Thursday, May 7, 2015

Summer 2015: The Northwest's Global Warming Stress Test

By the end of the summer, we will know whether the Pacific Northwest is ready to deal with global warming.   And if not, what we need to do to prepare.  A virtual climate stress test.

As I have noted in a previous blog, our winter and spring have brought weather conditions that are stunningly close to those expected to be normal by the end of the century.

In short, this winter we were much warmer than normal, with near normal precipitation and far below normal snowpack.

For example, during our core winter months, temperature over our region was roughly 2-6F warmer than normal, and over the past year we were 2-4F above normal.
In contrast, our precipitation over the water year (since October 1) has been near normal (yellow/green colors, see graphic)

And our snowpack has been abysmal, with the Washington Cascades currently at around 20% of normal, the Olympics at 1% of normal, and only the mountains of NE Washington as high as 50%.

According to regional climate simulations run at the University of Washington and the analyses of the UW Climate Impacts Group, these conditions are close to what is expected around 2070.

So the central question is:   is our society ready for 2070 conditions, today in 2015?

We are about to experience a climate change stress test.  How will we manage?

With so little snowpack, will there be enough water for personal use and agriculture?
Will there be major destructive wildfires?
Will salmon and other wildlife be hurt by low summer streamflow?

By the end of the summer we will know....

The latest model forecasts suggest we not only start with 2070 spring conditions, but this summer will be warmer than normal.  For example, the latest NOAA Climate Forecast System model forecasts for June-July-August are for surface air temperatures of 1-2 C (2-4 F) above normal.
Adaptation measures

Our local, state, and Federal officials are pulling out the stops to prepare us for 2070 conditions.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Seattle Public Utility managers very wisely brought the levels of the Tolt and Chester Morse reservoirs way, way UP during the winter rains, thus making up for the lost snowpack in late spring and early summer (the red line is this year's reservoir storage, green is last year, and blue is average).  Even without much snowpack, the city has enough water to get through the summer.  That is resilience.


The biggest water fears are in the Yakima Basin, where there is insufficient storage to get through an entire summer without snow melt.   But there ,the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did something daring: they decided early in the winter not to worry about potential flood risk and begin filling the reservoirs much earlier than ever before.   A week ago, they essentially had them all at 100%, something never done this early in the season.  

The graphic below shows the total storage of the 5 major Yakima reservoirs (blue line) compared to last year (green) and an average year (red).   They topped off the reservoirs near the max MONTHS before normal.  Daring and smart.  There will still be water shortages on the Yakima, but nothing compared to what would have happened if the Bureau of Reclamation didn't act so proactively.

The Columbia River flows will be low, but not near any records because the snowpack in BC was much higher and the Columbia drains off of colder, higher elevations there.

Governor Inslee's drought declaration should enable some farmers to tap well water and to purchase water from those with senior rights.  More help for adaptation to the 2070 climate.

Will there be excessive wildfires?  My colleagues in the U.S. Forest Service are not sure.  True, warm weather help dry surface "fuels", but will there be much lightning, an important initiator of many of our conflagrations?  Might the high pressure that has brought the warmth and low snowpack decrease the lightning frequency, reducing fires?

Although it may not be politically correct to say this, might  we find that 2070 weather has some positives?  Like a longer hiking season?  Less bugs in the mountains? More pleasant temperatures though most of the year?  Lower winter heating bills?  Less seasonal affective disorder?  Less avalanche injuries?   Forget I said it.

In short, we will soon learn whether our region, taking some aggressive steps to deal with the unusual snowpack and temperatures, is ready to take on the climate of 2070.    Scary perhaps, but a fascinating experiment.    And if we do have major problems, we will have insights into what we need to fix before 2070 is upon us and particularly our children and grandchildren.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

FINALLY! Some cold, unstable air over the Northwest

During a normal spring we get plenty of cool days with showers, the kind of weather that plagues parents watching their kids play sports and keeps our ground moist until the summer period of dehydration.  But not this year, with our persistent high pressure and sun.

But today was different and I was glad:  yesterday I put new grass seed into my lawn and placed a few new plants in the garden.  And days like today are very helpful for dealing with our current snow drought, since it reduces our need for water and helps fill our reservoirs.

Some light snow hit Paradise on Mt. Rainier yesterday (5500ft)-picture at 8 AM Wed.

The origin of the change was a strong upper level trough over the Pacific Northwest (see image of the 500 hPa (roughly 18,000 ft) map with the solid lines showing the height of that pressure surface above sea level).  A nice trough over us and a ridge over the eastern Pacific.


Such an upper level trough is associated with cool air aloft and upward motion.  That produces clouds and precipitation.   The air is relatively unstable with cold, dense air aloft over warm air near the surface (the sun is fairly strong now).   Such an unstable vertical profile produces convection (thunderstorms and towering cumulus), which we saw today.  In fact, it was unstable enough to produce a half-dozen lightning strikes around western Washington.

Here is the visible satellite image at 2 PM this afternoon....lots of convective clouds.  You can notice particular substantial clouds over central Puget Sound (a Puget Sound convergence zone was going on).   Note how the cloud coverage is enhanced over land--that is due to solar heating at the surface.


As the convergence zone interacted with the mountains, substantial precipitation fell over the terrain.  Earlier today, when the convergence zone was directed to the NE, heavy precipitation fell in the Cascades to  the northeast of Bellingham--as much as 2.5 inches during the 24 h ending 9 PM Tuesday.  As the winds on the coast rotated to a more northwesterly direction, the convergence zone precipitation reached the central Cascades.


To illustrate this change in configuration of the convergence zone precipitation, here are two radar images:  one around 9 AM and the other around 4 PM.  Big difference in the orientation of the heavy precipitation (yellow and red colors)



Don't get too comfortable with the cold and showers.  High pressure will build this week, bringing steadily improving conditions.  Low 60s on Wednesday, rising to upper 70s on Saturday.  I guess I will have to water my new grass seed...

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Seattle's Lightning Detection Network Illustrates Volcano Lightning and Much More

Did you know that perhaps the premier global lightning detection network is centered her in Seattle?
And that it not only can sense lightning from thunderstorms but the discharges produced by major volcanic eruptions?

An amazing technological achievement, based at the University of Washington, is called WWLLN (World Wide Lightning Location Network, website here).   Led by Professor Robert Holzworth of the Earth and Space Sciences Department of the UW College of the Environment, this network is based on a collection of sensors that receive the electromagnetic pulses emitted by lighting.

But before I talk about this system, lets discuss about volcanoes and lightning.  A few weeks ago, the Calbuco volcano erupted in Chile, producing a huge ash cloud and associated lightning.  Volcanoes can produce lightning because the turbulent ash clouds can result in charge separation, in which there are large differences in electrostatic charges in the clouds.   Such charge differences result in lightning.



The intense lightning pulses associated with the volcano-produced electromagnetic signals are picked up by the WWLLN network, which measured over 1000 lightning events over a few day period (see graphics below).


Most major eruptions produce lightning, including our local favorite: Mt. St Helens.

But back to WWLLN.  This network encompasses roughly 50 sensors around the world (see map, large red asterisks show the current sensor sites).


These sensors measure electromagnetic emission in the Very Low Frequency (VLF) band (3-30 kHz).  When a lightning event occurs there is a pulse of electromagnetic radiation (much of it in this band) that is called a "sferic."  When I was kid I used to listen to a lot of AM radio and I noticed I could tell when thunderstorms where approaching by the increasing static--which was produced by the radio waves propagating out from local thunderstorms.   Same general idea.

As the electromagnetic pulse propagates away from a lightning event (either cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, or cloud to clear skies), it is picked up by multiple WWLLN sensors.  Since we know how fast radio waves travel (speed of light), by getting the time of arrival of the lightning pulse at multiple sensors (WWLLN demands at least 5), the location of the lightning pulse can be determined. Anywhere in the world.  Pretty neat.

Here is the WWLLN lighting totals for 30 minutes ending 11:15 AM Sunday (plus the infrared weather satellite imagery).  Lots of lighting over the SW U.S.


Or how about the average lightning over the world on Friday?  No problem. (see below)
Lots of lightning in the tropics, which is not unexpected.

But what I really love is their real-time interface in which you can watch in real time as lightning strikes around the world.  You can view it here or click on image.


Lightning detection networks, like WWLLN, are powerful tools for meteorologists.  It helps us warn folks of approaching lightning.   We can use the information to understand the climatology of lightning and the physical processes inside of storms.  Some of us are using lightning to improve weather forecasting by using lightning information to better initialize our numerical forecasting models.

In fact, I have had a project to do this with graduate student Ken Dixon, Robert Holzworth, and Greg Hakim.  Here is an example of a forecast  of  what a weather radar would see without (left, control) and with (right, nudge) the use of lightning for a major convective event that hit the U.S. east coast on June 29, 2012 (2100 UTC, 5 PM EDT).  Big difference.


As shown by the observed radar (below), using lightning data from WWLLN really improved the forecast.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Oyster victory: But there is more left to do

Today there was a substantial victory for those who value the environmental quality of our State's waterways:   Taylor Shellfish announced it would not spray the pesticide/neurotoxin imidacloprid over thousands of acres of tideland of Willapa Bay and Greys Harbor. 

This positive outcome was the result of a massive public response after articles appeared in Bloomberg News and the Seattle Times, whose article by Danny Westneat was the real initiator of the public reaction.

But the threat to these tidelands and adjacent public waters is not ended:  

   (1)  Other oyster farmers have not agreed to ban imidaclorprid.
   (2)   The WA State Department of Ecology's approval to use this neurotoxin has NOT been rescinded.
    (3)  Oyster farmers are still planning to spread herbicides on the  tidelands to kill eelgrass.
   (4)  The shellfish industry, including Taylor, is still polluting our waterways with PVC pipes and other plastics.

Perhaps most disturbing of all has been the role of the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE), the state agency that is supposed to protect our environment, not promote its decline for the sake of private interests.

It is startling, that for DECADES, the  State and DOE has allowed the potent and carcinogenic pesticide carbaryl (SEVIN) to be sprayed on tideflats to aid the oyster growers.  According to the National Pesticide Information Center:


  • Carbaryl ranges from slightly to highly toxic to several species of fish 
  • Carbaryl ranges from moderately to very highly toxic to marine invertebrates, such as shrimp and oysters  
  • Carbaryl is very highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates such as shrimp and stoneflies. 
  • Carbaryl can also damage frog tadpoles during their development 
  • Carbaryl is very high in toxicity to honey bees and can harm beneficial insects 
  • Carbaryl is considered a human carcinogen.

Can you imagine that the State Department of Ecology EVER let this chemical be applied to Willapa Bay and Greys Harbor tidelands?

Or that DOE allowed the herbicide Imazamox to be sprayed over the same areas to kill eelgrass, which a Department of Ecology site says is critical habitat for birds, fish, and other animals.



Many of you who complained via email to DOE Director Maia Bellon got a response by Rich Doenges, Southwest Region Manager, Water Quality Program, in which he provides the DOE website on the issue.  You will not believe what is in there.

They start by pushing the economic importance of the oyster business:

About 25 percent of our nation’s commercial oysters are produced from these two bays. The shrimp are more than a nuisance; they put the shellfish industry and economy at risk.

 They then admit they allowed that the State allowed the insecticide carbaryl for over 50 years!

But then it gets surreal.  DOE admits that the pesticide imidaclorprid by Bayer specifically said that it was not to be used in the water.


But EXACTLY, the same chemical, produced by an Australian firm, was OK to use on our tidelands.

The State of Ecology needs to ban spraying of pesticides and herbicides on tidelands adjacent to public waterways and all of us should keep the pressure on DOE Director Maia Bellon and her staff until they do so.    Governor Inslee also needs to know of our concerns.  Some oyster farmers use alternative (and more costly) methods for propagating oysters without spraying chemicals.

They should be commended and the rest of the industry should follow their lead.   Washington State should pride itself on producing the best shellfish possible in clean, natural waters untainted by a chemical brew sprayed by factory aquaculture enterprises.

The Deeper Question

The coastal aquatic environment has been altered by daming the Columbia, logging, pollution running off land, bringing in invasive species, and more.   Should we compensate for this damage to aid one industry by using other artificial, and perhaps risky, alterations (e.g., herbicides and pesticides)?  Perhaps we need to step back and think this through.   But the decision is a societal one, particularly since the tideflats are adjacent to PUBLIC lands,  and clearly folks have spoken loudly.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Oysters and Pesticides: The Washington State Department of Ecology Stumbles

Change.org online petition to stop the pesticide spraying is here.  Also some WA State Ecology contact information.

This week Bloomberg News published a sobering story describing the use of pesticides in Northwest waters by the oyster industry.  Included in this story is the approval by the Washington State Department of Ecology of the insecticide imidacloprid, a potent neurotoxin, for spraying over Willapa Bay and Greys Harbor.  This toxin is known to kill bees and, according to the manufacturer should NOT be use in water:
“This product is highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates. Do not apply directly to water, or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean high water mark.”
Today, Danny Westneat published a similar story in the Seattle Times.  

It is not like the environmental negligence of the powerful Washington State oyster industry was a mystery, with community groups such as ProtectOurShorelines describing the chemical stew and plastics spread over our public waterways by this industry.   Last year, I blogged about this issue when taking on some of the factual errors in the Seattle Times stories about ocean acidification.

This issue represents a major failure by the state agency responsible to protect Washington's environment (Washington State Department of Ecology).   It is an example of a wealthy industry getting it way, of cozy relationships with politicians, of incomplete information being provided to the State's citizens.


The Coalition to Save Puget Sound document to environmental predations of some in the local shellfish industry (link here)
There is a long history of oyster aquaculture here in the Northwest.   Native oysters (the Olympia oyster) were originally abundant until harvested to near extinction.   To replace it, local oystermen brought in the larger Pacific oyster from Japan, a species unable to spawn naturally in our local waters.  But a problem developed in the 1950s after fresh water flushing from Columbia River was reduced by dam construction and timber harvesting had degraded the quality of our coastal bays: native burrowing shrimp flourished in coastal bays.  Unfortunately, the burrowing churned up the tideflats and disrupted oyster growth.  And overfishing removed many of the predators for the little shrimp.

So the oystermen decided to use a powerful insecticide, Carbaryl, a neurotoxin and carcinogen.  It is highly toxic to human and animals. Amazingly, the State Department of Ecology allowed this.    

But there was another problem for the oystermen: extensive eelgrass, which was undermining the productivity of oyster beds.   The solution:  spraying an herbicide Imazamox over the coastal wetlands.  And AGAIN the Department of Ecology approved spraying a problematic chemical over our natural marine environment.

A number of environmentally concerned folks were worried about the Carbaryl use, and after substantial pressure, the oyster industry turned to another insecticide, one never used on water before in the U.S., imidacloprid, a chemical used in several home and agriculture pesticides.   Imidacloprid is considered dangerous to bees and is banned in Europe.  And guess what?  The Department of Ecology has given permission for its use in our coastal bays starting next month.
 This chemical is highly soluble in water and will spread in the water to fish and other wildlife.

Are you getting the idea that the Washington State Department of Ecology is more interested in protecting the bottom line of the oyster industry than protecting the health of Washington citizens and our natural environment?   You would not be alone.

And the bottom line of the oyster folks is doing very well, thank you.  Here are some interesting statistics from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife of the number of pounds of unshelled oysters produced in Washington each year and the price per pound.  The harvest was level and the price QUADRUPLED (the reason is mainly because of loss of production in other parts of the world).   Someone is making a LOT of money.

Graphic courtesy of Todd Myers, WPC

So the oyster industry is making out like bandits, while the Seattle Times is writing stories about a crisis in oyster production due to ocean acidification.  As I described in detail in several of my previous blogs, the only oyster deaths were in factory oyster seed farms when they mistakenly took in cold, upwelled water during the summer.  Once they understood their mistake (with the help of the University of Washington and NOAA PMEL), the production of oyster larvae was stable and the industry is doing well.  Want proof?  Here is the price for oyster larvae the last few years:  rock solid.



There is no more prevalent untruth going around in the media and among some politicians than the claim that rising CO2 has been undermining oyster harvests during the past few years.  This statement is simply false.  And I have confirmed this with expert colleagues at the UW and NOAA PMEL

A question you might ask is why the Washington State Department of Ecology is allowing our precious waters to be turned into chemical dumping grounds for the sake of private sector interests?   One can start with jobs and money, with the Washington oyster industry bringing in nearly two-hundred million dollars a year and providing several thousand jobs.

But there is something else.  The supposed oyster/coastal acidification link is being used by some state politicians to support a political agenda dealing with greenhouse warming and rising CO2.  Several state politicians claim in speech and speech that the oyster issue is the  "canary in the coal mine" for CO2 and global warming.  Such politicians are often involved in photo-ops with oyster industry folks and clearly are not enthusiastic about restraining the activities of the local shellfish industry.  Global warming is a very serious issue for our region... it is counterproductive to hype the oyster connection to convince folks to reduce their carbon footprint.

 The oyster folks admit in private that rising CO2 is not currently an issue for them, but the claim in very useful in making them look environmentally progressive and attractive to those with a political agenda.   It also gives customers an inaccurate impression that oysters are rare and threatened, encouraging prices to rise.


Want to complain to the Department of Ecology before the new insecticide is sprayed along our coastal waters?   Contact your local state representative or call/email the head of the Department of Ecology Maia Bellon.  Email the Governor.

And you might think twice about ordering oysters in a restaurant or from your local market.

Finally, I should note there are other major environmental issues regarding the local shellfish industry.  For example, there is the massive use of PVC pipe and other plastics for geoduck production (see picture). Every acre of geoduck aquaculture includes approximately 8 miles of PVC tubes plus 40,000 plastic net caps, plastic bands and/or 30 x 30 ft. plastic canopy nets.


We are talking about a serious source of plastic pollution (more info here).

Monday, April 27, 2015

Is a Strong El Nino FINALLY coming?

Last year about this time, the media was abuzz about a Super El Nino that would hit over the past winter (2014-2015).  Dramatic predictions were made for drought in the Pacific Northwest and heavy rains over southern California.

Unfortunately for the prognosticators, an official El Nino didn't occur although the waters in the tropical Pacific were slightly above normal.   Perhaps, we should have called it El Tepid.

But during the last few months the situation has altered substantially with temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific surging upwards.   NOAA and Australian forecasters are now saying we are in an official El Nino and it appears it will become moderate or strong this year.

Let me show the details.  Here are plots of the sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies (differences from normal) for four critical zones in the topical Pacific. They are warming, with many of them being the warmest over the past year.  The usual definition for El Nino calls for a warm anomaly in the Nino 3.4 area of at least .5C for three consecutive months.  We got that now.




Here is a map of the SST anomalies for the past month.  Warm water (dark orange and red) stretching from the central Pacific to the coast of S. America.   You can also see the crazy warm water off our coast.

 NOAA has placed a series of buoys along the equatorial Pacific to keep track of the ocean temperatures below the surface.  These buoys show quite warm water extending 100-200 meters beneath the surface.  This figure shows an east-west cross section across the central Pacific of the underwater temperatures.  Red is much warmer than normal.


Bottom line:  we have now entered El Nino territory.  Based on a collection of models, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) is going for El Nino conditions the remainder of this year (see their probabilistic forecast below).   Roughly 70% chance  this summer and about 60% chance next winter.  But this time of the year you have to be careful, with the quality of the winter forecasts improves radically by July and August.



The National Weather Service's primary seasonal prediction system, CFSv2, is based on running  weather/ocean forecast models out 9 months.    Its forecast is emphatic and confident (see below):  a strong El Nino will develop this summer and extend into next winter.


So what are the implications for the Northwest if a strong El Nino is in place next winter?  

We tend to be warmer than normal with less snow in the mountains (and much less snow in the lowlands).  Less stormy.  The good thing is that a typical strong El Nino year generally has more snow than the freaky year we just finished.  But this is not good news for ski areas.   On the positive side, El Nino years tend to bring more precipitation than normal to central and southern California.   And guess what?  The latest NOAA CFS model is showing exactly that for next October through December (see below).
Let me stress that there is a lot of uncertainty with this forecast and the models were not good last year.  But this year's warm water is more extensive than last and the models are more in agreement.  If the forecasts hold into mid-summer, our confidence in the strong El Nino prediction will be substantially enhanced.  So hold on but you decide on buying that ski pass at your favorite resort.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Exploding Trees and Lightning

If you needed another reason to avoid standing under a tree during a lightning storm, here is another: the tree might explode and shred everything in its environment.

Such an event happened in the University of Washington Arboretum on March 31st and I visited the site this week during a run.....and I was amazed.   Here I am in front of the tree... this tall fir blew out form the center, with spokes of the trunk projecting out on the ground likes spokes of a bicycle wheel (picture taken by my colleague Lyatt Jaegle).


Another perspective:


 Branches and tree shrapnel was obvious HUNDREDS OF FEET from the tree.   Some of the wood was ejected so forcefully that it hit the ground and was deeply embedded--- over 100 feet away!   So deep I could not pull it out.


Here is a branch that pushed deep into the ground about 75 feet away.


A view from the air (courtesy of KOMO TV) and on the ground right after it happened (courtesy of the UW arboretum)  are shown below.  The original tree was over 100 ft tall.



Why did it explode?  When lightning hits the tree, it ran down the moist inner sapwood, since that portion of the tree conducts current better.   The huge current produced rapid heating and the water turned to steam, which in turn produced huge pressures that caused explosive expansion.

Can you imagine if you were standing near that tree?  You would have been torn apart or speared by flying debris.   Of course, standing under a tree during a thunderstorm is a bad idea for other reasons, such as getting electrocuted by the lightning current.   When I was a student at Cornell, a bunch of student were sheltering under a tree during a storm.  Lightning hit.  Several were seriously injured with some never recovering.

Want to see a video of lightning-caused tree explosion.   Check this out and look at the debris ejected over the parking lot.  This was a much smaller trees that the one shown above.


It turns out that cold can also cause trees to explode.  Water expands as it freezes (something I learned well when I put a full water bottle in the freezer), producing huge force.   So under very cold conditions the moist inner sapwood can freeze putting such a large force on the outer bark that the tree explodes.  The sound of such exploding trees supposedly sound like gunshots.   Native Americans such as the Sioux and the Cree sometimes called the first moon of the new year the "Moon of the Cold-Exploding Trees".    Don't worry, such cold does not occur here in western Washington.

And burning trees can exploded during wildfires when the sap is flammable, something that has been observed with eucalyptus trees in Australia.

Here in the Northwest, the big danger from trees is not the ones that explode, but rather the ones that fall during strong winds.  Big trees hugely increase the risks during windstorms and many people have been injured or killed in our region from falling trees and branches.  Big trees are a force multiplier for Northwest windstorms.

Don't get me wrong... I love trees.   But on rare occasions, danger lurks.

PS:  If you want to visit the exploded UW tree, it on on the north side of the UW arboretum, a few hundred feet northwest of the visitor center.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wetter weather ahead for Friday and Saturday

In a year with low snowpack, getting rain during mid to late spring is crucial for reducing water problems during the summer.  The water delays the beginning of watering/irrigation season, leaving more water for later use.  And the water can go right into the region's reservoirs, which no longer have to worry about holding storage for potential flooding.

The past 24h brought a few tenths of an inch over the region, and nearly 3/4 of an inch over the windward side of the Olympics (see graphic).


And some wet prospects are ahead:   here is the National Weather Service GFS model forecast for cumulative rain over the next ten days. Western Washington and the Cascades do well, at least several inches, and even northern California gets moderate rain.



Friday and Saturday will be influenced by an upper-level trough that will maintain cool, unstable air over us (see upper level map for Friday morning),   Typical spring shower regime with low snow levels.

Looking at the next 72 hr precipitation over the Northwest from the UW WRF model, there is substantial rainfall ahead, with 1-2 inches of liquid water over the North Cascades and Olympics.


Perhaps more importantly, some of this precipitation will be mountain snow with 1-2 feet in portions of the north Cascades.


The latest extended forecast by the NOAA Climate Forecast System model (CFSv2) for the next three months is suggesting normal precipitation, except for right along the coast (see map).
I believe the media and some local politicians have gotten a bit too worried about our "drought."   We have not had a precipitation drought at all....we are in a snow drought due to warm temperatures.  The situation is unique and I suspect we will weather this summer far better than expected.  And for those looking for outdoor activities this weekend:  Sunday morning and early afternoon look the best.