January 8, 2011

Winter Storm Expectations

Filed under: Mid-latitude cyclones,Severe — Erin @ 6:07 pm

I have been very hesitant to make any kind of forecast regarding this system, because it has been a wretchedly difficult storm to predict. Winter storms in the Deep South usually are. And it really doesn’t help when the computers, supposed objective arbiters of the atmospheric data, can’t make up their “minds” either. (Models are supposed to be guidance for the forecasters, a way of looking at possibilities in a straightforward and easy-to-grasp way. They are NOT supposed to replace thinking about one’s own forecast and understanding meteorology.) Just one model, the GFS, has shown nothing, a rain event, a mega snowstorm (in Deep South terms), a crippling ice storm, and wintry slop. And that’s just over the past week. Fortunately, two of those options seem to have been ruled out. We’re going to get frozen precipitation. That’s a given.

This system is one of those where we humans have had to sort through things ourselves and make a judgment call. That’s good for learning, but I’m quite glad I am not in a position where my forecast (or input for a forecast) will have any discernible effect upon the local economy and opening/closing decisions. The question really is whether we will get a foully unpleasant, persistent, cold mix of slop for a day and a half, which makes things pretty miserable but doesn’t require anything to be shut down, or whether it will be a crippling winter storm. Oh, and if it is a crippling winter storm, what type that will be. Mega snowstorm or destructive ice storm?

Wouldn’t want that judgment call either, would you?

Unfortunately, I began leaning toward a worst-case scenario a couple of days ago, though I was not confident enough in it to post such a forecast on the Internet. That’s good; I was prepared to call for an ice storm for everywhere from I-20 to Highway 78. Things began pointing in a different, snowier direction yesterday.

OK, I’m going to put this up first and then go into a bit of meteorological explanation for it. This is not an official forecast from any weather agency, public or private-sector. This is MY forecast.

The system is going to be formed from the mixing of a cold arctic air mass coming down from the north and a moist tropical-type low in the Gulf of Mexico. This type of system is very good at bringing significant winter weather conditions to the Southeast, because it gets all the ingredients in the right place and all that becomes important is the amount of each type of ingredient, whether warm air, cold air, or moisture. Usually, systems from the north that are cold enough to bear snow are too dry; warm air intrusion often kills the chances of frozen precipitation for those that are not too dry. It’s a balancing act.

The precipitation is going to begin as snow across much of the state. I think an exception will be areas south of the I-20 corridor, who will probably get sleet first. This is because the cold air will have arrived and the system from the Gulf is just getting started. In areas where the precipitation type will not remain snow, I doubt there will be much snow accumulation from this part of the storm, because high temperatures have been in the 40s and 50s ever since the New Year’s Day tornado event.

As the Gulf low cranks up, warm air advection from the south will increase. The surface temperatures will still be around or below freezing, but air aloft will be warmed by this intensification of the Gulf low. This will result in a changeover from all snow to a mix of sleet and snow from Starkville-Columbus down to perhaps De Kalb. Areas south of that will probably see a changeover to freezing rain. I have been very concerned about the possibility of a major ice storm for the I-20 corridor for several days, as I watched round after round of forecast Skew-Ts come in with a freezing rain signature. This has all the hallmarks of being just that. The National Weather Service is saying up to half an inch of freezing rain (this is a solid coating of ice); I would put the maximum at 3/4 of an inch. Meridian and Jackson are both going to be clobbered by this part of the storm.

The precipitation should continue in these forms through Sunday night. I think that in areas where there is a snow/sleet mix, what percentage of each type you will see will depend on your latitude. I am inclined to put the belt of maximum snowfall a bit north of Highway 82.

After balking at it, I have come around to agreeing that somebody will get a major snow accumulation on the order of 8 inches. There may be isolated areas where a foot of snow falls. As disruptive as that can be, and as risky as it indeed is for power, I think the greater threat exists in the ice storm corridor. Please, please, please, if you are in this area, make sure you will be able to stay warm!

Everyone from that area remember the ice storm of February 1996? I don’t blame you if you’ve put it aside, but this may refresh your memories.

Freezing rain occurred over all the above counties causing widespread damage to trees and power lines. Accumulations of one-half to one inch of ice were common over this area. Over one hundred thousand customers were without power during the event. Most roads and bridges were impassable, and some of the roads had to be closed.

Though I do not think ice storm conditions will envelop the exact same area as before, a repeat of this event is very possible on Sunday for the I-20 corridor!

Stay warm, stay safe, and if you are in line for snowfall, enjoy it!

December 10, 2010

A Big Storm, Cold, Thunder, and Perhaps Winter Precip?

Filed under: Forecasting,Mid-latitude cyclones — Erin @ 5:55 pm

Think it was pretty cold this past week? Well, wait till Sunday and Monday. But before we get to that point, we’ll have had quite a system to pass through the area, featuring thunderstorms, strong winds (and the accompanying frigid wind chills), and—though the National Weather Service isn’t officially forecasting it—I think an outside chance of frozen precipitation. Areas outside the Southeast are in line for much more frozen stuff.

Yup, it’s meteorological winter (December through February), all right.

The low that will quickly become a powerful cyclone is analyzed right now as 1002 mb. In a short period of time, it should be located in the Plains states and closing on the Midwest. By the time it reaches Iowa (approximately early tomorrow morning), it will be generating rain and snow to its north as the warm sector (that’s where we are) forms.

Look at this image from the North American Model (NAM). Classic cyclonic shape.

This is a forecast for late Saturday night or the wee hours of Sunday morning, which may be a bit slow. Our storms—generated by uplift along the cold front—may arrive earlier than this. The timing is going to be critical, especially in consideration of the outside chance of wintry precipitation. If the moist sector of the cyclone pushes through faster (forced along by cold, dry air on the other side of the cold front), then we’re not going to get anything of that kind. Jackson NWS doesn’t want to forecast any such precipitation, either; I freely acknowledge that the odds aren’t great and it makes sense that they would not want to go out on a relatively unsupported limb.

However, there is some model support for my thinking on this. Here’s the NAM forecast for 6 hours later.

Observe that precipitation is occurring north of the 0-degree line. Observe where the 0-degree line is.

Looking at imagery for the lower levels of the atmosphere, we can see that it will be a very, very close call for northeast Mississippi, and the type of frozen precipitation (if any) cannot be guessed at with any accuracy. This is because when a cold front passes, there is not a straight vertical line dividing the area of retreating warm air from the advancing cold air. Instead, it is an angle. Since cold air sinks, we are far more likely to have cold air at the surface and some warm air still lingering aloft in the first couple of hours after the “edge of the front” (a very fuzzy demarcation, but you get my point) moves through.

If we do get any winter weather as a parting gift from this cold front, it’s likely to be mixed with rain, and the ground will already be wet from the rain we already would have had (and warm from having been in the warm sector prior to the frontal passage). Accumulation is not even on the table.

What about those thunderstorms? Are we in line for another severe weather outbreak like the one from the end of last month? Probably not. That event had CAPE values that would raise eyebrows in the spring, let alone the fall. These potential energies just will not be present for this front. However, thunderstorms are expected to occur Saturday evening, likely bringing a lot of rain and lightning, and an outside chance of small hail.

After the front has passed, we are going to get a glancing blow from the arctic air mass that is behind the system. Highs are not likely to reach 40 in too many areas north of I-20 on Sunday and Monday. The wind chill on Monday morning is going to be dangerously cold, approaching 10 degrees and getting close to zero around highway 82 and points north. Take note of this if you have to go to work or school.

In the wake of the previous cold spell and the one that is coming up soon, I’m hearing some grumbling about the forecast that NOAA made for a “warmer and drier winter than average” for the Southeast. That forecast is still on tap. However, “warmer and drier than average” typically does not mean that it will be so much warmer and drier that we will be able to notice it every day! We are talking about a couple or three degrees on average for the entire winter season. That allows for plenty of below-average events, such as this upcoming one. And indeed, if you look at the long-term GFS, it shows a rather significant warmup to temperatures approaching 70 degrees until the next system pushes through just before Christmas and drives temperatures down to the 40s again. Such long-term forecasts cannot be trusted in the winter season, because the weather is so volatile, but it’s definitely food for thought!

October 26, 2010

Major Storm Unfolding in the Midwest

Filed under: Mid-latitude cyclones,Severe — Erin @ 10:56 am

The megastorm that weather people have been talking about for several days has materialized, and it is already bringing very high wind and long lines of severe squalls and tornadic supercells to the Midwest and upper Tennessee Valley. Rain and thunderstorms associated with the cyclone extend as far south as the Gulf states. Blizzard conditions are expected for areas on the cold side of the storm, which is expected to bottom out its pressure in the 960 mb range. The low, centered over Minnesota as of this writing, is already at 966 mb. The factors causing this powerful system are many: Very unseasonable heat in the Southeast has led to a powerful warm sector for the cyclone, and a surge of cool air to contrast with this has caused development of a strong jet stream (>100 knots) in the upper levels of the atmosphere. Had Hurricane Richard’s remnant low been drawn more to the east, as the models were suggesting a couple of days ago, the system would have become even more powerful. A mid-latitude cyclone of this magnitude is not common. It is a credit to modern technology that our computer models were able to accurately predict this rare of a system several days in advance.

The Storm Prediction Center issued a high risk for today, a rare occurrence, but with dozens of tornado warnings already called for the Midwest where the storm’s warm sector meets its area of highest vorticity advection, I expect that this will end up verifying.

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