Winter 2016/2017 Explained

Do you love to know the WHYs behind the weather? Keep reading!

We are officially in spring, and I think many of us are more than happy to put winter in a ‘bad memory’ category. There were so many reasons why the winter of 2016 -2017 was remarkable that it’s hard to single out just a few. Here are the leading contenders.

Continue reading “Winter 2016/2017 Explained”

January 2017 – Seasonal Weather Outlook

A Look Back at 2016 Weather Highlights & a Look Forward for 2017

2016 Recap: Not the Warmest Year on Record
If you read any 2016 year-in-review articles, you may see headlines that read,”2016, The Warmest Year on Record.” While that may be true for some parts of the world, here in Thurston County that is not the case.

After a lackluster summer and a short, soggy autumn we are now in the midst of the longest cold period we’ve experienced since 2008. We’ve seen three snow events since November 15, and measured more than 20 days of below freezing temps before New Year’s Eve. We also closed out the calendar year with 61 inches of rain! That’s a full ten inches above normal.

Rainiest months

October earned a label as “wettest month of the year,” with over 14 inches of rain followed by November at ten inches. Typically, November and December are the wettest with 8 inches each, and October normally has fewer than five inches.

Hottest days

The warmest days of 2016 were June 6 (96 degrees F), and August 23 (95.5 degrees F). Although some parts of the County actually reached 100 F on both of those days.

Transition into 2017

Our cold snap continues The weather doesn’t change just because the calendar flips over to a new year, and so we continue our colder-than-average winter that developed last November. The strong northeasterly pattern continues to drive very cold air south and east from Canada.

The northwestern United States happens to be in the path of that very cold air and this is why the air temps are so cold. This also why the threat of snow is in the forecast almost every week these days.

What’s next?

Looking forward a couple weeks it looks like there are a couple snow events that could cause Thurston County some additional grief. As the normal pattern of southwestern prevailing weather is trying to reestablish its dominance, it is running directly into the cold arctic air.

This struggle between artic and southwest winds will occur very close to us and this is why we could either get rain, like usual, or snow which is unusual. Until the arctic air begins its typical migration eastward we will be facing this forecast of “snow and rain.”
I would point out that if this was summer, the same pattern we are in now would bring us very warm and dry conditions and we would want it to remain. As is now, I think many of us would like to see it go somewhere else.

Gardening alert

If you are a gardener, the cold temperatures early this year may reach the limit of what some of our plants can take. We are in the USDA Climate zone 8a/8b. The lower temperature limit in our zone is 15 degrees F. Looking at my thermometer as I write, I see 16 degrees F.

That is definitely close enough to kill some of the more sensitive plants. So do not be surprised if some of your favorite garden plants, or a fruit tree or two may be damaged or killed. Our plants have gotten used to our gradually warming winters over the past ten years and they will not be happy with this unusually cold weather just as we are not.

Feed the birds If you are a hummingbird lover, did you know that many of our little hummers now forego the southward migration and stay here all winter? This is a consequence of our warming winters, backyard feeders, and flowering plants. The problem for them, and some other birds, is that there is virtually no natural food for them other than hummingbird feeders and seed feeders.

So if you have hummingbirds in your area keep one or two nectar feeders out for them. In this very cold weather they go into a mild state of hibernation called torpor daily to conserve energy. They need nectar to survive these cold spells when there is almost nothing else for them to survive on. Make sure if you do have nectar feeders, defrost them daily when it is below about 25 degrees F (about the temperature sugar water freezes) so the nectar is available and not a frozen popsicle that they can’t eat. You can also make it a bit sweeter in the winter for a little extra energy.

I use the formula one cup sugar to four cups water in the summer. In the winter I use 1 ¼ cup sugar to 4 cups water. Don’t make it too sweet because this is bad for their health. And NEVER use honey because it is toxic to hummingbirds. The internet has a lot of information on our local resident hummingbirds.

In conclusion

But before you get too depressed, we past the winter solstice in December, and the days are getting longer, so the temperatures will gradually increase. And hopefully, winter won’t dish up any truly nasty surprises, like the ice storm of January 2012.
My fingers are crossed in my gloves that we start to warm up and return to our normally-mild weather soon.
Happy New Year and keep warm, Mark

Seasonal Weather Outlook: December 2016

A white Christmas for Thurston County?

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas – or at least of an opportunity to get out and play in the snow with your little ones – you’re going to get your wish. Weather models indicate this holiday season, will include some snow and plenty of cold weather.

That’s because an abundance of very, very cold air is crossing the Pacific from our Russian Comrades in far northwest Siberia. That is the coldest place in the Northern Hemisphere. Siberia’s average high temperature in December and January is minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the high temp folks. The low temperatures can drop to minus 50 to minus 80 degrees below zero.

Get your mittens ready!

Expect extremely cold and dense air masses to flow from this artic region in early December. The air will be significantly warmed over the ocean before it beats us up, but it will still be below freezing and deliver our first shot of snow, even after travelling thousands of miles over the Pacific.
Once this pattern starts, it will likely persist for a while as the jet stream (that narrow band of strong wind that circles the globe several miles above land) tries to adjust to a huge high pressure ridge in its way. This could push the cold air mass as far south as the tropics, and wreak havoc with precipitation patterns. If the cold air dips that far south, it will pick up tropical moisture as it rebounds north. This tropical moisture will translate into very heavy snow and rain at the margins of the cold air mass. Models indicate that this margin, or intersection, will be right over Thurston County, and will keep us in a very active weather pattern as we experience the war between warm and cold air.

Will snow affect Santa’s Trek?

The good news is that Santa knows how to get through all kinds of bad weather. Although he will need the red glow of Rudolph’s now to guide him through the snow. For those who are young (or young at heart), you can track Santa’s journey online. There’s the Google Santa
Tracker and the NORAD Santa Tracker The google countdown clock for Santa’s arrival has already started. Check it out! If however, you’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere for the holidays, Christmas is in the summer. Here’s my forecast for you: No snow. Now that is an easy prediction when it comes to holiday weather!

For everyone else, enjoy the cold and snow here in Thurston County, and keep warm!

Seasonal Weather Outlook: Planning for November

Our rainy season is off to a very wet start this year. We measured 14.43 inches at the Thurston County Courthouse by the end of October. Our typical average is only 4.15 inches. That means the month of October was the wettest October on record going back as far as I could find monthly data. Certainly wettest since 1948, and probably the wettest since 1898 when official National Weather Service records are available for the Olympia area. That would make it the wettest October in this century!
My prediction: Expect a wet & warmer than normal Thanksgiving
We are currently in a La Nina cycle, and typically, La Nina brings cooler temps and more rain – which is exactly what we don’t need because that can bring floods and landslides.
I have my fingers crossed that this is what we can expect: La Nina is fairly weak, so it may not affect North America much. And since November is usually our wettest month, let’s go with normal rain and above average temperatures for the rest of November. This is because we are getting a consistent southerly airflow from tropical origins.
What computer models predict
There are conflicting models at this point. Some weather models indicate that the next three months – November, December and January – are likely to be our wettest months of the year. But that concerns me because by the end of this past summer we already had sufficient storage in the soil and atmosphere to absorb most of this record rainfall, but now we don’t have any further capacity to absorb large or intermediate rain events. There is little wiggle room to absorb more rain into the ground or into our streams. We don’t typically reach this point until late November in most years.
This logically leads to the assumption that we could follow a wet trend and have flooding and landslide problems this year. Statistically that is likely to happen to some degree, but to what degree is very uncertain. We had similar conditions in 2003 and 2013 – both years started out very wet, but managed to dry out in December before major flooding occurred. Back then, those wet starts to the rainy season were not forecast and did not lead to flooding that you might expect.
Such unexpected outcomes are an indication that although weather models are great, they have limitations.
The supercomputer models recent track record
The computer models used by meteorologists did not predict that we would have a record wet October 2016. On the contrary, some models indicated a drier than normal October.
The computer models also predicted a major wind storm was headed for a direct hit with Thurston County last month (October 2016). Most of us braced ourselves, but the storm veered off its predicted path, and most areas in Western Washington had little to no wind. I followed the same models as the forecasters, and I, too, was convinced that a wind storm was coming. I saw the models and thought it would be a monster.
The moral of the story is that we can’t always rely on these models to tell us everything. And yet, they are remarkably good when you consider how complex the atmosphere, sea and land interact. In the end, nature is always more complex than the best models we can generate to predict it. If you’d like to know why the models are haywire this year, I explain that toward the end of this article.
Snow this year?
My daughter wants to know if we’ll get snow, so I’m already thinking ahead. For all the snow lovers, the good news is that La Nina winters are the most likely to produce snow events. Even if the current predictive models don’t currently agree with me, I think we will get some later on in December. I hope we will!
Weather prediction models are off: here’s why
The weather models that are used to predict what’s coming in the next one-to-three months have become noticeably less reliable over the past six years or more. Keep in mind that weather, even a few days out, is very difficult to predict using even the most powerful supercomputers. If you add in more water vapor or changing temperatures, it becomes even more difficult.
Data from all points of the globe show that temperatures have been increasing steadily. This puts more water vapor and heat into the atmosphere. Water vapor and heat exchange are crucial to weather, and so changing these factors has profound and difficult-to-predict effects across the globe.
Looking at where we currently are in our wet season, and looking at the amount of additional heat and water that is currently in the atmosphere from last season’s unprecedented El Nino, I predict that we will be wetter than normal from now until our wet season ends in 2017. I’m making the Farmer’s Almanac prediction here because sometimes it works like a charm.

The 2015 Water Year: Drought continues despite heavy rainfall. Here’s why

Despite 50 Inches of Rain, Thurston County is in a Drought

It may surprise people to look at the current precipitation amounts and conclude that we are indeed in a drought. If you look solely at those precipitation numbers for 2015 you would not suspect that Thurston County was suffering from an acute drought. That is because a drought is not caused by lack of precipitation alone. It involves a much more complex set of climate conditions that, together, create the parched conditions from the mountains to the sea and from the land surface to the underground aquifers. These conditions also must persist over several months or seasons. The sections below provide some facts that explain why we are currently in a declared drought in Thurston County and Washington State.

In general, droughts are very complex and caused by a number of factors. Read the full report (PDF).

Note: The 2015 Water Year report covers the ‘water year’ which runs from Oct. 2014 -Sept. 2015.

The 2014 Water Year: Equipment upgrades help us stay better informed

In 2014, the Resource Stewardship, Water Resources Group completed equipment and software upgrades of all Environmental Monitoring Program sites in its inventory. There are 122 data collection sites that are managed by the Water Resources Group located all across Thurston County. These sites consist of data collection equipment that measure multiple types of environmental conditions ranging from groundwater to atmospheric parameters and streamflow/river flow conditions. The data is collected, processed to Department of Ecology standards, and provided to users in many formats.

The 2014 Water Year Report (PDF)

Note: The 2014 Water Year report covers the ‘water year’ which runs from Oct. 2013 -Sept. 2014.