Wednesday, November 12, 2014

November 25-29 Potentially Significant Winter Storm

We are beginning to nail down how this potentially significant winter storm may evolve across the country in the days surrounding Thanksgiving.
For my humor and your reading pleasure, I've divided this post into multiple sections, each concerning a different timeframe of this storm.

I. The Instigator 

Let's begin with a refresher on how this potential has come about.

On the morning of November 8th, we saw the remnants of Typhoon Nuri reach peak strength via Ocean Prediction Center observation. As the chart shows here, the massive storm bottomed out at 924 millibars. This means the storm, located at about 170E and 55N, didn't break the record for strongest extratropical cyclone on record, but it certainly came close.
Why do we care about this storm? The Bering Sea Rule states that a strong storm that hits the Bering Sea can produce a consequential storm in the United States about 17-21 days later. This is the same for high pressure in the Bering Sea. You probably get what I'm getting at here with this observed strong storm in the Bering Sea, so let's keep reading...

The graphic above, produced by the National Weather Service in Alaska, shows the observed mean sea level pressure of the storm at that 924mb reading, while the NWS office measured it at 930mb on the chart on the left, where strongest extratropical cyclones in the North Pacific are depicted. For multiple reasons, including the possibility that past storms may have been stronger than that 924mb reading, this storm was not declared the strongest on record in the North Pacific. Despite this, it's quite clear this storm was a historically-strong one, relative to storms in the last 60 or so years.

Purely for comparison purposes, the team at KOPN Weather identified a strong storm in the Bering Sea on April 7th, 2011, bottoming out at 936mb, that was about 10 degrees W of where this very strong storm was observed yesterday in the Bering Sea. If you recall what happened about 2-3 weeks after the date of April 7th, we saw a certain tornado outbreak strike the South US, devastating thousands across the country, and causing millions on millions of dollars of damage. If we look at where the resultant storm ended up in mid-late April, utilizing the Bering Sea Rule, we find the storm situated in the Ohio Valley.

Now, keeping in mind that this sort of correlation is a tough one to use at best, not to mention all the caveats associated with long range forecasting, we could theoretically juxtapose the remnants of Typhoon Nuri and this storm in the Bering Sea on April 7th to get an idea of where the consequential storm in the US may end up. Recalling that the storm in 2011 in the Bering Sea was at about 180 degrees longitude, and almost the exact same latitude as the one observed in the last day or two, we find the remnants of Nuri placed about 10 degrees west of that 2011 storm. If we take the location of that storm system in late April (pictured above) and move it west, like the remnants of Nuri were west of that 2011 Bering Sea storm, we end up with a map like this:

Continuing this correlation, just to see what would happen, we notice that the remnants of Typhoon Nuri are moving eastward (a bit northeast in the process) in the Bering Sea right now, slowly at that. If this storm somehow does end up in that potential location outlined above, and if enough cold air is available (this will be discussed later), a significant winter weather event may strike the Central Plains, Midwest, Great Lakes, and Ohio Valley. Similarly, if the correlation works out, a severe weather event may strike the South US. Confidence remains low, but the potential for this correlation to verify is on the rise.

II. The Japan Connection

Now that we know where this potential is coming from, let's start to use it to our advantage, in the form of the Typhoon Rule (click here for explanation on the rule).

Tropical Tidbits
The image above shows the ECMWF model's forecast of 500mb geopotential height anomalies over the West Pacific. Here, cool colors denote stormy and cold weather, while warm colors depict mild and generally quiet weather. If we take a look at this forecast graphic, valid on November 17th, we find a rather strong trough/storm system pushing eastward into Japan. We can see this trough by the depression of height contours, and associated blue shadings. As this trough pushes through Japan, it looks to close off, a phrase used to describe when those contour lines literally close off and make a circle, indicating a closed low. Until then, we see this negatively-tilted trough hitting Japan around the 17th and 18th. Extrapolating that out using the Typhoon Rule, we find the potential for a storm hitting the US around November 23rd to 28th, oddly enough right around that timeframe that we saw with the intense Bering Sea low.

Tropical Tidbits
Moving on to the next graphic, we find the GFS-Parallel model forecast for November 17th, again forecasting 500mb height anomalies. The GFS-Parallel is not the same as the regular GFS; this Parallel model is the new, enhanced version of the current GFS model, which is set to be 'retired' in the next few months, where the new GFS will take its place. Among new corrections are bias fixes and increased accuracy, etc. The difference from the ECMWF model to this GFS-Parallel forecast is the Parallel model closes off this trough a bit quicker than the ECMWF, as that circular contour line over Japan shows. At this point, it's not so much a question of if this storm will strike Asia, so much as it is what strength will it be and when will it close off. Regardless, the ECMWF and GFS-Parallel both support this storm threat.

Tropical Tidbits
To add in a bit of diversity, let's check out the ECMWF ensemble mean 500mb height anomaly forecast for November 18th. In this image, we see the average of all 52 - yes, as in fifty two separate ensemble members - forecasts favoring a non-closed trough over Japan. This is a bit surprising, as the guidance we went over above has this trough closing off over Japan or just after it leaves the "mainland" of the island nation. Despite this disagreement, which will no doubt be worked through as the time between now and November 17th/18th approaches, the ensembles agree with the other two models on this being a substantial storm crossing Japan, with a consequential storm in the US around November 23-28.

III. The Set-Up

We're now in the timeframe where we can get a view of model projected set-ups for the storm environment (with typical low-confidence, of course). Let's go through the projected set-ups.

Tropical Tidbits
The image above may seem confusing, but it's not that difficult to interpret once you get a feel for it. This image shows the GFS ensemble forecasted 500mb height anomalies, averaged out across the ~20 ensemble members, valid on November 26th. Let's first begin with the positive height anomalies in the West US into British Columbia. We see what are interpreted to be slightly above normal height anomalies, but if this forecast verifies, you'll see these anomalies increase to more extreme values as confidence among all ensemble members increases. For now, confidence is low, so the anomalies aren't as pronounced.
Those positive height anomalies in the West are enabling a positive Pacific-North American (+PNA) pattern to set up. In a positive PNA pattern, ridging in the West forces the jet stream south. If resultant ridging forms in the East, the jet stream then bends north, to enable frigidly cold air to strike the Central/East US, also driving the storm track through that area. This pattern across North America is a classic +PNA pattern, and should be treated as though the Great Lakes/Plains may see the brunt of this storm... initially.
My concern rests with that big upper level low stationed just west of Greenland. If that low becomes too strong and pushes too far south (which is a plausible result), the storm track may be suppressed, and the big winners could end up being the Ohio Valley and interior Northeast. This is something to watch closely in coming days. For now, due to how the Pacific appears to be controlling the pattern, I would favor a Midwest/Great Lakes impact, but let's keep analyzing.

Tropical Tidbits
This graphic is the same type of forecast chart as the one we just discussed, but now comes from the Canadian ensembles, and is valid for November 25th. Despite this slight time difference, note that trough in the Central US, which could be our storm (though the timeframe's a bit fast for my liking). Once again, we see a positive PNA pattern, somewhat suppressed by lackluster ridging in the West US, but compensated by intensified ridging along the East. This would bend the storm track in favor of the Midwest and Ohio Valley for any big snows, and the Gulf Coast could then see some severe weather. Again, this will all sort itself out in due time, and this is merely something to watch for now.

IV. The Storm

It's all been leading up to this, folks. While I don't trust individual model guidance to show what the storm will be like (since it changes from forecast to forecast; no consistency), I would like to show the GFS ensembles' thoughts.

What you see above is a 'cluster' forecast from the GFS ensembles, valid on November 26th (technically the evening of the 25th in our time zones), forecasting precipitation and sea level pressure values over North America. I'll show the description of 'cluster' modelling below from the Weather Prediction Center, then I'll try to interpret it for others who may not understand at first.

Sometimes the ensemble members tend to group themselves into two or more solutions.  For example in the image above the ensembles cluster in two solutions off the Pacific NW coast  of the U.S. (a trough south of the Aleutian Islands and a trough off the Pacific Northwest coast of the U.S.).
CLUSTERING is an automated method that identifies and extracts like members and derives output from these like solutions (of which there are different methods to identify clusters).
If you didn't understand that, let's go through an example. Recall that the GFS ensembles have around 20 members, each of which produces its own, different forecast. Let's say that on November 26th, a certain number of ensembles are showing a relatively similar forecast. The 'cluster' method combines these similar forecasts, and does the same with other, like forecasts into 'clusters' of ensemble members. This allows us to narrow down how many ensembles are showing what type of solution for a certain time frame.

Going back to the GFS ensemble image above, approximately 30% of ensemble members' forecasts for this timeframe show a solution like the one above. This solution means a very strong storm would push north and east across the Midwest, like that positive PNA pattern may induce. The result? Heavy snow likely in parts of the Midwest and Great Lakes, while the South may see severe weather.
At first, you may think 30% is not that high. And you'd be right. But for a forecast 324 hours out, about a third of the ensembles showing this sort of solution isn't a bad thing to see if you're hoping for snow in the Central US.

Here's a good representation of what a scenario like the one above may result in.
I'm going on record and saying this is not a forecast! Please don't treat it as such!

Representation of one possible track for this storm.
Again, this is not a forecast, and it shouldn't be treated as such.
To summarize:

- Model guidance continues to support the idea of a strong storm system in the United States around Thanksgiving.
- The set-up for this storm looks to favor a storm track over the Central/East US.
- One model's representation might show heavy snow for the Midwest and Great Lakes.
- Low confidence, high caveats remain present.