When do you think the air in the Northwest is coldest above the surface, say at 5000 ft above sea level?
(1) December 21st when the sun is weakest.
(2) First week of January when the surface temperatures are lowest on average.
(3) Early February
(4) Now, mid-March
(5) April 15th.
(6) Late November when Northwest weather is most wet and windy.
(7) Mid-June, when the Northwest is the midst of lots of low clouds.
Time's up! The correct answer is (4)...right now. Bizarre isn't it? Our coldest temperatures aloft are nearly coincident with the beginning of Spring (today!), when the sun is far stronger and daylight much longer than 3 months ago.
Don't believe me? Here is a plot the climatological 850 hPa (roughly 5000 ft) temperatures over western Washington by month. The data is based on upper air data from 1948 to 2013 at Quillayute on the NW Washington Coast, nearby Tatoosh Island, and Seattle. Take a look at the 50% line or the median temperature value. The coldest month on average? March! The extreme cold temperatures are in November through February (black line), but ON AVERAGE temperatures aloft are colder in March. Who would of thought?
But now consider the atmosphere. The air has a substantial mass and volume. It has more heat capacity than the surface or what we call thermal inertia. Think of huge flywheel....hard to spin it up and later to slow it down.
So the ground warms up relatively quickly, but it takes some time for the atmospheric flywheel to rev up from the sun's rays (and from the infrared radiation from the warmed surface below). And around here there is another factor, during March and April we have less strong storms with powerful southerly winds bringing warm air up from the subtropics. The flow is more westerly in the lower atmosphere, with a greater tendency to pull air from more northern climes. The 850 hPa wind maps for April and December illustrate this.
Now there are big implications for the differing heating rates of the surface and the air aloft during the spring....and you experienced the effects today if you were here in the Northwest. With the surface warming up more rapidly than the air above, the difference in temperature between these two levels increases. To put it another way, the rate of change of temperature with height...known as the lapse rate...becomes very large in spring around here. And big changes in temperature with height leads to vertical instability and convection (cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds). We have lots of instability and convective showers the last few days (like the picture below) as a result of the large springtime change in temperature aloft.
You can see all the spring instability clouds from the MODIS satellite. Most of the white clouds in the image are convective clouds.
All of you have lots of experience with big changes in temperature causing convection: in your hot cereal pot or the convecting water in your water for pasta. All examples of vertical instability produced by large changes of temperature in the vertical.
So because of the lag of warming aloft, spring is the most unstable time of the year, with the most change in temperature with height, and the most cumulus convection. It is also the least foggy time of the year, since fog does not do well with large cooling in the vertical and vertical mixing.
And autumn is just the opposite. The atmospheric flywheel keep the atmosphere relatively warm, while the land surface cools as the sun weakens. The atmosphere becomes very stable, with lots of fog and the potential for air pollution. Far fewer thunderstorms.