November 26, 2013

Are an Arctic Blast and Snow Coming to the Northwest?

The media is beginning to talk about it and the emails are coming in, so perhaps it is time to talk about the potential for cold air and snow later this weekend and early next week.

My general policy is to wait until such events are about 120 hour out, because their predictability is often very low beyond that.  And although some models have been indicating a cold event for a while, their forecasts have been inconsistent--suggesting large uncertainty.  So now that we are getting close enough to see "the whites of their eyes", what do the latest model predictions indicate.

First, snowstorm 101 It is hard to snow around western Washington and Oregon.  We can be warm and wet, and sometimes cool and dry.  But only rarely are we wet and cold--which you need for snow.    The trick is to get moisture off the ocean and cold from off the land, without letting the ocean warmth turn it to rain.    I did a paper on NW snowstorms with Garth Ferber, Mike Patnoe, and Gary Lackmann.   We found that most snowstorm events looked very similar, with an upper level (500hPa) trough moving southward along the eastern flanks of a large north-south ridge in the northeastern Pacific.  Like this.  The trough provides lift to produce clouds and precipitation.

 At the surface, snowstorms are usually are accompanied by cold, high pressure over British Columbia and a low center over SW Washington.  This pattern pulls cool air in from BC at low levels with moisture moving off the ocean, circling around the low, and the riding over the cool air from B.C.   It all has to come together just right.

So what are the latest WRF model runs showing?  Here is the 500 hPa upper level map for 4 PM Sunday.   Nice, strong trough, but a bit more extended east-west than the canonical snow trough.  But perhaps close enough.

The surface map for 1 PM on Sunday shows a strong cold front coming in off the ocean.  The action starts about then, including the potential for a convergence zone snow event.  Strong winds too.

 One day later, it is a different world.  VERY cold air and intense pressure gradients in southern BC.  A low off of SW Washington. This is getting close enough to the typical snow pattern to worry.  The low is not super intense though.  But any precipitation that falls will be snow...the question is how much precipitation will occur at this time.

 By Tuesday morning at 4 AM cold air has spread southward and the low has moved south with it...expect cold and dry with such a pattern.

Looking at several other models (including the ECMWF) it really looks like frigid cold air is quite certain.  But the run to run consistency of the details (strength and position of the trough and surface low) are quite variable, indicating lots of uncertainty.

Now the snow forecasts.  Here is the total snowfall for the 24h ending 4 AM on Monday.  Lots of snow over the mountains (foot plus over the Cascades), with several inches over Seattle to Everett.  This lowland band is associated with a convergence zone and the leading edge of arctic air coming out of the Fraser gap.   Note snow on the NW side of the Olympics--classic with Fraser outflow.

 You want to see the Fraser gap winds?  Here is the forecast of sustained winds at 10 PM on Monday.  Strong NW flow heading towards the San Juans and Victoria, and then on to the Olympics.
I can't stress enough that there is still considerable uncertainty about the lowland snowfall, in contrast to the Cascades, for which a few feet is relatively certain.

These kinds of situations are reminiscent of the details of setting off explosions.   Although you need to have  a match, explosives, and dry conditions, there is no certainty everything will come together to get the big bang if the components.  We have all the the question is how they will come together.  And to get significant lowland snow over western Washington, the requirements are exacting and relatively rare. 

What about Thanksgiving Day?  Mainly dry, but cloudy.  Perhaps a few sprinkles late in the day.  Friday will be cloudy with a few light showers.  The big action will be on Sunday and early Monday...unless the models change, again.  You coming home from east of the Cascade crest?  Perhaps better to return on Saturday.


More Smartphone Pressure Observations Needed

Have an Android smartphone with a pressure sensor (such as Samsung Galaxy III or Galaxy IV)?  Would you like to help with weather prediction and be able to minitor your local pressure information?  Then download a pressure app for your phone.

A good one is PressureNet4 (free)
Another is WeatherSignal. (free)

Need a Good Weather Calendar? 
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Then buy the Washington Weather Calendar!  You can order online (about $15. plus shipping) here.  A few dollars  goes to the UW Chapter of the American Meteorological Society for each calender.  A fine holiday gift for the weather lover.


  1. This evening's GFS is the coldest yet, and actually has us getting colder into Tuesday and Wednesday!
    It doesn't seem this is a one day event...
    hoping for some moisture at some point later next week!
    Still enjoying class, as always, Cliff, and trying keep my lead in the competition...

  2. Oh, boy. Could make for some interesting/challenging travel for college kids crossing the mountains ~ and for those of us on the west side heading east for high school football semi-final games....!

  3. You are quoted!!!! 4am NWS forecast.


    All that research has paid off!!!

  4. Cliff - I moved back to the NW in 1991, and it seems that nearly every year since then, we have had a fairly reliable post-Thanksgiving blast of arctic air and snow. Is this actually true? If so, what do you have to say about the consistency, and the larger weather patterns which seem to manifest this outbreak at this time of year? Just curious...

  5. I'm running the Seattle Half Marathon on Sunday morning. How bad are the winds going to be? Just trying to figure out how miserable I'm going to be!

  6. In the 60s and 70s it seemed to me that our real snow blasts (foot or more of snow, on the ground for a week etc) were associated with a lot of cold air in Alaska and BC, -60Fs and -70Fs.

  7. Thank you for indulging us with an early prognostication and tempering our expectations. But please do update us as soon as models give a degree of certainty.

  8. Well i don't know about you-all, but i'm going to take this as Professor Mass carte-blanche to...panic! [puts on yellow parka and steers wildly braking hard at every hint of ice] (gotta stockpile Sriracha sauce against the coming snow zombie apocalypse)

  9. checking Cliffs blog multiple times a day...its the most wonderful time of the year!

  10. Cliff, what do you mean by the "stormiest and windiest week..."? Do you mean historically or to date this year?


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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