Category Archives: synoptic

The Role of Deep, Moist Convection and Diabatic Heating In Association With A Rapidly Intensifying Cyclone: A QG/PV Analysis

After a long hiatus, I have returned with a new article (finally). I continue my discussion on PV dynamics (I am always learning something new each day), but this time focus more on PV non-conservation. My motivation for this case study/paper came from a challenging winter storm we had to deal with at the North Platte WFO. Numerical models poorly simulated the rapid intensification of a cyclone ejecting the Rockies, and the event ended up being a local high impact storm for the CWA. It was also a null event across portions of North Dakota as the cyclone rapidly intensified and stalled.  The culprit for rapid intensification was the initation of deep, moist convection near the center of the cyclone/warm front and the generation of low level PV through differential diabatic heat release which influenced the low level mass fields and advection patterns. It was a unique case study, and I hope it is of use to other forecasters/weather enthusiasts out there. Please take the time to closely view the images (the small details made all the difference in this event!), especially the “dprog/dt” analyses of PV generation/destruction. The link is the local office case study (still in review by my SOO) in .pdf format (6 MB’s). As always, any questions/comments/criticism/feedback are always welcome.

My next article, I hope, will stray away from rapid cyclogenesis and delve into “negative” feedbacks to cyclone development–a forecast which can be equally as challenging as rapid positive feedback cyclogenesis.

Also, take a look at the references. The Brennan paper on PV non-conservation is superb.



High Plains Convection, the Ineffectiveness of Surface-6 km Bulk Shear, and the Effectiveness of IPV in Synoptic Diagnosis.

Summer time atmospheric flow is characterized by the retreat of the Polar Front deep into the high latitude reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.  The westerly flow often times becomes dominated by shallow PV anomalies passing through the flow.  The lack of snow cover and long, intense insolation result in strong surface heating and the development of terrain induced diurnal flows.  This effect is most commonly seen across the High Plains of New Mexico, Colorado (Front Range), and portions of eastern WY where mountain valley circulations and smaller scale mountain slope flows can result in favored regions of convective initiation/enhancement.

The unique and very complex terrain of the Colorado mountains and High Plains can result in enhanced convective initiation and local wind fields spanning the meso-gamma to meso-alpha which go on to strongly influence eventual storm mode.  Areas of enhanced convective initiation include the Front Range, Sangre de Cristos (and the various sub-ranges including the Culebra Range, Crestone Range, Spanish Peaks, etc.),  and the Palmer Divide to name a few.

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 11, surface observations shows the combined unique effects of moderate cross-barrier westerly flow impinging upon the high terrain of the Rockies (leeside troughing) and the diurnal mountain-valley circulations resulting in the southeast upslope flow:

Often times the “parameter” of first choice regarding severe convective potential and storm mode is the surface-6 km bulk shear parameter.  In short, surface-6 km bulk shear is simply the length of the hodograph (the addition of shear vectors) from the surface to 6 km.  The amount of shear has a strong influence on storm mode and behaviour (in combination with CAPE/instability/synoptic flow pattern).  Sufficiently strong shear (associated with increasing winds with height which is then correlated to synoptic scale disturbances) through the effective updraft can result in rotating mesocyclones and associated supercells.

A quick look at the NAM surface-500 hpa bulk shear (typically the same as surface-6 km) at 21Z shows shear values less than 30 knots across southeast Colorado.

SPC mesoanalysis also shows less than 30 knots of surface to 6 km bulk shear values:

This would be indicative of non-supercell type multicell thunderstorms and/or single cell updrafts.  However, a quick look at the sounding is far more telling:

Note the strength of the wind fields above 400 hpa and the additional shear available to high based parcels.  This environment would be conducive to high based supercells with rotating mesocyclones owing to the vertical pressure gradient forces (VPGF) associated with a sheared and unstable environment.

As we will see later, convective initation was favored across high and thin mountain ranges across southeast Colorado–a common location for summertime DMC across Colorado.  This favored location is due to the terrain induced slope flows associated with differential heating of high terrain (with respect to the lower plains) which results in upslope anabatic flow during the day (katabatic drainage flow during the night).  Given many of the ranges across southern Colorado range from 10,0000-13,000 feet with isolated higher peaks, it is likely updraft bases are higher than 600 hpa (over 15000 feet MSL or 10,000 feet AGL with respect to the height of the High Plains).

Indeed, observations from across the area showed thunderstorms in the area with clear skies (ASOS ceilometers only hits on clouds below 12,000 feet AGL), suggestive of the very high bases.

KLHX 111953Z AUTO 15015G26KT 10SM CLR 31/12 A2988 RMK AO2 PK WND 15026/1949 LTG DSNT SE AND S SLP055 T03060117

It should also be noted that the mountain terrain would likely locally enhance dewpoint/temp profiles (owing to the localized slope flow induced convergence/moistening) which would likely enhance the thermodynamic properties (enhance CAPE) of bouyant parcels initiating across the mountains.

The secondary question quickly becomes what does IPV/PV have to do with this?

Typical summer flow across the intermountain west is dominated by shallow upper tropospheric PV anomalies passing through the mean flow.  Often times there is little to no reflection in the 500 hpa height field evident in the flow as the “depth” of the anomaly is only relegated to the highest portions of the troposphere.  Unfortunately, most meteorologists are trained to make use of the 500 hpa height/vorticity field only, and indeed most atmospheric synoptic plots only include this level.

Note at 18Z, June 11–there is a relatively “flat” height field across Colorado:

The mean trough is well to the west over the West Coast.  This would be indicative of possibly low/weak convective potential as the synoptic flow (using 500 hpa charts) is not conducive to forced ascent and enhanced synoptic convergence and sufficient upper level shear.  However, this is misleading, and a quick look at the 1.5/2.0 PVU surface shows the presence of a number of shallow anomalies aloft.

Note the anomalies are rather shallow in nature and do not extend much beyond 300-375 hpa.

Worth noting is the well defined 500 hpa “kink”/wave in the height field which develops as the anomaly ejects out of the Rockies and translates eastward through the High Plains:

This is likely due to the vertical stretching of the upper level anomaly as it both ejects out of the Rockies and interacts with the low level thermal anomaly across the plains east of the Rockies.  This results in the development of cyclonic vorticity owing to the conservation of potential vorticity along theta surfaces.  This can also be explained via QG theory.  In other words–imagine the path a low level theta surface follows as it ejects out of the Rockies (downslope).

Image Courtesy of CIRA

Image Courtesy of University of Wyoming

As expected, the presence of these shallow anomalies enhances the upper level wind fields:

which has a strong influence on storm mode and development owing to the sheared environment.

So what eventually occurred?

A cluster of supercells initiated off the high mountains of southern Colorado across the zone of enhanced high level vertical shear where the upper wind fields were maximized associated with the ejecting anomalies (see image above).

A close-up view of initiation associated with enhancement via terrain:

Note the high level shear–clearly evident in the long anvils.

It is clear that care must be taken when evaluating the atmospheric environment.  The atmosphere does not work solely at 500 hpa or with simplistic parameters such as surface-6 km bulk shear.  An understanding of local terrain, climatology, storm environment, relevant synoptic features must all be considered or significant forecast “surprises” and/or errors will result.

As always–meteorology is such a beautiful thing when it makes sense.

Weather is always cool.

The Importance of Model Timing: Ohio Valley and SE Rain Event

Click on images to see an enlarged view.

The timing of upper level features in numerical models is crucial to the eventual weather patterns they subsequently simulate.  There are times, however, when the difference in timing can have significant feedback effects with errors which grow rapidly with time.  The forecast for the Ohio Valley and SE U.S. shows significant model divergence within the first 48 hours amongst the current 0Z NCEP model guidance.  The GFS is illustrating a large rain event while the NAM is much weaker with eventual cyclogenesis and keeps precipitation much farther south.  Let’s take a look why they are so different and why the current 0Z NAM is likely going to be wrong.

All numerical guidance is more or less the same by 24 hours with the large scale synoptic features.

Both feature a large scale upper trough over the central CONUS with a low amplitude shortwave embedded near the base of the trough.

Fast forward to 33 hours and things still look mostly the same.  However, upon closer inspection, it is clear the NAM has the leading shortwave at the base of the trough displaced further W than the GFS–in other words, it is slower.

The GFS, shortwave circled:


Also note the slightly higher amounts of shear vorticity upstream of the shortwave in the NAM compared to the GFS.  Essentially the mid-level speed max is displaced farther W in the NAM.  Also note a very low amplitude and subtle downstream ridge is developing in the GFS ahead of the shortwave.  Why?

Note in the GFS 850 hpa theta-e field a large region of warm air advection has developed ahead of the upper level shortwave (circled) with a stronger low level circulation.


Note the NAM features a much weaker wave as opposed to a developed low level circulation.  While the theta-e profile is similar to the GFS, the NAM features no warm air advection as the 850 hpa winds are mainly parallel to the theta-e gradient.  I can’t hammer the point home more, but low level warm air advection decreasing with height lends itself to upper level height rises.

Stronger cyclogenesis is a positive feedback process.  As was shown in the previous post as well, an upper level baroclinic wave interacting within a region of low level baroclinity results in developing cyclogenesis.  Vorticity advection by the geostrophic wind in a shortwave trough results in height falls aloft and forced synoptic ascent.  This forced ascent, if above the level of non-divergence, and because the atmosphere follows the laws of mass continuity, will result in a low level mass response and increasing low level convergence/cyclogenesis.  Low level diabatic heating (see the previous post for a more in-depth reasoning) mainly owing to the release of latent heat as low level moist air rises and condenses will only hasten the process–and this system has ample amounts of Gulf moisture to process.  Meanwhile, the thermal gradient in the low levels tightens and frontal boundaries become more defined owing to processes such as horizontal deformation (of the many which can result in frontogenesis).  This is all due to the increasing low level convergence/mass response to upper level forced synoptic ascent.  Mesoscale ascent/convergence along the fronts increases owing to the increasing frontal thermal gradient which results in even more low level mass convergence and increasing surface pressure falls.  Meanwhile, owing to continued synoptic ascent in the upper levels (differential cyclonic vorticity advection) and subsequent cooling, upper level heights begin to fall at a faster rate.  Because the thermal gradient in the lowel levels is tightening, the thermal wind relation

states upper level winds must increase with height.  So not only does the jet stream increase, but upper level heights continue falling at an increased rate, therefore, the amplitude is increasing.  Jet stream divergence increases due to increased cyclonic curvature in the upper level height field and a stronger jet max (as well as a shorter wavelength if the system takes on a negative tilt), therefore, stronger mesoscale ageostrophic jet circulations develop.  Cyclogenesis is now increasing rapidly; this positive feedback loop continues until the low level baroclinic zone has been sufficiently processed.

With that in mind, it is much easier to understand why timing is crucial.  In most cases, the speed of an upper level shortwave just means the timing of cyclogenesis may develop at a different time, but it will develop in a similar fashion regardless of the timing.  In this case, however, a delayed upper level response to a shortwave trough (the NAM) with the large scale trough propagating eastward will result in less warm and moist Gulf air to interact with.  That is, because the NAM is slower with the shortwave, cyclogenesis will be delayed and the positive feedback loop will not be present ( or will play a much smaller role).

Skipping ahead 6 hours, note how much things have changed.

By 39 hours, the upper level shortwave has now “ejected” into the Ohio Valley with an increasingly amplifying downstream ridge ahead of the shortwave.

The NAM, however, features a flat height field ahead of the shortwave with the shortwave much farther W.

As one would expect, the low level mass fields are completely different with the GFS developing a much more intense and deep surface low by 45 hours as deep cyclogenesis has developed strong cyclonic rotation through the depth of the troposphere.  In the mid levels, the GFS features a strong closed circulation while the NAM has a broad open wave.


The surface fields are even more dramatic as the GFS has a strong sub 996 mb surface low while the NAM has broad and weak ~1008 mb low.

These differences result in a vastly different precipitation field:


The differences are vast.  The GFS solution yields moderate to heavy precipitation over much of Indiana and Ohio associated with a large TROWAL (associated with the strong and deep cyclonic rotation) while the NAM is almost completely dry only 48 hours out!  You can’t really make a compromise because the solutions are so vastly different and would yield a cruddy forecast.  In my forecasting experience, when the NAM features a slower propagating low amplitude shortwave trough than the GFS, it is wrong ~ 90-95% of the time.  Under certain circumstances (as was shown with last storm…read the previous post), the NAM can be right with a slower solution under rapid cyclogenesis events.  However, those cases usually feature much more amplified and intense shortwaves and/or intense PV anomalies.  In this case, I would give the NAM a less than 10% chance of being right.  Because of that, I would simply not even include it in the forecast.  Under these circumstances, it is not unheard of for the NAM to not simulate a realistic solution until the system has already developed.  In other words, it is wrong all the way leading up to eventual cyclogenesis.  I suspect the 12Z NAM will correct a lot, but I doubt it will completely fix it.  As for the GFS, I do believe it is a bit too intense and far west with its surface low track and precipitation field, but it is most definitely the better solution.  The GEM seems like a more reasonable solution with most of the heavy precipitation staying across southern IN/OH with lighter amounts farther north.

In my experiences, the regional GEM is a far more reliable model than the NAM under most circumstances.

This post goes to show how important timing of upper level features can be on the forecast, even in the short-term (in this case only 48 hours).  It also shows how rapidly feedback effects hasten the process of cyclogenesis (IPV thinking explains this very nicely).  Most importantly, this example illustrates why forecasters must analyze both the synoptic and mesoscale features present as opposed to simply reading the model output without interpreting it.  Simply looking at model output QPF or surface fields (i.e. surface pressure fields) without considering the meteorological processes developing those fields will result in less accurate (worse) forecasts.  Learning model biases takes time and requires attention to detail.

The butterfly effect?  Chaos Theory?  Dr. Lorenz proved himself to be many years beyond that of his peers–a genius amongst geniuses.

Central/Northern Plains Cyclone Event (11/12-14/2010)

All Images Can Be Clicked to Enlarge

An interesting weather event is shaping up for late this week and into the weekend.  A strong PV Anomaly over the intermountain west is going to “eject” into the plains initially propagating along a quasi-stationary frontal zone over the plains before developing into a cyclone as it tracks NE.  The global numerical guidance has been very consistent modeling the general pattern that can be expected, but as always significant run-by-run (and model by model) inconsistencies and large model spreads exist.  Even as we reach the “short-term” (2-4 day forecast period), a lot of variability is still persistent amongst the models.  However, since this is partially a blog about weather forecasting, I thought it would be appropriate to actually make a weather forecast.  In reality, this is the challenge all forecasters need to make on consistent basis, but decisions still need to be made so the appropriate weather risks can be assessed and disseminated to the public (and private) in a timely manner and with sufficient lead time.

As of late this afternoon, a stationary front is parked over the southern plains with a positive tilt trough slowly propagating eastward.  The warm sector across the southern plains is moist with surface dewpoints ranging from the upper 50s to upper 60s.  Moisture is going to play a key role in the eventual cyclogenesis of the storm.

The 0Z upper air map depicts the positive tilt trough:

The 0Z 500 hpa analysis depicts a strong vorticity maxima at the base of the trough:

The NAM 0Z analysis also depicts this clearly in its shaded vorticity fields:

A strong PV anomaly is positioned over the 4-corners with tropopause heights as low as 500 hpa.

The interaction of this strong vorticity maxima/PV anomaly with the warm and moist air mass in the warm sector is likely going to result in a strong cyclogenesis event.

This graphic shows the surface low track of each numerical model analyzed at 12Z yesterday morning (11/11/2010).  It is easy to see the model guidance has significant spreads in both surface low intensity and surface low track.  Note the NAM track in green and the GFS in red.

The 18Z NCEP guidance converged a bit, but the spread is still significant amongst the NAM/GFS.

The Short Range Ensemble Guidance is not much better:

The first 24-36 hours of the forecast is generally pretty clear as all guidance has the upper PV anomaly ejecting into the southern plains and lifting NE along the front.

At 12 hours, (12Z) note the still positive tilt to the trough.  The PV anomaly remains at the base of the upper trough.

Of course, positive tilt troughs are not very conducive to surface cyclone development.  Under this configuration, most of the the time the main belt of westerlies would cut off as the cold air remains well to the north.  Almost all vorticity associated with this trough is due to shear vorticity on the downstream side of the trough.  Cyclonic vorticity advection is minimal ahead of the trough (therefore height falls are not induced…see last post for the QG Chi equation) with any relative vorticity advection offset by planetary vorticity advection on the backside of the trough.

Note that the main jet level winds are on the downstream portion of the positive tilt trough.  Once again, from the thermal wind relation, strong jet level winds reside over regions of enhanced thermal gradients:

What would eventually happen is the trough would slowly “de-amplify” with time as the jet stream propagated northward with weak surface development.  The leftover baroclinic zone over the plains would moderate with time leaving (resulting in a weakening horizontal thermal gradient) an area of enhanced shear vorticity aloft over the region.

With this system though, a couple things are different.  First, as the main belt of westerlies cuts off, cold air advection behind the stationary front ceases to exist.  Weak warm air advection along the stationary front continues as air (on the warm side of the front) weakly advects NE due to the pressure gradient developed by the departing cyclone well into Canada.

Note that, at 850 hpa, cold air advection slackens on the cold side of the stationary front and warm air advection begins to dominate along the warm side as air continues to advect NE in association with the departing cyclone (blue line).  Our stationary front has now developed into a warm front (see inside the red circle).

The front begins to propagate northward as a result of this flow configuration.  Subtle height rises develop aloft due to the weak low level warm air advection decreasing with height (QG Chi equation).

BY 21Z, note that a weak downstream ridge axis has developed in association with the differential warm air advection.  Also note the existence of the upstream shortwave.  Kicker trough?

Why do cutoff lows “kick-out” with an approaching upstream “kicker” shortwave?  There are  a number of differing reasons, but I find the QG approach simplistic and succinct.  (To help differentiate…kicker is the shortwave that “kicks-out” the cutoff low, the cutoff low that “kicks-out” is the kickee).  Note with the incoming  kicker shortwave heights have fallen upstream of the main trough.  This acts to “flatten” the upper level height field in between the kicker and kickee (in between the two systems).  Going back to the QG Chi equation we love so much:

the amount of planetary vorticity advection by the geostrophic wind decreases (remember that f decreases equatorword) on the backside of the main trough (the kickee).  Note in the 12Z upper level height map the trough is advecting increasingly large values of f.  By 21Z (the previous image), with the approach of the shortwave trough upstream, the ridge (over the intermountain west) has flattened and now little to no f is being advected on the backside of the cutoff low.  Heights do not fall on the upstream side, and the small amount of cyclonic vorticity advection on the front portion of the kickee results in slow height falls downstream which results in forward propagation.  The cutoff has now been “kicked-out”.

By 0Z, the downstream ridge has continued to amplify and a lead shortwave at the base of the trough has now developed as large values of cyclonic vorticity are being advected with increasing height falls:

Now the feedback process begins as warm air advection continues in the warm sector.  In a moist system such as this, diabatic affects can be significant as warm and moist air condenses and releases latent heat, especially along the warm front.  This process can act to increase the along-front thermal gradient therefore acting in a frontogenetic manner.  Moreover, the release of low level latent heat due to condensation can act to decrease the static stability of the atmosphere.

In the omega equation, note the location of the static stability parameter in the various RHS forcing terms:

Low static stability acts to enhance the cyclogenesis process during the initial stages of development.

Without considering every forecast hour, skipping ahead to hour 33, the NAM now features a significantly amplified upper ridge downstream and the lead shortwave has now taken on a negative tilt.

Both the NAM/GFS are illustrating an upper level jet coupling combined with the significant low level warm air advection/diabatic heating and subsequent upper level height rises ahead of the main shortwave.  It is likely mesoscale jet circulations will play a prominent role in enhancing divergence (and vertical ascent) and the subsequent cyclogenesis process as well as strong convection along the cold front.  Rapid cyclogenesis and occlusion is likely with this system.

What does this all mean?  First the significant model differences.  The 0Z guidance is in and the spread remains signficant.

The NAM is a significant outlier with its significantly farther W track while the GFS is on the opposite end of the spectrum.   Interestingly, it seems with increasing resolution of the numerical model being considered, the farther W its surface low track is.  After the NAM, the ECMWF (blue) is next followed by all the other global models (CMC, NOGAPS, UKMET, GFS).

Even the 21Z SREF spread is rather large:

Once again though, it seems the W tracks are dominated by higher resolution guidance while the farther E tracks are dominated by the RSM (pink/red), a variant of the GFS used for the SREF data.

It should also be mentioned the GFS and the rest of the global guidance has continued to shift westward with time to match the higher resolution mesoscale models.  First, consider the size of this storm.  In terms of the Rossby Number R, it is rather small compared to a typical synoptic scale system which yields larger values of R:

QG theory works nicely with large synoptic systems, but as R increases, sub-synoptic scale forcing becomes more prominent in the development of the system.  Numerous studies have shown this…and various omega equations have been developed to account for sub-synoptic scale forcing.  Mesoscale circulations are more prominent, and often times the higher resolution models can more effectively forecast these systems.

Lets just illustrate this with a simplistic comparison by arbitrarily choosing the 700 hpa pressure level.

First the 0Z NAM @ 33 hours:

and the GFS at the same time:

A couple things worth noting.  First, the NAM 700 hpa heights are much lower than the GFS.  The low level mass response is stronger in the NAM than GFS, and the low is displaced slightly farther W.  It is common for rapidly developing cyclones to develop farther W than expected.  Why?  It mostly relates to the position of the warm front and zone of warm air advection.  Think of the propagation of a surface low.  The region of surface low pressure will propagate towards the region of strongest surface pressure falls.  It makes sense then that developing surface lows propagate along the surface warm front.  From our earlier discussion, remember rapid cyclogenesis results in more amplified upstream ridging owing to thermal advection/diabatic heating in the warm sector.  Also remember differential cyclonic vorticity advection (along with mesoscale jet circulations), which is a dominant forcing method aloft, results in vertical motion fields which are displaced farther W from the surface low.  Therefore, as surface occlusion begins, low level warm air advection decreases (and subsequent differential warm air advection decreases) resulting in less height rises upstream of the shortwave.  Differential vorticity advection and forced ascent become stacked with the surface low and intensification slows significantly (surface low can still deepen due to forced ascent above the surface but still below the level of non-divergence…in other words, baroclinic processes may still result in forced ascent in the low levels above the surface occlusion…hence why surface lows still deepen after occlusion).  This also results in a much slower track.

FInishing this post up, rapid intensification almost always results in a system displaced farther W.  Global guidance continues to shift W towards the higher resolution model solutions, and the high resolution models are all developing a rather significant TROWAL (Trough Of Warm Air Aloft).  This makes sense as the low level mass fields are much stronger in the high resolution models due to the increased deepening and more rapid intensification.  A strong closed low level circulation results in warm air “wrapping” around the main upper low and a region of enhanced warm air advection ascent on the north then backside of the upper low (this also enhances the development of the surface low farther W and sometimes NW).  Large TROWALS are obviously efficient snow machines in winter since the precipitation falls on the cold side of the storm (in the low levels).

Subsequently, the NAM has a much larger QPF field farther west into the cold side of the storm and a farther W track of the surface low.

With the GFS farther E and with a less defined TROWAL of QPF:

Given the information I have given and the current trends (which further support the dynamic assessment above), and without doing an in-depth analysis of the thermal fields (for brevity), it seems an early season snow event across portions of eastern MN/western WI is likely.  Track wise, I think it will be slightly farther E of the NAM but a tad farther W of the ECMWF which would take it slightly inside the SE Minn border or right along it.  I am also leaning towards the NAM intensity which would yield a mid-level TROWAL well displaced over the low level cold air.  Given this information, it is quite probable a band of accumulating snow can be expected across central and eastern MN into W Wisconsin into the Arrowhead of MN.  It most certainly will be fun to watch.

Finally, as a quick mention, it is worth noting IPV thinking yields similar conclusions.  IPV thinking also deals with the diabatic effects even though potential vorticity is being conserved along isentropic surfaces.  For instance, significant diabatic effects on the warm sector (definitely not adiabatic!) results in the destruction of the upper level vorticity (in the QG perspective…upper level height rises) with increased development of the cyclone in the low levels below the region of latent heat release (strong low level mass response) .

Weak Elevated Convective Instability Associated With Dynamic Height Falls

There is always something interesting going on in weather.  What initially may seem run-of-the-mill can become more interesting upon closer inspection.  Sunday featured a migratory baroclinic wave, cutoff from the primary westerlies, passing through the intermountain west and “ejecting” into the central plains during the afternoon.  What was particularly interesting was the interaction of a deep frontal circulation within a region of “dynamic” height falls aloft which supported the release of elevated instability.  The co-location of a mesoscale divergent jet stream aided in the rapidly increasing cloud field and elevated “gusty” virga showers.

The wave in question is quite clear in WV with the mid-level trough axis over Colorado at 12Z Sunday:

The 300 hpa upper air analysis clearly shows the upper wave and jet stream level winds as well as the large amounts of divergence (plotted yellow):

The 500 hpa analysis at 12Z.  Note the lower amplitude of the wave at 500 hpa as compared to 300 hpa (this is important!), suggesting this was largely an upper tropospheric wave.  Also note the large values of cyclonic vorticity near the base of the trough owing largely to horizontal shear (of course curvature vorticity is also present, but it does not play as large a role), simply expressed by :

in the natural coordinate system.

This is typical of low amplitude baroclinic waves owing to the amount of shear.  Why do low amplitude waves propagate at a greater speed than longwave troughs?  The rapid forward propagation of the wave is explained (compared to a longwave trough) by the dominance of cyclonic vorticity advection and subsequent height falls ahead of the shortwave trough.  Planetary vorticity advection on the backside of the wave is minimal due to the short wavelength, therefore height falls on the upstream portion of the wave are much smaller than height falls downstream.

The advection of cyclonic relative vorticity by the geostrophic wind dominates over f in the QG Chi equation regarding shortwave troughs:

And the 12Z GFS, once again, note the high values of cyclonic vorticity near the base of the shortwave:

Note the thermal pattern at 500 mb.  There is little to no cold air advection at 12Z:

Note that, by 18Z, as progged by the GFS, the cold air overspreads much of Colorado with little to no advection.  Why?  “Dynamic” height falls:

A combination of QG Chi and the hypsometric equation can help explain this.  As mentioned earlier, large values of cyclonic vorticity are being advected by the geostrophic wind near the base of the shortwave.  The more cyclonic vorticity and/or the stronger the wind, the greater the height falls.

The winds at 300 hpa are on the order of 70-90 kts:

And 40-60 kts at 500 hpa:

This suggests the geostrophic wind at 300 hpa is advecting more cyclonic vorticity than at 500 hpa due to the strengthened flow aloft (I don’t have the map, but the amount of cyclonic vorticity at 300 hpa is similar to 500 hpa).  Heights are falling faster aloft than they are at lower levels (this makes more sense now…remember the higher amplitude 300 hpa shortwave compared to 500 hpa?  This implies heights must fall at a greater rate aloft than regions below with a forward propagating wave).  As a result, because the atmospheric column is shrinking from some level below 500 hpa to the upper troposphere, temperatures must cool in response, implying forced ascent.

The effects of these dynamic height falls results in cooling of the upper levels and steepened lapse rates, which can be enhanced by diurnal insolation in the lower levels.

By 18Z, note the large convective cloud field which has developed post-front over the Colorado Rockies.  Also note the plume of high cirrus associated with the divergent jet stream (green) with a crudely drawn streamline:

By 20Z, the front has progressed into the plains, but note the still cloud free region in western NE:

The 12Z GFS @ 18Z over western NE shows the influence of dynamic induced height falls in the model Skew-T.  Note the mid-level lapse rates:

BY 21Z, note the steep mid-level lapse rates and the deep cold front (red).  Also note the GFS upper level winds are mainly S-SW.

Air parcels lifted to the top of the frontal circulation will be able to ascend freely somewhere around (after calculating a crude elevated LFC) 500 hpa before reaching the Equilibrium Level near 400 hpa.  Also note the very narrow and shallow zone of CAPE–likely around 50 j/kg or less.  Note the rapid expanse of the cloud shield over western NE along with the small pockets of weak convection from 20z to 23z:

Also note the continued SE flow aloft.  The rapid expanse of the cloud field was likely enhanced by the mesoscale jet circulation.  Also note how cold the cloud temperatures are in western NE:

The 12Z GFS @ 0Z is forecasting winds at 300 mb to be nearly due SSW (180-200 degrees).  Also note the ridge axis upstream.

Air parcels exiting the jet streak would become supergeostrophic and flow to lower heights aloft, in this case towards the NW.  This enhances the ageostrophic wind field/divergence and mesoscale forced ascent.  Remember that, in the case of jet stream circulations, this must be considered in addition to the large scale synoptic vertical motion field.  Jet streaks and their associated circulations are mesoscale and are not in any way related to synoptic scale ascent and the QG equations of vertical motion (which can be shown through a scale analysis).   Note that, in the 0Z analysis, which employs upper air soundings, the flow is indeed S-SE (also indicated in the cloud flow pattern and in satellite derived winds).  In this case, the 12Z model runs were likely underestimating the strength of the jet circulation and associated vertical motion field.  While the impacts were relatively minimal here, in winter, that could result in models significantly underestimating the potential for heavy snow banding (just one of many potential high impact events), for instance.

Also worth noting here is the 18Z 300 hpa wind forecast at the same time (compare this to the 12Z forecast above).  Satellite derived winds ingested by the numerical model data assimilation systems were able to adjust the upper level wind field to the satellite observations.  This is a good example showing “off” hour runs are not worthless and can have operational significance if used intelligently by the forecaster.

A large area of showers formed over the region including heavy convective showers.


Surface observations suggest most of the shower activity over western NE never hit the ground and cloud bases (AGL) remained high at around 10-12000 feet.  The main effect of the showers was to enhance horizontal momentum transport downwards and increase wind gusts along the frontal circulation.  Most surface observations showed peak wind gusts with the arrival of the showers, some in excess of 40 mph, hence the name “gusty” showers.

This case is a good example of the importance of “dynamic” height falls in meteorology, especially in terms of summer convective potential when deep, moist convection is often initiated/and or enhanced by very low amplitude waves/upper level “impulses” due to cap erosion, steepening lapse rates (increased CAPE), and regions of low level mass convergence (surface based and/or elevated).  Also important is the co-location of differing meteorological circulations (e.g. mesoscale jet circulations, frontal circulations, regions of synoptic ascent, etc.), especially during winter storm events.  Being able to diagnose and forecast these regions is of utmost importance, even more so in the short-term forecast and NOWcast.

Subtle Terrain Effects Across Eastern South Dakota

The morning satellite imagery shows the subtle effects of terrain on sensible weather.  The Coteau des Prairies in Eastern SD (sometimes referred to as the Sisseton Hills) rises above the local terrain by 600-800 feet.  A good colored relief map clearly shows this feature:

Strong nearly unidirectional NW flow was present over the entire region, and the synoptic flow pattern was not conducive to any significant regions of forced ascent.  Upper level heights were rising with strong subsidence owing to the effects of differential anticyclonic vorticity advection aloft.  However, a weak mid-level trough axis was present owing to weak thermal advection as the powerful low continued to “wrap” warm and moist air around the large upper trough.

700 hpa trough axis noted on both the 12 GFS and NAM.  Also note the mass convergence at this level–a response to the forced ascent, not the other way around.

Note the region of weak warm thermal advection.

And weak resulting synoptic ascent:

The 0Z sounding from Aberdeen depicts the moist inversion sandwiched in between two dry layers, one aloft and one near the surface.

The subtle effects of terrain across the region had very visible and profound weather effects.  Stable low level NW flow and subsequent downsloping resulted in drying of the low level air mass over Aberdeen with subtle upslope effects clearly visible over the higher terrain.  Let’s look a little closer.

Radar depicts the showers over the area at 21Z.  Note the radar “hole” around Aberdeen (red) and the regions of enhanced returns over the higher terrain (green).

The observations at Watertown (KATY) and Aberdeen (KABR) also show the effects of terrain enhancement.  Note the dewpoint depression at Aberdeen hovers around 4-5 degrees C while Watertown hovers around saturation to 1-2 degrees C.  Ignore the -SN reports from Aberdeen–seems to be a sensor error (also note it reports a constant 9SM visibility, a good indicator something is not right).



The visible satellite image the day after clearly shows the terrain enhanced snowfall over the higher terrain in Eastern SD (red).  Also note the west slope favored snowfall across the Bighorns, Black Hills, and Laramies (green).  Also worth noting here is the lack of snow cover over the whole of the Coteau des Prairies region.  This suggests the air mass precipitated out before before reaching farther south and east.

This shows up in even more spectacular fashion on the MODIS multi-spectral image.

This is a clear example  the significant effects even “subtle” terrain can have on weather.  In this case, strong and stable low level flow won out over weak mid level ascent.  If precipitation were heavier, it is unlikely terrain would have played nearly as significant of a role.

Satellite Loop of the Powerful Northern Plains Storm

First storm animation (more are coming) of the record breaking low.  This animation is more than 3.5 days long from the 24th-27th of October (make sure to watch in 720):

I suggest clicking the link to see it in a slightly larger view (use the expand) from the youtube website.

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