July 17, 2016

ThunderFest for the Cascades Today and Tomorrow

Thus summer, with persistent marine air and northwesterly flow, convection and thunderstorms have generally been absent over the Washington and Oregon Cascades.  But that is probably going to change a great deal today (Sunday) and tomorrow, as unusually unstable air and a weak upper level trough combine to produce instability and thunderstorms over the Cascades.  And perhaps, just perhaps, some of the storms will roll into the far eastern suburbs of Puget Sound later today and tomorrow.

The first ingredient one needs for thunderstorms is the potential for vertical instability, whereby if an air parcel gets pushed upwards, it will keep on going, rather than fall back to its original elevation.  A good measure of the potential instability and  the ability of an air parcel to convect upwards when pushed upwards is called CAPE (Convective Available Potential Energy).  Knowing this term will not only impress your friends and endear you to meteorologists, but is useful as well.

Around the Northwest during summer, CAPE values are generally low (zero to one hundred) most of the time.  Why?  Because of the dense, cooler marine air at low levels, modest lapse rate (change of temperature with height aloft), and relatively dry air in lower troposphere (no warm, hot Gulf of Mexico air for us!).   In contrast, in the Midwest CAPE values often get to 2000-3000 and sometimes much higher (4000-5000).   That is why they get a lot of big thunderstorms and we don't.

But today and tomorrow our CAPE values will surge.  Let me show you.  Now Midwest meteorologists might laugh at this, but our CAPE values get to around 1200-1400 both afternoons.

All we need is some lift to release the instability.  The classic way around here is to have an upper level trough (low pressure) along the coast, with southwesterly flow in the mid to lower atmosphere.  The 500 hPa (roughly 18,000 ft) chart for 5 PM today shows we have this feature (although not a particularly strong trough).   But good enough to get some action.

So let's examine the precipitation forecasts from the latest UW high-resolution WRF forecasts for the 3-hr period ending at 2 PM and 5 PM (below).  You can see the precipitation over the mountains, some of it moderately heavy.

We can use the model output to simulate what the cloud field would look like in an infrared satellite image.  Here is the simulated view at 5 PM today.  Looks like the anvil clouds from thunderstorms to me over the WA Cascades, Olympics and BC mountains.

More action is in store for tomorrow (Monday) as well:  here is the forecast precipitation for the 3 hr ending 5 PM Monday:  wet in the Cascades, including its western slopes.

Looking at the Cascades at 9:30 AM, there is only some shallow cumulus, but we should expect dramatic changes during the next 6 hours if the models are correct.   I am heading out to do some biking with friends in the eastern suburbs of Seattle, perhaps I can do some storm chasing as well.


  1. Cliff - do you know of good public websites to get things like echo tops and lightning strikes with minimal delay?

    I use Weather Underground Wundermap for pretty decent radar (and I can zoom in/out quickly, unlike the display on the NWS website), but (for example) Intellicast's echo tops in their radar summary are quite delayed.

    For lightning I really like http://en.blitzortung.org/ (it is generally only a few seconds delayed) but it seems to miss a lot of PNW strikes.

    1. http://weather.weatherbug.com has a feature called Spark that has proven to be pretty accurate and time sensitive.

  2. Dave, you might try the http://www.lightningmaps.org/ site. Uses the blitzortung.org data...

  3. @Dave Steckler, I recommend an app called RadarScope. It's not free, but the fee is minimal - I think it's less than $10 a year.

    In return, you get what are basically realtime radar products, including some that I haven't seen offered anywhere else. You also get reliable, near-realtime lightning data. I guess you could call it a "prosumer" weather tool; in addition to the NWS feeds , users can feed the app data from an AllisonHouse account (Google it) if they have one.

    I'm not sure if they have a trial period option, but I know that I was hooked after a few days of comparing RS to a half dozen other radar sites/apps, many of which feel amateurish by comparison. The only comparable products are probably the Accuweather premium radar products, of which even the least expensive, if memory serves, costs much more than RS.

  4. https://www.lightningmaps.org/?lang=en#m=sat;r=0;t=3;s=0;o=0;b=;n=0;y=47;x=-125.0762;z=5;

    There are other ones too.

  5. A line of cells fired up this morning between Mt. Rainier and Tacoma with a few lightning strikes according to lightningmaps.org. NWS issued a short term forecast to cover this. Hoping for some more action throughout the day!

  6. La Nina is starting to look less likely every week 75% to 55% probability. http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/lanina/enso_evolution-status-fcsts-web.pdf. Neutral would not be bad after the very wet winter we just had.


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