Meteorological Analysis of January 22, 2017 Great Plains/Midwest Blizzard As It Happened

Here is a meteorological analysis I did on Monday of the blizzard which raked much of the Central Plains and upper Midwest from Nebraska and Kansas to Minnesota and Wisconsin with heavy snow and high winds. It was recorded around 11:30 am CST Monday. Those who follow me on my Facebook page (also see my feed on the sidebar) were able to see it right after it was uploaded, but I’m posting it here for those interested in hearing me discuss the event as it happened. Peak snow totals up to a foot and a half resulted in parts of Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. Lincoln and surrounding parts of the town only saw 2-3 inches but the totals increased dramatically not far west and north. We got off easy compared to the one foot and greater totals in northeast Nebraska. Winds gusts throughout the region peaked 45-60 mph. You can hear the noise of the high wind through my door in the video.

By the way, my son Bruce makes a guest appearance as he tries to turn off my computer while recording. Haha.


Is CO2 Still Accelerating?

Open Mind

Not only is the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere on the rise, the rise itself has been getting faster — so CO2 concentration has been accelerating. A reader recently asked whether or not there’s any sign of its increase flattening out, or even stopping its acceleration.

Here’s the CO2 data from Mauna Loa:

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Strong Winter Storm Impacting portions of Plains and Midwest Early Week

A strong winter storm is pushing across the Great Plains tonight. North of the low will experience widespread blizzard conditions and heavy snow. South of the low milder conditions with rain.

Infrared image, but with surface frontal analysis added, valid at 6 pm CST.


Parts of far southern Nebraska, into Iowa have a tight gradient between little to no snow vs. heavy snow with high winds. An example…my location in Lincoln, NE where the National Weather Service is calling for 3-4 inches for the day Monday and just added the county under a blizzard warning after 24 hrs ago thinking the area would only receive up to 1 inch with gusty winds and much better travel conditions.

A difference less than 24 hrs makes. Lincoln now expects up to half a foot of snow (see below) and places expecting 7-8 inches are now expecting 12-18 inches!


The whole system has been trending southeastward in the models and in reality and so the official forecast has been trended slightly higher and significantly so in places of central and northeastern Nebraska which may get up to a foot with isolated amounts up to 18 inches! The bigger story are winds which may gusts 35-50+ mph across much of the north-central Plains during the night and during the day Monday. This will induce the blizzard conditions, with very low visibilities.


Conditions will improve across Nebraska and South Dakota by tomorrow evening as the storm shifts northeastward, continuing to impact northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin and upper Michigan with locally heavy snow and gusty winds.

If you’re in an area under blizzard or winter storm warnings, stay off the roads during the worst of the conditions unless absolutely necessary as the roads will be treacherous and visibility poor, particularly outside major cities, where snow can blow around easily. If you have to travel, drive slowly and with care.

Abrupt Climate Change Tipping Elements

While anthropogenic climate change is generally discussed in the context of gradual change (perhaps, “gradual” by standards of human lifetimes…still extremely fast by geological timescales…), there are tipping elements in the climate system which have the potential to cause very abrupt and extremely rapid shifts in climate states on regional and (more importantly) global scales. Tipping points are still somewhat controversial in the science of climate change, but there is precedence for it in the paleoclimate record; from the ice age cycles to some of the most infamous extinction-level events in Earth’s history where species simply had no chance to adapt.

I’ve discussed the concept of abrupt climate change previously and suggested that we are currently in a period of abrupt climate change. “Abrupt” defined as events occurring within less than a normal human lifetime which normally do not do so. Many scientists have studied the potential in the present or past of abrupt climate change (or quasi-“runaway” global warming which is abrupt) including Dr. James White, Dr. Jennifer Francis, Dr. Peter Wadhams, Dr. David Wasdell, and many others. Much research has looked at abrupt climate change as a function between a forcing mechanism on a system and a “breaking system” (a negative feedback) which stops the system from reaching a tipping point. However, if the forcing overcomes the breaking and forces it over the tipping point, there is the abrupt (temporally rapid and structurally changed) shift to a new climate state vastly different from the previous state (see excellent discussion on the topic by Dr. David Wasdell…a climate scientist who’s done peer review work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN).

Tipping Elements. (Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research).

Our current more abrupt climate change…which one may argue began in the 1980s with a more rapid rise in global air and sea surface temperatures, decrease in sea ice extent/volume, ocean acidification, land glacier retreat, among other climate change signals (noted by both the IPCC as well as the US in recent climate reports)…appears to have been caused by our rapidly increasing emissions of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the 1960s. CO2 concentration was around 315 parts per million molecules of air in 1960 (compared to 285 ppm at the end of the 19th century). We’re already near 410 ppm in 2017…twice an increase in concentration in nearly the same amount of time. Methane, a short-term (150+ times more powerful as carbon dioxide within a few years), but extremely powerful greenhouse gas has also rapidly increased because of both human and natural sources.


However, as anthropogenic climate change continues to evolve, assuming no *significant* human intervention (specifically removal of carbon dioxide and cooling of the Arctic), may lead to further tipping points being reached within the climate system which may accelerate change further. Changes which can happen over the course of just years. These more specific “sub-system” tipping points are of particular interest to some of the previous researchers mentioned. So let’s discuss a couple of interest…

Tipping Point #1: Arctic Sea Ice Sheet Collapse

Personal opinion here…I firmly believe of all the abrupt climate change tipping points, this one is likely the most imminent. Arctic sea ice has been rapidly decreasing in extent and thickness (and therefore, volume) since the 1980s. Numerical climate models in the past have attempted to predict the collapse of sea ice (what some refer too as the effective “ice free” Arctic in the warm season…roughly 10% of the Arctic Ocean Basin without ice or less). Previous predictions have called for dates such as the 2080s and more recently, the 2040s. Now there are scientists such as Dr. Paul Beckwith and Dr. Peter Wadhams and others openly giving a likelihood that the first “ice free” or “blue ocean” event will occur by or before 2020! 2017 witnessed the record low annual Arctic sea ice volume, caused by very thin tenuous ice. Where widespread, thick ice used to exist in the Arctic, tenuous thin ice only remains, ready to be destroyed by random storms and influxes of heat from the Atlantic and Pacific…a process which is already happening.


What is important about this tipping point? If most of the ice disappears from the Arctic Ocean, albedo (reflectivity) in the northern hemisphere will be significantly reduced, replacing white ice with very dark ocean, warming the Arctic Ocean column and warming and moistening the atmosphere (also clouding it, retaining heat in the polar night, making new sea ice difficult to form). Of course, this more rapid heating of the Arctic will more rapidly raise the overall average temperature of Earth as well. Note…there has not been an “ice-free” Arctic over in over 3 million years! It will also have have implications on the jet stream which depends on temperature gradients between the mid-latitudes and the Arctic for it’s strength and progression of waves around the globe – it would become much weaker, shift farther north and exhibit much greater amplitude waves with stagnant, extreme weather (see HERE and HERE).

This tipping point could set off other issues such as prolonged heat waves and droughts, leading to other tipping events such as forest diebacks (and then wildfires) and methane releases in the high tundra and methane clathrates from subsea permafrost in Arctic continental ice shelves (more on clathrates). This would release more carbon into the atmosphere. Abrupt changes in precipitation distribution (dryness or heavy precipitation) and extreme heat would pose threats to agricultural production which is very sensitive to individual weather events, let alone the climate stability which we’ve been accustomed too for the past 10,000 years since the end of the last glacial period.

Tipping Point #2: Equatorial Super Rotation

Another rather daunting tipping point is actually a common feature of several planets in our own solar system. It is called equatorial super-rotation. None of the previous scientists have dealt with this topic, but it is of interest to me as a meteorologist and is actually not a current feature of Earth’s atmosphere. It is a phenomena in which the atmosphere around the tropics and subtropics actually spins faster than the planet’s rotational velocity. This super rotational velocities occur on the terrestrial planet Venus and the Jovian planets (such as Jupiter and Saturn).

How would this occur on Earth from anthropogenic climate change and what would be the impacts on climate? Well, typically, the Earth’s tropical circulatory pattern involves structures known as Hadley Cells which features rising motion near the Equator and sinking motion in the subtropical regions. Air at the surface then flows equatorial-ward towards a convergence zone (the Intertropical Convergence Zone or Monsoon Trough) with the Coriolis force turning the air flow toward the right/left in the northern/southern Hemisphere, generating the easterly trade winds. The Hadley Cell expands and migrates north and south depending on the seasons between the two hemispheres.


With climate change however, increasingly extreme surface heating in the tropics is theorized to possibly lead to a situation where a single Hadley Cell develops, becoming extremely powerful and expansive. This would lead to the center of it straddling the equator with a strong upper-level equatorial westerly jet (the super-rotational flow).  Significant areas experiencing hyper-aridity would exist over much of the mid-latitudes as far less moisture is transported from the tropics and high precipitation regions would be found much further poleward than found in the current climate regime. This tipping point in modeling isn’t expected until late century, but again, given the rate at which observed changes in the climate system are evolving relative to the limitations of modeling, it is not truly known when such a tipping point could actually be initiated.

Human Societal Tipping Points…

Of course, with anthropomorphic climate change, one of the biggest issues is humanity’s ability to deal with increasingly rapid and extreme changes and harms. Humans depend need food, water, and shelter to thrive and when repeated meteorological (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc) and climatological (long-term agricultural and hydrological droughts) disasters strike, society can take very serious hits. Much of the world depends on agriculture from the US and China, for example. Freshwater resources around the world are under increasing stress from overuse by increasingly growing populations. More and more people are crowding into cities which will be under the influence of urban heat islands which may deal with hotter temperatures as the climate warms.

Projected decadal Palmer Drought Index based on local norms during course of 21st century. Timeline based on “high-emissions” scenario of IPCC, which does not account for certain tipping elements, only human emissions. Climate Change expected to cause hyper-aridity (for US, equivalent to 1930s Dust Bowl conditions) throughout US/Europe, South Africa and Amazon without significant human intervention, well beyond current measures. Note wetter conditions in high latitudes.

The ability of humanity to deal with the changes ahead will be by far the most significant challenge in the coming years ahead.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

The Science Behind “Atmospheric Bomb” Cyclones

The first full week of January featured a powerful winter storm – known as a nor’easter – intensify off the east coast of the United States causing snowfall from the North Florida to Maine into Atlantic Canada, along with widespread power outages from strong winds as well as storm surge flooding and battering waves.

Powerful nor’easter offshore Long Island Thursday afternoon.
Vehicles navigate Monument Square on Sunday in North Adams, Massachusetts, which was under a snow emergency. Gillian Jones / AP

The storm underwent rapid intensification known in meteorological slang as “bombogenesis”. An “atmospheric bomb” occurs when a developing cyclone’s low pressure center intensifies explosively…defined as at least 1 millibar or 1 hectopascal drop per hour on average during a 24 hr period. This system had a pressure drop of 54 millibars in 24 hrs (1004 to 950 millibars). This bombogenesis phase can occur in both frontal cyclones seen in the mid-latitudes such as with this week’s storm or with tropical cyclones. A famous example would be Hurricane Patricia in the Eastern Pacific in 2015 which experienced a minimum central pressure drop of 95 millibars during a 24 hr period (967 to 872 millibars).


Bombogenesis in mid-latitude cyclones occurs when there are favorable jet stream dynamics which allow for strong vertical motion, to force air up and away from a developing surface low. These include very strong upper-level winds and diverging flow. This allows for a high rate of decrease in surface pressure, intensifies the pressure gradients, reinforces the “conveyor belts” of warm, moist air flowing into the cyclone for clouds, releases latent heat and producing precipitation, which further strengthens the storm.


For frontal cyclones, the most intense atmospheric “bombs” occur when you have a merging or “phasing” of the northern and southern jet streams (basically the polar jet with much colder air to its north and the subtropical jet with far richer moisture sources to its south). This “phasing” of jet streams occurred with the most recent nor’easter.

Upper-atmospheric air flow maps from Wed-Thurs morning showing the phasing of the polar and sub-tropical branches of the jet stream, which intensified the massive East Coast nor’easter.


“Bomb” cyclones are nothing new. Unfortunately for us who have to live and deal with their impacts, human-induced climate change has forced our world to retain a significant amount of heat energy. These major changes on climate in just the past 20-30 years have caused statistical changes in observed weather. And one of those changes is in rapid intensification of cyclones. With tropical cyclones, there is evidence that a warming ocean and lower atmosphere (with greater moisture/latent heat release) is playing a role in increasing the frequency of rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones (here’s a paper by Kishtawal et al. on the topic). With mid-latitude cyclones, there is ongoing debate on the issue. However, there ongoing research suggests that in addition to thermodynamic roles, the increasing “waviness” of the polar jet stream theorized to occur in a warming world may have impacts on mid-latitude weather and long-term climate patterns. High amplitude jet streams produce greater mixing of air masses at lower levels of the atmosphere between the polar regions and sub-tropics (a process known as temperature advection). The increase in jet stream amplitude acts as a feedback to further amplify Arctic warming rapidly relative to the mid-latitudes as much warmer air advects into the far north (jet slows slightly with less temperature gradient, but becomes much more amplified, enhancing warming further). While the effect of the mid-latitudes circulation patterns on the Arctic seems more well-established because of the rapid changes in the far north, climate scientists are in much higher disagreement on the effects of feedbacks back on the mid-latitudes. Dr. Jennifer Francis (Rutgers University; see short webinar on possible connection between Arctic warming and mid-latitude extreme weather), among other scientists continue to do research actively on jet stream dynamics in the mid-latitudes with regards to climate change. But such a combination of warming energy sources and amplified jet stream patterns could further the development “bomb” cyclones in the future as the world continues to warm, at least while there remains strong temperature gradients between air masses to fuel mid-latitude storms (mid-latitude cyclones may be weaker and/or found much farther north in a much warmer planet). And there has already been a statistically detectable shift northward in winter storm tracks in the Northern Hemisphere and an increase in the severity (intensity of cyclones and precipitation rates) and frequency of “atmospheric river” events in the Eastern Pacific toward North America since the 1950s (see Key Finding #4-5/Chapter 9 of US Climate Report).

What “bomb” means as far as hazardous impacts will depend on the specific storm, but when it comes to ocean storms, like what was witnessed this week, obviously, damaging winds, heavy surf, storm surge flooding and heavy precipitation which can cause dangerous disruptions are what are all possible. In this case, much of it was all snow and ice. In the warm season, it can be flooding rainfall. But human-induced forcing (retaining of heat in Earth’s system) is now known to play a role in the attribution of the intensification of these large-scale weather systems within the changing climate regime.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Multiple Arctic Air Surges Expected Into Next Week

After periods of very abnormally warm weather, surges of very cold air from the Arctic will be barreling out of Canada starting Thursday into next week.

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European model model depiction of morning temperatures over the US and southern Canada at 6 am CST Tuesday 12/26. May be colder with winds.
These cold surges are a result of a highly amplified jet stream which has been shifting around North America for the past few weeks with a strong ridge over the Western US and trough over the US. However, the ridge is retreating over the Eastern Pacific and intensifying into Alaska, heating up the Arctic and putting southern Canada and the US in the ice box.

US Global Forecast System model forecast for 6 pm CST Thursday 12/21 showing highly amplified wave pattern of atmosphere at 500 millibar pressure surface (approximately 18,000 ft altitude).

“HOT” Arctic. Temperatures in Barrow, AK running over 30 degrees F above normal on Thursday (normal high is -3 F). Normal low is -15 F. That abnormal warmth will become less intense, but persist into next week.
The Storm Prediction Center does have a marginal risk of severe weather ahead of this week’s major frontal system over Southeast TX Friday. The risk appears to be for a isolated severe thunderstorm wind gusts over 60 mph and low risks of tornadoes.


Here in the land of the corn? We should peak in the upper-30s tomorrow morning and then have falling temperatures and increasing winds during the afternoon with freezing drizzle with increasing breezy conditions out of the northwest. Not much snow accumulation expected here, although it could get slick from some of the freezing precipitation. Anyone else in the middle of the country, be careful as the cold air moves in if you’re on the roads!

Quick update on the Thomas Fire in California:

As of this post, the fire burned 272,000 acres…the 2nd largest in California state history (within less than 1500 acres of the state record). It has killed two people, including a firefighter. It is 60% contained. It began December 4th.

No significant rainfall is expected is expected in Southern California through the end of the month based on computer models. The Eastern Pacific ridge of high pressure seems to have a dominant grip on the region unfortunately. A combination of a La Nina pattern and climate change-induced extremely low Arctic sea ice and warm Arctic causing an incredibly amplified jet stream which tends to produce “stuck” and “stale” patterns.

European model forecast accumulated precipitation through 12/30 showing the possibility of little to no measurable rain or snowfall in much of the Southwest US. Been little to be had in that region in December.
We can only wait and see if the lack of rain and snow forecast in the models in fact verifies for the Southwest US.

Happy first day of (astronomical) winter!

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Major Pattern Change for North America and Arctic Next Week.

A major weather pattern shift will be occur next week for North America into the Arctic as the jet stream…which already has been largely higher in amplitude and experiencing some blocking with little eastward progression of long-waves in the upper-atmosphere, will becoming extremely amplified (north-south) next week bringing very warm air up into Alaska, Yukon and the Arctic Ocean and a modified Arctic air mass from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada into the central US. Let’s take a look at things.

The current pattern dominating North America has been strong ridge of high pressure over the Western US or Eastern Pacific with a prominent trough over the eastern US with some fluctuation in the wave pattern east or west, but not much significant change, except in the center of the country which has seen more significant swings between these two states. The east, including even the Southeast saw significant snow. The west has seen abnormal warmth with record fires in California. Currently the ridge of upper-atmosphere ridge is forecast by US and European models to build to an extremely high amplitude the end of next week north over portions of Alaska and Yukon and into the margins of the Arctic Ocean. This as a very intense trough is forced south over the US.

European model forecast for the wave pattern of the mid-level atmosphere valid 6 pm CST 12/23.
This extreme amplification will drive an Arctic surface air high pressure system out of the Northwest Territories with very cold air this week, with this air mass advancing into the US beginning Thursday into this weekend. Meanwhile stormier conditions will moving from the Bering Sea into the Chukchi Sea driving up temperatures in the far north. And California with all the fires? Remains abnormally warm and dry.

Temperatures the afternoon of Christmas Eve (European Model forecast).

Greatest signal for low to no precipitation the next 10 days is south-central to southern CA into much of AZ and NV.
The Arctic:

As I spoke about in a previous post, the Arctic is having its second warmest year on record and lowest annual sea ice volume on record as climate change continues to abnormally warm the Arctic. The highly amplified wave pattern is much a product of the current weak La Nina pattern. However, the intensity of the amplification and resulting amplified warming of the Arctic is also a function of the long-term global warming regime dominating the polar region and causing record warmth and reductions in sea ice. I noticed this amplified wave pattern will have interesting impacts on the Arctic weather pattern and possibly the tenuous sea ice beginning next week.

Right now, a prominent surface high pressure region…associated with the Beaufort Gyre…is over the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska and eastern Siberia. By the middle of next week, this gyre will weaken as strong low pressure systems approach the Arctic from both the Bering Sea and the far North Atlantic.

Prominent high pressure of the Beaufort Gyre over the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean.

European Model depiction of low pressure system advancing into the Arctic Ocean from the Bering Sea on Christmas Eve. This may be the strongest in a series of lows (2-3) beginning late week. Stormy conditions will also impact areas near Svalbard (islands just east of northeast Greenland) late-week and weekend.
The Gyre is vulnerable because of the areas of open water and tenuous sea ice which remains over the Chukchi Sea…record low extent for this time of year. The ice being cold creates the surface high pressure system and clockwise circulation. But last year, this gyre collapsed because of slow sea ice growth allowing for storms with warm, moist air to move into the Arctic and further slowed sea ice growth. It appears this may be forecast to happen again during the tail end of this month.

European Model forecast surface temperatures showing well above normal temps shifting northward late week into Christmas Eve over the Arctic Ocean north Svalbard and the Chukchi Sea. While exact values will change, general pattern appears likely.
Depending on the strength of the low pressure systems, not only will the tenuous sea ice in the Arctic…widespread areas 1.5 meters or less in thickness (less than a meter in the Chukchi Sea)…deal with more warm air temperatures limiting sea ice growth, but also wave action which may destroy the ice, particularly from the Pacific side as cyclones are expected to move across the Arctic from the Pacific. We’ll see how much impact those storms have and how intense they are. If the upper-level wave pattern is as amplified as forecast by models 5-8 days out (no reason to think otherwise as he reach the point of good reliability for the upper-atmosphere), it’s a good set up for strong low pressure systems to develop in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic. And with the highly amplified blocking high over the Eastern Pacific, storms will be forced to track into Alaska and into the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and deep Arctic Ocean.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey