August 31, 2015

The Strongest Summer Storm In Northwest History

Saturday was a historic day during a historic summer.

On that day western Oregon and Washington was lashed by the strongest summer windstorm in its historic record.

A "perfect storm" that would bring respect during November ravaged the region, producing 40-50 mph gusts over Puget Sound, 60-70 mph gusts over NW Washington, and winds reaching 90 mph on the coast.   As the center of the low passed over Tatoosh Island, on the NW tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the pressure dropped to 986 hPa....extraordinarily low for August (see graphic)

This is the lowest pressure ever observed at this location in the historical record during summer, at least for the period (1984-2008) shown below.

Nearly a half million people lost power and even today tens of thousands are without electricity in the region (see map of Seattle outages at 9 PM Sunday).  Two people were killed by falling branches and several were injured.   Major roads were closed due to fallen trees. Damage is certainly in the tens of millions of dollars.

Power outages over a day later in Seattle

But the most amazing thing about this storm was when it took place:   the end of August.  

As far as my research has shown, there has never been a summer storm even close to this one for western Washington.   The most powerful summer storm EVER to hit our region.  A cause for wonder and amazement.  We are talking about a major midlatitude cyclone, whose winds and damage were spread over a large areas.

What is my basis for this claim?

I began by searching the most comprehensive site for major windstorm information, one created by Dr. Wolf Read.  My findings:  no comparable storm from May through September, in any year.

Then I went through all the coastal and buoy sites on the official NOAA site.

Nothing like it in the historical record at any of the WA coastal or NW Washington sites.

Consider Destruction Island on the WA coast.  The historic maximum gust  between May and September was 58 knots.  Yesterday, it rose to 78 knots.

West Point in North Seattle got to 48 knots yesterday.  The previous record was 38.5 knots  This was not only the biggest storm, but it smashed previous records.

Yesterday we experienced a radically different animal than we have ever seen during the summer here in the Northwest.   

 I know some folks will say this is due to global warming, represents the "new normal", or was due to the BLOB (the warm water off our coast).   At this point, there is no reason to expect that any of these hypotheses are true.  Climate simulations do not produce stronger midlatitude cyclones like Saturday's.   Natural variability can produce extremes and this is probably a good example.  I should also note the IPCC report on extremes (IPCC is the international group evaluating the impacts of greenhouse warming), had low confidence of any connection between global warming and changes in the regional intensity of midlatitude cyclones (like the one on Saturday).  A direct quote from their report Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disaster to Advance Climate Change Adaptation:

In summary it is likely that there has been a poleward shift in the main Northern and Southern Hemisphere extratropical storm tracks during the last 50 years. There is medium confidence in an anthropogenic influence on this observed poleward shift. It has not formally been attributed. There is low confidence in past changes in regional intensity. There is medium confidence that an increased anthropogenic forcing will lead to a reduction in the number of mid-latitude cyclones averaged over each hemisphere, and there is also medium confidence in a poleward shift of the tropospheric storm tracks due to future anthropogenic forcings. Regional changes may be substantial and CMIP3 simulations show some regions with medium agreement. However, there are still uncertainties related to how the poorly resolved stratosphere in many CMIP3 models may influence the regional results. In addition, studies using different analysis techniques, different physical quantities, different thresholds, and different atmospheric vertical levels to represent cyclone activity and storm tracks result in different projections of regional changes. This leads to low confidence in region-specific projections

But in the end it was perhaps fitting and expected that we had this storm.   The warmest and most unusual summer in Northwest history is capped by the most severe summer windstorm in recent record.  Large amounts of precipitation have quenched a dry landscape.   Air quality has been restored.  Many fires have been damped down.  A great anomaly requires a great correction. 

Yin and yang. 

Something to ponder.

    If you are interested in learning about and helping the Washington State revenue-neutral carbon tax initiative, check our the  CarbonWashington web site.  The need signatures for the initiative and financial support.    I strongly support this bipartisan effort.


  1. Raw video from saturday.

  2. There were some good recreation opportunities Saturday if you knew where to look...

  3. Several of us from the department were at the Oregon coastal range running the Hood to Coast relay when this thing came onshore. There were lightning flashes everywhere, crazy gusts, tree branches flying everywhere, even a few trees came down. The finish line party literally got blown away. I don't know how the whole relay didn't get cancelled.

  4. Cliff - I find myself wondering of the blob didn't perhaps play a major role here in that the heat content of the water in the "blob" provided some of the energy contrast that fuels a mid-latitude cyclone of this strength - thoughts?

  5. Cliff - It really would be good if someone could update The Storm King, perhaps TSK2.

    Ideally it would be an academic or a volunteer group with some expertise. I suspect that a group might work best. Perhaps some of the people reading this site would be interested. Some could do the nuts and bolts things, and perhaps academics could be recruited for particular storms, and we would follow Dr Read's format.

  6. Here is a good look at the sea surface in the pinch point of Rosario Strait at the peak of the storm. There was about an hour or more of conditions like this.

    It's interesting to note the odd flatness of the sea. One important point to know is that there was a strong incoming current at this time. Were this event to coincide with an outgoing current of similar strength the waves would be much higher and the sea surface fiercely chaotic.

  7. Just an early version of Oct. as Typhoon moisture/wind is brought to us from Asia with the Jet stream. All Summer here on Vancouver Is. we had noted that the weather was a month ahead. (June was the 'new July' etc.) ...

  8. 500,000 customers were without power in Metro Vancouver as well. Peak wind gusts in Abbotsford was 55 mph. My power returned just prior to midnight yesterday.

  9. "I know some folks will say this is due to global warming, represents the "new normal", or was due to the BLOB (the warm water off our coast). At this point, there is no reason to expect that any of these hypotheses are true."

    I see a lot of comments like that, flat out stating there's no relation and no reason to think there's a relation. But, at the same time, in the same blog post....

    "This is the lowest pressure ever observed at this location in the historical record during summer, at least for the period (1984-2008) shown below." is mentioned that the historical data is not that old for a lot of the readings from Saturday's storm.

    So, we have this catch-22. Data doesn't support a connection between the storm and the other unusual weather this year, but the data doesn't even go back that far in the first place to make that conclusion.

    Isn't the fact that we know so little about weather history (or rather, there's a lot we do not know), couldn't there be some chance that there really IS something we don't know due to lack of historical data?

    I find the catch-all phrase that flat out denies there's even a possibility to be a little scary considering it's coming from a reputable meteorologist.

    I'm a skeptic at heart for a variety of things in my life. I'd like to be proven wrong, but the wild and record breaking weather events we've had the past couple years hasn't been proven to not be connected to each other, so how is it so easy to say they aren't?

    Huge fan of the blog, just a skeptic at heart. Thanks!

  10. Hi, Cliff

    I get so much good info from your blog. Thank you!

    I shared this article on FB, saying that "yes, it really was a terrible bad storm", and wouldn't you know, somebody's decided that you're "babbling" and can be written off as some random blogger who can't be bothered to "spend 10 minutes googling climate science", because you said
    "Climate simulations do not produce stronger midlatitude cyclones like Saturday's."
    and this person has googled up one model or report online that DOES predict them...
    they cite the IPCC AR5, with a link that doesn't want to load...

    I'm shaking my head that someone could read carefully enough to jump on that one sentence, but not carefully enough to realize that you've probably both read and considered that exact report, and are so far beyond needing a remedial 10 minutes of google that it actually IS even funny!

  11. It's ironic for this or any other writer to accuse Cliff of being a science denier:

  12. I'm totally on board with the possibility that the windstorm was a result of natural variability. However, given how little we know and how much climate scientists disagree about the mechanisms and specific outcomes of climate change it would have prudent to have added this: "On the other hand, it is possible that the storm was related to climate change in ways that we do not currently understand. Time will tell."

  13. Would be cool to see Cliff's take on the 3 Cat 3 or bigger Hurricanes currently in the Pacific Ocean. First time in recorded history of seeing 3 hurricanes like this before. Oddly the same timeframe as when we had out windstorm on saturday.

    Any relation or any effects that may make it to the PNW?

  14. I had an interesting bird’s and often mole’s-eye view of the storm backpacking and camping in the Olympics before, during and after the event (see later comment of mine if you’re interested).

    I've been a professional journalist since I was 16. I am a big fan of Cliff Mass and his blog. I think he knows Seattle, Washington and Pacific Northwest weather better than anyone. We had good conversations at lunch after he spoke at OMSI in Portland a couple of years ago.

    As a journalist, I always ask myself who the ultimate authorities in a given area are. For NW weather, as I said, I'd always go to Cliff. For the understand of global climate change I go to Jim Hansen, Kevin Trenberth and the others who are the most-respected for their big-picture understanding.

    Kevin says that all weather is now affected by climate change to one degree or another. Weather today is taking place in an entirely different context than the weather of decades ago. Meteorologists are the best experts at seeing individual weather events (Kevin is also an excellent meteorologist, one of the best to see the weather-climate change connections). They are like the best doctors treating individual patients.

    Atmospheric scientists see the big picture globally. They are more like the actuaries at insurance companies. No good actuary would claim to know when any healthy young person was going to die, but with enough data they are quite accurate about a given group's average life expectancy. And so too atmospheric scientists looking at global climate change are looking at averages changing.

    Rutgers scientist Jennifer Francis and others feel that because the Arctic is warming more rapidly than anywhere else on earth and there is less temperature differential between the Arctic and lower latitudes, that temperature differential that historically (say the average of the 20th and previous centuries) drove a more vigorous west to east Jet stream with the average waves of smaller amplitude is being replaced by a less-predictable Jet stream that can slow down, wander north and south and get locked into blocking patterns more often, what one Stanford scientist calls "Ridiculously Resilient Ridges."

    Regardless of whether Francis is exactly correct in explaining all the specifics of the correct mechanism for the Jet stream changing (being an exactly scientist, Trenberth himself wants more proof, last we talked), the Jet stream behavior is changing. Those Ridiculously Resilient Ridges (RRR for short) created the most acute droughts and hottest average temperatures in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and 2012, and have contributed greatly to the four year drought and heat in California and now up the entire West Coast to Alaska much of the last couple of years.

    This has contributed to the forming of the Blob of warm water off the West Coast up to Alaska to form, grow and move around as it does.

    All of these are factors, whether large or very small, in Washington's weather during the last year including this summer.

    As NCAR's Gerry Meehl says, individual weather events are like home runs hit by a baseball player on steroids, with the steroids representing climate change. When you get an individual event like Saturday's storm, it is like a home run being hit by a player on steroids. Could he have hit the home run without steroids? Maybe. Would he have hit as many home runs without steroids? Almost certainly not.

    The longer and bigger the weather event like global average temperature records and then the Texas and Oklahoma two-year droughts and now the California and West Coast droughts and heat waves, the more likely climate change was a bigger factor. The shorter and more localized the event like the NW windstorm Saturday, the more likely natural variability was a bigger factor.

    Saying climate change was no factor at all because we don't yet understand all the mechanisms seems about as unlikely as saying it was the only factor.

    1. Great information. I'm an avid weather watcher. Your information is fascinating, and a great addition to that contained in Cliff's blog.

  15. The NWS posted a high wind warning for the coast and Puget Sound on Friday. They nailed it with the timing and extent of the winds for my neighborhood. But, my sister said she did not learn anything about it until mid-morning on Saturday. We have all heard wind/snow/rain forecasts that later seem to be over-hyped, but this storm did not seem to generate much media attention on Friday evening. Was not watching for it specifically, but didn't hear the term "storm watch" even once. (Some TV forecasts may have covered it well, and if they did, my thanks.)

  16. As promised, or threatened, now I’m going to write about the storm from my perspective, in my little 3 and ½ pound backpacking tent.

    My first night on the Olympic Peninsula I slept in a bivouac sack on a wilderness beach in Olympic National Park looking out at Destruction Island that had the 90 mph gust. This was 9 days before the storm, and I would’ve had to make a quick retreat, getting sandblasted and probably losing any lightweight gear that was loose and got caught by the wind. Making it back to the trail up from the beach at high tide would’ve been difficult and dangerous.

    Then I backpacked up the Hoh River to the Blue Glacier. As a 16-year-old with Portland’s Mazama climbing club we did what they said was the first ascent of the Blue Glacier icefall in 1972. We camped on the lateral moraine a few steps away from the glacier 43 years ago, and now it is around 100 feet lower and the bottom mile and a half of the glacier no longer exists. On this trip a week before the storm I returned to my tent at 1 am to see that it had blown over, the stakes not anchoring it in the sand. A week later when the storm hit, the tent would have cartwheeled away and been damaged, I’m sure.

    Then I backpacked from Third Beach, near La Push, to south of Mosquito Creek, north of Oil City and the Hoh River’s mouth. The higher campsites at Strawberry Point were taken, so I camped on the beach, this time using the biggest possible rocks to anchor all the points of the tent inside and outside. If I’d camped there several days later during the storm, I’m sure my high-end tent would have been damaged and quite possibly shredded, with broken poles. The low pressure sucks up the sea’s level like a straw and that combined with storm surge would’ve flooded my site and everything in the tent.

    I waded through ocean up to my thighs in both directions (sometimes by curious choice), and while the ocean was like a lake when I went, several days later it would have been much more dangerous. On Thursday I chatted with the tribal elder docent, Spencer, out on the point of Cape Flattery overlooking Tatoosh Island. He told me that the archeological evidence points to his tribe living there for 6500 years, meaning they saw many such storms, but I’m guessing few in August.

    That night I went to a talk by UW scientist Ian Miller, sponsored by an Olympic Peninsula development project. While the science going into it was sound, given that it was pro-development given to homeowners who were almost all of retirement age, it was predictably conservative in its assessments, ignoring the most highly-regard glaciologists assessments that the ½ inch rise per decade in the 20th Century is now a 1 inch rise per decade and could possibly double again and then again and then maybe again in the next century or two, a period most major infrastructure should be built to withstand.

    I spent Friday, the day before the storm, up at Hurricane Ridge listening to Ace Ranger Zane Davidson’s excellent one-hour tour and 20-minute talk, both concluding with excellent observations about climate change. Then I spent an hour talking with his supervisor Jessica Burger, an accomplished photo-journalist who wrote the ground-breaking exhibits about climate change at Hurricane Ridge in 1995, which were bold then and are understandably conservative today.

    What I learned from speaking to a dozen rangers and other experts is that the Olympic mountains had only 7 or 8 per cent (I heard both figures) of their normal snowpack this last winter season, that the Hoh River usually changes from snowmelt-fed blue to glacier-fed gray in July but did so in April of this year, and that Chinook or eastern winds dried out the forest in May and the June heat wave allowed the Pyramid fire to blossom in places that get well over the hundred inches of rain defining a rain forest. And then, I awoke to the sound of the storm in my little tent in a very vulnerable place. . .

  17. Hi Cliff,
    I have a question about future storms. There are currently three large hurricanes in the Pacific, the biggest currently just east of Hawaii. Will any of these recurve and contribute energy to storms here in the Pacific NW in the next week or two, and give us more storms like Saturdays?

  18. Scott K

    You said:
    "Isn't the fact that we know so little about weather history (or rather, there's a lot we do not know), couldn't there be some chance that there really IS something we don't know due to lack of historical data? "

    Substitute the above with skepticism about earthquakes or volcanic activity and seismology. Geologists and seismologists have even less solid back-history to base their conclusions on, so do you question or doubt everything they say as well?

    You're basically asking Dr. Mass a faith-based question. He and other scientists are making their conclusions based on the best possible data and inference processes possible. So I *believe* anyway (stressing the word "believe".) You can choose to *believe* or not to *believe* what they say (note my stressing the word "believe" again, twice), or you can internalize your skepticism to the point where you no longer *believe anything* Dr. Mass or other scientists say regarding global warming. I'll admit I have more faith in Cliff Mass's posts than others. (Note the word "faith". I could go on.)

    Do you see my point so far?

    I understand your skepticism though. Climate change is a giant problem, and a lot of people in scientific communities (and obviously elsewhere) don't agree on many aspects of it -- notably what it will cause, or moreso what it has caused so far.

    But asking a scientist to convince you that your skepticism is ill-based or not is like asking a cardinal if we will create a chemical element with 119 protons or more or not. In other words, if feels like the nature of your question is to resolve your faith issue more than anything else.

    PS I'm a skeptic at heart too, and I'm just another reader of this blog, so feel free to ignore or insult me. Apologies if my post comes off as acerbic. That's not my intention.

  19. Hi Cliff,

    Great blog and great post!

    I just read somewhere that, for the first time in recorded history, there are currently 3 category 3 or higher hurricanes in the Pacific. Any common causality between these and our Augstraordinary storm?


    Rob R

  20. Hey Richard Brenne, my Mother, Sister and a friend were hiking in the Olympics on a 40+ mile hike last week. They got back Saturday morning as the winds were picking up and left the trails about an hour or two before it was closed due to downed trees.

    I'm just glad everyone was safe!

  21. I am a fan of your blog and enjoy its content. I can't help but wonder, however, if you've carefully looked into how climate change is supposed to manifest? My understanding is that it will be an increase in extreme weather events (whether or not they balance each other out in the end, to fix the statistics). We've certainly seen an increase in extreme weather events all over the world--some of it due to logging (in the case of floods and landslides), but much of it could plausibly be related to climate change. From my understanding the only argument, even in Congress, is whether climate change is human caused or from natural causes. From what I'm seeing, even republicans are now admitting it exists, but are changing the story about why it exists. So I'm very confused by your stance on this. Can you further explain with more than just saying something like anomalies are not a reason to think it is climate change? Certainly we've had enough cumulative anomalies the world over to suggest that something is going on! Anyway, thanks for listening!

  22. Cliff and readers, I just want to point out that the drought has not ended on the east side, at least not in Winthrop. While the little rain we got is welcome, the fires are much reduced and the smoke is gone, the rain amounts are pathetic for a big storm. Storm totals for Winthrop are 0.05-in, Omak airport 0.09-in, Mazama 0.15-in. I think this is much less than the models had predicted. The Chewuch river flow did go from a low of 40 cfs to 62 cfs. The mean flow based on the last 23 years is 94 cfs. On the positive side we can see spawning salmon in the river below our house. Keep sending the rain.

  23. Good thing we didn't go sailing! That was our original plan.

  24. Dean, I would love to send you (and the salmon) Bellevue's rain! If we've really shifted the weather calendar a month as it seems, maybe you will get some more soon. I'm glad the fires are dying back a little. Y'all really need and deserve a break.

  25. Laurel... I don't believe you intended any disrespect, but asking Cliff if "if you've carefully looked into how climate change is supposed to manifest?" is a strange question. Would you ask a surgeon if he's ever taken a close look at human anatomy? Or a lawyer if he's taken a careful look at the laws.

    His profession is to do research in meteorology and climate, to guide research and review published and yet-to-be published research papers, all with an objective, skeptical scientific focus, and then to teach others to do the same. Climate change and how it will likely manifest is a key focus for everyone in his profession. It has no easy answers.

    Science and politics take very different paths when it comes to making decisions. We need both, along with educated journalists who can explain both to lay people. Scientifically literate journalsm is a major problem in America now, and that gets touched on fairly often here.

    In the end, what we "believe" or "understand" matters in terms of driving national policy and personal behavior. That is how people work. But being very skeptical and methodical about establishing those beliefs and understandings is what's important.

    This blog is one of the best resources I've found to keep my head on straight, and not in the proverbial clouds. To make sure my understanding is basic on science and not whatever I've heard or read in the media.

  26. What is most grating is that those who are denying climate change will quote this blog as proof positive that there is no climate change or it is not posing any sort of problem to us. The truth is that the author is only pointing out what the current science is telling us "at this point in time" regarding this single event. If we distort those facts, then who is left to credibly articulate the truths from the myths? There is no shortage of credible science that points to the dangerous cliff that global warming is leading us to. And yeah, the Carbon Tax is a good start to get us back on a course to a healthier planet.

  27. I would like to posit that this storm was not in fact unprecedented even in living memory. The storm that helped turn the Big Burn from 'big fire' to 'firestorm conflagration' in 1910 appears to have been very like this recent storm, including the lead-up. According to Wikipedia:, the region suffered an unusually hot dry summer "like no other"; there were thousands of small fires going, and then WHOOMP, a cold front caused "hurricane force" winds, and it all just blew up.

    We're lucky it has not been a repeat in all respects: it took a second cold front to bring rain to help put the fires out. We're getting a bit of that with this first shift in the weather (and it has absolutely cooled down - thank goodness!)

  28. It certainly wasn't forecast very well. When I saw fir branches raining down-- I must admit I was surprised. And when the power went out, it was like "Wow, I didn't think it would be that bad" . And then to see the extent of the power outages-- virtually no traffic lights were working in Edmonds. none. All it all, it was kind of fun-- just a shame so many folks suffered with damage, losses, injuries, a few deaths, etc.

  29. To the climate change folks: If it's climate change then why don't you solve it?

    The affluent impact the climate most, which just happens to be the group which most believes that climate change is a problem.

    What's great about this is that, they, without anyone else's agreement on the matter, have the greatest potential to stop climate change. Seattle is over 80% Democrat, which by and large believes in climate change.

    If, instead of going from website to website complaining that some percentage of people still don't agree with them, if they really cared about the climate, their efforts would be far better served doing their part to solve it, without concern for the agreement of others.

    Have you stopped driving?


    It would seem not. Sea-Tac Aiport says that 2015 has been the busiest year yet. Gridlock is worse than ever.

    But how can this be when 80% of the city believes in climate change?

    Do as I say, not as I do is no longer a valid strategy. It has been found wanting. When people see these comments post after post, then look out their windows to see gridlock on I-5, they see insincerity.

    If climate change is causing all of this, don't tell me, show me. Show me how to live. I already walk to work, don't own a car, don't fly. I don't need you telling me that climate change is a problem. I need you to stop causing it.

    It's one thing to continue changing the climate when you're not sure, but when you know for a fact that your behavior is causing climate change, why do you continue?

    Stop obsessing over the fact that Cliff Mass doesn't agree with you about climate change. Stop worrying about what other people think about the issute. Worry about yourself. Climate change proponents have the bulk of the power to mitigate climate change, so if it's truly a concern for you, then change it.

    It's not really about climate change, though, is it? It's about someone having the audacity to dare disagree with the ruling-class that really has you upset. It's the knowlege the someone deviates from the mainstream opinion that keeps you up at night.

    Don't worry, you can admit it. We already know.

  30. Quote from WU regarding El Nino, Arctic ice extent and it's possible influence on RRR and the Blob.

    See full article: weather underground

    The power of this year’s still-strengthening El Niño event may be enough to swamp whatever influence the decline of Arctic sea ice might have on the upcoming winter across North America. Sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) are cooling over the western tropical Pacific in tandem with the building El Niño warmth over the eastern tropical Pacific. A number of studies (nicely summarized by Daniel Swain at California Weather Blog) suggest that the western-Pacific cooling will help lead to more storminess over the Gulf of Alaska, which in turn could finally erode the persistently warm SSTs and the “ridiculously resilient ridge” of high pressure that have prevailed in that area for most of the last two years. If so, a pathway will be carved for the classic El Niño signature of very mild winter temperatures across most of Canada and the northern United States, in line with the latest seasonal forecasts from NOAA. If, instead, we see a third consecutive winter of unusual cold across the U.S. Midwest and Northeast, it’ll be a strong sign that another player is onstage. Judah Cohen (Atmospheric and Environmental Research) bases his North American winter forecasts in part on the apparent relationship between low Arctic sea ice extent and cold Northern Hemisphere winters. “I really do think that this could be a very interesting winter and could be very informative on the interplay of tropical vs. Arctic forcing,” said Cohen in an email. “Can the Arctic, as a forcing agent of mid-latitude weather, finally step out out of the shadow of the tropics or not?”


    Typhoon Nuri last November was the lowest recorded... etc. etc. et..blah...
    warming as energy and so many records in so little time...


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

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