July 20, 2011

Why do we suffer?

It is reminiscent of the Book of Job.

We look to the heavens and ask:  Why do we suffer?  Why is the warmth of summer denied us?

Is this a great test of a stormy Satan?  If we accept the coolness and clouds without complaint, will the warmth of a true summer be restored, as Job was restored when he accepted God's will without complaint?

Verily, we have not acted like Job.  We torture ourselves counting the minutes of warmth (Sistek blog here).  Headlines in our papers promise greenhouse-induced heat(Seattle Times) and its manifestation is like a ghost.  National Weather Service forecasts suggest coolness will end next week, but the heat disappears like the water-on-the-road mirage on a heated road.  Blogs, comments, and articles in all sorts of media complain and protest.  Cold-hearted Satan is smiling. 

But redemption is possible.   Perhaps, armed with a better understanding of what is occurring, we can accept our fate, and with our complaints silenced, warm weather will be our just reward.

So why have we been stuck in such a cold pattern?  In fact, the atmosphere has been "frozen" in a certain configuration since late winter, causing the heavy snowpack in the mountains as well as cooler than normal and cloudier than normal conditions.  Here is a classic example from last weekend:

This figure shows the heights of the 500 mb pressure surface...roughly half way up in the atmosphere. Where the lines extend northward there is a ridge, southward, a trough.  Red and yellow colors indicate low heights.
You notice a big ridge over the eastern Pacific, a trough over the northwest and adjacent coastal waters, and a ridge over the central U.S.  The atmospheric circulations are wave-like with typical wavelengths of several thousand km, so a ridge over the eastern Pacific is often associated with a rough over the West Coast, and a ridge over the central/eastern U.S.   So our cool weather and their heat wave/droughts are intimately connected.
    Now one reason that we have had this pattern is because of the La Nina of last year, which is associated with colder than normal temperatures over the tropical waters of the central and eastern Pacific.  La Ninas cause tropical convection (thunderstorms) to shift eastward and the easterly trade winds to strengthen.  Why do we care about this?  Because the shift of the convection perturbs the entire atmosphere-- think of a pond and you throw in a rock...there are waves in the pond.  Our pond is the earth's atmosphere and the rock is the thunderstorms; shifting where the rock hits (which the big thunderstorms are) changes the waves that are moving out into the entire atmosphere.

Anyway, a number of research studies and lots of experience has shown that the La Nina shifting of the thunderstorms sets up the upper level pattern shown above, with the cold trough over us.  Here is an example:

The La Nina has weakened during the past few months, with the sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific nearly normal (a "neutral" situation).  But the thunderstorms and the trade winds are still in a La Nina-like configuration and this may be keeping the midlatitude pattern we so hate in place.  But what is causing the thunderstorms and trade winds to stay in the La Ninaesque pattern?   And could other factors be keeping us in this particular configuration.   We do not know.  At least I don't know!

Right now the computer models suggest a partial break over the weekend and back into the murk next week, but it is too soon to be sure about any of it.

Perhaps knowing a little more of what is happening will give us the patience of Job.


  1. I for one accept our cool-summer overlords. :)

  2. It's not just the other media outlets that are wrong. This guy named Cliff Mass said the La Nina was gone on June 20th and said we may well experience a normal summer, but here it is one month later and that same guy is blaming La Nina for the below-normal summer.

    I grant some are comforted by understanding the 'why'. I'd settle for a more accurate forecast. And to that end, why not just forecast cloudy and cool 365 days / year and be done with it?

  3. Why do we complain?

    Yeah, my tomatoes haven't done a damn thing yet this summer, and I'm bummed out about that, but let's look at some quotes from an article posted on the Seattle Times site today:

    "Seventeen states issued excessive-heat watches on Monday, with a number of upper Midwest states expecting temperatures higher than 105 degrees. The heat wave is sending people to the hospital, damaging roads and causing air-conditioning bills to skyrocket."

    "Compare that with what felt like 126 degrees in Newton, Iowa, on Monday; 120 degrees in Mitchell, S.D.; and 119 degrees in Madison, Minn., according to The Associated Press. That is what the heat index was in those places..."

    "On an interstate bridge in Oklahoma City, heat caused steel expansion joints to buckle and rise, which closed two lanes of the highway downtown and damaged some cars.

    Temperatures in the city have been unrelenting, with more than 47 straight days of 90-degree-plus temperatures, and 27 so far that have crept into the triple digits."

  4. Scott...you are seeing the limitations in our ability to do seasonal forecasts. La Nina is gone, yet there is persistence in the flow pattern. Why?

  5. Logically, the only thing that can explain a weather pattern that persists over a period of months, such as our lingering off shore low-pressure system, are patterns in the sea surface temperature. Only the oceans have the massive heat storage capacity to affect the weather for a long period of time. The question is, what is the sea surface pattern that is messing up our Northwest weather? One such well-studied pattern already identified -La Nina/El Nino- doesn't seem to be the whole story. This will be an interesting topic for climatologist to explore.

  6. So here's my question:

    The last time Oklahoma had a summer as miserable as this was the summer of 1980. That time, a huge ridge of high pressure built up over the plains and left Oklahoma and Texas with weeks of 100+ weather and drought conditions all summer long.

    I wasn't living in Seattle then, but I was wondering if Seattle's 1980 weather was similar to this year's and whether it was a La Nina/El Nino year. That is, do these stubborn Midwestern summer highs have any correlation with unusual winter weather?

  7. Cliff:

    Any chance the lack of warm weather now (and related lack of warming of the ground, surface water, etc.) could translate into a colder fall and winter this year? Thanks!

  8. DW - Here are the stats from Summer 1980 at Seatac:

    June Hi/Lo: 64/51
    July Hi/Lo: 72/55
    Aug Hi/Lo: 70/54
    Sept Hi/Lo: 66/52

    So you can see that was a cool summer as well.

  9. I'm starting to think the theory that KUOW's terrible treatment of Cliff is responsible for our discontented summer has merit. No Cliff, no summer! Maybe KUOW asking Cliff to return and sponsoring a "sun dance" ritual in Gas Works Park would do the trick.

    On a more serious note, I wonder if the limitations in the current models have to do with a lack of coordination between atmospheric scientists and oceanographers in creating the models? Scientists know that ocean currents play a profound role in climate. Here in Seattle, we're at the mercy of the North Pacific (so if someone could come up with a ritual to appease the North Pacific gods, we'd be set). On top of that, we're currently in a cold phase of the PDO, so I wonder if that means an upwelling of unusually cold water is forcing the current La Nina pattern to remain in place, even if the underlying cause in the tropical Pacific has weakened?

  10. Is it possible that this coming year we will see another La Nina, albiet maybe a weaker one? Does a neutral year have to follow a strong La Nina like the one we just experienced?

  11. dw, if I'm reading this right, 1979-81 were neutral years in El Nino/La Nina terms:


  12. Suffer?!? Who is suffering? This is a glorious summer! I haven't had a speck of sunburn, nor heatstroke. I count this a winning summer.

  13. Well...all I know is that my plants/flowers are acting really weird...some not normally tall are acting like bean stalks looking for sun..others still have not bloomed...and many are just stunted. And why are they still trying to sell tomato plants? Nurseries are saying that this is their worst year ever. Does this foretell a bad winter ahead? I better order a cord of wood now.

  14. I was struck by the 5-fold nature of the highs/lows around the north pole, and it made me think of the hexagonal cloud pattern around the north pole of Saturn.
    Maybe once a resonance is set up, it persists, "ringing" for a while after the forcing event is over.

  15. Cliff, there is evidence of a pattern change late in the month into August. Any comment on this? I'd say that I'll believe it when I see it, but really, things have to change at some point, right? Surely we've never gone an entire summer in this pattern. Therefore, I'm holding out hope in what the GFS has been predicting in the long range for a few days now. NWS has also commented on this possible change. My theory is that we are simply a month behind with summer this year and July is behaving like our typical "June gloom". Therefore, I believe August will be better and that summer will hang on well into September.

  16. Folks, the cool, cloudy, rainy summer we're having goes FAR beyond a mere La Nina! It is the PDO! This is far more profound, and lasting, and real.

    Please, for God's sake, read why:

    "The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a pattern of Pacific climate variability that shifts phases on at least inter-decadal time scale, usually about 20 to 30 years. The PDO is detected as warm or cool surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, north of 20° N. During a "warm", or "positive", phase, the west Pacific becomes cool and part of the eastern ocean warms; during a "cool" or "negative" phase, the opposite pattern occurs."


  17. Freddy

    Of course PDO does not gel well with much of last winter. The heart of winter was warmer than normal and blah, blah, blah.

    That's part of the reason I'm made at La Nina. It decides to earn its stripes in April and May rather than winter when some snow at least would have broken up the gray murk. Outside of a memorable November snow, the last winter was about as snowy as those lost El Nino winters.

    I understand we don't get the major departures or seasons, but it'd be nice to have a break from warmer than normal in winter and cooler than normal in summer.

  18. At least Job had some variety among all his torments!

    Right now I'd love to see some sun, even if the temperatures weren't any higher. Oh, well, most years I have to water my mid-summer veggie plantings twice a day for a couple weeks straight... but not this year!

    On the down side, usually by now the grass has slowed down and the blades are thinner... but not this year! The grass in my overgrown yard is as thick and lush as it was in April. Ugh.

    In any case, I have vacation in a few weeks, so I'd appreciate some nicer weather by early August. Is that too much to ask?

  19. We are having the finest summer I can remember here in central Washington. Beautiful days and cool nights. Reminds me a lot of summers in Denver when I was growing up. My plants and trees look great--they have neither been blown nor baked to bits like they usually are by mid-July.

    One thing that I have found astounding is the changes I've noticed in the wildlife populations around here. It could be the cooler weather is encouraging more "visibility" of coyotes and nighthawks because they're out more when people can see them, but I think there has also been a lot more of them this year to see. We forget sometimes that the weather is responsible for many more things besides human comfort.

  20. I don't know, I think some of this is a bit overdrawn. Not to say the summer has been a "good" one, but for my mind it is somewhat better than last year.

    Last year, it seemed there wee no "bad" days with temperatures in the low 60s and rain, but there were lots of lots of days of thick marine layer with late day burn-offs (if there was burn-off at all). This year has had more sunshine and more days in the 70s.

  21. I grew up on the Great Lakes and still remember the sweltering summers, not being able to sleep at night, etc. and have run into a number of folks recently who moved here from places like Texas and said they love the weather here.

    It hasn't really rained that much this summer and I'm much happier gardening in cloud cover. It's comfortable. Low fire hazard in the forests.

    Maybe the whiners should move and decrease our surplus population. Down to 1982 levels, at least.

    BTW Cliff, are you going to return to posting the YouTube Friday forecasts? The few you did were great. We won't mind if you talk about math ed, either!

  22. I seem to remember the summer of 84 as being one long rainstorm. How does that one compare to this year?

  23. It's because I have been laid off! I was laid off in 1993, and the same thing happened ;-)

    Anyone need a chemist?


  24. Today (7/21)'s look at the CPC's 6-10 and 8-14 day outlooks keeps the idea of normal to slightly-above-normal temps going, and definitely dry. If the next couple of days of outlooks and western WA weather discussions continue with the same idea, I'm actually going to start getting hopeful that we just might get a semblance of a reasonable NW summer. And the new one and 3-month outlooks look fine as well.

  25. Personally, I'll take high 50's and 60's over cities elsewhere in the US that are in the 90's and have passed the century mark.

  26. Nice blog, Cliff, I feel informed now. I don't mind the cool weather one bit. My dad is 86 and his weather is 96. not too cool, eh? bada bump.

    I think the ocean is where we need to focus our attention.

  27. This map reminds me of the same pattern last winter when our La Nina winter was too warm for snow in seattle (and people were complaining), yet the east coast was getting dumped on.. Appears to me that not much has changed in our overall pattern since last Dec.

  28. I'm with Gary and am blaming KOUW!

  29. Gary,
    Perhaps KUOW is to blame. I don't claim to be an intimate of the weather gods, but they surely know that I am one of their servants, and they don't take lightly one of their acolytes being silenced. Looking at the radar I have seen particularly heavy rain over Steve Scher's house in north Seattle. A coincidence? .cliff

  30. How about this? The LRC, Lezak's Recurring Cycle theory. The great Northwest has seen this pattern before this year. Ever put any thought into it?


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