Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Winter Descends

After writing only last week about the lack of a hard freeze in Fairbanks - and indeed the first hard freeze last Wednesday was the latest on record - conditions have suddenly turned more wintry.  The temperature hasn't risen above freezing since Sunday, and there's no immediate prospect of it doing so as the trend remains firmly down for now.

It's possible, though unlikely, that the thermometer will not rise above freezing again in Fairbanks this year.  The last time this happened was in 2008, when the last above-freezing temperature was on October 11; but most years see at least a minor thaw in November or December, and about half of recent years have made it into the 40s in these months.

In keeping with the wintry change, widespread snow showers have brought at least a dusting of snow to much of the interior in the past couple of days.  Yesterday was the long-term median date for establishment of the permanent winter snow cover in Fairbanks, and in view of the chilly forecast it's certainly possible that the snow that's now on the ground could remain until spring.

Here are some webcam views of a hefty snow shower that has passed over UAF's West Ridge in the course of writing this post.


Here's the radar image from 6pm, showing the high reflectivities associated with substantial snowfall rates in the localized showers; Fairbanks airport recorded 1/4 mile visibility at 6:04pm.

The snow showers have been forming within an increasingly unstable air mass, as cold air moves in aloft over a relatively warm land surface.  The three charts below show the Fairbanks balloon soundings from 4pm AKDT yesterday (top), 4am this morning (middle), and 4pm today (bottom); note how the temperature (red) curve becomes steeper in the lower levels while the surface temperature remains nearly constant.

As far as freeze-up across the interior is concerned, webcam views suggest there is not a great deal happening yet, but that should change quickly in the next few days.  Temperatures have not risen out of the teens today in the Yukon Flats, so the apparently open Yukon River at Beaver will soon ice up:

To the east, the Yukon is still open at Dawson, and far to the west, the Koyuk River is still open, and there's open water at Selawik.  I'd expect a freeze-up in a matter of a very few days in the latter locations, given the cold air now working its way down across the state.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Heavy Rain Frequency

In the wake of Tuesday's extraordinary rainfall in Fairbanks, it's worth taking another look at the modern climate record (Weather Bureau/NWS era, 1930-present) to see if heavy rain events have become more common.  Back in July, I commented on the long-term increase in July rainfall in Fairbanks and showed that the change has been dramatic for the heaviest events such as those with 1" or more in a single day.  However, these events have become less common in August, and from a year-round perspective there seems to be little evidence that recent events are unprecedented - see the chart below.

Perhaps a slightly more robust method is to look at 2-day precipitation totals rather than individual calendar day totals, because heavy precipitation events often span the arbitrary midnight boundary of a calendar day.  The chart below shows the annual counts of 1-inch precipitation totals in either 1 or 2 days; I'm calling these "unique" 2-day totals because I've subtracted the number of single-day 1-inch events that would otherwise be counted twice.  See Rick Thoman's explanation here for more detail on this kind of approach.

This chart shows a noticeable cluster of heavy precipitation events in the last few years, but again the running 10-year mean is not higher than at other times in Fairbanks' history, so it's still not clear that the frequency of these heavy precipitation events has increased.

However, this is not quite the end of the story.  Owing to the fact that most of the heaviest precipitation events occur in summer in Fairbanks, the charts above are heavily weighted towards summer; for example, 80% of 1-inch daily precipitation events have occurred in June through August (33 of 41 days since 1930).  But what about relatively heavy events in the rest of the year - perhaps not exceeding an inch in 1 or even 2 days, but still extremely heavy for the time of year?

The chart below shows that 2-day precipitation totals above 1 inch have occurred in every month of the year in Fairbanks, even in the normally very dry months of February through April; and so there have been plenty of events in the dry season that I would label as "heavy precipitation" even though they would not be terribly unusual by summer standards.  So what happens if we ask how the frequency of relatively heavy precipitation events has changed over time?

I've attempted to answer this question by pulling out the top 5 precipitation events for each calendar month, so 12x5=60 events in total.  The chart below shows the number of these events per year; for example 1935 had 4 separate events with 2-day precipitation in the top 5 for the month.  Note that I used unique 2-day totals throughout, and I did allow for more than one event in a single month if they were separated by a few days (this has happened a few times).

The picture is now a little different, as we see that the current 10-year running mean is the highest in Fairbanks history.  Remarkably, the past three and a half years have seen 9 separate heavy precipitation events that were respectively in the top 5 for the calendar month.  Here's a list of them, along with links to comments on this blog:

1.61"   June 2014   (see here and here)
3.36"   July 2014   (see here and subsequent posts)
2.24"   September 2014   (see here)
1.30"   September 2015   (see here and here - note the relevant factoid at the end of this post)
1.43"   June 2016   (see here)
1.13"   September 2016
0.98"   December 2016   (see here)
0.76"   February 2017   (see here)
1.54"   October 2017   (this week's event)

The September events of 2014-2016 are particularly notable, and without them the chart above would be less striking.

In summary, when we classify heavy precipitation events with a threshold suited to the wet season, then we see little evidence of a notable increase in Fairbanks in recent years.  However, if we classify major precipitation events for each month separately - and these events are still quite substantial even in the dry season - then the past few years do stand out as unusual and indeed unprecedented in the modern climate record.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Heavy Rain in October

Record-breaking rainfall has occurred in Fairbanks today, amounting to more than an inch after changing over from snow in the early morning hours.  The storm total precipitation is up to 1.54" so far at the airport, breaking the all-time records for 24-hour and 2-day precipitation in Fairbanks in the month of October.  This is also the heaviest single precipitation event in Fairbanks since the excessively wet start to September of 2014 (see here).

Remarkably, the low-lying Fairbanks airport rain gauge appears to have seen the highest precipitation amount of any of the automated stations in the area - see the map below - but obviously manual observations from coop stations are not included here.

Heavy precipitation (e.g. an inch or more) is very rare in October in Fairbanks, and in fact it is surprisingly so when we consider that the long-term normal for October total precipitation is 0.79" - lower than June through September, but higher than the other seven months of the year.  The chart below shows an analysis of the number of precipitation events (unique 2-day totals) in each month that exceeded the normal total for the month; so in April we're counting the number of events with more than 0.16", and in August we're counting the number with more than 1.94".

Obviously the wetter months tend to have far fewer single events that exceed the monthly normal, as precipitation is much more frequent, and the distribution of amounts is less skewed, in the wetter months.  Interestingly the chart reveals a fairly good logarithmic relationship if we exclude October (note the log scale on the vertical axis).  However, October stands out like a sore thumb for its rather small frequency of heavy precip events in comparison to the monthly normal; and this highlights just how remarkable it is that today Fairbanks has seen about twice the normal total for October.

Lest it be overlooked, the first accumulating snow of the season was observed last night in Fairbanks, and amounts up to about 5" were measured in the higher parts of town before the changeover to rain.  Here's a sequence of webcam images from UAF showing the elimination of the winter's first snow cover within just a matter of hours.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Still No Hard Freeze

Temperatures in Fairbanks have defied the seasonal trend in a major way in recent days, with the month of October so far running 18°F above normal at the airport (through the 8th).  Perhaps most notable is the absence of a hard freeze so far this autumn either at the airport or on campus at UAF; the lowest temperature so far this season is 30°F at both sites.  Today, October 9, is the record for latest arrival of temperatures in the 20s in the official climate data for Fairbanks, so this record is about to be broken.

If we define the growing season as the period with continuous temperatures above either 27°F or 28°F (under the assumption that anything warmer may not be a killing freeze), then Fairbanks has already broken the record for longest such period on record: for a threshold of 27°F, it's now 170 days and counting.  Here's some context on historical values in the Fairbanks climate record:

The map below, courtesy of xmACIS, shows the season-to-date lowest temperature; several other locations around Fairbanks and in the hills have also failed to see a significant freeze thus far.  (The 19°F in the bottom right is from the Salcha RAWS.)

Looking farther afield in the interior, cold has been very scarce elsewhere too.  Note the amazingly warm lowest temperature of 25°F at the Chalkyitsik RAWS; this site normally dips close to 0°F by this date.  A temperature below 25°F is normally observed by the end of August at this spot.

The abnormal warmth in Fairbanks is a continuation of the anomaly that persisted throughout most of the summer and was particularly noticeable in high daily minimum temperatures owing to high humidity.  The same trend is still very much in evidence: it's still much more humid than normal.  Fairbanks has only had a single day so far this autumn with a sub-freezing average dewpoint, compared with a normal dewpoint of about 25°F for this date.  Even at this time of year, high humidity reduces the rate of cooling by radiational energy loss; although of course the recent warmth is more easily explained simply by the lack of cold air masses over interior Alaska.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Why Do Some Octobers have Low Snow?

Hi, Rick T. here. This came up on Twitter recently, and it seemed interesting enough to warrant more than a graphic and 144 characters: recent Octobers in Fairbanks have not brought very much snow.

Here's a plot of October snowfall since 1912 as well as the 10-year running median. The usual cavaets apply to the pre-1930 totals, though there are no obvious problems with the daily data underlying these totals. However, overall some of the cooperative era totals are very likely a little lower than would be measured in the post 1930 Weather Bureau/NWS era. From this graphic you can see that the last time Fairbanks had a foot or more of snow in October was 2008, and the ten-year median is now at the lowest level since the late 1960s, suggesting the current October snow drought is not dissimilar to what happened in the 1960s. So a question is: why low-snow Octobers?
There are of course two distinct ways that Octobers can have low snowfall in Fairbanks. One way is that precipitation falls as rain instead of snow and the other is that there is little precipitation of any type. Over the course of the month both these factors can come into play, e.g. a rain event during the first week of October (nothing unusual about that) and then it's dry for three weeks (also not terribly unusal).

Here's an attempt to assign one or the other of these factors to low-snow Octobers using just the monthly data.  Since we're interested in low-snow Octobers, I've ignored years with near to above normal snowfall: that is, snowfall above the 33rd percentile (which turns out to be 5.9 inches). So, for Octobers with 5.9 inches of snow or less, I ask: was the total precipitation for the month below the 25th percentile (0.45 inches)? If so, then I ascribe the reason for the low snow that month to the fact that it just did not precipitate much. Otherwise, I chalk up the low-snow October to the fact that there was significant rainfall during the month. The results of applying this method to the historic record are plotted below. By this metric, most low-snow Octobers (24 of the 35 years in the significantly below average category) are due to low precipitation total. No surprise, since histroically the bulk of precipitation in October in Fairbanks falls as snow. However, in 11 years in the past century (and two in the past four), low October snowfall can be attributed to significant precipitaiton that happened to fall as rain. It's fairly obvious that there is no long term trend, but it is interesting between 1970 and 2011, a 40 year stretch with frequently high snowfall totals, only one October was a "low snow 'cause it rained" month.

A more detailed analysis of the daily data might reveal additional interesting details on this question.

Warm Season Recap: Fire Acreage

This year's fire season produced about 650,000 acres of wildfire in Alaska, which is very close to the median annual acreage since 1990.  Two-thirds of the total acreage burned in July, and this is similar to the past two years, even though 2015 total acreage was far higher.  Over the long term, July is the most active month for fires, but if it's not a very active year then it's not uncommon for June to produce more acreage.  August is only a significant month for fires during very active fire years.

A quick view of the geographical distribution of fire acreage in the northern half of the state is available from the acreage breakdown between the federal fire management zones:

This year 63% of the state's total fire acreage occurred in the Upper Yukon zone, which is the highest percentage on record (1990-present), although of course far higher acreage totals have occurred in previous years.

It's interesting to note that the Upper Yukon fire acreage is easily the most variable of the zones from year to year, while the Galena acreage is the least variable.  It would be interesting to explore how this is related to systematic differences in inter-annual variability of warm season weather conditions from west to east across northern Alaska; presumably the summer weather patterns vary from "very unfavorable" to "very favorable" for fire in the northeast, whereas the northwest is more often somewhere in the middle.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Fairbanks First Autumn Snowfall: the Long View


Rick T. here with a quick follow-up on Richard's post on Friday with the first snowfall of the season at Fairbanks Airport. Below is a plot of the date of first snow (any amount) each autumn since 1904, along with the regression plot for the 10ᵗʰ (very early), median and 90ᵗʰ (very late) percentiles. Note that this list aims to give the first snow date exclusive of convective hail. Unfortunately, snow and hail have been lumped together in the US climate record since early 1950s, so a "snow only" time series for Fairbanks requires a little bit of QC.

Prior to 1930, when the Fairbanks observations were done by cooperative observers, it is quite likely that snowfalls like the Friday morning occurrence (mixed rain and snow for a few hours in the middle of the night, no accumulation) would have not been reported, so some of the pre-1930 dates are quite likely later than would now be recorded. Even in the post-1929 Weather Bureau era, around-the-clock observations did not start until World War 2, though there were observations made every six hours, so there was a "middle of the night" presence.  

The regression analysis shows practically no change in the median and very late dates over the past 114 years. I've plotted the regression slopes, but neither the 90th (top red line) or median (green line) pass statistical tests that would allow us to say with high confidence that the slope (i.e. trend) is really different than zero. In light of the probable "late bias" in the pre-1930 data (at least in aggregate) the 90th percentile seem likely to me to have no trend, while the same bias would serve to "push down" the left side of the median date, i.e. increase the century scale slope a little (though this is quantile regression, so it's less sensitive to outliers than ordinary linear regression).

The big change is obviously in very early "first snows" Prior to 1980, a first snow before Labor Day, while not common, occurred 11 times in 75 years. However, in the past 30 years that has occurred just once. The 10ᵗʰ percentile (bottom red line) can be thought of as the date for which there is a ten percent chance in a given year that the first snowfall would occur on or before that date. So prior to WW2, there was about a ten percent chance of first snow September 1ˢᵗ or earlier. Nowadays, we have to get to September 10ᵗʰ or even a bit later to get to the same threshold.

Friday, September 29, 2017

First Flakes

The first snow of the season was reported at Fairbanks airport early this morning, but so far it's only a trace amount and mixed with rain.  According to long-term records, more than 80% of years bring at least a trace of snow to Fairbanks in September, and in recent years it's been more like 90%; the only years in the past two decades without any snow in September were 2007 and 2010.  Of course two years ago 11 inches fell on this date:

Up in the hills, rain turned to snow yesterday afternoon as colder air moved in aloft.  Here are a couple of webcam shots from 3pm and 7pm yesterday at 2200' on the Steese Highway.

Temperatures in Fairbanks have now entered the 6-week period of most rapid decline, with peak cooling of around 6°F per week occurring near October 20.  It's interesting to note, however, that daily maximum temperatures cool more quickly at first, and daily minimum temperatures then catch up; the difference in cooling rates is most pronounced from mid-September to early October.

This nuance in the seasonal transition is related to snow cover, because having snow on the ground makes a bigger difference for minimum temperatures than maximum temperatures; with snow on the ground, the temperature can drop very rapidly at night with clear skies and light winds.  Most years do not have snow on the ground in Fairbanks at the beginning of October, but snow cover becomes 30% likely by October 9 and 50% likely by October 14.  So the establishment of snow cover plays an important role in reinforcing the overall downward temperature trend after about the first week of October.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mild North Winds in Barrow

The equinox is now behind us, but only in the past few days have temperatures in Barrow (or Utqiaġvik) begun to make regular excursions below freezing.  Of course this isn't too surprising with a vast expanse of open water to the north; the Arctic sea ice edge to the north of Barrow is about 500 miles away.

We've looked at this type of thing before, but curiosity led me to re-examine the average temperature around the year in Barrow when the wind is blowing from a northerly component; see the chart below.  The purple line at the top shows the warming that occurred between the 1951-1975 and 2001-2016 periods.

It's interesting to observe that for 1951-1975, winds with a northerly component tended to bring sub-freezing temperatures beginning in early September, but that date has been pushed back to the equinox in recent years.  The warming has been more pronounced in October, of course, as the heating effect of open rather than ice-covered ocean becomes greater the colder it gets.  The difference between 2001-2016 and 1951-1975 peaks at about 12°F in late October for winds with a northerly component.

Another way of looking at the change is to consider the latest date in the year when a temperature above freezing was observed in combination with a northerly-component wind.  Prior to 1995, early October was about the latest that this ever happened, but since then it has been rare to see the last such date before the end of September; and there have been several very late outliers, including January 10, 1997.

Below is a pair of contrasting sea ice extent maps to illustrate the change: yesterday versus the same date in 1983, when the Beaufort Sea coast was already locked in with sea ice.  It's no surprise at all that NOAA's Climate Prediction Center is predicting a 75% chance that Barrow's October mean temperature will be significantly higher than the 1981-2010 normal (i.e. in the upper tercile); see the third map below.  This may even be conservative, as only 2 of the last 11 Octobers have failed to be at least this warm.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Autumn Cooling

There's a slight chill in the air today across interior Alaska, with afternoon temperatures around Fairbanks only in the mid-40s at valley-level thanks to clouds and some light rain.  Temperatures are in the mid-upper 30s in the higher hills; and a glance at the calendar reveals the reason.  Here are some of the observations as of about 6pm (click to enlarge).

Yesterday was the first day with a high temperature below 50°F in Fairbanks, and this is about a week late compared to normal.  Fairbanks usually sees its first sub-50°F day more than a week earlier than Anchorage, which illustrates the contrast between the rapid cooling of the interior and the slower cooling that occurs closer to the waters of the North Pacific.  Anchorage has never seen a sub-50°F day in August during the modern historical record, but it's not too uncommon in Fairbanks and happened just two years ago.

Here are a couple of webcam views of Fairbanks; autumn colors look to be a little past peak.

At this time of year it's always interesting to be reminded of the rapid drop-off in solar radiation at northern latitudes during autumn.  Thanks to 15 years of high-quality data from the Fairbanks CRN site (actually 11 miles northeast of town), we know what the normal incoming solar radiation curve looks like - see below.  I've added the normal cloud cover from Fairbanks airport to give an idea of relative changes in cloudiness through the year, although cloudiness is presumably a bit greater at the CRN site.

Notice how quickly the solar radiation diminishes in mid to late September; the average amount of incoming solar energy drops by 50% in the last 3 weeks of the month.  Of course, at the beginning of September it's already down by about 50% from the peak in June.

Here's the equivalent chart for Barrow, also from 15 years of CRN data; there's little available solar energy by this date in Barrow, and the very high cloud cover in late summer and autumn only exacerbates the rate of decline.

Just for fun, here's the equivalent solar data from the most southerly CRN site in the continental U.S., at Everglades City in Florida, along with the normal cloud cover from nearby Fort Myers.  By September 20 the normal solar radiation has decreased by only about 20% from the solstice, although the annual peak in south Florida occurs in May prior to the wet season.  The slow decline of the solar input, along with the maritime environment, explains why September is basically still high summer in Florida.

But the most interesting aspect of the comparison may be that Barrow receives more solar energy on average in June than south Florida - even though Barrow is very much more cloudy!  This is the result of 24-hour daylight; the noon sun in Barrow is nothing like the noon sun in Florida, but the hours of sunshine really add up in the far north.

Monday, September 18, 2017

La Niña Emerging

While the attention of many meteorologists (this one included) has been drawn to the remarkable storminess in the tropical Atlantic Ocean lately, significant events have been unfolding at the same time in the tropical Pacific.  Here's a sequence of maps showing the departure from normal of the sea surface temperature (SST) at 4-week intervals; notice the expanding area of below-normal SSTs along the equator in the central and eastern Pacific.

In tandem with the clear trend towards more La Niña-like conditions, the leading seasonal computer models have shifted quite dramatically towards a La Niña outlook for winter, and in response the most recent IRI/CPC forecast showed a sudden change to a much higher probability of La Niña.  Compare the two forecasts below, issued only a few weeks apart.  This is as dramatic a shift as I can recall in what is usually a slowly-evolving assessment of long-range forecast possibilities.

So what does the prospect of La Niña mean for Alaska?  One could be forgiven for having a hazy recollection of the last La Niña episode - the last time a modest La Niña occurred in winter was 2011-2012, and the last strong episode occurred the year before that.

The key feature of a La Niña winter, from the Alaskan viewpoint, is that the normal trough of low pressure over the Bering Sea and Aleutians tends to be relatively weak, and episodes of high pressure in this area are more common than normal.  A ridge over the Bering Sea is a cold set-up for most of the state, so it follows that most of Alaska is usually colder than normal during La Niña, although the signal is strongest in the southern part of the state.

The propensity for high pressure to Alaska's west and southwest reduces the frequency of storm systems moving into southern Alaska, so the amount of snow and rain is typically lower than normal in the south.  However, the west and north of mainland Alaska tend to see above-normal snowfall.

Here are maps of the November-March pressure, temperature, and precipitation patterns that were associated with the 10 strongest La Niña episodes since 1950, based on the Multivariate ENSO Index of Klaus Wolter.

Another aspect of the La Niña influence is that the flow pattern and associated temperatures tend to be more variable than normal over Alaska, so while the mean is below normal, fluctuations from week to week tend to be large.  This means that very cold conditions (much below normal) are considerably more likely than normal, but the chance of occasional very warm conditions is not much reduced except in southern and southeast Alaska.  For more reading on this, search "ENSO variance" on this blog.

Finally, the charts below provide another viewpoint on Fairbanks winter temperatures as they relate to the ENSO phenomenon. For this analysis I've calculated the November-March temperature anomaly relative to two different climatology periods in an attempt to remove the 4.5°F systematic difference between the early (1950-1975) and later (1976-2016) periods.  The vertical colored lines show the ENSO tercile boundaries.

The cold signal associated with La Niña is evident in the lower left, but it's clear that marginal La Niña winters are not always colder than normal, and the overall correlation between the ENSO index and Nov-Mar temperatures is not particularly good.  This partly reflects the fact that the PDO phase is not always aligned with the ENSO phase, and of course the PDO is more closely connected to Alaska winter temperatures than ENSO - see the corresponding chart below for the PDO correlation.

If we re-do the ENSO chart after excluding winters with an out-of-phase PDO, then the correlation improves quite a bit as we would expect, and especially for El Niño winters.

So in conclusion, if La Niña continues to develop into a strong episode this winter, then the usual La Niña patterns will become quite likely in Alaska; but if we see a less robust La Niña, then the outcome is much less certain.  Another way of saying this is that the PDO is more important; but unfortunately it is much more difficult to predict the PDO phase.  The PDO has been bouncing around near neutral recently and shows no indication of becoming significantly negative - and indeed I would say a significantly negative phase is probably unlikely because of the lingering subsurface effects of the strongly positive PDO phase that we've experienced in recent years.