The Struggle of the Trees in the era of increasing extremes

As the Arctic continues to warm abruptly because of anthropogenic climate change, the jet stream is exhibiting increasingly high amplitude waves later into the Spring growing season. This has been an apparent pattern through recent decades, but has become more pronounced in recent years. You can learn more about the research of Arctic amplification and the jet stream HERE (Dr. Jennifer Francis) and a more real-time analysis at the time HERE (January 2018; Paul Beckwith). Climate change is becoming abrupt enough, its changes on weather, long-term climate patterns and biology can be seen on yearly to seasonal timescales, where before, changes were over decades. So fast, scientific research can barely keep up and every story has “[faster, bigger, worse, more, etc] than expected”. Been the dizzying mantra of late-2017 into 2018 actually. It’s been rough on early agricultural activities in North America and Europe and it’s also been hard on trees trying to get started on first leaf growth.

Here in Lincoln, NE, the trees the week of April 24th have been struggling to get started with leaf growth. Lilacs are running 16-20 days behind first leaves because it has simply been too cold. We’ve had a few more warm days, recently, but yesterday and today…more chill.

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Here’s a photo of my son from this time a year ago. Notice the trees.

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Here’s from a walk I took on Monday.

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Tuesday…

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Seeing so many leaf-less trees with only some trying to bud has left me with a weird spooky feeling going for walks. And on Monday, walking down the street for thirty blocks (longest walk I’ve done in awhile) was actually hot because of the lack of shade from any leaves. And if you want to know just what stresses these trees have been through, it’s not just about persistent chill over the course of weeks. Very extreme temperature variability as well.

-April 13th. High temperature 82 F after the passage of a strong warm front associated with the powerful midlatitude cyclone which produced blizzard conditions across the Northern Plains and severe weather in the Deep South that week/weekend.

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April 14th. Twenty-four hours later. Non-diurnal temperature drop from April 13th’s high to 32 F following the passage of a powerful cold front. This was the most extreme temperature change I’ve ever experienced at the same location (and this photo is from the same parking lot as above, looking in the opposite direction). I’ve lived in Seattle, WA, Lincoln, NE and Brookings, SD. 50 degree F temperature drop. From early-June to early-February weather conditions.

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Other locations, such as in Oklahoma experienced temperature changes last week of 50-60+ degrees in 10 hours (near freezing to around 100 degrees)!!

More persistent warming and less temperature variability is expected this weekend into next week. It may finally start to feel like Spring where I am. Severe weather looks possible to impact the Southern Plains next Tuesday and Wednesday. One oddity of note are no tornadoes reported so far in Nebraska, Kansas, or Oklahoma in 2018. Nebraska typically averages (1991-2010) six tornadoes during the January-April period, with Kansas and Oklahoma averaging 17 tornadoes. But so far…zero for all three states. Nebraska has been too cold and Kansas and Oklahoma have either been too cold and dry with occasional extreme heat (by April standards…again, 90s to  near 100 in the arid drought areas). Extreme to exceptional drought conditions with little rain (and obviously few thunderstorms) have been plaguing the Southern Plains for months. Some storms in May may decrease in intensity of the drought mildly, but very destructive drought conditions for agriculture and hydrology will continue across the Southern Plains and Southwest US. Hoping it will not spread north into Nebraska, but abnormally warm conditions are expected across the southern half of the Plains this summer. Harsh on the plants and crops going from long cold to a long, hot summer. Not to mention more monster wildfires and dust storms. Oklahoma suffered unbelievable wildfires last week.

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Wildfires which were ongoing the afternoon of April 17th in SE Colorado, Western Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle.
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A dust storm captured by satellite over drought-stricken eastern Colorado and western Kansas the afternoon of April 17th.

Check out this extensive (of what at the time was live) video on April 17th of the wildfires in Western OK as they were being chased by KFOR (Oklahoma City) reporters Val and Amy Castor. It’s 3 hrs worth of video, but it’s a Facebook video, easy to fast-forward through and you can see how bad the fires were as they happened.

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As mentioned, severe weather may escalate on the Southern Plains (at least Oklahoma and North Texas) next week. Nebraska has been fairly quiet on the severe storm front, but with the clmatological peak months coming (May/June), there will likely be an escalation of activity. Still remains how much more activity there will actually be. While one needs wave action in the polar jet stream to stimulate the movement of warm-moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and vertical wind shear needed for rotating thunderstorms, very pronounced troughs right over the Plains with large ridging extending into Western Canada can mean cool air intrusions to the east and much of the severe weather and heavier rainfall restricted to the southeastern Plains and Southeast as has been the case much of the winter. The now weakening La Nina pattern of the El-Nino Southern Oscillation has been partly to blame for this (as well as other randomly oscillating “teleconnection” patterns”). However, in addition, the intense climate change-induced Arctic heatwaves in this winter’s polar night (climatologically extreme heat, record low ice extents, ‘atmospheric rivers’ of heat and moisture and ocean storms in the Arctic Ocean) caused the wintertime stratospheric polar vortex maintaining the circulation around the Arctic to split. This has become increasingly consistent and more intense in its effect on the Arctic and mid-latitudes the past few winters. This produced very wavy jet stream patterns and areas of abnormally very cold conditions over Europe and the Central US as well as the repeated nor’easter pattern offshore the East Coast in March.

-Splitting and migration of the winter polar vortex in the stratosphere (10 millibar pressure surface, so lines are lines of equal height…above 33,000 ft in the mid-latitudes generally).

 

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There are signs in the long-range ensemble models that a highly amplified high pressure ridge build over Western North America late next week into early the following week, providing persistent abnormal heat and of course dry conditions. This would consistent with a pronounced positive phase of the Pacific-North American Pattern (PNA) which features abnormally high mid-atmospheric pressures and surface temperatures over western North America. Such a pattern would also decrease severe storm and rainfall potential on much of the Plains during the second week of May. While severe storms are never a positive for safety, the rainfall from convection is always a plus for keeping drought conditions at bay and the northern Plains are in need of regular rainfall as many places not in drought are still suffering precipitation deficits on the month and/or year. If Arctic sea ice retreats rapidly this melt season (and we’re within years of sea ice disappearing in the warm season), this may promote very amplified upper-level high pressure systems this summer as the low albedo (reflectivity) of exposed dark ocean warms the lower atmospheric column, causing thermal expansion and causing any upper-level high pressure systems overhead to respond with greater poleward amplification and strengthening. This could mean very anomalous heat and dry conditions in the summer which persist. This possibility seems focused on the West, although unusually high heat and continued extensive drought may impact the Southern Plains, depending on how the pattern regime sets up. Very important for agriculture this season which I’ll be watching. California, in particular, seems to be progressing into the climate change-induced “weather whiplash” pattern of extreme drought-rainfall, which will only worsen in the coming years. Intensifying drought this summer and the possible return of El Nino later this fall (still up in the air on that) could cause more of this. Lots to keep track of this year.

—Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

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If you want to know what to know what an “extreme weather day” is…look to today.

Today/tomorrow’s mid-latitude cyclone on the Great Plains and Midwest will be a powerful one and one which will provide something for everyone. Blizzards, wind, severe storms, flash flooding, fire…pick your poison, Nature will provide.

In places like Minneapolis and much of Nebraska, this storm threatens to be a historic late-season April heavy snow or blizzard event. In the southern Midwest and South, it threatens heavy rain, flooding and a tornado outbreak. On the southern Plains, strong winds and arid conditions, could further yesterday’s extreme fire behavior. Stay safe out there folks!

A reminder, I will be interviewed on the internet-based program Environmental Coffeehouse at 9 pm EDT/6 pm PDT tonight! A livestream will be available on their public FB page (so you should be able to see it regardless of whether you have a FB page or not). I will discuss abrupt climate change and increasing extreme weather events and how current events (ocean heatwaves, changing jet stream, etc) connect to our rapidly changing climate.

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The beast of an extratropical cyclone over the Great Plains today.
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Progression of the Great Plains/Midwest Cyclone Friday-Saturday.
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Probability of at least 4 inches of snow during the 24 hr period.

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Moderate Risk of severe thunderstorms (Level 4 out of 5) over Central and Southwest Arkansas and extreme northwest Louisiana and small portion of East Texas. Multiple tornadoes possible in the region, with isolated strong tornadoes. Damaging winds and very large hail also possible across a larger region from Iowa southward.

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Moderate Risk (Level 4 out of 5) of Flash Flooding across much of central and southern Arkansas into far northern Louisiana based on possible 1 to 3 inch rainfall rates.

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Extremely Critical Fire Risk (3 out of 3) from southern and Southwest New Mexico into West and North Texas and and western Oklahoma. Conditions exist for extreme fire behavior. Threat is being enhanced by winds associated with today’s cyclone.
If you’re wondering why all this is happening…VERY amplified…or in other words…very wavy jet stream pattern bringing extremely cold air (by April standards) down from from Canada to meet with up with extreme warm air (again by April standards) up from the south. Temps in 20s and 30s to the north with a high of 101 in Western Oklahoma yesterday to the south. Right now Lincoln, NE (where I am) is hitting 80 degrees for the first time this year. Tomorrow, Lincoln will peak in the mid-30s with falling temperatures!

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Massive long wave trough moving over the High Plains from the intermountain West of the US. The trough dips as far south as extreme northern Mexico.
The front end of this trough caused the development of the surface cyclone over Nebraska, intensifying deep moisture movement from the Gulf of Mexico (which, by the way, as a moisture source region, is running well above normal to start the year) and as and providing the deep vertical wind shear (rapidly increasing wind speeds with height) need to generate sustained severe thunderstorms. A recipe for a multi-threat mid-latitude frontal system. And it will not stop anytime soon. Saturday night, the threat will spread eastward, where a significant ice storm event may be possible for portions of upstate New York. In fact, Saturday afternoon, there may be much of Pennsylvania in the 70s while much of Upstate New York may be in the 20s! Incredible temperature contrasts for such a relatively higher latitude location.

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One model depiction (North American Model) show significant temperature contrasts over relatively short distances along a warm front near the PA-NY border Saturday Afternoon. NAM is a colder solution and there are disagreements on where freezing rain line may end up, but any major freezing rain this late in the season in Upstate New York will be quite unusual.

—Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

 

What’s “Normal”? A Confusing But Important Concept in Climate Change

One thing I notice with human uncertainty and understanding of climate change is our memories are quite short. We don’t always remember how things have changed in the places we have lived in our relatively short lifetimes on this Earth.

Sometimes perspectives from the past help us out.

You might remember in my previous post I discussed a rather random exchange I witnessed between a Mom and adult daughter in a coffee shop where I live, effectively about how the winter climate has changed in Nebraska over the decades. The daughter says “these wild swings (in temperature) are normal”. And the Mom basically says “Not so fast!”…”I remember when it used to be more consistently cold and snowy all winter long”. Basically back in the day there wouldn’t be low 70s in February.

So what’s “normal?”

It’s a strange concept, if you think about it, but an important one. As a meteorologist (who aren’t climatologists), we use “normal” as a moving target. The previous 30 calendar years as the standard for “normal”. So it’s 2018, so we compare what’s happening today or this week or this month thus far to the previous average for the 1981-2010 time period. During the previous decade, we used 1971-2000, the previous decade before that, 1961-1990, etc. But when your “normal” is shifting with time, it’s under the assumption that the climate of your region is relatively stable with natural variability. But it is not any longer. Anthropogenic climate change being produced by industrial civilization is strongly dominating our planet in timescales of years to decades, which means, moving the “target” to some degree actually masks just show significant global warming is changing the climate of a given area (and of course the planet as a whole).

Without data or communication across generations, the current pace climate change (which is still nearly 170 times faster the past 50 years than the previous 10,000 years) can still go unnoticed by the current living generations of people who haven’t noticed or experienced the weather of the “past climate”. Here are some rather stark examples-

I decided to take a look at climate data from the National Climate Data Center for the city of San Diego. I gathered temperature data from San Diego International Airport for the period 1998-2017 and from the San Diego Weather Bureau (the ancestor to the modern National Weather Service) for the period 1890-1909. The most significant symptom of climate change is the shift of the weather to more extreme conditions.  Extremes which never occurred previously, but also known extremes which become much higher in occurrence. In this case I looked at the occurrence of low temperatures at or below 41 degrees F (5 C) and the occurrence of high temperatures at or above 86 degrees F (30 C). The results were…stunning.

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High temperatures at/above 86 F: 62 (Highest temperature in period: 100 in 1909).

Low temperatures at/below 41 F: 206 

1998-2017-

High temperatures at/above 86 F: 158 (highest temperature in period: 101 in 2012/2016).

Low temperatures at/below 41 F: 28

So what’s normal? If you account for the fact that climate change has been underway since the late 19th century (and before that), occurrences of high temperatures at/above 86 F are running 96 days above normal, while occurrences of low temperatures at/below 41 F are running 178 days below normal. If you were born in the 80s or 90s in San Diego might not even realize your city used to be a lot cooler place. And I do mean A LOT cooler, even if you have actually notice it has warmed more abruptly since you were younger.

I did this same “instant study” for my home city of Seattle some months ago. I don’t have the numbers on me any longer, but it was for shorter time frames (1896-1905) and (2008-2017) looking at high temperatures at or above 90 degrees F. Less than a dozen 90 degree days during the early era vs. nearly *60* in the most recent era, as well as the all-time record high for Seattle of 103 in 2009. Nearly 60 days at or above 90 degrees in just one decade! I don’t remember the exact values for the low temperatures (at or below 32) but there was a notable drop in the number of below freezing temperatures compared to the past. But even going back to my childhood…born in 1984 and a “child of the 90s”. I remember significantly cool, wet periods in the summers, 90 degree temperatures being possible, but rare. When Seattle had its first 100 degree temperature on record in 1994, it was my first experience with triple digit heat in my life and it was absolutely awful. The 2009 heat wave (my last full summer living in the city) was equally roasting with no air conditioning in my parents apartment. In a climate where such heat is rare, many buildings don’t have air conditioning. You use fans and block your (open) windows from the relentless sun with whatever you can. Builders didn’t plan for the summer heat of climate change. And now I look at the 2010s and see more roasting hot summers in the Northwest, raging fires in Western Canada, ashfall in Seattle from those fires. Changing times for my home region.

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Photo of a Canadian fire smoke filled Seattle sky from summer 2017. (National Weather Service – Seattle, WA).

Continuing beyond the data, stories from the past can give us a glimpse into previous climate regimes. Yesterday, I was discussing with my friend and Florida author Vanessa Blakeslee about how climate has changed via a humanities perspective. She discussed with me the mid-1930s novel “Cross Creek” by author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. She lived in rural north-central Florida and in the novel, the timing of the summer rains are mentioned and “long, cool winters” are reminisced…temperature and precipitation patterns which Vanessa told me are typically very much different today compared to more than 80 years ago.

So what’s normal? What allows humanity the resources (fertile soil, water availability) to sustain agriculture and feed a population, from which towns and cities and economies can grow and develop. The past 10,000 years of a Holocene epoch has witnessed climate stability which has allowed humanity to know when the rains will come, when the rivers will flood, when the dry seasons happen, when to expect the snows, etc. Variability, yes, the occasional extreme sure. But you KNEW the pattern.

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Projected rise in global temperature of at least 4 degrees C/8 degrees F (relative to mid-20th century) during the 21st century relative to the past 10,000 years.

But now we’re leaving that behind. There’s no “new normal” in the “Anthropocene”, there’s only a continuous and accelerating shift to more extreme conditions until climate change stops. It only stops when the planet is back in energy balance given the amount of energy its greenhouse gasses are forcing it to retain. And given what humanity has already done to the atmosphere and the continuous acceleration of changes in the climate system, our planet still has much more to go through to get to that actual “new normal”. But it will be likely full of catastrophic impacts for humanity and already so for many species.

The sun shines on the middle of the continent while the coasts face the wrath of ocean storms

Quite the day out in weather world, although you wouldn’t know it from looking outside here in the land of the corn. Beautiful day, although still waiting for the leaves to make an appearance. Soon enough, but the sun shines bright overhead. Calming and peaceful for a walk later.

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Outside my favorite coffee shop in Lincoln. 52 degrees F and very light wind. Your normal late March day in all its glory.

After a winter which was tumultuous with big temperature swings (sometimes 50 degrees F within days), it’s nice to have a little stability for some days. Looking near or mildly above normal temperatures the next several days with periods of rain showers. Our winter in this region was less than 0.5 C below normal relative to 1981-2010, but running 0.5-1 C above normal relative to 1881-1910 when factoring the effect of climate change. And temperatures from anthropogenic climate change began rising globally after the mid-1700s, so late-19th century values are still conservative on the changes which have occurred here. People around here were complaining about how cold it was this winter. It could’ve been a lot worse as we had a few 60 and 70 degree temperatures in February mixed with the 10s and 20s for highs in January and February! Just wild.

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Global temps relative to the late-20th century vs. the late-19th century (the latter showing the effect of anthropogenic climate change very obvious). The Arctic is getting “hot” (for the survival of sea ice) fast with major effects on the region and world for further global warming.

Actually reminds me of a story in the coffee shop of a mother and adult daughter discussing this past winter. The daughter saying how “normal” it was to have these huge swings in temperature and crazy weather (snow then short-sleeve weather). Mother saying “Well I remember when I was young, it would be more consistently cold with a lot more snow, not like now”. What’s normal has changed with time in a lot of world, but you wouldn’t know it unless the different generations notice and chit chat about it.

Our chances of snow appear to be over. Never say never, as the East Coast seems to be getting blasted by these cold storms, but when you start seeing these consistent mild conditions finally, it’s usually a sign of the seasonal transition…finally.

I do have some concern over this Spring’s tornado season I must say. La Nina periods in the El Nino Southern Oscillation tend to be known for quite intense tornado outbreaks. Trying to get a science paper reading in about it this week if I can. The Gulf of Mexico waters are running above normal for moisture, the South has been quite warm overall with record warm days and months this winter. And jet stream dynamics continue to be favorable for bringing periodic shear profiles for significant severe weather. The atmosphere put on quite a show this weekend in the Deep South where it is climatologically favorable for tornado activity. Reminds me to prep an emergency kit. We do have a weather radio, but with things like tornadoes and urban flooding, you never know when you will need a little more to get through a few days of darkness and no refrigeration.

While, it’s quiet here, the West and East Coasts are being battered by major winter storms to start Spring. Very strong upper-level trough over the eastern third of the country and another over the Eastern Pacific means the 4th nor’easter of the month in the East and huge atmospheric river event in Southern California. Heavy snow or flooding/mudslides?

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Middle atmosphere wave pattern showing deep trough generating significant coastal storm with snow over the mid-Atlantic/Northeast. Atmospheric river from SW flow over California.
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Strong east coast storm. You can also see how dead quiet it is over the center of country from prominent high pressure overhead.
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Moderate to heavy snow falling over New Jersey and New York City/Long Island.
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Strong West Coast storm impacting California with heavy rain.
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Moderate to heavy rainfall impacting parts of Southern California. Problems with flooding and mudslides/debris flows likely. (radar as of 1 pm PDT).

Good mid-week to all and stay safe in these stormy areas!

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Cyclone Gita headed for close passage of Tonga

Cyclone Gita in the South Pacific is a powerful Category 4-equivalent tropical cyclone on the Saffir-Simpson Scale (as of the time of this post). Maximum sustained winds analyzed by the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center are up to 130 mph with gusts to 155 mph. Gita is moving westward and is expected to pass near or over Tonga around 12 UTC Monday (6 am CST or 1 am Tuesday local time). The storm is expected to be at least a powerful Category 4 storm. There is moderate wind shear (increasing winds with height effecting the cyclone and limiting more rapid intensification. However, with water temperatures along the path of 28-29 degrees C (82-84 degrees F) and well-organized structure, Gita will be a potentially catastrophic storm if its eye wall moves over the main island. Gita will also produce very heavy rain (perhaps 6-12 inches) which will lead to flooding. A state of emergency has been declared in the island nation.

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Gita (9P) moving westward toward Tonga. Visible satellite image at 04:52 UTC Monday.
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03 UTC Monday Advisory on Cyclone Gita by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

After 24 hours, Gita is expected to gradually weaken as sea surface temperatures cool and vertical wind shear increases as the system begins to turn to the southwest into higher latitudes. However, Gita is expected to remain a hurricane-force storm through the end of the week.

New Zealand will need to keep an eye on the remnants of Gita as the dying circulation an moisture plume may curve back southeastward in the mid-latitude westerlies. While, the forecast will certainly change somewhat…such as the position of the upper-level trough of low pressure southwest of New Zealand which will cause the system to curve back towards the country beginning Sunday…any remnant system may lead to locally heavy rainfall for both the North and South Islands early to mid-week next week.

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European Model accumulated total precipitation forecast ending 00 UTC February 22nd. The remnants of Gita are forecast to curve back southeast toward New Zealand early next week delivering very rainfall.

 

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Discussion of Final Analysis of 2017 Hurricane Harvey

The 2017 North Atlantic Hurricane season was a devastating one in terms of loss of life as well as property damage for the United States and the Caribbean. The National Hurricane Center released its post-season report on Harvey which caused great destruction to parts of Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. What follows is a brief summary and discussion of Harvey based on info from that report as well as other sources related to Harvey’s impacts. The full report is linked at the end of this post in the references.

Meteorological Discussion

What became Harvey was originally a tropical disturbance which came off the West Coast of Africa on August 12th. It is common during August and September for land-based thunderstorm complexes known as mesoscale convective systems to move westward off the African coast near or south of the Cape Verde (also known as the Cabo Verde) Islands and later develop into long-lived tropical cyclones. Harvey was a classic “cape-verde” type storm as it would later develop into a tropical depression with a well-defined center on August 16th.

The depression intensified into a storm and given its name 12 hrs after initial development. It peaked over the open Atlantic at 40 knots (~45 mph), moving over the islands of Barbados and St. Vincent on August 18th. However, increasing vertical wind shear (increasing winds with height tilting and blowing the thunderstorms away from the low pressure center) over the central Caribbean Sea lead to Harvey’s dissipation to a remnant low later that day.

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Harvey moving over Barbados and St. Vincent on August 18, 2017.

The remnant circulation moved over the Yucatan Peninsula on Aug 22nd and redeveloped into a tropical depression over Bay of Campeche on August 23rd, 150 n mi west of Progreso, Yucatan, Mexico.

The initially poor organization of the reformed Harvey transitioned to a period of rapid intensification late on the 23rd as deep convection began to concentrate near the center. This was aided by an environment of light shear, very warm sea surface temperatures and high mid-level moisture. Intensification would continue until landfall on the 26th. Harvey reached Category 3 midday on the 25th and intensified into a Category 4 as it made its landfalls on the Texas coast early August 26th (the evening of the 25th local time). The initial landfall was on San Jose Island, TX as a Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (115 knots) with a second landfall on mainland Texas in northeast Copano Bay as a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (105 knots). Wind damage was extreme and devastating in Aransas, Nueces, Refugio and the eastern part of San Patricio Counties. 15,000 homes were destroyed and 25,000 homes damaged. The City of Rockport was hit the hardest as the Category 3+ wind field moved into that area causing both extensive wind and surge impacts. The highest surge observed in Harvey was generally in the range of 9-11 ft.

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Hurricane Harvey approaching landfall on the Texas Coast the evening of August 25, 2017 (local time).
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Hurricane Harvey making landfall in Texas as seen by radar. Note the “lumpy”, wavy undulations within the eye (such as near Rockport and north of Port Aransas in this image). These are mesovortices where winds may have been locally stronger within the inner eye wall of the hurricane.

Harvey meandered in light steering currents, “stuck” between a mid-tropospheric high pressure system over the Four Corners states and another mid-troposphere high over the Gulf of Mexico. Torrential rains fell over Houston Metro and the Golden Triangle near a stationary front which formed on the north and east side of Harvey.

 

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The rainfall of Harvey was truly incredible. A storm total of 60.58 inches was confirmed Nederland, TX; 60.54 inches in Groves, TX. Much of the heaviest precipitation fell in the first 72 hrs of the event. Previous continental US record for a tropical cyclone is 48 inches in Medina, TX (1978). The extreme nature of Harvey was displayed in that 18 values over that continental record of 48 inches reported across southeastern TX, with 36-48 inches recorded across the Houston metro area. However, Multi-Sensor Precipitation Estimates (MPE), which includes radar-derived rainfall intensity estimates suggests 65-70 inches where few observations were available or observations failed early in the event. Maximum rainfall measured in Louisiana was 23.71 inches in Vinton, LA, with MPE suggesting a more representative 40 inches as Southeast Southwest LA obs were sparse.

By Jordan Tessler for Capitol Weather Gang.

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The large-scale or synoptic set up for the Harvey exceptional rainfall event is not particularly unique. Heavy rain bands formed along a modest frontal boundary situated initially near Houston, then the Golden Triangle region in Southeast TX (Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange, TX area). Enhanced convergence and convective lift with warm cloud droplet precipitation processes allowed for enhanced rainfall rates in abundant thunderstorms. The combination of extremely high rainfall rates of up to 5-7 inches per hour and the stationary nature of the near coastal frontal boundary and Harvey itself contributed to the extreme total accumulation and massive flooding.

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Training rain bands moving over the Houston Metro area the morning of August 27, 2017.
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Very heavy rainfall in the Golden Triangle region of east TX the early morning of August 30, 2017.

NOAA analysis determined that areas of Southeast TX experience a flood with an annual probability of <0.1% (equivalent to a >1000 year flood event). I believe this is one of the most important parts of the National Hurricane Center report, so I’ll quote it:

While established records of this nature are not kept, given the exceptional exceedance probabilities, it is unlikely the United States has ever seen such a sizable area of excessive tropical cyclone rainfall totals as it did from Harvey.

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Mesoscale Precipitation Discussion by the National Weather Service – Weather Prediction Center on August 27, 2017. Historic, devastating flooding underway in the Houston Metro Area at the time.

In addition to storm surge, wind and flooding rains, Harvey produced 57 tornadoes (many in the Houston Metro area) and killed 68 people directly with an additional 35 indirect deaths. All direct deaths were in Texas and it was the deadliest tropical cyclone for Texas since 1919. All but three direct deaths were caused by freshwater flooding.

According to NOAA, preliminary damage analysis suggests estimated damages of $125 billion, making Harvey the second-costliest hurricane on record in the North Atlantic basin, only behind Hurricane Katrina, when adjusted for inflation.


Connection to Anthropogenic (human-caused) Climate Change

During and immediately following the events of Hurricane Harvey, there was intense controversy over even discussing climate change as it related to the extreme events related to Hurricane Harvey. Even mentioning climate change in reference to an individual extreme weather event. A lot of opinions were thrown about, but the science of climate change has evolved dramatically in the past 10 years and climate researchers have a much better understanding of many of the connections between climate variables and the statistics of weather which make up the recent past and current climate. From this, attribution studies can be conducted to determine a likelihood of connection to the changing climate regime. A attribution study was done by World Weather Attribution (#2 below) and the probabilistic statistical analysis determined that the record rainfall from Harvey was approximately a) 3 times more likely and b) 15% more intense in terms of rainfall rate because of climate change. One location witnessed a return period for extreme rainfall of 9000 years with a high degree of statistical confidence. The impacts were consistent with what would be expected with 1 degree C+ of global warming since the late 19th century (the world has thought to have begun warming because of humanity since the mid 18th century). I did an extensive post previously during this most recent hurricane season on the climate change connection with includes references to numerous recent peer reviewed papers HERE.

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References

#1 – Harvey Report (National Hurricane Center, 2018)

#2 – Oldenborogh et al. 2017

See my previous posts in this blog on Hurricane Harvey from last August HERE.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey