June 05, 2016

Smoke and Fire

Last night, enjoying a warm evening outside, I noticed a very strange "dark cloud" moving southward over Lake Washington.    Getting a better look, it had the appearance of a smoke plume and I quickly learned about a huge fire along the Everett waterfront (see image from KOMO TV).

A series of images from the wonderful SpaceNeedle cam, showed the southward movement of the smoke.   The first image is at 6:50 PM Saturday;  you can see Mt. Baker---and keep that location in mind during the subsequent images.

 By 8:00 PM the plume was evident on the horizon.

At 8:30 PM it had reached northern Seattle

And by 8:50 PM it had moved past the city.

Now you might ask, why did the plume of smoke not spread in the vertical?  What made it stop at one elevation in the low-level northerly flow as a VERY well-defined plume with little vertical depth?

Good question.    As shown in the picture above, the smoke plume initially rose upward from the fire.  This makes sense because the fire-heated air was warmer than the environmental air at the same level and thus was buoyant.     But as many of you know, rising air parcels cools as they ascend to regions of lower pressure aloft, where they expand (called adiabatic cooling).  But Saturday evening there was something that blocked the upward motion of the warm air plume from the fire:  a strong inversion, in which temperature increases with height.

On Saturday, there was a shallow layer of cooler, northerly flow over the Puget Sound region that was topped by easterly flow aloft, which was quite warm due to its origin over warm eastern Washington and adiabatic compression as it sank down the western slopes of the Cascades.   A time-height cross section of winds and temperatures over Seattle on Saturday shows this (the y axis is height in pressure--850 is about 5000 ft, red lines are temperature in C, time increases to the left--in GMT)

As shown in the vertical sounding over Seattle on Saturday, there was a strong inversion between roughly 400 and 600 meters above the surface.   Such warmth aloft kills the buoyancy of air rising from below and blocked the upward motion of the smoke plume.

In contrast, to the Everett Fire, the oil train fire in the Columbia Gorge had a smoke plume that rose and mixed through substantial elevation (see pictures)

The reason for the difference?   No inversion blocking the plume rise.

Let me end, with an editorial comment.   Moving large amounts of oil by train is crazy stuff.  Oil trains move through densely populated regions (like Seattle) and next to environmentally sensitive areas (such as right next to Puget Sound and the Columbia River).   Trains derail all the time.   There are frequent slope failures next to train tracks.     Why is our region is taking such a large risk for our population and environment to help move Bakun and other oil to market?  And all these oil (and coal) trains make our traffic significantly worse.

Finally, today (Sunday) will be very warm (hitting 90F around Seattle), but changes are already in place that will bring substantial cooling on Monday.  And a MAJOR cooling is going to occur mid to late week.   

If you were worried that this year is going to be a repeat of last year, don't.  The atmospheric circulation is very different this year and high pressure should not hold in place like 2015.


  1. I don't believe that our region is choosing to take such a large risk for the oil trains.

    State and local governments are very restricted in regulation of the railroads. See http://www.dot.state.mn.us/frac/PDF/landusereg.pdf for the State of Minnesota's explanation of how little power states have to control what the railroad ships, or to apply safety regulations.

  2. Oil needs to be processed into various types of fuel (gas, for example). Then the fuel needs to be distributed to end consumers (via the local gas station, for example).

    So, if we don't transport the raw materials, and process the fuel at the source, then the end result (gas) needs to be transported to the local gas station. Either by rail car (more efficient, given the large volumes of gas used in metropolitan areas), or by tanker truck (more expensive and less efficient; even though the 'final mile' is probably by tanker truck).

    Either way, there is the potential for spillage. What percentage of oil (or gas) is spilled due to accidents? Is that potential an acceptable risk?

  3. I noticed a number of people calling for a total ban on transporting petroleum by rail. They may also drive cars, take the bus or fly. Ain't gonna happen.

    It makes more sense to call for the availability of foam and foam-dispensing equipment to the smaller fire departments along rail right-of-ways. And of better track inspection beyond visual inspection. Most derailments are caused by defective rails, ties, or ballast. Even modern welded rail has sections with imperfections that become weaker over time with use.

    Closer to home, Cliff, what are the chances of another high pressure dome settling over us this summer, causing additional "hot spells"?

  4. As I understand, railroads are not only required to take on all legal cargo, but they are also required to take on all of the legal liability for that cargo and its transportation. No railroad does or can obtain the sort of insurance commensurate with the risk. Hence government is responsible, and shippers expect to go free.

  5. strix27... when liberals who demonize fossil fuels are the first to voluntarily give up every last trace of fossil fuel usage in their lives I'll believe that it's a problem. It seems more like virtue-signaling and an attempt to gain a hegemony over the rest of us.

  6. There has been a long and determined effort here in Oregon to reroute the trains, to get them away from the environmentally sensitive Columbia River watershed, all to no avail. Looking at the alternative routes available, perhaps there are other reasons why this option has not yet been explored. Most likely it has something to do with logistics and costs, but after the latest dodged bullet, it would appear that another way must be found. Most people don't realize that with potential leakage for spent nuclear fuel from the Hanford weapons plant finding it's way into the Columbia in the near future, the nation could find one of it's most valuable farm/fisheries and commercial navigational resources severely compromised.

  7. Don't blame me, I neither drive nor fly. Those trains are bringing oil to power all of those cars airplanes used by those who do drive and fly ie. 99.9% of all Seattle residents, 82% of whom are Democrats. Democrats take more flights each year, and fly more miles each year than do so-called "conservatives". Tell them this, and what do they do? Stop flying and driving? Oh no. They blame others.

    I'm afraid that environmentalism has been outed as an insincere power-play by legions of affluent, over-educated hypocrites, who admonish those in the proletariat to "do as they say, not as they do!"

    Now, there is only a great chasm between they and the bourgeoisie who continues to desperately beat the "climate change" drum. The people trust the elite less now than at any point in history.

    And really, who can blame them?

    When those supposedly most worried about the environment continue to be it's main abusers, you can't blame the common folks for turning up their noses at the elite's warnings.

    Not to mention, the bourgeoisie has always had more to lose than the proletariat in the climate game. Not many poor people with waterfront property these days, or cushy, privileged lives to preserve. If anyone's property is going to go submarine, it's likely to be those who are criss-crossing the country in big, polluting jet planes. Sure, oil will ruin a lot of property, but most of the commoners rent. It's the rich people's problem, and one they truly deserve to have.

    The pathological hypocrisy surrounding environmental issues will ensure their continuance, and we all know who'll be blamed for it. (hint: not the affluent so-called progressives)

    Unfortunately for them, their finger pointing won't be enough to stop it.

    Does anyone argue that they deserve any better?

  8. Please do some reading about the disproportionate impact of climate change on those living in poverty, and worldwide efforts by stakeholders to advocate for environmental sustainabity. It is absolutely true that affluent people (whether or not they drive or fly) are disproportionately responsible for climate impacts, but it is no longer true that the environmental movement is disproportionately embraced by affluent people. Not at the global level, and not even in the US any more. There are plenty of folks out there who can't afford to be jaded. (Also, read about places in the world where poor people's land is "going submarine" as we speak.)

  9. As one who works with those living in poverty for roughly 3 months out of the year (and would like to do so much more), I don't know that I would agree that environmentalism is equally embraced amongst all classes. In fact, I would probably have to strongly disagree.

    When one does not know where their next meal is coming from, or if they will have a roof over their head tonight, long-term climate issues are frankly not on the radar. This makes sense given that, of all of the things likely to harm a homeless person in their lifetime, climate/environmental issues are quite far down the list. In this respect, their priorities are correctly-placed.

    While there will absolutely be a disproportionate effect on the poor from climate change in developing countries (isn't there always a disproportionate effect on the poor from everything?), that effect will be much more gradual than the swift demise that comes from not having adequate food, water, or medicine.

    As people who have access to food, shelter, water, and medicine, we can at times be guilty of failing to understand why the less wealthy do no share our environmental concerns. In some respects, being so aware of climate issues is a privilege, and a sure sign of one's affluence.

    Here in the USA, climate change is not a hot topic in poor & minority neighborhoods. Not counting meteorologists and their associates, it is a much greater topic of conversation within the walls of academia, political circles, and yes, affluent white neighborhoods. In fact, in certain neighborhoods, I've often heard the issue framed as a "white problem" in the same vein that one might use the term "first-world problem".

    You can see this for yourself the next time there is an Earth Day rally or other environmental event. Count the number college students and count the number of non-student minorities. You might be surprised.

    Of course, it's not a "white problem" at all, but given the totality of the circumstances, I can certainly understand why it would seem that way. What they're saying is that it's far enough down the road, that to worry about it, implies that one's immediate needs are already met.

    I feel exceptionally fortunate to be so concerned about an issue that is more likely to effect my grandchildren, than myself. It is a blessing that, unlike my ancestors, my own survival to an old-age is so taken for granted. Some people worry about making it through the week, month, or year. It would be the height of self-centerdness to assume that all classes share my concerns and priorities regarding the environment, when many don't, and shouldn't give it a second thought, for it is the least likely thing to threaten them in their lifetime. It is the height of "white privilege" to assume that all people have the ability to care about the issue as much as I do. They do not.

    Problems like poverty and homelessness do not cease to exist because the planet continues to warm, and these days, I see much more outcry over the latter than the former. Like it or not, affluent white America's obsession with trends and bandwagons is largely responsible for this. We went from majority-oppose to majority-support of gay marriage in only 5 years, largely due to a media and social media blitz on the subject. Climate change is no different.

    Believe me when I tell you, the poor are waiting for the fickle public's concern to once again come around to their issues. I can tell you with all honesty that environmental concerns have definitely diverted resources, political will, and awareness from issues presenting more dire threats to the poor.

    The truth of the matter remains that, even if we solved every climate issue facing the planet, the poor still face very uncertain futures. To that extent, such a strong focus on climate change is indeed, a prerogative of the upper-classes not shared by the lower-classes.

  10. Alex "when liberals who demonize fossil fuels are the first to voluntarily give up every last trace of fossil fuel usage in their lives I'll believe that it's a problem."

    I'd bet if liberals did that, you'd complain that they want us to live in the dark in caves.

    I think you've set up a no win situation for liberals.

  11. Mark, your comments are well-taken and wise. But as one who has worked internationally on such issues since 1997, I have learned that "environmentalism" is differently defined by people living in or at risk of poverty than my those walking in comfortable shoes. They do not separate environmental concerns from human needs such as access to food, water and medical care--issues intimately connected with climate impacts, of course. They might use different language from an Earth Day organizer, and you might not see them at an Earth Day protest. They might struggle to be seen and heard at all. Of course, attention to the physical environment won't address all concerns connected with poverty. But we get closer when we think in terms of the more inclusive concept of (environmental, cultural, economic and sociopolitical) sustainability. This isn't a new idea, but I am still learning what it means. I had to leave "my" environmental movement to engage with the more inclusive dialogue. Parting words from a Tamazigh ("Berber") woman in her tent way out in the desert near the disputed border between Morocco and Algeria: "No rain, no bread. We are going into the city to talk about this problem. We don't want to simply be given bread now and forever. Something bigger has to change."

  12. As I understand, railroads are not only required to take on all legal cargo, but they are also required to take on all of the legal liability for that cargo and its transportation. No railroad does or can obtain the sort of insurance commensurate with the risk. Hence government is responsible, and shippers expect to go free. Regards Junaid Shahid

  13. Thanks Cliff --

    Know that the Mosier Fire Chief follows your blog.

    Rest assured I am qualified to make what I think is an undeniable case that unit trains of oil -- any oil, flammable or not -- are too risky.

    I started today in a meeting with Senator Wyden, and I will continue on Tuesday testifying before the Vancouver Port Commission, and then later in Olympia.

  14. this is what happens if global warming is not controlled. smoke only affects pollution but is very dangerous for health.
    it would be very dangerous if the train carried gas fuel through densely populated settlements. if it happens like that it will bring adverse cyclological impact. My Journey
    Lab komputer


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

Is Washington State REALLY In a Drought Emergency?

On Tuesday, the Washington State Department of Ecology declared a DROUGHT EMERGENCY for nearly the entire state (see map below). As I will d...