Thursday, December 24, 2015

December 26-29 Significant Winter Storm

There is growing concern that a potentially-historic snowstorm may impact the Southern Plains, with lesser, but still-substantial amounts to the north and east in the December 26-29 timeframe.

Tropical Tidbits
The system of interest is currently in the Gulf of Alaska, pushing towards the Pacific Northwest as of posting time. We see the higher vorticity values in the circled region, indicating the presence of the trough. Looking over the map right now, the pattern downstream (to the east) of this energy is rather zonal (not wavy; flow is west-to-east), which would keep this storm from going too far north. However, the flow immediately upstream (to the west) of this piece of energy is rather meridional (wavy; flow can appear to move in a north-south direction at times), which will likely play a role in the storm track later on. For now though, we can only confirm the presence of our storm system in the Gulf of Alaska.

Tropical Tidbits
The first snowfall map we'll analyze is the 00z GFS model, the most recent as of the time I am writing this post (it's currently 1:11 AM on Thursday, sleep is not my friend right now). The latest GFS shows amounts in the 6-14" range across northern, western and central Texas, with scattered swaths of 14-20", particularly in far western Texas into New Mexico, and into north-central Texas. A narrow, but intense band of amounts exceeding 24" is projected onto the southwest portion of Oklahoma into north-central Texas. Amounts in the range of 12-18" are then outlooked in much of central and northern Oklahoma, before amounts taper off to the 5-10" range from southeast Kansas through Chicago. The energy then appears to transfer east along the East Coast, dropping significant amounts in the Northeast, with New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire among the states projected to receive up to 18".
This model has been quite variable with snow amounts, but has maintained consistency with the storm actually occurring, and confidence is increasing in the storm occurring in at least some format.

Tropical Tidbits
Next, we'll take a look at the Canadian GEM model forecast for this system. This model paints a different scenario, expressing the variability that still exists with this event. This model drops a general 6-18" swath across northern, western and central Texas, with the highest amounts in the far northern and western regions. Oklahoma also experiences significant snows, with a general 6-12" swath for much of the state, and even a 24" bullseye on the Oklahoma/Texas border just southeast of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Amounts then diminish to a 6-12" range in northern Missouri to northern Illinois and Indiana, southern Michigan, and boosting amounts slightly as the energy hits the Northeast.

While I'm not buying into any particular snowfall solution just yet, I am advocating a particular track. Next, I'll explain why I believe we will see the heavy snow axis fall where it is currently projected, or even further south and east than the above maps show.

Both images from CPC
The first two items to discuss are the Arctic Oscillation (AO) and North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). The AO measures the strength of the tropospheric polar vortex- a positive AO indicates a stronger than normal polar vortex, while a negative AO indicates a weaker polar vortex. The positive phase of the AO tends to promote a more zonal flow, generally warmer than normal and less stormy. The positive phase of the NAO works similarly, promoting warmer weather in the eastern 2/3rds of the country, and zonal flow. Both of these indices are forecasted to maintain positive strength when this storm comes around, telling me that the storm will be hard-pressed to push northward like earlier model runs had suggested.

We're also looking at a positive Pacific-North American (PNA) index for when this storm is forecasted to hit. The positive phase of the PNA promotes high pressure in the west, and low pressure in the east. It's typically conducive for storms in the Midwest and Ohio Valley for this reason, and can also lead to these transfer events, which give the Northeast the threat for stormy weather as well. A typical positive PNA set up is shown below, and we are expecting this positive PNA set-up for the storm's occurrence.

But the real kicker is a piece of energy that, in a way, is both the least and most important part of this storm.

Tropical Tidbits
The above image shows the 500mb vorticity map, forecasted by the 00z GFS for 84 hours out. We see our storm now well developed and centered in far northern Mexico, beginning to push eastward into the southern Plains. However, the point of discussion here is that area of higher vorticity in the northern Plains and Midwest, and it is this item that tells me we could see the storm track stay to the south.

That band of higher vorticity values is an area of confluence aloft. Confluence is the act of air essentially rushing into a given space- similarly, diffluence is the act of air evacuating a given space. In the atmosphere, confluence aloft can result in high pressure at the surface, which acts to force storm systems away (in this case, further to the south). It is this that completes my belief that the storm will take this more eastern track and give cities like Oklahoma City, perhaps Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, and much of the Northeast a solid snow after Christmas.

To summarize:

- A significant winter storm is forecasted to hit a large portion of the country in the December 26-29 timeframe.
- Snowfall amounts in excess of 12" cannot be ruled out for the Southern Plains, including Texas and Oklahoma.
- Snowfall amounts in excess of 6" cannot be ruled out for portions of the Midwest and Great Lakes, including Chicago and Detroit.
- Snowfall amounts in excess of 12" cannot be ruled out for the Northeast.
- High uncertainty still exists with this system.