Saturday, June 30, 2018

Fun Stuff from the Mountain Meteorology Conference

After 2 weeks and 14 time zones, it is great to be home on a spectacularly beautiful final day of June.

Delta took pity on me and gave me a free first class upgrade last night for my trip home from Santa Fe.  It was on a small plane, so I enjoyed my favorite kind of seat — one that is simultaneously an aisle and a window.

Although my side of the plane did not allow for views of any large fires, it was still an interesting ride.  Below is a nice cumulus cloud forming above a smoke plume in the San Juans.

And here's a view looking south at the Trail Mountain fire, the prescribed burn that escaped in the Manti-La Sal National forest and has now burned almost 18,000 acres.

I was in Santa Fe for the American Meteorological Society Conference and some incredible data was presented from western wildfires.  In particular, Neil Lareau, a Utah Alum, and Dave Kingsmill, who we'll call an honorary Utah Alum as he's collaborated frequently with scientists at the U, presented cloud radar data collected by an aircraft that penetrated a fire-fueled updraft of an incredible 130 miles per hour.  That's roughly equivalent to what you might find in a supercell thunderstorm. 

Jessica Lundquist of the University of Washington gave a provocatively titled talk entitled "Has Our Ability to Model Mountain Rain and Snow Exceeded the Skill of Our Observational Networks."  Many readers of this blog would have found it interesting.  Specifically, she was examining seasonal precipitation, rather than individual weather events.  The sad truth is below.  I view conclusions like this as an indication that we need a breakthrough in observing capabilities to push us to new heights.  Engineers out there get to work!

The meeting was very special for me as I received the Named Session Award from the Mountain Meteorology Committee based on contributions to the mountain meteorology community.

It is a major understatement to say that the award meant a lot.  The mountain meteorology community has given and taught me so much.  I can only hope to give back a fraction.  Thank you to all. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

It's Time to Rename Red Flag Warning

The National Weather Service system of watches and warnings sometimes creates confusion for the public for a variety of reasons and efforts are being undertaken to evaluate and improve it.  Many people do not discern the difference between a watch and a warning and shifts from one warning type to another (e.g., hurricane to tropical storm) sometimes causes complacency when threats to life and property remain high.

In my view, the worst named warning is the Red Flag Warning.  What the hell does that mean to anyone who is not savvy about fire weather?  As noted in the National Weather Service graphic below, "red flag warnings alert fire managers on federal lands to conditions that are highly unfavorable for prescribed burns that may lead to especially dangerous wildfire growth."

There's nothing wrong with that, but many wildfires are started by people who are not professional fire managers.  As noted in a tweet by @UtahWildfire today, there have been 27 human-caused fires in Utah over the last two days.  That is simply unacceptable. 

It is time to change the name of Red Flag Warning to something that better indicates the threat and hazard to everyone.  In addition to the importance of communication for local residents, a better named warning would improve communications with the many visitors to the American southwest who may be coming from regions where the wildfire threat is limited or non-existent. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Beijing Weather Support Activities, Part III

One of the more interesting activities during my trip to Beijing was a visit to the offices for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Winter Games to discuss weather support.

Their offices have been integrated into an old steel factory in ways that were pretty mind boggling.  I've never really seen anything like it.  In some areas, the offices were integrated into old silos that were once used to store iron ore pellets, with holes cut into the silos like Swiss cheese to allow light in. 

In others, the grounds and offices were built around old conveyor belt systems, making for a scene that seemed to be out of a movie. 

As can be seen above, cooling towers from the old power plant (coal fired) rise conspicuously at the edge of the facility.  These were a source of great pride and we were given a tour of one, which would never have happened in the litigious United States. 

I was thinking that one hell of a sport climbing facility could be built using one of these towers, but it turns out that they are going to build the worlds first permanent Snowboard Big Air venues using one and use it for the Olympics.  To give some idea of how this might work, below is a photo of the big air facility in Pyeongchang.

Source: (Photo: Mark Clavin)
Now, check out the photo below and use your imagination.  

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Beijing 2022 Weather Support Activities, Part II

A highlight of my recent trip to Beijing was a trip to the Yanqing venue cluster, where the Bobsled, luge, skeleton, and Alpine skiing events will be held. 

Source: Beijing Organizing Committee
The Yanqing cluster is located northwest of Beijing and is one of three cluster sites.  The other two are Beijing itself and the Zhangjiakou cluster, with sits northwest of Yanqing.  All three clusters will be connected by high-speed rail and contain Olympic Villages. 

The mountains outside of Beijing are fairly steep with many narrow canyons and ravines.  In general, the terrain is quite rugged.  Large trees are minimal, with the mountains covered primarily by scrub trees and brush.  A real highlight, which these pictures taken from a speeding van cannot do justice, are the views of the Great Wall.  Sadly, time did not permit a visit, but I would very much like to hike along it at some point in the future. 

No facilities existed at Yanqing prior to the Olympic bid and, as can be seen in the Google Earth imagery below, the area was pretty much undeveloped prior to the beginning of the Olympic construction.  Getting to Yanqing involved travel up a narrow, sinewy highway.  Evidence of the infrastructure construction was evident along the way, however.  I suspect the towers below will eventually hold the high-speed rail.  I love the Olympics, but have always found these massive infrastructure projects difficult to swallow. 

The sign below marked the entrance to the road up to Haituo Mountain.  Despite it being a Chinese holiday the day we visited, work was happening everywhere above this point.  Closed presently to the public, we were permitted to go on to what will become the base of the ski resort. 

We were not, however, allowed to take pictures, so I'll give a description of plans using Google Earth.  This is drawn based on memory, so expect inaccuracies.  The Men's downhill will start on the summit.  Starting houses for the Women's downhill and SuperG races will be a bit further down a ridge that extends roughly westsouthwestward off the summit.  This ridge is frequently oriented across the prevailing northwesterly flow.  The finish area is in a ravine and at about 1360 meters.  Technical races will occur mid mountain in the area indicated by the oval.  I wasn't sure if these would finish part way up the mountain or at the same location as the downhill, but I suspect the former.  I saw some additional routes depicted on maps, but I wasn't sure if these were planned ski runs, training areas, or perhaps alternative routes for technical races.  As I understood it, the finish area will be accessed by a gondola that runs up the valley from the terminus of the high-speed rail, which will be farther down the mountain east of the sliding facilities. 

As far as weather and climate, specific information is lacking.  Observations have only recently been collected in the area.  There are typically three major concerns for Olympic Alpine venues: wind, visibility, and precipitation.  Extreme cold, warmth, or rapid temperature change can also be a concern.  As far as wind is concerned, the lack of vegetation along the ridge and preliminary observations from upper elevations suggest the summit and southwest ridge frequently see strong winds.  As far as clouds and precipitation are concerned, this is a remarkably dry area.  Given the short records available, however, nobody has a precise number for mean seasonal snowfall, but it is probably less than 25 inches, and 25 inches might be generous.  This reflects a lack of precipitation rather than warm storms that produce rain.  Visibility observations have yet to be collected.  I suspect cloud obscuration along the downhill route is less frequent than one might find along courses in the Alps or at Whistler during the 2008 Olympics, but we were shown photos of periods in which cloud-limited visibility would be an issue. 

A few other items of note.  The first is that the courses are on southerly to southwesterly aspects.  The second is that the area does see dust storms, although those are typically in the spring.  Nevertheless, they remain a low-probability possibility, perhaps with the highest potential during the Paralympics, which are held in March.  Finally, it is unknown at this point if the area is affected during the cool season by pollution from Beijing.  Observations are being collected and more will be known in the near future. 

The resort is higher and drier than the Alpine venues at PyeongChang.  In fact, the speed events end at about the same elevation as the start houses in PyeongChang.   My thinking was if I had to ski here, I would probably bring whippet poles and body armor and hope for the best.   Of course, rock hard man-made snow is what the racers want, and limited natural snow eases course prep.  Course designer Bernhard Russi, who also designed the course at Snowbasin, shares his perspectives in this USA Today article

We were able to take photos from near the base of the future sliding center, which illustrates the regional terrain. The sliding center is the area covered by the green tarps presumably to limit erosion by wind and rain during the construction.  The ravine at center is the route that we followed to Haituo Mountain and will be the approximate path of the gondola accessing the finish area.  Haituo Mountain is in the haze/smog on the horizon. 

The area is around Haituo is quite pretty and would make for nice hiking.  I would have enjoyed a hike to the summit for sure.  It could be that the resort will fare better in the summer than the winter for visitation and revenue.  Certainly high-speed rail from Beijing, which will take something like 45 minutes each way, will offer an incredible escape. 

The advantage of that train was readily apparent on our return to Beijing on the last day of a long weekend.  Traffic was heavy and the route took a few hours.  One thing that surprised me was a lack of microcars in Beijing.  It was full of Audis, Mercedes, Buicks, and medium-sized crossovers.  Other than bikes and mopeds, which are plentiful, you could have been in a US city. 

Finally, although I am not a lager fan, I did like the label on this beer that we discovered during a break on the way home. 

Turns out, according to Business Insider, Snow beer is the best selling beer in the world.  The stuff you learn during travel.

It's tough to say what we'll cover next, but I have an inside scoop on the Snowboarding Big Air, which will be unlike anything ever done before, some photos from the remarkable campus of the Beijing Olympic Committee, and of course discussion of what is happening in weather research and forecasting for the Olympics and Beijing in general.  

Friday, June 22, 2018

Beijing 2022 Weather Support Activities, Part I

I am freshly back from a too short trip to Beijing pertaining to weather support for the 2022 Winter Olympics.  During the trip, I got a first-hand look at the construction of venues in the Yanqing competition zone, including the Alpine skiing facility on Haituo Mountain, spent three days discussing Olympic weather support with Chinese colleagues involved in meteorological forecasting and research for the games, and met with representatives of the Beijing Olympic Committee.  It was an incredible trip, my first to China, and remarkably rewarding culturally and professionally.

I will cover my trip in a series of blog posts, which may come rapid fire or sporadically depending on jet lag and time as my travels continue next week (more to discuss on that eventually too).

I'm going to begin with a look at Beijing.  My Chinese friends granted me a day of jet-lag recovery for my first full day in town, which I used to see as much as Beijing as possible, walking more than 20 km around the city.

The day dawned with thunderstorms, followed by persistent rain for a few hours.  Undeterred, I thew on my hard shell and wandered around the hutong, narrow alleys with residences and shops that I had largely to myself early Sunday morning.  Incredibly, I took no photos, but below is one of the nearby canals.

I eventually found my way to Jingshan Park, with views of what I think is Beijing's highest building (possibly under construction)

 and the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City takes its name because no could enter without permission from the emperor.  I think I heard something on my digital audio guide about the penalty for trespassing being death.  The photos below are at the entrance to the city (immediately below) and in it.  The grounds are extensive, with the Forbidden City considered the largest "palace" in the world.

There are also gardens on the grounds and ornate structures everywhere.

The Mountain of Accumulated Elegance pictured below was created from complex rocks collected from off site.  I was told that the emperor would climb this and enjoy time with his concubines in the structure above.  An in depth description of these activities would require a Mature Audiences rating upgrade for the Wasatch Weather Weenies and is not presented here.

I then worked my way around to the Imperial Palace and the famous photo of Mao Zedong (commonly known as Chairman Mao).  This sits at the north end of Tiananmen Square.

Finally, I worked my way to the Lama Temple, which did not disappoint.

At this point, I was pretty spent.  I had made a critical mistake in my plans.  I may be a decent route finder in the mountains, but in cities, I'm out of my element.  I had planned on going through the Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace from north to south, but this is not allowed.  Thus, I had to keep working my way back and forth, basically doubling mileage.  Much of this was in the rain, and although it was letting up and I was drying out, my legs had been good and clammy all day.

There was only one thing to do, and that was to find a brewery.  I had heard there was a nearby microbrewery with ales, and indeed, a quick search on my phone turned up the Great Leap Brewery on an obscure hutong.  It was well worth the stop as I enjoyed an extremely tasty IPA under the trees of their courtyard. 

All in all a good day despite some drippy weather.

Our next post will discuss the venue plans for the games, including the construction of the Yanqing competition zone and the Alpine skiing facility on Haituo Mountain.  If you are up for a challenge, see if you find the access roads, runs, and lifts for Haituo Mountain on Google Earth.  Hint: You can't.  Nothing existed at that site when Google last updated their satellite imagery.  By the 2019/20 winter, there will be a ski resort that will be serviced by high-speed rail for the Olympics. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Blog Break

Blogging may be somewhat infrequent over the next couple of weeks as I'm not sure if time and internet connections will allow it.  Keep an eye here from time to time for updates and, given that we are reaching the half-way point of June today without any measurable precipitation...

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Bud Update

Tropical cyclone Bud is still churning to the south of Cabo San Lucas, but is weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm.  The satellite loop below from the great site shows the low center slow moving northward with rainbands moving across southern Baja California and near the coast of the Mexican staet of Sinaloa.

The forecast models still call for the remnants of Bud and it's associated tropical moisture to move across the U.S. southwest late Friday and Saturday.  This will bring showers and thunderstorms to portions of the four corners states, as illustrated by the NAM forecasts valid 1200 UTC (6 AM MDT) Saturday and 000 UTC Sunday (6 PM MDT Saturday).

The transition in the four corners area is going to be quite remarkable.  Currently, a good chunk of eastern Utah and western Colorado is under red flag conditions, as illustrated by the pink shading below.

Source: NWS
Translation: Right now, that area is experiencing hot, dry, and windy conditions.  Saturday, dewpoints and humidities will be higher, with showers and thunderstorms.  

While the brief return of moisture will probably be a nice change, I'm not sure that Bud is going to bring a significant salve to the drought conditions experienced in that region.  You simply can't make up for an entire winter of precipitation deficit in such a short period of time.  In addition, there is potential for lightning to spark new fires.  We'll have to see how this plays out, but the view that this is going to be a long fire season still holds in that region.  

Meanwhile, here in northern Utah, it's a sufferfest.  The minimum temperature at the Salt Lake City airport was 77ยบF, which will be a record high minimum for the date if temperatures don't fall by midnight tonight.

My dawn ride on the BST was not refreshing.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Escape of the Trail Mountain Fire

According to the online interagency incident information management system inciweb, the Trail Mountain Wildfire that is currently burning in the Manti-La Sal  Forest southwest of Price, Utah, began as a prescribed burn, but escaped containment on June 6.  As of June 12, it has burned nearly 6,500 acres, with 259 personnel, five helicopters, and 11 engines fighting the fire.  Incident information available at

ETV10, which covers news for Carbon, Emery, and Grand County, posted on their web site a Forest Service Press Release dated June 5th, prior to the fire breaking containment.  The release notes that crews had a successful test burn on June 4th and on June 5th were igniting mixed conifer forest and hoping to burn 4,000 acres.  Beetle kill had left dead trees in the area and the fire was intended to "stimulate aspen generation and reduce hazardous fuels."

In a report posted on yesterday, Brandon Jensen, a Forest Fire Prevention Officer stated that "we had a wind event come in, a storm come in and settled right over top of the fire."  "Very rarely does this happen we lose very few of them."  When asked why the Forest Service was doing prescribed burns in summer, he noted, "Up where we are burning, we are buning up high elevation, it's basically spring up high."  He also added "If it's a very hot dry day no we do not burn, that's a big no no."

Data from the Salt Lake City International Airport, however, shows that the period beginning on the 4th of June was remarkably warm.  Minimum temperatures from the 4th through the 9th were 62, 71, 62, 69, 62, and 68.  This yields an average of 66, which is very close to the average not for June, but  July (65).  Maximum temperatures were 97, 92, 94, 94, 92, and 96.  This yields an average of 93, which is consistent with the average for July (93).

Source: NWS
Similarly, temperatures in Price were above average during the period and close to July averages.

A portable weather station positioned near the burn area at 9535 feet elevation shows minimum temperatures in the 50s and maximum temperatures in the 70s on the afternoons of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th.  

We do not have long-term records for that location, but those numbers are probably consistent with averages for July for that altitude.

Bottom line: Temperatures appear to have been summer like.

Regular soundings are not available for the burn area, but soundings from the Salt Lake City International Airport also showed remarkably dry conditions.  Soundings collected on the afternoon of the 4th, 5th, and 6th (local time) all show a very hot, dry, boundary layer with large dewpoint depressions and low relative humidities.  

Bottom line: It was also dry.

Now, the real fly in the ointment for this burn was the convection that developed along the Wasatch Plateau in the vicinity of the fire on the afternoon of the 6th, when it is reported that the fire broke containment.

Given the soundings that day, one would expect conditions to be ripe for dry microbursts should  those clouds generate precipitation aloft.

The wind data plotted above for the portable weather station shows a peak gust on the afternoon of the 6th of about 31 mph.  Microburst winds can be quite localized, so it is possible that winds were stronger at other nearby locations.

Further investigation is needed to understand the circumstances leading to the "escape" of the prescribed burn.  Hindsight is of course 20/20.  However, all indicators suggest that we are in for a very long fire season in which vulnerability is high and rapid fire growth is likely.  Sadly, another example of this happened in Moab last night, with several homes destroyed.

The comment below is from Chad Julian, Watershed Coordinator for the Little Thompson Watershed Coalition.  It could not be embedded with figures through typical comment channels.  

Hi Jim, thanks for providing your insight above. I am a fire-weather expert on the Colorado Front Range and your comment section wouldn't allow an answer this long to your blog post about the escaped Rx burn in Utah. 

I am going to forward your blog link to a large collaborative group on the Colorado Front Range to help us with some discussion on this topic.  I would agree with your perspective, I thought I would add some additional thoughts to compliment it.
The first thing that caught my eye, was the following statement: In a report posted on yesterday, Brandon Jensen, a Forest Fire Prevention Officer stated that "we had a wind event come in, a storm come in and settled right over top of the fire."  "Very rarely does this happen we lose very few of them."  When asked why the Forest Service was doing prescribed burns in summer, he noted, "Up where we are burning, we are burning up high elevation, it's basically spring up high."
What the Burn Boss did not consider here is that this is not a "normal" spring.  If you look at melt-out for the closer snotel sites, it appears melt-out this year was much earlier than normal in that area.  Quite a few of the snotel sites melted out in early-mid April in the surrounding area at similar elevations.    That led to the surface fuels being exposed to sun and drying air earlier than normal.  The winter also produced a pretty significant precipitation deficit. All of those things do affect the live-tree fuel moisture and the ability for crown-fire to occur.  I'm not sure how they took all of this into account. The image below is from the Red Pine Ridge Snotel Site at almost 9000' for this year.

They also indicated how June is "spring" up high.  June is very different than March, April and May in that the sun-angle, length of day, ERC (Energy Release Component) and the fact that June is the driest month on the Colorado Plateau will all work against burning in June as compared to March-May.  In CO, UT, NM and AZ the ERC typically peaks at its highest values of the year from mid-June to early July. The Moab Interagency Fire Center does have the ERC chart for the Book Cliffs to the east of this site.  It demonstrates what the graph most likely looks like at the Rx burn site.  On June 1st, the ERC was around 80th percentile.  By the start of the burn, they were probably getting closer to 90th percentile and this week we are approaching 97th percentile. More extreme conditions than the average for sure.

The final and most major point is that there is a predictable window that I would not apply Rx fire in UT, CO, NM and AZ.  I have some unpublished data and analysis that shows a clear pattern in our most extreme conditions as to when our largest uncharacteristic fire occurs in those states.  This data/analysis would also support planning and decisions to avoid burning in this window. Using the ONI for ENSO, the window occurs right after a La Nina Minimum, as the ONI trends towards neutral conditions.  That window occurs between February and late June with June being the peak of the window.  The 2011 Lower North Fork Rx burn was ignited during one of those windows, and this burn as well. When I was a fire and forest manager, I used this data/analysis to plan for Rx burns outside of this predictable window, so that your burning in neutral, or El Nino conditions.  If your objective was to find a window to ignite an Rx burn to maximize your chance at escape, the window post-La Nina minimum in the spring would be it, with June giving you the best shot to meet that objective. 

Lastly, the fire service and the National Weather Service just do not have the best relationship and it is difficult at best to get really good forecasting at a finer scale in these remote areas for these types of Rx projects.  That is a major problem someone needs to take on, as the soundings for the day clearly show a high potential for micro-bursts.  With better site-specific information that shouldn't have been a surprise to the burn team. 

We as experts, researchers are not doing the best job we could be doing of working on the knowledge and technology transfer to these fire managers.  Hopefully we can all learn from this and strive to do a better job of working together across disciplines and it could spark us to find a way to include climate and meteorology experts to our discussion of how we safely apply fire to our fire-driven landscapes.