Thursday, May 17, 2018

Uinta Misadventures

My son and I have thought about skiing Kings Peak all season.  We figured we'd wait until the road was melted out and then give it a shot.  Then, work, weather, and other factors conspired to prevent us from doing it, until yesterday.

Our plan was to do it as an overnighter, skiing in, setting up camp at about 11,000 feet, summiting, spending the night, and then skiing out on frozen snow the next morning.

There were, however, two major problems with this plan.  First, there was very little snow.  Second, it was exceptionally warm.

The trailhead sits at 9400 feet.  Bone dry. 

That was somewhat expected since the road was open, and we naively thought we would hit snow shortly up the trail, but alas, that wasn't to be.  Instead it was 3 or 4 miles of hauling overnight packs with an additional 12-14 pounds of AT gear up the trail. 

In addition, the Kings Peak trail is nearly pan flat.  So you don't get an abrupt transition from no snow to snow.  Instead, one gets miles of patchy snow.  To ski or not to ski that is the question we asked for some time.  Further, the snow was totally rotten, with postholling aplenty.  This led to rat-maze-like routes on snow patches, frequent ski removal, and lots of skinning across grass, mud, and rocks.

Did I mention swimming?  Well, none of that was done, but it was plenty boggy in many places.  Did I mention collapsable snow?  Plenty of that, even with skis on. 

This continued for some time, but we were hopeful that when we reached Elkhorn Crossing at 10,500 feet, things would surely improve.

Sadly, they didn't.  Look at all that bare ground!

We had hopes that perhaps the western side along the trees would be better, so we crossed the bridge, which thankfully was there as fording the stream here would have been impossible.

We then tried a few options.  One was working our way through the woods above the trail, which proved extremely difficult due to the limited snow cover, downed trees, bare spots, and the like.  We then dropped down to nearer the trail and moseyed along some more, but finally shortly after this photo was taken, we realized we were well behind schedule. 

At that point, we had a few of options.  Reaching the summit that day seemed nearly impossible.  Our pace was much slower than we expected.  If we were to make it, it would be late and we'd be exhausted.  At 25, I would have surely given it a shot, but at 50, it seemed like a recipe for disaster.  Further, at this point we had seen absolutely nobody.  It seemed a foolish move.

Another option was to go a bit further, camp for the night, and summit in the morning on firmer snow.  That seemed doable, but the exit out then would be a painful one involving the same sorts of travel conditions we'd experienced so far.  Two days of this wasn't looking like fun.

Ultimately, we decided it wasn't our day and to pack it in.  We then trudged 6-7 miles back to the trailhead, taking a few photos above the crossing for memories.

Over the past couple of weeks, I had tracked the snowpack at SNOTEL stations in the Uintas.  Several were at zero prior to our trip, but others had 10-15 inches.  I found it hard to believe that there was zero snow along the Kings Peak Route, and really, there wasn't.  There just wasn't enough to piece together a reasonable approach.  Confirmation bias and wishful thinking led me to conclude that there would be more snow than there was. 

Lessons learned: Kings Peak is really meant for light weight backcountry gear on a healthy snowpack.  A time machine to take me back to my 20s might also be helpful!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

FV3GFS Moving Forward

It is well known that the US is lagging other forecasting centers, such as the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting and the UK Meteorological Office, in global model forecast skill. 

In testing now is an entirely new dynamical core for the US Global Forecast System, developed by the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and known as the Finite Volume Cubed-Sphere Dynamical Core, or FV3 for short.  See for gory details. 

Experimental "FV3GFS" runs are now being produced by NCEP and I've started to download them to  Look for FV3-13km (experimental) in the left hand nav bar.  For now, I'm only downloading wind and precipitation forecasts.  These should be at near-native resolution and hopefully my post-processing of the data is calculating the 3-hour precipitation correctly.  If you see anything odd, let me know.

In addition to a new dynamical core, the FV3GFS is also using the GFDL cloud microphysics parameterization to simulate cloud process.  This should be an upgrade compared to the old GFS cloud microphysics scheme, but I'm not sure if it has been tested much in winter storms or complex terrain. 

From a research standpoint, I'm not that interested in model performance during the warm season (i.e., right now and during the summer).  I am, however, hoping to get my paws on some of the runs from this past cool season so we can see how it does for winter storms over the west.

Whether or not this proves to be the game changer that NCEP hopes it will be remains to be seen.  I suspect we will see the FV3GFS become the operational GFS at some point later this calendar year or in early 2019. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Disruption Continues in the News Industry

Modern technology is disrupting many industries, including news.  Today (Monday), the Salt Lake Tribune announced it was eliminating 34 of its 90 newsroom staff.  This isn't the first time they have downsized.  It ma not be the last.  I love reading a print newspaper in the morning, but I'm one of the few diehards left in the valley.  Advertising revenue for the Trib is down 40% in two years and circulation has dropped from 85,000 to 31,000 in four years.

I've witnessed massive change in regional and local science reporting during my career.  When I began as a professor 23 years ago, most reporters I interacted with were science specialists or reporters.  This was true for television as well as print.  Television suffered first.  Instead of science specialists, I mostly interact today with general reporters or camera people, the latter with a list of questions handed to them by a supervisor.  Science is complicated.  Reporting science is a specialized talent.  Unfortunately, regional and local science specialists appear to be going the way of the dinosaur. 

I've been interviewed by many Salt Lake Tribune editors and reporters over the years including Judy Fayhs (now with KUER), Jennifer Nappier-Pierce, Brian Maffly, George Pyle, Mike Gorrell, and Emma Penrod.  All are consummate professionals.  If you think reporting is easy, let me assure you that it is not.  I recall giving some terrible interviews that somehow contributed to great articles.  That takes talent. 

Sadly, these layoffs are the continuation of a downward spiral.  Let us hope that digital media develops in a way that turns things around.  There are some bright sides to digitalization of news media.  In my area, the Capital Weather Gang is one such bright side, providing outstanding weather and climate reporting, much of it by meteorologists. 

I don't envision paper newspapers arriving in my driveway for much longer.  Let us hope that some great digital science reporting on our region is in our future.  There are many great stories to tell.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Cascadian Skiing in the Wasatch

You just have to love a rainy day like this when we reach May.  Anything from here on out is a blessing and loved by all the vegetation.

Not willing to give up on the ski season, however, we had a Cascadian experience in Little Cottonwood Canyon this morning.  The drive up the canyon was entertaining enough.  There are probably only a couple of days each spring where everything is green and cloud base is near the canyon mouth to give you views like those below in the lower canyon. 

The Alta web cams suggested that we might break out and be in only occasional murk above 8500 feet and indeed we broke out, temporarily, at the base of Snowbird.

The view from the parking lot was beautiful when we arrived, although the clouds were in and out during our tour.  Sadly, Superior is quickly losing it's white coat this spring. 

As I've mentioned several times this year, the key to a good ski day is low expectations.  Ours were pretty much rock bottom as we drove up the canyon, but sliding on snow combined with the usual workout endorphins seemed to lift the spirits by the time we finished our first climb. 

It is easy to think that spring snow is safe snow, but if there's enough snow to glide, there's enough snow to slide. We noticed a pretty healthy slough that penetrated down into the Ballroom between our first run (pictured above) and second (close up below). 

You'd probably have to work pretty hard to bury yourself today, perhaps initiating something that goes into a terrain trap, but a wet slough like that could toss you over a cliff or into obstacles.  The best skiing is often low angle when we get just a few inches of cream on crust anyway, so why push it.

Ski conditions were decent on top with a few inches of cream on crust.  It skied fairly well, perhaps because the underlying surface wasn't frozen hard and was fairly pliable.

Roller balls abounded in many areas.  Usually you wan't to avoid them at all costs, but they were amazingly soft today and we ended up just pretending the weren't there. 

About half way down, we hit the rain line and the high water content snow skied like sandpaper.  You can almost see the friction in the photo below 😃.

For about 1000 vertical feet, you could just point your skis right down the fall line, do shallow turns, and barely move.  Strange, but surprisingly fun. 

Precipitation was pretty limited while we were skiing through about noon.  The Alta-Collins gauge reported only .02 inches from 7 am to noon.  It was strange to descend back down into the "rain forest" of the Salt Lake Valley. 

By and large a surprisingly fun day of skiing.

Friday, May 11, 2018

May Powder?

It's never over until it is over.  At 1200 UTC (0600 MDT) this morning, and upper-level trough was centered just northwest of northern Utah. 

Local radar shows precipitation filling in across the northern half of the state.  Most of this precipitation is still light and scattered, but there is a band of heavier precipitation across the northern Great Salt Lake and a few stronger showers scattered about.

If you think it feels humid and sticky out there, that's because it is (by Utah standards).  Dewpoints at the airport this morning were near 50ºF. 

Turning out attention to the mountains, it's balmy up there, with a 700-mb temperature of about +3˚C.

Current surface temperatures include 39˚F at Alta Base, 36˚F at Alta-Collins, and 32˚F at the summit of Mt. Baldy (thank you Alta Ski Patrol for keeping the observations going in the off season).  That gives us a freezing level of about 11,000 feet and a snow level of perhaps 10,000 feet.

The models call for the upper-level trough to move southward into Nevada today and tonight.  Expect unsettled weather through at least tomorrow, with some thunderstorms.  The valley will see rain. 

Our Upper Cottonwoods meteogram from the 0600 UTC NAM forecast illustrates the situation for the mountains.  The forecast is holding up well so far with a temperature of 32˚F on Mt. Baldy, similar to observed.  Temperatures decline slowly through this evening, rise a bit overnight, and decline again tomorrow morning through early afternoon.  This complex temperature evolution reflects the fact that the trough is both digging to our west and intensifying, which results in a situation whereby we transition back into warmer southeasterly or southerly flow early tomorrow.  Basically, it's a mess. 

Thus, I expect snow levels to drop through this evening, perhaps to about 8000 feet, but rise again late tonight or early tomorrow morning.  There are large error bars on this, however, and here's why.

Model soundings for Alta such as the one below, valid 0800 UTC (0200 MDT) tonight, show a very deep layer in which the temperature is 0ºC.  This is the sort of thing that can happen in the Cascades when the precipitation rates are high.  Think of it as the ice cube effect.  Mother Nature dumps a ton of snow very quickly, and the atmosphere cools to 0ºC, much like throwing ice cubes into your cocktail.  I'm never sure whether or not to count on these sorts of details in the model forecast as they are dependent on many factors.  However, if it were to happen, the snow level will lower perhaps more than expected.  If it doesn't, well it will be high.  Regardless, the snow in such a layer tends to be wet and sticky .  
The NAM is quite generous with water totals, producing 2 inches through noon Saturday.  Our algorithms suggest that equates to about 12 inches of snow at 9700 feet.  Cascade concrete for sure.

This is, however, a very difficult precipitation amount forecast for several reasons.  One is that it is dependent on the track and intensity of the wobbly trough.  Another is that we're going to see a lot of pop-up showers and thunderstorms which can't be pin pointed.  As a result, the SREF shows remarkable forecast plume spread at Alta-Collins. 

Thus, this might be the most wishy-washy post I've done.  I expect precipitation, possibly heavy at times, in the central Wasatch.  I also expect the snow to be high density.  I'm not sure about precipitation totals, other than ruling out low amounts, or snow levels.  The best option in a pattern like this is to be ready to go in the morning, set the alarm, pull up the Alta-Collins ob ( when it goes off, and either go back to sleep or jump in the car depending on what you see.  May powder?  I don't think so.  Creamy crud?  Maybe, if the trough delivers enough snow tonight.  Otherwise, there's always yardwork.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Foothills in All Their Splendor

If you haven't been out for a hike, run, or bike in the Avenues foothills or along the east bench, stop what you are doing and go now. 

May is by far the best month for lowland adventures in northern Utah as the hills green up, but snow lingers on the mountains.  I nearly had to pinch myself yesterday when I was out for a ride on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail with a carpet of grass and wildflowers covering the lowlands and a coating of snow in the mountains (see above).

How quickly the hills turn brown (or if you prefer, "golden") depends on whether or not we can continue to get the occasional storm as we approach the dog days of summer.  Let's hope the trough that will affect our weather later this week and weekend can deliver.