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Sunday, February 19, 2017

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Under the hose again

We've had a few small-to-moderate storms, for Sierra standards, over the past week that have led to continued fantastic snow sliding conditions. I don't need to tell you this, but the snow is getting deep. Here are a couple of shots from Alpine Meadows on last Friday, 2/17.

The next storm system is already beginning to impact the Sierra, and it will be another doozy. A strong jet, 150-170 knots at the core, will direct heavy precipitation and dangerous winds into the Sierra for several days...again.

Figure: 250mb winds (jet stream level) showing a powerful jet aimed at the northern Sierra. Forecast shown is for Sunday morning through Tuesday afternoon.

Heavy precipitation is all but guaranteed, but once again the snow levels will be the deciding factor in snow accumulations below about 7000 feet.

Figure: Total precipitation from GFS through early Thursday morning. There is a 6-10 inch bullseye over Tahoe and northern Sierra. Not good for the Oroville dam flooding concerns.

The storm will start cold enough for all snow in Tahoe, then some warm air creeps in, and then back to all snow during the end of the event. Snow levels could get up above 7500 feet for a short period, but heavy precipitation rates might allow for lower snow levels.

Figure: 700 mb (~10,000 feet) forecast Sunday morning through Tuesday afternoon from the NAM. The green shading (with red line) shows the 0 degree, or approximate freezing line. 

Forecast from the National Weather Service shows snow levels rising above Donner pass for a few hours on Monday.

Figure: Snow level forecast from the National Weather Service, Reno office.

By the end of the storm expect 4-6 FEET of snow above 7500 feet with several feet likely between 6500 and 7500 feet. Lake level snow will be tricky and depend how much (and fast) snow levels rise. Flooding, avalanches, and mudslides will once again all be a concern. Monday will likely be a don't go out there kind of day.

We will likely see several more small storms Wednesday through Friday that will be colder bringing a nice fresh coating on top of the massive pineapple pow that is on the way.

Be safe out there!

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Sunday, February 5, 2017


3 Storms, 1 Week

Winter continues to provide for the Sierra as three more storms will impact the region over the next week. The first two storms are back to back beginning this evening with a slight break late tomorrow before picking up again into Wednesday. The second storm won't be as cold and will have a better moisture connection, which means snow levels will be a problem for powder hounds. However, most of the models are in good agreement that 2'+ of new snow will fall across the mid to high elevations of the Sierra by Wednesday morning.

1st and 2nd Storms
Base (~6000') - Mid Mountain (7500'): 1-2' of snow 
Above Mid Mountain (7500'+): 2-4' of snow; highest elevations could see upwards of 5' of snow

These look like great snow totals, but there will be some rain on snow especially mid-mountain elevations and below on Tuesday into Wednesday. This means the snow that falls late Monday into Wednesday will be wetter and warmer aka Sierra Cement due to the strong moisture connection from the Pacific (below) and the lack of a strong, deep trough accompanying it. This might suppress overall snow totals and also increase avalanche concerns through the week.

There is another storm forecast for Thursday into Friday, which looks to be colder than the middle storm, but it's a bit premature to start forecasting snow amounts and timing right now (although it looks good!). The good news is the record setting and epic current winter continues, so go out and enjoy it this week!

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017


A graphical explanation of how the Sierra Nevada got Januburied

This was Januburied (below). If you are coming from TGR, welcome to our little forecast site for the Sierra Nevada, and if you have been following us for the past five years, thanks for your support!
The figure above (and again a bit below to avoid you scrolling constantly) demonstrates how it all happened. In short, multiple landfalling atmospheric rivers (ARs) brought substantial precipitation to the Sierra Nevada throughout much of January. There were some scary times for the snowpack and regarding flooding on either side of the Sierra (notably January 7-8 and the time leading up to that event when we knew we were in for a big one but the outcome was uncertain). The one-two punch of a colder storm (AR #1) followed by a warmer AR #2 (note high snow levels around 8500-9500 ft) is a 3 Michelin Star recipe for rain-on-snow induced flooding. Following these storms, we got extremely lucky with the consistently cooler temperatures and lower snow levels that produced copious snowfall and low elevations during ARs #3-5.

Let's break this down a bit. An excellent metric that has been developed to identify atmospheric rivers, which are long (2000 km), narrow (typically less than 1000 km), corridors of enhanced precipitable water (blue dots; pwater or pdub for you hip hop fans) and water vapor transport (wind times precipitable water). They (ARs) exist in the warm sector of cyclones, hence their often high snow levels. Note how the black dots below tend to be higher during AR conditions (green boxes, when observed pwater exceeds 20 mm along the California Coast). ARs are a form of a low level jet (strong winds), which when these strong winds slam into terrain, produce incredible precipitation totals over multi-day periods. In fact, California sees some of the largest 3-day total precipitation magnitudes in the United States, on par with hurricane precipitation totals in the southeastern U.S.

The narrow plumes of high precipitable water are known as atmospheric rivers. This view from the SSM/I instrument shows AR#2 and #3 making landfall. The start of Januburied was produced by the persistent counterclockwise circulation in the northeastern Pacific (low pressure) that favored continuous atmospheric river landfalls. In California, we receive nearly 50% of our annual precipitation from these types of storms and they contribute to nearly all of the variability of our precipitation. In other words, a handful of these, or lack thereof, make the difference between an awesome wet year and a crappy drought year.

Next, note how significant precipitation (blue bars) was observed during these events along the western slope of the Sierra (Blue Canyon, one of the wetter spots in the northern central Sierra Nevada). The peaks and valleys of the precipitation (bars) line up beautifully with the peaks in pwater (blue dots).
The grey line shows daily Donner Summit snow depth (all other data is hourly) at en elevation of approximately 6900 ft (the Central Sierra Snow Lab for those of you familiar with SNOTEL or the Summit itself). During all ARs, with the exception of AR #2, substantial increases in snow depth occurred, particularly during the AR #3 (the official start of Januburied?).

The slow decline in snow depth during non-precipitating conditions is likely due to settling of snow.

Had I plotted snow water equivalent, or the amount of water stored in the snowpack, the line would just launch upwards in all cases. This concept is where we got lucky again (at least I think so). AR #1, though somewhat of an upside down storm (snow levels rose through the first part, leading to more dense snow being deposited atop less dense snow), gave us a nice snowy sponge to absorb much of the rainfall that came during the flood event (AR #2). This massively boosted the water stored in the snowpack (very good for water resources and the destruction of certain sneaky persistent weak layers). Had we not had this pre-storm boost, who knows what the outcome may have been!

A discussion on these flood/mega snow events can be found here:

The subsequent storms entrained much more cold air and had lower snow levels, especially during ARs #4-5, which was the icing on the already triple layer cake as we went from 'some snow down low' to 'oh yea, the 5000-9000(!) foot crest-to-valley lines go!'

To make things even more awesome, when it wasn't snowing, it was cold and/or cloudy (sorry, I could have plotted solar radiation but I got lazy at the end), and we avoided the wicked wind of the east, with a six hour exception. This favored extremely good snow conditions from summits to the lowest elevations, and created much rejoicing and probably got more than a few people (myself included) a bit behind in work.

Dr. Hatchett researching snow transport.

Dr. Morales engages in some intradisciplinary snow science studies. One of the best bonuses of atmospheric rivers and spillover precipitation are that they help fill up desert terminal lakes such as Washoe Lake in the background. These lakes are natural rain gauges and make for cool photographs.
The data used in the Januburied figure is publicly available and was acquired from NOAA, UCAR, CDEC, and XMACIS.
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Sunday, January 22, 2017

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The Ghost in the Machine

Always good to some fieldwork!

My, what a week it has been. Dr. Morales above Washoe Lake:

East Shore trees looking like an East Atlanta Santa:

Lovely cloud reflections above Sand Harbor on a deep bluebird day:

Easterly flow favoring orographic ascent along the Carson Range produced perfect all-day pow conditions above Washoe Valley:

Why don't you kids get some Jobs!

Whoa! Still brrrrrrr kinda snow in the Carson Range trees above the gated community.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017


Can't Stop, Won't Stop

Well the Pacific continues to be charitable by dumping snow once again across the Sierra and really all of the western US. And the snow will continue through the weekend and into early next week. Let's pause and give thanks to the Pacific and the atmosphere...

Snow totals forecast

  • Expect another 2-4' of snow from base to mid-mountain elevations (~6000-7500')
  • Numbers continue to look silly for the highest elevations (> 7500'): 4-8' of new snow

Above are the forecast snowfall maps from the GFS (top) and NAM 3km (bottom) operational models through Monday night. The GFS has a lower resolution so the snow totals are usually more smoothed, which explains some of the differences between the two maps.

Below is a loop of precipitable water and surface pressure illustrating the wave train impacting the Sierra. We had one wave move through and looks like two more are lined up. 

The record setting winter continues and it's definitely a welcomed sight after a brutal stretch from 2011-2015. Also it's been beautiful to see all the snow across the Western US after flying over the region during the last two days. So continue to enjoy the cold smoke in the white room! 
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