moves arctic air southward.  

If we get some offshore flow on Monday and Tuesday and don't fog out, temperatures could climb to 60F and above, particularly over the southern portion of WA.  With the strengthening sun, it will feel like spring.

To illustrate, here are the temperatures at 1 PM Monday.  70s in California and southwest Oregon.  Sixties getting into southwest WA.

Clearly, Ridgezilla  has a hot breath!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

California Reservoirs Filling Rapidly After Heavy Precipitation

If you enjoy vegetables, fruit, and wine from California at a reasonable price, this has been a good week for you.  Heavy rain has been hitting the mountains of northern CA and the Sierra, with many reservoirs filling rapidly.    Let me show you.

Here is the  precipitation over the past 7 days over the southwest U.S.  Some locations in the northern Sierra range have gotten over 6 inches of liquid water, as have the coastal mountains over the northwest corner of the state.  Not too much to cause flooding, but enough to provide large volumes of water.

California has a LOT of reservoirs with a huge, multi-year, storage capacity.   A nice summary of some of the major reservoirs are shown below.

The three biggest reservoirs are Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville, and Millerton Lake;  Folsom Lake is near the precipitation maximum.   Looking at the big Kahuna first, Lake Shasta, one sees a precipitous and huge increase in water storage (the blue color shows average levels for various times of the year).   Impressive.

The second largest reservoir shows a similar, but more modest, large increase.
But if you really want to be impressed, take a look at Folsom Lake--now above normal!

And even with the substantial atmospheric river activity, the California snowpack has been maintained at above-average levels.

California is going to have be content with their watery bounty for a while, since the circulation is shifting with more ridging along the West Coast and rainfall moving back towards the Northwest.   To illustrate, here is the 10-day total precipitation from the NWS GFS model. Plenty in our mountains and enough to keep northern CA moist, but nothing over the southern half of the state.

It will be cold enough for lots of snow in our mountains.  The Northwest drought is over and I suspect the same will be said for California in a few months.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Stop the El Nino Forecast Complaints!

I have been bombarded by complains from folks regarding the El Nino forecasts.

Wasn't El Nino going to bring dry weather?   Less snow in the mountains?

Complain after complaint.

But the truth is that the forecasts have actually been really quite good, with a lot of the misunderstanding coming from media folks that have not gotten the story quite right.

As they say in sports....let's go to the video tape.

Last summer, meteorologists were sure that a strong El Nino was going to occur this winter.  And we knew what this typically for NW weather:

Before January first there is no real correlation with precipitation or temperature.
After January 1, the Northwest tends to be warmer than normal, with precipitation SLIGHTLY below normal, little snowfall near sea level, and modestly below normal snow in the mountains, resulting in the snowpack on April 1 ending up around 80% of normal.  There is also a tendency after January 1 to have a trough over the northeast Pacific, with California ending up wetter than normal.  We also forecast that El Nino would kill the BLOB.

Don't believe me?  Check my blogs on
Sept 2Dec. 28...and many others.  Nick Bond, WA State Climatologist, was saying the same thing, as were many other local meteorologists.

Believe it or not....reality has followed these predictions quite closely.

The BLOB is dead, as shown by the latest sea surface temperature analysis, with modestly warm water immediately off the coast (typical of El Nino) and cooler than normal water offshore (blue colors).  Good forecast.

At the end of December WA snowpack was huge...about 150% in places.   Now, things have relaxed back to near normal in the Northwest, while California is above normal (see below).  Snowpack percentiles have dropped substantially in the Cascades.  The forecast is right on track.

Folks have been complaining about all the rain around here, lately, BUT IT ALWAYS RAINS A LOT IN JANUARY in our area.  Here is the precipitation departure from normal for the last 30 days.  Slightly drier than normal on the western slopes  the Cascades, but considerable wetter than normal over northern CA.  Good forecast.
Temperatures?   Warmer than normal over western WA and Oregon.  As predicted (although eastern Montana and North Dakota are cooler than normal, and usually El Nino brings warmth then).   Not perfect overall, but good over the Northwest!

Snowfall over the lowlands?  Much lower than normal...just a dusting one day here in Seattle.   Excellent forecast.  

What about the flow pattern over the eastern Pacific and western North America?  Here is the anomaly (difference from normal) at 500 hPa (upper level around 18K feet) for the past month. CLASSIC EL NINO circulation, with a negative anomaly (low heights or  pressure, purple color) over the eastern Pacific. Truly excellent prediction.

One could quibble about details, but PLEASE give meteorologists some credit...we got this one basically correct.

A hell of a lot better than political pundits and the Presidential election!

El Nino is not the end of the world in our area.    And a typical El Nino year is way better than the crazy ridge pattern of last year, a pattern that we believe is the result of natural variability.

Please support KPLU's fund drive to allow it to survive. The link.  On Friday, they reached a major milestone:  one million dollars.  But they need to raise seven million to avoid destruction.   A good segment on the race to save KPLU was broadcast on Friday, found here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Finest Hours Storm of February 17, 1952

A weather-related movie opened today, one I saw earlier this week at a studio preview: the Finest Hours, the story of an extraordinary rescue of the crew of a tanker that split in two off the coast of Cape Cod on February 17-18, 1952 during a very powerful nor'easter.

In this movie, Coast Guardsman Bernard Webber and three volunteers headed offshore near Chatham, Massachusetts in a 36-foot wooden motorized lifeboat in 60-foot seas and 70-knot winds, rescuing 32 crewmen from the stricken tank vessel Pendleton.

This was a very strong storm, noted for heavy snowfall offshore and destruction of not one, but TWO, World War II era ships in the offshore waters.  As a meteorologist, I was curious about this powerful cyclone and tried to find some weather information.   Let me show you what I found.

Turning to the NOAA/NWS historical surface map website, I first found the surface chart for 7 AM Sunday, Feb. 17th (see below).    This map shows the fronts, sea level pressure, and areas of precipitation (shaded).  You will note a weak low along the Delaware coast, with a central pressure of around 1004 hPa.

One day later, the storm had exploded, deepening in to an intense midlatitude cyclone with the central pressure dropping to around 977 hPa (below is a general and close-up view).  That is 27 hPa in 24 hr, which means this storm can be classified as an explosive deepener or bomb.    Explosive deepeners are defined as storms that intense more than 24 hPa in a day.  The low at this time is just south of Cape Cod, with heavy snow and strong winds over coastal Massachusetts. 12-30 inches of snow accumulated with 43 weather-related deaths.

At the Boston Airport (some distance from the strongest winds), sustained winds hit 50 mph and the gusts would have hit 60-70 mph.   Worse over the water.  Pressure dropped to 989 hPa at Boston, with temperatures in the lower 30s,

Snow was intense NE of the low center;  as shown below, Portland Maine had it 4th worst snow event in the entire observational record:

1) 31.9" Feb. 8-9, 2013
2) 27.1" Jan. 17-18, 1979
3) 25.3" Feb. 17-18, 1952
4) 23.8" Jan 26-28, 2015

The upper level flow pattern (500 hPa, around 18,000 ft) showed a sharp trough over the eastern US on Sunday AM:
The upper trough rapidly deepened into an amazingly intense upper level low over the next 24 h.

There was no weather satellites or operational weather radars during that period....sorry.

The Feb 1952 was a powerful storm and certainly in the top 50 for nor'easter events.  But it was't in the first tier and certainly far weaker than Sandy or other mega-events.

Movie Comments:   A B picture which starts VERY slowly with a boring relationship angle.  Not much talk about meteorology.   A shame really.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Heat Wave over Western Washington

Temperatures in much of the region got into the upper 50s today, with several above 60F.  Here are some of the warmer temperatures as of 2 PM.

Why such warmth?   Strong  and warm southwesterly flow has moved in aloft associated with the atmospheric river moving in off the ocean.

The time-height vertical cross section (height in the Y direction, time in the X direction--in UTC/GMT) over Seattle Tacoma Airport shows the situation.  The red lines are temperature.  At 850 hPa (around 5000 ft) the winds were 35 knots, with a temperature of 6C.    The freezing level is at roughly 7500 ft.

The radar at around 2 PM shows the precipitation band approaching the coast and a strong suggestion of rain shadow in the lee of the Olympics (NE side).

The rain will move in later in the afternoon. 

Finally, let me end with a most amazing satellite image (visible).  You see the long cloud band stretching from the Northwest way back into the Pacific?  That is the cloud signature of the atmospheric of the LONGEST atmospheric rivers I have ever seen!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Major Atmospheric River Period for the West Coast

The weather action is about to move from the eastern U.S. to the western U.S. as strong atmospheric rivers pummel the West Coast with heavy precipitation, with the potential for a major cyclone to strike California later on the weekend.

One of the best ways to see plumes of moisture associated with atmospheric rivers is to view the integrated water vapor forecasts:  predictions of the total water vapor in a column.  Atmospheric rivers are generally warm and juicy....lots of water in the column.  And when these rivers hit the western U.S. terrain, heavy rain or snow (at high elevations) can occur.

The water vapor image for Wednesday evening shows an atmospheric river reaching the Northwest.

A day later  (4PM Thursday) it aims for northern California.

Friday at 10 AM, it is still directed into central/northern CA.

This atmospheric river is going to have important implications for California, some good (filling reservoirs big time) and some not so good (potential for flooding).

Now let's look at the forecast precipitation from the UW WRF model (12km grid spacing).  For the next 72h, the NW gets the brunt of the atmospheric river, with 5-10 inches in the Olympics, Vancouver Is., and north Cascades.  Northern CA starts to feel the impacts.

Expect some flooding on rivers flowing out of the North Cascades.

During the next 72h the atmospheric river aims directly at CA and the Sierra gets the hardest hit of the past few years, with the model going for 5-10 inches of precipitation on that range.

How much snow in the mountains you ask?  For the first 72h, not much snow over the Northwest because the atmospheric river will be quite warm.  Sorry. BC does better being farther north.

But snow lovers should not be too concerned.  During the next 72h, as the atmospheric river and its associated warmth slide southward, cooler temperatures and substantial snow extend over the Washington Cascades.    Importantly, the Sierra, being of higher elevation, gets feet of snow.   

The total precipitation from the NOAA/NWS GFS model from now through Tuesday at 10 AM PST?  Very wet, with 5-10 inches over the Sierra, Cascades, and coastal mountains.

In short, a water bonanza for the western U.S., topping off Pacific Northwest reservoirs and snowpack and proving a huge influx of water for California. Expect to see major reservoirs, like Shasta, at 80%  of normal within a week.

And then there is the potential for a major windstorm.  The European Center model brings one into the Northwest in a few days, while the U.S. GFS has a big storm predicted for California on Sunday (see below).  Too much uncertainty at this point, so stay tuned.  This might not happen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Saving Public Radio in Western Washington: Financing an Independent KPLU and Reforming KUOW

If we care about public radio in western Washington.
If we believe in independent sources of news and other programming in a period when traditional media (TV news, major papers like the Seattle Times) are hollowing out.

Then we need to act.

Specifically, we must join together to provide funding for the KPLU transition to an independent station rather than being sold to KUOW.

And here is where you need to go:

The basic situation has been described in this blog and the local media.  Last year, Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) decided to sell its public radio station (KPLU) and made secret plans to transfer KPLU to UW for seven million dollars.  The KPLU staff would have been fired and and the 16-member KPLU news team would have been disbanded.   KUOW, the other Puget Sound public radio station, would get KPLU's superior transmitters, a public radio monopoly in the region, and would maintain some kind of jazz presence on a secondary channel.

KPLU listeners were outraged as were many others.  KPLU is a vibrant, popular station with roughly the same number of listeners as KUOW.   It has an international reputation for quality jazz//blues programming and its award-winning news/local coverage is far superior to the fare provided by KUOW. KPLU has engaging hosts, extensive local and unique programming, and an endearing charm.

The negative reaction to the secret sale was widespread, intense, and effective.  So effective that PLU and the UW agreed to put off the transfer for 6 months, giving a community group time to raise the 7 million dollars.
The bottom line:  if the community can pull together 7 million dollars by June 30th, KPLU will be saved.  If not, KUOW will take on KPLU's assets and KPLU will cease to exist.

There are roughly 430,000 weekly listeners to KPLU.  If everyone gave 20 dollars, it would be over, KPLU would be saved.   But it never works that way. Many folks don't contribute and others need to do more.   After two weeks, roughly $800,000 in pledges have been made, which is an excellent start.

If Paul Allen, Bill or Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos, or one the fortunate hi-tech millionaires in town are reading this, please consider a major donation...that could make a huge difference.

An independent KPLU would not be just as good as it is today, it could be even better, unfettered by the constraints imposed on it by PLU.  It would be deeply responsive to its listeners.

And then there is KUOW.  Its leadership it still lusting after KPLU's superior transmitters and the potential to have a monopoly on local pledge money.  Go to the KUOW's web site and they have all kind of information of how they are getting ready "just in case" and how excellent their offerings would be if they took over KPLU.
From the KUOW website.

KUOW even has a letter on its web site detailing what they would do if they took over KPLU....and it is very disturbing reading.  Instead of keeping KPLU's beloved jazz programming and hosts, KUOW hired an outsider to design its jazz outlet.    KUOW would hire four new news staffers, but KPLU has 16 reporters/new staff.  The result?  A loss of 12 news folks.  And KUOW has no plans for additional local programming.

KUOW management is saying there is too much "duplication" in having two public radio stations doing news....which makes little sense.  First, the news coverage provided by the stations is very different.  Second, this is like the NY Post telling the NY Times to cease publication because they are both doing NY news stories. Competition is essential and makes everyone better.

This is a situation in which a failing, but money-rich, public radio station wants to take over a highly successful, popular, and superior competitor.  Classic corporate take over.  And I will let you muse over the ethical implications of the use of pledge money, acquired by telling listeners it was needed for keeping the lights on, and the turning around and using the money for a takeover.

And don't doubt that KUOW is failing.  During the past few years, it has gotten rid of most of its local programming, such as the popular Weekday show, and replaced it with nationally syndicated pablum.   KUOW listenership is declining, while KPLU's in increasing.  Want the proof?  Here are the weekly radio listenership statistics for 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015 (I blanked out the middle two years because of the 2012 election, which skews the statistics).  KPLU (blue) is up.  KUOW (red is down).  KING-FM (classical music) is up.

KUOW listeners are unhappy:  read the comments on the Facebook site to get a taste of the discontent.

So instead of trying to buy regional dominance by killing the competition, KUOW should use it large financial surplus to greatly enhance its local programming, creating new offerings that are unique and regional.  Start covering the UW with extended interviews with faculty and rebroadcasts of engaging lectures.

Fortunately, the future of our regional public radio is in your hands.  Make a pledge towards building a new independent KPLU and the KUOW wolf will be kept at bay.  Please visit:

Don't worry little lamb.  After I take over your assets, 
things will be much better for everyone!