Mangled Jet Stream Delivers Record-Shattering Heat, Extreme Wildfires to California

California Heatwave May 15

(GFS Model 40 hour forecast for May 15 shows 90 and 100 degree temperatures spreading across most of California. Image source: University of Maine. Data source: Global Forecast System Model/NOAA.)

It’s just mid-May, but a wave of record July-like heat and wildfires is building for California and the US West.

A high amplitude Jet Stream wave that has been in place over the US West for more than a year now has resulted in hot, dry conditions throughout this very long period. It is an ongoing insult that contributed to the worst California drought in more than 100 years. A set of weather anomalies that continues to leave California and the US Southwest very vulnerable to heatwaves, fires and amplifying droughts as summer continues to emerge.

The pattern is essentially stuck — featuring a hot, pole-reaching, wave of the Jet Stream continuously rising over the US West, Western Canada and Alaska, and diving deep into the Arctic. It is a condition climate researchers such as Dr. Jennifer Francis attribute to an ongoing erosion and degradation of Northern Hemisphere sea ice. And the predictions of Dr. Francis appear to have born out in both recent observations and cutting edge scientific research showing how sea ice loss has shoved the storm track away from California and the US Southwest (see how Climate Change Made the California Drought Worse).

In any case, it is highly unusual for such an intense Jet Stream pattern to remain fixed for so darn long.

Emerging El Nino Contributes to 100 Degree (F) Heat

In recent months, the strength of the heat flowing up through the Jet Stream wave has been intensified by a growing pool of anomalously warm water to the south in the Eastern Pacific. This gathering pool of intensifying heat is a signal for the coming of El Nino. Come winter, a strong El Nino might bring a radical and violent switch of California weather to much more rainy conditions. But, for now, it lends further energy to a gathering and extraordinary May heatwave for the US West Coast.

It is a flood of heat that is expected to bring 90 to 100 degree plus temperatures for a broad zone from southeast California to the coast and on northward through the Central Valley. And, already, the effect is being felt for some regions. Yesterday, Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles shattered its previous record high temperature of 91 for the date as temperatures rocketed to 93 F. Today, the forecast is for 98. Tomorrow, 100. Friday 96.

This forecast is for a string of four consecutive all-time record highs during a period in which temperatures hit an extreme range of 18-25 F above the typical daily peaks of 75 for this time of year. Sacramento, meanwhile, is expected to tie the all-time high today at 100 F after reaching the same reading yesterday. Tomorrow’s forecast is for a scorching 101 F. Typical average highs for this time of year in Sacramento are around 80 F.

Bernardo Fire Threatens Homes

(Fire approaches El Camino Drive, threatens homes in Carlsbad. Image source: Resident’s Contribution to ABC 10’s Twitter Feed)

Santa Anna Winds, Heat, Drought Spur Large Fires

Rising Santa Anna winds in the range of 40 to 60 mph with maximum gusts as high as 87 mph in the San Diego Mountains combine with relative humidity values below 10% and extreme heat to create a high potential for wildfire outbreaks. As a result, red flag fire hazard warnings have been issued for a zone along California’s southwest coast and into the south-central valleys.

By Tuesday, two large fires — one in Bernardo, San Diego and a second in Miguelito, Santa Barbara — had already erupted and consumed hundreds of acres. The Bernardo fire, by early today, had rapidly expanded to cover more than 1,550 acres forcing the evacuation of over 20,000 people and 1,200 buildings. Three schools and one military base were also evacuated as fires raced through valleys to threaten expensive homes in developments on local ridges. As of late morning, the fire was only 25% contained.

The Bernardo fire, as of this writing, posed a severe threat to many highly populated areas forcing numerous evacuations and even the closing of El Camino Drive. Given conditions on the ground this is a very dangerous situation in which the fire may undergo rapid expansion. Up-to-the minute photos by local residents show rapidly deteriorating and dangerous conditions (see ABC 10’s live feed). People in the area should exercise extreme caution and pay close attention to local fire/weather bulletins.

The Miguelito fire, on the other hand, had grown to 600 acres in just one day as it threatened local ranches. Firefighters had, by late morning, managed to contain 50% percent of that blaze.

Conditions in Context

The most recent record heat spike is likely to only exacerbate current dire drought and fire issues for the state. Local reservoirs remain very low and various water rationing and restriction regimes have already been imposed in numerous districts. Atmospheric moisture levels are also very low resulting in little in the way of evaporative cooling once heating intensifies. The result is a high risk for continued record heat, drought, and fire as spring proceeds into summer.

Mangled Jet Stream May 14

(Mangled Jet Stream pattern on May 14, 2014 features numerous high amplitude Rossby Waves and hot-cool/east-west dipole patterns. High speed Jet Stream flow is more indicative of a winter pattern, possibly due to the retreat and temporary re-establishment of the polar vortex. But the huge propagation of east-west/hot-cool dipoles and the continued upper level air invasion of the northern polar zone point toward a highly disrupted Jet Stream. Image source: University of Maine.)

Though highly anomalous and extreme for early May, the most recent California heat spike is likely to abate by Friday and Saturday as an onshore wind flow and slight weakening of the ridge is expected to bring cooler conditions. Ongoing high amplitude Jet Stream waves, however, are expected to continue to propagate over the US West Coast with the ridge predicted to again re-strengthen later next week. The added heating of the atmosphere as spring progresses into summer is likely to further exaggerate this already extreme set of conditions. So the atmosphere is rigged for further record heat spikes and the potential for long periods of record or near-record conditions going forward.

UPDATE: By noon, Pacific time, the Bernardo Fire had expanded to 1680 acres and spawned two smaller fires in the San Diego region sending residents in Carlsbad and Poinsettia scrambling. It is difficult to express how dangerous this situation has become. Risk for severe intensification of these fires is very high due to extreme temperatures, humidity in the range of 6% in San Diego, and very strong Santa Anna winds.

UPDATE: Passenger photo by cGilbertRun of three fires plaguing San Diego from inbound airline Wednesday afternoon at 1 PM Pacific Time:

Aerial Photo of three fires in San Diego on Wednesday

By early afternoon, the multiple blazes continued to expand spurring numerous additional evacuations, cutting off power to homes and businesses, and causing traffic snarls. Emergency authorities urged residents to remain at home or work unless ordered to evacuate to prevent congestion and to speed egress from affected areas.

UPDATE: By 1:30 PM PST, the Carlsbad Fire had spurred another 15,000 evacuations in San Diego. As of this time, the effect of the third fire is unknown.

UPDATE: Blaze near Poinsettia has resulted in an additional 11,000 evacuations. Sporadic reports coming in of three more fires now underway.

UPDATE: 30 homes reported burned in Carlsbad as of 2:00 PST. Unconfirmed reports of 103 F temperature readings in central San Diego.

UPDATE: MODIS shot of fires burning in southwest California and northwest Mexico during satellite pass this afternoon:

MODIS Shot of Fires buring in California

UPDATE: Local elementary school apparently damaged in Carlsbad Fire.

UPDATE: Five of the six fires burning in San Diego include: The Carlsbad Fire, The Oceanside Fire, The Highway Fire in Fallbrook, The Camp Pendleton Fire, and the Bernardo Fire.

UPDATE: Seven fires now burning is San Diego. Six are shown on the map below which does not include the Bernardo Fire:

Map of 7 Fires


UPDATE: New fire reported in San Marcos, bring the total number of San Diego fires to 8.

UPDATE: Unconfirmed new fire near Black Mountain (5 PM PST). If confirmed, this brings the total to 9.

UPDATE: The San Marcos Fire has prompted yet one more major evacuation. Thousands of residents fled the fire only to get bogged down in gridlock near the blaze. Firefighters are now on the ground to protect San Marcos residences but air support appears delayed, possibly due to multiple fires resulting in a thinning of resources.

UPDATE: Large office building now ablaze due to engulfment by the Carlsbad Fire. Unconfirmed reports of windswept embers falling over portions of San Diego.

UPDATE: DC 10 firefighting aircraft deployed to assist in fighting 8 + fires. Officials state that Carlsbad fire is now 10% contained, forward progress of Lakeside fire halted. Anti-looting guards set up to protect evacuated Carlsbad residences. Carlsbad officials: “It’s unbelievable, this is something we should see in October, not May. I haven’t seen it this hot, this dry in May before… this is an extraordinary weather event.”

All too apt tweet from King Pine Homes: “8 fires in North County SD right now. Climate Change sucks!

UPDATE: National Weather Service shows 4+ all-time record highs for the day broken in the San Diego region with readings topping out between 93 and 99 degrees.

Warmest thoughts and wishes go out to both the brave firefighters and to all the families in the affected regions. Please stay safe!

San Marcos Fire

(View from San Marcos as night falls over San Diego by GradyGray.)

UPDATE: San Diego County will hold a news conference at their County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at 8:30 local time.

UPDATE: Governor Brown has just declared a state of emergency for all of San Diego County, noting: “I find conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.”

UPDATE: According to reports from the California Fire Service, the Tomahawk Fire has now burned over 6,000 acres and is now encroaching on Camp Pendleton.

UPDATE: 9,196 acres confirmed burned in San Diego County today.

UPDATE: The San Marcos Fire has spread to cover 500 acres is just a few hours.

UPDATE: Must-see footage of the Carlsbad Fire filmed by a passing driver earlier today:

FINAL UPDATE: Firefighters gained ground last night against the 9 fires that sent tens of thousands of San Diego residents scrambling yesterday. The Carlsbad Fire, the most destructive of the outbreak, was 60% contained as of early this morning. Another destructive blaze, the San Marcos Fire, had expanded to 700 acres by morning as firefighters focused resources to contain it. In total, more than 10,000 acres in and around San Diego have burned and more than 25 buildings have been destroyed. Thankfully, there is no report of loss of life.

Such a severe outbreak of early season fires is unprecedented so soon in the year. Seasoned fire officials, such as San Diego Fire Chief Michael Davis, have been aghast at the early extreme intensity of this fire season. Davis noted:

This is May, this is unbelievable. This is something we should see in October. I haven’t seen it this hot, this dry, this long in May.

Human-caused climate change, again, appears to have shown its awful hand in California this spring.

As firefighters and residents alike return to some rough allegory of normalcy this morning, dangers remain high. Record and unprecedented heat and dryness is, once more, settling over the region today, bringing with it the danger for more fires.


Global Forecast System Model/NOAA

University of Maine

Weather Underground Forecast for Sacramento

Weather Underground Forecast for Van Nuys Airport

National Weather Service Public Information for San Diego CA

California Wildfires: Hot, Dry Windy Conditions Expected Again Wednesday

Climate Change Made the California Drought Worse

ABC 10’s live feed of Bernardo Fire

Hat Tip to Andy (in San Diego very close to these fires and whom we wish to remain safe)

Hat Tip to Kevin Jones, and Mark from New England

Leave a comment


  1. james cole

     /  May 14, 2014

    Central Valley looks like an oven from the map! Agriculture must be under major stress there given these sorts of conditions, with summer yet to arrive!
    Meanwhile up here in the upper Midwest we are still locked into cold wet weather, just a bit warmer version of the endless winter we experienced. I think we all are looking for a drastic shift up here, but when and to what state. Would a developing El Nino finally end the polar air we have been under and would it finally bring a different pattern, one of hot conditions?
    Lingering ice flows are still all over Lake Superior, but this is drifting pieces broken up months ago. Lake Superior surface water temperatures have been breaking records to the up side for many years now, this year must be the first exception to that trend in at least 20 years.

    • We have the Jet stuck in hot/cold dipoles all around the Northern Hemisphere. I don’t see anything breaking that general trend this summer. Maybe if El Nino is strong enough by winter. But sea ice loss is a powerful force and we are certainly stuck with the consequences of that now.

      Cool and stormy for you guys until further notice. Watch out for big rain storms over the next few weeks!

  2. Andy (at work)

     /  May 14, 2014

    2 more fires popped up (another in Carlsbad, one in Camp Pendleton), plenty of road closures including I-5. We have another 2 days of this minimum (90 through Friday at minimum).

  3. Andy (at work)

     /  May 14, 2014

    Another one popped up in Fallbrook an hour ago. A couple of houses burned in Carlsbad. Fortunately we don’t have the winds from the santa ana 3 weeks ago, if we had it would be catastrophic (unstoppable).

    From now until ~October, if we get a high wind santa ana, it may be difficult to stop.

    The traditional fire fighting water sources such as Lake Hodges are dry so that makes it more challenging for the fire crews. This may play out through the summer as California uses bombardier CL-415 scoopers as they give a quicker turn time that helicopters or jets. This will also increase fire fighting costs through the season (Jan 1 to Dec 31 now I guess).

    The media will do a grand job of dramatizing this, but it is nothing compared to the giant fires from years ago.

    • I’ve seen shots of copters scooping water from golf pond lakes.

      Can’t believe this is happening in May.

    • Sporadic reports of a 4th and 5th fire… 11,000 evacuated from the Poinsettia region.

    • Make that six…

      • Andy (at work)

         /  May 14, 2014

        There have a been some popping up around I-8 (about 45 miles SE of there). The winds are not as strong as yesterday so it may be that the “fire-bugs” are out playing pyromaniac.

        One of my co-workers sped out of the office, I guess his back yard is on fire.

  4. pintada

     /  May 14, 2014

    The e-mail i got has a couple bugs that do not appear here. The photos are not displaying properly. Not a complaint, just a heads up.

    • I’ve gotten some reports of this. Are they displaying well on the website? I honestly don’t know how to manage the email coding.

      • pintada

         /  May 15, 2014

        Yeah, fine here, just in the e-mail. When i click on the link, i get c++(?) code. It looks to me that the html in the e-mail has a bug. Of course, it could be my firewall. Maybe it would be easiest to not try to send pics via e-mail. Just put in a line – “Pictures and/or film at the website.”

        • The problem is that when you sign up for email, it’s an auto coded service that WordPress provides internally. To my knowledge, there’s no way for me to alter settings. I’ll dig around to see if I can find anything.

  5. High of 86F today up here in Longview, WA. Normal average high for mid-May is 67F.

  6. Andy (at work)

     /  May 14, 2014

    Here is a handy link to get decent info / overview

  7. james cole

     /  May 15, 2014

    This is cut and paste, something I usually don’t do, but this story shows that former US military men can see the coming disaster. Those still in service are probably afraid to expose their careers to political powers of climate change deniers in Congress and Corporate America. Anyways, this is a part of the story. “Global climate change represents a serious and growing threat to world security, and may be a catalyst for conflict in the resources-rich Arctic region as the ice shield shrinks, a group of retired top US military officers say in a new report.

    The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Military Advisory Board says in the report – titled ‘National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change’ – that melting sea ice in the Arctic will open shipping lanes for energy exploration, setting off public and private competition for untapped reserves that lie beneath the historically forbidden region.

    “Things are accelerating in the Arctic faster than we had looked at,” said General Paul Kern, chairman of the CNA military advisory board. “The changes there appear to be much more radical than we envisaged.”

    • I think the military is well aware of the situation and related risks. They’ve been issuing national security threat analysis reports on climate change publicly for a few years now. The fact that conservatives continue to ignore these ‘clear and present danger’ reports is a pretty clear indication that their loyalties lie not with the interests of the United States but with corporations whose plan for profit is based on a rising and wholesale climate disruption. Such a course is unconscionable even if it is currently politically expedient to certain parties.

      • Per Smedley Butler, there are great profits if you enter a conflict and need to pour money into the war machine with little oversight. It cost $14 to ship a box of corn flakes to Iraq (Haliburton no bid contract), now that’s a profit margin. Panic buying to build gear & maintain a supply line is extremely lucrative.

        If you are prepared, then the high margin returns are not there. I wonder if the last 2 major military endeavors taught the lobbyists how to really fleece the country.

  8. It’s been a rough day. Let’s hope tomorrow isn’t worse. For all the damage and disruption, at least I’ve seen no reports of loss of life.

  9. This is the first I’ve heard of this…

    “More than 60,000 families have been affected – meaning that at least 350,000 people have had to leave their homes. They have lost almost everything they own: their animals, their crops, their daily lives. UNICEF has reported that 60,000 Bolivian children have been affected. 900 schools have had to suspend activities for almost a month due to high risk. Over fifty people have died and some of their bodies have still not been recovered. And we cannot yet tell what the magnitude of the impact on health, food and the ability of communities to rebuild their lives will be as the floodwaters recede and the extent of the destruction is slowly revealed.”

    Apparently it’s been going on for moths…

    Bolivia declares emergency over 2 months of flooding; at least 30 dead

    Bolivia floods: State of emergency declared

  10. I have checked Norwegian media and there is no mention of these forest fires in California, and neither the record temperatures 1 month ahead of time. Checking CNN and BBC today also has no story on California wildfires… *speechless*

    I guess they all the media houses extended their blinders a little bit longer…

  11. Kevin Jones

     /  May 15, 2014

    Straight out of The Fire Next Time. (1993) A TV film set 25 years after Rio where all the world’s leaders agreed the problem and agreed to ignore it. 2017. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…..

  12. Mark from New England

     /  May 15, 2014


    A question about your donation link: Under “Please support our ongoing efforts” with the picture of the Raven – does that support your work here at the website or is that for your publishing company? I’d like to make a donation, but want to be sure this is the correct link to support your great work here.

    Thanks, Mark

    • That’s to support the work here. The paypal is just under DFP. Considering not doing the book tour this year due to the urgency of climate change.

  13. Mark from New England

     /  May 15, 2014

    Good timely (and on topic) article by author John Atcheson here:

    I also recommend his first novel of a planned trilogy called “A Being Darkly Wise” which is set against the backdrop of emerging climate catastrophe. It’s a great read, and one of those ‘can’t put down’ books – a great summer novel.

    • Extraordinary title. Subtle and deep cutting. I will have to take a look.

      • Mark from New England

         /  May 15, 2014

        I have a strong feeling you will love this novel. I can’t wait for book two, but am not sure when it’s being released. Did you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy that began with “40 Signs (or was it ‘Days’) of Rain”? That was a good trilogy with a climate change background as well.

  14. Kevin Jones

     /  May 15, 2014

    I’ve been looking at the horrific photos and videos coming out of San Diego Co. and again remembering that 1993 TV movie, The Fire Next Time, not to be confused with the great James Baldwin book of the same title. I believe CBS aired it in two parts. NCAR climatologist Stephen Schneider, author of Global Warming Are we entering the greenhouse century? Sierra Books 1989, was a consultant. It remains timely. I thought it superb and the science behind it solid. Still do.

  15. Glenn Scherer

     /  May 16, 2014

    Robert – Thanks for your excellent climate change reporting. As a seasoned enviro journalist, it’s my view that you’re doing an extraordinary job of accurately connecting the dots between unfolding extreme weather and its connection to a base cause: human-caused global climate change. Especially like that you are willing to take the risk that mainstream media and most scientists won’t take in putting together current facts and cutting edge climate change science to make logical extrapolations about near future events (such as the growing potential for a super el nino in 2014-15). Between your blog, Reanalyzer, Neven’s Arctic Ice Blog, and Climate Progress, I’m able to stay on top of climate change events as they unfold daily around the globe. Are there any other gutsy truth telling climate change oriented websites you can recommend? — Seems to me what we really need now is a website that connects the next set of dots: a daily look at global economic and social climate change shocks worldwide, like the news provided by the commenter on flood conditions in Bolivia, or like your reporting on jet stream anomalies and extreme floods in Serbia. — Thanks, and keep up the great work.

  16. Thanks for the kind words, Glenn. I haven’t seen a blog with a specific climate change social/Econ focus. My thoughts are that the well is probably very deep, especially if one could develop a good list of expert sources.

    Two other blogs I track with regularity include Peter Sinclair’s Climate Crocks and Tamino. Tamino has been less regular, of late, but is fantastic for statistical analysis/fact checking.

  17. Spike

     /  May 16, 2014

    The impact of drought in China on the arab spring revolt in Egypt is discussed in detail here

  1. Mangled Jet Stream Delivers Record-Shattering Heat, Extreme Wildfires to California | Gaia Gazette

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