Sunday, February 17, 2019

Should we be talking about the next atmospheric rivers in the southeast US?

If you haven't seen rainfall forecast for the southeast US for the next week, then you should.  The impacts from it will be in the form of flooding on all scales.   With nearly 10" of rain expected in northern MS to eastern Tennessee, between now and February 23, the Tennessee Valley Authority will have its hands full dealing with all the excessive runoff.  The national flood outlook highlights several areas of likely river flooding in the TVA's area of responsibility, and possible flooding over a much broader region from MS eastward to the midAtlantic states.

WPC's 7 day rainfall outlook made in the evening of Feb 17.

The NWS significant river flood outlook made on the evening of Feb 17.

All of this will be made possible by the advent of a nearly stationary deep upper trough in the western US and a ridge on the eastern Seaboard.  The passage of several upper-level shortwave troughs moving through the mean trough will allow several extratropical cyclones to pass through the Midwestern states but none of them will be able to sweep a cold front through the Southeast US, and at least a few of them will produce substantial atmospheric rivers.  The biggest one will occur in mid- to late week, potentially lasting up to a full day over northern AL to KY.  Water vapor transport will possibly exceed 1000 kg per meter per second.  This pattern fits closely to what Moore and co-authors found in 2015 to be associated with extreme precipitation events in the southeast US during the cool season.  It's likely this atmospheric river event will come to pass and quite soon after the last one.

The forecast integrated water vapor transport forecast from the largest of three atmospheric river events forecast over the period from Feb 18 to Feb 23, courtesy of the North American Ensemble Forecast System. 

Atmospheric rivers have been in the news lately after the flooding rains and huge mountain snows that fell on California last week.  And that's with good reason.  The sounding site at the National Weather Service, San Diego, CA just registered its highest precipitable water for the cool season.  The integrated water transport was at least 750 kg per meter per second. Perhaps the more remarkable aspects of this river was its length and depth.  Sheldon Kusselson, retired research scientist at NOAA/NESDIS and an expert in satellite analysis of water vapor,  remarked that he's seen few rivers visible all the way up to 300 mb in the layer precipitable water product (see his analysis below).  The accompanying rainfall broke the daily record at Palm Springs, CA with nearly 4".  Nearby Mount Polamar recorded over a foot of rain.  Meanwhile the Sierra added prodigious new snow accumulations to their expanding snow base.  Mammoth Mountain added almost six feet.  The floods that followed were substantial, especially around Palm Springs.  Multiple news sources mentioned atmospheric rivers, including LiveScience, Wired, the Washington Post.

The 13 Feb 2019 Atmospheric River is analyzed by Sheldon Kusselson, NOAA/NESDIS retired.  

A radiosonde climatology of San Diego precipitable water where the observed  value on 13 February far exceeds any previous precipitable water maximum (thin red trace) during the cool season.

However, I haven't heard any mention of the upcoming atmospheric river in the news media, or for any past flooding events in the Southeastern US.  In my recollection, the media only mentioned the term 'atmospheric river' when one struck California, subjecting the state to all the impacts we've heard about last week. And it's probably no surprise either.  The precipitation events occurring in the Western US, especially California, are almost completely dominated by atmospheric rivers.  As Mahoney and co-authors in 2015 pointed out, heavy precipitation events in the southeastern US, on the other hand, can come from a multitude of synoptic and mesoscale patterns during the warm and cool seasons.  They found that 41% of heavy precipitation events were matched to an atmospheric river.  I suspect that the term hasn't really caught on without the dominance of atmospheric rivers controlling southeast US heavy rain events.

But that's not to say that atmospheric rivers shouldn't be recognized as major flood producers in the southeast.  Consider the Nashville, TN flood of early May of 2010 where 12-15" of rain flooded the downtown, resulting in huge losses.  The event was big enough to trigger the National Weather Service to deploy the only service assessment team that year.  The huge rain event was fed by a persistent strong low-level jet, rapidly feeding tropical moisture into mesoscale convective complexes training over the same area for nearly a day.  That feed was identified by Moore in 2012 to be an atmospheric river drawing moisture northward from Central America.  Moore determined that this atmospheric river differed from ones existing solely over the ocean because the low-level jet was partially governed by lee cyclogenesis, and with a stationary midlevel trough to the west, the river wound up stalled.

This time may be a little different upon considering that multiple shortwave troughs will be traversing through the mean western trough.  There will be similarities too.  Each transient extratropical cyclone will have a low-level jet forming an atmospheric river with a tap deep into the tropics, particularly the central Carribean.  The moisture is already rich along the Gulf Coast with the onset of the first river.  There will be no fronts to displace the moisture and thus, little time needed for each cyclone to re-establish an atmospheric river.

The one question may be, why bother call the upcoming moisture-laden low-level jets atmospheric rivers?  Does naming them add value to the awareness of the upcoming rain event, or improve the accuracy of the forecasts?  I can't say that the forecasts will be improved.  But I do say it's important that we recognize that these processes occur globally.  Multiple papers have been written about the role of atmospheric rivers in transporting moisture from the tropics toward the poles (see Gimeno and co-authors in 2014, and Waliser and co-authors in 2012).  They've documented that there are several going on around the Earth at any one time.  Thus if so much effort has been made to name these moisture feeds into California, then perhaps we should spend the same time doing the same wherever they occur.  As Ralph and co-authors just recently documented in 2018, the AMS Glossary of Meteorology now has an official definition of an atmospheric river.  The definition defines an Atmospheric River to be:

Atmospheric river–A long, narrow, and transient corridor of strong horizontal water vapor transport that is typically associated with a low-level jet stream ahead of the cold front of an extratropical cyclone. The water vapor in atmospheric rivers is supplied by tropical and/or extratropical moisture sources. Atmospheric rivers frequently lead to heavy precipitation where they are forced upward—for example, by mountains or by ascent in the warm conveyor belt. Horizontal water vapor transport in the midlatitudes occurs primarily in atmospheric rivers and is focused in the lower troposphere. Atmospheric rivers are the largest “rivers” of fresh water on Earth, transporting on average more than double the flow of the Amazon River.

There is no mention that atmospheric rivers are confined to some arbitrary geographical location.  And so neither should anyone else.  Call them for what they are anywhere.

First edit:
Marshall Shepherd pointed out to me a comprehensive study on the climatology of southeast atmospheric resource events by Debbage and co-authors published in 2017 (including Marshall).  Their study provided more information on the frequency of these events impacting the coastline from Brownsville to Cape Hatteras.  They report an atmospheric river affects somewhere between these end points about 45% of all days where an average of 26 events per year affect each of the approximately 100 mi sections along the midAtlantic coastline to about 18 events per year along similar sections of the Texas coastline.  Their synoptic climatology of 500 mb ridge/trough positions and 850 mb flow for Gulf Coast atmospheric rivers, also shows similarities to some of the forecast events coming up the next week.

some readings

Debbage, N. , Miller, P. , Poore, S. , Morano, K. , Mote, T. and Marshall Shepherd, J. (2017), A climatology of atmospheric river interactions with the southeastern United States coastline. Int. J. Climatol, 37: 4077-4091. doi:10.1002/joc.5000

Dettinger, M.F. M. Ralph, and D. Lavers2015Setting the stage for a global science of atmospheric riversEos, Trans. Amer. Geophys. Union96
Dirmeyer, P. A., and Kinter, J. L. (2009). The maya express—late spring floods in the U.S. Midwest. Eos. Trans. Amer. Geophys. Union 90, 101–102. doi: 10.1029/2009EO120001

Gimeno, L.R. Nieto, M. Vázquez, and D. A. Lavers, 2014Atmospheric rivers: A mini-reviewFront. Earth Sci.2, doi:

Lavers, D. A., and G. Villarini2013Atmospheric rivers and flooding over the central United StatesJ. Climate2678297836

Mahoney, K. M., and Coauthors, 2016Understanding the role of atmospheric rivers in heavy precipitation in the southeast United StatesMon. Wea. Rev.14416171632

Miller, D.K., D. Hotz, J. Winton, and L. Stewart2018Investigation of Atmospheric Rivers Impacting the Pigeon River Basin of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Wea. Forecasting, 33283–299, 

Moore, B. J.P. J. NeimanF. M. Ralph, and F. E. Barthold2012Physical processes associated with heavy flooding rainfall in Nashville, Tennessee, and vicinity during 1–2 May 2010: The role of an atmospheric river and mesoscale convective systemsMon. Wea. Rev.140358378

Moore, B. J.K. M. Mahoney, E. M. Sukovich, R. Cifelli, and T. M. Hamill, 2015Climatology and environmental characteristics of extreme precipitation events in the southeastern United StatesMon. Wea. Rev.143718741, doi:

Ralph, F.M., M.D. Dettinger, M.M. Cairns, T.J. Galarneau, and J. Eylander2018Defining “Atmospheric River”: How the Glossary of Meteorology Helped Resolve a Debate.Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99837–839, 

Waliser, D. E., Moncrieff, M. W., Burridge, D., Fink, A. H., Gochis, D., Goswami, B. N., et al. (2012). The year of tropical convection (May 2008–April 2010): climate variability and weather highlights. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc. 93, 1189–1218. doi: 10.1175/2011BAMS3095.1

Zhu, Y. and R.E. Newell1998A Proposed Algorithm for Moisture Fluxes from Atmospheric Rivers. Mon. Wea. Rev., 126725–735,<0725:APAFMF>2.0.CO;2

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Did we realize that we appreciate government work?

I worked on this blog entry in the later days of the government shutdown after hearing stories that federal employees were becoming demoralized from their perceptions that they weren't valued.  Well,  I went back to work, got paid, and quickly became consumed by all the catchup I had to do from the shutdown.  So my I almost, but didn't quite, finished the blog.  Now I did and thus posted now.  Perhaps it's not quite in step with the news cycle since we averted a following shutdown.  But I think this is an important takeaway from the shutdown.  We are appreciated.

I recently saw a post from a friend of mine during the shutdown that he heard of NASA scientists being recruited away to Silicon Valley companies and not looking back.  I'm not sure when this happened but I could imagine that during the shutdown a lot of government researchers were thinking of doing the same.  After all, why would anyone want to hang out without pay doing research in the government when they could be making multiple times that amount working for some hot company?
I'm pretty sure that Ronald Reagan quipped something to that effect in this quote  The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away.” 

President Reagan may have said many valid quotes in his tenure, but I'm going to say that this one is not true.  I've been around long enough to know amazingly smart people that remain in government.   Why?  Because money isn't the number one motivating factor that governs their happiness.  There are other motivating factors.  In the world of meteorology where I ply my trade, most of my colleagues, many as smart as anybody in the private sector,  do research and forecast the weather in NOAA.  Most of them haven't run away or have been snatched by the private sector.  They'd prefer to advance the science and make the best forecasts they can because they believe in protecting life and property and advancing related missions in NOAA.  None of them mentioned they want to make more money, only enough so that they can focus on their mission and not worry about their quality of life.  I believe this to be true of many sectors of government, however, I would have to say that for my career, working in NOAA ranked as high as any government agency in satisfaction.

We've had our shutdowns in the past, big ones happened when Newt Gingrich led Congress into a budget battle with President Clinton for 21 days back in 1995-1996.  Or how about when Senator Cruz did the same with President Obama for 13 days?  None of them resulted in entirely missing a paycheck.  And when it did happen this time, I've heard many stories about demoralization around the news media.  The most demoralized seem to come from those working for the least pay, like in the TSA or the IRS.  I can certainly emphasize with them considering that they were running out of funds to pay for basic life necessities.  It's hard to think about your job when you're not getting paid and you're running out of money.  Even better-paid employees were wondering about whether it was worth staying in the government, even without the shutdown.

You see, it's because the shutdown brought to light the years of vitriol that we've heard since 1980.  Another Ronald Reagan quote came to mind that goes like this:  “Government is not a solution to our problem government is the problem.”  Now he might've been focusing on larger aspects of government and not the individual employee or his/her worth to society.  But the negative impressions of government employees from certain sectors of the US seemed to grow from there.  Think about quotes like 'We're from Washington and we're here to help', or that government employees are overpaid and lazy.  This kind of attitude strikes hard at the very core of why we work in the government.  We work in the civil service because we're service-oriented. Our mission is to serve American people or push the frontiers of knowledge.  Our sense of importance is not dependent on how much cash we can earn but by making a difference to someone's lives for whom we serve.  It's that simple.  So imagine how these quotes above can attack at our sense of service?  For this reason, the shutdown that lasted this long could have had a strongly demoralizing influence on civil servants, no matter if we got paid or not.  There is plenty to show that scientists in federal labs are being pushed out because they feel unappreciated, or worse, perceived to be an annoyance by half of the American public.  This is especially true when certain pundits proclaimed that a shutdown only inconveniences a few tourists because a national park gift shop is closed.  I'll let you know if who if you want.

But this shutdown showed another thing that I think never came to light as strongly previously – an awakening about how much civil servants are appreciated.  If there's one good thing about this shutdown, it's a reminder of what this society would be like without us.  

First off, there were the news media reports that alarmed everyone about the negative impacts on the country that multiplied every day there was this partial government shutdown.  One story after another warned about the immediate impacts, like commercial air travel, and general aviation. Perhaps the biggest story on the aviation side was what would happen if large numbers of TSA agents and air traffic controllers failed to show up for work? The answer would surely be a crippled travel infrastructure.  The reported ground stop at LaGuardia and travel delays in Philadelphia and Newark airports surely seem to go along with the higher than normal absences of air traffic controllers.  But that's just scratching the surface.  There were numerous stories about IRS workers taking emergency leave and the threat to the US from a hobbled FBI.

In my world as a National Weather Service employee, there were plenty of stories about the negative impacts of the shutdown on the NWS.   Already, reported by WRAL, some broken down river gauges were not repaired because of the shutdown in North Carolina.   Not just equipment but new stories described the sinking morale of forecasters such as by KTVQ in Billings, MT.  Fortunately, the dedication of NWS forecasters working without pay meant that the US was spared the much starker consequences of a shutdown with no weather services.  However Longer term impacts were starting to build up because training and forecast improvement work was stopped, and federal employees were furloughed.  NPR documented what hurricane preparedness planning was lost for an entire year.   It doesn't end there because the NWS lost over a month of training new and experienced employees in all aspects of doing their jobs, and developing new improvements to forecasting such as the new global model called the FV3, and an improved forecast guidance system called the National Blend of Models.  These impacts were not lost to the media (from KTVQ to TIME).   Step out a bit to a more broad scale, and one can see how much impact there was.  Take the comments from Marshall Shepherd (Head of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at University of Georgia) about how the shutdown affected his student's ability to do their research using NOAA and NASA data.  These impacts may not seem as dire as shutting down airports but multiply these by thousands and they become much larger.

"1. Several NOAA websites with data that I use in lectures/student assignments are down. I had to completely restructure assignments this week.

2. One of my doctoral students has a NASA civil servant on his PhD committee. We are trying to schedule his proposal defense this Spring, but the NASA person is furloughed and will likely be backed up when it is over. 

3. Several students in our Department planning to graduate in May are unable to complete senior projects, theses, or dissertations because they cannot access data needed from NOAA or other shuttered websites.

4. I have pending grant proposals to NASA and NSF. If funded, they bring $$ to UGA as overhead/indirect. Additionally, it allows me to offer research assistantships to new graduate students. The longer I wait for a decision from the Agency, the more likely UGA is going to lose this talent to some other University.
5. Our Atmospheric Sciences students were not able to meet with federal scientists at our biggest discipline conference in Phoenix because NASA, NOAA, and NSF colleagues couldn't go. This limits Georgia students' access to potential jobs, internships, fellowships, and so forth."

So these are the negative impacts and perhaps they give us federal employees that our work is vital and potentially damaging if missed.  Perhaps there's a more important reason to consider when our importance is in doubt.  It's the realization that our work was appreciated. Our stakeholders and the public empathized with our travails, and the kindness of our stakeholders displayed support of our livelihoods.  Again, this appreciation was widespread.  I take examples from my most familiar corner of civil service – the NWS.  Numerous stories remarked on the fact that the NWS stayed open and its users, gratified.  Look in particular on the story from Montgomeryadvertiser about the accurate tornado warnings provided by NWS Birmingham forecasters literally saved lives.  The USAToday  highlighted how forecasters stayed on the job to forecast blizzards across the northern US.  FOX40 reported on residents in Sacramento talking of their appreciation that the NWS Sacramento office was open and providing information on a storm that knocked power out to thousands.  The good stories appeared daily in the media, ranging from local to national news (like CBSnews).  Amidst all of this, I've been heartened to see too many examples to count of local government agencies and broadcasters bringing lunches to their local NWS offices in appreciation of their work and with a bit of solidarity.  I pasted only the tip of the iceberg below as examples of generosity expressed throughout the NWS.  Heck, even our sister agency, Environment Canada, provided meals across borders to offices in Montana, Alaska, and elsewhere.  Our work was appreciated, and this is just my narrow view from the NWS.

Overall, the partial shutdown of the federal government demonstrated that we were wanted, appreciated, and its partners and people across the US expressed dismay at how we were treated.  Not only that but the evidence also appears in surveys, such as that conducted by Pew Research, that federal programs are valued by the public and partners.  I note that both republicans and democrats favor keeping federal spending at least the same levels for every one of the topic areas except providing foreign assistance. Close to the backyard where I work, I find it heartening that 94% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans do not want a decrease in scientific research.  

So, while optics sometimes appears to show that the American public don't favor federal employees, the evidence shows otherwise.  That's the evidence.  I also share just a small sample of pictures and stories posted on social media by my colleagues from around the country.  This should give you a sense of NWS partners giving their thanks.  I'm sure this is repeated throughout the various agencies of the federal government.

NWS employees keep providing service amidst hardship
John De Block posted this article from the Montgomery Advertiser. .

Appreciation of government work

Food was delivered to the NWS at PeachTree City, GA

Here at my place of employment at the National Weather Center, there was enough generosity to nearly break a table in half.

The Webster Parish Police Jury delivered BBQ to the NWS Shreveport office.

I think this caption says it all.  Others show their support when they understand someone else is in need of a hand.

The city of Roanoke, VA posted a list of services willing to help furloughed federal workers.
The city of Indianapolis provides a community resource expo for furloughed and excepted feds.
The Coconino County Roads Public Works team shared lunch with the NWS Flagstaff office.

The Mad River Glen ski resort offers free skiing to federal employees during the shutdown.

Dave Snider sent this post of the lunch at the Alaska Aviation Weather Unity, Volcano Advisory Center, Alaska Pacific River Forecast Center, and the Anchorage Weather Forecast Office made possible by Environment Canada Edmonton.

Kate Shawkey posted this free lunch at the NWS Hastings office.
Rick Smith posted a picture of their wall of appreciation at NWS Norman, OK.

Realizing that government support is important
LA times: Shutdown showed America's dependence on the federal government (Read the full story)

Air travel

Weather Readiness

Law Enforcement


Lending Institutions
AMEXAvadian Credit UnionBank of AmericaBoeing Employees Credit UnionCapital One,
ChaseCitibankCongressional Federal Credit Union:, Credit Union 1, Coast Central Credit Union, Department of Commerce Federal Credit Union:, Discover Card, ENT Credit Union, Fed Choice Central Credit UnionFirst Command Financial ServicesFirst Oklahoma Bank, Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington, Icon Credit Union, BoiseJustice Federal Credit Union, Landmark Credit Union - Wisconsin, Lending Club, Lowes, NASA Federal Credit Union,  NavientNavy Federal Credit Union, Paypal, Pentagon Federal Credit Union, PNC Bank, Quicken Loans, San Diego Fed Credit Union, Service Credit Union, Stockman Bank - Montana, SunTrust, Synchrony Bank, USAA, US Bank, US Employees Credit Union, Washington Federal Bank, Wells Fargo

Auto companies
Chrysler, Ford, Lexus, Subaru, Toyota VW

Alabama Power, Chugach Electric, Enstar Natural Gas, Dominion Virginia Power, GCI, Matanuska, Montana Dakota Utilities, Pepco, Memphis Light Gas and Water, Washington DC Gas

Cellular, all major companies

Geico, Country Financial, Safeco, State Farm

Assistance Programs
United Way, Food Bank, catholic community Services - UT, St. Vincent de Paul - Seattle, Mercy Food Pantry - OKC

James Brotherton shared this link of hundreds of food places offering free food to furloughed federal employees.
Julie Campbell shared this link of shutdown services from Montgomery Co., MD.

Things to do
Rosetta-stone gift offer, Anchorage Museum, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Adler Planetarium, American Bar Association continuing ed credits, Boulevard Brewing - KC, Enchanted Alaska, Oregon Zoo, OKC National Memorial adn Museum, Miami Free Admission to Museums, Harlem Globetrotters, Dallas Symphony, Utah's Hogle Zoo, U of Alaska SeaWolves games, 

and this is the tip of the iceberg.