Friday, January 3, 2020

The Meteorology of the Tumbleweed Storm. Plus, The Ukrainian Connection

Some call it the invasion of "Nuclear Tumbleweeds".  Others termed it Tumbleaggedon or the Tumbleweed Storm.

But whatever you call it, a huge wave of tumbleweeds struck State Route 240 near the Hanford Reservation, burying cars and trucks and closing the road for ten hours.   Snowplows were called in to clear some road sections, where the tumbleweeds piled 15-20 feet deep!

Washington State Trooper Thorson, provided a video of an unburying operation  shown below.  Trooper Thorson is always reporting on interesting things.






The "tumbleweed avalanche" was associated with strong westerly to southwesterly winds that descended into the Columbia Basin on December 31st behind a cold front.  

Here are the maximum wind gusts that day, with the tumbleweed storm location shown by the blue oval.  Winds gusted up to 50-60 mph, with 77 mph in the ridge upwind.  More than enough to get some tumbleweeds rolling.


The winds at the Hanford Barricade, near the site of Tumblemageddon showed winds rapidly picking up late in the day, with gusts a bit over 50 mph.
The winds were associated with the passage of a Pacific front and the strong pressure differences associated with it.

The tumbleweed invasion was aided by a lack of snow, which can anchor the weeds a bit.

Now, the Ukrainian connection.  Tumbleweeds are almost synonymous with the "Old West", with the rolling thickets as familiar as Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.


But did you know that tumbleweeds are not native to the West?

They were first reported in the United States around 1875 in South Dakota, apparently transported in flax seed imported by Ukrainian farmers. Within 20 years, tumbleweeds had spread throughout the High Plains and by 1900 reached the Pacific.  

But why do they tumble?  To spread their seeds.  During the fall and early winter, the plants die and their roots break off from the rest of the plant.   As the plants tumble, they deposit thousands of seeds into the environment.    Tumbleweeds do particularly well where the soil has been disturbed (e.g., agricultural, roads, etc.)   They are a good example of how the ecology of the west has been radically changed by invasive plants, include cheatgrass (grassoline), Himalayan blackberries, and much more.






17 comments:

  1. Growing up as a child in coastal Southern California, I was fascinated at Christmas time to see homes with tumble weeds spray-painted white and stacked up as "snowmen", decorated with winter hats and scarves.

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    1. and trees in the parking strips wrapped in foil and red ribbon, even a few street light poles

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  2. Fascinating, & stunning photos. Good example of how a major invasive species - homo sapiens - and our best intentioned activities can have many unintended and sometimes devestating transient and long term consequences.

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  3. Hello there, I am seeing the forecast for snow starting to appear on the horizon for next weekend, January 11th. Does anyone have any information about this possibility? Could this be the start of a prolonged cold snap with lowland snow for Western Washington?

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    1. Right now it is 58 F in my neighborhood of Seattle (6:30 pm Friday). That's warmer than predicted, and mountain weather has not brought the snow anticipated in the past few days. We'll see what happens next.

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  4. Also known as Russian Thistle. Like cheatgrass, they burn fast and hot when dry.

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  5. Is there any control - burn, chop, smash?

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  6. Might be a good excuse for a "controlled burn"- bet they burn like- well, a brush fire!

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  7. Max temp in NW Bellingham today was 61.3F. Max wind gust was 44mph. This was the highest temperature I've measured since October 16, 2019 and the highest wind gust since January 2019.

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  8. The year after the Carlton Complex fire, we had a simular experience with tumbleweeds clogging the mile of dirt road to our home. We had to be careful not to have them become wedged under the car for fear of igniting a wildfire.

    Tumbleweeds seemed to do very well in the burn areas and fortunately other plant species were able to colonize the burn areas in latter years and keep the Tumbleweeds in check.

    Chris H.
    Heli-free North Cascades

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    1. I should add that our problem weed at the time was from another tumble seed spreader plant.

      "Sisymbrium altissimum is a species of Sisymbrium. ... Common names of the plant include Jim Hill mustard, after James J. Hill, a Canadian-American railroad magnate, tall tumblemustard, tall mustard, tumble mustard, tumbleweed mustard, tall sisymbrium, and tall hedge mustard."

      Chris H.
      Heli-free North Cascades

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  9. Having lived in Tri-Cities and worked as a groundwater hydrologist/geologist on the Hanford Site for several years I saw quite a few tumbleweed storms and had my Jeep completely buried once as well - it is not an uncommon occurrence on the site. However, some of the tumbleweeds truly are radioactive and there is a crew that goes around, or used to, monitoring and collecting the radiocactive ones...a few on the highway in this event were most probably hot...

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  10. They missed a real opportunity to include Roy Rogers' "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" on the video soundtrack.

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  11. Cliff, The tumbleweed story had me thinking of "B" movies like the blob, but adding a radioactive story really gets my imagination going. Where does it stop? Mutant tumbleweed shaped aliens riding horses through the wild west waging a world war on humans using radioactive light wave weapons to have their way with us? It's so absurd, but it makes me laugh.

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  12. I would like to know if goat head weeds are native to this area. I'm originally from Illinois and, happily, didn't know they existed. Wretched things.

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  13. Build a wall around the Tri-Cities—to keep out the alien radioactive tumbleweeds! ;-)

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  14. as well as an Elton John (Ukranian) Tumbleweed Connection reference.

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