Friday, December 26, 2014

January 3-5 Potential Winter Storm

It's looking like the next threat of a winter storm will arrive in time for the first few days of the New Year.

On December 31st, a strong trough is expected to drop into the West US and close off, as the circular 500mb geopotential height contours show above. This cyclone closing off in the West slowly drifts eastward, and that's the first thing we must watch for. A common model bias involves guidance closing off these troughs too quickly. For those located in the Plains and Midwest hoping for a snowstorm, you want this trough to close off quickly. A later close-off of the trough would result in a further south track, which might be in the cards of this is an instance of that model bias. For now, however, the trend has been to close off the energy earlier and earlier.

Tropical Tidbits
This image shows the projected 500mb vorticity values for January 3rd, the same type of chart as above. Off of the latest GFS model projection, we can see the energy now located in Indiana, taking on a negative tilt, as the contours seem to be "pushing" in a southeast-ward direction. When the system initially exits the Southwest, it will have a positive tilt. In order for those north of Kentucky to have a shot at a good snowstorm, this storm needs to attain a negative tilt rather quickly, as the GFS has done above.

Tropical Tidbits
The 500mb geopotential height anomaly chart off the ECMWF, valid for January 3rd, shows a similar situation as the GFS is predicting. We see our energy in southern Minnesota and northern Arkansas attaining a negative tilt. Although I don't have access to the smaller-interval charts from the ECMWF, it's not a stretch to assume this storm takes a similar path as the GFS model, as well as the Canadian GGEM model (not shown).

There are a few, rather significant items standing in the way of this being a 'likely' winter storm for the Midwest.

Tropical Tidbits
The image above shows the projection for 500mb geopotential height values (colored regions) and MSLP values (contour lines) for December 29th over the West Pacific. We see a low pressure system has formed on the southeastern coast of Japan, and is moving east-northeastward along the coast. As time progresses, this low will eventually shift out to sea and away from Japan.

Our Christmas Eve storm was expressed well by this Typhoon Rule application, and this storm looks rather similar to the track the storm took in Japan preceding the Christmas Eve event. The only difference here is this time around, the low pressure system drifts out to sea instead of cutting up the eastern coast of Japan. This is a huge red flag, and tells us that this storm may very well go further south and east than current model guidance is suggesting. Given the success this predictor has had in the past few years I've used it, there is reason to believe this system could go further south and east.

Tropical Tidbits
Also of concern is that massive Arctic high pressure system to the north in Canada, pressing southward into the United States. It is well known that model guidance has a bias to be too slow with the progression of Arctic high pressure systems southward. Applying this to our storm here, this means that model guidance might be forecasting this low pressure system to be too far north. Consequentially, this would result in the storm going further south and east.

When you shed all the more 'uncertain' parts to this forecast, you end up with a model consensus favoring a northward track, and the Typhoon Rule in favor of a southward track. Usually, I would go in favor of the Typhoon Rule and predict a further south track, but we have a strong streak of mid-level winds rounding the base of the trough on the latest GFS, which is a big signal for a storm to go negative-tilt, and in this case, go north. Add up all the model biases and predicted phasing of the subtropical & polar jet streams for this event, as well as a suspicious timeframe for the system in Japan, and there's too much uncertainty to decide on one particular track at this time.

To summarize:

- There is the potential for a winter storm to impact the Central and Eastern United States between January 3-5 (good confidence).
- There is too much uncertainty to tell whether this storm will hit the Midwest and Great Lakes, or stay south in the southern Ohio Valley.
- With good Arctic air already in place prior to this storm, accumulating snowfall is a good bet at this time.


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