Thursday, June 02, 2011


It is remarkably difficult to predict convection initiation. It appears we can predict, most times (see yesterdays post for a failure), the area under consideration. We have attempted to pick the time period, in 3 hour windows, and have been met with some interesting successes and failures. Today had 2 such examples.

We predicted a time window from 16-19 UTC along the North Carolina/South Carolina/ Tennessee area for terrain induced convection and along the sea breeze front. The terrain induced storms went up around 18 UTC, nearly 2 hours after the model was generating storms. The sea breeze did not initiate storms, but further inland in central South Carolina there was one lone storm.

The other area was in South Dakota/North Dakota/Nebraska for storms long the cold front and dryline. We picked a window between 21-00 UTC. It appears storms initiated right around 00 UTC in South Dakota but little activity in North Dakota as the dryline surged into our risk area.  Again the suite of models had suggested quick initiation starting in the 21-22 UTC time frame, including the update models.

In both cases we could isolate the areas reasonably well. We even understood the mechanisms by which convection would initiate, including the dryline, the transition zone, and the where the edge of the deeper moisture resided in the Dakotas. For the Carolinas we knew the terrain would be a favored location for elevated heating in the moist air mass along a weak, old frontal zone. We knew the sea breeze could be weak in terms of convergence, and we knew that only a few storms would  potentially develop. What we could not adequately do, was predict the timing of the lid removal associated with the forcing mechanisms.

It is often observed in soundings that the lid is removed via surface heating and moistening, via cooling aloft, or both processes. It is also reasonable to suspect that low level lifting could be aiding in cooling aloft (as opposed to cold advection). Without observations along such boundaries it is difficult to know what exactly is happening along them, or even to infer that our models correctly depict the process by which the lid is overcome. We have been looking at the ensemble of physics members which vary the boundary layer scheme, but today was the first day we attempted to use them in the forecast process.

It was successful in terms of incorporating them, but as far as achieving understanding, that will have to come later. It is clear that understanding the various structures we see, and relating them to the times of storm initiations will be a worthwhile effort. Whether this will be helpful to forecasting, even in hindsight, is still unknown.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

When too much is not enough

Going into HWT today, I was thinking about and hoping for a straightforward (e.g. easy) forecast for storms. I was hoping for one clean slate area. An area where previous storms would not be an issue, where storms would take their time forming, and where the storms that do form would be at least partially predicted by the suite of model guidance we have at our disposal. Last time I think that.

The issues for today were not particularly difficult, just complex. The ensemble that we work with was doing its job, but the relatively weak forcing for ascent in an unstable environment was leading to convection initiation early and often. The resulting convection produced outflow boundaries that triggered more convection. This area of convection was across NM, CO, KS, and NE. It became difficult to rely on these forecasts because of all of this convection in order to make subsequent forecasts of what might occur this evening in NE/SD/IA along the presumed location of a warm front.

We ended up trying to sum up not only the persistent signals from the ensemble, but also every single deterministic model we could get our hands on. We even used all the 12 UTC NAM, 15 UTC SREF, RUC, HRRR, NASA WRF, NSSL WRF, NCAR WRF, etc. We could find significant differences with observations from all of these forecast models (not exactly a rare occurrence) which justified putting little weight on the details and attempting to figure out, via pattern recognition, what could happen. We were not very confident in the end, knowing that no matter what we forecast or when, we were destined to bust.

Ensemble wise, they did their job in providing spread, but it was still somehow not enough. Perhaps it was not the right kind or the right amount of spread. We will find out tomorrow how well (or poorly) we did on this quite challenging forecast. In the end though, we had so much data to digest and process, that the information we were trying to extract became muddied. Without clear signals from the ensemble, how does a forecaster extract the information and process that into a scenario? Furthermore, how can the forecaster apply that scenario to the current observations to assess if that scenario is plausible?

I will leave you with the current radar and ask quite simply: What will the radar look like in 3 hours?
 UPDATE: Here is what the radar looked like 3 hours later:
Nothing like our forecast for new storms. But that is the challenge when you are making forecasts like these.