Earlier this summer, I had a weather conversation with my mother. She was excited about a new business venture my sister had undertaken (Adventure Kayaks) and for an upcoming trip to Yosemite in August to celebrate her and my father’s 45th wedding anniversary. She wondered about the weather, hoping it would be a good summer for both the new business and the trip. Without thinking too much, I said:
‘Rain, cooler weather, and storms in the east, drought, heat and fires in the west.’
Immediately after saying this, I felt reticent. Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoken? Maybe I would scare my mom. What good would it do to ruin her enjoyment or her looking forward to both the trip and to my sister’s potential success?
It’s worth noting that, thankfully, the storms and cooler weather that did emerge with fury and flood in the east did not ruin my sister’s kayaking venture (although it did result in numerous interruptions both during spring and throughout summer). Should a tropical storm or hurricane make landfall on the US east coast this August, September or October, however, the devastation could be vast, perhaps exceeding a 1 billion dollar disaster event (more on this below).
But as my mother boarded her plane to California and a potential date with Yosemite yesterday morning, these were the satellite images I was looking at:
Image source: Earth Observatory
The vast Rim fire that had grown to consume over 192,000 acres as of today was steadily devouring the western border of Yosemite. You can see it on the above infrared satellite picture provided by NASA as a ring of bright white steadily inching into the indicated yellow border of Yosemite.
Jennifer Francis, Stu Ostro and How I Knew
Earlier this summer, my mother chided me on my ‘attempts to predict the weather.’ In a phone conversation last night, she asked ‘how did you know?’
It’s fair to say that in the overall prediction of more storms and rains in the US east, with more risk of flooding, and more heat and dryness out west, with more risks of fire, that I wasn’t entirely certain. However, I’d recently read the work of climatologist Jennifer Francis and had been listening to and following the statements of Stu Ostro. During early spring and summer, I observed a Jet Stream pattern setting up over the US that appeared to be settling into a ‘stuck position’ that would result in the high likelihood of the conditions I communicated with my mother. It’s worth noting that in looking at these Jet Stream patterns it’s not difficult to make such predictions because the patterns change slowly, they lumber and tend to remain stuck for long periods. Once a pattern settles into place, it’s a good bet that it will stick around for at least a few months these days, a fact that the models nail but which meteorologists, in general, have failed to communicate. In short, this is a climate change driven change in the weather.
In fact, some meteorologists and climatologists seem entirely reticent to accept this new weather pattern, despite the fact that it is a powerful tool for weather prediction and will tend to result in less surprises. The big troughs equal record floods sticking around for a long time and the big ridges equal record heat, drought, and probably fires sticking around for long periods of time.
In an example of this reticence, a recent paper by a University of Colorado researcher concluded that Jennifer Francis did not have enough evidence to support her claims of an observed slowing in the Jet Stream. Unfortunately, the paper included, as a part of its findings, a cross section of the atmosphere in which the Jet Stream does not typically reside even while the paper included a sample during which changes were already occurring, which would have likely biased its results. Despite these biases and errors, where the paper actually did measure Jet Stream flows, it corroborated Francis, showing Jet Stream slowing during the periods measured. This is odd considering the fact that the concluding statement contradicts the papers own findings, a point which Dr. Francis, herself, provides.
It’s easy to understand why reticence still lives in the science. As I noted above, it’s understandable to feel reticent when being the bearer of bad news. No one wants to be the messenger that gets metaphorically ‘killed.’ But without making use of the clear understanding provided by Francis and Ostro, we will continue to be surprised by extreme floods, storms, fires, heatwaves and droughts that can be easily predicted by simply looking at how the Jet Stream sets up and where it gets stuck. Instead, ‘surprise’ after ‘surprise’ just keeps coming our way.
When Rossby Waves Get Stuck: Changing to a More Radical Jet Stream
Dr. Jennifer Francis has observed that loss of sea ice and snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has resulted in a slowing of the Jet Stream in recent years. Sea ice volume, the measure of total ice in the Arctic Ocean, since 1979 had declined by as much as 80% when measured at its low during 2012 (this measure may rally back to around 75 to 78 percent lower than 1979 this year, but the overall trend remains a death spiral). Greenland melt is unprecedented at 500 gigatons per year and with Arctic heatwaves blasting the tundra both permafrost and snow cover are at record and near record lows. 80 to 90 degree temperatures now often advance to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, with the coldest air pushed back above the 80 degree north latitude line, confining it to a shrinking region that, increasingly, huddles closer to the remaining large ice sheets in Greenland. Overall rates of warming for much of the Arctic are about .5 degrees C temperature increase each decade, more than twice the global average.
A more quickly warming Arctic results in changes to the atmosphere’s heat balance. According to Francis, the height of the atmosphere over the Arctic is rising relative to atmospheric heights in the lower lattitudes, this loss of slope results in lower gradients from north to south and since temperature, atmospheric height and pressure gradient drive Jet Stream speed, the Jet Stream slows down. And as the Jet Stream slows, it tends to seek out the highest gradients it can find. The result is more northward invasions of the polar region of the Jet Stream ridges and more southward invasion of the Jet Stream troughs. This amplification creates a rather large and elongated sine wave called a Rossby wave pattern.
In the sequence above, we see the progression of a flat Jet Stream to a Rossby wave ridge/trough configuration to, eventually, cut off lows and highs. In the past, such waves tended to set up for briefer periods, extending for days or weeks before returning to the usual, more flattened motion of the Jet. In more recent years, large Rossby type waves have been the typical pattern, one that transitions to cut off lows before it returns to a configuration more similar to (b) in the diagram, before setting up as a Rossby-type wave again.
Perhaps more importantly, this b, c, d progression has tended to occur again and again and again over the same geographical region for months and months on end. And, looking back at Jet Stream maps over the past months, this is exactly what we find.
Below is a progression of images I’m providing from this blog’s archive. It includes either direct temperature measures that indicate Jet Stream patterns or a mapping of air flow speed indicating the Jet Stream’s path.
(Image source: ECMWF)
In ‘For Central US, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Drought Follows Flood Follows Drought’ I described how the Jet Stream pattern had consistently switched from large trough to large ridge configurations over the past few years bringing either heatwaves and droughts or storms and floods. But the left hand portion of the image provides a good record of the Jet Stream configuration as of mid April this year. Following the temperatures, on the west coast we see a large, hot ridge and in the central and eastern US we see a deep, cool and stormy trough.
(Image source: ECMWF)
Throughout May and into June, this ridge over west, trough over east, pattern continued. By late June, a massive, record-shattering heatwave had set up over the US southwest. I described this highly anomalous event in ‘Mangled Jet Stream and Global Warming to Shatter Earth’s Highest Recorded Temperature This Week?’
Looking at the ECMWF image above we again see the highly exaggerated ridge/trough dichotomy setting up over the US with very hot, dry conditions out west and cooler, wet and stormy conditions in the east.
At this point, I want to tap Stu Ostro’s own observations to add to the Jennifer Francis mix. What Stu has found is that large, powerful high pressure systems have tended to develop more and more often. These extraordinarily dense systems seem to be exploding to new heights in a thickening atmosphere. Primarily, these monsters are driven by heat and so they tend to live in the massive ridges provided by our new, exaggerated and slowed, Jet Stream pattern. That said, these beasts can spring up almost anywhere there is a massive abundance of heat to tap, as one did over a super-heated region of ocean near Shanghai this summer sparking its own monstrous heat wave.
These large heat domes have major and far reaching effects. To understand them, we must first step back to think about the broader effects of human caused warming before looking at how heat domes manifest in the atmosphere. Based on models of the Earth’s atmosphere, we know that for each 1 degree Celsius of Earth temperature increase we get a corresponding 8% amplification of the hydrological cycle. What this means is that evaporation happens 8% faster and condensation happens 8% faster — OVERALL.
Since 1998, we have observed temperatures that are, on average, .8 degrees Celsius above those seen during the 1880s. What this means is that the hydrological cycle has amplified by 6% over this same time period. Because of this dynamic, droughts are more intense, but rainfall events are also more intense. Yet since the atmosphere is uneven we can expect this 6% amplification to manifest in somewhat more extreme fashion at the locations where more extreme Jet Stream patterns set up.
(Image source: California Regional Weather Server)
What goes up must come down. And that massive heat dome over the western US and Canada had been baking moisture out of the soil at unprecedented rates over an extended period from April to August. The moisture injected into the heat dome rose and rose, The high pressure system suppressed cloud formation so the moisture had no where to go but up and out. Eventually, this moisture found the edge of the massive high and spilled over into the storms riding along the Jet Stream trough rushing down from the Arctic Ocean and into eastern Canada and the US (hat tip to Colorado Bob).
The result was multiple flood events starting with the Midwest floods of April, then the massive Canadian floods (Calgary) of June, then the Toronto floods, then the Midwest floods of early August, and lastly the east coast floods of mid to late August. The Calgary floods were the worst ever recorded in Canada, the Toronto floods were the worst recorded for that region, and in the Midwest floods of early August, four months worth of rain fell in just one week.
(Image source: The Weather Channel)
On 8 August, the time of the second barrage of major Midwest floods this year, we find the Jet Stream in the same elongated configuration with a large northward ridge extending all the way from the southwestern US to the Arctic Ocean and with a deep trough diving back down into the central and eastern United States. As noted above, the mangled Jet Stream delivered its overburden of moisture directly to the US Midwest, dumping four months worth of rain in just one week.
A second pulse of moisture rode far south along this Jet Stream flow to dump massive amounts of rain over the southeastern US about a week after pummeling Missouri. This flow combined with a compromised tropical system to saturate the southeast, with some regions receiving as much as 300 percent their annual rainfall totals by late August.
One of the hardest hit areas is Lake Okeechobee. Water levels there as of mid August hit 16 feet at the Hoover Dike, a level that requires weekly monitoring for cracks or ruptures. The dike stretches over 140 miles along the perimeter of lake Okeechobee and was intended to keep the lake in check during major storms and hurricanes after large outburst events in the early 20th Century resulted in thousands of lives lost. The dike is 25 to 30 feet high and is as wide as a football field. The US Army Corps of Engineers has been working feverishly to shore up the dike in a project that will take years to complete.
At 16.5 feet water level, the dike will require daily monitoring. For each inch of increase above that level, the pressure put on the dike would greatly increase risks of catastrophic failure. The causes of such high water, this year, were neither tropical storms nor hurricanes. Florida has been, thus far, spared the wrath of these strong storms. Deep Jet Stream troughs and a constant Atlantic moisture flow have, instead, resulted in day after day rain events for much of southern Florida, pushing August totals near Lake Okeechobee above 16 inches, filling the massive lake and putting the dikes at risk. Should a hurricane or tropical storm strike Florida during late August, September, or October, the dike could overtop or rupture, unleashing the massive lake on communities sitting beneath it. (Hat tip to Colorado Bob).
As the threat of massive floods continued to increase in the east, the west was erupting with wildfires. Fire containment efforts went into high gear both exhausting the Forest Service Fire budget and briefly pushing the national fire alert level to 5. The Rim Fire, so close to my parents’ vacation site, expanded to 192,723 acres today making it the 6th worst in California history.
(Image source: Lance-Modis)
You can see this massive fire, now 23% contained, burning to the west of Yosemite in the Modis shot below. A more detailed report of this major wildfire is provided by WeatherUnderground here and here.
Mangled Jet Stream Temporarily Edges Eastward
My parents wanted to see Yosemite’s amazing waterfalls. A major source of my reticence in telling them the likely pattern for this summer was that the heat and drought out west would probably dry out many of those magnificent falls. And, sadly, this has happened. So even if they brave the smoke and fires to reach Yosemite, the one attraction my mom had been most excited to see will likely be somewhat less magnificent.
But a cloud has suddenly appeared in this wrinkle. For the Jet Stream had edged slightly east.
As of the middle of last week, reports of heatwave conditions had emerged throughout the US Midwest with North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri experiencing temperatures in the range of 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) above average. With heat index values hitting as high as 110 degrees, communities sweltered and school systems declared closings. In California, where temperatures had remained in the upper 90s to lower 100s for much of summer, the trough advanced, pushing temperatures back down to the 70s. An upper level low flirting with the west coast may even toss a few fog clouds and rain showers toward California. Such an event would be a welcome change for both my parents and for beleaguered fire fighters in the region.
In any case, the shift is expected to be short lived with ECMWF models showing the Jet Stream again backing up and reforming a hot and dry ridge pattern over the US west. So the Midwest can expect cooling and a return to more stormy, rainy conditions while the US west, after only a brief respite, continues to bake:
(Image source: ECMWF)
The September 7 ECMWF forecast again shows a large and powerful Rossby-type wave pattern with a very large and hot ridge setting up over the US and Canadian West with a deep trough digging down toward the US East Coast. It is the same pattern we’ve seen since at least April, a pattern that has delivered numerous rounds of heat and drought to the US west and an equally vicious and persistent pattern of storms and flooding from the central US to the east coast. The Jet Stream has, essentially, been stuck these past 5 months and there is no end in sight. For even if this configuration of the Jet were to move, it would likely simply re-distribute the locations of heatwaves and droughts and storms and floods.
If anything, this past summer has been yet one more validation in evidence of the work of Dr. Francis. And it is because of her work that I, a relatively untrained observer, can make the accurate prediction that a large region from the Mississippi west to California will continue to stay hot and dry and will continue to see risk for large fires, while the region to the east will remain cooler and stormier so long as the current Jet Stream configuration continues to persist. The western region will risk periods of record heat, continued drying of lands, rivers and aquifers, and fires of record size. The eastern region will continue to risk record floods and storm events. As summer proceeds to fall, shifts in these weather patterns have the potential to grow violent with the possibility of powerful nor-easters or hybrid storms developing near the US East Coast. Both the southeast and Florida remain very vulnerable to continued large rain events or tropical storms and hurricanes as time moves forward and in the event of pattern persistence. Meanwhile, long range model forecasts show this general pattern continuing to persist until at least early to mid September.
At this point, the current US Jet Stream pattern will have been in place for at least 6 months.