Quick update on Northern California Wildfires (plus weather forecast)

As of now (5:30 pm PDT), the death toll in the California Wildfires is up to 35 and is expected to go up further. 18 inĀ  Sonoma County, 9 in Mendocino County, 4 in Yuba County and 4 in Napa County. 5700 structures have been destroyed and 221,000 acres have been burned. Treating the conglomeration of fires as a single event (as all the Northern CA ones initiated Sunday Night), this is by far the most destructive fire event in state history and one of the deadliest. Simply horrifying and very sad.

Firefighters have begun to have some containment success the past 48 hrs with slower winds and at least some periods of slightly improved humidity. However, tonight-Sunday morning will feature an intensification of extreme fire danger. This is because a strong surface high pressure system will advance toward the central Intermountain West this weekend, intensifying downsloping Diablo winds from the hilly and foothill mountainous terrain of Northern California. North-northeast winds may gust as high as 45-60 mph Saturday, inducing very low humidity values, drying out fuels and potentially promoting extreme fire behavior (high forward speed, rapid growth) in existing fires as well as any new fires. Red Flag Warnings have been issued by the National Weather Service to cover this forecast potential.

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Strong high pressure moving over OR, ID and NV Saturday will promote strong Diablo winds over Northern California. (NWS forecast surface map valid 11 am PDT Saturday).

There are no thunderstorms forecast, so any new fires would be likely started by human activity. So folks in these areas need to very much be careful with anything which can potentially start fire and really…just avoid starting any outdoor fire or usingĀ  anything which sparks.

Some good news…mid-range computer model forecasts suggest a pattern shift toward precipitation and cooler weather by the end of next week. Just have to get through the next week of fire activity before some meaningful hydrologic relief to aid the firefighting efforts.

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The Global Forecast System Model forecast accumulated total precipitation valid 8 pm PDT Friday. This is one forecast scenario, but all global models point toward a wetter pattern, beginning the second half of next week into next weekend.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

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Fire Conditions expected rest of this week and weekend for California

The fire conditions Wed Night into this morning were not as severe as expected thanks to weaker winds. This allowed firefighters to make some ground against fires through the night, however high fire danger remains and will continue for days into the future, with no rain in sight.

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Strengthening pressure gradients along the mountainous terrain of interior California and the warm, very dry air mass will promote high far danger with windy conditions near the mountains and adjacent valleys Fri Night-Sunday. (See tightly packed isobars…lines of equal pressure…on the map in CA just west of Nevada as high pressure shifts SE-ward over the Intermountain West).
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Very low dew points during the day Sat could mean relative humidity values as low as 10-20% across interior California, along with gusty winds for high fire danger.

Air quality remains terrible in the Bay Area. Folks in that region should do what they can to avoid being outside if at all possible.

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Unhealthy air quality exists across the entire Bay Area. Expect harmful air quality to be problematic into the weekend.

I’ll add any additional updates related to fires on this post today. Stay safe in these areas!

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Firestorm devastating portions of Napa Valley, CA.

Sunday Night, major fires erupted in California’s Napa Valley under strong easterly winds and low relative humidity. This resulted in a conflagration engulfing communities and homes in flames and forcing thousands to make quick escapes in the early morning hours. One of the worse hit communities is Santa Rosa, where much of the city has been destroyed by fire. Over 1500 homes and businesses are believed to have been burned down in the Napa Valley region. The flames continue to grow at this time with over 75,000 acres burned.

Photos via the San Francisco Chronicle.

The fires are occurring in a region which is currently not in drought conditions hydrologically (as of last Thursday). However, after an unusually wet winter, an unusually hot, dry season followed. This allowed fuels, which grew in abundance following the wet season to dry out, leading to the massive fires in CA in this summer going into the Fall. Much of Western North America has been suffering significant fires in 2017 (year-to-date acreage burned in the US, as of Friday, was 3rd to 2012 and 2015). Intensifying wildfire seasons (on regional/continental scales) and increasing frequency of large fluctuations in extremes between very wet and very dry periods are predicted signals of climate change from global warming as well.

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Much above average to record precipitation in Northern California in January-March 2017.
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Much below average to record minimum precipitation (including NO measurable rain) in Northern California in August 2017. June-August 2017 saw much below average precipitation.
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Much above average and record warmth across the West Coast during August 2017. San Francisco Bay Area saw record highs over 100 degrees at the start of September.

So far the fires have killed 10 people (as of 10 pm PDT Monday Night), while more than 110 have been injured, some severely from burns, most from smoke inhalation. It’s being reported Monday Night that 100 missing persons reports have been called in to the Sonoma County, CA office.

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Region where fires are in progress in the San Rosa and Napa region far north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento.

Although relative humidity conditions will improve somewhat tomorrow, no rainfall is forecast for this region of Northern California for the next 7 days to dampen the fire situation. Winds Tuesday will likely gust over 20 mph and may be locally stronger near the fire, continuing the self-sustaining burn.

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11 pm PDT Monday Analysis by the High-Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) showing the low dew point temperatures near and east of Santa Rosa. This area delineates a region of low relative humidity, allowing fires to burn and spread with little moisture on fuels to slow their extent.

 

For further updates see this updating page by the San Francisco Chronicle.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Potential Impacts by Tropical Storm Nate this Weekend

Tropical Storm Nate, which developed as a depression yesterday, made landfall in Nicaragua this morning and is moving over eastern Nicaragua and Honduras this evening. Very heavy rainfall and flash flooding has already resulted in 22 deaths in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

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Heavy showers and thunderstorms producing heavy rain over portions of Central America from Tropical Storm Nate this evening and into tonight. (image valid at 5:15 pm CDT).

Nate is progressing generally northward and will emerge over the Northwest Caribbean Sea late tonight where it will have an opportunity to reorganize. The waters over that region are running in the range of 84-86 degrees F (29-30 degrees C), more than sufficient for re-intensification. With that said, the inner core will likely be badly “gutted” by the mountainous terrain of Nicaragua and Honduras and with a second landfall possible Friday evening, time will likely be limited for more robust intensification. With that said, minimal hurricane strength is possible, with a lower chance that the storm may get stronger if it’s inner core can re-organize quickly Friday.

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National Hurricane Center forecast (issued 5 pm EDT Thursday) showing a likely landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico Friday evening and likely US impacts on the northern Gulf Coast beginning Saturday evening.

A Hurricane Watch and Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for much of the coastal Yucatan Peninsula. Again, the major threats will be from water…heavy rain and freshwater flooding and also modest (although still hazardous) storm surge and high wave action.

Potential Impacts for Central Gulf Coast of US-

While many details are still in need of being honed in for the Central Gulf Coast…it is highly likely a tropical storm or minimal hurricane will approach the region Saturday evening with landfall early morning Sunday. The biggest threats will be from water (flooding/surge) with wind producing damage from falling trees and power outages.

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NWS Weather Prediction Center 5 day accumulative rainfall forecast (valid beginning 7 pm CDT Thursday) showing heavy rainfall along the track of Nate and its remnants expected, particularly Saturday afternoon into early next week. Very heavy rainfall possible in Greater New Orleans area which is prone to freshwater flooding.

Sea surface temperatures are slightly cooler along the northern Gulf Coast north of the Loop Current (82-84 degrees F/28-29 degrees C). Still more than warm enough for intensification if the system can remain over the current (a slightly farther west track may leave it over slightly cooler waters longer).

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Analysis of Sea Surface Temperatures and the Loop Current. Nate will track along the Loop Current much of its track over water, providing with fuel to re-intensify. (Analysis by Earth Nullschool).

Also, given the shear currently over the Central Gulf will relax over the next couple of days (as an area of upper-level high pressure over Texas shifts westward and weakens), Nate will have an opportunity to re-intensify over the Gulf after leaving the Yucatan Peninsula. Computer models have some variability in timing of an upper trough which will move over the US Central Plains during the day Saturday. This will ultimately influence the exact track of the center of Nate. However both deterministic and ensemble members of the various models depict a likely landfall of the center somewhere from Southeast Louisiana to coastal Mississippi/Alabama. Regardless, widespread heavy rain (particularly near and east of the center), moderate storm surge flooding and high wind conditions will be likely over the coastal areas of these states by Saturday afternoon, spreading inland Saturday night and Sunday. Tropical storm force winds (sustained 39 mph+) will likely arrive on the LA Coast Saturday evening.

 

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Earliest Reasonable Arrival Time for Tropical Storm-Force (issued 5 pm EDT). Folks along the Central Gulf Coast should have preparations for stormy conditions completed by Saturday afternoon.

Tropical cyclone watches will likely be issued for portions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama late tonight or early tomorrow morning.

Climatology Update-

The Atlantic Hurricane Season is currently running above normal (1966-2010 norms in parenthesis): 14 named storms (9), 8 hurricanes (6) and 5 major hurricanes (2). In terms of Accumulated Cyclone Energy (a function of maximum sustained winds over time), 2017 ranks (as of this post) as the 6th most active season on record for the North Atlantic Basin. The average temperature of the North Atlantic Main Development region (open tropics west of Africa) exceeded 83 degrees F (~28 degrees C) for the 9th time since 2002 (had never done so in the record prior going back to 1981). The MDR is the 3rd warmest on record overall.

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Global Climate Change and its Potential Connection to Hurricane Activity (cited research)

Because of recent North Atlantic Hurricane Season activity…many people have questioned whether hurricanes are becoming stronger and more numerous because of climate change. In the social media universe, I’ve seen many opinionated debates within the general public, as well as meteorologists and perhaps a few sprinkling of climatologist opinions here and there. Not to mention, interesting statements from non-climate scientists. What I have not seen much, however, is any discussion of peer-reviewed research on the topic. There’s so much knowledge being gathered every year by scientists trying to answer important questions about our past, present and future. How climate change will impact regional weather and climates is one of the most important questions because of potential impacts to people, agriculture and natural resources.

I decided to do a (very brief) search of literature on science’s current understanding of climate change as it relates to tropical cyclones. I looked into both the potential connection of global warming to these events in the current climate (attribution), as well as projections for these events based on the “business-as-usual” scenario for carbon dioxide emissions, which is a high emissions scenario and steady increase in CO2 concentration. Research cited are just a sampling of what’s out there and what I looked over. Here are some themes I found interesting (takeaway statements at the end):

Climate models* appear to show a signal toward more intense (Category 4-5 Saffir-Simpson) tropical cyclones overall in the world by the latter half of the 21st century. However, there is also a potential for a downward trend in cyclone numbers in many basins (see #1-4).

The decrease in overall cyclone numbers by the second half of the century is thought to be a product of increasing vertical wind shear over tropical oceans limiting weaker storms. However, many researchers expect there to be a significant upward trend in more intense storms (Category 4-5) as the oceans continue to warm and tropical cyclone formation and track density moves poleward. So formerly less favorable sub-regions of basins may see an overall increase in cyclone activity (with more storms which will be stronger than before in those regions) and in the increasingly less hospitable regions (over the long term), storms which do form when conditions are favorable on short time scales may see cyclones which are also more intense than in years past.

As for historical conditions leading to the present…there does not appear to be a conclusive signature by global warming on tropical cyclone intensity outside of natural variability on a global scale (3-4). However, some regional signals related to frequency changes are being actively studied. 

There is some suggestion (4) based on modeling past climate change to the present time that warming (which would enhance the potential intensity for hurricanes) has been muted by the industrial production of aerosols (particulates like sulfates and nitrates), which actually reflect sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface. However, as warming continues into mid-century, its effect of trapping heat will begin to significantly exceed aerosol cooling effects leading to the more pronounced impacts on cyclone intensity stated earlier (unless CO2 emissions are significantly reduced soon). So while global warming is happening in the background, hurricane potential intensity as we currently witness it is likely still being dominated by natural cycles. (For more on climate change research into tropical cyclones, you can also see this webinar done by climate change researcher Dr. Kerry Emanuel for Climate Central).

With that said, some researchers see signs of a global warming signature associated with recent increased tropical cyclone *frequency* in sub-regions of basins. These include the far eastern portion of the North Atlantic Basin (4), close to the East Asian Coast (5), and a portion of the North-Central Pacific Basin (6). Research is still ongoing on global warming’s past and future influence on activity in individual tropical cyclone basins.

Meanwhile, there is evidence of other impacts related to tropical cyclones (and other significant weather phenomena) and climate change. These include higher rainfall rates (7) and higher storm surge related to sea-level rise from the melting polar ice sheets and thermal expansion of the oceans (8). In addition, there is some scientific evidence that tropical cyclones in recent decades have begun to intensify more rapidly because of increased ocean warming (9). And while not completely clear yet whether it is fully tied to climate change, it is known that the observed North Atlantic Power Dissipation Index (PDI) has increased significantly since the mid-1970s (10; positively correlated to sea surface temperatures) and globally, the strongest tropical cyclones in respective basins have grown stronger since 1981 (Elsner et al, 2008…not included here). Note that scientific critics point out the use of observational data with differences in quality – satellite intensity estimates and reconnaissance flights (or lack of them) – over recent decades could put some uncertainty in these results.

My thoughts? Although inconclusive, possible intensity signals may be a hint of the projected effects of climate change as PDI and high-end cyclone intensity are highly correlated to sea surface temperatures. SSTs are increasing from global warming and this would connect with what climate models suggest of future tropical cyclone activity, if these historical trends are, in fact partially related to climate change.

The Takeaways:

  1. Tropical cyclone intensity at the highest end of the scale appears likely to increase through the 21st century because of climate change, especially if human civilization does not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon.
  2. While a current climate change signal to intensity is difficult to detect and still a matter of debate, storms in recent decades appear to be intensifying faster, are capable of producing more extreme precipitation events and higher storm surges because of rising sea levels caused by ice sheet melting and thermal ocean expansion. There also appears to be some detectable changes in frequency of storms within individual basins which may locally enhance risk.
  3. Regardless of the exact changes in frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, the risks to individuals and society because of climate change will increase into the coming decades. It will be important for people and governments to make decisions (beyond greenhouse gas emissions) related to property, coastal land use and emergency management policy to mitigate increasing tropical cyclone hazards, particularly from water (storm surge/inland flooding).

Note: It is of EXTREME importance that those with a desire to communicate climate change issues try to inform our fellow citizens to the best of our ability. Climate change is one of the important issues facing our world (the impact on the global food supply and human health may be actually of greatest importance, but rarely discussed as those aren’t “sexy” topics…). People have their thoughts on the issue based on experiences, politics, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. However, at the end of the day, we must inform and connect what we know to people’s concerns and allow people to decide as they may. Without censorship (“We can’t discuss climate change right now!”) or nonsensical exaggerations (“So many hurricanes, it’s a new era of superstorms!”). Stay informed (give informed opinions) and tell people why they should care as it relates to their lives. Like everything else we should communicate to the concerns of people. Considering most Americans are now, in fact, concerned about climate change, there’s really NO excuse not to discuss the issue in a serious, informed manner if we have the interest to discuss it at all. 


Additional Note: *-Climate models are not weather forecast models. They do not forecast the atmosphere using initial conditions, but take a climate state (for example, our current climate) and adjust “forcings” on the climate system (carbon dioxide emissions for example). The effect of these changes to “boundary conditions” over time are interpreted for land, sea, the cryosphere and (for Earth System models), the biosphere. Global climate is based on thermodynamic and hydrologic balances which will look for equilibrium when changes to a part of the system are applied. (For more on climate models you can see this webinar by Research Meteorologist Keith Dixon of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory for Climate Central).

References (links are PDFs):

#1 – Bell et al. (2013)

#2 – Murakami et al. (2011)

#3 – Wang and Wu. (2013)

#4 –  Sobel et al. (2016)

#5 – Cheng-lin et al. (2016)

#6 – Murakami et al. (2015)

#7 – Knutson et al. (2013)

#8 – Jevrejeva et al. (2016)

#9 – Kishtawal et al. (2012)

#10 – Emanual (2005)

—Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Update on Hurricane Maria (2:30 pm EDT). High winds and flooding rains impacting Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria is beginning to emerge from the island of Puerto Rico after the center made landfall 8 1/2 hrs ago as a Category 4 storm with max winds of 155 mph (Cat 5 is 156+ so catastrophic wind speeds occurred). 

The hurricane is now a Category 3 storm with 115 mph sustained winds and gusts over 130 mph near the center. Damaging winds and torrential flooding rains will continue for the rest of the afternoon as the system continues to push out into open ocean water.


Most computer models indicate the system should remain offshore the United States as it moves north in a weakness in the upper level higher pressure field caused by the presence of Tropical Storm Jose offshore the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England.

 
The crucial timing to be rid of Maria forever will be the approach of a significant upper level trough of low pressure from the Midwest midweek next week to “kick” the dying hurricane out to sea. Most models show this connection keeping the system offshore being, however there is higher variability in the track after Monday which could bring the system closer to shore than expected. Currently, I feel direct impacts…the tropical storm force wind field and significant rain bands…will likely (66%+ probability) stay offshore. But potential variability makes the situation worth watching closely. 

Regardless, high surf and rip currents (currents which pull water offshore and make swimming dangerous) are likely by early next week. The system will also be weaker offshore the East Coast thanks to less intense sea surface temperatures and increasing vertical wind shear from mid-latitude winds.

In the meantime, direct impacts from a Cat 3-4 storm are likely for north coast of the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southern Bahamas. Hurricane warnings are in effect for all these areas. 

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Update on Hurricane Maria (9:25 am EDT). Catastrophic flash flood/violent wind event ongoing.

Maria made landfall as a powerful Category 4 storm near Yabucoa, PR with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and minimum central pressure of 917 millibars (at 6:35 am EDT). The hurricane continues to move across the island delivering destructive hurricane force winds and torrential amounts of rain leading to massive flash flooding (including 5-7 inch/hr rainfall rates).

The storm currently has max winds of 145 mph. 

River gauges across PR are rising incredibly fast from the high rainfall rates:


Radar near time of landfall (currently offline):