Friday, August 17, 2018

Air Quality if Far Better in Western WA But Smoke Will Return

Take a deep breath.  It's ok.

Air quality has greatly improved at low levels over western Washington as cool, clean marine air has pushed in at low levels.   You can see this with a plot of the concentration of small particles in the air (PM2.5), the kind that can move deep into your lungs (see below for Seattle-blue color, Bellingham-red color, and Tacoma-yellow)

From the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Website
Our air is by no mean pristine, with more particles than normal, but Seattle and Tacoma are at levels about 1/10th as high as Wednesday.  Bellingham is better, but they are closer to the BC fires and getting hit by some smoke this AM (but still down).

The excellent NOAA/NWS HRRR smoke model is predicting improving air quality at the surface during the next 24-h, something made clear by comparing the forecasts between 5 AM today (Friday) and tomorrow (see below, red is bad air, improving towards green, blue, and white).  Worse but still improving over the eastern slopes of the Cacades.

So Saturday's air quality should be decent as well. 

But then things change.  Upper-level high pressure builds in along the BC coast, coupled with a low-level trough of low pressure moving northward into western WA.  As a result, we will develop easterly and northeasterly flow in the lower atmosphere, bringing smoke back into the region.  This is well illustrated by the forecast winds and temperatures at 850 hPa (about 5000 ft) for Monday morning at 2 AM:

The NASA GEOS-5 model shows plenty of smoke blowing south over us on Monday at 10 AM (see map)

So enjoy the clean air, things will degrade by Monday.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Seattle's Worst 24h Air Quality on Record

Air quality in western Washington is very poor right now.

Incredibly, in central Puget Sound it is probably the worst in the nearly two-decade observing record of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for any time of the year.

I have been here a long time and I have never seen anything this bad.  The view from the Seattle SpaceNeedle Panocam is murky (see below)

And the view from my department is very mountains and can't even see across the Lake.

But now, let me really impress (or depress) you.  Below is a plot of 24-h average particulate concentration (PM2.5) in the atmosphere at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Duwamish site in Seattle.  The past 24-h was the worst on record for any time of the year.  Number two was the smoky period last summer. 

Historically, Seattle has its worst air in the winter from wood smoke and other combustion products, but today and last year were summer maxima from wildfires--very different animals.

The observing site in Tacoma also had its record in the past 24-h hours.

So why did our near surface air quality get so bad so fast?  

Fires were burning for quite a few weeks in British Columbia, California and eastern Washington, but western Washington had clean air at low levels (off the Pacific) with smoke aloft.  But on Monday, surface high pressure started to build in north and east of us (see map), resulting in easterly and northeasterly flow over the Cascades that brought the smoke over and down the terrain into western WA--allowing smoke to get to the surface.

Surface map at 8 PM Monday
I ran some low-level air trajectories ending in Seattle at 11 PM Tuesday night (using the NOAA Hysplit system).  Air ending at 100 meters above the city came from smoky BC, while air at 1000 meters were from eastern WA--both sources of smoke.

High pressure aloft amplified just offshore, resulting in strong downward motions in the lower atmosphere, which produced a subsidence inversion from the surface up to about 3000 ft.   The inversion (temperature increasing with height) was very obvious in the balloon soundings at Quillayute, on the WA coast, and from the Seattle profiler (see below).  Inversions act as atmospheric lids, preventing the smoke from mixing out during the day.

In short, we had the "perfect storm" for wildfire smoke around western Washington.  Lots of fires around us, a meteorological situation that pushed the smoke to low levels, and the development of an inversion that kept the smoke in place. 

As I write this (10 AM), the air quality  in Seattle is getting even worse (see plot)

EPA's AIRNOW site provides the five worst air quality locations in the U.S. each day.  Well, today the Northwest possess ALL FIVE of these sites:

Chelan has a startling value of 211, with the rest right behind.

Incredibly, historically bad air and unhealthy for all.  No running for me today.  Expect very slow improvement on Thursday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Smoke Storm Hits Washington State

The rising sun this morning in Seattle has that other worldly red-yellow color and a thick haze lays over western Washington.

The reason?  Massive amounts of smoke has made its was southward from the wildfires in British Columbia and westward from the several fires in eastern Washington.
Seattle at 6:23 AM Tuesday.  Can you see the sun?
A video drone ascent on northern Kitsap (provided by Greg Johnson of Skunk Bay Weather) dramatically shows the murk:

The latest Washington State Air Quality Map shows unhealthy conditions over western Washington, with some locations (like Port Angeles, Cheeka Peek near Tatoosh, and several locations on the eastern slopes of the Cascades) reaching very unhealthy and hazardous conditions.

In fact, air quality is better in Beijing right now (see graphic)

Yesterday's noon image from the NASA MODIS satellite over the region was stunning.  You can see the smoke moving into western WA from Canada and eastern WA and there was an amazing, long smoke front over southern Washington.

Here is Seattle (Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Duwamish site), the smoke (PM.5) surged yesterday afternoon, peaking this morning to around 80 mg per cubic meter (1-hr average).

This was by far the highest value this summer.  To give you some context, here is the same plot since late May.  Nothing close.  There was a minor peak on July 4/5 of about 1/3 the value.

Solar radiation is being substantially reduced by the smoke.  Here are plots on the UW Atmospheric Sciences roof for yesterday and August 9th (before the smoke).  Down about 14%.  The result will be substantially cooling of today's highs by at least 5 F based on recent experience with our WRF model.

 The densest smoke is found at the lowest elevations.  Paradise (5500 ft) is on the edge and Camp Muir (about 10,000 ft) is above the gunk (see picture)

The good news is that low level air quality should improve later today over Puget Sound and NW Washington, as suggested by the latest forecast of the NOAA/NWS HRRR smoke system.  But smoke will return eventually.

And as I will talk about in a later blog, smoke forecasting has improved dramatically in recent years, giving meteorologists a powerful tool in warning folks of degrading air quality from wildfires.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Dense Canadian Smoke Veil Moves Southward over Washington State

There are many Canadian imports we value, such as maple syrup and wood products, but one we would rather do without:  smoke from major wildfires in British Columbia.  And a major push southward of Canadian smoke is occurring as I write this. 

The smoke was obvious in the MODIS satellite image around noon, with low clouds beneath the smoke, west of the Cascade crest.

Most of these clouds subsequently burned off, with lots of smoke still aloft (see picture for the GOES satellite around 4 PM)

The smoke was quite dense but was mainly aloft, leaving air quality decent near the surface.   But the sky is very hazy and the sun has that weakened yellow/red look to it.    For example, the latest image from the Seattle PanoCam shows the smoke clearly.

And those hiking at Sunrise on Mt. Rainier did not see blue skies.

Yesterday in contrast had very, very clear skies.  What happened?

The passage of an upper level low and trough. 

Prior to the low passage, there was lots of Canadian smoke aloft, since southerly flow precedes the upper level low (see my previous blog).  As the low passed yesterday, the winds aloft first were first southwesterly/westerly, bringing in clean air from off the Pacific). But as the low passed by, the winds became northerly aloft which moved smoke from fires in BC southward (see upper level, 500 hPa, about 18,000 ft, map at 5 AM Sunday, winds are shown by the wind barbs)

And the upper level map for tomorrow morning (11 AM Monday) shows that the northerly flow is not over.

As many of you know by now, I am a great enthusiast for the wonderful experimental HRRR-SMOKE model run by NOAA ESRL.  Here is the vertical total of smoke amount for 2 PM Sunday from HRRR-Smoke.  Red is very smoky.  You can see lots of smoke moving southward into NW Washington, with cleaner air over northern Oregon.  The California smoke wa heading to the east and then northeast, missing us.

 By 9 AM Monday, substantial smoke is over all of WA state and CA smoke is moving northward again into Oregon.

And by late Monday evening, the two smoke sources combine, producing substantial haze over the entire Northwest.

And now the bad news: the winds over the Cascades will become easterly tomorrow and eastern WA smoke will push westward over the Cascades, with smoke pushing down to the surface (see surface smoke forecast for tomorrow at 7PM).  Our decent air quality may be over---so if you are vulnerable, take the appropriate precautions.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Major Change in Northwest Weather: Rain Moves in, Smoke Moves Out

A strong upper level trough will move inland over the region tonight and tomorrow morning bringing cooling weather, clouds, some precipitation, and the removable of the smoke layer aloft.

To start,  here are the upper-level (500-hPa, about 18,000 ft) charts for the next few days.

This morning  (5 AM) shows a big ridge over the western U.S., but a strong closed low/trough offshore.

Tomorrow morning at 5 AM, the trough/low is moving into our coast.

The trough moves through on Saturday and then moves northeastward into Canada on Sunday (11 PM Sunday is shown below)

The initial approach of the trough is associated with enhanced southerly flow that brought up smoke from California, but as it passes, the winds will turn more westerly, driving the smoke to the east.  This progression is shown by the HRRR-SMOKE model output. This morning at 10 AM, there was fairly dense smoke aloft (see figure), but far less at the surface.

But by 2 AM, western Washington is clear, as the densest smoke moves over eastern WA and Idaho.

 Precipitation should start moving in by 5 AM, illustrated by the UW WRF model precipitation for the 3-h period ending that time.
 Heavier rain is predicted during the subsequent three hours, particularly along the coast, the Olympics, and SW Washington.

The showers move to the Cascades during the afternoon.

  And continue while slowly declining during Saturday evening.

Seattle will not got a lot from this event and we do expect some embedded thunderstorms.   Sunday should be dry and warmer (around 80F).

Finally, it is interesting to look back at the temperatures at Seattle Tacoma Airport during the last 12 weeks compared to the normal highs (purple) and normal lows (cyan).  We have had a series of heat waves during the past two months, with some intervening cool periods.
Clearly, this summer was warmer than normal, something shown graphically with the following map of the temperature differences from normal over the past 60 days.  Western WA has been 1-3F above normal, with California being even warmer (perhaps 3-4F above normal for the period).

Thursday, August 9, 2018

California Wildfires: Is Global Warming Producing a New Normal? Part 1: Are CA Wildfires Becoming More Frequent?

With major fires burning in California, the media is abuzz with stories suggesting or stating that global warming is the key driver of these big burns.  Some media reports state that the number of California fires and the annual burn area are increasing and that global warming is the cause.    California's Governor Jerry Brown is absolutely explicit about the climate-wildfire connection, claiming that global warming is creating a "new normal" of increased wildfires and that the population will have to get used to it.

Are these claims really true?  What does actually fire data show?  The truth may surprise many.

In this blog, we will consider whether the number of fires and the acreage burned in California have increased dramatically during recent years. 

If this is true, we can discuss why--- it could be climate change, mismanagement of forests, change in fire suppression policy, increased human ignition of fires, people living in places they had not before, invasive flammable species, are some possibilities.

If there is no trend in wildfires, we can examine why.

Let us first consider the wildfire statistics by CALFIRE, the official group in the State of California responsible for the numbers, which suggests a very different story provided by the media and many politicians.  The numbers I will show include the entire state.

CALFIRES statisitics show that the numbers of California wildfires over the past 30 years has declined--dropping roughly in half.

For the same 30 years (1987-2016), wildfire area has grown slightly, with huge transient peaks and troughs (see below).   With such variability, I suspect the trend would not be significant.  Final statistics for 2017 are not yet available on the CALFIRE website.

A longer-period (one century) view of wildfire frequency and area in California is found in a nice paper by Keeley and Syphard in the International Journal of Wildfire Science:  “Different historical fire–climate patterns in California”.  They break down the fires in two blocks:  (1) areas managed by the US Forest Service (USFS) and (2) the State of California (CAL FIRE).  Their results  (see below) suggest a maximum number of fires in the 1970s, followed by a substantial decline during the past decades.  

Repeat:  less fires recently.

 “Different historical fire–climate patterns in California” by Jon E. Keeley and Alexandra D. Syphard.
They also examined the areas burned during the last century.  For the US Forest Service areas (mainly the higher elevation regions) that encompass the northern part of the CA (where the big fires are burning now), the acreage was as large or larger at the beginning of the 20th century as now (see below), with a minimum around 1960. For the southern part of the state, the highest values are during the past few decades, with a secondary maximum early in the 20th century.

In contrast, for the Cal Fire areas, which encompasses lower elevations with greater overlap with human populations,  the largest areas burned occurred in the early part of the 20th century.    The only exception to this pattern is the south coast, where there is little trend.

The bottom line of the real fire data produced by the State of California and in the peer-reviewed literature is clear:  there has been no upward trend in the number of wildfires in California during the past decades.   In fact, the frequency of fires has declined.

And in most of the state, there has not been an increasing trend in area burned during the past several decades.

Yes....this and last year had some big fires, but a few years does not make a trend.

So there is a lot misinformation going around in the media, some environmental advocacy groups, and some politicians.   The story can't be a simply that warming is increasing the numbers of wildfires in California because the number of fires is declining.  And area burned has not been increasing either.

But now we get into the real interesting questions that many are not considering.   What is driving the ups and downs in wildfires?  There are so many factors that must be considered, such as:

1.  The fact that extensive fires are a natural historical part of the ecology of the region
2.  The impacts of a huge increase of human population, creating increasing vulnerability while humans are starting most of the fires.
3.   Climate change that causes warming and changing the precipitation patterns (both wetter and drier) that influence fire frequency and size.
4.  Mismanagement of our forests and wild areas, allowing tree and debris-choked landscapes
5.  Invasive and often highly flammable non-native species brought in by man (e.g., cheatgrass and Eucalyptus)

Clearly, climate change is only one possible factor in controlling fire frequency and may not be the most important.

More in future blogs.